I heard the call of the hawk before I saw it. As I turned, the bird came in to a Loblolly Pine over the Train Station here at the Museum. It was carrying something of weight and bulk in its talons though I couldn’t make out what it was. The bird began to call out, keee-eeeer, keee-eeeer, keee-eeeer! I could hear another bird calling as well, a whiny and slower keeeear…keeear…keear. As I looked up the other hawk was circling slowly around and past the one sitting in the tree. The hawk in the tree was an adult red-tailed hawk, the circling bird a juvenile.
The adult apparently had caught some animal and was trying to get the young hawk to come in and grab it, make an exchange. I waited expectantly for something to happen. Either the younger bird would fly in to snatch the prize or the adult would take flight to another perch to make the transfer. I didn’t know what exactly would happen but I knew something was scheduled. Maybe I could get a shot of what the bird had in its talons.
Finally the adult took off, click, click. The first shot revealed nothing. The second clearly showed a gray squirrel dangling from the hawk’s talons.
These aphids tend to attract a host of other insects. You may have noticed the large black ants in the accompanying photo. The ants look to be carpenter ants and are there to protect the aphids, for a price.
The aphids suck the sap from the alder. The aphids then excrete a sweet tasting substance called honeydew. It’s this, the aphid’s excrement, that the ants want in return for their protective services. The aphids get protection from would be predators and the ants get sweet tasting honeydew. What could be better?
If you have any doubts as to the job performed by the ants, stick your finger up to the woolly aphids, you’ll very quickly have a group of ants crawling all over your hand.
If that’s not interesting enough, the aphids also attract North America’s only carnivorous butterfly. Yes, that’s right, there is a carnivorous butterfly, or rather, its larvae are carnivorous. The larvae eat the aphids. The butterfly is called a Harvester. This same alder in Explore the Wild hosted harvesters last year. It’s a little early to tell if they’ll show up again this year to graze on the aphids, but as always, I’ll be watching closely and let you know.
Oh, but don’t the ants protect the aphids from the caterpillars? Good question, yes and no are the answers. Some of the caterpillars cover themselves with aphid bodies attached via the caterpillar’s silk. The harvester larvae can also produce a chemical which mimics the species of aphids that it’s feeding on, thus fooling the ant into thinking it’s one of the crew. There’s room for more research on these aphids, butterflies, and even the ants that tend to them. So, if there’s any of you out there with the curiosity, time, and above all, patience to study these creatures, go for it!
As I walked past a couple of plant stakes that I placed in Catch the Wind to help protect the vegetation along the path from foot and vehicle traffic, I noticed a Blue Dasher perched on one of the stakes. The dragonfly was obelisking. I couldn’t walk past without taking a photo.
These dragonflies are common and widespread and can be seen at most bodies of water. Their relative abundance, though, doesn’t make them any less attractive.