Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Bugly: Stripes, Splotches and Spots in the Garden

I have written time and time again of how frustrated I get when trying to accurately identify plants and all their visitors in our garden spaces.  Some identities are easy to establish, while other creatures provide me few distinguishing clues, elusive due to some combination of velocity, size, or relative rarity.

This caterpillar was fairly easy - rather less camouflaged next to a pile of pollen on my windshield than when it was when more intentionally located up above on the overhanging live oak branches.

The Catocala ilia caterpillar, recognized for its lichen mimicry, favors flowering oaks (Quercus) among others.  The adult moth is sometimes called a Beloved underwing, or Wife underwing.  As long as you don't over think things, that's kind of romantic, yeah?
Earlier this year I found the Lost Ladybug Project, where I read how ladybugs introduced to combat various agricultural pests may be out competing native populations.  I admit to releasing lady bugs into our garden spaces several times, but have no recollection if they were even labeled as to type. Since then I've been curious as to who "my" ladies are, so I've paid more attention to the numbers of spots on the beetles I've seen.
This counting job didn't take long.  Spotless, this is either Cycloneda polita or sanguinea. I never got a good look at the pronota (the part above the head between the head and wing coverings).  Going by the ranges shown for Texas, it is probably C. Sanguinea.
A grainier shot here from a different day featuring another spotless gal, but with a clear look at the pronota this time.  This beetle is probably a Polished Lady Beetle, Cycloneda munda, judging by the more orange color and light colored legs.

It's tricky, keeping track of visitors.  There are days I yearn for tiny name tags. As I learn to look for one characteristic, it seems I discover soon thereafter about other markings needed to identify with any real specificity.  At any rate, none of the beetles I've found this year so far are the native Nine-spotted Ladybugs researchers are currently monitoring. Introduced or not, they are all welcome here. I'm happy for any variety.

Less desirable perhaps but still striking in appearance, this leaf-footed bug, a member of some branch of the Coreidae family.
I rarely see just one of these.  Sure enough when I went back the next day to check, attendance had doubled.

Checking back a third time I was relieved the leaf-foot party of two had moved on.  If I found them gathering in large numbers I'd be tempted to intervene, and I'm trying to keep that to the bare minimum, seeing if systems won't balance out long run when left to their own devices.

Recently from across the yard I noted motion by a far corner of our lot.  I took a quick shot without really being able to see what I was trying to capture, figuring by the time I reached close-up range the kerfluffle causer would have left the scene.  Which it did, leaving me hanging until I could download the photo and get a closer look.

Cropping and enlarging revealed the culprit, a Texas spiny lizard  (Sceloporus olivaceus). Only occasionally do I catch a glimpse of these and even more rarely do I get a photo as they are fleet of foot and shy by nature.  Compared to the camera friendly anole, spiny lizards are the Greta Garbos of the garden.
Despite their rugged appearance, males competing for territory reportedly engage in rigorous push-up contests until one simply gives up and moves off. Pretty pacifistic of them, all things considered.  Females will lay clutches of eggs several times during the warm months, so I'm optimistic there are more of these around than the one or two I see.

Some butterflies are easy to identify. The Papilo glaucus, or Eastern tiger swallowtail, is comparatively huge, just difficult (for me) to capture in a photograph as this one was staying high in the tree tops.
This is obviously a female due to the behavior demonstrated (ovipositing, or egg laying) and additionally confirmed by the blue spots on the wing.

More ovipositing, this time by a Eight Spotted Forester Moth.  This one, like most of the ones I've observed in our yard, was favoring Virginia creeper as a host plant, but seemed fine with laying the occasional egg on pink evening primrose stems growing in and amongst the creeper.  Creeper adjacent must be good enough.
Another little visitor is this butterfly, what I think is a male Eastern tailed blue, or as more commonly named, a Gray Hairstreak (Stymon melinus). I thought it was a Reakirt's blue but ruled that out due to the orange patches. My confusion arose from usually seeing these with wings closed, plus the overhanging primrose is hiding most of the tail.
Continuing on in the Primroses Harboring The Harder to Identify category, I caught up with a couple of LBJ's, or Little Brown Jobs, shorthand applied to the multiple skipper butterflies that are tiny, fast, and often persistent in keeping their mostly brown wings closed whenever briefly at rest.  Most of them frustrate all my attempts at precise identification.

The second shot reveals glimpses of top and bottom wing surfaces which might have made for a more specified typing, but frustration builds, if you get my drift.  By the time I edited this photograph I had long passed the impatient point of no return.  If you know what this is, feel free to weigh in.  I'll only be relieved for the assistance, honestly.

I do take some small comfort in not being alone in my identification woes, at least when it comes to Skippers.  From the internet:

"Many species of skippers look frustratingly alike. For example, some species in the generaAmblyscirtesErynnis (duskywings) and Hesperia (branded skippers) cannot currently be distinguished in the field even by experts. The only reliable method of telling them apart involves dissection and microscopic examination of the genitalia, which have characteristic structures that prevent mating except between conspecifics.[1]"

Um, OK.  I think I left my dissection kit in my other pants, along with my butterfly genitalia microscope.  Ahem! Skipper it is, then, unspecified.

Speaking of unspecified, this tiny jewel of a beetle resisted all my attempts to find its niche in the realm of identified visitors.  I think of it as The Little Green Gorgeous and only hope it is not the first of some horde yet to come, or other well known (to everyone but me) pest I ought to have eradicated on sight.
Hardly larger than an ant, its entire body would fit within the curve of the small end of a standard paper clip.  I watched it chug along across the decomposed granite path, lost in admiration of its color and sheen.

Another set of even tinier feet trudging across the path belonged to this leaf litter ant, perhaps Ponera pennsylvanica?
Well camouflaged, it was hauling around a spherical seed, headed in no discernible direction due to the difficulty of taking any sort of a straight line with all the obstacles presented to a traveler that size.

And now, to close...  What, you didn't think I'd end a post about fauna in the flora without the obligatory anole portrait did you?  
There.  I feel much better now.

I realize I gripe a lot.  I'm really experiencing more fascination than frustration.  So far, paying closer attention to the full variety of beauty (and occasional beast) has been its own reward.  I hope you've enjoyed taking a closer look, too.  Happy trails!


Tina said...

Such great shots and I am one reader mightily impressed by your diligence in observation and identification. I love the anole pic, of course, but your beetle and ant shots are pretty great. You're right about their travel--it really must be tough to travel around rocks and berries the comparative size of large trucks. I love those hairstreaks--I don't see them much, but maybe I need to look more carefully.

Rebecca Newcomb said...

Your anoles are the best! So photogenic and always with such nice backdrops! Such little models! And that grey hairstreak is stunning - such a beautiful pairing with the primrose!

TexasDeb said...

Tina: Aww, thank you for your consistent support and encouragement. You've helped lead the way in the use of native plants to attract and support wildlife, and my outdoor spaces as well as my experiences in those spaces are much richer for your example.

TexasDeb said...

Rebecca: Certain creatures seem to know how to work a pose or backdrop to advantage. I'll admit - the hairstreaks are becoming a favorite of mine which of course means as long as I keep seeing them, they'll be featured here again (and again!).

Cat said...

You've put so much effort into learning the identity of the many inhabitants of your garden. It is helpful as I'm not always as diligent and have learned so much from your observations. I saw our first swallowtail of the season day before yesterday and marveled at the size of the shadow it casts. They are mesmerizing. I've also seen three snakes in the last two days...non poisonous but it seems like a lot. A 4' rat snake and two tiny snakes for which I have no real id except I know they weren't vipers. Also, saw my first hummingbird at the Mexican honeysuckle. And of course, the bunny...It was nice to stop by. I've been away from the screen for a while and I've missed you.

TexasDeb said...

Cat: It is good to have you back! Thanks for the kind words. I'm still in rank beginning mode - make as many mistakes as I get things right - but I am working on that.

I'm used to seeing owls and snakes (mostly non-venomous) fairly frequently early each season but this seems to be more the Year of the Lizard so far.

Anonymous said...

That blue-green beetle is stunning...makes up for the more ravenous insects, at least the less-attractive-to-me ones!

To think I lived in an area loaded with a very specialized species "Sandia Hairstreak", and I never once saw or even looked for one.

TexasDeb said...

DHB: I'm still stumped as to that beetle's identity but only saw the singleton. Until/unless hordes begin to appear (as happened with the flea beetles last year) I am content to share space.

I had to look the Sandia Hairstreak up - wow! So gorgeous and apparently the larvae feed almost exclusively on Nolina texana, so perhaps you'll still see one in your area?

Kris Peterson said...

You're leaps and bounds ahead of me in terms of identifying your visitors. As hard as I try, I'm terrible at getting close-ups of butterflies or even hummingbirds, much less the tinier critters. (I'd planned to ask for a camera that allows more flexibility on close-ups for my b-day next month but now I think I'll be focusing on rain collection tanks.) I love the anole shot but, yikes, you get a lot of pollen - no wonder you suffer so from allergies!

TexasDeb said...

Kris: The end is in sight, after a couple more weeks it will mostly be manageable again. Of course everybody's systems are operating at high alert, so it doesn't take much, but... Light! End of tunnel!

We invested in rain barrels using a city reimbursement program and our only error was in thinking too small. Working systems are worth the investment - 1/4 inch of rain fills six 75 gallon barrels hooked up to our gutters. We use every drop.

Linda/patchwork said...

Great photos!

We have those blue green beetles around here, too. I don't know what they are. I leave them alone. Hope that's the wise move.

Love that anole shot.

TexasDeb said...

Linda: Thank you! You know, I try not to mess with anything I only ever see one of at a time. I take the attitude that some bugs are only passing through, I don't see many of them because I don't grow what they are looking for, etc.

There are a few exceptions and those I've learned the hard way (4 lined leaf bugs, flea beetles). I figure if we are sharing notes here online, we can all help each other out.

Debra said...

happy sigh. Beautiful photos.

TexasDeb said...

Debra: You consistently post amazing photographs so I'm taking this compliment and running with it. Thank you very much!