First Leps of the Year

With the unseasonably warm weather (highs in the upper 50s), I turned the porch light on to see if I could get any moths to show up.  Nothing showed the first two nights, but on February 1 one moth showed up.

Spring Cankerworm (Paleacrita vernata)

This is the Spring Cankerworm (Paleacrita vernata).  This was also the first moth that came to my light last year, although that was in late March.  The following night, a second Spring Cankerworm came in along with this moth:

Straight-toothed Sallow (Eupsilia vinulenta)

This is a Straight-toothed Sallow (Eupsilia vinulenta), probably.  “Probably” because the Sidus Sallow (Eupsilia sidus) is apparently so similar that only microscopic examination of the wing scales can positively differentiate the two.  Two nights of moths and two species was more than I would have guessed was possible during the first week of February.  Today we are back to reality with our biggest snow of the winter.


Reviving the Blog

This blog has been dead for quite awhile.  It was not my intention to stop blogging.  However, I usually write about the bugs I see and this June I spent just about every weekend looking for an odonate that my fellow searchers and I agreed we would not say much about publicly until its ID was confirmed by experts and a note was published.  Not being able to blog about that, I kind of got out of the habit and the next thing you know, the summer was over.  So, this post is mostly to say that if anyone is still checking in, I’m going to try get back to regular posts, probably starting with some recaps of the summer.  In the meantime, here is a photo of a sure sign of winter–a Northern Shrike.  This is the third one I’ve seen in the last week here in Polk County, possibly the beginnings of an invasion of this species.

Northern Shrike, Big Creek W.A., Polk Co., IA, 5 November 2011.

Spring Leps

With the warm weather this weekend, I set out to look for three early flying leps: a moth, the Broad-lined Erastria (Erastria coloraria), and two butterflies, Olympia Marble and Henry’s Elfin.  The Erastria’s larva feeds on Redroot (Ceanothus americanus), which is also the foodplant for the Iowa population of Nevada Buckmoth and the rare Mottled Duskywing, and I had found it at the buckmoth site in the Loess Hills last April.  I visited the same spot on Saturday and found the Erastria to be almost abundant.  This is a moth that, according to NatureServe, used to be common throughout the eastern US, but is pretty much gone from the Appalachians east.  It may still be relatively common through the Mississippi River valley and is clearly common at at least this one site in the hills.  Here is a female:

Broad-lined Erastria, Loess Hills W.A., Monona County, Iowa, 9 April 2011.

While there, I spent some time looking for Nevada Buckmoth egg rings on the Redroot.  I’ve done this before and never had any luck, even though they are supposed to be easy to find.  This time I did find a few.  It was pretty clear that Redroot is this population’s foodplant considering I’ve found hundreds of larva feeding on it and none eating anything else, but finding multiple egg rings on it confirms it.

Nevada Buckmoth egg ring, Loess Hills W.A., Monona County, IA, 9 April 2011.

The hills are the place for Olympia Marble, but it is still a little early for them, so not finding one wasn’t a big deal.  Hopefully I’ll have another shot in the next few weeks.  Also of note were my first identified tiger beetles of the year, all Cicindela limbalis, the Common Claybank Tiger Beetle which is in fact common in the hills.

On Sunday, Jaclyn and I went on a hike at Elk Rock State Park which is on the southwest shore of Red Rock Reservoir in Marion County.  Elk Rock has a small sand prairie and the trail leading to it is lined with Redbuds.  Redbuds are the foodplant of Henry’s Elfin and I saw that species at this spot three springs ago.  I was hoping to get better photos this time and was lucky to see at least 8 individuals.

Henry’s Elfin, Elk Rock S.P., Marion County, IA, 10 April 2011.

The elfin makes the fifth butterfly I’ve seen this spring following Eastern Comma, Mourning Cloak, Spring Azure, and Cabbage White.   I’ve also seen photos of Gray Comma and Orange Sulphur taken recently, so there are more species flying almost every day that the weather is warm.  As always, more and better uncropped versions of the above photos are at my Flickr page.

Spring Update

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, so time for a quick update.  This past weekend was finally warm enough for a trip insect hunting.  On Saturday, I drove south to Lucas County and was happy to see several firsts for the year.

My first odonates were several Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum) at Stephen’s State Forest.  Also at Stephen’s I found my first butterflies.  Eastern Commas, which overwinter as adults, were out in good numbers as expected.  This is a really good location for anglewings, with all three Iowa Polygonias flying here together at times.

Eastern Comma, Stephen's SF, Lucas Co, IA, 2 April 2011

Very surprising was this freshly emerged Spring Azure.  This species is common at this location, but this individual is a couple weeks earlier than expected and probably a record early date for Iowa.

Spring Azure, Stephen's SF, Lucas Co, IA, 2 April 2011

I spent some time walking a nice sandy, wooded stream hoping for tiger beetles.  I flushed one a couple times, but it made long flights and I could never locate it on the ground to identify it.  I did find a new ‘bug’ for me and a close tiger beetle relative:

Elaphrus sp., Stephen's SF, Lucas Co., IA, 2 April 2011

This beetle of the genus Elaphrus, is shaped much like a tiger beetle but is incredibly tiny.  On my screen, it would be about the length of the word “tiny”.  Apparently these can’t be identified to species from photos, so we’ll just have leave it at the genus level for now.

Lastly, my second odonate of the year showed up on Sunday, conveniently enough in my backyard.  It was of course, a Common Green Darner (Anax junius).  This species and Variegated Meadowhawk are always the first two species to appear as they migrate in from the south as adults.  Most other species overwinter here as nymphs, buried in the mud on the bottom of  their stream, river, pond, or marsh, and emerge somewhat later as the water temperature warms.

Well, that’s it for now.  This weekend is looking good temperature wise–hopefully the predictions of rain will be wrong.

Day of Insects III

Saturday was the third annual Day of Insects at Reiman Gardens in Ames.  It was great to see so many people interested in insects–the attendance keeps growing, nearly 100 this year, including folks from most of the states surrounding Iowa.  It was also nice to see some friends who I only run into once or maybe twice a year, and to meet some new people with similar interests.

Here is the program list:

“Venomous Invertebrates: ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’”  William Heyborne, Morningside College

“Ticks of Iowa and Beyond”  Joel Hutcheson, USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratories, Ames

“Mantis Mania: An Introduction to the Art of Mantid Husbandry”  Joseph “Tony” Palmer, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo

“Come Into Our Parlor – Arthropod Images by Linda & Robert Scarth”   Linda & Robert Scarth

Vanessa migration and beetle project updates   Royce Bitzer

“Iowa Tiger Beetles: Past and Present Diversity and Distribution”   Aaron Brees

“Working out the ‘bugs’ – Insect ID pros and cons”   Moni Hayne, Bug Detective

“Chasing Wisconsin Robbers: Our effort to learn more about the Asilidae, the robber flies of Wisconsin”   Mike Reese

“Evolution in your Backyard”  Jackie Brown, Grinnell College

“Sunflower flies: hidden species in Iowa’s prairies”   Marty Condon, Cornell College and Ian McNish, Pioneer Hi-Bred International

“What on earth is this? Discovery and Description of a New Species”   Greg Courtney, Iowa State University

“Red Ants vs. Black Ants: The Dramatic Life of ‘Slave-Maker’ Ants”   James Trager, Shaw Nature Reserve

“A Honey Bee’s State of the State Address”   Andrew Joseph, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

“Superorganisms: How Insect Societies Rule the Earth”   Amy Toth, Iowa State University

I had a really good time and look forward to next year.  If you want to get the 2012 announcement and otherwise follow along with insect talk, join the Iowa Insects Mailing List.  Thank you to MJ Hatfield and Nathan Brockman for organizing, promoting, and running this event.  Thanks also to Mathew Brust and Ted MacRae for letting me use their excellent tiger beetle photos in my presentation.

After a day of listening to people talk about insects, I can’t wait for the weather to warm up a bit.  Last year, I saw my first butterfly on March 17–only 10 days from today.



ABA Listing

A while back, a friend made a comment to me that he had “x” number of Code 1 birds left to see in the ABA area.  That got me thinking that I had never really looked at my ABA list that way, and with no bugs to look for or much going on bird-wise, I took some time to add the codes to my spreadsheet and figure up what I was missing.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the ABA is the American Birding Association. Among the ABA’s functions are maintaining the “ABA area” list and publishing listing results in many catogories (state lists, Big Days, Big Years, etc.). Generally, the list that most birders talk about is their ABA area life list.  The ABA area basically includes North America north of Mexico.  Hawaii, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Greenland are not included.  The ABA list includes every naturally occurring species in the area and those introduced or escaped species which have become successfully established.  This list is in the high 900s last I checked, although many of these are species that have only occurred a handful of times and cannot be expected to occur in any given year.  The ABA checklist includes a code system which ranks each species by how common or easy to find it is:

Code 1 and 2:  Regular; code 2s being rarer or having restricted distributions

Code 3:  Regular; occurs annually but in very small numbers

Code 4: Casual; not recorded annually but 6+ records with at least 3 in the last 30 years

Code 5:  Accidental; 5 or less records or fewer than 3 in the last 30 years

Code 6:  Extinct or extirpated in the ABA area (Eskimo Curlew, Bachman’s Warbler, etc.)

So, running down the list, it looks like I have 19 code 1 birds left:

  1. Mountain Quail
  2. Willow Ptarmigan
  3. Rock Ptarmigan
  4. Cory’s Shearwater
  5. Greater Shearwater
  6. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
  7. Long-tailed Jaeger
  8. Thick-billed Murre
  9. Razorbill
  10. Black Guillemot
  11. Atlantic Puffin
  12. Horned Puffin
  13. Western Screech-Owl
  14. Mexican Whip-poor-will
  15. Vaux’s Swift
  16. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  17. Grace’s Warbler
  18. Black-chinned Sparrow
  19. Saltmarsh Sparrow

Of those, 7 are western/southwestern species, 3 are Alaskan, 8 are east coast pelagics, and Long-tailed Jaeger is Alaskan/pelagic off both coasts.

Black-chinned Hummingbird is a really bizarre, even embarrassing, miss. However, looking back, all the time I spent in the west was just barely out of range in the summer or too late in the fall to see it.  A well planned trip to the southwest in the summer should take care of it, along with Black-chinned Sparrow, Grace’s Warbler, Western Screech-Owl, Mexican Whip, and Vaux’s Swift.  I consider the swift to be one of my two nemesis birds, meaning a species which I have been in its range and habitat at the right time of year and spent a good amount of time unsuccessfully searching for (the other being the code 2 Le Conte’s Thrasher).

The east coast birds would take a couple trips.  One to get four alcids in the northeast and one to get the pelagics and Saltmarsh Sparrow in North Carolina.

Only one species on the list has been recorded in Iowa: Long-tailed Jaeger. This species is very rare but regular in fall on the western Great Plains, along the Rocky Mountain Front Range, and on the Great Lakes.  That leaves a gap around the Missouri and Mississippi River valleys where it is much rarer.  I assume I’ll eventually see this species at Saylorville Reservoir, but probably not before I see it off one of the coasts.

As for the other code categories, I’ve got a lot further to go:  2s = 86, 3s = 60, 4s = 89, and 5s = ~119.

My previous post reported the arrival of an Anna’s Hummingbird at my feeder. This was exciting because Anna’s had not previously been documented in Iowa. Well, not only did he spend the night and return to the feeder the next day, but he stayed until Thanksgiving, or nearly a full month.  Knowing that a first state record always draws considerable interest in the birding community, we cordoned off a corner of our backyard where visitors would be allowed to watch for the bird, and set out a couple lawn chairs.  This worked well as it allowed people to come see the bird while Jaclyn and I were at work during the week, and we did not have to try to accommodate everyone in our living room.  I tried to keep track of how many people came to see him and the final, conservative total was 80.

During his stay the weather went from one extreme to the other.  We had a high of 73 degrees and a low of 16 degrees.  The standard 4:1 ratio sugar water used for hummer feeders has a freezing point in the high 20s, so on the colder nights we used a heat light mounted on my tripod to keep it liquid.  This worked fine, and fortunately the little guy moved on before we saw any really serious weather.  People tend to think that hummingbirds are fragile little things that drop dead the second the temperature drops below freezing, but that is definitely not the case.  Our guy didn’t show any obvious signs of being stressed by the weather even when getting tossed around by 15 mph gusts in sub-20 degree weather.

Interestingly, this seemed to be a banner fall for vagrant Anna’s Hummingbirds. Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan had their first state records at about the same time as the Iowa bird, and Arkansas and Louisiana had birds as well. While there is a really obvious pattern of migratory western hummer species becoming more regular as migrants to the east of their “normal” range, and wintering along the Gulf Coast and in other relatively warm areas of the southeast, Anna’s, as a resident or short distance migrant species, doesn’t really fit in with that pattern.  I don’t know that there is any good explanation why so many turned up to the east this year.  ***update***  Continuing the amazing fall/winter for this species in the east, Newfoundland(!) has its first provincial record currently present, South Carolina had its first state record, and North Carolina had its second state record.  Hard to imagine a January hummingbird in Newfoundland, however the low temp so far for that hummer’s location has been 19 degrees, so warmer than several of the U.S. birds handled.

My Anna’s was one of three rare hummers in Iowa this fall.   The other two were Iowa’s 13th and 14th Rufous Hummingbirds, one of which I was able to view and wrote about in a previous post.   Although there are now fourteen Rufous records, I, and a number of other birders, think that species is an annual fall migrant through Iowa.   Presumably most rare hummers go unnoticed or are noticed by the feeder owner who doesn’t have a connection to the birding community.  Given the small number of serious birders compared to the number of people who own hummer feeders, it is telling that all three vagrants were at the homes of birders.  In order to try to help remedy this problem and to document more rare hummers in Iowa, a new website has been established to provide information and a place to send reports and ask questions.  If you are interested, you can visit the Iowa Hummingbird Project.

Lastly, here’s a parting shot of the Anna’s: