Predatory beetles

As I was taking an early evening walk around the garden yesterday, a sudden flurry of movement drew my eye down to the mulch.  I poked around and uncovered a beautifully camouflaged little insect.  It was a rove beetle, probably Platydracus maculosus, the first I have seen in the garden.

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rove beetle (Platydracus maculosus?)

Rove beetles are predatory beetles with a very unbeetle-like appearance.  They have short elytra (wing cases) which leave the abdomen exposed.  Some species (there are about 63,000 species total) will curve the long abdomen when threatened, giving the appearance of a scorpion.

While Platydracus maculosus may be beautifully camouflaged, it isn’t the most beautiful predatory beetle that I have seen in my garden.  That accolade belongs to Calosoma scrutator, the fiery searcher.

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fiery searcher (Calosoma scrutator)

C. scrutator is one of the largest ground beetles in North America, and its alternative common name, caterpillar hunter, tells you all you need to know about its preferred prey.

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Smaller and more common than C. scrutator, but equally fierce, is Cicindela sexguttata, the six-spotted tiger beetle.

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six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

I often see these little beetles patrolling sunny paths in the garden or our concrete driveway.  When approached, they usually fly a short distance, looking rather like a shiny green wasp, before landing and running rapidly away.  As a child, I learned the hard way that tiger beetles can bite hard.  If you must catch one to show your friends, put it in a jar.  Don’t hold it cupped in your hand.

The strangest of our resident predatory beetles, stranger even than a rove beetle, is the railroad worm (Phengodes species).  Males have large, feathery antennae and wings that extend beyond the elytra, making them look a bit like a fly or a moth, but it is the females, also called glow-worms, that are really weird.  The females are larviform (looking like a large larva) and have an elongated, segmented body lacking wings.  Each segment has a pair of bioluminescent spots, so in the dark the railroad worm resembles a train with glowing windows.

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female railroad worm (Phengodes species)

Railroad worms specialize in preying on millipedes, which they superficially resemble, and when disturbed they roll up, just like a millipede.

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Keep your eyes open.  Every time you go into a garden, there’s a chance you’ll see something you have never seen before.

First snake of 2020

baby-water snake

This snake was on our lane, not in the garden, but I am counting it as the first of 2020. My daughter and I spotted it near the creek as we were returning from a walk at dusk on Friday, March 27.  It appears to be a baby northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), the first I have seen in the neighborhood.

For scale, the sweetgum seed capsule above the snake has a diameter of about one inch.

Six on Saturday #52 (March 21, 2020)

For this week’s Six on Saturday, we are out of the garden and visiting the Eno River Confluence Natural Area.  The Eno River is one of the gems of this part of North Carolina.  A small river, little more than a large stream for much of its 40-mile course through Orange and Durham counties, it flows through the town of Hillsborough and city of Durham before merging with the Flat and Little Rivers to form the Neuse River.  The Eno is home to several rare species that are endemic to the Neuse River basin, and it has been aggressively protected since the late 1960s by the Eno River Association.  The Confluence Natural Area is a piece of protected land in Orange County that includes the spot where the East and West forks of the Eno flow together to form the Eno River proper.  It was opened to the public relatively recently, and this was our first visit.

When my family and I visited, we were the only people on the 200-acre preserve, so I guess that covered social distancing requirements.

1.  The Confluence

Confluence

This is the point at which east fork (left) and west fork (right) merge to form the Eno (center).

2.  Plethodon cylindraceus (white-spotted slimy salamander)

Plethodon

The kids couldn’t resist lifting a cover board that had probably been laid down for some herpetology classes.  They found a handsome pair of slimy salamanders.  To avoid crushing the salamanders, we gently moved them, laid the board back down, and then allowed the salamanders to climb underneath again.

3. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)

Claytonia

A variety of spring ephemeral wildflowers were in bloom on the wooded slopes and rich bottomland along the riverbanks.  In North Carolina, C. virginica is a true piedmont native.  It is absent from most of the coastal plain and from the mountains, where it is replaced by Claytonia caroliniana.

4. Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort; crow’s toes)

Cardamine

I just love the name “crow’s toes.”

5. Stellaria pubera (star chickweed)

Stellaria

In addition to these three wildflowers, we also saw Hepatica americana (round-lobed Hepatica), Anemonella thalictroides (rue anemone), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), and Lindera benzoin (spicebush)  in bloom.  Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves were up, but the buds aren’t yet open.

6. Tree “footprint”

tree footprint

The heavy piedmont clay holds together so well, that the imprint of a large tree, including tunnels left by its roots, is still clearly visible after all the wood has rotted away.  The “footprint” is slowly being covered by invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

The propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Baby skinks

skink eggs

Last weekend, I finally got round to moving some of the last remaining limbs of the oak tree that fell across our lane last autumn (picture #6 here).  Under one of the branches, I discovered five small eggs, each about 1.4-1.5 cm long.  Since I had already disturbed them, I decided to collect them and see if they would hatch.  I placed them on a layer of leafmould in a small plastic terrarium (actually an empty animal cracker container from Costco).  After spraying water on the walls of the terrarium to keep humidity high without soaking the eggs, I put it in the shade on our screen porch.

All five eggs hatched yesterday, and they proved to be the eggs of a skink (Plestiodon species, formerly Eumeces).

Skink hatchling1

There are three very similar Plestiodon species in our part of North Carolina:  Plestiodon fasciatus (five-lined skink), Plestiodon inexpectatus (southeastern five-lined skink), and Plestiodon laticeps (broad-headed skink).  The hatchlings of all three species are virtually identical, distinguished mainly by scale counts.

Skink hatchling2

In the garden, I most frequently see Plestiodon skinks clinging to the foundation of our house, on the wooden deck, or at the edge of the driveway, where they patrol for insects even when the concrete is hot enough to burn bare feet .  The vivid blue tails and neat yellow stripes of the juveniles are always a welcome sight.

After admiring the little hatchlings, we released them into the garden with the hope that they will grow fat on insect pests and avoid hungry birds.

Nest raider

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A somewhat disgruntled young black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch.  Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators.  Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.

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A successful brood in 2016
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“Hey! Move over!”

This year, they were not so lucky.  Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest.  It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch.  Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents.  They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.

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I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house.  I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake.  It seems that the snake was determined, though.  The next morning, the nest was empty.  The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared.  I wonder if they will be back next year.