Monday, December 21, 2009

Farewell, Massachusetts

Over on my Bug Eric Blog I thanked the many kind people at the University of Massachusetts for making my work life there so stress-free and enjoyable. I would be remiss, however, in not acknowledging the many people who made my private life exciting and fun and happy.

I have to start with Crystalyn Russell and her dog Ruby, who were my first housemates. Crystalyn works entirely too much, but she is young and will get over it eventually. She is a wonderfully compassionate individual who takes good care of her friends, animals, and friends’ animals. Keep on riding, Crystalyn.

The second half of my six months here was spent living in the house next door to Crystalyn’s place. Thanks go to Linda Phillips for taking a chance on a near total stranger. People are very trusting of each other here, but I still consider it quite a risk that Linda took. She is literally surrounded by family right here in this South Deerfield neighborhood, though, so I had to pass muster with brothers, and Linda’s visiting adult children, Dylan and Logan. I find it flattering that it is going to take two new tenants to replace me now that I’m leaving. Still, why couldn’t the female microbiology grad student from Ireland have started here last semester? Thanks, Linda, for tolerating my idiosyncrasies.

My “home away from home away from home” was Athol, thanks to Dave and Shelley Small and Lynn Harper, all of whom took me to some great wild places. Dave is President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, and a manager of the Quabbin Reservoir (where Boston gets its drinking water). He kindly took me to places the public just can’t go. I can’t believe how easy-going Dave is considering his many responsibilities. He is literally on call 24/7 in case of an emergency at the reservoir (like when a beaver dam breaks and floods the road, stranding several fishing parties). They are constantly doing exercises in mock spill clean-up, etc. Quite an amazing operation they have there. Shelley is an archaeologist with the federal government. She is also a great hostess and made sure I had a bedroom to sleep in when I visited. Thank you to both of you, I owe you big time.

Lynn Harper insisted on dragging me to fiber festivals where I could see sheep, alpaca, people spinning yarn, and sharing knitting secrets. These are not the old maids of your grandmother’s era, though! Lynn and I also went to plenty of wild places, looking for dragonflies along various rivers, in bogs, and other habitats. Lynn works for the state office of Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, spending much too much time in a cubicle in a trailer, and the rest of it commuting to and from. I thank Lynn for also showing me the wonderful shops and eateries in places like Northampton, Greenfield, and Brattleboro, Vermont. Thanks, Lynn, for everything, give my best to Sophe and George (the cats).

When I wasn’t running around with Lynn and Dave Small, other folks were seeing to it that I got out and about. Nature photographer Steve Gingold patiently waited while I got my lazy bones out of bed to go looking for fauna and flora with him at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary and other great habitats. Steve is a true artist and takes great pains to get the perfect shot of a given insect, flower, mushroom, or landscape. Please visit Stephen Gingold Nature Photography to see what I mean.

John F. Carr took me afield a couple of times, including what may be the wettest, but most scenic hike I took out here, through October Mountain State Forest. Thanks so much, John, for letting me tag along. I enjoyed your company and sense of humor very much.

Last, but certainly not least, I have to thank the “bus gang” that commuted with me every morning to work on the UMass campus. They welcomed me instantly and we had many a laugh together. I got to go to the Keene, New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival thanks to them, and could have done lots of other things, too, if I hadn’t been “booked” already doing something else. They also made me join Facebook, for which I am actually grateful. Fondest thoughts and wishes to Stefanie Krug (who is taking me to the airport today), Francoise Walk, Jane Wrisley, Joanne Provost, Margaret Ludlam, Sandy Hay, Diane Willard, Heidi Bauer-Clapp, Craig West, and Gaetan Jacques. Wish I could take you all back to Tucson.

There you have it, the principal “supporting cast” for my Massachusetts odyssey. Everyone should be so lucky.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Darwin Gets Swine Flu

I had the privilege of attending a seminar yesterday evening presented by author Carl Zimmer for the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). The title was “Darwin Gets Swine Flu: Celebrating the Origin of Species in an Age of Pandemics.” Zimmer somehow managed to weave together eloquent prose with stunning graphics and a dash of humor. How else would you deftly convey something as sobering as influenza?

I must admit that I have been one of those folks who has brushed aside the hype associated with H1N1. I still wash my hands and take as many precautions as possible without unduly altering my daily life, but I may have to re-think this after learning what Zimmer knew already.

Thankfully, the death toll from influenza pandemics has steadily and dramatically dropped since the global catastrophe of 1918, but even without these periodic spikes, an average of 36,000 people die each year from the regular flu. This year, 10,000 folks have perished from H1N1, in the U.S. alone, since about April. There may be more fatalities yet to come, but we hope not, of course.

Why can’t we seem to conquer influenza? This is where Darwin comes in. Viruses simply evolve to fast for us to keep up with them, at least with our current vaccination technology. We even accelerate their evolution through our global travel, where tropical strains can mix with temperate ones and create new strains within days. The rate at which viruses reproduce is mind-boggling. The rate at which they mutate is staggering. The good news is that the majority of these mutations are fatal to the viruses themselves. Enough mutations survive, however, to create strains resistant to the latest vaccination, or otherwise insulate the virus from our ability to combat it effectively.

Ok, back up a minute. So what do the “H” and “N” and numbers stand for, anyway? “H” stands for hemagglutinin, “N” for neuraminidase, both of which are proteins that coat the exterior of a virus. These proteins are what our immune system antibodies recognize as foreign invaders. The numbers, one through sixteen, represent the known strains of the influenza virus. Where are the rest of the strains? Well, nearly all of them are carried by birds. Birds don’t seem to get sick from these viruses, at least not very often, but of course they have the potential to spread the viruses far and wide with their excrement, and dead bodies (from whatever cause of death).

Zimmer cautioned that “factory farming” of large numbers of poultry birds and pigs in relatively small, confined spaces may mean more flu pandemics in our future. Virus particles (for lack of a better, basic term) are easily passed short distances from one infected organism to another as it is, let alone when they are shoulder to shoulder.

Winter is the time at which we are most vulnerable to infection because viruses sneezed out or coughed out linger in the dry air much longer than in humid air. The viruses also drift farther, and settle on common items like doorknobs and telephones, too. No reason for paranoia here, just caution. After I wash my hands in a public restroom, I use the paper towel to open the door to leave, for example.

Time to switch gears now and encourage you to follow science through Zimmer’s books, website, and blog. The best place to start might be at Carl Zimmer dot com. Be sure to check out his award-winning blog, too, entitled The Loom. What an appropriate name for what Zimmer weaves together in a totally enthralling fashion. Keep up the great work, Carl!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


We decorate
Our Christmas trees
And defend such frivolities
As festive.
But it is no accident
That Yuletide cheer
Falls near winter solstice
Each and every year.
Impatient for Spring
We string the lights
Like flowers bright
To guide us through long winter nights.

Color, color,
We need more color.
Break out the holly
And the evergreens
To spruce up the snowy holiday scenes.
Autumn leaves have all dispersed
And flower blooms
Are still far off.
So why pretend?
Why not admit?
We need Nature all year long
To keep our hearts merry
And our spirits strong.

Eric R. Eaton, circa 1988

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Winter Mourn

Life huddles on a winter-dead tree.
Birds feather-fluffed crouch low,
Eyes shut to cold onslaught.
Moss uncombed
Drapes over shoulder limb.
A fungus staircase
Up the bumpy trunk
Provides an avenue
For a meandering snail.

Sudden flight
Cracks cloud, leaves branches
Bouncing in good-bye.
Torn shroud of gray
Re-sews itself.
Lonely twigs lace the sky
And mourn the bird-loss
With heavy dew-tears.

But moss still clings,
Fungus holds fast,
And snail still lingers.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1981

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remember behavior!

This afternoon I attended a seminar in the graduate program in Organismal & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled “The Evolution of Comparative Cognition.” The presentation was given by Sara Shettleworth, Professor Emerita of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She gave a delightful and insightful picture of how psychology and the study of animal behavior have evolved (or perhaps not evolved in some ways), and the topic stirred the minds of all in attendance.

One of the most striking aspects of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology is how few species of animals have been studied to date. Initially, it was all rats, all the time, with only a smattering of studies involving other vertebrates, let alone primates or invertebrates. That condition was exemplified in Shettleworth’s talk by a cartoon depicting a “pied piper” rat leading an army of scientists through town.

Today, we collectively study a more diverse lot of species both in the laboratory and in the field, but I can’t help but wonder whether the questions we ask, and the methods by which we ask them, don’t say more about ourselves than about those subjects of experiment.

Students of animal behavior have long been cautioned about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and assigning human emotions and motivations to the behaviors of another species. Indeed, Shettleworth emphasized the need to take behavior at face value. She also pointed to the need to avoid limiting one’s experiments and observations to the realm of “yes” and “no.” Other animals are generally much more complicated than that.

What may be completely unavoidable, however, is taking an anthropocentric approach to ethology and animal psychology, especially in terms of what we consider “advanced” versus “primitive” attributes. This tendency rears its head frequently, and Shettleworth found humor in colleagues who couldn’t believe that, say, dogs outperform chimpanzees in some tasks. That just isn’t the way it is “supposed” to be!

Personally, I think it may be an overriding concern to prove that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent, highly-evolved species, and we go into our experiments with, and observations of, other species with that bias. The fact is, however, that we are on the planet with a minimum of a million other species that, by virtue of the fact that they also exist here and now, have succeeded at least as well as we have by the only standard that matters: survival. For that matter, even dinosaurs were successful, for the geological period over which they reigned.

Mother Nature (or God, or whatever creative entity you hold dear) wastes nothing, and each species is as complex and intelligent as it has to be to get by. No more, no less. Social species like the other great apes, wolves, and cetaceans may seem to be smarter because they are like us in being social, and do need to master intricate forms of communication in order for each pod, pack or other social unit to prosper.

Still, are solitary species any less successful? No. There are, in fact, vastly more solitary species than social ones. What they may lack in plasticity in learning ability they make up for in instincts and hightened physical senses that have served them for eons. A sand wasp can find its burrow in a seemingly featureless dune, but we can’t remember where we parked the car.

What do you think? Where do you stand? I promise to revisit this topic as often as I can, and welcome your opinions, observations, and shared knowledge. Meanwhile, I may pick up the just-released second edition of Sara Shettleworth’s book, Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Work, Work, Work

I do not like to make excuses for why there are long gaps between blog entries, but right now I am up to my ears in work, and my six month stint here at the University of Massachusetts is winding down.

My current priorities are to finish my tasks in the lab, complete a private project identifying bee specimens, and start packing up to move back to Arizona. Blogging is going to have to be put on the back burner for now, so please bear with me while posts are more infrequent.

Once I return to Tucson, I hope to also return to more creative, philosophical, thought-provoking, and nostalgic themes here at Sense of Misplaced. That is to say that I'd like to share with you some of my memories, and some of the people and experiences that shaped my life over the years.

I also aim to drive more traffic to this blog, and welcome suggestions for how to do so. Thank you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Field Notes with Laurie Sanders

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on Friday, October 23, featuring Laurie Sanders, host of Field Notes on WFCR, a public radio station here in Amherst, Massachusetts. Laurie offered some great insight into what it takes to produce a weekly radio show, and I have a much better appreciation now for how hard these journalists and producers work.

Radio and television are media outlets that I wish to branch out into, so I was excited to hear how Laurie has managed to succeed there.

I was intrigued to learn that like me she is an “only child.” It is my belief that having no siblings tends to make an individual even more driven toward success. My mother tells me that I put away my toys at age ten and told her I had to make something of my life.

Laurie has been fearless in the pursuit of her own dreams. Just prior to grad school, she pitched an idea for a nature television show to a commercial station near her hometown of Cheshire, Connecticut. There was interest in the concept, but grad school took precedence. After achieving her degree, she cold-called the local Public Broadcasting Service affiliate WGBY. This time the idea took wing and Laurie ended up producing 36 short television segments on natural history over a four year period. Television is an expensive medium, however, and she eventually turned to radio, and the local National Public Radio affiliate WFCR, 88.5 FM. What materialized was a six month, grant-funded series of two- to three-minute weekly radio pieces for WFCR.

Ten years later, Field Notes shows no sign of slowing down. Laurie strives to present timely pieces that are meaningful to her New England audience. She has only six minutes and eighteen seconds to captivate her loyal followers and hook new listeners in her Monday morning niche.

Gone are the days of lugging heavy tape recorders into the field to record both natural sounds and dialogue with human subjects. The emergence of compact digital recorders has meant that editing interviews and whittling the whole affair down to the allotted time limit has also become easier. No more splicing magnetic tape! There is even freeware like “Audacity” that facilitates the editing of sound files.

Still, it takes a great deal of time to produce a quality presentation. While radio is vastly cheaper than television, with a faster turnaround from recording to broadcast, it still takes twenty to twenty-five hours of production for a five minute piece. Some shows, like NPR’s This American Life, are highly produced, while others take less time and resources.

Laurie is delighted when a national show like Living on Earth wants to use one of her productions. I have a feeling that syndication could be in the offing for Field Notes if Laurie wants to make the next leap. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Scenics

Despite my dislike for fall, you can’t be in New England at this time of year and not go out on a picture-perfect afternoon to admire the foliage. Last Sunday, October 25, was just such a day. I went for a walk in the late afternoon to catch the low sun on the trees and the river, and these images hardly do the landscape justice.

My immediate neighborhood here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts is an odd mix of run-down homes and cul-de-sac spurs with obviously affluent subdivisions. Taking a walk down one such road brought me some spectacular views of North Sugarloaf Mountain, and this estate beneath, complete with a riding arena. There I met Kim, who greeted me on her riding mower as she vacuumed leaves off the steep lawn in front of her family’s house, situated right on the side of the mountain. Her daughter was riding her horse, exercising the equine to help it recover from an injury that kept it out of major shows this year.

Kim is typical of the strangers I’ve met here: Warm and friendly, and eager to share their experiences with the land. By the time we parted I had been invited to their Halloween party this Saturday.

North Sugarloaf is the wilder sister of South Sugarloaf, with a deep “saddle” between the two buttes. The farms that abut the base of both are breathtaking and suggest the quintessential romantic rural life. Blight killed off all the tomatoes this year, and tobacco (yes, tobacco!) was a total loss, too. Life is not as idyllic as it appears on the surface.

South Sugarloaf Mountain is the tourist attraction here. A yet-to-be-released movie starring Mel Gibson had a scene filmed at the top last year, where the observation tower stands. Manicured, clear-cut, and landscaped to offer a panoramic view and picnicking sites, it is decidedly less natural than its northern twin. I find the view looking upslope to be more inspiring than that from the summit, which takes a disappointingly short time to reach, even if you do not drive your car there.

Go around South Sugarloaf and you head downhill to the bridge between South Deerfield and Sunderland, over the mighty Connecticut River. This view looks upstream with Mount Toby in the distance.

The Connecticut is a highly-controlled river, its levels at the mercy of floodgates that this year left the water high most of the time. Only rarely did one see sand bars on the island or any semblance of a shoreline along the heavily-wooded banks. Just beyond the tree-line, however, the land gives way to agriculture. The University of Massachusetts has a large farm devoted to growing turf and sustaining cattle, among other experimental pursuits.

Here is a typical view behind the veil of trees.

The light fades too fast and I find myself wanting to chase the sun. The wind has not yet surrendered, and blows a reminder of wilder ways across the surface of the Connecticut, writing in ripples about seasons yet to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Spider silk connects the dots,
The toothy edges
Of an alder leaf,
Gilding the flamboyant colors
Of aging foliage
In a silvery, oval frame
Hung in the fleeting gallery
Of fall.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1983

Do you like the odd poem here on this blog? Want more? You can read more over at my poetry blog, Verse-atility.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Art of Insect Tracking

Last Saturday night, October 3, I joined friends from Athol, Massachusetts to travel to the town of Cummington for the opening reception of an art exhibit by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. The two friends collaborate to teach tracking workshops and other field courses, but have also worked to produce the forthcoming book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, published by Stackpole Books with an expected release date of March, 2010. The exhibit, which runs through the end of October at the Cummington Community House, 33 Main Street, features stunning images taken for the book.

Noach Charney has become so enthralled with the intricate designs produced by insects in the course of their life cycles that he intends to produce his own coffee table book that celebrates these signs and patterns as literal art. Noah has a real eye for this and is painstaking in his commitment to producing high quality images. He is not above fooling his audience, either, posing optical illusions while rendering portraits of what insects leave behind. This image of leafcutter bee “damage” is perhaps the representative picture for the entire project. Can you tell what is going on here (hint: this is not a studio shot, and only minor manipulation of the leaves was involved)?

Charley Eiseman (right)met Noah (left) years ago when they helped found the “Woodsy Club,” as Charley’s mom affectionately calls it. Together with other like-minded souls, they practiced tracking, outdoor survival skills, and other activities. The two might call themselves “slackers” and poke fun at each other’s shortcomings, but there is nothing about them that is unprofessional when it comes to scientific endeavors. Keen eyes and endless curiosity have helped them spot the most cryptic of arthropod-created objects and solve enduring mysteries of “what did that?”

Anyone who hangs out with Noah and Charley will learn what true friendship means, and will laugh a lot along the way. You can’t help but come away with an appreciation of all things insect- and spider-created, or learn the art of observation and patience, either.

This blog entry is not just to promote their book and photography skills. You have to read the wonderful story in the Boston Globe for that. I just like these guys and the fine qualities they exemplify. Do take in the exhibit if you find yourself in the vicinity of Cummington, and by all means visit their website, the Northern Naturalists to keep track of their latest activities (no pun intended).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I do not like autumn. I never have. I don’t like watching things die, if even only in the seasonal sense. Fall sends me into mourning for the lost summer, and already pining for spring.

Ironically, in the part of Arizona that I currently call home, the landscape looks dead the majority of the year, perking up only during the summer “monsoon” season. I know that life is merely hiding, though, cryptic in its way of dealing with heat and drought. Meanwhile, I am comfortable for most of the time. Not so here in New England.

Here, the spring and summer are fleeting. Life cycles seem speeded up by several orders of magnitude with insect species at least coming and going so quickly that they are easily missed if one isn’t paying attention, or rainy weather nudges one back indoors like it did this June and much of July. I am not alone in feeling short-changed in the sunshine department. Yesterday morning (Friday, October 16) it even snowed briefly.

The heralded “fall colors” here seem muted even by Massachusetts standards. Ornamental Norway maples are doing their part without much help from native maples. Oaks turn later I am told, and they sure seem to be taking their sweet time. Among the exceptional trees are red maples. They turned fiery red a few weeks ago in the “maple swamps,” truly spectacular in contrast to the blue skies and evergreens.

Here, people flock from elsewhere to see that kind of color. The tourists, some even from eastern Massachusetts, come as a mixed blessing to residents. Traffic picks up dramatically, and crawling along behind the “leaf peepers” seems a nearly intolerable price to pay for whatever revenue is injected into the local economy.

Apples, wool, and pumpkins dominate the mind and drive rural events now. I’m going to the annual pumpkin festival in Keene, New Hampshire later this afternoon in fact, tagging along with my “bus buddies” from the daily workweek commute. Friends and food are powerful motivations to venture out in the absence of insects and other wildlife to watch.

Last weekend I was in the vicinity of Antrim, New Hampshire with my friend Lynn Harper for their “Wool Arts Tour.” The event centered mostly around several farms where sheep, llamas, and alpacas are raised for their wool. I enjoy the pace of life away from the city, and the people here are warm and friendly, but I’d still be finding lots of insects on the desert broom (Baccharis) flowers back in Tucson.

Wet, fallen leaves underfoot, like a bowl of soggy cornflakes, and clouds condensing from one’s own breath. That is life right now.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Black Racer

My friend Lynn Harper and I happened upon one of the more regal of New England reptiles on Saturday, September 26, while taking a walk through the Montague Plains Wildlife Management area in Franklin County, Massachusetts . The northern black racer, Coluber constrictor, is normally quick to flee from the slightest disturbance, but this snake was an exception.

Strolling down the sandy trail I froze in my tracks when I spotted the serpent. So did Lynn. So did the racer. We all seemed mesmerized by each other. I did manage to bring my camera up to try and get an image, and despite the obligatory foliage between me and most of my photographic subjects, I got off a few respectable shots.

Black racers are not uncommon this far north (they even range into southern Maine), but the best observation one usually gets is a glimpse of a shiny black snake slithering quickly out of view. They are known to occasionally take refuge among branches and other vegetation, but in my experience they seem to vanish into thin air, or at least down some unseen rodent burrow.

I was also taken aback by the size of the snake. At first I thought it might be a black rat snake, but that species is state-listed as endangered in Massachusetts, and it does not frequent the dry habitat of the Montague Plains. Racers range between thirty and sixty inches, or 90-150 centimeters. This specimen was on the upper end of the spectrum. I am more familiar with the smaller, blue-gray or yellowish brown versions of this species that can be found in Oregon.

As I moved behind Lynn to try and get a better angle for photographing it, the snake began to test the air with its tongue in earnest. It turned and beat its retreat, vibrating its tail as many harmless snakes are wanton to do in imitation of venomous rattlesnakes. As suddenly as it had appeared it slipped away through the swishing dry grass.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stump Sprouts

Last Sunday, September 20, I had the pleasure of visiting the Stump Sprouts Guest Lodge and Cross Country Ski Center, located in the picturesque township of Hawley in Franklin County, Massachusetts. You should see the place for yourself, though, and taste the food, and just relax there.

I had been invited by a friend to lead a “bug walk” before the annual “nature” meeting and supper for the Sons and Daughters of Hawley. The drive through the rural, rolling hills was a treat in itself, but what a great place the destination was. Nobody showed for the bug walk, except for the owners of Stump Sprouts, Suzanne and Lloyd Crawford. They are the most wonderful couple you will ever meet, totally dedicated to providing an enjoyable experience for their guests, while embracing a commitment to sustainability, low impact recreation, and local agriculture. Local as in right there on the property, whenever possible.

The Crawfords have been doing this since 1977, including constructing buildings from timber they took from their own property. This is in part the origin of the “Stump Sprouts” name: ‘new life from old roots’ as their brochure states.
I really love the whimsical “face” on the side of the lodge, made from old rusty tools and sawblades. It is also a reflection of the cheerful nature of the proprietors.

One of the newer additions has been this solar panel that generates electricity that they feed into the grid, drawing the energy back out as they need it. I found that the structure also supports housing for paper wasps beneath it. Nearby is a vegetable garden and compost heap. They regularly serve the literal fruits of their garden in the meals they prepare for guests.

The bread and butter season for Stump Sprouts is the winter when they host cross-country skiers, snowshoe hikers, and even ice skaters at some of the local ponds. They keep their 450 acres laced with well-groomed trails through woods, fields, and meadows.

There is no reason one cannot enjoy the accommodations at any other time of year, and I could recommend the facilities for any group wishing to do nature-related workshops, birding tours, or even scientific research. Suzanne and Lloyd are very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and willing to learn even more.

All the amenities, save linens, bedding, and toilet articles which guests are asked to provide themselves, come at very reasonable prices. The lodge is also located close to the town of Shelburne Falls, and Northampton and Greenfield are only about a 45 minute drive away. From Boston it is only 2 hours, and New York City is about four road hours away.

Please visit the website for Stump Sprouts for current rates and more detailed information. It is well worth the visit, even for a day.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Parallel lines
Of paper birches
Fade to plaid
When crossed
With reflections
Of sky and water
In sunset shades
Of red and green,
The Scottish fabric
Of an American grove.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1988

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pickerel Frogs

Never in my life as a naturalist have I ever seen as many frogs as I have here in western Massachusetts. They seem particularly abundant right now around ponds, rivers, even dry areas fairly far from water. Among the most common are pickerel frogs, Rana palustris.

I’ve been privileged to encounter several cooperative photographic subjects in the field at places like the High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary and the Westfield River. One shy specimen hid under the shed at Dave Small’s house in Athol and happily gobbled up moths and other insects that, attracted by his mercury vapor light, fell to the ground beneath.

Pickerel frogs are easily mistaken for leopard frogs, Rana pipiens, the amphibian we all dissected in biology lab. Leopard frogs are identified by their round spots, while pickerel frogs have larger, nearly square blotches. Leopard frogs are in severe decline over much of their geographic range, however, due not to scalpels but to many environmental factors impacting most frogs. Acid rain, draining and filling of wetlands, and fungal disease are among the suspected reasons for their disappearance.

Pickerel frogs seem to be thriving by contrast, at least in my own experience this summer. Western Massachusetts did have an abnormally wet season, though, the wettest on record by some accounts, and there was certainly no shortage of areas for frogs to breed. It was difficult to avoid wet places in fact. Even so, I found many pickerels in perfectly dry (even downright hot) conditions at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary.

Male pickerel frogs call for mates by inflating a pair of vocal sacs in beneath their throat. Most references describe the sound they produce as a “snore,” but not having heard one I cannot say for myself. They started breeding from March to early May, before I arrived here.

The female frog lays her eggs in vernal (temporary) pools, usually near rivers or streams, and she is prolific. One egg mass can have from 700 to 3000 ova. Tadpoles can become frogs by the end of the summer, but it takes two years from egg to sexually mature adult.

I have to thank the people of Massachusetts for preserving a great deal of amphibian habitat; and thank the frogs themselves that were kind enough to not hop away too quickly while I fumbled with my camera. They are very photogenic, but perhaps they know that….

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Does it qualify as a migration if the Canada geese just fly back and forth between destinations in a small area? I rather doubt it, but the birds still fly in formation, honking in that haunting way that literally says “autumn,” and takes your breath away as they pass overhead.

Lately, here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, right behind my current residence, over the site of the former pickle factory, you could set your clock to their evening flight. Six fifteen. Six eighteen at the latest. The way the fading sun catches their wings is simply awe-inspiring. Is this the flock from the Campus Pond? Where are they going? I like not knowing the answers.

There are now many places across North America where Canada geese have ceased to migrate, so at home do they feel in what was once just their summer residence. This is especially true in urban and suburban areas where people feed them constantly, and there are vast lawns (i.e. parks and golf courses) for them to relax and nibble on.

Unfortunately, goose poop has become a real quantitative sanitation problem in such circumstances, and while it was once a pleasant novelty to have a dependable flock at the park, it has become at least a smelly nuisance requiring one to step carefully anywhere near a water feature.

My friend Jeff Boettner used to band birds, and he is carefully tuned to when the true migrations happen. Shorebirds, he says, have probably already passed through along the coast. Hawks are about to start, especially the broad-winged hawks.

For now, I’ll find contentment in this “mini-migration,” and enjoy the enchanting call of the wild that offers accompaniment to the changing foliage.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Heron Encounter

A casual lunchtime visit to the Campus Pond at the University of Massachusetts here in Amherst on Thursday, August 27, brought a sweet surprise. A family had taken up one of the stone benches at my favorite spot under a tree beside the pond. They were feeding the geese and ducks like many folks do, but one of the birds near the shore was clearly not a duck or a goose. It was a great blue heron wading just a couple yards away from them.

It seemed completely absurd that a bird I am usually lucky to spot from a football field away should be right there, like somebody’s pet, or a permanent resident of a wildlife rehab facility. No broken wings on this elegant animal, I saw it fly gracefully across the pond on a later date.

The scene this day reminded me of a story I read many years ago in Natural History magazine about herons and egrets (maybe pelicans, too) in Florida that had taken to hanging out on the docks and begging fishermen for part of their catch. The article was entitled “Brother Can You Spare a Fish?”

I had also heard a story when I first arrived here about an egret that frequents the Campus Pond and is equally habituated to humans. A young boy was tossing popcorn at the bird, which obviously ignored the overture. A professor passing by muttered arrogantly “They eat fish, not popcorn.” The next kernel the boy threw bounced off the egret’s head and into the water. A fish surfaced to investigate the morsel, at which point the egret nabbed the fish and took flight. The boy turned to the professor with a satisfying smirk on his face.

My home town of Portland, Oregon named the great blue heron the official city bird many years ago. There, it is even the emblem on an ale produced by a local microbrewery. I find it ironic that I would have to go across the entire country to get this close to one, but I’ll treasure the memory.

Repeat "Offender"

Remember the bat that had flown into the house next door a few weeks ago? Well, I now live in that house, and the landlady was just beginning to breathe easier, thinking the bat had found its way out when….The evening of Monday, August 17 I came home from work and noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turns out the bat had been roosting on a window shade at the top of another entry door.

Fortunately, the shade was easily detached from the door, so I simply took the shade and the bat outside, much to the relief of my landlady. The bat flopped off the shade and into some plants along the edge of the back deck. It must have been exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry, at least if it had been in the house the whole time.

After snapping a few pictures of the creature, I decided I should probably try to hang it up on a tree trunk so it could eventually manage a take-off. The bat had other ideas. It was none to eager to receive my “help” and actually flew off from ground level, much to my amazement and relief. I was an instant hero to my landlady, but oh how things can change….

The next night, Tuesday, August 18, I arrived home to find my landlady utterly beside herself on the front porch steps. There were literally two of her there. No, I’m joking. Her mental state was not a laughing matter at all, actually. I did not know what was wrong, and the first words out of her mouth were “I’m going to have to sell my house.” Having just moved in, I was now in total shock myself.

It turns out that the bat was back, in the exact same place from which I had removed it the evening before. I reassured my landlady that this was an easy problem to deal with, but we should probably try and find out where the bat was entering the premises. After once again removing the bat (I attempted no “flight aid” this time), I set about looking for possible entry points.

This home was built in 1913, and trying to find one little crack or crevice where a bat could enter was futile. There are just too many possibilities. The chimney was an obvious choice, but the bottom was blocked by a layer of insulation. A bat would not have an easy time getting through, but it could be done. I decided that the bat must be a descendant of Houdini and let it go at that. My new plan was to simply remove the bat every time it showed up until it learned that it was going to be sent packing every time. I began the paperwork, but then remembered bats can’t read eviction notices.

Fortunately, we have not seen the bat since. I wish it were as easy to convince my landlady that bats are pretty harmless to people, and nothing to be afraid of. Not many people get a chance to see a wild bat up close, and I am sorry that this experience was an unpleasant one for her. Maybe someday I will show her the portrait I took of her uninvited houseguest before it left for the last time. I think it is rather cute, don’t you agree?

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I just changed my residence here in South Deerfield, moving to the house next door (literally). Unfortunately, it does not have wireless internet, so it may be awhile before I am able to blog again. I am writing this from a cafe' right now, just before closing. Stay tuned, though, more to come.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Holy Chiroptera, Batman!

I am quite certain that I like bats more than the average person. Still, there are some places I would rather not encounter them. Like inside my house. That is exactly where I found one flitting about in South Deerfield on Tuesday night, August fourth.

It was around eleven PM and I decided I would go out and see if I could find any insects around the lights in town. I opened the door to exit my room to be greeted by an airborne blur and the breeze and sound of wingbeats. I recognized the animal immediately, if only because the next door neighbor had a bat in her own home the week before and the situation was still fresh in my mind.

The bat was doing the flying equivalent of pacing up and down the dark hallway, looping through the kitchen at the other end, and coming back toward my room. Naturally, my first thought was to get my camera and see if I could take some pictures. I chose the kitchen as my vantage point, and got many, many fine shots of the empty room along with three appropriately ghostly images of the bat zipping by the fridge.

At times it seemed the bat had left the area entirely, but it turns out it was still making the rounds, just skimming two to three inches off the floor on occasion. I was incredibly impressed by the aerial skills of this little insectivore. Ok, it really wasn’t that little. Surprisingly large in fact, so I surmised it was probably a “big brown bat,” Eptesicus fuscus, perhaps the most common and widespread species in North America.

Once I had my fill of photography frustration, I simply opened the kitchen door and away it went, presumably to hunt moths and beetles, just like me. It turns out I did exactly the right thing when confronted with a bat in one’s residence. In the weekly e-mail newsletter from the Athol Bird and Nature Club came this tidbit from Mass Wildlife:

“With summer's hot, humid weather finally here, some Bay State homeowners may discover bats residing in their homes! Attics are the most common portion of a house in which bats roost and raise their young. After a few hot summer days, an attic may become too warm for the bats, forcing them out and sometimes into people's living quarters as they search for cooler places to roost. What's a homeowner to do? Fortunately, a single bat flying in a room can usually be dealt with quite easily. Open an outside window or door in the room containing the bat and close off the rest of the room from the house. It's usually only a matter of a few minutes of circling before the bat locates the open window and leaves the house. Bats do not attack people or fly into people's hair.
If a bat has landed, it can be assisted out of a house in several ways. For a bat on a curtain, place a jar, coffee can or small box over the bat, carefully working the animal into the container, and cover it. A bat on the floor can be covered with a towel. Another method is to put on leather gloves and simply pick up the bat and release it outdoors --don't use cotton gloves or handle a bat with bare hands. Whatever method is used, don't worry when the bat squeaks loudly when handled. Take the bat outdoors and release it. If anyone has had direct contact with a bat or if a bat is found in a room with a sleeping person, the bat should be safely captured but not released. Contact local health officials for assistance in evaluating potential rabies risk and submitting the bat to the Department of Public Health for rabies testing.
Little Brown Bats and Big Brown Bats are the most likely species to be found in buildings. In some cases, with small numbers of bats, people don't mind their presence and concentrate on blocking holes and cracks leading into the human living quarters. Where there is a large colony in house walls, biologists recommend that homeowners wait to initiate eviction proceedings until the first week of August through November. Waiting to evict the colony allows time for young bats to mature and leave the house on their own.
Because Massachusetts and other northeastern states are experiencing a sudden and unexpected decline of bat populations due to a white powdery fungus on bat faces called White Nose Syndrome, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) reminds all property owners with a summer colony of ten or more bats to report report the colony's location, type of structure where the bats reside, and how many bats are in the colony, by calling….”

This is good information. You can learn even more about bats, and what you can do to help foster a better understanding of these maligned creatures, at Bat Conservation International, the world’s leading organization devoted to bat welfare.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

I try and avoid political hot potatoes on what should be strictly a nature blog, but this government program is aimed at mitigating extravagant fuel consumption, and it also points to a part of human nature that is a bit disturbing.

Even ardent supporters of President Obama’s policies and initiatives seem to be raising eyebrows at this popular program designed to replace “gas-guzzlers” with more fuel-efficient vehicles. One criticism is that the bar is set so low (one needs to only improve their miles per gallon by less than a factor of ten) it is really going to have a negligible effect. An improvement of fifteen or twenty miles per gallon in performance would seem to be a better threshold to qualify for federal funding help.

My criticism has much more to do with our American sense of entitlement to a personal vehicle. Why are my tax dollars being used to subsidize your car? I should at least be allowed to borrow it now and then if I have a financial stake in it. Never mind that I don’t drive (I can, I have a license, but I find it so nerve-wracking as not to want to bother), it is the principle of taking from the collective community to give to the individual that I find offensive.

President Obama would have been far wiser to use those funds to greatly expand public transit across the nation, including commuter rail lines. His reluctance to do so points out how pathologically isolated we have become. We can no longer tolerate “others” on the bus ride to the office, let alone any other destination. Even if we do climb aboard a coach, we plug our ears with MP3 players, bury our face in a book, or stare out the window. Whatever happened to striking up a conversation? Flirting? Sharing?

No, we would rather go into financial debt for our very own personal, mobile space than have to deal with “strangers” any more than we already do. I could go on about how some drivers need to be taken off the road no matter what kind of vehicle they are behind the wheel of, or how distracted, sleep-deprived, and angry the average operator of a car has become, but mostly I am simply saddened by our collective disdain for interacting with each other in public.

Tomorrow I take the bus, like every weekday morning, from South Deerfield to the UMass campus in Amherst. I will enjoy joking and conversing with the fine ladies and gentlemen that share that commute. I encourage you to explore your own transit options and make the most of them, both economically and socially.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I haven’t been to the Campus Pond at the University of Massachusetts in many weeks now, but back on June 8 I was treated to a large, very cooperative amphibian as a photo subject during my lunch hour. The bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana, is native here, but elsewhere in North America, where it has been introduced, it might better be called the “bully” frog.

The species is named for the early English naturalist Mark Catesby who explored the southeast United States in the early 1700s, documenting his findings in words and illustrations published as Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Just like its human namesake, the frog has had “legs” to parts of the world far removed from its native eastern U.S. haunts.

It has, in fact, been those meaty hind legs that have caused the dispersal of the bullfrog around the globe. Prized as a delicacy, frog legs are a staple appetizer on many a restaurant menu. It is far less expensive to harvest the amphibians locally than to import them, so consequently the bullfrog was introduced to various new territories including the western U.S. and British Columbia, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, even Hawaii.

That humans prey on bullfrogs, along with herons, raccoons, snakes, and other animals, is not enough to mitigate the effects of what the bullfrogs themselves eat: which is nearly anything and everything. Where bullfrogs have been introduced, native wetland fauna can suffer dramatically.

Bullfrogs have been at the least implicated in the decline of the western pond turtle in the Pacific Northwest (they eat the hatchling turtles), the Mexican garter snake in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, and native frog populations in California.

Any animal smaller than the bullfrog is fair game, though, and even tarantulas are on the menu, along with various large insects, small rodents, and birds.

I have a hard time now hearing that deep bass call of “jug-o-rum” without cringing a bit. Every organism surely has its place, but when Homo sapiens extends the boundaries of place for an animal like the bullfrog, all hell can break loose in the aftermath.

Friday, July 24, 2009

High Ledges

Thanks to my friend Steve Gingold I have had the pleasure of visiting the High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary on two occasions so far this year. The refuge is located just outside of Shelburne Falls in Franklin County, Massachusetts and operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society (“Mass Audubon” as they call it here). It is a property rich in both history and natural history.

Dr. Ellsworth “Dutch” Barnard grew up on the family farm established here in 1790. Portions of that property were included in the original 400 acres donated to Mass Audubon. Dutch taught English from 1930-1933 at what was then Massachusetts State College. He would return after decades of other professorial positions to teach at UMass from 1968-1973. He and his wife Mary spent the summers in a rustic cabin at the summit of the “Ledges” for more than fifty years. The cabin burned down a few years ago, but the chimney and a couple rock walls remain. Here is the view they enjoyed of the Deerfield River valley:

Dutch and Mary didn’t take it easy, either. They actively constructed the trails that are maintained to this day, and also identified the many plants and animals that call the sanctuary home. Twenty orchid species are known from the nearly 600 acres now encompassed by the boundaries of the reserve, and thirty species of ferns have been found there as well. I confess I didn’t even know there were that many kinds of ferns.

I saw my first pink lady’s slipper orchid there on our first trip, June 6, and this brilliant wood lily on July 11:

If you can’t visit the area yourself, and I highly recommend it, consider reading Ellsworth Barnard’s book In a Wild Place: A Natural History of High Ledges, illustrated by Charles H. Joslin, and published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1998. You can also see some of Steve’s magnificent nature images from High Ledges and elsewhere at his photography website here. Thank you, Steve, for the transportation and sharing your special places with me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Peregrine Falcons

My friend Jeff Boettner tells the story of how he and his wife Cynthia were visiting Whitefish Point, Michigan during the hawk and owl migration when they met a woman coming back from the dunes. They asked the lady if she had seen anything exciting. She said that others claimed to have seen “a pair of green falcons," but all she saw was one bird.

I don’t have to go all the way to Michigan to see peregrine falcons. There is a resident pair right on the University of Massachusetts campus here in Amherst. They tend to hang out around the Campus Center, which has a high-rise hotel in the middle of it. One morning I spotted one of the birds perched on a light jutting out from the building. I ran back to my lab to get my camera, then spent the next half hour chasing the bird and its mate around the building. All I managed were a few shots from roughly 200 vertical feet away in bad light, including my specialty, “silhouette of bird leaving.”

Ok, I got a few shots and a backache.

As natural nesting sites have dwindled due to development and habitat fragmentation, it occurred to wildlife officials to try introducing falcons to the next best thing to a cliff: a skyscraper. “Hacking” is the term used to describe the process of releasing young falcons raised in captivity from a cage-like shelter placed atop a building. This has worked so well that falcons across the country are now returning on their own to nest in their birthplace cities, using buildings and bridges as sites for nesting.

The pair here on campus has chosen to nest atop the W.E.B. DuBois Library, a building that must be the tallest structure in the state west of Boston. You can’t see the top of it on a foggy morning. The Campus Pond below the library provides plenty of waterfowl for these “duck hawks” to feed on, though they are more apt to go after slightly smaller game like pigeons. There are remarkably few pigeons here, actually, and now I know why. I wonder if the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would consider loaning some falcons to Tucson?

Should the falcons successfully launch their offspring (and I’m pretty sure I saw a fledgling this past Wednesday), it would mark the twentieth bird to have been reared here.

Meanwhile, on the evening of Tuesday, July 14, I saw the adult falcons over my neighborhood in South Deerfield. I even have a grainy image to prove it: Well, I thought it was the pair from the university. It turns out that there is another male and female nesting on Mount Sugarloaf just down the street. So, I can’t be sure just which birds I was looking at after all. Hey, after decades of declining raptor populations from the effects of DDT, it is a pleasant quandary to have two pairs of peregrines to tell apart.

For more about the UMass couple, see this online article. Watch this space for more falcon memories from yours truly.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mow to Hell

Remember those foxes living behind my residence that I showed you about a month ago? Fat chance I’ll ever see them again. They are (were?) living at the edge of an enormous vacant area that is the former site of a pickle factory, long since torn down. The weeds, wildflowers, and sapling trees had grown up fairly tall, perhaps owing to the large amounts of rain we’ve been getting here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. Well, apparently we can’t have any of that. Tonight I discovered that somebody in a tractor (the tracks were evidence of that) mowed the entire area. That act has effectively ruined my after-work life of exploring in these days when the sun lingers until around 8:30 PM.

Citizens of the United States have become entirely too good at destroying urban, suburban (and increasingly, rural) wildlife habitat in the name of cosmetic appearance and liability issues. It is this latter notion that has really gone over the top. God forbid that a mosquito carrying West Nile virus, or a tick harboring Lyme disease should be lurking in the tall grass waiting for some poor soul to walk by. We certainly can’t afford to have a dead tree fall on a parked vehicle, or the roots of a living one buckle the sidewalk where a person could trip and fall. We collectively no longer tolerate risk of any kind from natural sources.

Meanwhile, our culture celebrates stupid risk, be it the stock market, legalized gambling, or extreme sports. Nature must be conquered in eco-challenge reality shows, but the natural world must not be allowed to fight back.

Neighborhood associations and government municipalities are also keen on instituting codes of uniformity for the appearance of yards, gardens, lawns, playground structures, and the exterior of homes and buildings. The result is a sterilization of nature, the introduction of hoards of exotic ornamental plants and their associated insect pests, and the release of who knows how many chemicals into the environment from the application of fertilizers and pesticides.

Weed ordinances provide for stiff penalties if your grass exceeds a certain height, or the clover, daisies, and Queen Anne’s lace compromise the integrity of your lawn. Well, I am here to tell you that one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower. The clover actually benefits your lawn, by the way, by fixing nitrogen and making it available to the grass. As far as I’m concerned, though, the “weeds” are those very lawns, a blight of turf in a land meant for meadows and and glades

I have an idea for a cartoon I want to draw and submit somewhere. It starts with a panel depicting a man sitting on his front porch watching a conflagration in his yard. The next panel shows his neighbor rushing to the fence and screaming “Your lawn is on fire!” In the final panel, the man casually replies “It’s a prairie.” That will be the day my friends.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Rain Delay

”Oh, you’ll be there at a beautiful time of the year!” That is what people kept telling me when I told them I was moving temporarily to western Massachusetts at the end of May. Well, here it is at the beginning of July. Yesterday, in fact. Does this look beautiful to you?

I shouldn’t be complaining since I’m gainfully employed, doing meaningful work no less, with great people around me on a really nice campus full of resources at my disposal. I really didn’t expect day after day of overcast skies, though, with rain nearly every day as well since I’ve been here.

”This is highly unusual weather we’re having” people here keep telling me. Sure. Whatever. Just wake me up when it gets over eighty degrees please. It has been there already, to be truthful, I just can’t remember when that was.

The dim light on cloudy days has made taking clear images of insects nearly impossible, and that is when the breeze isn’t blowing. This is where I would benefit by knowing how to configure camera settings on my own, but I honestly don’t know when I’d have time to learn. It is all I can do to keep up my blogs.

Tonight at the local restaurant (Wolfie’s in South Deerfield, highly recommended) I overheard a family at another table talking about the weather. “If this was snow we’d had over the last month-and-a-half, I hear it would be eighty inches” the woman said. Well, I guess I should be grateful for small favors, though this morning I actually dreamed it snowed, though briefly….

Friday, June 26, 2009


Most moths are not terribly large. In fact, there are many which are so small that they are collectively referred to as “micros.” Then there is the other end of the spectrum which includes some species that have the largest wing surface of any insect. At the “Moth Ball” in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts on June 13, we had our share of behe-moths visit the lights.

Our giant moths were all in the family Sphingidae, known as sphinx moths or hawkmoths. They get the former name from someone who thought the pose of a disturbed larval sphingid resembled the pose of the Great Sphinx in Egypt. It was probably the same person who named the constellations. I sure don’t see any resemblance. “Hawkmoth” is more legitimate, as many of the sphingids fly rapidly, even hover in front of night-blooming plants to sip nectar from tubular flowers like Datura.

The first sphinx moth to show up was this waved sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa, a bit waterlogged in this shot after a night exposed to the elements. There are five North American species in the genus Ceratomia, and all of them look very similar to this one.

This pawpaw sphinx, Dolba hyloeus, is named after the larval food plant, though the caterpillars will also eat blueberry, holly, and sweetfern.

This northern pine sphinx, Lapara bombycoides, was downright diminutive compared to the other sphingids we saw, with a wingspan of only 4.5 to 6 cm compared to the 8-11 cm span of a waved sphinx. It looks all the more bedraggled because one of our party members rescued it from a puddle.

The only other sphinx moth I was able to get an image of was one of my favorites, a blinded sphinx, Paonias excaecatus. This large insect, no doubt a wilted leaf mimic at rest, is named for the striking blue eyespot on the hindwing, exposed if the moth feels threatened. Since it lacks a “pupil” in the center of the eyespot, it was christened with the handicapped moniker. It has a very wide distribution, too. I remember collecting this species in Oregon and Ohio, as well as seeing it here in western Massachusetts.

While serious entomologists might put out blacklights and mercury vapor lamps to draw in moths, simply turning on your own porchlight will lure many an exotic-looking lepidopteran to your doorstep. Consider making a project of recording the moths that visit your property. There are many wonderful online resources to help you identify them, including Bug Guide and the Moth Photographers Group to name just two. Above all, have fun just looking.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Party-crashers at the "Moth Ball"

I suppose no social event is complete without the uninvited or unwelcome guests that take it upon themselves to crash the party. The “Moth Ball” was no exception. Held at the home of David and Shelley Small in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts on June 13, the primary attendees other than Homo sapiens were members of the insect order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). The lack of explicit invitations didn’t stop some other insects from making the scene anyway.

I have learned quickly that among the most abundant and annoying insects here are mosquitoes. These biting flies of the family Culicidae are not attracted to lights in large numbers, but the people looking at other insects, exhaling carbon dioxide, perspiring lactic acid, and otherwise filling the air with mosquito attractants, are sure to draw them in. This one did not come alone, either. The red spots on its “chest” are not drops of human blood, they are mites, tiny arachnids that may be parasitic, or simply hitching a ride to some unknown destination.

Mites do not restrict themselves to mosquitoes. Well, certain species of mites certainly do, but other mites ride on their version of jumbo jets, like this large burying beetle, genus Nicrophorus, in the family Silphidae. Burying beetles, also called “sexton beetles,” bury the carcasses of small animals like rodents, shrews, songbirds, and the like. They often work in male/female pairs to dig under the animal, sinking its body into the ground. There, the beetles excavate a chamber, and the female sets to work molding the corpse into a literal meatball, laying her eggs in a small crater atop the mass. She feeds the larvae that hatch until they can eat on their own, all the while grooming the food ball to keep it fungus-free, and fending off competing beetles that may sniff out her prize and try to kill her family to get it. Such parental care is rare in solitary insects. That these beetles are so boldly colored is a bonus to beetle aficionados.

Yet another intriguing beetle showed its face at the porch light as well. Maybe this male fire-colored beetle, Dendroides concolor used its “TV antennae” to home in on the action. This nocturnal insect of the family Pyrochroidae also has huge eyes, the better to see in the dark. All kidding aside, the antennae are probably used to detect the pheromones of females of his species, as she boasts much less elaborate fixtures on her own face.

At least one other group of insects was easily mistaken for moths: the caddisflies of the order Trichoptera. As larvae, they are aquatic, most living in flowing water such as streams and rivers, many of them building cases that are essentially “mobile homes” which help camouflage them and give them a place to retreat into should danger threaten. The adults are very moth-like and difficult for the casual observer to distinguish from Lepidoptera. This was one of many to join the soiree with the other insects.

Last but not least, were a few mayflies, order Ephemeroptera. They may have been fashionably late (the Moth Ball was in June, after all), but they literally showed up in coats and tails, their filamentous cerci streaming behind them from the tip of their abdomens.

Mayflies are unique among all insects in that they molt after reaching adulthood. A “subimago,” prounounced sub-im-ah-go, emerges from the last larval skin of these aquatic insects, and then molts into a full-blown “imago” shortly thereafter. Their appearance at the Moth Ball may have been their only fling. Mayfly adults can live as short as one day, and probably not much longer than 2-3 days, just long enough to reproduce. Their youth, however, can take years in the case of some species, living as aquatic larvae (aka “naiads”).

Hopefully all these diverse insects found the party as entertaining as we did just watching them milling about in the rain. There is certainly no boredom to be found in the world of entomology.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Moth Fashions

What does one wear to a “Moth Ball?” Their finest attire, of course. I was privileged to be one of the human attendees at an event hosted by David Small and his wife, Shelley at their home in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts, on the evening of Saturday, June 13, 2009. Details can be found at my companion blog, Bug Eric, but here is an introduction to some of the more striking Lepidoptera seen that evening.

Formal Attire

Amazingly, some moths showed up in their best black and white suits and gowns. Take this little “white-striped black,” Trichodezia albovittata, a member of the inchworm moth family Geometridae. Not to be outdone was a “common spring moth, Heliomata cycladata, another geometrid.

Dressed in an an all-white satin gown was this lovely species of Spilosoma, one of the tiger moths in the family Arctiidae. She(?) was one of at least two of her kind that came to party.

The Belle of the Ball

Perhaps the most elegant of all the moths to grace the gala was this gorgeous “rosy maple moth,” Dryocampa rubicunda, also an arctiid tiger moth. Others of her kind were there, too, but their dresses had faded with age and her splendor outshone them all.

There is more to come. Tune in again soon for more moths and other nocturnal marvels from the “Moth Ball,” here and at Bug Eric Blog.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


This just in: A raccoon’s butt was sighted this morning in a tree outside Holdsworth Hall on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Authorities declined to arrest the animal for indecent exposure. Passing humans were alerted to the dozing raccoon by a pair of crows that were squawking madly.

Said spectator Eric Eaton “I was hoping it was a hawk or an owl or something exciting like that. Bummer.” Get it? Bum-mer?

Napping away is apparently no day at the beech (or maple, or oak, or whatever kind of tree it was in) for raccoons, and after being so rudely greeted by big black corvids, is it any wonder it was mooning human onlookers?

By the end of the human workday, the raccoon was waking up, grooming itself, and finally showing its face. No word yet on what the animal had for dinner. Stay tuned for further developments.