Monday, November 9, 2009

September Bows Out

Things have been so busy that I have scarcely noticed time flying by - yet I suddenly realised that we're getting well into November now and yet I haven't signed off September on the blog!! Well the very end of September did eventually begin to produce some great birding again, after an atypical lull in activity. The lull though, did give me an opportunity to spend time with Dick Walton, who comes down for three weeks for the Monarch research program. Dick and I first met last year over a mutual interest in insects; Dick was on the boardwalk at Cape May Point State Park, videoing the weirdest of flies. Now, I don't usually do flies; that whole family strikes me as a bunch of nasties, hell-bent on putting a crimp in your day. Think about it, mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies, clegs, bot-flies - they all have it in for us and many species spread some pretty nasty infections! However there are a few intriguing flies (most notably the hover flies) which are worth more than a passing glimpse and Dick had found one!

Trichopoda pennipes, a tachinid fly that parasitises the nymphs of hemipteran bugs. This unusual-looking fly with those wacky black combs on its back legs was the reason for my first meeting with Dick Walton

Dick has one passion for insects that I share with him, and that's the parasitic hymenopterans. A mouthful I know, but essentially that's wasps and bees - but in particular the parasitic ones. Now these may sound as nasty as the flies I was just talking about, but, on a purely selfish angle, these beasties are better for us because they tend to attack other insects rather than people - and some have some really bizarre lifestyles!!

Returning to Mr Walton for one moment, Dick's real influence on me has been his passion for jumping spiders, which has inspired me to give them more attention next year. Dick and I spent some time in the sandy areas around the old Magnasite plant, ideal habitat for both spiders and hymenopterans and we also gave the woodwork around the State Park a careful scrutiny (jumping spiders love wooden buildings and boardwalks to lurk around). So here's some pictures of some of our finds.

Stable Flies Stomoxys calcitrans look like innocent House Flies - until you feel one stick a needle in your leg!

This should convince anyone that I'm right about flies!! The awesome Black Horse Fly Tabanus atratus - over an inch long and equal to the length of two of my fingers. I dread to think what punch it delivers!

OK, a reprieve for flies - here's a nice one. This picture-winged fly is Delphinia picta. Several of these guys took up territories along the hand rail of our deck and entertained us with frequent skirmishes with each other, involving much wing-waving and posturing.

In contrast to the flies, parasitic hymenopterans look scary but are - in general - harmless, so long as you don't go pestering them! This is one of the mason wasps, Monobia quadridens which preys on cutworms and often occupies the abandoned cells of mud-dauber wasps.

Now that's what I call a wasp!! This awesome, two-inch long beast is a Cicada-killer Sphecius speciosus and is one of the largest wasps in the whole of North America. I found a colony of these in the dunes at Cape May Point and a number of them were hunting from the dune cross-over handrail. These beasties are phenomenal; they actively hunt cicadas during the day, watching from an open vantage point for prey and zooming up to bring down a cicada in mid-flight. Notice the heavy wear to the wings which is probably caused during the battles that ensue!

OK, so I saved the ultimate New Jersey hymenopteran until last!! This fabulous female was so remarkable that Dick and I dutifully referred to her as 'Her Majesty'. This is a velvet ant which, despite the name, is actually a wingless wasp (though the males are actually winged). This is Dasymutilla occidentalis, a species commonly known as a Cow-killer. Why? Well, rumour has it that a sting from this insect can kill a cow. I don't know about that, but apparently, being stung by one can feel like being shot! Not only does it have a formidable sting, but it has an outstanding set of jaws too!! These one-inch long wasps roam rapidly across open, sandy areas, searching for bumblebee nests, where their parasitic larvae feed.

A bumblebee forms the link with the previous picture; occasionally you may notice an insect seemingly hanging a bit oddly beside a flower. Closer inspection will often reveal a spider as the culprit. This yellow Misumenoides formosipes is a common species of Crab Spider in New Jersey. Crab Spiders hang out around flowers, from where they ambush insects coming to take nectar or pollen. This species often comes in a smart banana yellow and this one blends perfectly with the Partridge-pea flower it is sitting on. White crab spiders often hunt from umbellifer flowers. Individual spiders are capable of gradually changing colour over a couple of days to better match their surroundings and are often found in shades of yellow, white or pink.

One of North America's more impressive spiders, this is a species of Burrowing Wolf Spider. These spiders dig vertical burrows in sandy soil, the entrances to which are easily identified by the little palisade of silk and debris that surrounds them. Dick and I found this one wandering through the sand so it may well have been a male in search of a mate.

We didn't positively identify this chap to species, but he was a really feisty jumping spider. While I was trying to get photos, he lept on a passing cricket nymph. While I watched, the cricket summoned up all of its strength and jumped a good four inches vertically into the air. This tenacious jumping spider just hung on and went for a ride - and still got his lunch!

Phiddipus audax is one of the jewel-like jumping spiders. The markings are very variable in this species and can be any number of shades of silver, gold or copper. The one thing they all have in common is their shinyness and it may be that this mimics the colours which often reflect off the membranous wings of flies. Thus, this species could appear as a harmless fly to potential prey - until it is too late!

Dick was pleased to find several individuals of this tiny jumping spider, Habronattus agilis, hanging out on the local prickly pears. Males of this attractive spider make a strigilating sound with their abdomens, a bit like cicadas or crickets (though barely audible to the human ear).

Platycryptus undatus is a very common species that is easily found on wooden structures during the summer. This female was hunting on the outside wall of the museum at Cape May Point State Park. I tempted her out and she seemed to be fascinated by something - perhaps her own reflection in the camera lens, look how she homes in on me below!

A face only a mother could love?

The highlight of our spider-hunting this autumn, Dick came round to the store to give me exciting news of a great find - a Southern Black Widow Spider! This is such an iconic creature that it is immediately recognisable to most people. In particular, when viewed from below it is easy to see the classic red 'hourglass' pattern. Though packing a nasty bite that can be fatal to children or elderly people, in reality, these spiders prefer dark, secluded corners and are seldom seen by most people. Indeed, I feel amazingly priveleged to have seen one within just a month of moving to the USA!

The real turn-around in the birds came on September 25th; a day off work for me and the day that many visiting birders unfortunately headed for home and missed the show. Overnight rain associated with a front brought waves of birds back to Cape May, with 21 species of warbler logged around the State Park. We fared pretty well in the garden at home too, as we added Blackburnian Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo to our ever-growing list. Megan and I also spent time lounging on the deck at home and enjoyed our very own raptor-fest from the comfort of home as we notched up six Turkey Vultures, three American Kestrels, Merlin, Peregrine, six Ospreys, two Bald Eagles, five Sharp-shinned Hawks, two Cooper's Hawks and two Red-tailed Hawks. A Solitary Sandpiper spent most of the afternoon on the garden pond and allowed me to get to within eight feet or so and spend time just hanging out with him and taking pictures - he did a great job thinning out the mosquito larva population!!

Our very own Solitary Sandpiper lived up to its name!

But the real big sign that September was pretty much over and that October was just around the corner was the sudden appearance on the 25th of several species that are typical of late fall. All new for our yard list today were Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting and White-throated Sparrow, and at least five Ruby-crowned Kinglets hung out in our two Pitch Pines and one Eastern Red Cedar.

Female Eastern Towhee in our yard.

Male Eastern Towhee - this would have been a better picture if I had kept the lawn cut a bit shorter!

Oh, and as if all that wasn't enough for one day, I also found time to take my driving theory test on September 25th - and pass!! All this was celebrated at one of our favourite restaurants to enjoy a fabulous serving of grilled tilapia, stuffed shrimps and scallops.

Here comes October!