Sunday, May 24, 2015

Warm and Wobbly Goldeneye Chicks

One hour after sunset, goldeneye ducklings cuddle up under mom to keep warm overnight. But with eight fast-growing chicks, sooner or later there just isn't enough room for everyone under momma. When one chick squeezes in from behind, another gets pushed off the front. Mom tried sleeping on our dock but the chicks couldn't jump that high. So Tracy turned our gangplank into a ramp for the little guys to use while they're growing up.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Wa-la. Pollination!"

I noticed a curious-looking yellow "bean" hanging from the upper hood of this little calypso orchid. Shannon, the Botany Queen, confirmed that this is a sneaky way for orchids to stick pollen onto the backs of bees. The orchid's stigma (pollen receptor) is a little farther in. Pollen from another orchid is transferred to the stigma when the bee crawls in, and fresh pollen sticks to the bee as it crawls back out. As Shannon says, "Wa-la. Pollination."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Western Spring Beauty

Western spring beauty (c) John Ashley
Western spring beauties in bloom this week
After a hungry, monochrome winter, perusing Montana's meadows of spring greens and reds feels like a guilty indulgence -- like eating a party-size bag of M&M's in one sitting. I feel a bit of relief when modest white flowers show up in the middle of so much stimulation. Western spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) is just what the doctor ordered to soothe my visual gluttony.

White patches of spring beauty bloom in soil that's still moist, in shady spots where lingering patches of snow have just recently surrendered. The plants are only 4-10" tall, and their individual flowers are similar in size to your fingernails, but they show up by the hundreds when the time is right. Such a display of delicacy so early in summer is reassuring when you live in a habitat that's snow-packed for much of the year.

Folks around here like to say that you can't eat the scenery, but some do. Spring beauty corms, or roots, are dug up and eaten by black and grizzly bears -- a culinary habit shared by native peoples, early settlers, and the occasional hungry hiker. The latter report these corms tasting like raw potatoes, mild radishes, or maybe chestnuts. Fortunately, I've never been gastronomically distressed enough to dig up something so visually soothing. But, like M&Ms, I reserve the right to indulge.

Nuptial Ant Swarms

After scrubbing the place for a month, our realtor planted a "for sale" sign next to the road and we opened our home for inspection by total strangers. And that very Saturday the ants appeared. Thousands of ants. Millions of ants. Countless numbers of winged ants, raining down from ant clouds in the sky and covering the leeward walls of our lovely home.

Ant swarm (c) John Ashley
Nuptial cloud of mating ants over Lone Pine State Park
Have you ever seen an ant swarm? Gleeful entomologists describe them as massive "nuptial flights." My first one felt more like an alien invasion to this nervous home seller. But by the time I raced back from the hardware store with toxins to spray into my own environment, all of the ants were gone. Vanished.

That was more than a dozen years ago. Just a few springs ago, we watched a massive cloud of tiny ants swarming over the rocky peak at Lone Pine State Park. And a few days ago, our neighborhood carpenter ants launched into their annual swarm here at 3,900' elevation. These are just several of at least 76 different ant species living in Montana. The reality might be double that number.

For some ant species, swarming males and females from different colonies embrace mid-air, tumbling slowly to the ground in a frenetic nuptial fervor. For other species, all of the males from local colonies fly to a specific location and wait on the ground for females to arrive, similar to bird breeding leks. Virgin queen ants land to be mobbed by competing males, but she determines the 1-4 males she'll mate with before ending the tango with a squeaking "female liberation signal" that sends the males scurrying away. She'll fly off to excavate a new nest, and the males will all be dead in a day or two.

One tiny ant from the cloud  photo above
These brief nuptial flights are the penultimate moment for large and successful ant colonies. A major portion of the colony leaves on a high-stakes, low-odds gamble to perpetuate the colony's shared genetics. Some ant species swarm in spring, some swarm in summer. But somehow, all of one species' colonies in a widespread region read the same cues and swarm on the same day. How do they know?

Most ant colonies consist of one queen and her daughters who tend to her, gather or grow food, defend against outsiders, and generally run the nest. Successful queens live for about five years, using sperm stored from her single nuptial flight to fertilize a lifetime of eggs.

Maybe one in 5,000 dispersing queen ants will survive the gauntlet of predators that includes birds, dragonflies, wasps, frogs, lizards, beetles, spiders, and more. But probably the most widespread danger is death from landing in another ant colony's territory, which is viciously defended by female workers.

A rare surviving new queen excavates a nest, lays eggs and raises a batch of daughters. The daughters then take over day-to-day operations and the queen focuses on producing eggs. All of her daughters have the exact same genetics, and the factors that determine which daughters will become new queens are strictly environmental.

Winged carpenter ants (c) John Ashley
Virgin queen carpenter ants ready to fly
Daughters in a small, new nest will never grow wings. That's because the queen secretes chemicals that retards wing growth. But in a large and successful ant nest, winged daughters are produced at certain times of the year. For some species, winged females are produced from larvae growing up when the nest reaches a specific temperature. For other species, it's the amount and quality of food the daughters feed to the larvae that determines which ones will grow wings.

Males, of course, are another story.

Fertilized eggs always produce daughter ants. But unfertilized eggs turn into small, winged males. They only live for a few weeks, and they only have one job. They wait around inside the nest for that fateful day when they'll rush out in a frenzy with their winged sisters. All of the queen's sons leave home in search of females from other nests to mate with during the brief swarm. Only a portion of them will find females to mate with, and only a tiny proportion will win the struggle to pass their genetic material forward.

But if you think about it, every single ant you'll ever see is the direct descendant of an over-achieving ant ancestor. The short ancestor who succeeded in spite of the long odds against it. Is this amazing enough for us to give a little credit where credit's due when our next picnic is interrupted?

Spider with ant (c) John Ashley
Small spider captures a large, winged ant meal

Monday, May 4, 2015

May's "Planter Moon"

May full moon (c) John Ashley
May's "planter moon" rose reddish last night due to smoke and dust n the air
Smoke and dust particles (aerosols) painted last night's full moon red and yellow while it was close to the horizon in northwestern Montana. The moon eventually returned to its familiar yellowish-while color later in the evening as it climbed higher and we were looking at it through less atmosphere and aerosols. In this 15 minutes sequence photo, the 99.94% illuminated moon was photographed at 2.5 minute intervals between 8:48 p.m. and 9:03 p.m. I made a little 4 hour hike/bushwhack to place my camera where the moon would rise behind Mount St. Nicholas, in the southern part of Glacier National Park. Then I had to hike/bushwhack back out by moonlight - but I got the photograph.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Babies and Butterflies

There are 19 baby girl names that mean "butterfly" and, if you believe the anonymous internet, their usage peaked in 2012 at 0.0024%. The Blackfoot name for butterfly is "apanii," which give us the girl's name, Aponi. I always liked "Mariposa," the Spanish word for these lovely insects. The French "Papillon" is nice, too, but you might not want your child sharing a name with a little yappy dog that has butterfly-shaped ears. (Moths often rest with folded wings, and a papillon dog with droopy ears is called a "phalene," the French word for moth.)

Baby names have increased on a trajectory similar to butterfly species names. In 1800, just six names accounted for half the human population of England. By 1950 it took 79 names to account for half the names in the U.S. By 2012 you needed to call 546 first names to roll call half of us. Currently, there are about 575 butterfly species living in the contiguous 48 lower U.S. states. Canada is home to about 275 butterfly species while tropical Mexico boasts 2,000 species. Peru is butterfly heaven, with more than 3,700 named butterfly species and counting. We have about 68 different butterfly species living among us here in Montana. Below are some of the ones you can find flying right now - I found all of them during 1-2 hours of weaving around a windy hilltop near Polson.

Variable checkerspot butterfly (c) John Ashley
Checkerspot butterfly basking in the morning sun
The checkerspot butterflies are welled named, and three species live in Montana. This one (above) is probably the variable checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona) though it might be an Edith's checkerspot. They're hard to tell apart in the field. The antennae club is bright yellow in the former, yellow and black in the latter. What do you think?

Sara orangetip butterfly (c) John Ashley
Sara orangetip butterflies are fairly common and easy to find this time of year
The Sara orangetip (Anthocharis sara) is strictly a western resident. They're one of a complex of at least nine different butterfly species or subspecies - the jury is still out. There are also intergrades within the group, which would point towards one single species. Regardless, they all show the characteristic orange wingtips, but a small percentage of females have yellow instead of white wings.

Sheridan's hairstreak butterfly (c) John Ashley
Little hairstreak butterfly holding its wings together over its abdomen
We have 40 different species of hairstreak butterflies living in the western U.S. Whenever perched, most of them hold their wings together above their abdomen, so you only get to see the underwing colors and never the tops of their wings. Most of them have brown to gray wings. This one has green wings and is probably the alpine variety of Sheridan's hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum). They feed on nectar from the buckwheat family of wild plants.

Western pine elfin butterfly (c) John Ashley
Western pine elfin perched on a lupine leaf
Elfin butterflies are a group of half a dozen hairstreak species. Our earliest spring butterflies in Montana are the species that overwinter as adults. The elfins are our earliest butterflies that overwinter in the chrysalis, emerging as flying adults in May and June. The adults feed on flower nectar while the caterpillars eat young pine needles. In spite of their small size, males are seriously territorial.

Anise swallowtail butterfly (c) John Ashley
One of our beautiful anise swallowtail butterflies
There are 12 swallowtail species in the west, including four "black" species. Of these, the anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) is the most common. These large butterflies seem to be more tolerant of close-up photos than most species, so they're one of the easier ones to find and enjoy. But get outside soon - the flight of adult swallowtails usually lasts for less than one month.

Blue Virgin's Bower

Crab spider waits to ambush any bee or fly that comes in to pollinate a bowing blue clematis
Blue clematis, or virgin's bower (Clematis occidentalis), blooms about the same time as our sun-loving dandelions even though it's a woody vine that tends to root in shaded areas. Clematis vines climb shrubs and small trees to open patches of blue flowers in full sun or partial shade. Lewis and Clark must have seen two varieties while crossing Montana's Bitterroot Mountains, but they didn't collect any samples. We recently noticed lots of clematis blooming near Bigfork, in the lower reaches along the lake at Wayfarers State Park. Meanwhile, the rocky upper park area is full of unopened lupine spikes will put on a show for weeks to come. Entrance to our state parks is free to Montana residents, and Wayfarers features a great beach, an easy trail system, and lots of native wildflowers.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Birdsong at Sunrise

Dawn at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge is for the birds. Literally. Bird activity starts at dawn and really picks up when the sun crests the Mission Mountains. It's interesting that males do most of the singing here in the temperate latitudes while females sing just as much in more tropical areas. In addition to our love of bird song, there are lots of different reasons for birds to raise their voices.

The sunrise song of a Western meadowlark turns to steam as he sings at dawn among backlit spider webs 
Western meadowlarks (above) are our state bird. Males sing to establish a territory for a month before the females arrive. So in this case, their song is primarily a territorial announcement to other males. The quality of his song also helps females judge how fit or healthy he is. Most males have two females nesting in their territory, and he will help deliver food to the chicks in both nests.

Male red-winged blackbird sings at dawn
Male red-winged blackbirds also sing to exclude other males from his territory. But in this case, the females are picking a male based on the quality of the nesting habitat within his territory. An older, studly male might have 15 females nesting within his territory while a young male on the fringes might not attract any females.

Wilson's snipe making a warning call to his hidden mate
Male and female Wilson's snipes both make a range of calls during the breeding season. But this changes subtly once the female starts nesting. She sits quietly on their nest hidden in thick grasses while the male takes up a conspicuous post to watch for intruders. When a potential threat approaches (a skunk, a photographer, etc.) he gives a sharp call to let her know. If the threat continues, his calls get louder and more frequent, and she sneaks away through the grass to distance herself from the nest. That way, she won't give away her nest location if she has to flush from the ground. When the eggs hatch, the male raises the older two chicks and the female raises the younger two, and the single-parent families do not mix.

Killdeer turns broadside to the morning sun and warms up while resting on one leg
The killdeer name comes from one of their most common vocalizations. Males give this loud kill-deer call over and over in flight while displaying to a female. Males and females both give a range of sharp warning calls, but they are also well-known for bluffing predators away from their nests. They tempt some predators into following with their broken wing act, all the while leading them away from the nest. For larger animals like cows or horses, killdeer fluff up their feathers to appear larger and bluff charge, running straight at the unsuspecting animal. The killdeer will usually scold the animal at the same time.

Just like us, birds make many different sounds for many different reasons. Spring is a noisy time of year for most of our avian neighbors, and a good time to stop and watch and try to put the bird calls into context with their behaviors.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Modest Mission Bells

Yellowbells Fritillaria pudica (c) John Ashley
A middle-aged yellowbell with alongside purple shooting stars
blooming this week in a ponderosa pine forest near Polson
Yellowbells or mission bells (Fritillaria pudica) are our modest little wildflowers who announce that spring is really here to stay. They show up well after the pasqueflowers but go to seed long before summer's heat arrives. The dainty yellow flowers always nod downward (pudica is Latin for "modest") and the plant only rises up 4-12" (10-30 cm) above the ground on grassy slopes and sunny, open ponderosa pine forests. The flowers start out bright yellow and slowly turn orange with age. Yellowbells were unfamiliar to Lewis and Clark, so they collected specimens in early May, 1806. Traditional Flathead Indians ate the root bulbs boiled, and the Blackfeet used the bulbs to make a soup. Bears eat the bulbs raw while deer prefer the dainty flowers and leaves.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Horned Larks

Male horned lark (c) John Ashley
Male horned lark watching over his territory from a fence post
Horned larks are philopatric, like female harlequin ducks, meaning that they return to breed in the area where they were born. They're also ground nesters and territorial pairs prefer open fields, like Killdeer, where the female excavates her nest on the north side of a clump of grass or even a lump of a dried cow manure. She sometimes decorates with a "doorstep" of pebbles along one side of her nest.

Because they return to the same areas every year, horned lark back feathers have evolved over time to mimic the color of the local soil. Color variations in their eyebrow stripe, throat and ear coverts are also used to divide our only native lark into 15 distinct subspecies.

Horned larks start nesting in Montana between mid-April and mid-May, depending on location. So watch for the handsome males guarding their nest territory from fence post whenever you drive across the Montana plains in spring.