Seeing Spots

Counting animals in the field can be tricky. They have a habit of not staying still.

Oh sure, I’ve tried explaining to the newts cruising around the creek that it would be very helpful if they could just stay in the same place long enough for me to get past number 5 or 6 before I become hopelessly confused and have to start over again. But, well, you know how willful and restless a newt can be, right??! *GRIN*

One of the many wonders of photography is that it affords me the option of sitting in front of my computer to study images taken in the field that will give me accurate data. In many cases, far more accurate, than my attempts at eyeballing a large group in person. As I count, I mark each critter with a red dot so that I know if I missed anyone and to make certain that I don’t double-count by accident.

In spring of 2010, at the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station, several ponds were teeming with newly hatched California Toads. Here’s what SEVENTY of these tiny hoppers looked like:


California Toad juveniles, count

This past March, I saw a large herd of Mule Deer grazing in the horse pasture here in the canyon. I thought it might be the most numerous group I’d ever seen… turns out I was right! There are a total of NINETEEN in this image. I’m curious if anyone else has ever seen a larger herd of Mule Deer than that?


Mule Deer herd, count


Some of the numbers I come up with are less impressive, but the information still fascinates me… Bees and wasps are frequent visitors to any local water source, especially as temperatures go up and humidity levels start to plummet. I watched intently as several identical-looking bumble bees repeatedly returned to the same spot next to the creek. They were zipping in and out of there so fast though that I wasn’t sure just how many I was watching. The answer was SIX!


bumble bees at creek, count


Of course, at the end of the day — especially a really, really, long day when you’re more than a little stir-crazy from being stuck inside with the flu — you can even have fun counting to ONE.

Botta's Pocket Gopher, count


Final bit of amusement courtesy of one of the local Botta’s Pocket Gopher… I know that many people have nothing but contempt for these little guys, but I can’t imagine holding a grudge against this industrious digger… that expression melts my heart every time!

Harsi / June 29, 2011 / amphibians, arthropods, mammals, photography / 2 Comments

Teaching an Old Fly New Tricks

fly balancing act

Most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine.

Edward O. Wilson


** Extra-special bonus points for the first person to tell me how it’s done! **

Harsi / June 24, 2011 / arthropods, photography, quotations / 7 Comments

The Tiger and The Coyote

Western Tiger Swallowtail, wing close-up


One of the definite highlights of my trip to El Dorado Regional Park a couple weeks ago was a beautiful Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) which repeatedly landed on a close-by patch of Monardella sp. (commonly referred to as Coyote Mint) and then stayed there like someone was paying it to do so. For me and my fellow arthropod enthusiast (Chris), this was like hitting the jackpot.


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Coyote Mint


These butterflies are impressively large, but in my experience, they have a frustrating habit of flying around in large circles, then landing just long enough for you to lock in your camera settings and get them framed nicely. Then, you go to press the shutter and find that there’s no butterfly in the viewfinder anymore. Where did it go?! you mutter to yourself… You look around, spy it landing on another flower a little ways off, and the process starts all over again.

But… not this particular butterfly. It seemed quite smitten with this one small grouping of flowers and though it often flitted away for a few seconds, it reliably came back to the same spot over and over again, giving us both ample opportunity to get many photos in a row and even play around a bit with our viewing angle and composition. It was heavenly!!!


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Coyote Mint


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Coyote Mint


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Coyote Mint


As is so often the case when I sit down to closely examine my nature images, I discover things that would be very difficult (or impossible) to discern in the field. As I began preparing the photos for this post, I was definitely working under the presumption that I had only photographed a single butterfly. Somehow, the repeated act of it returning to the exact same group of flowers just made me (and I’m guessing Chris too) presume that it was the same swallowtail each time. Apparently… not so!! If you look closely at the images, you can see that there are several notches on the edge of the upper wing of the first butterfly (probably caused by a close call with a hungry bird?) that are not found on the butterfly in the remaining images. Also, if you check out the side-by-side comparison shot I put together below, you can see the subtle differences in the markings themselves.

Western Tiger Swallowtail, wing comparison


I am indebted to Chris for his help in providing me with an ID for the lovely purple flowers. Also, he has put up a wonderful post of his own about our day together at El Dorado — check it out!

If you missed my previous posts about my trip to El Dorado, you can read them here and here.

Harsi / June 18, 2011 / arthropods, flowers, plants / 4 Comments

Agapostemon Almighty

Last weekend, in addition to all my fun with turtles and Green Heron, I also had the pleasure of attending my friends’ annual ceramic/jewelry sale at their home. Although it was easy to be entranced by so much amazing artistry in one place, I still found myself occasionally sidetracked by the critters. You see, they have a simply wonderful garden (featuring many native plants) and the birds, insects, lizards and small mammals surely must be eternally grateful to them for such splendid habitat. I told myself I wasn’t going to walk around taking pics the whole time, but when I saw this little green jewel… well, how could one realistically resist?!


sweat bee & sunflower


When I showed her my photos, Ro told me that she had been seeing the same bee on that sunflower earlier. She asked what kind of bee it was, but my response at the time was a bit vague… Probably something like this:

“Well, it’s in the family Halictidae. A group of bees that are commonly known as ‘Sweat Bees’. (Yeah, I know, not the most romantic of names!) There are two different kinds that I think it could be, but I forget how to pronounce their names — they both sound like Greek gods to me…”


sweat bee & sunflower


In my defense, many insects don’t have common names assigned to them, just long, hard to pronounce scientific names. A lot of them also look very, very similar and I confess that in the end I needed one of the insanely good experts on BugGuide to help me out. With his assistance, I can now confidently say:

“Behold! Agapostemon! All-powerful green god of the sunflower children. Dazzling beyond measure, with skin that sparkles like a million emeralds and furry chaps dripping with gold dust”


sweat bee & sunflower



I guess I’m feeling a bit silly today…


sweat bee & sunflower


There are so many species of native bees (as opposed to the introduced, non-native Honey Bee, Apis mellifera) and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Next time you see one… approach slowly and take a good close look… they’re beautiful creatures! (Oh, and if you happen to take a picture… send it to me! I love getting the opportunity to try to identify mystery insects.)

Harsi / June 9, 2011 / arthropods / 3 Comments

Green Heron & Blue Damsels

Green Heron pano


For anyone not familiar, the Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is a small (16 – 18 inches) wading bird that can be found throughout much of the U.S. along creeks and rivers or at ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps and even pastures. Finding the immature bird in the above photo probably isn’t too hard… but at a distance they are extremely cryptic and even up close they can be hard to spot if they’re standing still.


photographer & hidden Green Heron


Now, why would I include this photo?  Well, because I thought it was amusing. This woman was diligently taking photos of a turtle sunning on the edge of the pond in front of her. Unseen from her vantage point was the stealthy heron lurking in the foreground several feet away. Can’t see it? *Click on the image if you’re in need of some assistance.*

Of course the heron has good reason to skulk quietly and slowly in the partial shadows at the water’s edge… Much of its diet is comprised of small fish. Actually, it is one of the few bird species known to use bait in order to capture its fish prey. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website: “It commonly drops bait onto the surface of the water and grabs the small fish that are attracted. It uses a variety of baits and lures, including crusts of bread, insects, earthworms, twigs, or feathers.”

The Green Heron is also known to eat frogs, insects and other invertebrates. While hanging out at El Dorado Regional Park last weekend, it was my extreme pleasure to get to watch one immature heron hunting damselflies. The vegetation around the ponds was rife with bright blue and pinkish damselflies. Rarely can I recall seeing so many damsels in one location. Time after time we watched this bird snap at the air and at plant edges. From what we observed, it had a pretty high rate of success, catching damsel after damsel and gulping them down. The fact that I caught a few of these captures on film was just marvelous! *Be sure to click on the images to see more detail.*


Green Heron searchingSearching… searching…


Green Heron & damselsHmmmmm… damselflies above and below…


Green Heron nabbing damselGot one!!


Green Heron nabbing damselIt’s a bit tough to see in this photo, but if you click to see the bigger image you can just make out the blur of a struggling damsel in the heron’s mouth and one flying dangerously close just above its head.


Green Heron & shadowI love how long and tall this heron looks next to its squat little shadow…


Green Heron looking greenIn some lighting it can be hard to tell why the Green Heron is so named. Immature birds are not as brightly colored as the adults, but in this photo, you can get a feel for the iridescent greeny-blue head and wing feathers that gave this bird its moniker.

All of these photos were taken during our day trip to El Dorado Regional Park where we were quite entertained by our observations of one (or possibly two) of these immature heron. I leave you with this parting image…


Green Heron wading

Harsi / June 7, 2011 / arthropods, birds / 2 Comments

Sometimes The Sky Calls…

Another night of unsatisfying sleep, my Inbox is full of e-mail awaiting responses, my household chores are steadily backing up. In light of all of this, I had decided that I would stay inside today and just post some remaining photos from yesterday’s walk. But… this morning I looked outside and it was cloudy. I cracked the front door and the weather was cool and breezy. Birds were singing… squirrels were zipping around… and, well, you know how it goes. I got dressed and put my shoes on. [insert sheepish grin] I figured I should at least grab a cup of juice before leaving and while gulping it down, I peered out the kitchen window. As if on cue, my favorite spotted-little-one showed up with its mom and gave me a glimpse or two as it snuck through the sage and olive trees.


mule deer fawn

There was a fair bit of blue sky showing, but the clouds that covered the rest of the sky more than made up for it. Wispy and whimsical. Puffs and arcs. Stretching, shifting and moving. Aaaah… action in the sky… just what I crave!


clouds sky trees

clouds sky hillside

cloud abstract


As if issuing some sort of homage to the little spotted fawn from earlier, the sky shifted yet again and produced this most wonderful pattern:


cloud abstract spots**Be sure to click on the image for a beautiful panoramic.**

A Cooper’s Hawk (quite likely the same one from yesterday!) soared effortlessly above me. Sharing the sky with the hawk were a few swallows swooping and diving at unseen insects. I heard the raucous croaking of the boisterous raven family long before I spotted them high over the hills. The juveniles are as big as the adults now and the family (6 birds total, I think) loudly travels together in search of food and perhaps a bit of mayhem.


Cooper's Hawk & Common Ravens


There were small arthropod joys to be had as well. Several bumble bees were working a patch of California Poppies. If yesterday’s photos were a matter of good luck and perfect timing, today’s images proved to be more a matter of supreme patience and diligence. For some reason, my camera repeatedly refused to achieve focus when I wanted it to, and countless opportunities for beautiful shots of the bees ended up as little more than blurry blobs of orange, yellow and black. But, it was a beautiful day to be out and I smiled despite my frustration, and stuck with it until I managed to come away with at least a few nifty shots.

bumble bees on poppiesI was kind of amazed at how long bumble bees’ back legs are when they let them dangle.


I knew I had been gone too long, and reluctantly I turned and headed for home. As I rounded the corner of the small work shed near our cabin, I slowed down to carefully watch my step and scan the ground… Why? Well, because there’s always the chance I’ll see this poking out of the abandoned ground squirrel burrow:


rattlesnake under shedIf you’ve got a heebie-jeebie-thing about rattlers, I wouldn’t click on this one for the bonus shot… (*grin*)

Hope everyone has had a truly wonderful day!

Harsi / June 1, 2011 / arthropods, birds, flowers, mammals, reptiles, skies / 2 Comments


J-O-YThe death of “joy” in nature is leading to the death of nature itself.

Francis Schaeffer (1970)


I hope everyone had a relaxing long weekend… and perhaps managed to discover a bit of the joy and fufillment that is always present in nature, just waiting to be savored.

Harsi / May 30, 2011 / arthropods, conservation, flowers, mammals, quotations / 0 Comments

Why Don’t We Do It In The… Diplacus??!!

Dasytinae in monkey flower

First off, my apologies to The Beatles for usurping the title of their song for my nerdy, semi-humorous, botanical purposes. *GRIN* This is a photo I took yesterday of a pair of mating Soft-winged Flower Beetles (Dasytinae). Be sure to click on the image for a close-up of the beetles. I discovered them nestled deep inside the center of a Diplacus aurantiacus blossom. Diplacus aurantiacus is also referenced as Mimulus aurantiacus, and is known commonly as Orange Bush Monkey Flower or Sticky Monkey Flower.

This is a very common and prolific flower here in the canyon. As it is extremely drought-resistant, it easily covers the hillsides in a bright, orange perfusion of blossoms and continues to bloom long after most of the other Spring wildflowers have peaked.

orange bush monkey flower hillside


orange bush monkey flower hillside


Beautiful from afar and beautiful up close… don’t you think?


orange bush monkey flower

Harsi / May 29, 2011 / arthropods, flowers, hillsides, plants / 4 Comments

On this date…

As I was stuck in bed again today, I decided to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes where I go back through my photo archives and check out what was happening on that day’s date in years gone by. One of the reasons that it is such a bummer to be sick right now is because this is a truly excellent time of year to be observing wildlife — especially in the world of spiders and insects. Apparently, May 19, 2009 was an especially good day for this, and I thought I would share just a small fraction of the arthropods I photographed.


frit fly on oleanderThis is a Frit Fly (Family: Chloropidae). Photographed on Oleander (Nerium oleander). These flies are tiny… about 2 mm… that’s the height of the letter “N” in the words ONE CENT on a penny.

flower beetle in oleanderThis is a Soft-winged Flower Beetle (Family: Melyridae). This one is exploring the inner depths of another Oleander flower. These beetles are also quite small.

cixiid planthopper
This is a Cixiid Planthopper (Family: Cixiidae). If you are looking for truly bizarre-looking insects, you need look no farther than to browse the superfamily of planthoppers. This one was hanging out on the side of a utility shed.


latrodectus undersideI’m fairly certain this is a male Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus). Most people would not recognize the significantly smaller and more pattened males as widows from the top-side view, but as you can see they do still have the characteristic hour glass shape on their abdomen. (It’s also possible that this is a Brown Widow, but I think I got the ID right… I hope my fellow bug enthusiasts will let me know if you disagree!)

As if that weren’t enough critters for one afternoon, these discoveries were also made that day:

Trachusa perdita

Pagaronia furcata

Plagiognathus verticalis

Retocomus sp.

I know this post was a little on the “nerdy-insect-lover” side of things, but I truly hope to interest more people in learning about their local bugs, or at least to take a few moments here to enjoy the beauty and diversity of this amazing subset of life.

Harsi / May 19, 2011 / arthropods / 4 Comments

The Bird & The Bee

OK… so I’m really skating the edge of my “one-a-day post” promise with this one… but, technically it is still Monday… for at least 30 more minutes! *smirk* I confess that I had big plans for all the stuff I was going to get done today, including a fantastic blog post. But, it was so incredibly gorgeous outside this morning that I couldn’t resist slipping on my shoes and heading up into the hills. I always tend to lose track of time when I’m outside and if I’m really in the zone, hours and hours can fly by before I realize how late it’s gotten. Some days I go out and take a walk… other days I go out and the walk takes me! Anyway, here’s just a few of the friends I spent time with today:


hummingbird on oliveI was photographing the sky when this little jewel came and perched on an olive branch right in front of me! After studying my various birding books, I think this is a female or immature Costa’s Hummingbird (Calypte costae). It could also possibly be an immature Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna)… the differences between the two are subtle.

bumblebee on poppyThe temperatures were a little too cool most of the day for many of the native bees to be active. (The well-known, non-native Honey Bee seems to be more acclimated to such weather and they were out in good numbers.) So, it was a real treat to get to watch this bumble bee methodically visiting one California Poppy (Eschscholzia sp.) after another along the side of the trail I was walking. I should probably double-check myself with my friends on BugGuide, but I believe this is a California Bumble Bee (Bombus californicus).

** Be sure to click on the photos to see close-up crops of the hummer and bee! **

Harsi / May 16, 2011 / arthropods, birds / 6 Comments