A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

A Walk in the Gardens−Gruesome, Yet Fascinating!

An expert birder and naturalist, Gabriel Willow leads walks and excursions all over the world, yet he has an easygoing and accessible way of encouraging new birders without overwhelming them with information. His walks are a regular feature of each season at Wave Hill. 

This past Sunday we had our ever-popular monthly Birding and Family Nature Walks—always the second Sunday of the month—at Wave Hill.  The bird action was a bit slow, as fall migration is just getting underway. But we did spot a nice assortment of raptors: several osprey, including one carrying a large fish; a couple of red-tailed hawks; a female American kestrel; and a bald eagle that was spotted prior to the walk but unfortunately did not make an appearance on the walk itself.

young-red-tail-jim-wright-for-blog

For more on the bird walk, I hope you’ll take a look at the post that Jim Wright wrote for his blog, Celery Farm and Beyond. A writer with an environmental bent, deputy warden at the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, NJ, and a trustee of the New Jersey Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Jim is also a fine photographer, and I am always pleased when he can join us. This is his photo of a young red-tailed hawk we spotted.

A few hours later, on the Family Walk, I decided to focus on the lovely assortment of bees and butterflies enjoying the late-summer abundance of flowers in the Wave Hill gardens.  We encountered many cabbage whites, a silver-spotted skippers (as well as smaller species of skipper I was unable to identify), a painted lady butterfly, and bumblebees, honey bees, carpenter bees, and mason bees.

Our most interesting insect encounter, however, was with a fascinating little bug that I was initially unable to identify.  That’s what I love about these walks: no matter how many I lead, I always see new things… it’s like an exciting safari every time!

We were exploring under the massive beech tree that stands on the lawn to the south of Glyndor House.  Its branches form a magical canopy that extends all the way to the ground. One of the sharp-eyed children on the walk found a strange little creature crawling on the beech tree’s trunk: it at first appeared to be a ball of whitish fluff, about the size of a pea.  There is a shot of it here. tiny-insect-for-birding-blogThe fluff was slowly walking, however, and you could just make out a tiny head with a pointed pair of jaws sticking out from under its carapace.  The impression was something like a hermit crab: the fluff appeared to be debris being carried by an insect larva of some kind.  But what?!  I’d never seen anything quite like it.  The children on the walk were equally fascinated and enjoyed taking turns watching the little hobo insect trundle across their fingers with its strange cargo.

A bit of Google-sleuthing quickly revealed its identity: the larva of a lacewing insect, which are, in fact, fierce predators, primarily of aphids and scale insects—so they are a great friend to gardeners. The larvae are known as aphid-lions or aphid wolves, alluding to their fierce and predaceous nature. This species was one of the debris-carrying lacewings, which are not unlike the wolf of Aesop’s fable that wears the skin of a sheep (the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing) to blend in with the flock.  Aphids are rather defenseless little creatures, tiny and slow-moving, sucking the juices from plant stems and leaves.  They have developed a symbiotic relationship with ants: the ants protect them using their aggressive bites and stings, and in turn the aphids produce a sugary liquid derived from the plant sap, known as honeydew, which the ants covet (anyone who has ever spilled some honey in their kitchen knows about ants’ obsession with sweet foods).  The ants are like shepherds, patrolling “their” aphid colony and protecting it from predators, such as ladybugs and lacewings.

But this debris-carrying lacewing larva has evolved a clever defense: after it eats an aphid by sucking its body dry, it tosses the empty husk on its back, where it sticks to long, spiny hairs.  Over time, it accumulates a pile of dead aphid skins, which hide its appearance and scent and allow it to move undetected among the aphid colonies, picking them off at will.  This disguise may also protect it from predators such as birds, which perceive it as merely a pile of dead bugs.

Pretty gruesome, and yet fascinating!  Just the sort of thing that kids on nature walks enjoy…

 

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