Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Early Spring Butterfly

   Today we were driving up a mountain road when one of the boys said, "There's a butterfly!"  I stopped and we piled out of the truck to see our first butterfly of the year.  A Mourning Cloak Butterfly was flitting around a shale pit and alighting on the disturbed, moist ground.
Butterflies in early spring.... a pleasant sight!
Mourning Cloak Butterfly in spring
    Mourning Cloak Butterflies overwinter as adults and can be seen flying on pleasantly warm winter/early spring days when very few other moths and butterflies are around. 
   Today was pleasant.... in the upper 50's... and I did see several Mourning Cloaks, but I was also saw an Infant Moth (Archiearis infans) that went zipping around the shale pit as if it was a skipper.  This small, active moth sure didn't act very moth-like.  Here's a photo of this early spring-flying moth... I didn't get good pictures of it because it was fast and uneasy about me.
Archiearis infans or Infant Moth in spring
This moth obviously overwintered as an adult and I'm sure there's not very many species of butterflies and moths which overwinter around here in Pennsylvania. Perhaps that's why encountering these spring butterflies and moths was such an outstanding experience.
early flying Infant Moth (Archiearis infans)
Chasing butterflies... in a shale pit... in March....
I'm "cool" with that!
 

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Reminder About A Fascinating Spring Activity

Seriously, I have a fascination with taking the temperature of Skunk Cabbage. 
  Skunk Cabbage flowers (hidden inside those reddish hoods) were one of the signs of spring that I saw yesterday when I was out rambling.  I couldn't pass on the chance to set up some thermometers and compare the air temperature with the temperature inside the Skunk Cabbage hoods.
measuring skunk cabbage temperature
 In the photo above, the white thermometer is measuring the ambient air temperature at 42 degrees F.  The red meter, measuring with the temperature probe, says 81 degrees inside of the Skunk Cabbage spathe.
reddish skunk cabbage hood or spathe
  I took these photos yesterday.  Today it snowed all day long.
May I remind you that inside those cozy Skunk Cabbage spathes the temperature could be as high as 81 degrees... isn't that a pleasant thought?

I went into more detail about Skunk Cabbage and its thermogenic capabilities in a previous post and I continued with another post about Skunk Cabbage and the vortices it uses to waft its foul odors.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Signs Of Spring

I saw some signs of spring this afternoon! 
Coltsfoot flowers beside the road
 Coltsfoot was blooming by the side of the road.  Take note of the snow in the background (upper left) of this next picture.
coltsfoot flowers in March
 There is still plenty of snow in the woods and on the mountainsides but here on this south facing side of the road it looks more like spring.
Coltsfoot on the roadside
 I saw a few other spring flowers today such as Bittercress and Skunk Cabbage, but the cheeriest flowers were definitely the Coltsfoot.
Coltsfoot flowers
I guess Coltsfoot takes seriously the coming of the first day of spring.
See another post about Coltsfoot.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Flowers For The First Day Of Spring

Today is the first day of spring!  Yeah!
That of course means yesterday was the last day of winter.  Fittingly, yesterday the snow melted away and revealed some small flowers which had been buried by the recent snow.
early spring flowers under snow
Some folks call these early-spring flowers, Bittercress, and some call them Shotweed.  As you can see, Bittercress likes to get an early start on spring.
Bittercress poking through snow
Bittercress flowers were the first springtime flowers we noticed this spring.  These small, white flowers have been blooming in our yard since back in the very beginning of March.
bittercress flowers
Here are a number of photos of Bittercress from before the snow.
bittercress blooming in late winter
This next photo was taken to show the small size of the Bittercress plants we found growing around the house..
Bittercress flowers
Bittercress flowers are small enough to be easily missed while watching for signs of spring.
Bittercress or Shotweed flowers
Perhaps a few macro photos will help increase appreciation for these minute flowers that seem to not fear winter, or maybe I should say, "...these minute flowers that seem to anticipate spring as much or more than we do".
Bittercress flowers
Here are some close-up photos of Bittercress flowers.
Bittercress flower
Bittercress may not as beautiful as Hepatica - another early spring flower, nor is it as unusual and smelly as Skunk Cabbage, but all of these flowers are a welcome sight in the spring.
Bittercress flowers in late winter
 
  Bittercress gets the name "Shotweed" from its explosive seed dispersal system.  In about a month the Bittercress will have gone to seed and any disturbance of the plant stalks will cause a "rain" of small yellow seeds.   In a few weeks I hope to post more about Shotweed's explosive seed dispersal system.
Bittercress or Shotweed's ballistic seed dispersal 
  Some people think of Shotweed is a "weed", but I think Shotweed deserves a shout-out in the spring.  Hey, they're very small small plants, the flowers are cute (and not smelly), the seed dispersal mechanism is "cool", and the plant is an "early-bird".
Bittercress
Hurray, it's springtime again!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mink Tracks In The Snow

   We often see a mink running along on the far riverbank.  The other day when we saw the mink, it seemed to disappear, so we took the canoe over to the other side to follow its tracks in the fresh snow in hopes of finding out where it went.
The mink tracks led us right along the water's edge.  We were surprised at the distance between the sets of tracks... perhaps the mink was in a hurry... although, the mink didn't seem to mind exploring around logs, etc.
  We found that the mink tracks disappeared into an old willow tree trunk. We concluded the roots of this willow, and the riverbank in back of them, are a great den-site for a mink.
 This willow is easily observable from our riverside home... only problem is, the opposite bank is too far away to take good photos of the mink with the camera equipment we have presently.  Oh well, sometimes the mink swims the river...
... maybe one day it will show up at our doorstep.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Winter Stoneflies Crawling On Fresh Snow

   Today we received a few inches of new snow.  Out of curiosity, we went out to see if we could see any winter stoneflies crawling around on the freshly fallen snow.  We didn't have to go far to see numerous winter stoneflies bravely scurrying across our snow-covered yard and river bank.
    We appreciated seeing the winter stoneflies because they vividly demonstrated that some insects have the amazing ability to avoid freezing.  Winter stoneflies have anti-freeze in their systems which enables them to be active in the winter and to avoid being frozen even if their environment is a few degrees below freezing.
Since a photo "freezes" the subject, and in this case, makes it look like a bug on ice, here is a video of a winter stonefly scurrying across the snow.  The video better portrays the stoneflies' winter-defying actions.
video
 The winter stoneflies seem very at home crawling on the snow...
... but surely there are some inherent dangers involved, such as getting too cold and freezing from too much accidental contact with snow crystals or falling snowflakes.  Also there is the danger of being easily spotted by hungry birds.
Somehow the winter stoneflies late-winter emergence works out well for them... and to think that not long ago these stoneflies were aquatic nymphs that crawled from the river and "hatched", or emerged, as these winter-active insects.
   This is the concluding post in a series of posts on stoneflies that began with a post about the many winter stoneflies hanging around the house.  Another post was about the winter stoneflies skimming, or water-skiing, across the surface of the water.  I also posted twice about  emerging winter stonefly nymphs.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Emerging Winter Stoneflies, Part Two

   In my last post about emerging winter stoneflies, I left the stonefly nymph hanging on a rock with the stonefly partially emerged from its nymphal skin.  The nymph had crawled out of the water and hung on the rock and as it dried out the "skin" split open and the stonefly began to "hatch".  Here is a photo of the emerging stonefly a little further along in its efforts to extract itself from its old way of life.
emerging winter stonefly
At this point, from what I could observe, the stonefly flexed its abdomen (arches it) up and down and in this way it wiggled out of its drying nymphal case.  Here is a short video of the emerging stonefly doing just that.

video



In the video the stonefly began to flex its wings and they started to slowly unfurl.  Here are some more photos of a stonefly emerging... leaving behind its aquatic stage.  One of the boys said at this point, "it looks like a cross between a grasshopper and a lizard".
  Here's another photo of the emerging stonefly .... notice the legs are now free to move around, the wings are expanding, and the antennae are, well, very reluctant about leaving the old case behind.
Stonefly antennae are rather long and delicate... Wow! look at that extraction process!
I wonder if you could pluck a high note on those antennae at this point in the process?
After the completion of that delicate antennae extraction process the stonefly rears back and waves its legs and antennae (see the video below) ... and its not long before it is free. 
video

This next photo of an emerging stonefly captures a look of awe, I think anyway, as the stonefly meets the new world it has just entered.
emerging stonefly - a winter stonefly

Watch this video of the stonefly as it "hatches" and leaves its "shuck" behind.
video

Behold, a brand new stonefly!
freshly emerged winter stonefly
   Back a couple of years ago, I posted a series of photos of stonefly wings unfurling.  Check it out!   What an incredible feat... what a display of the Creator's genius!
winter stonefly with unfurling wings
   Only moments ago this stonefly had crawled out of the river looking muddy and wet like the stonefly nymph in the photo below...
winter stonefly nymph
...after a few more minutes, when its wings are finished unfurling, this recently emerged stonefly will look like this adult winter stonefly.
adult winter stonefly With its transformation complete, the winter stonefly can now scurry around our yard, crawl around on the snow, or go skimming across the surface of the water as it searches for a mate.

Yeah for living close by the water's edge!

First Glimpse of Comet Pan-STARRS

   This evening was my first sighting of Comet Pan-STARRS.  I was on top of a hill kneeling in a hay field (thanks Pete) facing a biting cold wind.  I wasn't dressed for this last blast of winter, but I really wanted to see the comet... because up until this evening our skies were too cloudy for comet watching.
   The wind was much too strong for taking good comet photos so I set my ISO up high and took some hand-held shots as well as some on the tripod (with my hands on to help steady the camera).  My first photos of Comet Pan-STARRS are rather terrible, but, hey, I guess some pictures are better than none.
First glimpses of Comet Pan-STARRS
 I'll remember taking these comet photos because the only thing worse than the pictures is how cold I was.
Comet Pan-STARRS
My hands were so cold I could hardly adjust the aperture and shutter speed much less hold the camera still.  Perhaps another night will be more conducive to catching a comet on camera.
  I have "caught" other comets in times past.... like the one on my "About Me" page.  It's the picture where my silhouetted telescope is pointing toward Comet Hyakutake.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Emerging Winter Stoneflies

   Winter stoneflies have been emerging from the river for the past few weeks.  We are blessed to live at the water's edge where this kind of incredible thing happens frequently.  Have you ever closely observed this late-winter phenomenon of hatching winter stoneflies casting their skins?  If you haven't, let me introduce you to an emergent stonefly.  Perhaps now it is a nymph/stonefly.  In a few minutes this ugly thing will be a stonefly.
    The winter stonefly nymphs have been living on the river bottom grazing on periphyton or feeding on detritus.   In late Feburary and early March these winter stonefly nymphs leave the water and become stoneflies, leaving their cast nymphal skins hanging all over rocks and branches on the shoreline. 
   Let's begin our late-winter riverside field trip with this video of a stonefly nymph as it comes swimming in to the shore.
   
video
This next photo shows a stonefly nymph after it crawled out of the water and onto a rock.  Beside the wet-looking stonefly nymph is the dry, grayish, cast nymphal skin left by another stonefly.
a wet winter stonefly beside a dried, cast nymphal skin
 As the nymph dries... the back of the skin splits neatly open.
winter stonefly nymph starting to cast skin
 These photos show the beginning of the "casting" or "shucking" of a stonefly's nymphal skin.
winter stonefly nymph shucking skin
Shortly, the stonefly will be partially emerged, as pictured in the first photo of this post.
My next post will continue with the photos of winter stonefly nymphs in the process of casting their skins.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Winter Stoneflies

   Winter stoneflies have been scrambling everywhere around our riverside home the last few weeks.  If we had any snow, the stoneflies would be scrambling over the snow just like they scramble over everything else.
  Winter stoneflies can fly.  Every so often, the stoneflies can be seen flying around rather clumsily... even flying around the lights in the house.  Mostly though, it seems the stoneflies use their wings to fan themselves across the water.
   We appreciate the sight of the winter stoneflies surface-skimming on the river.  The stoneflies flutter their wings and "ski" across the water's surface as if they were fan-boats or taxiing float-planes.
large winter stonefly skimming across water
 The stoneflies' method of aerodynamic locomotion is fascinating.
winter stonefly skimming across water's surface
 Photos of the surface skimming stoneflies capture only part of the experience... watch this video of a stonefly skimming across the water (plays at 1/2 speed).
video
Doesn't watching the "skiing" stoneflies remind you of watching float planes taxi up to shore?
large winter stonefly surface-skimming
Surface-skimming stoneflies are a unique thing to see... doubly so, because there are few other insects flying around in late winter in Pennsylvania.
winter stonefly "water-skiing"
  For the last few weeks the "skiing" stoneflies have been a common sight on the river as they (ones that ended up on the water) try to get to shore.
winter stonefly skimming across river
 As I mentioned earlier, stoneflies are rather clumsy fliers... their skimming is haphazard and clumsy as well.
Despite numerous accidents and much aimless zooming around on the water,  many of the stoneflies use their "powered-skiing" method  to good advantage and end up at the shore where they can do what they do best... scramble.
large winter stonefly skimming on water
   Sometimes the stoneflies try to scramble on the water but it doesn't work very well.  Eventually they put forth the effort to flap their wings and, well, if they are aiming in the right direction, they come "motoring" in to shore.
Pretty cool!
Next we will look at the "stoneflies hatching".