Watershed Ridge Park: Aflutter with Small Wings

The large sloping meadow near the big marsh at Watershed Ridge Park with native plants, grasses and butterflies of all sizes

This summer, like the last, the western section of Watershed Ridge Park hums to the vibration of small winged creatures. So just as I did last summer, I headed first for the small restored wetland at the foot of a sloping field on the park’s western edge, because I knew it would be alive with fierce and fabulous dragonflies and their diminutive relations, the damselflies. As you’ll see, I was not disappointed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But this summer, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has cut some temporary trails into the dense greenery north of the fields in order to allow his crew to take on the task of taming a major invasion of non-native pest plants like Oriental Bittersweet vine, Autumn Olive, Privet and more. For now, these rough, bush-hogged trails allow me much easier access to the woods and the prairie at the heart of this part of the park. So I invite you to join me as I wade through moist meadows, pick my way carefully between wooded wetlands and stumble along the trail’s stubble to explore what warm summer mornings offer in the west of Watershed Ridge.

A Wetland Habitat Always Means Life!

The restored wetland in west of Watershed Ridge Park has changed dramatically in the last year. It’s now lined with Cattails and Pickerel Weed as well as Blue Vervain and Bulrushes.

I love how the trail that leads west from the parking lot passes high above the wetlands below, then curves gracefully through the hedgerow separating two fields – the one on the right still agricultural, the one on the left planted with native seed this spring.

At the foot of the green field, lies the newly restored wetland picture above. It’s just a humble, muddy little pool surrounded by native and non-native plants. The community includes non-native Cattails and Eurasian Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum , but also clusters of native plants like glorious Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), tough little Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and the wonderful spiky blooms of Hop Sedge (Carex lupulina), member of an ancient genus. Sprigs of native pink Creeping Smartweed (Persicaria longiseta) poke out of the former farm field surrounding the wetland. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, that suits the tiny Lucerne Moth (Nomophila nearctica) since its caterpillars feed avidly on it – as well as on non-native alfalfa and clover.

I waded into a small meadow behind the wetland to the west, filled with native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and a variety of soft grasses. Its proximity to the water and its gently swaying stems make it a good place to look for the “dragons and damsels.”

A field near a wetland is an ideal spot for discovering dragonflies and damselflies.

When I first arrived in late June, dragonflies were racing around the pond and the surrounding meadow, either in pairs, or singly, in a mad dash to mate and feed. These colorful, fierce predators with their spiked legs and powerful jaws spend their extended youth underwater. They live below the water surface, first as eggs and then as gilled nymphs, crawling or swimming around to feed on everything around them. They grow by molting into larger nymphs. The process can repeat for as little as four months to an average of one to three years! Finally they attach with their claws to an upright surface – stem, rock, bridge – and a full-fledged dragonfly extracts itself from the skin of the last nymph. The thorax emerges first, then the head and legs. Once the legs harden, the new dragonfly arches backward, thrusting the entire abdomen out of its casing. The wings fill with fluid and this creature with gills transforms into an air breather. Imagine, what it must be like to emerge from a dark pond into the bright sunlight and suddenly be able to breathe air – and fly! No wonder they frequently look so frantically excited!

But emergence is a dangerous time. According to Dragonflies of the Northern Woods by Kurt Mead, while they are emerging and before they can fly, up to 90% of these “teneral” or newly-hatched dragonflies are consumed by birds and sometimes by ants or spiders. In our northern climate, adult dragonflies may live from just a week to at most a couple of months. During their brief life in the air, they must latch onto a mate and produce eggs for the following year. So the priority is to mate quickly. Local naturalist Allen Chartier and the Facebook group, “Odonata of the Eastern United States,” both identified the dragonfly below with its shiny wings as the teneral male of some species of Meadowhawk dragonfly (genus Sympetrum.) His species won’t be clear until he fully matures. Isn’t he handsome? I watched him flutter a short distance to this grass stem, so he’s already on his way to maturity. I wish him well.

A teneral male Meadowhawk dragonfly who may have recently emerged from the casing of its nymph. The shiny wings can be an indicator of a teneral dragonfly.

Early Arrivals: Dragonflies that Appear in late May

Some dragonflies appear during the last week of May and so have an early jump on pairing up. When I arrived at the park in late June, some of these early males either stuck close to a nearby female, or rushed around, perhaps demonstrating their finer qualities to eligible females. And of course they were busy foraging for other insects.

Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) call our parks home every summer. The two below were definitely visiting the wetland with serious intentions. Whitetail males will patrol a pond trying to chase off competitors and if the female on the right has chosen our small pond, the guy on the left is likely to mate with her. He was busy discouraging another male when I saw him. The female can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day and may mate every day or two according to my dragonfly guide book. No wonder the Common Whitetail is so common!

The other common early dragonfly is the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa.) The male’s distinguishing feature are the dark wing patches next to his thorax and abdomen and white patches farther out on his wings. The female only has the dark patches near the body, plus yellow stripes down the sides of the abdomen. They lay eggs singly when alone, but the male “hover-guards” her in crowded ponds to, as the guidebook so circumspectly phrases it, “protect his ‘genetic investment.'” Had to smile when I read that….

I also saw three early dragonflies that were either “wallflowers” thus far – or I just missed seeing their mates in all the activity! They’re a colorful bunch.

Later Arrivals: Dragonflies that Show Up the Second Week in June

When I arrived on June 28, I only saw singletons among these later dragonflies that had probably appeared at the wetland a couple of weeks earlier. Perhaps they needed a bit more time to find a mate? Who knows? But I was glad to see them in any case.

The “Damsels” of Watershed Ridge, 2022

Damselflies share the order Odonata with dragonflies, but look and behave a bit differently. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies are generally smaller, less muscular and appear more delicate – hence their name which means “young mistress” in French. But they too are effective predators. They have large compound eyes like their relatives, but have “only” five to ten thousand individual lenses in them versus the maximum of 30,000 for a dragonfly. While the dragonfly’s eyes take up most of their head, damselflies’ eyes are placed at either side of the head, often giving them a hammerhead shark appearance. Dragonflies spend time high in the air and settle with their wings open. Damselflies spend more time at knee height among grasses and often fold their wings when they’ve landed.

Like dragonflies, damselflies spend a long youth underwater. In a vernal pool monitoring event in 2016, we happened to temporarily scoop one up with a couple of fingernail clams and a water beetle. They’re not quite as glamorous as they look when their adults, eh?

While monitoring a vernal pool in 2016, we happened upon a damselfly nymph in company with three Fingernail Clams and a Water Beetle

So here’s the selection of damselflies I encountered at the newly restored wetland on a summer morning. Many thanks again to Allen Chartier for help with the identifications.

And Now, a Quick Trip Down a Woodland Path

A singing Indigo Bunting that greeted me every time I went to Watershed Ridge Park this summer

On every one of my five trips to Watershed Ridge Park in late June and July, I was welcomed to the temporary woodland trail by the bright, paired phrases of the Indigo Bunting’s song. His favored perch was high in a tree or snag near the trail’s eastern entrance. What a gift! Have a listen at this link. (Though their songs vary by location, the second song listed at the link is very similar to the male’s song at Watershed Ridge.) I never got an ideal shot of him, so here’s another one I took in 2019 that shows you the male’s dark wing and his two-tone beak!

A closer look at an Indigo Bunting, taken in 2019

The fluttering of two butterflies on both sides of the trail caught my eye. Woodland butterflies don’t sip nectar from flowers, since most woodland flowers finish once the canopy leafs out – and forest edges are the niche these butterflies fill. Instead, they seek out a generally unappealing diet (for humans) of tree sap, fermenting or rotten fruit and dung which supplies sodium, nitrogen and other nutrients. They lay their eggs on woodland grasses that their caterpillars can digest. The larger one (1.75-2.5″) with more spots, the Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) moves about erratically even on overcast days and can fly late into the evening, according to Jaret C. Daniels’ guide, Butterflies of Michigan. The smaller one on the right below with about a one inch wingspan is the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) which often bobs at my feet at the edge of wooded trails.

Because of the dense foliage, I heard birds more than saw them. My handy Merlin app from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab identified a sharp two-note song from deep in the woods as that of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavirons). At Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org site, I discovered that these vireos like to stay in the interior of the canopy in deciduous woodlands, picking insects off branches. I waited several minutes but the vireo seemed content to stay right where it was. Here’s a shot of one by a generous iNaturalist photographer, Ken Butler.

The Yellow-throated Vireo offers his mate a few nest sites and once she chooses one, the nest is built 20-50 feet up in the canopy. Photo by Ken Butler (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) kept its back to me amid the branches of a tree off the trail. I think it was female because I got a quick flash of its head when it landed and noticed that it had no black “mustache” mark near its bill. But it could have been either a female or the gray head of a juvenile. Once more I waited, hoping it would move so I could get a better look. But the best I got was a glance over its shoulder as if to inquire why I was still there. That look prompted me to give up and move on.

A Northern Flicker seemed to be saying, “You’ve had a look, so could you just move on?” So I did.

Monet in the Meadow: A Colorful Field a-Flutter with Wings

Like a Monet painting, the large meadow near the big marsh was dotted with splashes of orange, yellow and white from Butterfly Milkweed, Black-Eyed Susans and Daisy Fleabane.

The temporary trail made it infinitely easier for me to get to one of my favorite spots at Watershed Ridge Park. This meadow slopes down to a large marsh that currently can be glimpsed between the trees from the trail at the bottom of the meadow.

The big marsh, formerly invisible behind a wall of shrubs can currently be seen through a break in the trees on the temporary trail.

At each visit, my camera and I were teased by a fast-moving Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) that never landed along the trail without suddenly disappearing down into tall grass. On my fourth visit, I donned my anti-tick outfit – socks over shoes, long sleeves, white clothing, a dose of Deet, etc. – and set off determined to see it land. I suspected that my quarry would eventually settle on one of the most nectar-rich flowers currently blooming, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa.) But the largest patches were far away from the trail.

I waded into the waist-high grass. And there it was, its proboscis sunk in one of the bright orange blossoms on its composite flowerhead. Milkweed is one of its favorites, along with Bergamot/Bee Balm and thistles. This one may be the female since the base of her wings seemed dark on the upper (dorsal) side, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is a female, she may not lay her eggs until August and may still be whisking around the meadow in September.

The Great Spangled Fritillary scoped me out while sipping nectar from a Butterly Milkweed.

Another reward for being lured into the deep grass was a selection of almost inconspicuous butterflies. I’m learning to watch for these tiny wings in the meadows. They’re so wonderfully varied and have unusual colors and patterns when I can get close. But they can be a bit skittish in front of the camera!

The Chickweed Geometer (Haematopis grataria) has a wingspan of only 3/4 of inch or so and flies during the day, unlike most moths. Its caterpillar is the famous inchworm. I didn’t realize it was yellow with pink stripes and dots until my long lens caught it in the meadow! Dr. Parsons told me that its wonderful feathery antennae indicate that it’s a male; the females’, he said, were “thread-like.”

The Chickweed Geometer’s caterpillar is one of the inchworms of song fame. In fact, all Geometer moths are inchworms in their creepy, crawly youth!

I hope you can see the delicate black pattern at the edge of this very tiny creature which is another member of the Geometridae family. Dr. Parsons at Michigan State University identified it as the Large Lace Border Moth (Scopula limboundata). Large, I thought? Its wingspan is only an inch wide, but evidently there is a Smaller Lace Border moth in Eurasia, that is even a little bit smaller! The black design along the creamy edge of its wings does create the illusion of lace, doesn’t it? Such an elegant, delicate little moth!

The Large Lace Border Moth is also a Geometer Moth. So aptly named! I’m getting quite fond of the variety and beauty in the family Geometridae!

The Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a blue or brown blur when its flying and I often initially think it’s a Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). But once it settles, the tiny little “tails” at the bottom of its wing remind of its name. Its size varies from just under an inch to just over. The male’s upper wings are generally blue, but the female’s can vary from light blue to brown or dark gray. I’m quite sure this was a brown female, but she refused to open her wings far enough for a shot. So I’ve added photos of a brown female and a blue male from previous years so perhaps you can enjoy naming this lovely little butterfly if you come across it in your garden or field. (Click on photos to see the detail.)

The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper butterfly (Wallengrenia egeremet) looked large at 1-1.5 inches after all the tiny butterflies and moths and it’s certainly less glamorous. But I’m glad to know its name and maybe we can love it because its caterpillar eats a species of crabgrass? This female may be about to lay eggs!

This Northern Broken-dash Skipper looks like she might be about to deposit some eggs from her lowered ovipositor. Grass is the host plant for her caterpillars, particularly Hairy Crabgrass, a common non-native in southern Michigan.

My walk into the deep grass also afforded me a little insect drama taking place on two pink blossoms of native Pasture/Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). A group of Longhorn Flower Beetles (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae) were competing in a frenzy of activity – some were feeding, others appeared to be trying to mate. Most of my photos were blurry because of their frantic jostling which was continuous and involved 5 or 6 individuals. But Dr. Parsons could identify two species in the photo below. The ones on the left and in the middle are generally known as Banded Longhorn Beetles (Typocrus velutinus). The skinny one on the right evidently has no common name, but its scientific name is Strangalia acuminata, which ominously translates from Latin as “pointed stranglers” if the Latin Google translation is correct! I, however, didn’t witness any such nefarious behavior.

These Flower Longhorn Beetles were feeding on the nectar and pollen of Pasture Roses. Note
the long antennae that gave them their name. Some beetles in this family have antennae as long as their bodies!

I could hear a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) singing his “Witchedy witchedy” melody near the big marsh but as usual, he never came into the open. But I did see a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exploring a branch with great curiosity.

Into the Pathless Woods on My Way Home

At the top of the meadow, one of the mowed trails dead-ends at the north edge of a moist woodland. The undergrowth is sparse here. My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim light. I unfailingly find this woods delightfully spooky, full of greenish light, moss, and unidentified scurryings. Two sizable wetlands anchor the area, one covered in glowing green aquatic plants and the other full of fallen trees, both alive with frogs and turtles now.

A bright green forested wetland covered with a layer of watermeal and duckweed.

The “green pond” above is always home to frogs and turtles. What I love is how the sunlight above the water is washed green, as if I’d put a green filter on my camera. It always feel mysterious and quiet, hidden away in the trees. Other years I’ve spotted Leopard frogs here, but on this visit, I only saw small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans). They’re often mistaken for Bullfrogs, but they’re smaller and have two ridges that run down either side of their back from behind their eyes. The “guh-loop,” plucked- banjo-string sound of its calls during the mating season is absent now. A young male posed on a moss covered log sinking slowly into the water. The circle behind his eye vibrates, functioning like an ear drum. If it’s smaller or the same size as her eye (as in the photo below), she’s a female; if it’s larger, he’s a male.

A young female Green Frog pauses on a mossy log. Note the ridge along her back, an important field mark for this frog.

Farther away in the green pond, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) had emerged from the pond onto a fallen log, its shell decorated with bits of duckweed – a common fashion statement for turtles.

A Midland Painted Turtle basks in the dim light over the green, wooded wetland

Nearby, a pure white Shelf Mushroom (genus Polyporus) glowed in the dim light. It’s the reproductive part of a fungus living within the decaying log, doing its work of slowly recycling the carbon within the rotting wood.

A shelf mushroom glowed white in the half-light over the forest wetland.

As I moved toward the second wetland, a movement caught the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. I approached a tree nearby and finally spotted a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly camouflaged against the bark. I don’t often see them this far into the woods.

A Northern Pearly-eye camouflaged on tree bark

The water in the second wetland is more open and fallen logs surround the edges. I find Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in large numbers here in the spring, but on a July day, the amphibious inhabitants were a bit different.

The second wetland has more open water and many fallen trees. One willow lying prostrate in the water keeps putting up fresh greenery each year so it must still be firmly rooted.

As I approached the wetland, something jumped beside my shoe – which made me jump! I thought I might have stepped on a creature. Luckily, I hadn’t. It was a small American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) which froze in place. It may have hatched in this forest pond and is now moving upland to feed. If it survives being bite-size, it’ll be able to breed in a couple of years. I wish I’d been there earlier in the year to hear the fast, vibrating call of a mating toad. Have a listen at this link provided by the Macauley Library which has a fine collection of animal sounds. (Be patient; it takes a few moments of listening to hear the toad!)

This small American Toad may need a couple years of maturation before he can sing and breed.

As I stepped between the muddy logs to reach the pond, a loud spattering of splashes told me I’d scared off a whole passel of small frogs. I waited in the shadows, seeing only concentric circles where they’d hit the water. At last, I spotted one on a log and was pleased to see it was a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), a species I don’t see as often as others, for some reason. It takes about two or three years for a bullfrog to mature enough to breed and I’m guessing this one has at least another year, maybe two, before she’ll arrive at a mating site to choose from a group of chorusing males. Notice that she has just a short ridge near her eye that encompasses her tympanum, not the long ridges that extend down the body of the Green Frog. Her typanum is about the size of her eye; the male’s would be larger than his eye.

A fairly young female Bullfrog who continued staring into the distance as others leapt into the water at my approach. She looks thin and young to me, but I’m no expert on bullfrog appearance.

As I left the forest and emerged into the sunny farm field beyond, I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and watched as a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) took on the job of keeping it far from his nest and young. He repeatedly dropped over the hawk’s back and gave it a quick peck before wheeling away. The hawk stayed in the area and the blackbird kept up his attack as I headed for the parking lot.

A Red-winged Blackbird harassing a Red-tailed Hawk, probably to drive it away from its nest and young.

This July, It Was the Little Things…

The darkest blackberry mysteriously disappeared shortly after this photo was taken…

Usually on a July walk, I’m looking for birds or their rambunctious fledglings. And I do delight in them during the weekly Oakland Township bird walks. But this month, I felt the need to look for even smaller winged beings, curious to see old acquaintances and eager to meet new ones. And luckily, Watershed Ridge Park shared lots of them once I started looking. Oh, a few birds flew or sang in the depths of the hedgerows and beyond the forested trails. But the moist meadows with their wetlands drew me and I waded in to explore the smallest of fluttering wings.

And I’m so glad I did. Getting close to a pastel Geometer moth to discover its feathery antennae, admiring a freshly hatched dragonfly settling after testing out his shiny new wings or grinning at the frantic scrambling of beetles on a pair of pale pink roses – those were the joys of July for me. I hope a taste of that joy reached you, too. Look for the little ones. You won’t be sorry.

Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.