Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blister Beetle

Short-winged Blister Beetle, a.k.a. "oil beetle," Meloe sp., on moss

Blister Beetle -- © Dave Spier

Here’s an insect worth knowing if only to avoid touching it. This Blister Beetle (Meloe sp., possibly angusticollis, or Short-winged Blister Beetle) is a member of the Family Meloidae (all blister beetles) and can exude a chemical from its leg joints that literally causes blisters on human skin. I moved this one out of the garden using a plastic plate and then "hit" on the idea of photographing it against a contrasting, green, mossy background.

I didn’t take time to measure it (and didn’t have a handy ruler anyway), but it seemed to be slightly less than an inch long. My Audubon field guide lists the Short-winged Blister Beetle as 5/8 inch or less, but this one seemed larger. There’s more than one species, and there’s a difference in the size of the two sexes. Males often have a bend in the antennae about midway along the 11 segments and this one seems to fit that description. However, in other photos I've seen of them mating, the male is shorter, assuming "he" is the one on top. I've never seen more than one at a time, so comparisons in the field are a little difficult. I therefore assume the kink in the males' antennae is more pronounced.

This blister beetle is dark steel-blue and has a finely pitted surface. The front wings (called elytra) cover part of the abdomen, but there are no hind wings and the beetle is unable to fly.

Adults can be found wandering about in spring and fall. They eat the leaves of vegetables and weeds. (I came across one reference to hundreds of these beetles eating chives.) Their eggs are laid near wild bee nests and the beetle larvae become parasites of the bees. Given the decline of honey bees due to Colony Collapse Disorder, I’d say we need all the wild bees we can get.

Meloe angusticollis is in the sub-family Meloinae and members of the genus Meloe are sometimes called "oil beetles." This is a good time to mention the website called BugGuide.Net (http://bugguide.net/). You can track down any insect you find, and if not sure, you can submit a photo for possible identification. Registration is free.

If you have time to further research this insect, write to me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at the same e-mail or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.
More of my photos can be found on Picasa (Google+).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Timberdoodles

American Woodcock at Assateague National Seashore - © Dave Spier


American Woodcock -- © Dave Spier

I am alive and well, but again seriously sidetracked by eBird... (continued below)

Given the recent warm weather in Upstate New York, it was no surprise that "spring" birds started arriving in winter (at least technically).  Okay, it really is calendar spring now and the birds are still arriving earlier than normal.

I'm not talking about all the robins.  Some of them spent the winter here if you knew where to look.  I'm talking about American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor), a type of shorebird that never sets foot on a beach.  Woodcocks are upland birds that prefer open, grassy patches where they can strut their stuff.  You'll seldom find them in the middle of the day, and if you do, they'll be silent.  After sunset and before sunrise are the best times to listen for their nasal "peenting" calls and their aerial courtship flights accompanied by fluttering wing-whistles.  What do I mean by "peeenting," a description often used in field guides?  I think it sounds more like a buzzy "jeeep," but don't take my word for it. Go to the website All About Birds (http:/www.allaboutbirds.org), type in "woodcock," select "American Woodcock" and then scroll down to "Typical Voice" on the left side and click the play icon (a triangle pointing right toward the slider).

Woodcocks have long, flexible bills designed to probe in soft earth for earthworms, their main dietary item.  Although the birds prefer grassy areas with open sky for courtship, they feed and nest in or next to damp, bottomland thickets, but not flooded swamps.  Cryptic feather patterns keep them extremely well camouflaged during the day, as you can see in the accompanying photo I took in February at Assateague National Seashore.  We unintentionally camped next to his courtship ground.  Every evening at dusk and early every morning we could hear him doing his thing.

On a related note, there are a number of woodcock reports on the Eaton Birding Club's Facebook page.  The club covers Wayne, Ontario, Seneca and Yates Counties in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  This is an open group and anyone can join for free, or simply check the page for sightings and upcoming events without actually joining.  I also encourage you to visit the club's website and become a supporting member which offers additional benefits.

For more information, or to ask a question, e-mail me.

I had many blog columns drafted for the winter, but, alas, my mind was preoccupied with entering eBird checklists.  It took me much of January just to finish entering my 2011 data.  I was simultaneously working on a project to enter data for other birders in the Blue Ridge region of southwestern Virginia.  When I was entering the remainder of my data from our February, 2011 trip to Charleston, SC, I noticed a serious lack of eBird data for Carroll County, VA, which we traverse on I-77.  Many of the weeks were totally devoid of reports, so I began contacting local birders and entering their data for them.  Following this year's February trip to Assateague (instead of Charleston), I've been busy keeping up with my own checklists.