Friday, July 29, 2011

The Same...But Different

Another walkabout with the boys this morning. Again the camera came with us. Again it's hot and dry and sunny today. We walked the same trail. Nothing seems to have changed from yesterday. And we saw lots of the same things....but it's as if different animals chose to let me get close to them today.

This time as we started out, I noticed the "A is for Abbott" logo that had formed itself in the draw sometime in the last couple of weeks. (Actually I noticed it yesterday, but ignored it because I was too busy looking at other things.) To my knowledge, this arrangement of windfall happened spontaneously, but it makes me smile when I pass by it.

About halfway around the Back 5, I saw this dragonfly perched on a bare branch. I stopped and took a photo from about 10' away, then inched forward and took another, inched forward again and took another.... By the time I was done, she had let me get about 4' away from her without flying. When she did finally spook, she came back almost immediately and let me take a couple more shots. Before I could try to go even closer, though, the dogs came over to see what I was doing. Needless to say, hanging around to let 2 German shepherds investigate her wasn't high on her priority list for the day.

I've identified my patient poser: she's a female 12-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella. The name, not surprisingly, comes from the 12 brown spots on the wings. Males, interestingly, have a series of cloudy white spots in between the brown spots that both sexes share and their abdomen gets covered with a waxy white coloration as they age. They almost look like a different dragonfly.

The skimmer was perched on a bare branch that is probably her hunting post. I don't know if dragonflies take grasshoppers but I'm hopeful, because close by her stakeout is a mulberry tree that has provided a great deal of fruit for birds and other critters this summer. Now, however, the grasshoppers have stripped the tree almost clean, even of leaves.

As I walked this morning, I ended up taking pictures of plants that grasshoppers had basically stripped but that I hadn't noticed before: mulberry, compass plant, Jerusalem artichokes, peony, cottonwood saplings...even the cattails were loaded with, and being eaten by, grasshoppers! It's impressive, actually. I showed a picture of the top of an 8' tall althea yesterday; today I chose to show a compass plant leaf. I actually took a photo of this same plant yesterday, from a bit farther away, and I could swear that the grasshoppers have visibly eaten away at it in less than 24 hours. Compass plant leaves are very rough and leathery - about as appetizing as eating prickly cardboard, I'd think - so it's surprising to see them enjoyed by grasshoppers this thoroughly.

As I got ready to go back inside, I stopped in the front yard to move a hose. Looking at a nearby green ash, I noticed a green cicada (Tibicen superbus) on the trunk, so I stepped under the canopy to photograph it. As I did with the dragonfly, I started from a fair distance away and moved in slowly. Again, my subject was mesmerized by my slow approach and posed patiently. With the "black shades" across the face between the eyes, this species reminds me of Geordie on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

On one of my last shots of the cicada, a velvet ant busily inserted herself into the picture before I noticed. She didn't pause, but scurried up the trunk, searching the tree for ??? She moved fast and it was hard to focus on her, but I watched her for several minutes. She walked up the trunk to the first branch, walked briskly out along the upper surface for the entire length of that branch, didn't find what she was looking for, came back to a junction in the branch, checked out out the fork not taken, still wasn't happy, came back to the trunk, chose the next branch, and kept going. I got sidetracked taking another photo or two and lost her in the canopy before too long, so I never did see if her search was successful or not.

Velvet ants are actually wingless female wasps and they will sting viciously if handled, despite their warm, fuzzy appearance. The males are winged, generally less hairy than their mates, and look like typical wasps. Apparently most velvet ants parasitize other wasps, including mud daubers, so maybe this female was looking for a wasp to paralyze and bring back to her nest. A couple years ago I noticed a velvet ant (different species) constructing a burrow in bare dirt in my garden, so I assume they provision their young with paralyzed prey in underground cells like the cicada killers do.

Each time I venture beyond the air conditioning these days, I'm beginning to feel pulled to take my camera outside with me. Who knows what I'll see next!

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