Field Notes Friday 0030: Monarch Day!

It was a day of Monarchs! I’ve never seen a migration like this… or rather, I never knew to look up at the right time before.

The actual journal page is below, but I know how my handwriting is, even when I do my best to slow down and smooth out the curves… so here’s the transcript/translation:

Social media CAN be used to reconnect people with their nature! Before I got out of bed (it was SO COLD this morning! We slept with the windows open and it dipped into the upper 40s), I checked Facebook. Both Suzanne & Michelle had commented on monarchs flying through their backyards/are (in Fort Worth). So I kept my eyes open [throughout the day], and HOLY COW! As I approached LLELA, I saw ever-thickening numbers – at first I was delighted with one, but then 15 in as many minutes… and this gave way to 150 in an hour and I lost count! They seem to be using the area just South of the dam as a highway, flying East to West. The only two or three times I saw them deviate was when a couple circled each other or a dragonfly chased one. (about 2.5 / min or 5 every 2 min)

There is something sacred and special about feeling a part of something as epic as this journey of thousands of miles. To be witness – to be graced with a canopy of monarchs – to see beauty and fragility but know it belies strength and tenacity – to finally be awake and aware enough to see how grand nature’s stories are – I am honored to be this awake, and indebted to those who have made the invisible visible by studying this incredible… being.

Monarch Day

Dad got to see it, too – he surprised me and showed up to see what the Dutch Oven Club is all about. Then we walked to the Homestead. SEeing monarchs, and honey locust, and a few other items of interest caused him to say ‘now I remember what I enjoyed so much about Lufkin.’ His family used to visit the grandparents every summer, I think.

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Field Notes Friday 0024: How Do YOU Identify Bugs?

How do you look up a word you have no idea how to spell? And how do you identify a bug if you have no idea where to start? How do YOU unravel the insect mystery in front of you?

My recent entomological adventure started one lazy summer morning when my husband and I heard a familiar sound: a flying insect trying to get out by buzzing against a closed window. The poor thing was too high for us to help. Hours later in the evening, we found (we presume) the same bug, tuckered out and resting on a houseplant. Easily caught, observed, and then released, it filled my next hours with interest.

However, I feel my research could be more efficient if I knew a few tricks… or tips… or resources… or a little more about entomology. I’m looking for your suggestions.

Here’s what I did this time, and I’m hoping this convinces other novices, teachers and students that you DON’T have to already know everything. You can start from ground zero and still get close to the ‘right’ answer pretty quickly.

  1. Capture carefully. Don’t endanger yourself or the insect. Release when you’re done.
  2. Observe, photograph, and SKETCH. Sketching helps you notice important details you’d miss otherwise, which most amateur-level cameras (like cameraphones) are not powerful or fast enough to capture. This became important in step 6!

    Home Nature Journal

    Home Nature Journal (for more info: http://bit.ly/1oCDhFI )

  3. Mentally compare to what you know. What does its coloring remind you of? Its shape? Don’t worry if you have less-than-basic knowledge. If you’ve thought of a comparison for the bug, you can bet someone else has, too, and it may lead you closer to identification. In this case, the coloring and the shape indicated conflicting answers: the warning coloration resembled wasps/yellowjackets, but those bulbous eyes and tiny antennae reminded me of… could it be… a fly?? I based that inkling on having taken a cursory glance at worksheets like this:

  1. Search for your hunch. I typed “yellow jacket look-alikes” into a search engine and scrolled through photos. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.27.56 PMThe closest photo was from a BLOG, a wonderful find with great information, sending me in a new direction (which I’d never heard of): syrphid flies.

  2. Refine your search. Armed with new info, I Googled “syrphidae”. Again, there’s no magic or secret knowledge here – this was a completely new word to me. I wondered whether it would lead to an ID.
  3. Follow your leads but focus on details. If something looks close, follow it! Learn more about it. (Do you have resources to suggest?) The most informative “syrphidae” image I found was a compilation of species on Wikipedia:

    At this point, the trail seemed to get cold. Two of the closest look-alikes in the image weren’t a match to the pattern on the thorax and the golden accents on the abdomen of the individual I’d seen.

  4. Embrace persistence. Don’t give up on details you’ve noticed! False leads and dead ends are all part of the chase. Just keep going.
  5. Check trusted sources. I’d looked at Wikipedia, and felt I was on the right track with “syrphidae.” I’ve seen BugGuide.net several times in other searches, so decided to try that site. It confirmed I was on the right track at the Family level, but there was a LONG list of species to click through, and no thumbnails – not an easy resource for a novice to use.

    The same was true of a Canadian website. OMG, Ontario!

  6. Focus on your area. That Canadian site gave me an idea. Perhaps my bug was unique to Texas, or at least notable in Texas. I Googled “syrphidae of Texas.” Persistence again paid off, because on the ELEVENTH row of images I found something promising (bottom right). Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.32.33 PM Clicking the image led me to THIS page, and a potential identification! Milesia virginiensis, the Flower Fly. (Interestingly, its range is from Canada to Texas. The Canadian site wasn’t far off my trail!)
  7. Ask the experts. You can do this digitally, thanks to iNaturalist. I posted my potential identification and photos and clicked the “ID Please!” button. (I wonder if the iNaturalist community would appreciate the sketch? They seem to be photo-dominated.) Thanks to those who responded, I learned a more full name (Virginia Flower Fly), and that BugGuide has a key I can use next time I find a Syrphid fly.
  8. Be ok with uncertainty. It’s ok to be corrected, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to tell people “I’m pretty sure this is…” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be 100% right all the time. You’re always learning, and you set an example to emulate when you admit it.

I’ve found TWO more blogs that seem to validate my ID.

This ID’ing adventure shows that naturalists have an important voice on the internet. Most people haven’t been trained in their local flora and fauna, and they need a guide – even a digital one – when learning about their natural heritage.

So thank you BugEric, Jim McCormac, Pam, and my fellow naturalists on iNaturalist (sambiology and marcello)! You helped me, and now hopefully I’m helping others.

Field Notes Friday 0023: KISS of DEATH Bugs

The title’s dramatic, but there’s an opportunity for you to help monitor the spread of potentially deadly-disease-carrying Kissing Bugs. You can be a citizen scientist, an epidemiologist, and a nature hero, all while doing what you probably already do: observing nature at home and at your favorite outdoor places.

Some Background

There is a family of bugs called Assassin bugs (the scientific name of the family is Reduviidae). A small subset of these are in the genus Triatoma. An even smaller group of species within this genus may carry Chagas disease, which is an uncommon disease, but worthy of attention. What does this have to do with you? Texas A&M University is studying the spread of the disease, and they need eyes on the ground. Your eyes.

What can you do?

  1. First, stay calm. This isn’t a huge health crisis. It’s just an area of study and interest.
  2. Read this informative brochure about Triatoma and what info Texas A&M needs if you find one.
  3. Continue your nature observations in your favorite places, and get in contact with Texas A&M if you find species that look like Triatoma (contact info is in the brochure link). Actually, based on my experience this week, you may want to contact them just to let them know you’re looking.
  4. Watch for bugs like this:

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

My Recent Experience

Because a friend let me know about this new study, I had Triatoma on the brain as I was helping with a wilderness survival camp for kids at LLELA (led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas). When one of the campers saw a cool bug, I recognized it as an Assassin bug. I thought it looked a lot like Triatoma, so I carefully encouraged it into a little container I had.

I took photos of it and sent them to Texas A&M. In a very short time I had an answer back: the little guy/gal wasn’t in Triatoma after all. I could release it! (Good thing; I didn’t want to have to kill it, even if it was a dangerous offender.)

Interestingly, Texas A&M wanted the location of the bug, even though it wasn’t in Triatoma. In graduate researcher Rachel Curtis’ words:

We are trying to build some models to map where kissing bugs can be found in Texas.  Along with all the kissing bug locations we have, we need some “known negative locations”.  These are locations where people (like you!) are looking for kissing bugs, but not  finding any.  We have a way to randomly generate locations, but it is best to include actual locations where we know people are looking for kissing bugs.

So you may want to contact Texas A&M to let them know you’re looking, even if you’re not finding anything. This may be a case of “no news is good news.”

After all this excitement, I made my third ever contribution to iNaturalist with these photos:

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

After a few responses to my photos and request for help with the ID, I think what I found is a Bee Assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).

Moral(s) of the story:

  • You do NOT have to kill first and ask questions later.
  • It’s great to have friends who are in-the-know about nature and the news.
  • Citizen Science opportunities abound!
  • It’s good to have your camera with you.
  • iNaturalist can be a great source of identification help… as long as you have a reasonable quality camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field Notes Friday 0021: Homo sapiens var. photographensis

I’m studying Homo sapiens var. photographensis. How does this subspecies take such excellent photographs? Let’s observe this one in particular.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

He crouches. He stands. He reflects. He shades his eyes. He adjusts his tripod. No good; he shakes his head and moves to another location. He leans in. He zooms in. He seems to freeze for several moments. The breeze blows. He waits.

Suddenly, his finger deftly presses a button. Click!

He repeats this process. Several times.

Inexplicably (to the uninitiated photographer), he goes to his car to get another lens. He returns and continues to repeat the previous process, relocating, moving, pausing. He seems to ponder something unseen to this observer.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

His clothes and hat show he is prepared for long hours outdoors. His conversation is full of species names and descriptions, which can also be heard when conversing with H. sapiens var. entomologista, botanista, forestris and others… but conversation with individuals of the subspecies photographensis often reflect a depth of observation not found among the impatient or collectors. He can describe butterfly dances, bird parades, and other secret behind-the-scenes shows of nature.

I’ve been observing this individual for almost 30 minutes now, and the blazing sun, high humidity, and 80 degree temperature seems not to have an effect. Truly, this is a hardy variety of Homo sapiens.

(With apologies to the highly esteemed photographer in these photographs. These are my actual field notes from Tuesday.)

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

 

Caterpillars and Curiosity

My recent strange interaction with caterpillars led to curiosity, then inspiration. During a wilderness survival weekend, I was on “Earth Time” as Mark Suter calls it, and I leisurely observed caterpillars around us. But I’m not as adept at up-close vision as E.O.Wilson (who lost his long-distance vision as a child but has seemingly microscopic vision up close), so I needed help from some handy-dandy tools.

Here’s a friend’s camera and a $4 jeweler’s loupe, and how I used them together. I put the loupe at the end of the camera lens, and WOW! could I see detail!

Makeshift macro lens

I used my makeshift lens to observe a caterpillar even more closely. I was amazed at the tiny critter. I had thought its pattern was simple (a white “skull”, some blue and yellow stripes)…

tent caterpillar

Normal macro setting

…but the pattern was complicated, intricate.

tent caterpillar

the view through a loupe and macro setting

I was surprised again when I turned the loupe to a second and third caterpillar: Each caterpillar’s patterns and colors were recognizably different. I could tell the caterpillars apart.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

I was so intrigued, I created a palette for each, using the colored pencils I’ve recently added to my field bag.Nature's palette

Being able to tell individuals apart humanized (for lack of a better word) the caterpillars. They weren’t objects; they were individuals. Perhaps this is why (as I’ve discovered) sketching something leads to caring about it. The closer we look at anything in life, the more we understand and appreciate.

And don’t we want people to appreciate and care for the environment and its inhabitants, whether local or global?

My interest deepened to inspiration, so I’ve set brush to canvas to paint my fascination. (The tetraptych is still a work in progress, but I’ll share it eventually.)

All of this – the interaction, observation, curiosity, endearment, photography, inspiration, art – was before I knew what the species is called. But in a deeper sense, I knew the caterpillar in a way I won’t soon forget. I’d wager that this species will stay in my mind throughout my life, whether or not I recall the scientific name.

I even had a friendly wager going with a coworker. Was this a species that made the ‘tents’ on nearby tree branches, or not? As it turns out, we were both right and both wrong, at least according to the Texas Bug Book. This is a tent caterpillar, but it’s a kind that doesn’t make tents. Weird! Maybe that’s why they were falling on us from Grandmother Bur Oak…?

Obviously, there’s more to learn, and I’m grateful for the printed and online resources I’ll use. But please note: the curiosity, inspiration, endearment, and deep memorable learning wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had an experience with this species in its native habitat.

If someone had simply toldme about these caterpillars, or if I had only read about them, I might have retained the information but wouldn’t have made profound connections – connections which will deepen with time and experience, rather than facts which will erode due to irrelevance and disuse.

Field Notes Friday 0018: Caterpillars From the Sky

You know it’s been busy if I’ve missed two Field Notes Fridays in a row! But it’s been a good Spring busy-ness. I crave a job that embraces the changing seasons and helps me feel connected to earth’s cycles… and I have it! Spring is as busy for an educator/interpreter as it is for the bees and birds. And mammals. And butterflies. And caterpillars.

Yep, caterpillars. Some gardeners hate ’em, most butterfly lovers love ’em, and most people find them at least interesting, if not downright fascinating. My latest experience with caterpillars was not only fascinating, it was inspiring. And, frankly, a little weird.

I was participating in another Survival Skills weekend led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). Throughout the weekend, we noticed caterpillars on our backpacks, on our shoulders, on the ground around us… there were always several within view any time. They seemed to be everywhere. We tried not to kill any, but I’m pretty sure I rolled over one in my sleep. They were cute – a little bit fuzzy, pleasantly colorful, and with interesting behavior, if you took the time to watch.

And taking the time to watch came naturally. All of us made observations – this caterpillar was climbing, that one seemed to be sleeping, this one was reaching for branches, this one seemed to be jerking or dancing, oh, look, there’s another one on your sleeve – we were observing insect behavior without even intending to. We were immersed in wilderness, working on skills previous generations needed for survival (making rope and fire, finding resources), and it gave us time to connect to the biological richness around us without even trying.

A few of the survival students enjoying lush Spring surroundings.

A few of the survival students enjoy the lush Spring surroundings.

I’m sure wonder and bemusement turned to mild annoyance for some. Trying not to harm caterpillars that come out of nowhere is taxing. Did I say out of nowhere? They seemed to be raining from the sky. Actually, on the final day, when Mark and I sat in the warm dappled shade working on hand-drill fire technique and yucca basket-weaving, we figured out they were falling on us. Perhaps from “Grandmother Bur Oak,” as Mark dubbed the tree shading our beautiful shelter. We could hear the soft pat….. pat as they fell into the thick leaf litter around us and began what I assume is the next chapter of their lives.

The sound of caterpillars. The sight of them dancing. The feel of them tickling your arm as they walk. We experienced caterpillars with multiple senses (but not with taste or smell, thank goodness). Because of these mental connections, we’ll never forget these little creatures.

Experiences like this usually inspire curiosity, as they did in me. What in the world species is this? Why are they falling on us? Do they sleep? What butterfly or moth will they become? I’ll let you enjoy the curiosity and questions a little while, as I did. Answers (and inspiration) coming soon…

(And here’s a treat. At least, I enjoyed it: A relaxing 30 second video looking up at Grandmother Bur Oak)

Field Notes Friday 0015: Quantity, Quantity, Quantity

It’s time for you to get brave. It’s time for you to learn the secret to sketching – the underlying, most secret, most essential knowledge that will make you a better sketcher: quantity trumps quality. If you let go of seeking to produce quality sketches, your quality will improve.

I wouldn’t have believed it, but encouragement from a friend at the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program plus a push from the John Muir Laws blog have sealed the deal. I’m a new convert to quantity over quality. I hope you will be, too, if you’ve been timid about sketching (as I have been).

Here’s my first attempt at my new brave task: occasionally, sketch everything around you. No holding back. No judging. Embracing ‘mistakes’ as learning opportunities. Just try it!

Quantity

I hope by sharing my attempts to improve my field notes and observation skills, you’ll feel more free to explore and improve your own abilities. Perfection is never the goal; appreciating our world and helping others to do so is.

To get connected to the community of scientists, naturalists, educators, interpreters, conservationists and restoration folk who participate in #FieldNotesFriday, click here: http://bit.ly/1pER2F4

Field Notes Friday 0013: Lucky Snake

We found our first snake in the yard! We’ve been living in this house for almost a year and a half, so I suppose it’s about time. I wouldn’t have thought of seeking out this sign of ecological diversity without finding it, though. Not that our yard is very diverse. Right now it’s Bois d’Arcs and so-called “weeds” (albeit edible ones).

We don’t hang out in our backyard much, but we want to change that. We also want to change how unwild our backyard is. The transformation will be a never-ending labor of love, which we’ve already started. I’m sneaking in native and fruit-bearing plants every now and then… but my failure rate with transplants is pretty high.

With the inspiration to wild our yard, and inspiration from a New Year’s visit to friends’ land, we’ve finally started our home nature journal. Here it sits in its pride of place, a showcase area of the countertop.

Home Nature Journal

But enough about that. The snake! The snake seemed paralyzed with cold, so I felt bad manipulating him/her for more than 2 photos. Hopefully I got enough for identification.

I looked on TexasSnakes.net and HerpsOfTexas.org, and I lean toward a *newbie* identification of Texas Brown or Checkered Garter.

What snake do you think this is?

What sites/resources do you use to identify snakes?

Mystery snake

Mystery snake

Here’s a pic of the journal entry, with transcript/translation(?) below, because… well, my handwriting is hard for even me to read sometimes.

Snake entry in home nature journal

Sunday, March 16, 2014

We found our first snake in the yard! We’d been digging up parts of the yard to change the slope. (The rain on Saturday nearly came in our back door.) Every earthworm & grub I found went into the compost pile, and then I put a thick layer of leaves over the dirt & worms. Right by the house & the sump pump, under a layer of leaves, I found a small grey snake. I remember a light underbelly & staring, round pupils. I took a picture. The poor thing was so cold (wind chill ~35°, temp 45ish, wind gusting 30+ mph) it wasn’t moving. We put it under the leaves in the compost pile. Landon looked for it later and found it more coiled up, hopefully comfortable. We’ll await an identification from Lisa. I’m hoping that we wild our yard enough that eventually we can’t even keep track of the wildlife sightings.

Oh! And thank you, thank you to all who helped with the butterfly mystery. I’ll be sharing the identification you made and giving proper kudos soon.

For more about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, visit the #FieldNotesFriday tab, or click here.

Field Notes Friday 0011: Do You Know This Butterfly?

Yesterday I was preparing for the eco-adventure-themed Spring Break camp I’ll be helping lead next week. My favorite assignment in preparation was to check out the Blackjack trail at LLELA, which winds through one of the easternmost outposts of the Cross Timbers ecosystem. It wasn’t just a pleasure hike (although it was delightful; I even disturbed resting deer!). I was there with a mission: discover the places where novice hikers are most likely to get lost, and plan to prepare next week’s young hikers for what to do if they feel lost in the wilderness.

Toward the end of my hike, I found a startlingly brilliant, iridescent orange butterfly on the ground. I didn’t have a camera or my phone with me. Frustrated, knowing I had only my nature journal and my rudimentary sketching skills, I pulled out my permanent pen and began sketching. This is (sort of) what I saw:

Butterfly sketch

Having no camera and no other recording device, I was forced to spend quite a while observing the creature, rather than taking a cursory look and a photograph and moving on. After many moments with open wings, the butterfly surprised me by closing its wings suddenly. It seemed to wobble as if stiff with arthritis, or as if drunken. It couldn’t stand straight. I wondered if I was observing its last sacred moments alive, or if it was just struggling in the 50 degree weather and would be flying fine tomorrow. Its orange, q-tip-like antennae were pressed together as if at attention, taut at not-quite-90 degrees from its body.

After making several sketches, I rushed to my car to find a camera and rushed back. Because of that, I can share these photos with you:

Butterfly compilationHopefully you see some resemblance to the sketches.

I’m grateful to have had access to a camera, and to be able to share these images with you. But I’m also glad to have been forced to sit down and take a few minutes to observe an animal I rarely pay much attention to. I noticed behaviors and details I wouldn’t have seen if I’d been relying on my “external brain” devices to do all the recording. And I think, when I figure out what kind of butterfly this is, I will remember the species readily because I’ve had a deeper experience simply abiding with it for a time.

The lesson? Sometimes, it’s good to be caught without your camera or digital devices.

So, do you know this butterfly? What about its behavior?

What methods and tools do you use to identify butterflies and other insects?

I’m always grateful for your response, thoughts, and comments.

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