Archive for the ‘insects’ category

Walking My Way From Wasps to Rats

December 7, 2013

On a recent walk in Riverside Park, the dog stopped to investigate a fallen wasp’s nest.


The dog investigates.

What a beautiful little structure. Let’s take a closer look.


Look, one little creature seems to have died in the process of crawling out of a hole. How strange.


But who precisely built this nest? What kind of wasp? A hornet? A yellow jacket?

It’s been my experience that naturalists, both professional and amateur, are eager to share, expand and refine their knowledge about the world we live in, and interestingly, the technology of social media provides a swift and effective way to share knowledge. I sent out a query on Twitter, asking “Whose fallen nest is this in Riverside Park?”

Matthew of Backyard and Beyond quickly replied, “Paper wasp, probably Bald-face Hornet.”  Andrew of Urban Ecology and Science Research soon responded with a photo of a much larger, enclosed nest hanging from a tree at Storm King Art Center, saying he was seeing these hives all over.

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Chris of Flatbush Gardener believes Andrew’s hive to belong to Bald-faced Hornets, adding: “More visible without leaves,” which I take to mean that the nests seem to be suddenly everywhere only because they are more visible now that the trees are growing bare.

And it’s true: one sees things differently when trees are bare. One also sees, quite literally, different things, including, perhaps, hornet’s nests. There may be fewer birds around in winter now that most of the migrants have moved on, but the ones that stay, from Northern cardinals to Red-tailed hawks, are easier to spot when they perch on leafless branches.


Red-tail hawk overlooks Riverside Park.

Squirrels, too, have fewer places to hide. And if I may act for a moment as a squirrel real estate agent, I’d like to recommend a couple of deep and lovely tree holes as fine living quarters.


Roomy studio apartments with unobstructed river views.

Non-living natural things – what ecologists call abiota – also emerge from obscurity in winter. The structure of the land, its slopes and cliffs, all hidden in summer by leafy trees, bushes and undergrowth, reveals itself.  And the Hudson River, seen in leaf-edged glimpses through much of the year, reclaims its place as a central feature of the far west side of the island.

Pointing the way to the Grant's Tomb National Parks Service Visitor's Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

Pointing the way to the Grant’s Tomb National Parks Service Visitor’s Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

After the leaves have fallen, plants too reveal surprises. In summer, the two bushy plants below appear to be a single solid and impenetrable mass of green, the shoots drooping like willow branches all the way to the ground. But in late fall and winter, a beautiful hiding place is revealed at their heart where an animal like a fox, if only Riverside Park were lucky enough to host a fox, might curl up undetected.


The dog investigates.

The fallen leaves now cover the ground, obscuring its features and camouflaging small creatures. This seemingly empty patch of leaves was actually hopping with life, as junkos, house sparrows and squirrels scratched, dug and pecked for nuts and seeds.

Hidden animals.

Hidden animals.

Look. There goes one now.


Deep leaves often bury natural structures, like exposed tree roots or rat holes. Or dogs.


Leaves half-bury the dog.

Here the dog investigates a rat hole at the base of a tree. Who’s there?


The dog investigates.

The other day, a naturalist friend, Kelly of Nature in a New York Minute, knowing my interest in rats, kindly brought me a NYC booklet with the elegant title, Preventing Rats on Your Property. I’ll write more about it some other time, but the fundamental message  is simple: “To control rats, you have to remove everything they need to survive: food, water, shelter and ways to get around.” My own block has seen a bit of a decrease in rat activity since a few once-slovenly neighbor buildings started better securing their trash and closing up burrows at the base of street trees. But even so, rats still run rampant in the area. On a brief late night walk a few days ago, the dog and I saw three rats within two blocks.

And remember, the rats you see are just the tip of the ratty iceberg; beneath the surface of the street live scores – or hundreds – of others.

But wait, how is it I am talking about rats? I was talking about leaves, wasn’t I, and how they veil and reveal natural structures. Or was I talking about changing seasons? Or ways of seeing? Or, no, it was about naturalists sharing information. Oh, I remember now, I was talking about a wasp’s nest. Yes, a wasp’s nest. And here we are at a rat’s nest.

Well, that’s the way it is when you go out on a ramble. Even when every walk starts and ends at the same place, as so many of mine do, you never know where the path will take you along the way.

Ants in the Hood

December 13, 2012
Amy Savage (left) shows me where to look for ants.

Amy Savage (left) shows me where to wield the electric ant aspirator.

Gathering ants in the city is a curious way to pass a few hours. I can’t say I’d ever given a thought to ant gathering.  But on a mild mid-October day, I joined biologists Holly Menninger and Amy Savage, in a green island in the middle of Broadway to look for, and collect, ants.


Amy Savage seeks ants in a Broadway median near 106th St.

I tend to look up and out when I walk, alert to the presence of urban birds and mammals like squirrels or raccoons. I scan trees, the sky, water towers, building ledges, the Riverside Park retaining wall. Seeking ants turned my gaze downward to the earth, and focused it narrowly on small patches of ground. My abilities as an ant collector are, to put it gently, undeveloped, but my few hours spent looking for ants has yielded an expanded appreciation for how much life is unfolding in small patches of ground beneath my feet. In a sense, my neighborhood has expanded.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

But back to ant collecting.

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger is an entomologist and Director of Public Science at Your Wild Life, a team of scientists interested in “exploring the ecological frontiers that exist right under our noses, from the surface of our skin to our backyards and neighborhoods.” Based at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, Your Wild Life conducts a variety of research projects.

I first saw Holly at the Arnot Forest in Ithaca, NY a little over a year ago. I was attending NY State Master Naturalist training, and she was one of our lecturers. She gave a lively lecture on invasive species with a particular focus on an invasive marine plant that, transported unknowingly by boat owners, was threatening the waterways. More recently, we met through the internet after Holly had moved to North Carolina when, in preparation for up-coming field trips to New York City, she started following NYC nature blogs, including Out Walking the Dog.

Amy Savage

Amy Savage

Amy Savage is an ecologist who studies ants and their beneficial relationships with other insects and plants. Her research on ant mutualisms has taken her to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Washington State as well as New York City.

I was thrilled when I learned that Holly and Amy would be gathering ants in NYC, and not just anywhere in NYC, but in my neighborhood within steps of my front door. Needless to say, I joined them.

Here are a few things I learned about ant collecting that you may not know.

1. On a warm, pleasant day in mid-October, collecting ants is quite an enjoyable activity.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

2. Ants are partial to Pecan Sandy cookies, which are considered the gold standard for ant bait.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Apparently, Pecan Sandies have just the amounts of sugar, salt and fat that ants love. Still the cookies Amy and Holly had laid out in the medians did not seem to be attracting ants on this day.

3. Real scientists, like Holly and Amy, suck ants. Let me explain. They use a tool called an aspirator which works through suction.

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

You breath in through a rubber hose, drawing ants up through a nozzle at the other end into the clear collecting jar at the center of the contraption. You are protected from the bits of soil, and other debris that come with the little guys by rubber gaskets that seal off the plastic chamber. Even so, Amy wasn’t too happy on an earlier trip to Broadway medians when she learned that pesticide, said to be rat poison, had been sprayed on plants in the median. (She was even less happy when a rat fell to her feet from a tree while she was collecting.)

4. Faux scientists, scientists-for-a-day, like me, are guided away from the breath-activated aspirator to an electric aspirator. This operates by means of a simple switch rather than human breath.  Yet even this very simple machine takes a little time to figure out how to use effectively. I’d spot an ant or two, aim my aspirator and then jab my thumb around in a futile attempt to find the on-button without losing sight of the tiny, well-camouflaged ants. In these early stages of my ant-collecting apprenticeship, quite a few ants escaped my scientific grasp, disappearing into grass or soil before I could get my machine working.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Sometimes the way to get the ants is a gentle and judicious use of tweezers.

Tweezing ants.

Tweezing ants.

We spotted other small creatures, as we searched. Snails, for example, and lots of roly polies, or pill bugs. Roly polies belong to the family of wood louse known as armadillididae, which roll up into tight little balls when threatened. This marvelous rolling-up behavior is given the equally marvelous name of “conglobation.”

Roly polies and snails.

Roly polies and a pretty snail.

Here is another collection of animals, found on the underside of a rock, that include roly polies and other creatures I do not know.

Roly polies and other small animals.

Roly polies and other small animals.

A bright orange spider.

Orange spider in its web.

Orange spider in its web.

A millipede.



And aphids.



We shared the median with members of our own species as well.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.


Amy on the hunt.

Amy and Holly were indefatigable.

Holly at work.

Holly at work.

But after a couple of hours, I said good-bye to return to my work.

Later in the day, Holly and Amy apparently hit the ant bonanza in Riverside Park, where ants were plentiful. The next day, they were joined in Morningside Park by Georgia, who writes NYC’s Local Ecologist blog.

Now they’re back in North Carolina, where the ants will be categorized and their DNA will be analyzed.

In a future post, I’ll tell you why these scientists are studying NYC ants, what they’re hoping to learn, and how you can contribute to their research as a citizen scientist.

Meanwhile, visit School of Ants for more on ants and citizen science.

The King is Dead: Appreciating a Monarch Corpse

September 30, 2012
still life with monarch butterfly

Late-summer still life: monarch butterfly with flowers and tomato

I’m still seeing monarchs here at the East End of Long Island, but the big wave of migrating monarchs seems to have passed.

In response to my earlier post on monarchs, Philadelphia nature blogger Donna Long of In Season wrote that the monarchs I saw flying southwest were probably heading to a well-known gathering spot at Cape May, New Jersey, where they rest before continuing south. And British blogger Mark Wilkinson of The Badger’s Eye, wrote from England to say that a monarch, apparently blown off course on its way to Mexico, had crossed the Atlantic and turned up in England. There it caused a stir among British birders, who trekked from far and wide to view the (to them) exotic creature.

Monarchs may not be exotic here on the eastern coast of the United States. They may even be ordinary. But as Julian Hoffman writes in a lovely post called “The Wonder of Ordinary Places,” there is a mode of perception whereby “the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary.”

Last week, after a night of fierce winds and some rain, I found a beautiful male monarch butterfly dead on the grass.

dead monarch butterfly

Lower body is coming through the top of the wings. (The legs are on the other side.)

The monarch is an extraordinary combination of fragility and strength. In the photo below, you can clearly see on the right one of the places where the wing has torn. (Note also the heavily furred body and the small bulb at the end of the antennae.)

Torn butterfly wing

Worn wings.

Yet this tiny animal is capable of flying thousands of miles to migrate to its winter hibernation spot in Mexico. In fact, scientists have reported that by the time monarchs reach their winter habitat, the wings are often torn and worn, sometimes severely.

Looking closely at the little corpse, I first wondered if it was deformed. The legs seemed to be located above the wings, as if on top of the body.

The rest of the butterfly’s body has slipped through the wings to the upper side.

A deformed monarch put me in mind of Shakespeare’s King Richard III, attacked by Lady Anne as a “foul lump of deformity.”  But in fact, the butterfly’s lower body has simply slipped through the opening between the wings and emerged at the upper side of the wings.  In other words, the legs are where they should be, but the lower body has moved.  According to my research, this is not an uncommon death position for a butterfly.

Deformities in butterflies are not uncommon and most often involve the wings. When a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, it must dry its wings and allow them to “set.” If the animal falls from its perch or doesn’t have space to freely open the wings, the wings can crumple or bend.  In addition, if the chrysalis has been damaged during metamorphosis, the adult butterfly’s body will reflect that damage.

You may wonder how I can so confidently assert that this butterfly is a male.  Male monarchs can be identified by  tiny scent glands. Look for a small black spot on a vein of the hind wings, clearly visible below.

Scent spot on wing of male monarch butterfly

Scent gland visible on hind wing of male monarch butterfly

Scent glands, found on many butterfly species, emit female-attracting chemicals during courtship. Had this butterfly survived to complete a successful migration, he might have used these spots to court and reproduce next spring.

Instead, he’s part of a late-summer still life.

late summer colors

Late-summer still life 2.

What a Day: Wildlife on Long Island

September 18, 2012

What a day.

It started with a monarch butterfly on the deck.

An hour later, as Esau the dog and I were on our way to the ocean, the sight of an airborne river of butterflies made me stop in wonder. A wavering parade of monarchs fluttered across the parking lot, the road and the dunes, heading west-southwest. They crossed Mecox Bay and Channel Pond, crossed fields and yards, some flying high, some low, in small groups or singly, too small for my camera to catch.

The sun was already hot, but the air stayed cool with the tease of a promise of fall.  After about ten minutes, the insect stream slowed and we continued on to the ocean. A huge flock of swallows dipped and hunted over the dunes before heading off in the same general direction as the monarchs. They were also too small, fast and high up for my camera to catch, so you will have to look at swallowless dunes and take my sighting on faith.

Down the beach, a man and a little boy were surfcasting.

On the way home, we stopped, as ever, at the bridge, where a snowy egret and a great blue heron stalked and hunted.

Snowy egret on the left; great blue heron on the right.

Within a minute of our arrival, the heron took flight, squawking three mighty squawks as it went.

The heron takes off toward the serene little egret.

The heron circles and flies off to the right.

The snowy, now in sole possession of this prime fishing spot, seemed unmoved. In fact, it didn’t move.

“Squawk all you like, big fella. I shall not be moved.”

Snowy egrets seem to me to be bolder than great blue herons , and great blue herons to be bolder than great egrets. At least, this seems to be true around Mecox Bay this fall. The big guys startle and fly off, as this great egret did several days ago at sunset.

The little guys just go about their business.

egret fishes

Snowy egret stabs a fish.

Out on the bay, a single Mute swan floated strangely on the water,

mute swan, strange posture

A mute swan rests on the water.

its neck twisted round, its beak tucked into its feathers, and one wing raised like a protective screen.

In the afternoon I biked into town for food, as I am without a car for a few days.

I passed reeds that resounded with birdsong, but no birds could, at first, be seen.  Stopping for a closer look, I understood that the reeds were a temporary city dense with red-winged blackbirds.

Then the blackbirds – the males in fall-faded epaulets and females in drab brown – began to fly out of the reed city and across the road.  Fifty or sixty or more winged away and yet the reeds remained full of song.

I passed a single deer feeding by the side of the road.

When I stopped the bike, it watched me intently.

Then, surprisingly, it moved a few steps closer.

And began again to feed.

I too moved quietly closer, trying to get out of the bright sunlight.  And …

“What’s that?”

the deer and I reached the end of our tale.

Near the end of the day, Esau and I again walked to the ocean.  On the way, I noticed a swan swimming in its customarily regal posture, but unusually close to a man fishing from the roadside. I wondered about this.

Esau basked at the beach.

On our way back, we saw the kingfisher perched on one of its favorite pilings near the egret’s fishing spot.

The swan had again tucked its head under its wing

and was letting itself drift on the open water.

I wondered if it were ill or injured, and Esau sat down to ponder that question or another.

What will we see tomorrow?

Monarch Migration

September 14, 2012

Farewell to the monarchs, beautiful kings and queens of the insect world.  

Monarch butterfly stocks up on nectar for the long flight south.

Monarch butterflies are fluttering and feeding all over eastern Long Island right now. They’re in the garden, by the roadside, and over the fields, preparing for fall migration to Mexico.

Monarch Watch, a website devoted to monarch conservation, estimates the peak days in “monarch abundance” to be September 8-20, so we’re right on schedule.

The monarch life cycle is extraordinary, as it takes several generations to complete a year’s cycle. Every fall, eastern monarchs migrate thousands of miles to spend the winter in Mexico’s Sierra Nevada. In March or April the butterflies return to the southern United States, seeking milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs.  The migrant generation will die before reaching the northern states.  Further colonization depends on the next generation.

After four days or so, the caterpillars hatch. They live on milkweed for about two weeks until fully grown.  Then they spin a chrysalis, inside which they metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly. They emerge after about 10 days, and continue their parents’ journey north, laying eggs as they go.  The next generation of eggs will hatch in May and June, the third in July or August.  These butterflies will live just two to six weeks.

But the fourth generation of monarchs, emerging in late summer or early fall, will live as long as eight or nine months. These are the migrants that complete the cycle, flying south in early fall and returning in the spring.

They must survive wind, weather, and automobile windshields. Hungry birds are less of a threat since the caterpillar’s milkweed diet makes the monarchs poisonous to most birds or, at least, bad-tasting. The biggest threats to the monarch’s existence are climate change and illegal logging in Mexico, although recent reports from the World Wildlife Fund indicate that logging within the butterfly sanctuary has ceased.

To help scientists learn more about monarchs, you can participate in a citizen science project at Monarch Watch, tracking butterfly sightings and even tagging the insects with tiny tags.

Yellowjackets in a Frog

September 6, 2012

In mid-August, we visited a friend’s house in Sag Harbor.  A lovely bronze frog held court on the deck railing.

Open and say, “Ah.”

But wait. What’s inside the frog? What the …?

Yellowjackets had colonized the interior of the frog, moving in and out of its mouth.

The poor creatures were waterlogged from recent downpours. Rather than trying to fly, they just crawled out and sat on the railing. I’m guessing they were trying to dry themselves out in the still-moist air.

The next day, the life-and-death insect drama continued.

Esau didn’t notice.

Nor did the dog of the house.

And I never did find out what happened to the yellowjackets. Life-and-death insect dramas go on all around us, all the time.  This one just happened to be more picturesque than most.

Home From Dallas, Celebrating NYC

August 4, 2012

I’m home!  After a wonderful month in Dallas, rehearsing and performing my play, NYC Coyote Existential (more on coyotes in Dallas in a future post), New York’s parks seem impossibly green. As I wrote in the play, the summer green of the Northeast can seem “almost hallucinogenic, layer upon layer of vertigo-inducing green, like something out of Apocalypse Now or H.P. Lovecraft, the color alive and sentient.”

Of course, everyone here in NYC is busy complaining about the heat. But hey, after a month in Dallas with one day after another of three-digit temperatures, well, I’m just not buying all the moaning. Sure it’s hot, and yes, it’s soupy.  NYC heat is like going a few rounds in a clothes dryer with a wet towel. Hot. But Dallas at 108 degrees is like walking straight into a giant pizza oven.

The biggest difference is that here in NYC, we walk everywhere, to the subway, to the supermarket, to the hardware store, so we’re actually out in the heat. Pretty much wherever you need to go, you walk to get there.

In Dallas, not so much.

Dallas is a quintessential American car city, where many people walk only from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned store to … well, you get the idea. So as long as the air-conditioning is working, you can avoid the full impact of that mind-boggling heat. The animals, of course, seek natural cooling sources, which means, first and foremost, water. Here, a mixed group of waterbirds cools off and feeds at the White Rock Lake spillway in East Dallas.

I’ll write more about Dallas and its animals soon. Right now, though, I’m celebrating NYC in the dog days of August.

On Thursday evening, as we drank margaritas on the roof of our apartment building, a fat, phenomenally red moon – the Sturgeon Moon – rose in the east, and a red-tailed hawk landed atop the school next door. The hawk perched in the deepening shadows so long that I wondered if it was going to stay all night. When it finally flew off, its wide wings caught the light of the moon and lit up for a split second like the wings of a predatory angel.

No, I don’t have pictures. You’ll just have to take my word.

Down in the apartment, a tiny green inchworm – more like a quarter-inchworm, really – clung doughtily to the kitchen faucet.

Tiny worm

It reared its unimaginably small head and seemed to be trying to figure out where to go. I put it on a nearby jade plant, where it will probably either die or gobble up my only plant before transforming into a moth ready to gobble up my winter clothes. But how did it get onto the faucet in the first place?

And on Friday, six flights down and one block east, a small but mighty ant carried a huge, winged, red-headed carcass (identification, anyone?) up and down a fence railing, the iron so beautifully rusted that it resembled wood.

In Central Park, the water has turned completely green with algae, and the willows appear to be melting in the midsummer heat.

A fat freckled fish lurks near the shore.

And this morning in Riverside Park, the wall leaners and sitters are out in force.

A dryad with her cat sips a cold drink and gazes at the passing world.

After a while, the nymph hoists the gigantic cat onto her shoulder

and heads up the hillside.

I am so lucky to be back in Manhattan, where dryads carry giant cats through the streets and parks.

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