Shallow Thoughts : tags : insects

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 03 Jul 2016

Midsummer Nature Notes from Traveling

A few unusual nature observations noticed over the last few weeks ...

First, on a trip to Washington DC a week ago (my first time there). For me, the big highlight of the trip was my first view of fireflies -- bright green ones, lighting once or twice then flying away, congregating over every park, lawn or patch of damp grass. What fun!

Predatory grackle

[grackle]

But the unusual observation was around mid-day, on the lawn near the Lincoln Memorial. A grackle caught my attention as it flashed by me -- a male common grackle, I think (at least, it was glossy black, relatively small and with only a moderately long tail).

It turned out it was chasing a sparrow, which was dodging and trying to evade, but unsuccessfully. The grackle made contact, and the sparrow faltered, started to flutter to the ground. But the sparrow recovered and took off in another direction, the grackle still hot on its tail. The grackle made contact again, and again the sparrow recovered and kept flying. But the third hit was harder than the other two, and the sparrow went down maybe fifteen or twenty feet away from me, with the grackle on top of it.

The grackle mantled over its prey like a hawk and looked like it was ready to begin eating. I still couldn't quite believe what I'd seen, so I stepped out toward the spot, figuring I'd scare the grackle away and I'd see if the sparrow was really dead. But the grackle had its eye on me, and before I'd taken three steps, it picked up the sparrow in its bill and flew off with it.

I never knew grackles were predatory, much less capable of killing other birds on the wing and flying off with them. But a web search on grackles killing birds got quite a few hits about grackles killing and eating house sparrows, so apparently it's not uncommon.

Daytime swarm of nighthawks

Then, on a road trip to visit friends in Colorado, we had to drive carefully past the eastern slope of San Antonio Mountain as a flock of birds wheeled and dove across the road. From a distance it looked like a flock of swallows, but as we got closer we realized they were far larger. They turned out to be nighthawks -- at least fifty of them, probably considerably more. I've heard of flocks of nighthawks swarming around the bugs attracted to parking lot streetlights. And I've seen a single nighthawk, or occasionally two, hawking in the evenings from my window at home. But I've never seen a flock of nighthawks during the day like this. An amazing sight as they swoop past, just feet from the car's windshield.

Flying ants

[Flying ant courtesy of Jen Macke]

Finally, the flying ants. The stuff of a bad science fiction movie! Well, maybe if the ants were 100 times larger. For now, just an interesting view of the natural world.

Just a few days ago, Jennifer Macke wrote a fascinating article in the PEEC Blog, "Ants Take Wing!" letting everyone know that this is the time of year for ants to grow wings and fly. (Jen also showed me some winged lawn ants in the PEEC ant colony when I was there the day before the article came out.) Both males and females grow wings; they mate in the air, and then the newly impregnated females fly off, find a location, shed their wings (leaving a wing scar you can see if you have a strong enough magnifying glass) and become the queen of a new ant colony.

And yesterday morning, as Dave and I looked out the window, we saw something swarming right below the garden. I grabbed a magnifying lens and rushed out to take a look at the ones emerging from the ground, and sure enough, they were ants. I saw only black ants. Our native harvester ants -- which I know to be common in our yard, since I've seen the telltale anthills surrounded by a large bare area where they clear out all vegetation -- have sexes of different colors (at least when they're flying): females are red, males are black. These flying ants were about the size of harvester ants but all the ants I saw were black. I retreated to the house and watched the flights with binoculars, hoping to see mating, but all the flyers I saw seemed intent on dispersing. Either these were not harvester ants, or the females come out at a different time from the males. Alas, we had an appointment and had to leave so I wasn't able to monitor them to check for red ants. But in a few days I'll be watching for ants that have lost their wings ... and if I find any, I'll try to identify queens.

Tags: , , ,
[ 09:28 Jul 03, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 02 Jun 2014

Cicada Rice Krispies

[Cicadas mating] Late last week we started hearing a loud buzz in the evenings. Cicadas? We'd heard a noise like that last year, when we visited Prescott during cicada season while house-hunting, but we didn't know they had them here in New Mexico. The second evening, we saw one in the gravel off the front walk -- but we were meeting someone to carpool to a talk, so I didn't have time to race inside and get a camera.

A few days later they started singing both morning and evening. But yesterday there was an even stranger phenomenon.

"It sounds like Rice Krispies out in the yard. Snap, crackle, pop," said Dave. And he was right -- a constant, low-level crackling sound was coming from just about all the junipers.

Was that cicadas too? It was much quieter than their loud buzzing -- quiet enough to be a bit eerie, really. You had to stop what you were doing and really listen to notice it.

It was pretty clearly an animal of some kind: when we moved close to a tree, the crackling (and snapping and popping) coming from that tree would usually stop. If we moved very quietly, though, we could get close to a tree without the noise entirely stopping. It didn't do us much good, though: there was no motion at all that we could see, no obvious insects or anything else active.

Tonight the crackling was even louder when I went to take the recycling out. I stopped by a juniper where it was particularly noticeable, and must have disturbed one, because it buzzed its wings and moved enough that I actually saw where it was. It was black, maybe an inch long, with narrow orange stripes. I raced inside for my camera, but of course the bug was gone by the time I got back out.

So I went hunting. It almost seemed like the crackling was the cicadas sort of "tuning up", like an orchestra before the performance. They would snap and crackle and pop for a while, and then one of them would go snap snap snap-snap-snap-snapsnapsnapsnap and then break into its loud buzz -- but only for a few seconds, then it would go back to snapping again. Then another would speed up and break into a buzz for a bit, and so it went.

One juniper had a particularly active set of crackles and pops coming from it. I circled it and stared until finally I found the cicadas. Two of them, apparently mating, and a third about a foot away ... perhaps the rejected suitor?

[Possible cicada emergence holes]
Near that particular juniper was a section of ground completely riddled with holes. I don't remember those holes being there a few weeks ago. The place where the cicadas emerged?

[Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus flower] So our Rice Krispies mystery was solved. And by the way, I don't recommend googling for combinations like cicada rice krispies ... unless you want to catch and eat cicadas.

Meanwhile, just a few feet away from the cicada action, a cactus had sprung into bloom. Here, have a gratuitous pretty flower. It has nothing whatever to do with cicadas.

Update: in case you're curious, the cactus is apparently called a Fendler's Hedgehog, Echinocereus fendleri.

Tags: , ,
[ 21:20 Jun 02, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]