it’s all happening in the field

One of the great things about participating in the Blogger BioBlitz was that it spurred quite a number of people to get out into the field to do some serious looking around. While I’m fairly observant year round, I did find that I was paying even more attention to happenings in the field, especially for this time of the year when things still seem a little slow. In actual fact, there was quite a lot to see and I thought I’d report on a couple of interesting events.

First up is this molting Virginia Ctenucha caterpillar. Over the past week, I’ve seen these caterpillars by the dozens while out walking through the meadows. At first, I just noticed a couple, but then my shape recognition mechanism kicked into high gear and I began seeing them everywhere I looked. One afternoon, I even came upon a little “gathering” of caterpillars on the grass atop a giant anthill. A couple of the caterpillars were occupied with the business of molting. That’s what’s going on in the above and photo to the left. These caterpillars go from being dark with short, very bristly setae (hair), to having a longer, denser, yellow and white coat of setae as in the photo down below. It’s interesting to see how wet and bedraggled these caterpillars are when they first wriggle out of their molted skins. By the way, speaking of molting, do hike on over to visit Dharma Bums to see robin’s post about the catastrophic molting of elephant seals.

Another interesting encounter was with several Firefly (Lampyridae) larvae found slowly crawling over the bark of poplar trees in the woods (see photo below). They are ponderous creatures, moving like strange, slow-motion robots, as they patrol the bark in search of small prey. The head weaves from side to side, while the tail section periodically curls under and then out behind the long body. I’ve found these larvae on the poplars before, so had been watching for them, and sure enough, they appeared in time to be included in my bioblitz count.

The last sighting that I wanted to make mention of was an incredible aggregation of Springtails (Collembola). I came upon them while walking a section of the trail that leads past the ruins of an old dairy barn on the other side of the farm. The Springtails were assembled on a patch of winter-bleached grass in an almost perfect circle about 45cm (18 inches) in diameter. At first glance, the aggregation looked like the dense black soot that comes out of a woodstove pipe when you do a clean-out. In fact, that’s just how it registered in my mind. Then as I went to step over it, I suddenly thought, “What the heck… what would soot be doing out in the middle of the field!?” I knelt down to take a closer look and this is what I saw. I’ve posted two photos below. The top photo is of just a small section of the aggregation. It should give some idea of the concentration of the Springtail. The lower photo gives a better idea of what they look like when viewed up close. Keep in mind that these little guys are very small… really not much larger than a little black speck of soot.

Well, as you may have noticed, I haven’t provided the wrap-up of the farm portion of our week of bioblitzing. I’m still working on some IDs, and have to fill in the data sheets to submit, so I guess it will be another day or two until I get around to reporting the final tally of flora and fauna. In the meantime, the weather has improved, there is a lush carpet of green grass in the meadows, and the leaves are finally budding out on the trees. I’ve always thought that this part of the world has a certain bewitching quality about it — something that soothes us and causes us to forget how long and tiresome our winters can be. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be spending an increasing amount of time outdoors, and hopefully, can bring some of those sights back here to share with all of you.

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6 Responses to “it’s all happening in the field”

  1. Susannah Says:

    That moulting looks every bit as catastrophic as the elephant seals’ ordeal! Just quicker.

    Nice springtails. And by the way, you were right about the ones on my blog; they were springtails, and an expert in the field stopped by the Bioblitz map to tell me exactly what species they were.

    :)

  2. Cathy Says:

    Beavers eat bark and caterpillars molt. That’s why I hang out over here Bev. I learn something new every day. I’m just too chicken to click on Robin’s link. I about threw-up on a squashed turtle yesterday and I’m still a little queasy :0)

  3. burning silo Says:

    Susannah – Yes, actually, it does look a little catastrophic, doesn’t it?! When I first noticed the caterpillar, I thought it might have something wrong with it, or have been partially eaten by something, but then I took a closer look and realized it was okay and just molting.
    Glad you got an ID for the springtails. Yes, there are a few people around who know their species and can give you a good ID. That happens occasionally on my PBase galleries — someone who really knows a particular group of insects comes along and leaves some IDs for me which is always most appreciated! (-:

    Cathy – Yup, they eat lots of bark — I’d even guess that they might eat even the woodier parts of some kinds of trees as I don’t see too many wood chips around when they’ve been eating poplar. By the way, the first “casualty” came down since yesterday — a poplar that was about 5 inches in diamter. I’ll definitely have to wrap the trunks on the birch and ash trees to keep the beaver from chopping them down. The poplar trees are no great loss as they only grow so big and then die and break off anyhow. There’s actually nothing too bad to see on Robin’s page — at first glance, some of us thought the seal was sick, but the story has a happy ending and the info about the catastrophic molt was certainly news to most of us!

  4. Pamela Says:

    Bev, fantastic photos of the molt! I’ve only ever seen cast-off skins–would love to see it actually happening. And thanks for the heads up about the elephant seal molt–I had no idea, am headed over there now.

  5. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    I found at least 6 Virginia Ctenucha caterpillars on our property during the blitz. Now I will watch for molts too. (I am still working on the data sheet and am not sure I will get finished with that part. It is too nice outside to be inside.)

  6. burning silo Says:

    Pamela – Thanks! I guess the trick is to just keep looking and you’ll see interesting stuff. I almost didn’t bother to take a closer look at this caterpillar as I thought, “I’ve seen so many, why look closer?” and then decided to take a look after all. Sometimes I see the best stuff when I just follow a whim.

    OW – There should be plenty of caterpillars around, so I’d say the odds of finding one molting might actually be quite good over the next little while. I must say I was quite glad to finish up the last of my data sheets and send them off. I always enjoy field work, but don’t really enjoy all the paperwork that follows! (-: