Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I Brought 1000's of Invasive Insects to Live in my Yard

We have just introduced a colony of invasive insects to our yard. While we ordinarily think of invasive species as harmful, there are actually many beneficial species that were not native to North America. Among these are honeybees.
Italian Honeybees, Apis mellifera lingustica
Photo by Brad Sylvester, may be used only with a link back

That's right. There were no honeybees in North America before they were intentionally brought to Virginia around 1622. Incidentally, that's a year before the first of my ancestors (Edward Hilton, Dover, NH) reached North America, but let's stick to the topic of honeybees. Today there are many species and sub-species of honeybees in North America. All brought over either intentionally or unintentionally to help pollinate crops and to provide honey. The climate and biosphere were so suitable to the honeybee that they spread throughout the continent.

So accepted are honeybees that most think of them as native to our nation. When the population of this invasive species began plummeting in recent decades, there were widespread cries of alarm. Plainly, not all invasive species are harmful.

We purchased a three pound package of bees which included a mated queen bee. We introduced them into a hive and within 24 hours, we can already see that they are building combs on the starter frames that we placed inside the hive. The combs that the bees build are used for several purposes. Of course, we all know about honeycombs which are combs used by the bees to store honey. The queen bee will lay her eggs in combs as well. Not honey combs, but brood combs. Once the eggs are laid in the combs, they hatch into larvae. Larvae are fed and cared for by the worker bees until they pupate and emerge as adult bees. It takes about 21 days from the time the egg is laid until an adult bee emerges.

The main reason that bees make honey is because that is what they eat during the winter when fresh nectar is not available. They store it in the honey combs and then use it as food during the winter months. That means that if we take all the honey out of the hive, the colony will starve to death. So we need to be careful to leave an adequate supply of honey for the bees at the end of the season.

In the lower section of the hive, the queen will lay her eggs. At some point, moving upward from the bottom, there is a brood/honey dividing line with honey storage above and brood combs below. This divide makes it possible for the bee-keeper to remove honeycombs without disturbing the next generations of worker bees.

Quick Facts About Honeybees:

How do honeybees survive the winter? During the winter, honeybees will stay in the hive tucked into empty comb cells clustered around the center of the hive. Although they are cold-blooded like all insects, they group together to try to conserve what heat is available. They don't truly hibernate and may come out of the hive on particularly warm days. Even in the dead of winter, a knock on the side of the hive will result in a buzzing from within as the bees react to the noise.

What do honeybees eat? Honeybees eat nectar from flowers when it is available and honey during the months when flowers are not available. They also need water to drink and will sometimes be seen visiting birdbaths or a pet's water dish during the summer if other sources of fresh water are not available.

Why do honeybees swarm? Honeybees swarm when a hive gets too crowded and a second queen emerges from the hive. This is the natural way for honeybees to create new hives and reproduce. When a hive swarms, about half the bees will leave with the new young queen and the remainder will stay with the old queen. This leaves two small hives that will gradually build up their populations again. Beekeepers often discourage swarming because a depleted hive will produce less honey because it has fewer worker bees collecting nectar.

Are worker bees boys or girls? Everyone knows the queen bee is female, but few know that the worker bees are also female. Drones are males. The queen bee mates during the swarming flight, the drones that mate with her die, and the queen remains fertile for the rest of her life. The hive is ruled by the females and not just the queen. At the end of the summer as the weather turns colder, the female worker bees will drag the larger drones out of the hive to die. Because the drones are so much larger, they'd use up too much of the stored food during the winter.

What is colony collapse? Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to the rapid disappearance of the majority of the worker bee population of a hive. Without worker bees, the entire hive dies. In recent years, colony collapse has become widespread vastly reducing the number of honeybees throughout the country. It affects both wild honeybees and those in domesticated hives. It is well documented that Colony Collapse Disorder is caused primarily by pesticides that contain nicotinoid compounds. Because these pesticides are commonly used on corn, and beekeepers feed their bees high fructose corn syrup (which carries the pesticide from the corn plant), beekeepers can lose their entire stock of hives in a single season. Wild bees pick up the pesticide directly from the flowers of treated crops. The link between pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder was unknown for years, but is widely accepted now due to convincing evidence such as this 2012 Harvard Study.

Taxonomy of Honey Bees
Honeybee Hive with syrup feeder
Photo by Brad Sylvester, may be used only with a link back

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Apidae

Genus: Apis

Species: Apis mellifera

Subspecies (for Italian Honeybees): Apis mellifera lingustica

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Woodpecker Hole Identification, Pileated Woodpecker

Woodpecker holes in a pine tree in our yard.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, all rights reserved.
In the forest, there are many animals that are reclusive and tend to hide away from human contact. By learning their habits and patterns or just by being lucky, we might be able to see them from time to time. Some, however, might remain forever hidden if they did not leave behind evidence of their presence after that have hidden themselves away from our sight. Many woodpeckers, for example leave holes in trees that tell us that they have visited even if we never see or hear them directly.

In our yard, as I mentioned in a previous post, we have a nest of Hairy Woodpeckers. They live inside a big birch tree in a cavity that they chipped out with their chisel-like beaks. The opening is a small round hole. This type of hole, round and just a two or three inches wide at most is typical of Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers as well as several other types native to the area. it is definitely not typical of a sapsucker or the larger Pileated Woodpecker.

Sapsuckers, when they feed, tend to make linear or grid-like patterns of very small holes around the trunk of a tree.  These holes might be a half inch or less in diameter. Far too small for nesting. The handiwork of Pileated woodpeckers, on the other hand, can be identified by the size and shape of the distinctively rectangular holes they carve out in the tree trunks.

Rectangular or oblong holes indicate the work of a Pileated
Photo by Brad Sylvester, all rights reserved.
The hole of the pileated woodpecker starts out as a small round hole not too different than that of other woodpeckers, but may tend to have more raw wood with the bark removed around the outside of the hole. The pileated woodpecker, however, keeps working the holes over time in a vertical direction so that they soon develop into larger narrow slots in the tree truck. There will often be several such holes in a single trunk.

In the photo to the left, you can see both expanded edges around the round holes and markedly rectangular holes in this pine tree. These are strong evidence that this is the work of a Pileated Woodpecker.

I have to admit that I have rarely seen pileated woodpeckers in the area of our yard. Very occasionally, I will see one flying through, but only once or twice a year. I thought they lived farther away in the forest. The number of holes in this tree, however, suggests that they are visiting my yard fairly frequently despite the rarity of sightings. I haven't heard their calls in the yard and haven't distinguished their drumming pattern from that of the more common hairy and downy woodpeckers, although I admit, I have not thus far made a determined effort to do so.

The Pileated Woodpecker is, by a good margin, the largest woodpecker in New Hampshire and has a very striking crest and coloring. Knowing it is present with some regularity means that I will definitely prioritize getting some good photos for this blog. For now, I'll hold off on adding it to the master list of animals that live in my yard even though there is very strong evidence.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Animals Announce their Presence in Spring: Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Male Chipping Sparrow singing in Springtime.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2015. All rights reserved
Springtime can be a particularly fruitful time for discovering new species in one's yard, especially new species of birds. Spring is the time when male birds of many species are loudly announcing their presence with their songs, often performed in the most highly visible location they can find in the hope of attracting a mate. All one needs to do, therefore, to find a new species in one's yard is to listen for an unfamiliar bird song and catch a glimpse of the bird singing it. As an added bonus, spring is the time when most of them have their full breeding plumage offering the brightest color of the year.

Popular apps like iBird Pro 2 not only have drawings and photos of bird species, but also allow you to listen to the song to see if it matches what you're hearing in the field. It is an absolute clincher for tentative identifications. For example, This morning, I heard a long trilling song from about 50 feet up in a pine tree in my front yard. I got my camera and zoomed in to the location from which the song emanated and got two very mediocre shots of a small brown bird.

As many of you know, there are a great number of small brown birds. As it happens, though, I got enough in the photo to determine that it was almost certainly a sparrow. I could see a greyish-white underside in one photo and in the other I could see a pronounced rufous-colored cap, bordered by white then a black eye line. By typing sparrow into the iBird Pro 2 App on my phone (I also have it on my Kindle Fire), I chose a likely candidate from the thumbnail images of all sparrows. It looked like a Chipping Sparrow, but the photos weren't great, so maybe it could have been an American Tree Sparrow. To settle between the two, I used the app to play the song of the Chipping Sparrow. It was an exact match to what I heard up in the tree. Case closed, and another species, Spizella passerine, is added to the list of animals that live in my yard.

Quick facts about the Chipping Sparrow

Q: When can the Chipping Sparrow be found in New Hampshire?
A: According to Spring Arrival Dates Revisited by Pam Hunt, Chipping Sparrows most often arrive in early April after having spent the winter months in the southernmost tier of states (from Southern California to South Virginia) and Mexico.

Q: What does the Chipping Sparrow eat?
A: I often see chipping sparrows foraging on the ground for seeds and insects. They will also visit feeders and take suet and most common bird seed.

Q: What kind of nests to Chipping Sparrows build?
A: They build nests of grasses, small plant stems and similar stringy materials woven into a thin cup-shaped nest. The cup is then lined with softer material such as animal fur. At our house, we have a long-haired dog and whenever we brush out her coat she sheds lots of hair. We leave this outside on the ground and it is often incorporated into bird nests around our yard.

Q: What do their eggs look like?
A: Chipping Sparrow eggs are a light blue-green in color with darker brown or black spots usually more pronounced on the fatter end. They usually lay between 2-7 eggs that take 10-15 days to hatch, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell also says Chipping Sparrows may hatch between one and three sets of eggs each year.

With the addition of song identification, the two photos
shown on this blog entry are enough to positively ID
the Chipping Sparrow.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
Taxonomy of the Chipping Sparrow

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Emerizidae
Genus: Spizella
Species: Spizella passerine


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis Phoebe) Returns with the Spring

Female Eastern Phoebe
A female Eastern Phoebe building her nest under the eaves
of my house.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
While some view the American Robin as a sign of spring, the truth is that they can be found in New Hampshire all year round. The return of the Eastern Phoebe on the other hand, truly means that spring has arrived. In fact, according to an article by Pamela Hunt published in the Spring 2007 issue of New Hampshire Bird Records, the earliest recorded spring arrival date for the Eastern Phoebe in New Hampshire is March 3rd (as of 2007), with a median arrival date of March 24.

The Eastern Phoebe typically builds its nests under the eaves of artificial structures. The nest is made from mud, moss, twigs, pine needles, and similar things that it can find and which can be used to make the nest sturdy and comfortable. Nesting sites are usually near wooded areas and sources of water.

The Eastern Phoebe is likely one of the birds whose population numbers have likely been aided by the encroachment of European style buildings throughout North America since they provide millions of suitable nesting sites for the species. Although I'm not sure data exists to support this speculation. Before widespread artificial structures were present, the Eastern Phoebe built nests on rocky ledges. Some can still be found nesting in such places, but they are much more likely to choose a man-made building with eaves.

This video shows a female Eastern Phoebe adding what appears to be a daub of mud to the beginnings of a nest under the eaves of my house. A pair of Eastern Phoebes have nested there for several years. Their call is a familiar sound around my backyard. You can listen to their calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

The Eastern Phoebe belongs to the set of birds known as flycatchers. As you might expect, they get their name from their eating habits. The Eastern Phoebe will sit on a tree branch and wait for insects to fly by. When it spots one, it will leap up with a flutter of wings and grab the bug out of the air. Often with its legs and wings protruding out from the edges of the Phoebe's clamped beak. While Phoebes generally eat insects, especially flying insects, they are opportunists, as are most small birds, and will also eat seeds and small fruits.

As they sit and wait for a snack, they will often bob their tail feathers up and down rhythmically. This may be part of a territorial display since they seem to choose branches that reach out into highly visible areas for this display, but their motivation is only my speculation.

The Eastern Phoebe gets its name from the sound it makes. The first part of the song is a clear, musical "feee" sound and the second half is a bit more of a buzzing, trilling "eeee" or "beee" sound. The male will generally respond aggressively if you can imitate its call and often responds to "pishing."

Quick facts about the Eastern Phoebe:

Q: When is the Eastern Phoebe here in New Hampshire?
A: The Eastern Phoebe arrives in March and stays until the weather turns colder between September and early November.

Q: Do both male and female build the nest?
A: No, only the female Eastern Phoebe actively builds the nest.

Q: What color are the Eastern Phoebe's eggs?
A: The Eastern Phoebe lays between two and six small white eggs which may have some little light brown spots. They may raise one or two broods each summer. If the nest remains through the winter, the birds will often return and use it again the following spring.

Q: Where does the Eastern Phoebe go during the Winter?
A: The Eastern Phoebe, according to the IUCN Red List website, winters in the extreme southern areas of the United States around the Gulf of Mexico and down through Mexico to Central America.

Q: Is the Eastern Phoebe and endangered Species?
A: No, The Eastern Phoebe is numerous and widespread throughout Eastern North America. The IUCN lists it as a species of least concern. It is, however, protected by The Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Eastern Phoebe building a nest
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2015. All rights reserved
Taxonomy of the Eastern Phoebe:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Tyrannidae
Genus: Sayornis
Species: Sayornis phoebe

Monday, March 2, 2015

Life with Three Feet of Snow

As you know, New Hampshire gets cold in the winter, sometimes very cold. It snows here, sometimes it snows very much. Animals that are native to the area, therefore, must develop strategies to survive the cold and to find food when everything is buried beneath three feet of snow, as it is now.

Many things simply hide themselves away in the warmest place they can find and wait it out. Insects, for the most part, are among those that simply wait for spring. As we've previously mentioned, lightning bugs may burrow as deeply as they can into the rough bark of trees for shelter. If we search carefully, we can find them there. Others take advantage of man's ability to control the environment. The Asian Lady Beetle and the Western Conifer Seed Bug may have burrowed into tree bark in their warmer native environments, but after migrating here to the much colder Northeast, they burrow into the cracks and crevices of the woodwork of our houses. Sometimes, they find a way all the way inside and we may find an active one or two inside the house in the dead of winter.

Some insects burrow into the ground and rely on the natural antifreeze compounds in their bodies to keep from turning into ice cubes. June Bug grubs, Japanese Beetle grubs and a number of others fall into this category.

Chipmunks hunker down in their burrows and truly hibernate through the winter. Chipmunks and some other rodents are known as obligate hibernators. That is to say they have a built-in need to hibernate seasonal regardless of whether there is still food available. Their body temperatures drop quite low, and body temperature and heart rate slow along with all their other metabolic processes.

Some animals, like the black bear, go into a more shallow form of hibernation when the weather gets cold and food becomes scarce. They also experience a drop in body temperature, but the drop is much smaller. They are less deeply asleep, and may even be roused during hibernation. While their hibernation differs from that of deep sleepers like chipmunks, they are still classified as hibernators.

Hibernation means that the animal in question suppresses its normal metabolism to much lower rates, enabling it to go long periods without the intake of food and to survive in harsh conditions. Some lower their metabolic rates more than others, but that is simply a matter of degrees within the spectrum of hibernation.

Other animals are still able to find food during the winter and remain active throughout the year. White-tailed deer, many birds, the gray squirrel, the snowshoe hare, and the coyote, for example, can be found roaming the woods and hills of New Hampshire even in the coldest of winters.

Some, particularly many species of birds, simply go away to where the weather is less severe. Migratory birds such as the Canada Goose and most warblers fit into this category. We've all heard of birds flying south for the winter, but it is less commonly known that for some birds that live even further north, the New Hampshire is a gentle enough winter climate for them to comfortably overwinter when compared to their breeding ranges. This means that during the winter months in New Hampshire, it is possible to find some species that are not commonly found here during the summer.

Some undertake a much lesser migration, remaining in the same latitude, but heading to more hospitable winter habitat. Many woodland ducks fall into this category. The Common Loon, Wood Duck, and Mallard Duck all fall into this category. Moving from the inlands ponds, lakes and rivers where they spend the warmer months to the seaside for the winter. They require open water in which to feed, so they head to the only open water that is guaranteed not to freeze in this climate, the ocean.

Even though we are in the very heart of winter, we can still find new species, even some that aren't here during the rest of the year.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Northern Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata)

Recently, I was doing some gardening, actually pulling tufts of grass up by the roots from around the border of my raised-bed gardens, when a noticed that there was a small snake in the grass clump I had just uprooted. The snake was very small and brown. At first, I almost mistook it for a night-crawler. It turned out to be a northern red-bellied snake of about seven or eight inches in length.

Northern Red-bellied Snake
Photo by Brad Sylvester. All rights reserved.

According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game website, this diminutive snake eats snails and slugs. As it happens, the border to my raised bed garden is made of wood and when we have wet weather, small black slugs can be found on the wood. All the sources I found include small slugs as the preferred menu item for the northern red-bellied snake although a number of sources add other various prey to the snake's diet. It's worth noting that the sources don't agree exactly on what those other items might be. At any rate, eating slugs from around my garden earns this little snake my favor.

The red-bellied snake is quite small with a maximum length
of about 16 inches.
Photo by Brad Sylvester. All rights reserved.
The northern red-bellied snake doesn't grow more than 16 inches in length and is completely harmless to humans and pets. Because of its small size and tendency to hide under woody debris (where it's primary prey resides), it is not often seen. In fact, this specimen that I found accidently while working in my garden is the first of its species that I have ever encountered.

The red-bellied snake is viviparous which means that it gives birth to live young rather than laying eggs. Sources vary on the maximum litter size ranging from highs of 14-23 although average litters are much smaller by all accounts, with about six to nine baby snakes being the average estimate.

The specimen that I found living in my yard was brown with a pinkish belly with an almost blue border separating the pink belly from the darker area of its body. While not typical, this coloration is well within the range for this species. The belly can range from red to orange to pink, while the upper body may be brown, grey or black with four darker stripes running along its length. Some of these snakes have 3 pale dots around the nape of the neck, but the one I found in my yard did not.

According to the Michigan Society of Herpetologists. the northern red-bellied snake can often  be found around dumps that contain wood scraps or sheet metal that provide good habitat for slugs. If present, they can be found by flipping over bits of wood or sheet metal that is lying on the ground.
The one I found in my yard was in tall moist grass growing against the sides of my raised bed garden which is made with wood that frequently has little black slugs patrolling its surface after a rain or a heavy night dew fall.
The underside of the red-bellied snake may be pink, red or orange.
Photo by Brad Sylvester. All rights reserved.


Friday, August 1, 2014

How to Catch and Hold a Dragonfly

There are literally hundreds of different species of dragonflies. They come in many bright colors and beautiful patterns. They are, arguably, as beautiful as butterflies, but because they fly so fast it is often difficult to see them in any detail. The reason they fly so fast is because they are insect world's equivalent of an air to air missile. Dragonflies, you see, eat other flying insects. Not only that, but they catch them right out of the air as they are flying. To do that, dragonflies must fly faster and be more maneuverable than their prey. Their flying prowess is wonderful for them, but not so great for spectators who want to see their colors and figure out what species they might belong to.
The Fear of Dragonflies

Maybe it's the dragonfly's reputation as a predator or maybe it's the viciousness of the aquatic dragonfly nymph, but these colorful winged missiles have a reputation as having a nasty bite-or a nasty sting, most people aren't really sure which. Most people do know however, that dragonflies are something to be feared. Actually, however, most people are completely wrong on this account. Dragonflies don't bite and have no stinger at all. They are, as a matter of fact, completely harmless to people.

How to Hold a Dragonfly
Those studying dragonflies often hold them in their bare hands in order to get a closer look. The proper way to hold a dragonfly without injuring it, is to fold its wings upward into a vertical position relative to its body so that the left and right side wings are touching, and then hold the wings between the thumb and index finger near the wingtips.

Holding them is easy; the hard part is catching them. Dragonflies, as I've already mentioned, are fast and nimble fliers. Like most insects, they also have compound eyes that give them a very wide field of view. This means that even when they do alight on a leaf or a blade of grass, they will probably see you coming and take wing before you can get close enough to reach out and grab them.

How to Catch a Dragonfly

Fortunately, we humans are a good deal more technologically advanced than dragonflies. As of right this minute, the absolute pinnacle of technology when it comes to catching dragonflies is the butterfly net. The butterfly net should have a long handle which allows you to take a swipe with the net at stationary dragonflies without getting close enough to scare them off. You can try netting them from the air, but you may find you have better luck waiting for them to land.
The net portion should be a fine mesh that is transparent enough for you to see inside the net. The net portion should be long enough that it flops over the net frame so that it effectively closes itself off, preventing whatever you have netted from flying out. That way you can reach in and grab the dragonfly by its wings.

Let it Go Unharmed

Once you have it in hand, you can examine the dragonfly closely, noting its features and coloration in order to help determine the species to which it belongs. In some cases, however, a microscopic examination to differentiate between closley related species may be required. Once you have finished, it should be released. Adult dragonflies do not make good pets because of their dietary habits and their high-speed flying.

Note: This article was originally published at Yahoo! Contributor Network on August 15th, 2011, where it was viewed 3212 times. All publishing rights reverted back to me as the original author when Yahoo! decided to discontinue the Y! Contributor Network on August 1st, 2014.