One little dragonfly

Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata)

I thought I would post a quick photo of a dragonfly that I took today while out on break. This species is widespread throughout much of North America, some portions of the population migrate south for the winter and head north again to breed in the spring.

Here’s a few extra pictures I took the next day with a few more details.

Black Saddlebag

Saddlebag- some photoshopping


Mystery of the Marine Mammal

Humpback Whale- dorsal fin

This week I went on a whale watch with a friend in celebration of her 30th year on this planet.  What better way to celebrate than to go out and enjoy what the planet has to offer.  A beautiful day on the ocean with calm water and the chance to see some of the largest animals in the world.  Our naturalist for the day had almost promised us to see whales even if our trip would take a little longer than usual.  We set off from Gloucester, MA and headed out into the Gulf of Maine in search of up to five species of whales.  Once we reached the area where whales had been seen that day, it didn’t take long before we spotted our first… and second.  Almost simultaneously a mother and calf surfaced for a breath.

Humpback Whales- surfacing Mom and baby

Humpback whales spend their summers in the cold New England waters eating lots of fish, according to our naturalist they consume about 1 million calories a day.  In the fall they migrate to the breeding and nesting grounds in the Caribbean.  While down south they don’t feed so by the time they swim back to our area they are pretty hungry!

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are identified by the patterning on the ventral side of their fluke… aka. the bottom of their tail.  Our naturalist informed us that they are catalogued, kind of like a museum specimen but they are also given a name that is not gender specific and has something to do with their tail pattern. 

Humpback whale

Humpback whale

Humpback whale

Humpback whales get large colonies of barnacles growing on their bodies while feeding in the cool New England waters.  The barnacles can’t survive in the warm waters where the whales spend the winter and die off.  The barnacles can weigh as much as 2000 pounds on a single whale and some evidence now suggests that the whales are irritated by their presence.  Coronula diadema is the species of barnacle that is found on humpback whales.

barnacles on a humpback whale

We did have a chance to see brief glimpses of one other species of whale, the Minke Whale.  Minke whales are quite common however they spend so little time at the surface that it’s difficult to get good looks.  We saw two of these whales with only a few seconds to view either.  Minke whales kind of look like a large dolphin and suface only for a quick breath before heading back down to continue feeding.  The shape of the dorsal fin on this whale and it’s size are an easy way to identify it. 

Minke Whale

Minke Whale- notice the dorsal fin shape

All in all it was a great trip.  In total we saw about 10 humpback whales and 2 minke whales during the whole trip.  Instead of the 3.5 to 4 hours it was advertised as, we spent about 6 hours on the water but got to see our whales!  I did also do some birding…. you can check those out here

Sunset on our way back into Gloucester

Dog Days of Cicadas

Dog Day Cicada- adult

For the last month a cacophony of buzzing has sounded in my yard, the parking lot at work, and almost anywhere there’s a tree and some open ground. It’s that time of year when the cicadas start calling for their mates to complete the cycle of life. For those who might not know what I’m talking about, have you ever gone outside in July and August and heard what sounds like electricity buzzing loudly, very loudly, in the air? The dog day cicada creates that noise by vibrating membranes on its abdomen.

Cicada 'skin' from a nymph after the adult has emerged

The dog day cicada (Tibicen sp.) in not as famous as it’s cousin the 17-year cicada (also called a locust even though it’s not, a locust is a type of grasshopper). The dog day cicadas emerge every year (they actually have a 2-5 year life cycle) and adults can live for up to 2 months. Here’s how it works: adults emerge, males buzz, females come on over and they mate; the females then lay eggs in the twigs and a few weeks later little nymphs hatch out and drop to the ground; the nymphs then live underground for a few years feeding on sap from tree roots before emerging out of the ground, crawling up a tree and molting into an adult.

Cicada- close-up of nymphal 'skin' (aka. exuvia)

The thing that surprised me the most as I’ve been watching the cicadas this year is how agile they are in flight. One would expect that an insect that big and bulky to barely be able to get off the ground, yet the few I’ve scared out of trees do just the opposite. Once they are startled they zip right off, avoiding leaves and tree limbs to find another safe resting spot.

Sources I used for information:

D-n-D without the Caffeine

Female: Pachydiplax longipennis - Blue Dasher

Being stuck inside all day mostly without even windows to gaze longingly, I force myself at lunch to take a quick walk around the building. Up until a couple of months ago I would have had binoculars in hand at all times and gone walking farther in search of more birds. Luckily, I’ve been slowing down and finding that an assortment of creatures call this place home. Today, while I was already out with only a cell phone in hand, I decided to try taking a couple of pictures of the dragonflies and damselflies that are migrating through right now. Not the greatest pictures I’ve ever taken but not to shabby for a cell phone.

Ischnura verticalis - Eastern Forktail

Interesting thing about the Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies)… they are aquatic as juveniles. Most of the group lay eggs in stagnant (read pond) water on submerged vegetation or dropped in while skimming by. The little larvae hatch out and spend the fall and winter tucked into the leafy gunk on the bottom catching and eating other insects. When the water warms up the immature dragonflies crawl out of the water on some nearby plant and molt into adult dragonflies.

Perithemis tenera - Eastern Amberwing

Ever wonder about their legs? Well, if you haven’t, take a look at the pictures, they aren’t quite set-up like other insect legs. Dragonfly legs are all oriented to form a basket, that allows these predators to fly around and catch smaller insects into the leg basket for their next meal. Don’t worry, there will be better pictures and more information to come in another post some day! I am definitely not an expert on this group so please let me know if I made a bad identification.

Stuff this!

No literally, Go ahead and stuff this! In general I don’t encourage anyone to go out and pick wild mushrooms, maybe it’s my typical New England upbringing that has shied me away from eating wild mushrooms. The one thing that I have learned from the years I’ve spent learning about and admiring mushrooms is that a lot less of them are poisonous than you think, and a lot more just don’t taste good. The other even more important thing is that the ones that are poisonous don’t just make you sick, they realllllllly make you sick or dead.

Agaricus campestris

So now that I have officially done my scare tactics, I’ll go ahead and say how excited I was yesterday while out walking around in the lawn to come across these medium-sized mushrooms. They are in the same genus (Agaricus)as those you commonly buy in the grocery store, the good old button mushroom. This group is relatively easy to identify with gills, fairly widely spaced, and turning brown with age, which also equates to brown spores in this mushrooms case. Spore color is a major identification tool when ID’ing a mushroom.

gill close-up

Did I really pick it and eat it.. Nope, I didn’t feel like cooking last night but I hope the baby that you see in the top picture has gotten bigger because I will tonight!

Pollinate this!

Green Bottle Fly

I could go in depth right now about what pollination is and how it helps the world but I honestly will save that for another day.  Maybe some cold miserable winter day when things are quiet outside and I have a few second to draw some stick figure drawings for illustrative purposes.  Now, it’s the middle of summer and the woods and fields are buzzing with activity. (Pun intended).  The last blog I posted some wildflower pictures and promised to get some images of pollinators.  I faithfully went out at lunch the other day with that objective and failed.


Two things slowed me down, one was the lawn mowers that have taken out two of the flowers that I had posted about last, the Hawksweed and the Trefoil.  The other thing that made getting any pictures was just a lack of activity where I was, I think I needed more sunshine.  Finally, I was also in a bit of a hurry so I would approach a plant and zooooom, there went the insects. 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Instead I got some pictures of other pollinators just to illustrate the diversity of insects that are attracted to flowers (wild and otherwise).  The one I was really trying to get a picture of was of the wasps that sit on the Queen Anne’s Lace flowers.  They are what I would call an accidental pollinator.  The wasp is really visiting the flower to find a caterpillar or other insect for a snack or to lay eggs in and will accidentally pick up pollen from one flower and bring it to the next. 

Carpenter Bee

What you can see from the pictures is that a lot of different insects visit flowers.  Some very large and showy butterflies will come to flowers to nectar.  The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is feeding at a small patch of Knapweed that the lawn mower missed.  There is a green bottle fly (Callophoridae) visiting another small purple flower that I haven’t identified yet.  This family of fly is the same that visit corpses and lay their eggs on them for the larvae to feed on as the bodies decompose.  The bee is a Carpenter Bee, Xylocopinae, who tunnels into wood to lay their eggs.   The last image (below) is of a Sphinx moth specifically a hummingbird clearwing moth.  This moth is unlike most other moths being diurnal (active during the day) and nectars on flowers in a similar manner to hummingbirds.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Weeds or Flowers?

Brown Knapweed (probably sp.) - native to Europe

Being the buggy person that I am, I have a hard time calling anything with an inflorescence a weed. If it’s got a flower on it that attracts or is beneficial to insects, there is a good chance it’s staying in my garden. In addition, I have a soft spot for flowers, I think they are beautiful and I’m one to appreciate all the forms that flowers can take on.

Hawkweed (unknown species)- native to Europe

I took a quick walk around campus the other day at lunch, cell phone in hand to document some of the ‘weeds’ that we have been trying to encourage the grounds crew to leave be. And it’s been working! Each little patch of open space seems to sprout a diversity of plants. Some even survive the best they can when being mowed down weekly. Notice that all of the species depicted here are native to Europe. I guess I’ll have to try harder for native species.

Queen Anne's Lace- native to Europe

The amazing thing about flowers is that you can look at them and make a guess as to what the pollinator is. The way the flowers themselves are formed gives a hint as to what type of insect will pollinate it and then the flower can make seeds to grow even more flowers next year. Keep an eye on the shape of the petals, color of the flowers, and if you go out on your own, the smell.

Birdfoot Trefoil- native to Europe

Make a guess as to who you think will pollinate the flowers in this blog. I’m going to try to get out later this week and spend some time taking pictures of the pollinators as an answer key! And remember, they’re only weeds if you don’t want them.

Selfheal- native to Europe

If you want some more information on the wildflowers of Connecticut and can’t afford to go out and buy a field guide.  The website for the Connecticut Botanical Society is a great resource for wildflower infromation and identification.  In addition they have information on gardening with native plants!!