Category Archives: photography|insects

If It Looks Like a Hummingbird and Flies Like a Hummingbird…

hummingbird moth feeding on spreading larkspur

I was on the way back from Mugu Peak and about four hours into my run. I’d stopped at an exposure of Miocene age shale along the Upper Sycamore Trail. The gray-brown rubble is home to an intensely blue-purple wildflower called spreading larkspur (Delphinium patens ssp. hepaticoideum).

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I’d just snapped a series of bracketed exposures of one patch of the flowers when suddenly there was the bumblebee-on-steroids buzzing of a hummingbird in front of me.

At least I thought it was a hummingbird. It sounded like a hummingbird and was about the right size. Its blurred wings were shaped like a hummingbird’s. It flew with the precision of a hummingbird, darting from flower to flower, deftly feeding on each blossom’s nectar using its oddly shaped beak.

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But it wasn’t a hummingbird — it was a hummingbird moth — a white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata). I’d read about hummingbird moths, but to have one suddenly appear and start feeding on a larkspur plant I happened to be photographing was extraordinary.

Apparently the problem of feeding on the high-energy nectar in certain types of flowers is sufficiently definitive as to have produced a very similar evolutionary solution in wildly different organisms.

The sphinx moth is described as flying like a hummingbird, but which lineage produced this elegant solution first? It may have been the moth! A trace fossil of a sphinx moth found in Early Eocene Asencio Formation of Uruguay appears to predate the earliest known Oligocene fossils of hummingbird-like birds! In any case it appears that both hovering moths and birds co-evolved with the flowering plants on which they feed and pollinate.

Related post: Hummingbird Stories

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September & October are Tarantula Months!

Tarantula at Ahmanson Ranch

Updated October 24, 2013.

Since 2005 these are the dates I’ve photographed a tarantula at Ahmanson Ranch (Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve).

September 05 (2012)
September 08 (2006)
September 13 (2005)
September 19 (2007)
September 15 (2009)
October 3 (2012)
October 9 (2012)
October 11 (2006)
October 12 (2011)
October 17 (2012) (2)
October 23 (2013)

Autumn is when maturing male tarantulas (Aphonopelma spp.) wander about in search of a mate.

I was beginning to wonder if I would see a tarantula at Ahmanson this Fall. The last time I hadn’t seen a tarantula in September or October was 2008. Yesterday I spotted this one on the main fire road in East Las Virgenes Canyon on a run over to Cheeseboro Canyon.

The title photograph is from a run on September 5, 2012. The raised abdomen is a defensive posture. Tarantulas will scrape their abdomen with their bristly rear legs, launching irritating (urticating) barbed hairs into the air. Most tarantulas I’ve encountered this time of year do not react defensively — they’re just interested in finding a mate.

Some related posts: Tarantula Time, Sting of the Tarantula Hawk, Tarantula Hawk

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Western Tiger Swallowtail Laying Eggs on Snow Bush

Western Tiger Swallowtail Laying Eggs on Snow Bush

We had run from Mt. Pinos (8831′) to Mt. Abel (~8280′) on the Vincent Tumamait Trail stopping by Sawmill Mountain (8816′) and Sheep Camp (8200′) along the way. Valley temps were forecast be well into the 100s, but here had ranged from a cool 60-something in the shade to the high 70s on the exposed sections of trail — perfect for trail running.

I’d paused at about 8700′ on the way back up Mt. Pinos to take a photo of some phlox, when a western tiger swallowtail flitted past and started to land here and there on a spiney low shrub at the margin of the trail. There was something peculiar about the butterfly’s behavior. Rather than stopping completely, it would hover briefly at one spot and then move to another. There were no flowers on the snow bush where it was hovering, so it wasn’t feeding.

Perhaps 18-24 inches away, the butterfly reacted when I started to move the camera, so I just stood quietly, holding the camera near my waist and took several photos.

A closer look at the photos revealed the butterfly was laying golden-green eggs on the snow bush.

Some related posts: Tiger Swallowtail on Snow Plant, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Vincent Tumamait Trail, Thunderstorm, Atmospheric Dynamics

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After the Station Fire: Opportunistic Bumblebee

Bumblebee feeding on Turricula (Poodle-dog bush)

This bumblebee is doing its best to hold on and squeeze far enough into a Turricula blossom to slurp some nectar.

Other than rabbitbrush, there are not many food choices for bees in the Southern California mountains in the Fall, so they have to take advantage of what can be found.

Not much Turricula (Poodle-dog bush)* is blooming either, but it has been such a prolific fire-follower that here and there a plant is in flower.

*The taxonomic name for Turricula parryi (Poodle-dog bush) has changed to Eriodictyon parryi. The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition (2012) has returned Turricula to the genus Eriodictyon, as originally described by Gray. According to the Wikipedia entry for Turricula (April 11, 2012), “… molecular phylogenetic analysis carried out by Ferguson (1998) confirms that Turricula should be treated as a separate genus within a clade (Ferguson does not use the term “subfamily”) that includes Eriodictyon, and also the genera Nama and Wigandia; Eriodictyon is the genus to which Turricula is closest in molecular terms, and is its sister taxon.” I use “Turricula” and “Poodle-dog bush” interchangeably as a common name.

From Sunday’s Ten Miles – Four Peaks run in the San Gabriel Mountains.

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Tiger Swallowtail on Snow Plant

A western tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on the nectar of the flowers of snow plant.

Even though snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is an unusual plant that does not contain chlorophyll and depends on a tree and a fungus for its nourishment, it still has flowers, and the flowers still have nectar.

This was the first time I’d seen any kind of insect feeding on its flowers.

From Sunday’s out & back run from Islip Saddle to Mt. Baden-Powell.

Some related posts: Snow Plant, Western Tiger Swallowtail

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Great Leaping Wolf Spiders!

Wolf spider (probably Schizocosa mccooki)

I’d just run up the long hill we call “The Beast,” and was running east on a relatively level stretch of gravelly dirt road on Lasky Mesa, when it’s movement caught my eye.

My first thought was “Tarantula!” but this spider was slightly smaller than a tarantula, and running. Tarantulas walk, they (usually) don’t run. This spider ran with a smooth, agile, articulated gait that must be the envy of the Arachnid world. I had never seen a spider like this, and started moving in its direction.

Lurking in the back of my mind was an experience I’d had with a tarantula, also on Lasky Mesa. In an attempt to redirect the tarantula from the margin of a dirt road, I’d blocked its intended path with my foot. This had worked a couple of times before, but this time the big spider briefly paused and  then continued to walk toward my running shoe. My shoe was on top of some dried oak leaves, in the grass on the side of the road. I thought maybe if I rustled the leaves… with lightning speed the tarantula charged my foot, and I jumped the proverbial mile.

Today I was going to have to react quickly if I was going to get a photograph. As I started moving toward this unusual spider, it saw me, and increased its speed. I continued to move in its direction, and it suddenly began a series of bizarre, defensive leaps. In a couple of seconds, the spider did three exaggerated “accordion” leaps, extending vertically to the full length of its impossibly long legs. The motion was somehow reminiscent of the propulsive action of a jellyfish. It was unexpected, and very effective!

After that the spider hunkered down, but seeing how quickly it had moved, I only took photos from a “respectable” distance. I wasn’t real excited about putting my hand a couple of inches from its big fangs.

Saturday, I was running at Ahmanson with Brett, on Lasky Mesa, and shortly after telling him this story, he spotted the wolf spider (probably Schizocosa mccooki) pictured above!

Related post: Tarantula Time

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Beautiful and Bizarre – Checkerspot Along the Garapito Trail

Variable checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona) on golden yarrow.

I found this and several other variable checkerspots (Euphydryas chalcedona) flittering about and feeding on golden yarrow along the Garapito Trail, on a recent run in the Santa Monica Mountains.

A closer look revealed an outlandish creature with black-spotted orange ladybug eyes, a bright orange spiked hairstyle, and a substantial spiraled trunk.

Variable checkerspots (Euphydryas chalcedona)
The “hair spikes” are part of the butterfly’s sophisticated scent sensing system. They are probably used in combination with the antennae to provide a three dimensional olfactory picture of the butterfly’s surroundings. This would help guide the butterfly to food or potential mates.

Butterflies are masters of low speed flight, and exploit several unusual mechanisms to generate aerodynamic lift. They are also opportunistic, and will take advantage of thermals and variations in the windfield to move from one place to another.

Several times when I’ve encountered a butterfly on a run, it has flown along with me for a surprising distance. I know that butterflies can be attracted by color, that’s happened in my bright yellow kayak. But in this case I don’t think it’s color or coincidence. It seems to me the butterfly is surfing the wave of air pushed around me as I run, similar to the way a porpoise surfs the bow wave of boat.

Related posts: Sylvan Hairstreak, Western Tiger Swallowtail

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Tarantula Time

Tarantula (Aphonopelma spp.) near upper Las Virgenes Creek

September and October are the months I’m most likely to encounter tarantulas in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch). Autumn is when maturing male tarantulas emerge from their burrows and wander in search of a mate.

This tarantula (Aphonopelma spp.)  was found near upper Las Virgenes Creek on today’s wonderfully cool 8 mile “FiveFingers” run.

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