Friday, April 25, 2014

A busy day for bunnies

Every once in a while, I have come across rabbits in the park.  I usually only notice them as they retreat speedily into the underbrush.  However, on Easter afternoon, the rabbits were much less skittish.  The first two rabbits that I encountered were darting back and forth through the woods, but instead of running away from me, they seemed to be busy chasing each other.  After a short time, the chase broke off and -- to my surprise -- one of the rabbits hopped to within a few feet of where I had stopped to watch.

A bashful-looking rabbit (either an eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, or a swamp rabbit, S. aquaticus) grooming itself.
The rabbit then proceeded to groom itself and forage for edible plants until it was disturbed by the next person walking up the path. 

After grooming, it was time for some food.
As I made my way to the meadow on the other side of the woods, I found that a couple of rabbits had ventured into the open.

Another rabbit emerging hesitantly from the woods.
Food was much more plentiful in the meadow; yet neither rabbit ventured very far or remained exposed for very long.  The rabbits stayed close enough to the tree margin that they only required a few short hops to disappear into the sheltering vegetation once again.

A third rabbit shortly before it returned to the woods.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A bee in the bonnet

For the past couple of weeks, most of the open areas around my apartment have been carpeted (somewhat treacherously) with the Texas state flower -- the bluebonnet.

A field of Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) and a few other flowers too.
Although the bluebonnets themselves are innocuous, they have been attracting swarms of both honey bees and photo-op seekers.  While watching the former and trying to ignore the latter, I noticed that the bluebonnets are remarkable for more than just their vibrant color.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) approaches a bluebonnet.
Each flower is blue with either a white or a purplish inner spot; however, the color of the spot is not random.  Only the youngest flowers, those at the top of the spike, have a white center.  As the flowers age, their spots turn purple, similar to how the markings on horse chestnut flowers change from yellow to pink (and likely for the same reason). 

A honey bee collecting nectar.
The structure of the bluebonnets is also impressive.  The actual reproductive parts are all hidden away inside the flowers, so how does pollen get picked up and deposited?  Unlike the bees that I have seen squeezing inside some other lupine flowers, a honey bee visiting a bluebonnet just lands on top of the flower.

When the honey bee lands, the flower opens, exposing the stigma and anthers.
The weight of the bee then pushes the flower open.  In the process, pollen from the flower's anthers is rubbed onto the bee and pollen from the bee may get stuck to the flower's stigma.  The flower stays open for a moment after the bee leaves, then snaps back into place until the next visitor arrives.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The spider at the end of the line

A crab spider may hide itself by matching the color of its flower or by constructing a refuge among the petals, but how can an orb-weaver hide on its web?  In an empty web, an orb-weaver is an easy target for its own predators and parasites.  Many orb-weavers avoid this problem by spending the day hidden nearby their webs, but not Allocyclosa bifurca.

Which lump is the spider?
These spiders sit in wait right in the middle of their webs, where they are disguised as part of a line of similarly shaped and colored egg sacs (above the spider) and bundled prey (below the spider). 

A female Allocyclosa bifurca eating prey that had become snared in its web.
Each time I find these spiders, they seem to be doing very well -- with several egg sacs per web and sometimes several spiders on neighboring fronds of the same palm. 

A female Allocyclosa bifurca spider briefly moving out of its hiding spot.
Yet, as successful as A. bifurca's camouflaging may be, it pales in comparison to what related Cyclosa spiders can do.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The lion's share of the aphid

A few weeks ago, while I was on a trip to Arizona, I took a walk in the desert.  (I did not make much progress as far as walking was concerned, though.)  There were many flowers blooming along the sides of the trail, so I zigzagged  from one flower to the next, checking for crab spiders or any other visitors (but really hoping for crab spiders). 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) flowers and one of the several crab spiders that I found.
It was not long before my diligence was rewarded by my discovery of a very small crab spider.  After that, I checked each flower even more intensely and in the end found several small crab spiders, some with even smaller prey. 

A juvenile crap spider (Mecaphesa sp.) eating what looks like a thrips.
For example, the spider above is eating a tiny insect that appears to be a thrips.  Meanwhile, the remains of another crab spider's meal can be seen in the bottom left corner of the picture below (it is probably a tiny fly or bee).

This crab spider had already finished its meal (if you look closely, you can see what was left of it).
In my search for the spiders, I also encountered quite a few other visitors to the flowers, including another successful predator.  This predator was a lacewing larva that I caught in the act of living up to its name 'aphid lion'.

A lacewing larva, a.k.a. an aphid lion, with a captured aphid.