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July 6, 2008

I haven't been out in the field lately due to time constraints, but I did manage to get out into the yard for a bit today.  I was watching my daughter slide and run around the yard, and I was also searching closely for little creatures.  It's truly amazing what you can find if you simply stop and look.  Every yard - no matter the location - has wildlife in it.  Add a few plants and flowers and you've got habitat, baby!

I first went out to the little triangular flowerbed that's in one corner of my yard.  I have planted fennel, a couple of bell peppers, some zinnias, pentas, and coneflowers.  The fennel is not something I cook with.  I chose it because it's one of the host plants for the black swallowtail butterfly.  You can also plant carrots, dill, or one of the many types of parsley for them to eat.


I'm pretty sure this is a 2nd instar larvae (above).  What's an instar, you ask?  Each time an insect molts (or sheds its skin) it grows a little bit larger.  Each stage is known as an instar.  When the caterpillar first hatches from its egg, that's the 1st instar.  When it molts, it goes into the 2nd, and so on.  This species has 5 instars before it pupates and turns into a butterfly.  Here's a 4th instar larvae:


After checking on my caterpillars, I took a closer look at the fennel.  Since it was starting to flower, I knew there would be some flying insects coming in to visit.  A slight movement caught my eye and it turned out to be a tiny little jumping spider.  I don't have it identified yet but I know it's still a little too small to be mature just yet.  It was so miniscule that I could hardly keep track of it among the flower stalks.  I put my extension tubes on the macro lens and went to work, trying to snap a few pics of the spider.  Here are the best shots I could get:



I have no idea how I saw this tiny crab spider amongst the flower buds, but I just happened to notice it.  Can you see it?  The camouflage is amazing!


It just sits and waits for an insect to fly in and visit the flowers, and then it pounces and ambushes its prey.


I went back to watching my daughter slide some more and was sitting next to what's supposed to be a "flower bed." It's shaped with landscape edging and is filled in with lava rocks.  I hate the rocks because I know my child is going to fall on them eventually and skin up her legs and elbows.  It's also very hard to keep them free of grass and other weeds, so I think the rocks have to go.  (Note: this was all landscaped when I moved into the house)  In the meantime there is some violet growing through and I sat and looked at the plant while keeping an eye on the kid.  I immediately saw movement and look what I found...


This is a striped lynx spider and it's a male.  The two little boxing glove-like appendages in the front give him away.  Those are known as pedipalps and they're used to transfer sperm to the female spider.  I saw at least three of these guys in the violet and this next shot shows a silken dragline behind the spider.  If you look closely you'll see that there are two silk strands and not just one.


Again, while I was just sitting there I noticed a bit of movement.  A little deeper in the violet was a lovely wolf spider.  These are so named because they don't spin a web to catch their prey.  They are fast and run down prey...  like a wolf.  Like almost every spider in the United States they are completely harmless to humans, and they're quite beneficial because they eat lots of insects that we typically consider "pests."  This is known as the rabid wolf spider, but they really don't carry rabies.  It's just a strange name that they were given a loooooong time ago.


Speaking of violet, it's a wonderful food plant that's safe for tortoises to eat.  I picked a handful and gave it to my desert tortoise, Dudley.  He loved it!  Sorry for the extreme close-up shot.  I was just messing around.


What a full afternoon!  It's amazing what you can find, even on a 1/4 acre plot in a residential area.  Are we done yet?  Nope!  After dinner I waited until dark and then I set up my black light.  This light spectrum attracts insects and entomologists enjoy setting up black lights in the summer, typically next to a white sheet.  The sheet allows the insects a surface to land on and the color makes it easy to see the animals once they're there.  I like to do my mini set-up in the backyard where I put a white towel in a patio chair and set the light in the chair.  It works just fine but I have to set it up away from the back door so I don't accidentally bring heaps of flying insects into the house.


First up is a lovely striped blister beetle.  These guys like to gnaw on potato plants, which quickly puts them in the "pest" category with farmers.  They are called "blister" beetles due to the chemicals they can secrete, which can burn the skin.  I let them crawl on me from time to time, but I don't recommend that kids try this at home.  Grabbing or rough handling will probably cause them to secrete their chemicals.


Another beetle that came to the light was one that surprised me.  This one didn't resemble a beetle in the way that I normally see beetles.  The elytra - or wing covers - are short and don't cover the entire wing, which I'm used to in most beetles.  I had no idea what this one was until I got some help on my favorite bug website.  It's a glowworm beetle and the larval form is bioluminescent, meaning it really does glow.  This specimen is a male.


Ok, last item for the night and I'm headed to bed.  I was standing around, looking at all the flying insects that had come to my light when I noticed something over on the patio.  I use a headlamp when I'm outside in the dark so I can see wherever I happen to look.  The object turned out to be a dwarf American toad.  It was moving kind of strangely and upon closer inspection I noticed that it was missing some feet.



The poor little guy!  At first I thought a predator might have chewed off its feet, but why would another animal do that and not eat the toad entirely?  My guess was that this toad has been deformed ever since undergoing metamorphosis from tadpole to toadlet.  Even though it was at a disadvantage and looked strange I put it back in the grass to go about its business.  It obviously survived to adulthood with only one true foot, so I'm going to guess that it's a survivor and will be ok.  Good luck to ya, Toadie, and see you next time!

Speaking of next time...  I'm outta here.  I'll see you in the next journal entry.



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