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20-31 May 2015

Installment #621---Visitor #AmazingCounters.com

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We don't cut much grass at Hilton Pond Center--we decided long ago that managing an 11-acre lawn would be environmentally irresponsible and a huge waste of time--so we run the riding mower only when we groom our walking trails or maintain minimal open space around the old farmhouse. We're laissez-fair with our tiny front yard each spring, preferring to see what plants might pop up beneath the spreading oaks. Years ago before the canopy filled in we'd get a plethora of sun-loving flowers, but this year we're down to a little White Clover, Dandelions, Oxalis, and a half-dozen four-foot-tall Daisy Fleabanes--a native species that we believe is too often taken for granted or ignored.

North America hosts several species of this white and yellow member of the Composite Family (Asteraceae); apparently the only one growing around Hilton Pond is Eastern Daisy Fleabane, Erigeron annuus (above), found in 43 of 48 contiguous states and in southern Canada. It's distinguishable from its congeners by lots of leaves that are coarsely toothed, especially the basal ones. An annual--sometimes biennial--it gets its name from the belief its foliage could repel fleas . . . and from its resemblance to Ox-eye Daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, introduced from the Old World. As shown by the photo above right, fleabane flower heads are only half the diameter of the one-inch daisy, giving a sense of scale we hope you'll keep in mind as you view our photos below--taken this week on "A Day in the Life of Daisy Fleabane."

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Like other composites, Daisy Fleabane is made of two kinds of flowers: 1) an outer ring of typically showy but sterile ray flowers (mistakenly called petals) that attract the attention of potential pollinators; and, 2) a central concentration of fertile disk flowers that offer nectar and produce seeds when fertilized. In the case of Daisy Fleabane, one might expect pollinators be on the small size, and that was certainly the case this week at Hilton Pond. In fact, the biggest pollinating insect we observed measured only three-eighths of an inch stem to stern--a very long-legged fly (above, unidentified but likely in the Dolichopodidae), that probed fleabane disk flowers with a proboscis nearly as long as its walking appendages. Even though people often think non-native Honeybees are the only pollinators that matter, vast varieties of native bees, flies, wasps, and other insects are of equal or greater importance--especially since some native plants have coevolved with specific pollinating agents.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

One pollinator we could identify at least to family was one of the Hoverflies (above), which entomologists prefer to call Flower Flies because of their active pole in the pollination process. These insects are in the Syrphidae, a family that includes more than 6,000 species--quite a few like the harmless one above that avoid predation by mimicking dangerous stinging insects such as bees and wasps. We still like the name Hoverfly because they really do just that, flapping their wings rapidly and maintaining a stable position for extended periods. (Beatriz Moisset wrote to say the Hoverfly in our photo above is a species of Toxomerus, a rather large syrphid genus.)

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

During our day of watching front-yard Daisy Fleabanes at Hilton Pond, we discovered each multi-flowered plant was a little ecosystem, complete with its own complement of critters. Most organisms were NOT pollinators like the two flies above; some were other arthropods dining in some way or fashion on fleabane flowers, pollen, or foliage. In one case we never actually saw the foliovore but deduced its presence from brownish lines on an otherwise green two-inch-long fleabane leaf (above). These were tell-tale feeding tracks left by larvae of one of the Agromyzidae--the family for Leaf-miner Flies that have wing lengths as small as one-sixteenth of an inch. After being deposit on the fleabane leaf, the egg hatches and the grub begins eating its way through the juicy inner leaf mesophyll, avoiding less nutritious upper and lower epidermis layers that contain harder cellulose. In the photo above, the larva appears to have hatched near the tip of the leaf and moved toward the base, eating out a tunnel of ever-increasing diameter as its own size increased. (NOTE: Leaf mining behavior also occurs among larva of various moths, beetles, and sawflies, some of which leave distinctive, diagnostic trails.)

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although larvae of Leaf-Miner Flies are barely macroscopic, much larger insects also like to chow down on Daisy Fleabane's succulent parts. We found an inch-long example (above) at the Center that we're calling an immature male Slender Meadow Katydid, Conocephalus fasciatus. (CAVEAT: Many species of meadow katydids are quite similar in appearance; we went with our identification because of the specimen's green face and very long wings. If you have a better I.D. for this or any unidentified organism on this page, please send it to INFO.) Many observers would call this critter a locust but it's actually in the Tettigoniidea, an infraorder that includes so-called "long-horned grasshoppers" such as katydids and camel crickets with antennae longer than their bodies. Slender Meadow Katydid feeds on leaves, flowers, pollen, and seeds of grasses and forbs, occasionally preying on other smaller insects. (By the way, that dark spot on the katydid's front "knee" is its ear, attuned to stridulating calls of other males of his species.)

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

On a stem of another Daisy Fleabane we found a small brown object (above) about three-eighths of an inch long. It was tightly plastered to the stem, so at first we wondered if it might be an egg mass. However, when we looked closer the two antennae-like structures on the left end gave us another thought: Some sort of mini-caterpillar.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

As we zoomed in with the macro lens to photograph the object, we noticed what appeared to be an obscure brown eyespot on the right end, suggesting that the terminus with the two appendages was the posterior. We clicked away with our camera and watched with interest as an unidentified green aphid (above right) strolled stiffly into view.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In a flash the brown thing grabbed the aphid with what seemed like an awfully big mouth and wrestled mightily as it tried to swallow its struggling prey--a small-scale tableau every bit as violent and natural as a pride of African Lions bringing down a Wildebeest. It was then we knew the brown object was undoubtedly the larva of one of those Hoverflies (Flower Flies) mentioned above. (NOTE: It may be the larva wasn't actually swallowing the aphid but puncturing it and ingesting its bodily fluids.) In any case, such insects should be best friends to any gardener because their larvae eat aphids while adults pollinate flowers. Protecting such beneficial insects that provide biological controls is yet another reason NOT to use broad-spectrum insecticides in your home garden.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Despite the ravenous work of Hoverfly larvae, we found dozens of aphids--including numerous unidentified brown ones (above) clustered on fleabane sepals. Although these little insects were scarcely the size of a pinhead, if they were using their piercing mouth-parts to suck sap as most aphids do then their sheer numbers were bound to have some impact on their host.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

On several of the Center's Daisy Fleabanes these brown aphids were in flower centers rather than on sepals or stems. Out of curiosity we snipped one of these flowers and brought it indoors where wind-induced movement didn't complicate our photography. On the banding desk we set up a tabletop tripod, a light, and a powerful Canon 1x-5x macro zoom lens for closer examination. As suspected, high magnification revealed this unperturbed aphid (above) had its proboscis inside a fleabane flower from which it appeared to be taking nectar. At the same time its tiny exoskeleton was festooned with even tinier grains of pollen, leading us to believe these otherwise-destructive aphids may serve equally well as Daisy Fleabane pollinators. Incidentally, notice the two posterior appendages on this aphid; these are siphunculi, from which pheromones are emitted. Among other things, entomologists believe such species-specific chemicals alert other aphids to the presence of predators or parasitoids. (NOTE: After we posted this installment, reader Dean Morewood wrote to suggest the brown aphids were actually dead aphid "shells" occupied by parasitoid wasp larvae.)

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We were serious when we said there were herds of Daisy Fleabane aphids at Hilton Pond Center. As evidence we offer the photo above, with all those aphid legs hanging over the edges of the white ray flowers. There's another aphid at the bottom rim of the disk flowers, but it seems in the process of having all its innards sucked out by a big black unidentified True Bug above it. This typical True Bug (Hemiptera) does indeed have a stylus-like sucking mouth structure--plus a partly membranous forewing and a triangular scutellum at the center of its back. Chalk up another tally for predators in the Daisy Fleabane predator-prey competition.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although our Daisy Fleabane patch provided ample evidence that Hoverfly larvae and some True Bugs munch regularly on aphids, marquee predators that get all the publicity for controlling aphid populations are larvae of Ladybird Beetles. Sure enough, when we examined several fleabane stems we encountered several quarter-inch prickly bodied ladybug larvae. Interestingly, however, these were not immature forms of native ladybugs but those of the Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis, intentionally imported because of their nearly insatiable aphid- and scale- eating diet. (Unfortunately, they also eat the larva of native ladybugs.) Despite serving as a valuable biological control, this ladybug species has few North American predators, so it shouldn't be a surprise that each fall they congregate in homes and other human structures--sometimes in annoyingly large, odoriferous masses.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The ladybug nymph was interesting, but an even more brilliantly colored immature organism was on another fleabane plant; this time it was a red and black Wheel Bug nymph, Arilus cristatus, of the Reduviidae. This half-inch-long insect (above) is an example of aposematism--when bright hues warn potential predators that attacking this prey item will result in unpleasant consequences. In this case the immature Wheel Bug sends a clear message: 1) I secrete a chemical that is quite noxious; and, 2) I am equipped with a very sharp and disproportionately large mouthpart capable of inflicting a painful bite. After avoiding the palates of some bird or insect, the Wheel Bug nymph uses its sharp stylus in predatory fashion, stabbing and sucking life fluids from caterpillars and other small arthropods. Facilitating this behavior is the Wheel Bug's toxic saliva that paralyzes and kills its prey in 15-30 seconds. Moral of this story: Don't handle nymphal or adult Wheel Bugs, but welcome both as biological controls. (NOTE: Wheel Bugs are reportedly one those few predators that eat "hairy" caterpillars of moths that damage agricultural crops--yet another example of effective biological control.)

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Within Hilton Pond Center's Daisy Fleabane patch, Wheel Bug nymphs were not the only predators armed with toxins. In fact, we found three different kinds of spiders lying in wait for unsuspecting prey. (NOTE: All spiders are venomous, but not all are able to bite or harm humans.) The first of these eight-leggers was a metallic-looking, female Orchard Spider, Leucauge venusta (above), that hung horizontally under a slender silken strand between two fleabane stems. This species has a body (excluding legs) about a quarter inch long; colors and patterns are highly variable. In our individual the green hemolymph--arthropod blood--is visible in the proximal leg sections. Orchard Spiders are classified in Tetragnathidae (Long-jawed Spider Family) and have a wide distribution from Canada to northern South America.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Another chunkier arthropod was laying low on a neighboring Daisy Fleabane plant--this time a female Cross Spider, Araneus diadematus (above), with a body barely one-eighth of an inch long. Although the Orchard Spider described previously spins a circular web, the Cross Spider is a true orb-weaver in the Araneidae. Also called Diadem Spider or Crowned Orb-weaver, we prefer "Cross Spider" because of the light-colored cross-shaped marking on the spider's abdomen. The individual in our photo was obviously a good web-spinner and successful predator, as shown by several eviscerated mummies--the last remains from past prey.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our third spider was from our favorite arachnid family, the Thomisidae, also known as Flower Crab Spiders. We didn't have a precise identification for this specimen--undoubtedly a species of Misumena or Misumenoides--but her behavior and general morphology left no doubt about what family she was in. Called Crab Spiders in part because they scoot sideways and backwards, these predators hold their long front legs in crab-like posture, just waiting for some unsuspecting prey item to happen along. When the prey ventures with reach, the Crab Spider grabs with its front legs and almost instantly brings the future meal in close. The spider bites and injects paralytic venom that also helps digest the prey's internal tissues and fluids--making it all the easier to suck up supper.

Pollinators and foliovores, nectar eaters and sap suckers, predators and prey. We hope you are as fascinated as we were by the diversity and complexity of nature on a half-dozen seemingly simple Daisy Fleabanes at Hilton Pond Center. Such tableaus occur every day and everywhere in nature, of course, but we humans are often too busy or too distracted by other things to smell the roses or look closely at Daisy Fleabane. Just think what drama and intrigue we're missing!

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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20-31 May 2015

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--19

Carolina Chickadee--3
House Finch--23

* = new banded species for 2015

3 species
45 individuals

35 species (34-yr. avg. = 65.4)

1,864 individuals
(34-yr. avg. =
55 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (32-yr. avg = 159.6)

(Banding began 28 June 1982; since then 171 species have been observed on or over the property.)
126 species
62,750 individuals
5,109 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (21)
07/25/11--after 5th year female
08/24/11--5th year female

08/13/12--4th year female
07/14/13--3rd year male
08/04/13--after 3rd year male
04/17/14--after 2nd year female
06/17/14--after 2nd year female
07/05/14--after 2nd year male
07/13/14--after 2nd year female
07/15/14--after 2nd year female
07/24/14--2nd year female
07/26/14--2nd year female
07/29/14--2nd year female
08/03/14--2nd year female
08/06/14--2nd year female
08/13/14--2nd year female
08/14/14--after 2nd year female
08/19/14--2nd year male
08/26/14--after 2nd year female
09/06/14--2nd year male
09/07/14--2nd year female

House Finch (2)
03/09/13--after 3rd year male
05/31/14--2nd year male

Eastern Tufted Titmouse (2)
12/25/13--after 2nd year male
08/16/14--2nd year male

--Arthroscopic surgery on the resident bander's left knee on 15 May slowed things a lot the latter half of the month, with no mist nets being run at Hilton Pond Center. All birds banded and recaptured during the period (see lists at left) were caught in easily accessible traps close to the old farmhouse. (Alas, full knee replacement surgery is scheduled for 30 Jun.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

--Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta, are out and about in the Carolina Piedmont and that can mean only two things: Wandering females are looking for places to lay their eggs, and free-roaming males are looking for females to fertilize. We rescued a male (above) from certain death on the macadam in front of the Center, returning him to our impoundment whence he undoubtedly came.

--After a month-long hiatus, Ruby-throated Hummingbird activity cranked up again toward the end of May at the Center. Historically, there's been a lull after the first migrants arrive late March through mid-April, followed by what we believe is a "second wave." As evidence, this year we banded 36 RTHU through 20 Apr, none from 21 Apr through 24 May, and then 19 more 25-31 May--and that's not counting the 21 returns from previous years that seemed to appear suddenly the final week of the month.

--Those 21 returning Ruby-throated Hummingbirds included two old females banded in 2011, but more unusual were the returns of two RTHU banded in Sep 2014 close to the end of the banding season. Late-banded birds such as these have seldomed returned to Hilton Pond. It's possible many of them are late-hatch birds that simply didn't have enough time to develop fully enough to survive an arduous fall migration.

--The Center was also besieged this week by fledgling House Finches that followed their parents from nest to feeder traps. In all, we caught 23 HOFI (three adult males, two adult females with brood patches, and 18 immatures).

--This year's Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to dramatically outpace any previous season since 1984 when we started monitoring this species at the Center. Through the end of May we had banded 53 RTHU; the earliest we've ever reached that number was 14 Jul last year--six weeks later than in 2015!

--As of 31 May Hilton Pond's 2015 Yard List stands at 61--about 36% of the 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. We had one new yard bird during the period: Great Blue Heron.

--The immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" was a portfolio of spring birds banded in late Apr and early May--some migrant, some resident. The write-up is archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #620.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.