Thursday, August 14, 2014

An Illustrated Life List: Least Bittern

At long last!  I've finally seen a Least Bittern, Ixobrychus exilis (thanks Alex)!  I got some really good views, and so did my kids; which is pretty cool, since it's not the easiest bird to spot.  We even got to watch it eat a fish.

It's an odd looking bird, with its legs and neck to long for its body.  Maybe you could think of it as an awkward teenage Green Heron who has just gone through a growth spurt; all gangly and limby.  Except if you get to watch one, you'll know that they are anything but awkward; a Least Bittern's body is ideally suited for stalking fish and other aquatic prey from it's flimsy and flexible perch of marshy plants.  It's movements are so slow and careful, its attention seemingly perfectly focus on the task at hand, an epitome of patience and calm.

On the way home from viewing the Least Bittern, an odd coincidence occurred.  Naomi was reading a book of Garfield comics out loud to Adele.  In one of the comics Jon takes Garfield on a nature walk.   While Jon gushes on with enthusiasm and wonderment, an unenthusiastic Garfield sits by and comments with sarcasm.  At one point Jon exclaims "Hark, the call of the Lesser Bittern, a member of the Heron family!" or something, with the bittern calling "Ack Ack" or something (maybe it was actually Bill the Cat they heard).  I couldn't believe my ears, first that a bittern would be mentioned in a Garfield comic, but that my kids would happen to be reading that particular comic after we had just seen the Least Bittern.  But than I started thinking, maybe bitterns show up a lot in popular culture and literature . . .

  • In episode three of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (indeed), Fluttershy mentions that Queen Celestia has a Least Bittern in the palace garden.  And by the way, this is the only one in this list that I knew for certain, without further research.
  • The bible mentions a lot of birds.  The bittern makes an appearance in Isaiah 14:23.
  • From some reason The Canterbury Tales popped into my head.  Sure enough, a bittern is mentioned in The Wife of Bath's Tale.  Why I thought of this, I don't know, I read it once (barely), in high school.
  • The Sherlock Holmes story, The Hounds of the Baskervilles 
  • Thoureau, but of course, so it doesn't count
  • A Siege of Bitterns: A Birder Murder Mystery by Steve Burrows, published this year.  I haven't read, and just came aco
Some notable places where bitterns are apparently not mentioned:
  •  Bitterns never appear in a Shakespeare play, despite the abundance of bird references (about 50 are named).
  • I could swear that bitterns were eaten in some book by a russian auther, like The Brother Karamazov by Dostyovesky, or Dead Souls by Gogol.  Maybe it was heron.  Maybe I'm making this up.
I've just listed sources I have some familiarity with.  I came across a handful of tales and poems from various sources that mention bitterns.  In one Irish poem, a bittern was compared to someones alcoholic drinking.  I also came across a birding murder mystery A Siege of Bitterns: A Birder Murder Mystery by Steve Burrows.  I don't usually pick up mysteries, but I often enjoy them when I do.  I might have to read this one, it's gotten good reviews, and apparently a vagrant American Bittern plays a role in the mystery.

It seems that in general, bitterns are associated with loneliness and locals of desolation.  I suppose this has to due with their secretive nature, marshy habitat and peculiar nocturnal vocalizations (in the case of American and European Bitterns, which are the birds usually referred to).

What about bitterns in art?  I came across a painting by Rembrandt where he has depicted himself holding a dead bittern.  Bitterns in art might have to be another post.

If you happen to know of any other references to bitterns, please let me know!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Small Green Moth

I love the color of these small Wavy-lined Emerald moths, Synchlora aerata.  In my opinion, it's a shade of green not commonly found in animals; a green found mostly in the new leaves and shoots of spring.

There a few similar green moths with white lines on the wings found in MN.  The Wavy-lined Emerald can be distinguished by the fact that the white line on the fore-wings appears contiguous with the white line on the hind-wing, and also by the presence of another white line down the body.

The caterpillars of this moth are unusual; they attach little pieces of plant material to their body with silk to make their own camouflage.  They repeat the process every time they molt, so they are never long without disguise.  I've never seen one of the caterpillars, apparently they can be found into the fall.  They are known to eat a wide range of plants, but many of them are in the composite family, so I think I'll start looking there.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

National Moth Week

Presented below are the moths that I turned up during this year during National Moth Week.

Burdock Seedhead Moth  - Metzeria lapella
The larva feed on Common Burdock's (Arctium minus) developing seeds, which are held in large, clinging burs.  I was talking to my daughter about this, and she brought up the point that maybe living inside a bur helps disperse the moth when it sticks to an animals fur.  Hmmm . . .

Grass-veneer Moth - Crambus sp.

Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth - Parapoynx badiusalis
I love these guys!

Painted Lichen Moth  - Hypoprepia miniata

Ruby Tiger Moth - Phragmatobia fuliginosa
I included the blurry picture below because I'm not sure if identification would have been possible without seeing the colors on the underwings and abdomen.

Glossy Black Idia Moth - Idia lubricalis
Variable Zanclognatha - Zanclognatha laevigata

Unknown species of Zanclognatha - Zanclognatcha sp.
I think it's either Z. cruralus or Z. jacchusalis

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rest Stop Luna Moths

These Luna Moths, Actias luna were found at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska, on our way back from a family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
I've found that some rest stops are excellent places to look for moths.  Definitely not all, there must be some combination of habitat and lighting that makes certain ones good spots to look for moths.  People might look at you strange, especially if you have one of your kids on your shoulders with a camera by the front door, apparently photographing the window trim or something.  They notice you, but they don't usually notice the big, showy green moth.

And remember it's National Moth Week!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Band-winged Meadowhawk

There was a big hatch of these Band-winged Meadowhawks, Sympetrum semicinctum over the 4th of July weekend at Westwood Hills Nature Center. I don't think I've seen this particular dragonfly before; I wonder if there is an unusually big hatch this year, or if I've just never noticed them before (and not just me, two other acquaintances have noted their appearance this year.  Or maybe it’s some of both.  Here are some relevant facts from the guide books I consulted.
·         it is a relatively uncommon dragonfly, and usually occurs in small numbers, unlike other meadowhawks
·         it is very susceptible to predation by fish
·         it does not compete well with other dragonfly larva
·         it often lays eggs above the water line in vegetation, which over-winter, and hatch the next spring when water levels rise with melting snow and rains.
We’ve has a couple of cold, snowy winters in a row, which has led to a very low fish population at Westwood lake.  It was also a very wet spring, with higher than normal lake levels, so maybe a higher percentage of Band-winged Meadowhawk eggs ended up in the water this year to hatch and develop.  The expanded habitat may have also led to less competition with other dragonfly larva.  So perhaps Band-winged Meadowhawks have been present at Westwood in very low numbers, but the combination of cold winters and a very wet spring created very favorable conditions for this dragonfly to thrive and appear in large numbers this year.  Perhaps.

With the amber patches on all four wings, it's a fairly distinctive dragonfly. Most species of meadowhawks are often difficult to identify to species, though as a group they are pretty easy to recognize. They are smaller dragonflies that often perch horizontally, with their wings held slightly forward.   Males are generally red, and females are a yellow-orange. 

You might find in some sources that this dragonfly is split into two separate species, S. semicinctum and S. occidentale, or the Western Dragonfly.  The Western Dragonfly is often further split into a number of subspecies.  The latest studies seem indicate that while there are geographical variations in these dragonflies, there aren’t enough differences to warrant a split into separate species.