26 December 2010

Life and Death of a Queen - In One Day

Anyone that has followed my blog for awhile knows that we have a TON of Queen butterflies in my yard.  It has a lot to do with all of the milkweed species we have, and our warm Arizona weather.

This has afforded me the opportunity to take great close-ups of Queen caterpillarsQueen pupa, and the butterflies themselves.

One warm December day last weekend I had two great opportunities.  The first was to watch an adult Queen "warm up" as the day progressed.  The latter was the emergence of a new adult from its chrysalis.

The morning started around 40 degrees, and warmed to the mid 70's by afternoon - plenty warm enough to get the Queen moving.  But before that it sat motionless on a low shrub, allowing for some spectacular close-ups.

Queen Butterfly Close-up of Head

I didn't quite get the depth of field I wanted in the head shot above, but it is still a nice close-up.  However, this wing shot below turned out much better - you can see individual scales with great detail.  Be sure to click on it for a full size view.
Queen Butterfly Close-up Of Wings

Now for part two of the story - the chrysalis.

Queen Butterfly in Chrysalis
We'd noticed a couple of chrysalis in early to mid November and had wondered how they'd handle the cold winter.  We had a couple of nights around 24 degrees in Maricopa, and the daytime highs were in the low 60's for quite awhile - not quite warm enough to trigger the metamorphosis. 

But a string of warm weather - lows in the 40s and highs in the 70s, was enough to trigger one successful emergence - which we missed.  A few days later we noticed the second chrysalis was turning dark- a sign the butterfly inside was almost ready.

You can see the butterfly's wings wrapped up tightly inside the chrysalis, with the white spots standing out and some hint of orange.

There is also some indication of its head towards the bottom.

When the sun moved to the point where it was shining directly onto the butterfly, it sprang into action and started working its way out.

Queen Butterfly Emerging From Chrysalis

Queen Butterfly Emerging From Chrysalis

Unfortunately, the sun only shined on it for about 90 minutes before the shade of a nearby house engulfed the butterfly.  Without that energy, it started to slow down and stopped - unable to fully extract itself.

I wasn't sure whether to intervene or let nature takes it course.  I thought that maybe there was a slim chance that the next day, when the sun shined again, it would be able to complete its extraction.

In retrospect, it was silly to think it could survive half extracted.  When I checked it the next day, it was dead and already shriveling up.  I'm not certain why it ultimately failed, but I suspect if it had another hour or two of warm sun it would have made it.

23 December 2010

Inca Doves

During my recent search for the Baikal Teal at Gilbert Water Ranch, I also spent a few minutes looking for the Ruddy Ground-Doves that had been reported recently.  They'd been reported to be mixing with the much more common Inca Doves that can almost always be located with a bit of searching.

While I didn't find the Ruddy Ground-Doves, I did find a group of those Inca Doves, and as usual, they were quite photogenic.

Inca Dove
Inca Doves usually congregate in small groups (4 to 15 seems typical, though I have seen a singular Inca in my neighborhood).  They are much smaller than other common doves (such as Mourning, Eurasian-collared, and White-winged), and have a 'scaled' pattern as is evident in the photo above.

Inca Doves are common in the southern third of the USA west of the Mississippi.  While they are easily identifiable compared to the doves I mentioned above, there are two species of Ground-Doves that may present an identification challenge.  The Inca's range overlaps with the similar Common Ground-Dove, which can most easily be distinguished from Inca Doves by the dark spots on its scapulars.

You may be wondering about the Ruddy Ground-Dove I mentioned above.  It is quite similar to the Common Ground-Dove, but is rare in the USA, generally only seen in the desert southwest.  It has an unpatterned breast, distinguishing it from the Common Ground-Dove.

19 December 2010

More Praying Mantis

OK, I know it has only been a little over a month since my last Mantis post, but I thought that this Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria) posed in my front yard so nicely for me that I should return the favor and post it on the web.

What is unique about this mantis is how brown it is. Most of the other Mediterranean's I've seen are various shades of green. The kind folks at identified this as a female.

While this photo is not as captivating as some of those from my previous Mantis post, it is a nice view of the full body all generally in focus. Additionally, you can see that it is a 'back of the head' shot. Those famous compound eyes give an impression of pupils (called pseudopupils) looking back at me.

Be sure to click the photo for the full-sized image.

16 December 2010

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), like many herons, are very fun to observe. They are large and easy to see, roost in colonies, and can be observed at water's edge foraging for fish, frogs, and insects.

Black-crowned Night-heron
Male Black-crowned Night-heron getting ready to roost for the day
Night-herons are so-named because they often forage at night, though they are sometimes active at dawn and dusk.

In the Phoenix area, the best spot to find Black-crowned Night-herons is the Gilbert WAter Ranch and Riparian Preserve, where 10-15 or more form a colony.
Black-crowned Night-heron
Male Black-crowned Night-heron

Black-crowned Night-herons are generally easy to distinguish from other Herons.  First, the males coloration is quite unique.  They are also generally stockier than other herons.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron
Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron with yellowish tinge to the bill
In some locations their range overlaps with the Yellow-crowned Night-heron, and in those locations the juveniles can be difficult to distinguish, with bill color being the best field mark.  Ironically, the Black-crowned juveniles have yellowish bills, and the Yellow-crowned juveniles have dark blackish/gray bills.

Yellow-crowned juveniles are also a bit darker, but that can be hard to judge without having them side-by-side for comparison.

From a photographic perspective, these herons are great subjects, however their red eyes often look 'empty' with no sign of the pupils.  Probably some sort of red-eye effect like in humans, but since their eyes are already red, the pupils just wash out with the rest of the eye.

12 December 2010

Bird Grasshoppers

I'm catching up on identifying creatures in some of my older photos, and came across this stunning grasshopper:
Bird Grasshopper

Its coloration made me think it was a nymph, but its size had me wondering whether it was some sort of lime-green adult I had not seen before.  Of course, I turned to, and it seems those assumptions were correct on both counts.  The experts there identified it as a nearly mature nymph, a female Schistocerca of some sort.

Schistocerca species are collectively known as 'bird grasshoppers', apparently due to their size.  The likely species here is Schistocerca shoshone, though as is the case with many insects, it is not known with certainty.

Be sure to check out the eyes and antenna on the full sized image.  The eyes look like caraway seeds seen in sausage.

Anyway, the photo above was taken in June 2009, and it makes me wish it were summer already.  But I really can't complain - here in the low desert insect activity only slows a bit in winter, and bird activity stays exciting with lots of vagrant over-wintering species.   As an example, last weekend I spotted 4 butterfly species in my front yard, and the rare Baikal Teal up in Gilbert.  Not bad for December!

09 December 2010

Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth...In Arizona!

Moths can be fascinating creatures, but are often casually dismissed by observers as nighttime nuisances (or garden invaders when their caterpillars are considered). Some moths have striking colors or interesting patterns, such as the Io Moth and some can even mimic hummingbirds, such as the White-lined Sphinx Moth.

This moth is relatively drab by comparison - the Hawaiian Beet Webworm.
Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth

The Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth can be found through much of North America, from Ontario to Florida, and even here in Arizona.  They cannot overwinter in the northern areas of the region, so only expect to see them late in the season after they've had time to migrate northward.

In fact, this moth can be found in many warmer areas of the world, including Hawaii.

The caterpillars can be considered pests of some leafy green crops, like spinach.  Though I've had trouble determining what host plants exist near my yard that it would be enjoying.  Perhaps a neighbor's garden?

05 December 2010

Watch Your Back - Assassin Bugs Are Everywhere!

Assassin bugs are yet another fascinating insect that inhabits most of the planet (over 3000 species, in fact!).  They are considered beneficial insects because they typically leave humans alone and often prey on bugs that we find objectionable, such as aphids.

This Assassin Bug for the genus Zelus, identified by its red eyes, was doing just that - feeding on a copious amount of aphids in my Pink Mulhy grass.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species

Measuring about an inch, these insects often go unnoticed.  The key identifying feature of the Assassin is the proboscis, the special mouth part that curls under it in the photo above.  This mouth part can be used to impale prey and inject a toxic saliva. The bug is further empowered by its sticky forelegs.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species
Assassin bugs are known to stalk their prey, and even mimic the sounds of other insects.  One of their most interesting behavior is lightly plucking spider webs, hoping to draw the spider out thinking that it has caught something in its web.

The photo below is of the same species on a Blackfoot Daisy from about a month ago. 

Read more about Assassin Bugs at livescience.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species

04 December 2010

Rare Baikal Teal in Arizona

On December 2, Gary Nunn located a male Baikal Teal at the Gilbert Water Ranch and Riparian Preserve in the metro Phoenix area - Gilbert, AZ. This news was quickly reported to many of the birding email lists and rare bird alerts, and birders from across the region have converged at GWR to catch a glimpse.

I saw the Baikal Teal this morning on Pond 6, along with a group of probably 20 - 30 other birders.

Baikal Teal

The Baikal Teal breeds in Siberia and winters in Korea, Japan, and eastern China.  The bird is occasionally seen in Alaska, and a handful of records exist from British Columbia south to northern California.  Inland records have usually been dismissed as escaped captive birds.

Captive birds are supposed to be banded and have their hallaxes (hind toes) clipped.  Photos of this bird by others have shown no banding or clipping.  This does not confirm this to be a wild bird, but it helps add to the possibility that it is.

The Baikal Teal was once quite common in Asia, but suffered huge population declines in the mid 1900's.  It was thought to have been reduced from millions to 40,000.  However, it has been enjoying a steady and rapid rebound, with an estimated population of 500,000.  Along with that, it was reported that for the first time ever in 2009, two Baikal Teals were reported in Washington, perhaps adding more ammunition to the theory that this species recovery is leading to more vagrants in the USA.

It will be interesting to see if this record is accepted or not.  Based on past actions,  many believe the record will not be accepted, despite no evidence that the bird is an escapee.  Oftentimes in situations like these, it takes a second sighting in another year to prove a pattern, at which time the original record is retroactively accepted.

Baikal Teal
Regardless of whether this record is accepted, just take the time to enjoy it while it stays.   If you are looking for it, like other teals it is a dabbling forager, so it will often have its head submerged making it difficult to identify.  While I observed it, despite there being 200+ Green-winged Teals at the GWR, this bird didn't really care or congregate with them.  I heard another comment the same on Friday.  It seemed to be a bit of a loaner, or perhaps more accurately a 'free spirit', only loosely associating with other ducks.  It would stay put while other groups of teals would swim pasts.  While I observed it, it actually remained fairly close to a loose group of Northern Pintails.

Also, be sure to check out the Arizona Field Ornothologist site for many better photos and an interesting discussion of this bird.

02 December 2010

White Checkered-Skipper

When I go hiking or visit natural areas, I've never really actively sought out butterflies like I have birds. I don't keep a "life list" like I do with birds, and I don't spend the same amount of time studying field marks or determining the proper micro-habitats.

That said, I never pass up a butterfly, especially when I have my camera.  In early November I happened to spot a white skipper in my front yard, snapped a few photos, and lo and behold, it is was a White Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus albscens), my 50th butterfly species photographed. 

This is actually a quite common butterfly across the desert southwest USA. However, there is a slight chance that it is a Common Checked-Skipper (Pyrgus communis).

These small skippers are easily overlooked, and can be difficult to identify.  The Common lives in most of the USA and is, in fact, common.  The White, as I saw, looks identical to the Common, and can only be separated through dissection.  But it is believed that the White is the only species in the low desert, so given my location I am assuming it was the White Checked-Skipper.