Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tundra Swans are Back in Alma, Minneiska & Brownsville

When the morning weather reporter forecast sunny skies and temperature pushing 60-degrees, Tom and I decided to head down the Mississippi - on the Minnesota side - to check out the Tundra Swan migration.

First stop, just north of Minneiska on US 61 - Great River Road.

We pulled off the road and parked at St. Mary's Cemetery. That's where we saw 200+ swans and a thousand or more coots. Too far away for a photograph. I resisted the temptation to cross the highway and railroad tracks to get closer.

Instead, we got back in the car and headed south to Brownsville (south of La Crescent, MN). We spotted the first rafts of swans just south of the Shellhorn Bar and Grill on MN State Rd 26. A mile further down the road, we got our closest looks - at the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge new Brownsville Overlook.

According to the Refuge fall waterfowl aerial survey report for October 25, there were 10 Tundra Swans on the river. Today there were several thousand, along with thousands of ducks, coots and Canada Geese.

On the way back home we stopped to check out the waterfowl on the Wisconsin side of the river - at Cedar Ridge Resort in Nelson and Rieck's Lake Park in Alma. We spotted a handful of swans and several rafts of waterfowl way off in the distance at Cedar Ridge (please stop by the front desk at Cedar Ridge and ask Wes Stensland for permission before you drive down to the river) and a few swans way off in the distance at the Rieck's Lake Park observation deck.

We got a better (but not great) look at a dozen swans in the lake by the Tell Church on State Road 37 (south and east of Rieck's Lake Park on the Buffalo River).

By the time we found these swans, the sun was setting.


Now's the time to head down river to see waterfowl. If you're interested in a guided tour, the Refuge is sponsoring a SwanWatch bus tour ($20/person - lunch included) on Saturday, November 13 (9am-3pm) departing from Winona. To reserve a seat, call Ed Lagace (before November 6) at 507-494-2636.

Refuge volunteers will be at the Brownsville Observation Deck to help answer questions every weekend (10am to 4pm) in November.

Dress for cold, windy weather. If it's too cold, you can see the swans from your car at Brownsville. The bird action is best early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Click here (and scroll down) for a sample of what you'll hear...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tree Sparrows are Back!

The big storm that blew through earlier this week set a new record - the strongest non-coastal Low pressure system in the Continental US (CONUS).  The city of Bigfork, Minnesota recorded a barometric pressure of 28.20 inches or 955 MB, a reading normally associated with category III hurricanes (115 mph winds). 

About 250 miles south of Big Fork, here in the Chippewa River Valley, the front brought high winds and rain, but no floods and no tornadoes.  The wind knocked down some trees and whipped the leaves around.  And it brought the first Tree Sparrows I've seen this fall.

They were everywhere in the bushes along the Chippewa River State Trail today, hanging out with the chickadees and juncos.
American Tree Sparrow - Christmas Bird Count data                     
These little brown birds are complete migrants, their breeding and wintering grounds do not overlap.  They breed in the tundra and winter further primarily in the lower 48 states.

Despite its name, this sparrow nests on the ground in the sub-arctic, a region that's not known for trees.  They're attracted by the availability of insect protein up north - and in the winter, they switch over to seeds.  Fill a plastic tray with white proso millet, and they'll come to your backyard to feed along with the juncos and White-throated Sparrows.

So how'd it get the "tree" moniker?   European settlers called it a "tree" sparrow because it reminded them of their rusty orange-capped Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Look for their white wing bars, the back stick pin in their chest and their yellow mandible.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ambush Bugs

The sky was ominous this afternoon, but the temperature was a very pleasant 66-degrees.  Other than the usual suspects (chickadees, Purple Finches and nuthatches), there wasn't much avian activity along the Lower Chippewa River State Trail. 

So I decided to take a close look at the few goldenrods still in flower.  They were a-buzz with insects.  I felt some of them before I got close - female mosquitoes, getting in their last licks before the snow flies.  I spotted a few paper wasps, and a pair of what appeared to be copulating bugs with forelegs that reminded me of praying mantis.

Ambush Bugs paired
I've seen them before, but haven't been able to get a photo that could help me with identification.  Determined to get one today, I plucked the couple off the goldenrod and held them in my hand for good look (and better photo).

Was it a male was riding on the back of a larger (and lighter colored) female?  I'd have to figure it out when I got home. 

Ambush Bug
An hour later, I found them on Plate 3 in the Peterson Insects Guide: abdomen wider toward the rear; antenna 4 segmented, last segment swollen:  ambush bugs.

Known for sitting camouflaged on flowers (usually yellow or white), they wait to ambush their prey - the other insects working the flowers:  bees, wasps, flies, bugs and lepidoptera.  These tiny bugs are reported to take arthropods 10 times their size.

How to they do it?  They grab their prey with their modified forelegs and then bite, injecting a chemical that first paralyzes them, then liquefies their insides.  

Next time I see an ambush bug on a flower, I'll look for the lifeless exoskeletons of their prey nearby - on the flower and on the ground below.

Were they mating?  Maybe not.   Male ambush bugs are known for hitching a ride on the female's back as he waits to share in her hunting success.  (When ambush bugs mate, the male is lateroventral, not ventral-dorsal.)

If the pair I photographed today copulate, the female will glue her eggs onto a nearby twig, where they will over-winter and hatch out in May.  

Are they dangerous to handle?  While some references say they don't bite people, others say they do.   Next time, I won't take any chances.  I'll be carrying a glove in my pocket.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why did the Dung Beetle Cross the Trail?

female Purple Finch
When I walk the Chippewa River State Trail, I'm usually looking up - for birds. 

Today the familiar crunch, crunch of my shoes crushing the hackberry nipple galls attached to the now fallen yellow and brown leaves, made me look down.

Hackberry Nipple Galls

That's when I noticed this quarter-sized irridescent beetle scurrying across the trail, disappearing in the leaf litter.

I'm not afraid of beetles, but this one looked like a mini tank, and I wondered about those reddish-orange comb-like antennae.  It was moving too fast for me to photograph it on the ground, so I threw caution to the wind and picked it up.

I've never taken an entomology course, so I was clueless about how to hold one of these creatures safely (for it and me).  As I was working on getting my camera readied - and holding the beetle in the palm of my hand, it flipped upside-down.

phoretic mites on an earth boring beetle
That's when I noticed a dozen or so little transparent creatures clinging to the beetle's chest.  Hm.  What are they?

They weren't eggs.  They were moving round on that chest.
They weren't "baby" beetles.  Beetles go through complete metamorposis from egg to larvae to pupae to adult.
I found the answer later when I uplinked my photos at

They're phoretic mites.  Phoresy is the term used to describe the relationship between two species where one attaches to the other for transportation.   Harmless to the beetle (and me), these arthropods feed on the eggs of the flies attracted to the same food that the beetle eats.  They hitch-hike on beetles to get from meal to meal.

This beetle, one of more than 600 species world-wide in the Geotrupe family, is one of the earth boring beetles.   Male Geotrupes are are known for dragging decaying and moldy leaf litter, fungi and occasionally dung, into their tunnels.  Then they wait for the females to show up.  After copulation, the female lays her eggs on the food the male has provisioned.

So, what was this beetle doing crossing the trail?

Maybe it was checking out the leaf litter or heading to its next meal.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Murder of Crows

I "pish" when I walk in the woods.  The sibilance captures the attention of birds drawing them out of their hiding places.  At least that's I think when I'm doing it.

I was impatient this sunny afternoon.  The only birds I'd seen or heard on my walk were chickadees bouncing like ping-pong balls, from seed-laden ragweed stalks to leafless Box Elder trees.   A small flock of Purple Finches seemed to follow them.

I was distracted by the noise of more than 100 crows sitting in the recently harvested corn field between the Chippewa River State Trail and the river.  I stopped to watch.  What were they doing?

The noise made me think:  Great-horned Owl.  Was this a mass "mobbing?"

No, I didn't see an owl, or a Red-tailed Hawk, another popular target of mobbing crows.

Could it be something to do with the corn?   Perhaps one of the wagons used during the harvest tipped and spilled.  The longer I watched the crows, the more I realized that wasn't it.

What changed my mind was the arrival of several Bald Eagles soaring overhead.  I watched as the eagles circled the field and strafed the noisy "murder" of crows, dispersing them to the tree line at the edge of the field.  Then the eagles landed in the middle of whatever it was that attracted them all and bent over to feed.   It had to be animal remains - the only food interest both species share.   Then I remembered, it's bow season.  Maybe this is where a hunter field dressed his deer.

Swamp Sparrow

As I headed back to my car, absent-mindedly "pishing" as I walked, I stopped to look at a spring-fed marsh.  All of a sudden, a sparrow popped-up and landed on the barbed wire that separates the marsh from the trail.  The little brown bird cocked its tail, puffed itself up, and then, like a jack-in-the-box, dropped back down, disappearing in the cattails.  A Swamp Sparrow.

According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin, this sparrow is common throughout the Badger State, and while most migrate in September and October, some spend the winter here.

Another reason for me to keep pishing when I walk by the marsh.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Black Moth Nectaring at Noon

I spotted this insect working a dried flower on the Lower Chippewa River State Trail today.  I thought it was a moth, but I wasn't certain.  I took a picture so I could look it up later.

It was another sunny day in October, but the temperature had dropped to around 50-degrees.  I thought it was too cold for butterflies until I spotted two Eastern Commas sunning themselves in the leaf litter.

Not many birds around mid-day, but I did see two Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  I heard a surprising number of chip notes coming from the shrubs along the trail... Fox Sparrows, juncos, cardinals and Chipping Sparrows.

I walked a mile then headed back home to figure out the name of my mystery black insect.

Compared to the insects I found last week, this one was easy to figure out:  a Yellow-collared Scape Moth - Cisseps fulvicollis.

A day-flying Tiger Moth that resembles a wasp, it's found nectaring on fall flowers, including goldenrods.    Adults appear in May and can be spotted into October until the first hard frost.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Purple Finches and a Millipede

Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and now the Purple Finches.  Winter birds have arrived.  They're at our birdfeeders and everywhere along the Lower Chippewa River.

I heard and saw lots of White-breasted Nuthatches and a late flock of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds.  I don't remember when I've seen so many Purple Finches.  This female (above) was in a flock of finches feeding with Black-capped Chickadees on a stand of Giant Ragweed along the Chippewa River Bike Trail north of Durand.  They were scarfing down ragweed seeds.

But I was taken by surprise when I looked down at the leaves along the side of the trail.  That's when  I had a close encounter with a red and black millipede.

I was tempted to pick it up for a closer look, but I didn't.  I couldn't remember if the "red" was a warning that I would regret any close contact.  So I took a picture, and tapped it with a stick to encourage it to roll over.

It didn't cooperate.  Instead, it rolled into a ball.

Leach's Millipede starting its defensive curl
When I got home, I looked it up.  It's a Euryurus leachii, one of around 1,000 millipede species identified in North America.   There may be as many as 80,000 species of millipedes world-wide.

When attacked by predators (birds, rodents, turtles and other insects), millipedes can secrete a venom or hydrogen cyanide gas to repel them.  This can cause skin discoloration and irritations in humans, but nothing serious (unless you rub your eyes after you touch them).

Who eats millipedes?  American Robins, turtles, shrews, insects, frogs and lizards.

According to Dr. Rowland Shelley, a millipede expert at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History, the Leach's millipede is"among the very few North American millipedes that one can deliberately try to find, because they occur almost exclusively in association with decaying hardwood logs & stumps near water sources. They are rarely found in just leaf litter and almost never in association with pines."

And that's exactly where I found this one - near running water in a riparian wetland with numerous decaying hardwood logs and stumps - along the Chippewa River State Trail in Durand, Wisconsin.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Ichneumon Wasp

I don't know what surprised me more today - the unseasonable string of warm days, the wildflowers still in bloom along rural roads in west-central Wisconsin coulees or spotting this black insect on a late flowering Queen Anne's Lace.

I photographed it because I thought it would be easy to identify - the white on the back, tail and antennae.

I was wrong.  I looked through the insect field guide.  I couldn't find it. 

I had to resort to again.  And again, I got a quick response:  a male Vulgichneumon brevicinctor, one of the most common of the 5,000 or more species of ichneumon wasps in North America.  There may be as many as 100,000 species world-wide, making it the largest of animal families.

Once I got a name, I recalled that I actually had read something about them some time ago.

I'd read that they're not like other wasps.

They're not social.   The females have long ovipositors and use them to lay their eggs in caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae of these wasps are parasites.  They convert their hosts into their own personal food factories.

Here's what I found out today:  Ichneumons are species-specific in their choice of hosts.  The female ichneumon uses her antennae to locate a host for her eggs.   (The word ichneumon comes from the Greek word for hunter.)

Because many of their hosts are agricultural pests (caterpillars and beetles) they are considered to be "beneficial" insects.   Some species of ichneumons however, parasitize harmless spiders and other wasps.  One specializes in the aquatic larvae of the caddisfly.  Another pierces wood to reach its host.

When the ichneumon eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the body of the host, keeping the host alive just long enough for them to pupate and for the adult wasp to eat its way out.  (Inspiration for the sci-fi horror film Alien).

The gruesome life cycle of the ichneumon wasp has troubled many naturalists and theologians, including Charles Darwin.   In 1860, Darwin wrote about it in a letter to Asa Gray:

There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

You can read more about this in an essay on Nonmoral Nature by Stephen Jay Gould.

By the way, the feeding behavior of adult ichneumon wasps is less disturbing.   They feed on water and flower nectar.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Insects on Goldenrod Flowers

Megacyllene robiniae - Locust Borer

I've been looking at goldenrods lately - seeing insects I've never noticed before.

I have to admit I have a bias.  I'm willing to spend time looking at - and looking up - a butterfly or moth.  But for most of the other insects - I don't get much further than "wasp," "bee," or "beetle."

The name is the key to learning more about them.

My problem:   I just don't think I have the skill (or patience) to "key" them out.  

Today I decided to give it a try.  I started with the insects I photographed on goldenrod earlier this week.

First, the beetle (the Locust Borer in the photo above).  I pulled out a copy of the Peterson Field Guide (Beetles by White), leafed through it and found a black and white illustration (figure 123) that fit.  Then I googled it.  That success gave me the confidence to continue.

Heliothis zea - Corn Earworm Moth

I was pretty confident the next one (above) is a moth.  But after 15 minutes I wasn't so sure.  I couldn't find it in the dizzying array of moths in the Peterson Field Guide.  So I uploaded it to  Ten minutes later, I got an email with the ID.  Amazing!

It's a Corn Earworm moth, one of the nearly 3,000 North American species in the Noctuoidea superfamily.  The adult moth feeds on nectar and is associated with goldenrods in the fall.  Look for the green eye.   (If you've ever opened an ear of corn and found a "worm" - chances are you've seen the larvae of this moth.) 

Next was this wasp.  Which species?  I went to BugGuide again, and was surprised to discover it's one of the ~17 paper wasp species (Polistes) in North America.  This one's a male Northern Paper Wasp (the long antennae, square yellow face and blunt tip to the abdomen).

The Northern Paper Wasp "nest" is created by a dominent "gyne" (reproductive female) who builds an open-chambered nest and, without help, feeds the first batch of larvae.  When the first batch emerge, they stick around and help the dominent one raise the second brood.  In late summer, males hatch out.  They live a month or so and die when their job - fertilizing the recent hatch of females - is finished.   Fertilized females hibernate and start new colonies in the spring.

In the fall, these wasps feed on nectar.  In the summer, they feed on caterpillars and juices from ripe fruits. 

Entomologists are concerned that the introduction of the more aggressive European Paper Wasp (in the 1970s) has had an adverse impact on native Polistes.  Time will tell.

Eristalis transversa - Transverse Flower Fly

On to the last picture, a yellow and black insect.  I thought this one would be easy to identify.  It looks like a bee.  Buzzes like a bee.  Must be a bee.  Not!

I didn't find it in the Peterson Field Guide, so I up-linked this photo to BugGuide.  Minutes later, I got the ID.  It's a fly - a bee mimic known as the Transverse Flower Fly.   

There are 23 species of flower flies in North America.  Their larvae which are found in polluted water, are known as “rat-tailed maggots” a reference to the long breathing tube they extend to the surface of the water.   The adults are nectar-feeders.

If you spot one, take a close look at its head - it has hair on its eyes!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why do Caterpillars Cross the Road?

There's an old saying - caterpillars crossing the road is a sign that fall is here.  Despite record-setting temperatures (81-degrees), I'm seeing caterpillars on the road everywhere.

Caterpillars crossing the road.  Who are they?  Where are they going?

Most of them are Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillars, aka Woolly Bear caterpillars.  There were so many today, I stopped counting - approximately 1 every 100 yards along County Road M in Durand.  They overwinter as caterpillars, so it may be that they're heading to a better place for hibernating.  We stopped and watched a half dozen - just to see how they handled the road crossing.

When cars zoomed by (and didn't squish them) the woolly bears stopped and curled up (would that this defense could protect them from vehicles).   Tiny caterpillars v. SUVs and pickups.

Some caterpillars headed east.  Some went west.  And one couldn't seem to make up its mind, heading back and forth, then up and down the road.

One seemed larger and all black.  I stopped again for a closer look.  I didn't have a clue what it was until I picked it up and it went into its defense curl... the red skin was the give away - a Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar.   It's about 2" long (half an inch longer than the woolly bear).

Further down the road I stopped for what looked like an orange woolly bear...

Turns out this one's called a Yellow Bear, or Virginian Tiger Moth caterpillar.  Its color varies from blonde to very dark, almost black.

A hundred yards down the road - there's another one... much smaller and scurrying much faster.  I'd have thought this one would be easy to identify... but I'm stumped.  So I went to and uplinked it.  Turns out it's a Phyllira Tiger Moth a species of special concern in Wisconsin.

Back to the original question:  why do these caterpillars cross the road?

My husband is convinced it has something to do with the "heat."  I think it has nothing to do with the road - they're just looking for that perfect place to hibernate and the road is in their way.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Black and Yellow Beetles on Goldenrod

While day time temperature has been in the 60s and 70s, overnight the temperature has dropped into the 30s.  Only a few wildflowers are in bloom along the Chippewa River State Trail - the asters, boneset and goldenrods.

I can't resist checking the goldenrods for soldier beetles.  I haven't found any lately.  But I have spotted a number of black and yellow insects with red legs and a big yellow "w" on their backs.  At first I thought they were hornets.

What are they (and what are they doing)?

Locust Borer Megacyllene robiniae

They are Locust Borers, named for their association with Black Locust trees.  In September and October the adults feed on goldenrod pollen.  Look for them in the morning.  In late afternoon you can spot them on the trunks of Black Locusts, looking for crevices in the bark on which they lay their eggs.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae chew their way into the inner bark and spend the winter in "hibernation cells."  In the spring, they bore deeper into the wood and feed.  They pupate inside the tree in July and August, and emerge as adults in the fall. 

The Black Locust, an invasive legume, is not native to Wisconsin.  It was originally planted here to control erosion, and for use as fence posts.  You can see it along the Chippewa River State Trail and Rustic Road 107.  I can't help but notice it's fragrant white flowers in the spring.

It's similar to the Hickory Borer, which is active as an adult in the spring.