A male reddish-brown stag beetle (Lucanus capreolus) was wandering through the vegetable garden on Tuesday evening, presumably looking for rivals to duel. The mandibles of L. capreolus aren’t as large as those of the giant stag beetle (L. elaphus), which also lives in North Carolina, but this guy still put on an impressive threat display when I rudely prodded him with a finger.
The scientific names of L. capreolus and L. elaphus cleverly refer to the relative size of their antler-like mandibles. L. capreolus is named for the European roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, a species with modest antlers, while L. elaphus is named for the much larger red deer (Cervus elaphus). It is unclear to me why Linnaeus and Fabricius referred to European deer when naming North American beetles.
Despite my practice of leaving piles of rotting logs as habitat for beetle larvae and other small animals, this is the first stag beetle I have found in my garden and the first L. capreolus that I have ever seen. Once or twice I have found L. elaphus under street lights a few miles from our house, so I have some hope of attracting them to my mouldering beetle and termite palaces.
Despite there being no standing water on our property, apart from a couple of trays holding bog plants, a surprising variety of amphibians call the garden home. Here are a couple of recent sightings that add to my list of resident amphibians.
Pickerel frogs are found throughout North Carolina, with the exception of the Outer Banks and some tidal regions of the coastal plain. This one was out late one evening on our concrete driveway, usually the hunting territory of more terrestrial-adapted toads. The night was dry, so I was surprised to see any amphibian, let alone a frog.
I have been digging postholes for a new fence, and an inch or two of rainwater accumulated in the two-foot deep holes. I’m glad I decided to fish around in the muddy water before dropping posts and concrete in the holes. The extensive webbing on the feet of this species indicates that its preferred habitat is aquatic, so I’m not sure what inspired this one to leave the creek and cross an acre or two of dry oak-pine woodland to find a muddy little hole.
In another of the postholes, I found an eastern spadefoot, a terrestrial species that I have shown before but which is uncommon enough and interesting enough to warrant showing again.
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.
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.
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.
Smaller and more common than C. scrutator, but equally fierce, is Cicindela sexguttata, the six-spotted tiger beetle.
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.
Railroad worms specialize in preying on millipedes, which they superficially resemble, and when disturbed they roll up, just like a millipede.
Keep your eyes open. Every time you go into a garden, there’s a chance you’ll see something you have never seen before.
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.