Treasures of Oz

Celebrating the Natural Gems of Ozaukee County

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Birds, Bugs and Plants | Nature Blog

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The Ants of CESA

A few years ago, BugFan Marjie (and several other folks) had a fantastic idea. They wanted to get people out on the trails of the natural areas here in Ozaukee County (Wisconsin). The plan – to staff different sites each year with interpreters, send people on their way with passports to be stamped at each destination, and finish the day with a big party at the Mother Ship - Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. The event – Treasures of Oz. Over the past five years, many thousands of people have made the acquaintance of county nature preserves that were not on their radar before.

This year, Marjie asked the BugLady to be part of the team at the Cedarburg Environmental Study Area (CESA), a property owned by the excellent Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which sponsors Treasures of Oz (find descriptions and trail maps of all their preserves at owlt.org. The CESA site hosts some phenomenal, six-feet-wide ant mounds, and the ant story needed to be told. The BugLady was dubious - the general population, she has noticed, isn't that inspired by bugs, and besides, due to a misspent youth, the BugLady is a tiny bit ant-averse.

First off, what kind of ants are they? BugFan Tom rounded up an ant guy in Mississippi who, of course, requested some ants. The BugLady figured that she would place an old film canister (younger BugFans might have to Google "film canister") on the top of a pretty active mound, and maybe some ants would climb in. What could go wrong? As soon as the canister landed on the mound, ants came pouring out, covering the top of the mound and covering the film canister, inside and out. Now what? The BugLady fished it off with a stick, managed to cap it, and rolled it around a bit to loosen the exterior ants.

The ants were dispatched to Mississippi; the postal worker who asked if the parcel contained "anything liquid, fragile, perishable, etc." didn't ask specifically about ants. Joe, the ant guy, made short work of the ID – the ants are Formica montana, in the wood/thatch/field/mound ant family Formicidae. The genus Formica includes a bunch of mound-building ants that use different construction strategies in varying habitats. Besides mounds, they are famous for defending themselves by spraying formic acid and by biting (often using the "bite-first-then-spray-the-irritating-chemical-into-the-wound" strategy).

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Pigeon Horntail

Pigeon Horntail7Howdy, BugFans,

The BugLady's computer has just taken a week off to have a hard-drive transplant, so the BugLady offers this BOTW from five years ago. She photographed a horntail on the prairie recently and has heard reports of others.

The impressive Pigeon Horntail is a "primitive" member of the ant/wasp/bee order – Hymenoptera ("membrane wings"). Most Hymenopterans boast a cinched-in/Scarlet O'Hara waist. Not so the horntail; its cylindrical abdomen plugs directly into its cylindrical thorax. Its name doesn't come from the long projection at the rear of its abdomen – this is a female and that's an ovipositor ("egg-depositor), and the males don't have one. But, on the top (dorsal) side of the abdomen, at its tip, is a triangular "plate" or "horn," best seen in the side view, which gives Horntails their name. While the gentle, just-under-two-inch-long horntail looks dangerous, it neither bites nor stings. The horntail posing on the wood fence bounced off the BugLady one day, and she treated it to a few hours in the refrigerator so she could photograph it.

Horntails (family Siricidae) are often called "wood wasps" because their eggs are laid in wood and their young spend both their larval and pupal stages there. Horntails practice "complete metamorphosis," going through an egg stage, a larval (eating) stage and a pupal (resting/changing) stage before emerging as a very different-looking adult. Adults have been found emerging into the interior of buildings that were built with the wood they occupied, and they sometimes find themselves in a different country than the one in which they began their life.

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Forked Fungus Beetle

Howdy, BugFans,

forked fungus beetle1Every once in a while, life hands you a special treat. Late one recent afternoon, the BugLady was walking through the beech woods, moving far too slowly, considering the size of her mosquito escort, scanning a fallen log that was adorned with a few deteriorating shelf fungi (can you spell "bug-nerd?"). Suddenly, part of a fungus twitched.

If you're singing along, we're on page 192 of your Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America or page 583 of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders – the forked/horned fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) ("crowned"). The FFB is in the Darkling beetle family Tenebrionidae and is the only species in its genus. It's found east of the Mississippi, at night, in the woods, in the company of woody, polypore shelf fungi.

Males look like half-inch long "triceratops." Their horns can vary in size quite a bit, and most males have a small, forked, rhino-like horn at the end of their snout that the BugLady does not see in her photographs (hers is a bi-ceratops). Females don't have horns, but the lower edges of their heads are widened, and they wear an extra bit of armor plate on their opposite ends (more about that later). They are drab, knobbed, pitted, exceedingly "thick-skinned," and primordial. Oh, but then there's that beautiful gold fringe on the underside of the male's horns – The Beetle with the Fringe on Top. It has been suggested that the hairs serve some general sensory function, but the BugLady couldn't find any corroboration of that, and considering the FFB's lifestyle, the hairs must take quite a beating.

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Bald-faced Hornet

bald face hornet 1Salutations, BugFans, 

When she was at an Impressionable Age, the BugLady had a teacher who said “Don’t just tell them what it is, tell them ‘What about it’” (because when we know an organism’s name, we don’t know everything about it - knowing the name just allows us to start opening doors).

What is it?  A bug of many names - bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, white-faced hornet, white-tailed hornet, blackjacket (a common name that also applies to another wasp) and bull wasp.

bald face hornet 2Is it a bee or a wasp or a hornet or a yellowjacket?  That age-old question is muddied by the tendency of many people (but not BugFans) to call all black and yellow flying objects that are pointy at one end either a bee or yellowjacket.  In a nutshell, bees tend to be thick-waisted and hairy (those hairs enable them to collect pollen), and their young eat pollen.  Wasps/hornets are slimmer and less hairy, hold their longitudinally “folded/grooved” wings along their bodies at rest and are “wasp-waisted” (with a thin stalk between the thorax and the first abdominal segment), and their young eat living, dead, and/or pre-chewed “meat,” mainly spiders and other insects.  There are social, semi-social and solitary species of both bees and wasps.

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Red-winged Blackbird and Our Clinging Hope for Spring

Remember when we woke up to above freezing temperatures with no snow or frost on the ground? Yea me neither, but don’t despair, it may feel like we will never see spring again but spring is coming. I promise. In fact it is almost here!

MODO Rebecca Sher

 All you have to do is walk outside in the morning and you’ll hear it, the birds are awake. Their bodies are telling them it is time to sing! Everyone is in on the act, the House Finches greet me the second I walk out my apartment building door. American Robins are already setting up territories (although right now it is still more about finding food). The Mourning Doves have started their soft come-hither coos while the Common Grackles are whistling and squeaking away.

But the one bird that always tells me spring is here is the Red-winged Blackbird. Of all the spring bird songs and noises this beautiful bird’s conk-la-ree is by far my favorite. In honor of the return of the Red-winged Blackbird and our hope that spring will eventually show up, here are just a few of my favorite Red-winged Blackbird memories.

 

Harrington Beach State Park

 As a young child I was introduced to birds through our front picture window, my Mom will tell you my first real word was Ickadee. In case you are wondering that's Becca kid speak for Black-capped Chickadee. As the years went by my interests changed and astronomy took over but in 2010 I got back to my roots and realized the birds were still there. One of my first moves was to set up an eBird account. eBird is an online database that allows you to enter your own bird sightings and see the bird sightings of others. My first ever eBird recorded Red-winged Blackbird sighting was at Harrington Beach State Park on May 14, 2010. I'd love to tell you I remember that particular bird or day but I can't. Red-winged Blackbirds have been part of my life; my seasonal time keepers since "Ickadee" was my favorite word. But what this memory does mark is the day I brought RWBBs into my birding life, they were now a species to be observed, learned about, and studied. What a great day!

 

So what's so special about the Red-winged Blackbirds you may ask? In my opinion the answer to that is everything! Check out the Cool Facts section on the Life History page on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site. If the Cool Facts aren't enough, check out the Nest Description. These birds literally weave their nests. Later this season I'll try to get some photos to share because it is an impressive sight! In the four years that I've been a serious birder I've recorded over 8600 Red-winged Blackbirds in 4 states, 2400 of those birds were recorded in our own Ozaukee County! If you want to check this cool species out for yourself I suggest taking a hike on the boardwalk at Lion's Den Gorge or walking around any of the great ponds at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, you won't be sorry.

Click here to see and hear Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds squeaking and talking away from the tops of trees in Northern Ozaukee County.

Red-winged Blackbird Bathing

 One of my long time goals has been to capture a quality photo of a Red-winged Blackbird. Last Thursday, March 20 2014 I succeeded. While cruising the back roads with my birding partner in crime Seth Cutright we happened upon a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds bathing in newly melted field puddles. I've never seen so many Red-winged Blackbirds bathing at one time. Boy were those birds ever making a ruckus! It was a wonderful sight to see, the sunset light really set off the reds and yellows in the wing bar and the birds were obviously enjoying the water and warmer temperatures! Moments like this help remind me that spring is coming; soon there will be puddles all over the place. Keep your eyes peeled because you never know what you might see.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this post as much as I've enjoyed sharing my birding adventures with you. Please let me know what you think, I'd love to hear from you!

 

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Jumping Bristletail

Salutations, BugFans,

Jumping Bristletail-aIt was found by accident, as many good things are, clinging to one end of a branch that was lifted from the forest floor for a better view of the mushrooms growing on it.

It is one seriously ancient critter. Insects probably got their beginnings 443 to 417 million years ago (mya) during the Silurian Period (for a long time it was believed that insects descended from the millipede/centipede bunch, but evidence now points to origins within the Crustacea). The oldest insect fossil (so far) is a "sort-of-silverfish" that dates back 396 million years to the Devonian Period. There are fossil springtails from that period, too, but springtails not considered insects any more. The Carboniferous Period (354 to 290 mya) was marked by dragonflies with three-foot wingspreads and by an abundance of cockroaches. Tracks of Jumping Bristletails have been found in Permian rock (290 to 248 mya), and the upstart dinosaurs didn't appear until the Triassic Period, some 50 million years later, plus-or-minus.

Jumping bristletails used to be classified with the silverfish (the blameless JB is still lumped with silverfish on some exterminator's websites) but now they're in their own order. In defining an animal scientifically, the groupings move from most general to most specific. Kingdom (Animalia) comes first, the biggest umbrella, then Phylum (Arthropoda), then Class (Insecta), then Order, then Family, Genus, and finally Species.

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