Friday, October 27, 2017

Mangy Foxes

Red Fox with Sarcoptic Mange (wikimedia commons by Juan Lacruz)

     Several times a year the topic of mangy foxes comes up. Mostly this is by well-intentioned people who want to interfere. Since I end up explaining so often why that shouldn't be done, I decided to put together a blog article I can refer people to each time it happens. Of course, many people may not read all the way through all this information and there are others who just don't want to listen, but this is my attempt to let people know a few things about this. 
     First of all, let's make something clear: it is illegal to treat foxes with medication for mange. Period. This is true in most jurisdictions everywhere, including all of Virginia and Maryland. Here's the Virginia Code for example: 
29.-1-508.1 Use Of Drugs on Vertebrate Wildlife
A.   With out a written authorization from the Director or his designee, it is unlawful to administer any drug to any vertebrate wildlife, except in accordance with a permit issued under the provisions of this title or regulations adopted by the Board. This prohibition shall include, but not be limited to, drugs used for fertility control, disease prevention or treatment, immobilization, or growth stimulation. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the treatment of sick or injured wild animals by licensed veterinarians or permitted wildlife rehabilitators. This section shall not limit employees of agencies of the Commonwealth, the United States, or local animal control officers in the performance of their official duties related to public health, wildlife management, or wildlife removal. For the purposes of this section, the term "drug" means any chemical substance, other than food, that affects the structure or biological function of wild species.
B.   The Department may take possession and dispose of any vertebrate wildlife if it believes that drugs have been administered to such wildlife in violation of this section.
C.   Any person violating this section is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. (2004, c. 171.)
     There are numerous good reasons for this law. Even assuming that the correct dose is known and administered (not giving a correct dose may of course result in additional issues and there may be possible side effects regardless), the most common drug used, Ivermectin, is not meant to be used for treating foxes. Any such use is outside its scope. Wildlife rehabbers have even had their licenses revoked for assisting in such illegal activities as helping others treat wildlife using this medication.
     The usual method it is administered is by hiding it inside the food that is offered to the fox. This then assumes the fox gets all the medication and that other creatures don't consume it. If they do, that may also cause additional problems. For instance, some dog breeds, such as collies, can be sickened and even die if they consume Ivermectin. Since it hasn't been tested and is therefore not approved for use on other wildlife, how it affects them is not always known. For example, it will also kill certain species of turtles. Now you may say that turtles don't eat such foods (and you'd be wrong), but also don't forget that the medication can get into the environment through fox feces and urine and perhaps into the water ways. Such are just some of the unintended consequences that are possible. 
     But there's lot more to this. For instance, sarcoptic mange (the most common form of mange, caused by a mite) is one of the only population controls for red foxes. Red foxes by the way, are not native to the DC area, having for the most part moved in to the region, with a small amount of English red fox thrown in from attempts to introduce them for hunting purposes. So they're not supposed to be here. Our native fox is the Grey Fox, which is now severely declined in our area, with some thinking this may also be partially to blame due to competition from the naturalized red fox. Here's more on red foxes from a previous Capital Naturalist Blog:
     Sarcoptic mange affects red fox disproportionately from other creatures, including other canines. Grey Foxes for instance are much less likely to be affected, as are coyotes and dogs, though they can be, as can very rarely even humans. My own dog for instance was affected by mange, picked up from a mangy fox that was being attracted to my yard thanks to a neighbor unwisely feeding it, and then later I found out, also treating it with Ivermectin. By the way, feeding such creatures not only concentrates them and thus allows for easier disease transmission, but may cause them to lose their fear of man and lead to other confrontations or misunderstandings. By the way, red foxes who have had mange are also more likely to get it again, as the medication does not give immunity. It may just be postponing the inevitable.
     But let's say that a red fox is treated and the mange goes away (though perhaps just temporarily). By choosing to try and help this predator, you affect other wildlife. You affect the prey base and the other predators who now have to compete with a predator who isn't even supposed to be here in the first place and has been given an unfair advantage by being fed. Many of these other predators themselves are declining in numbers. The red fox eats their prey (and they eat more than just rodents) and may even prey on them as well. This can include hawks, owls, shrews, snakes, weasels, bobcats, and so many more. Since in many places we have very large populations (too many?) of red foxes already, their numbers can really impact native wildlife.
     This not only means ground nesting birds, but of course rodents and such small creatures as rabbits. When fox numbers decline, their numbers expand, feeding other small predators and helping these small creatures themselves. But red foxes also eat fruits and other plant matter as well, directly competing with herbivores and other omnivores. So its not just quail, waterfowl and other ground nesting birds, but also raccoons and possums among so many others. By choosing to help one charismatic nonnative predator like a red fox, you have countless effects on so many others.
     While it may help you feel good, in the end you did not do nature a favor by interfering. The difference you actually made is often a negative one to other native wildlife, even if the things affected are not as charismatic or as easily noticed. So nature can be cruel, but its more important to think about the native natural community rather than an abundant and charismatic individual. Letting nature take its course is a wiser thing for the ecology and other wildlife. Sorry to be a downer, but thinking of the larger implications and doing so in a balanced and non-emotional way is how we should make wildlife decisions. If nothing else, please follow the law, as it is in place for good reasons. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Hickory Nut Primer

A selection of the most common hickory nuts (Carya spp.) in the DC region.

     Every year people ask me about different nuts they find. Hickory nuts (Carya species) seem to always come up. While I'm no expert, I thought I'd give a few pointers on telling them apart that mostly works for me. Consider it a short introduction into hickory nuts. If you plan on tasting any, I'll give a few pointers. The universal rule for most nuts is to float test them first. Take their hulls off and drop them in the water. Those that float have air in them, likely from insects, and are not worth either planting or eating. The ones that sink are the most likely to be viable and have intact meat in them. While not perfect, it works most of the time.

A float test of hulled hickory nuts. The floaters have air pockets and thus not likely any good, the sinkers are heavy with meat.

     The easiest to identify is the Pecan (though many people don't even know that it is a hickory), since many people have eaten the shelled version before. However, Pecans are not really native to the DC area, being more of a Southern tree. Some folks though have planted it locally. Since it tends to not self pollinate very well, the few trees that do produce usually only yield a few nuts around here. The sapsuckers really like to get at the bark it seems too. If there are more than one tree, then you're in luck. I had several trees growing outside of my dorm room in college (William and Mary), but since the locals knew the timing better than I did for getting the nuts, I was pretty unsuccessful in getting much. It's a long nut with well defined ribs that stretch from end to end and has more meat to it than any of our other hickories. They are considered the best tasting. Below are a few photos of Pecans.

A Pecan, Carya illinoinensis. Note the elongated look and well defined ribs on the hull.

A few Pecans with a typical hickory-like leaf.

Our local DC trees, since they tend to not self-pollinate well, produce only a few nuts.

     One of the most noticeable hickory nuts around here is the Mockernut Hickory. The nuts are big and light colored since the hulls split early to drop the light colored fruit. You usually just find the nuts themselves already out of their hulls. They are considered edible, but there's a good reason they're called mockers. Though by their size they promise a good yield, after cracking them you find very little meat in them to eat. They mock you by how little nut meat you get after you work so hard to crack them. Often the nut is so hard to crack that what little was in there is broken up and seems to yield even less than you could ever imagine. Below are some photos of Mockernuts themselves.

A Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) both with and without a hull and next to its pubescent (thus tomentosa in its name) leaf.

Several of the large Mockernuts on the ground with their hulls that I gathered from the ground around them They typically don't have any hulls on them by the time they fall off the tree.

     Much larger and producing much more edible nuts is the Shellbark Hickory. This is has the biggest nuts of all our hickories, and the fruits are quite tasty and yield good amounts of meat.  This species though really isn't native to the DC region however and so is even less common than Pecans around here, few people knowing what it is and therefore not bothering to plant it. Since you're a bit unlikely to find it, I won't write any more on it, but you can find out more if you wish from this Capital Naturalist Blog article I penned on it previously: 

     Shagbark Hickories are also large and said to be edible. They also are not local, being found more in the mountains than in DC. The trees themselves are easy to tell apart due to their shaggy, peeling bark. Below are some photos to help you identify this hickory.

The telltale peeling bark of a mature Shagbark.

Shagbark Hickory leaves and nut.

The sizeable nut of a Shagbark Hickory.

     Much more common and fairly easy to identify is the Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra). The nuts tend to retain their hulls even well after falling from the tree. They do not have very well defined ribs and the hulls don't split as often more than just a bit down the nut. More importantly, they have what I like to think of as a "snout." Now, this is not why they're called pignuts, but that helps me to remember how to recognize them. While some folks consider them edible, their name comes to them due to most folks believing they're fit for hog food. Their flavor is supposed to be quite variable, but that's assuming you find viable and edible nuts. My experience is that they are often infested with weevil grubs and thus often empty or buggy. When scouting for hunting locations, I often find tons of these lying on the ground, but a quick inspection usually results in many of the hulls having the telltale hole of a weevil. I think twice as to whether or not to try and hunt such an area as it doesn't have as much food for wildlife as you think you see. Below are some photos of Pignuts.

A Pignut Hickory with leaf. Note the "snout" that sticks out.

A Pignut with its snout and showing a weevil hole.

     Much less common and often not recognized is the False Shagbark Hickory. It goes by many other names as well, such as Sweet Pignut, False Pignut, and Red Hickory, (Carya ovalis). It is indeed quite easy to confuse with some of the other hickories and most people are not even aware that it exists around here.The easiest way to identify it I've learned is by its nuts. They have fairly well defined ribs and tend to split about halfway along their seams down the nut. Whether it has a hull or not, look at the tip though. If it looks like a tied-off balloon end, then you have C. ovalis. Said to be much better tasting than pignut and the hickory nut that follows, I've yet to try one, though I'm not sure why. I'm going to make it a point this season to do so. Below you'll find some photos that hopefully will help you identify it.

A handful of Carya ovalis, whatever the common name you choose to use. Note that whether with the hull or not, the end looks like a tied-off balloon.  

     Another very common hickory is Bitternut or Swamp Hickory (Carya cordiformis). Its nuts are said to be ill tasting, thus its common name. They're fairly small as well. The round nuts tend to hang on to their hulls, which also are extensively ribbed but only about half way down the nut. That is their best identifying feature in my opinion, though others point to their downy yellow buds as the way to go. The nuts do have little points to their ends, but not as extensively as the pignut or sweet pignut. The photo below may help with identification.

Bitternut Hickories still hanging on the tree. Note the ridges that go about half way down the nut and the pointy end.
     So that's a quick down and dirty look at our local hickory nuts and how I tell them apart (most of the time). Hopefully these clues can help you as well. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spotted Orbweaver Spider

     Among the largest and most commonly seen spiders in the Fall are the Spotted Orbweavers (Neoscona crucifera and less commonly Neoscona domiciliorum). With webs that can be over 2 feet wide and their tendency to attach them at just above eye level to structures such as buildings, these seem to call attention to themselves this time of year. 
     During the earlier part of the year you likely never noticed them. Not only were they much smaller as spiderlings, but they hide during the day. They would tear down and consume their webs every morning, so you often didn't notice their webs they constructed nightly. They did this to avoid daytime predators such as birds or wasps from finding them. Mud Dauber wasps for example often sting and paralyze many of these when they're young, stashing them in their mud nests as living paralyzed food for their own babies. 
     But by Fall, they're often too big for wasps to eat. Many wasps have also concluded hunting and egg laying by this late in the year. So the spiders sometimes hang out during the day. Many birds also don't go after them as much, having no babies to feed or they themselves leaving on migration South. Prey also gets scarcer as it gets colder, so leaving the web up during the warmer day increases the chance of a catch. Consequently, Spotted Orbweavers don't hide as much and also don't tear down their webs and rebuild them at night as much once autumn arrives.
     So while there are definitely fewer of them around, they're bigger and hide less. They also often choose to build their webs around our porch lights and buildings, as the artificial lighting attracts insect food to get snared in their webs. They now stay out more often and tear their webs down less, all the way until the first few frosts kill the adults. Their webs are good at intercepting all sorts of aerial or jumping prey.

A Spotted Orbweaver captures a katydid.

     Spotted Orbweavers and other members of their Genus Neoscona (which mostly look similar) are sometimes called Barn Spiders. That name however is better applied to another large orbweaving spider, Araneus cavaticus. They look quite similar but these are much less common in the DC region. They have wider "shoulder" and lack the broken "L" shape (the spots that give them their names) on their abdomens that Spotted Orbweavers posses. 

A look at the spots on the belly of a Spotted Orbweaver in a broken "L" shape that gives them their name.

     Their scientific name has interesting origins. Eugene Simon, the person who named the Genus as Neoscona in 1864, was just 16 years old when he did so and not good at speaking Greek. Finding one "in the reeds spinning a web", he meant to say just that, but instead the name he gave it translates to "spinning a reed." Despite the goof, the Neoscona name stands. The specific epithet "crucifera" means "cross bearer" due to the shape the markings often take. Some call it a Hentz Orbweaver Spider as the person finding this particular species was named Hentz. In fact the previous accepted scientific name for it use to be Neoscona hentzii. To make names even more confusing, another very similar spider, Nescona domicilorum ( meaning "house dweller"), which is a bit more brightly colored and has other difficult to see differences is also called the Spotted Orbweaver. Luckily as far as life style, they both are much the same so what I write here pretty much holds for both.

A Spotted Orbweaver hangs head down in its web at night.

     These are large spiders and so easily seen in the Fall near our buildings and sometimes causing concern. But they are relatively harmless to people, only biting under duress. Though almost all spiders have venom, many cannot even break the skin. This one does get large enough to potentially do so, but a bite is rare and supposedly only results in a tiny bit of temporary pain or maybe swelling. 
     The web, as mentioned, is generally 5-8 feet high and often 2 feet across. They often use existing structures like buildings for support. Other wise they're a typical orb web, with concentric circles and with sticky spoke web connections. The spider hangs head down in the middle when hunting (though they can hide in a corner or in a folded leaf when scared, making use of the hidden retreat). While both males and females make webs when young, the males stop making them when they become adults and instead go in search of a female. 
     Once they mate, females usually lay a single egg sac holding about a 1000 eggs that is commonly hidden nearby in a folded leaf or other cover. There they overwinter and baby spiderlings are born in the spring, often throwing silk into the air to parachute away and create their own orb webs. 
     I get many inquiries about these spiders "showing up" by porch lights and buildings in the Fall, the people not knowing the spider has been hiding there all summer, venturing out at night to build its web before recycling it by eating it in the morning. It's only now that people notice these larger adult orbweavers, not realizing they benefited from the spiders catching prey the whole summer long, never causing a problem and very unlikely to cause any now. 

A Spotted Orbweaver near its retreat, or hide, a curled leaf shelter hanging from its web.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Arlington's Parks & Rec Digs In Pollinator Patch

The newly established wild flower meadow along the entrance to Long Branch Nature Center in mid September.

     For the last couple of years, Arlington's Parks and Recreation Department has been having a volunteer day where almost all our staff get together to volunteer a day of work and perform some team building and networking. Last year, the theme was very much environmental centered all around Arlington's nature centers. Project choices included a stream cleanup, milkweed seed cleaning, removal of invasive shrubs, tree planting, native plant garden work, and a restoration meadow planting. While they were all a success (you can see a few of the projects in action here:, I'd like to expand on the meadow planting.
     The site chosen for creating a wild flower meadow was along the entrance to Long Branch Nature Center, at a site that had been treated for exotic invasive plants. Natural Resources staff pre-placed 580 pots, in small patches, representing 24 different native species for planting. The plants were all germinated from seed collected in the Arlington area, so these were about as locally native as you could get. Four-fifths of the plants were actually grown in the County's new native plant nursery.

Here's what the site looked like as we pre-placed the pots to plant and before we seeded the area. All the plants were locally produced and mostly from the new County native plant nursery, 580 in all representing 24 species. Note the tree location and compare to the first photo.

     The day of the event was in late October of last year. County staff volunteers planted all 580 plants and then helped to water them in place. It took the better part of the day as the ground was fairly hard and there were quite a few plants. We knew we would not see any results until the next year. That the deer were already munching on them the day we placed the pots out was also less than encouraging. But we had every intention of watching them succeed, forming a wild flower meadow, a pollinator patch that we got certified as a Monarch Way Station and living up to the County's Monarch Pledge as well. You can read more about monarch way stations here:

     But what a great success it turned out to be! While quite a few plants had indeed been eaten by deer, many survived and flowered, attracting not just pollinators, but many other insects and other wildlife as well. While I missed taking photos of the earlier blooming plants, here's just a few of the plants in bloom along with some wildlife, mostly pollinators. In addition, here's a short video showing just some of the more than dozen monarch caterpillars that were raised there:

     So take a photographic journey to the DPR Digs In Pollinator Patch and Monarch Way Station at Long Branch Nature Center to see what was in bloom and who was visiting them on just 2 days recently. You can only imagine all the wildlife that benefited that we are not aware of, but I thought I'd share a few plants and critters below.

A Bumblebee enjoys a meal on Green-headed Coneflower.
A Syrphid Fly, a fly who gets protection by mimicking a bee, pollinates a Tickseed Sunflower
An Ailanthus Webworm Moth enjoys a sip on a Thoroughwort.
A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys a visit to a Cardinal Flower.
Locust Borer Beetles are yellowjacket mimics who enjoy Goldenrods.
Both a Sweat Bee and a fly share a Helen's Flower (Sneezeweed) bloom.

Lots of bees, like this Bumblebee, like Wingstem.
I missed the small solitary bees that usually the Bluecurls, a lovely little wild flower.

Didn't see who visited the Bluemist Flowers.
I wasn't there in the evening to catch the pollinators for Evening Primrose.
We had several species of Asters planted, most of which provide late season nectar sources for pollinators. 
While 19 caterpillar species may feed on New York Ironweed, 2 species of Melissodes bees have to have the pollen from it or they can't reproduce.

While we meant for this to be a pollinator patch, lots more than pollinators benefit, including wildlife who eat the the
                                                        plants like this Woolly Bear munching on a Eupatorium.

     So there you have a quick peek at the results of our pollinator patch for at least a couple of days worth of blooms. We're quite happy how it turned out, and so is our the wildlife it seems. Can't wait to see the results from this year's DPR Digs In volunteer day at Fort CF Smith! 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Northern Watersnake

A Northern Watersnake basks in an Arlington, Virginia pond.

     The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) may well be the most misidentified snake in the East. Due to its living in close proximity to water, large size, variable coloration, ability to flatten its heads to appear triangular, and what some consider a feisty nature, many people confuse it for the venomous Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth) snake. This despite cottonmouths actually not living in the DC area, being limited to Southern Virginia at most. 

A Northern Watersnake eating an American Eel it has dragged out of the water. Not the dark bands thickest along the top of the body.

     Northern Watersnakes are thick-bodied snakes, up to 55 inches in length (though most are 2-3 feet on average). They can have a wide range of color, and the tannins and mud in the water may also stain them. Most however have dark bands across their back that are wider than the light colored bands along their bodies. The dark bands narrow along their sides and thicken along the top of their backs. These bands tend to turn into blotches by the time they reach their tails. The bands also fade as they grow older, becoming difficult to see on the oldest and largest specimens. These snakes also have crescent-shaped marks along their bellies, but that is obviously not an easy thing to see.

Note the crescent-shaped marks along the belly of this watersnake. The tail is almost completely dark underneath.

     Watersnakes (all one word is the scientifically accepted way of spelling the name) are quite common, being found in every county in Virginia and almost all the DC area. They are almost always found in close proximity to water. They can swim completely submerged, which differs from many other types of snakes.

Juvenile Northern Watersnakes are more boldly patterned than adults. Note that the dark bands are wider than the light colored ones and that they are widest at the top of the back. This youngster is swimming submerged underwater. 

     Northern (also called Common) Watersnakes are diurnal, being most active during the day. They feed primarily on fish and amphibians, which are swallowed alive. They will however sometimes pull their prey out of the water and eat it after it has died, particularly if it is putting up a good struggle. They're also one of the few snakes who will eat carrion. Here is a video taken during our Arlington Bioblitz of a watersnake that has wrestled an eel out of the water to eat: 

     Because fish and amphibians are so slippery, watersnakes have very long and pointy teeth, pointing backwards to help hold on to prey. They also have a mild anticoagulant in their saliva. Since they will bite defensively, this can make a bite look scary, though the watersnake really can't do any real harm. The vast majority of the time they try and flee. If captured or cornered, they will flatten out to look bigger, hiss, strike, musk, and even discharge feces, so it's best if they're left alone. Some people report being attacked by them, but what has often happened is that the snake is trying to get to a burrow that the person is in front of, or trying to get aboard what they think is an island when it's someone canoe. They really just want to get somewhere and a person happens to be in the way. This unfortunately adds to the misconception that they're dangerous or aggressive however. 
     Female watersnakes are larger than males, sometimes twice the size. If you see a large one, it is almost certainly a female. This size difference allows them to be able to produce more young. From 6-70 (though 20 is more typical) young are born alive from eggs retained within the mother's body, often from August through October. The largest females produce the most young. Males are attracted to females, finding them by searching for pheromone trails. This sometimes result in "mating balls" of one large female surrounded by 2 or more suitors. If nothing happens to them (lots of things such as herons, raccoons, large fish, snapping turtles, foxes, and mink will eat them, specially when young), they can live up to 9 years and 7 months.
     Though these snakes can appear dangerous, they really just want to be left alone. They're fascinating creatures who are important predators in our waterways, when not serving as prey themselves to other wildlife. Here's one last look at one as it swims away, trying to avoid any confrontation:

Monday, June 19, 2017

National Pollinator Week: Pollinator Patches and Way Stations

A bumblebee, metallic sweat bee, and orange-spotted mint moth all feeding on a native green-headed coneflower in the native plant garden at Long Branch Nature Center.

     Happy National Pollinator Week! There are over 200,000 species of pollinators worldwide. These include such diverse animals as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and hummingbirds. We owe them much, as it is often said that one out of every three bites of food we enjoy is due to the direct actions of an animal pollinator. In fact, three-quarters of all plants regardless of whether we eat them or not depend on animal pollinators in order to reproduce.
     When thinking about planting things to benefit our pollinators who benefit us so often, a critical thing to consider is the use of native plants. Studies show that native plants are four or more times more attractive to native pollinators than exotic plants. This, of course, makes perfect sense since these plants and animals evolved together, sometimes to the point that one cannot exist without the other. Many caterpillars for example cannot survive without their specific native host plant to feed on. About a third of our native bees need the specific pollen of certain native plants or they cannot reproduce. 
     So the most important consideration is to plant plants that are locally native. These plants are not only adapted to grow in this type of habitat, but are what the pollinators have been using for thousands of years. It is also always best to use straight wild species,rather than cultivars or nativars which have been selected for certain traits. When we plant a flower that has been bred to appeal to us through a novel color or look, it may not have the same appeal to the pollinator its parent plants originally evolved with. What might be attractive to us may not be attractive to pollinators, some of which see flowers through different spectrums or look for certain traits in them. This is especially true of plants bred to have double flowers or blooms with extra large petals, since they often sacrifice nectar/pollen for the extra showy flowers.
     Also something to consider are the multiple uses you get with native plants. Many exotic plants may have a pretty flower that may (or may not) provide nectar for a short time each year while blooming, but it otherwise provides little habitat or nutrition for pollinators or other native wildlife. Take the Chinese Aster (Callistephus) for example. It is a pretty flower, comes in many color forms and is widely planted (and has escaped and naturalized into some areas). The blooms on some varieties provide some nectar and pollen to a few pollinators for a short bloom time each year. But only two species of caterpillars have been recorded as feeding on it. It is for the most part and for most of its plant life a barren habitat for wildlife, taking the place of what might have been a much more beneficial native plant.
     Contrast that with one of our many (Virginia alone has 43 different species) colorful and attractive native asters, many adapted to a variety of growing conditions. Now you have flowers that not only provide attractive flowers for the garden and a similar look, but also serve a habitat and food function. In addition to pollinators visiting them, most also supply seeds for birds such as finches and sparrows. But 109 different caterpillar species have also been documented feeding on asters. These in turn feed the vast majority of our nesting native birds (97% of terrestrial birds feed on insects, particularly during the nesting season, most of which are caterpillars) and most of the 18 bat species found in our region (all of which are insectivores and many of which prefer moths over other insects). At least 8 different bee species need their pollen or they cannot reproduce.

A pair of Checkered Skippers feed on a native aster. 

     So you can see how something as simple as choosing a native plant species can not only serve to provide for pollinators, but then serve many other habitat functions as well. So this National Pollinator Week, enjoy the pollinators in our gardens, farms, and parks. If you're able to, include locally native plants in your gardens. This way you too can help the pollinators who are always helping us.
     In Arlington County, we try and make the vast majority of the plants we plant natives for all the reasons stated above. This National Pollinator Week we will be partnering with Dominion Energy to plant a Pollinator Patch in Bluemont Park featuring over 500 native plants. This will be one of several plantings we have made that we will try and certify as Monarch Way Stations. This week serves as the one year anniversary that Arlington County made the Mayor's Monarch Pledge to commit to doing several different things to help monarch butterflies. The milkweed plantings and meeting the rest of the pledge requirements will help us to certify this site among several as a wrap up of this year's efforts. We of course will continue to do many other things to help monarchs and and so many other pollinators. The establishing of Pollinator Patches and Monarch Way Stations is just one way we will continue to do so in to the foreseeable future. Please join us in supporting our pollinators by planting native plants when you can and taking pollinator needs in to consideration when you do things at home. 

A Monarch Butterfly and Clearwing Moth nectar at a native Swamp Milkweed flower in the Gulf Branch Nature Center Monarch Way Station and Pollinator Garden. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Kissing Bug - The Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose

An Eastern Bloodsucking Conenose - a Kissing Bug - found during the Arlington Bioblitz

     Among the neat finds made during the first ever Arlington Bioblitz in 2017 was made by one of our distinguished experts: former Smithsonian entomologist Warren Steiner. I've had the honor to be in the field several times with Warren, and he always makes some fascinating observations and discoveries. But they're usually in his specialty of beetles. This time around it was a true bug.
     Not just any bug mind you, but one with which I've had an interesting past with. He found what is known as Triatoma sanguisuga, formally called the Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose. But I knew it by another name when I first encountered it. My encounter happened several years ago in El Salvador.
     Since my wife's family is from El Salvador (she was born in Honduras however), I was on one of my extended visits. As her family lives in a very humble setting without a lot of the things such as running water one is often accustomed to, you do without a few creature comforts. You also are living among the chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and other regular household creatures who often share your hand-carved habitation. This also includes mosquitoes and other insects.
     The custom is then to use mosquito netting and run a fan. I had taken the normal precautions, but they did not deter a night time visitor, one that went under the mosquitero. I woke the next morning with the customary roosters calling, but with a greatly swollen lip. In fact, it was stiff as cardboard and even affected my speech. I had been "kissed" by a kissing bug!
     Kissing bugs are assassin bugs who have specialized their diet to include blood meals. There are various species throughout the Americas, including the Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose who it is believed ranges throughout the Americas. They in fact need a blood meal in order to lay eggs.
     Normally this is obtained from small mammals, but they will not pass up any blood meal they can, including humans. They are sometimes called Mexican Bedbugs. They often are attracted to moisture, such as from the edges of your lips, thus their common moniker of "kissing bugs."
     The one I encountered had decided to kiss me in my sleep. At the moment it happens, I can attest, you do not feel a thing. But later on you can get some sometimes serious reactions. Some folks get an allergic reaction. I was lucky it seems to just get a fat lip. But the most feared reaction is if you get infected with the incurable Chagas' disease.
     My own family is from Peru, where as in other parts of South America, it is possible to get infected by Chagas', something I was well aware of. So while every one else found a lot of humor in my huge cardboard-like lip and speech impediment, I was a bit concerned. Luckily for me, the South American kissing bugs are much more likely to infect you with the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi which causes the illness.This is due to their feeding habit, where they often defecate onto the wound which increases the odds of transmission. The Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose does not do so and so has a much less chance of transmission. Lucky for me, as I just had to deal with the disfigured lip for the whole day, but the joking continued for much longer.
     So I was very surprised when Warren relayed that he had found one during the Bioblitz, showing it to me in a cup. I really had thought they were a Latin American thing. Instead they are more widespread, though more common in the South. It may very well have been the same species who snuck into bed with me to steal a kiss. I never thought I'd find another one around here, or that I'd kiss and tell...