Category Archives: Friday Photos

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Flying Insects Gregarious and Nefarious!

During the Lost Lake birding walk recently, we came across two insects  that caught us by surprise. No doubt we’ve all known humans that we call “social butterflies.” Well, the birders saw instead a gathering of “social” dragonflies! And we spotted a furry and ferocious predator from the strange “robber fly” family.

Many of us commented that we usually think of dragonflies as loners, cruising up and down a marsh or patrolling a field alone. Occasionally we see mating pairs darting over the surface of a pond in tandem. But we were all quite intrigued by a group of unidentified, very similar dragonflies just hanging out together on a log. (The photo below is by fellow birder, Mike Kent. Thanks, Mike!)

Chalk-fronted Corporal dragonflies gathered on a log at Lost Lake Nature Park

After some research by Ewa Mutzenmore, another fellow birder, we learned that these are Chalk-fronted Corporals (Ladona julia) which Wikipedia tells us “are gregarious for dragonflies, and are commonly seen perching in groups.” In fact the “bug lady” at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s website says that in her area “On cool, spring days, hundreds of CfCs may congregate on/over warm road surfaces.” We evidently are well within their complete west-to east range across southern Canada and the northern United States. Where have they been all my life?

The male’s thorax features two showy white bars (presumably like a corporal’s stripes) on the upper part of their thoraxes and a waxy white coating (“pruinosity”) that develops on their thorax and at the base of their abdomen as they mature. The females are similar, but their corporal’s stripes and pruinosity are duller brownish gray. So by my count, Mike’s photo contains three males and four females. The juveniles are pinkish brown with a black stripe down the abdomen, according to the “bug lady’s” photos. Pruinosity, she tells us,  is a sign of breeding readiness, so maybe this gathering is resting a bit before summer’s Big Event!

Like many dragonflies, Chalk-fronted Corporals readily approach humans (or tolerate groups of them like we birders!), even plucking mosquitoes and other biting insects out of the air around us as we walk. Well, they are welcome to the ones feeding on me these warm spring days!

We also spotted what we think is a Robber Fly (family Asilidae). How’s this insect for some drama, eh? (Photo by birding group member , Ewa Mutzenmore. Thank you, Ewa!)

The predatory Robber Fly has an appearance and behavior that fits its name!

These fierce predators can snatch a wide range of insects from mid-air using their pincer feet and then pierce them with their proboscis. The end result is that the prey – which can include other robber flies – is paralyzed, liquefied within and then consumed. (I know…Yuck!) These are tough customers for other insects – though not for us, unless we handle them and why would we? They are not put off by insects that release noxious chemicals and will even attack yellow jackets and other wasps who are pretty fierce fighters themselves! From its black and yellow appearance, I’m guessing this may be one of the robber family whose coloring mimics bumblebees. “The better to get close to you, my dear….” Robber flies even sport a “mustache” called a mystax which makes them look like villains – but of course, they’re really just playing their role of keeping nature in balance.

So, it pays to explore with eyes, binoculars and cameras on an early summer morning. Nature’s always ready to teach us something new and strange!

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: A Warblerfest at Two Township Parks

Fellow birder Tom Korb’s photo of Oakland Township birding group watching spring warblers.

I doubt that many of the  birders in Tom Korb’s photo above had previously spent over half an hour observing a small group of trees with sheer delight. But of course, these trees at Cranberry Lake Park were decorated with colorful, little spring warblers! The warblers and other migrators had flown in on a south wind the night before and were now hungrily feasting on sweet spring catkins. Most of  these tiny birds will rest here and then fly farther north, so there were no territorial or mating squabbles. They were content to just nibble and flutter from limb to limb among their traveling companions as we eagerly watched below.

The same phenomenon occurred at Bear Creek Park the week before. A south wind had helped carry warblers and other small birds over the township and then heavy rain had forced them down out of the skies to settle in the trees around the playground pond.

So here’s a gallery of the photos I was able to catch of these tiny, flitting warblers, and a few bonus birds. For birds that we saw or heard, but were too quick for me, I’ve added two photos taken in previous years and two by  gifted local photographers, Joan and Bob Bonin.  Thank you to Joan, Bob and Tom! (Click on pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

 

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Photo of the Week: Green Plants on a Snowy April Day

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Spindly moss sporophytes growing out of the green gametophyte. Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, 2017.

It was snowy this morning when I looked out the window. Yes, it was beautiful, and no, snow is not unusual in early April. But I’m getting a strong case of spring fever, so I needed to look for something green to brighten my day.

Enter mosses. They are the masters of shaking off a snowy day. One study found that Arctic mosses can ramp up photosynthesis within 332 seconds of snow removal. That’s less than 6 minutes! Mosses in southeast Michigan are equally hardy. They love the bright sunlight and moisture of early spring, ramping up photosynthesis quickly to soak up every bit of sun.

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Moss on the base of a tree at Blue Heron Environmental Area, February 2018.

With the constant change between beautiful, sunny days and wintry weather, we need to take a lesson from the playbook of mosses: catch every bit of sun possible. The forecast calls for sun this weekend, so where are my hiking boots…?

Recapping a Great Presentation on Pollinators: Exploring Michigan Bees, Wasps, and Bee-wannabes!

In late January, the Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship program hosted an overflow crowd for an evening presentation by Caleb Wilson of Oakland University on protecting our backyard pollinators.  Throughout the presentation, I heard voices around me (including mine) whispering “Really?  I never knew that!” So I thought I’d share a few of those “Really!” moments with all of you.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Here’s a gallery of photos.  See if you can spot the differences between  bees, wasps and hoverflies (the “bee-wannabes” of the title.)  Then, read on to learn more about these important little insects! (Use the pause button if you need time for captions or a closer look.)

[Edit:  Please note that, at our request,  Caleb was kind enough to “fine tune” this piece for me shortly after it was published.  My thanks to him for that help and for a great presentation!]

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Caleb Wilson’s First Cool Facts about Bees

  • Approximately 4,000 species of bees inhabit North America (as compared to about 3000 species of vertebrates). Michigan hosts more than 465 bee species!
  • Western or European Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the U.S.  They were brought here by settlers who wanted a sweetener when sugar was still a luxury .
  • Bees are strict vegetarians. They eat sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen.  Wasps (suborder Apocrita that aren’t ants and bees), however, are omnivorous.  They primarily feed on nectar – but not pollen – and young wasps feed only on invertebrates –  like other insects, insect larvae (caterpillars) or spiders –  brought back to the nest by their mothers.
  • Bees are excellent pollinators since their “furry” bodies distribute a lot of pollen as they move from one flower to another.
  • Hover Flies (family Syrphidae) – the bee-wannabes –  are the second most common pollinator after bees. They imitate bee colors and patterns for protection from predators, but actually have no stingers. Neat trick!
  • Wasps  are less effective as pollinators because they have much less hair on their generally thin, smooth bodies so pollen does not stick to them.  Wasps benefit our gardens and other agriculture, though,  by controlling insect pests.

Checking the ID of Bees, Wasps and Hover Flies

  • Bees have wings which cover their petiole or “waists” (connection between their thorax and abdomen) when feeding,  so their waists can be difficult to see. Wasps have tiny waists and hoverflies have thick ones.
  • Bees and wasps have four wings – though the second set are hard to see since they are hooked together when flying and so they appear to have only two. Hoverflies only have two wings.
  • Bees are fuzzy, whereas wasps and hoverflies generally have very little hair or none on their bodies. Most bees have a hairy back leg, though European honey bees don’t.
  • Bees and wasps have eyes on the sides of their heads and longer antennae. Hoverflies have eyes on the tops of their heads (often touching) and short antennae.
  • If it’s visibly carrying  pollen on its legs or body, it’s some kind of bee.

Myths about Bees that Needed Correction

  • “All bees make honey.”  Uh, No… Most bees don’t make honey. Honey bees do, of course. And native Bumblebee queens store “nectar pots” to be eaten by their larvae as they develop – but no honey.
  • “All bees sting.”  Well, No, Actually. All female bees can sting; males can’t.  Honey bees can only sting once because their stinger is barbed to stay in your skin (ouch!) and as the honey bee pulls away, the lower part of her abdomen tears away and she dies.  Other female bees in our part of the world (for example, the bumblebee) and female wasps (the Yellow Jacket, for instance) have stingers without barbs and can sting repeatedly.
  • “Bees are aggressive.”  Wrong again.  Bees generally sting only to protect their hive. They will generally ignore humans otherwise. Wasps, however, can be more aggressive.
  • “Bees live in hives.”  Mmmm…some do, some don’t.  Honey bees are very social and do, of course, live in hives.   Bumblebees are social, too but they nest in the ground. Sweat bees form colonies with a queen and workers, but they don’t make honey and don’t have large numbers like a honey hive.  But most bees are solitary.  They live in burrows that they dig in the ground, or in cavities like logs, reeds, stems of dead plants, snail shells and such. Occasionally solitary bees lay their eggs in group areas for protection, but they each care for their own young rather than having communal hives. Social wasps, like Yellow Jackets (genus Vespula or Dolichovespula),  build elaborate nests but many wasps are solitary, too.

Why are Bees in Decline?

It turns out there are multiple factors:

  • A significant cause is that there are just fewer flowering plants! Urbanization has brought concrete and large areas of green lawn monocultures with fewer flowers. Agriculture has replaced fields full of diverse wildflowers with huge fields of soybeans and corn which are pollinated by wind, not by bees or other pollinators.
  • Insecticides like neonicotinoids and fungicides are in many treated seeds and seedlings or are sprayed on crops, killing bees as well as predatory pests and fungi.
  • Parasites and pathogens that used to attack other bees have now switched to honeybees.
  • Transportation throughout the year to various crops and other uses of agricultural bees can stress them. Bumblebees, for example,  are often kept in large greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes. In such settings,  they can develop viruses and parasites like Nosema bombi, which can then be spread to wild bees.

So Here’s How We Can Help Our Bees

  • Plant more flowers – native ones, preferably!  Find a native plant nursery here.
  • Leave those dandelions in your yard a little longer!  It’s often the only flower around in early spring and bees LOVE them!
  • Plant flowers of different species that will bloom at different times of the year so that nectar and pollen are present in spring, summer and fall.
  • Reduce the frequency of mowing  and raise the height of your mower if you can.
  • If you plant from seeds or seedlings, make an effort to determine if they have been treated with chemicals. This is not always easy to determine, especially when buying from large chain stores.
  • Some bees need bare patches of ground or rotten wood.  If you have an out-of-the-way bare spot on your property, bees will appreciate it.
  • You might build a bee hotel to host wild bees but be careful about its design, so it cannot host mold or attract parasites.  Here’s a site Caleb trusts for info on them.  They also need periodic cleaning.
  • Don’t buy a honey bee hive if you want to save native wild bees.  Honey bees are non-native and very important to agriculture, but studies show that they can have a negative impact on wild bees.  If you do decide to start bee-keeping, be sure you are fully educated by a trained professional and that you are prepared for a lot of work!  Giving up on a hive can be seriously detrimental to both the honey bees and the wild bees that live near them.
  • Leave wild plants somewhere on your property if possible, especially if you already have good habitat with native plants. If you have mostly non-native invasive plants or lawn, explore replacing some of these areas with native plants.
A native bumblebee and a non-native honey bee compete over a thistle

So consider befriending your helpful neighborhood pollinators and pest predators.  They spend their short lives in service to the flowers, fruits and vegetables that we all enjoy.  For lots more great identification photos and tips on helping bees, check out the Michigan bee website of Jason Gibbs from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University.  He offers three big take-aways about bees:  1) Feed them by planting untreated flowers and seeds; 2) House them by saving their habitat, leaving some bare soil, or building bee hotels; 3) Don’t kill them – limit or avoid use of insecticides. Pretty do-able suggestions, I’d say.

Click here to view the slides from Caleb’s talk for wonderful photos, useful charts and more info!

Photos of the Week: Restoring Nature’s Beauty with Fire? Yep!

Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel and Volunteers Vinnie Morganti, Jim Lloyd and Parks Commissioner Dan Simon at Marshview Park for a “controlled burn.”

This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park.  Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge,  bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.

The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.

The green grass of the sports field and the pathways provide fire breaks during a controlled burn.

Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.

Volunteer Vinnie Morganti with a drip torch used to spread fire.

Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.

Dr. Ben with a water tank to protect trees and put out smoldering embers
A volunteer drips fire while another crew member sprays trees and puts out embers
The fire spreads slowly across the burn area

The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses.  After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park.  Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org)  And in autumn, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious,  royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).

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And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye.  So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.