Widow Skimmer (Progomphus obscurus)

One of the most common dragonflies in the United States, widow skimmers can be seen throughout North America. While they are often found near still bodies of water, this skimmer was instead photographed in the vegetable garden hunting asparagus beetle larvae. I hope it did not flyaway hungry.

The widow skimmer in the photo is a juvenile. As it grows to adulthood, its body will turn powdery blue. Widow skimmers are also easy to identify as they are the only species of skimmers with broad stripes on both the fore- and hindwings. Adult male skimmers can also be quickly identified by bands of white on their wings.

Tobacco Hornworm (Manduca Sexta)

A bain of tomato growers, tobacco hornworms can defolate young tomato plants with alarming speed. They can grow to over three-inches long and feed primarily on tomato or tobacco plants. If a hornworm is lucky enough to survive pupatation, its adult form is a large moth with yellow-orange spots on its abdomen and a four-inch wing span.

These impressively large and fleshy caterpillars are very similar to tomato hornworms. The color of the “horn” on their tail is perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference. A tomato hornworm will have a blue horn while the tobacco hornworm’s tail is red. Another easily identifiable difference are the extra black edges lining the stripes found on a tobacco hornworm’s back.

These worms must have been endemic when tobacco ruled the Piedmont’s agricultural landscape in the 18th and early-19th centuries. However, today they are not a major nuisance to the farm’s very limited number of tomato plants. Tilling in the spring usually breaks up their pupae and, if that doesn’t work, they can be easily plucked. More interesting are the parasitic wasps that use hornworms to complete their lifecycle. Unlike some parasitic wasps who paralyze their victims before dragging them back to an underground burrow, wasps who host on hornworms lay their eggs directly on their prey. After the eggs hatch the wasp larvae feed relentlessly on the slowly dying caterpillar until they are ready to take their adult form. Brutal but effective.

 

 

 

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Often seen sitting on fences and branches near fields and lawns, the Eastern Bluebird is a farm favorite. Brightly colored males and elegant greyish females are quick to take advantage of nesting boxes mounted to abandoned fence posts and trees. It is the male who first finds a nesting site. While he works to attract a discerning female to the nest with his striking orange chest plumage and symbolic offerings of twigs and leaves, he must also aggressively protect it from other birds. If he manages to charm a mate with his display, the female will then complete the nest and lay two to seven pale blue eggs. The eggs – 20% of which may have been fertilized by alternative male partners – will hatch 11-19 days later. Their bond often lasts several seasons and commonly produces more than one brood a year. Hatchlings from spring broods leave their parents in mid-summer; broods raised later in the year may travel with their parents throughout the winter.

Typically feeding on insects during the spring and summer, the Eastern Bluebird is a savvy hunter who pounces on unsuspecting prey from above. Their remarkably keen eyesight – they are capable of seeing their quarry from 60 feet away – helps them to track down the beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and grasshoppers they prefer. Bluebirds relay on berries and other fruits during the colder months when insects are not as prevalent.

With an estimated global population of 22 million, bluebirds are thankfully very common. However, even with their large numbers and low conservation threat, their cheerful demeanor and insectivorous diet makes installing nesting boxes well worth the effort.

Red Footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes)

A member of the Robber Fly (Asilidea) family, these flying terrors are also known as Assassin flies. Similar to dragonflies, Cannibal flies are voracious hunters who in ambush their prey in mid-air. After capturing the bees, ants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and other insects they feed on, Cannibal flies inject neurotoxins and proteolytic enzymes using their proboscis. The fly will then find a quiet spot to rest as it sucks out the liquified internal organs of it victim. Ferocious and amazing. Promachus rufipes_RedFootedCannibalFly_201607

Broadhead Skink (Plestiodon laticeps)

Largest of the native skinks in Virginia, broadhead  skinks are virtually indistinguishable from five-lined skinks when young. With the blue tails and five lighter lines, only a slight variation in their scales distinguish them from their cousins. Adult females – which can grow up to 13″ long – are typically larger than adult males and retain their lines. As seen in the photo, adult males have a more uniform body color offset by an ostentatious red-orange head and neck during the spring mating season.

Spending time on the ground as well as in trees, these non-poisonous insectivores reproduce by laying eggs. Common throughout the Southeastern United States they typically are seen around our house and in the adjoining planting beds. As a child I remember skinks being fairly rare, but their numbers have increased over the past 10 years to a point where they are now a common site during the warmer months.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

This is an easy one to start with. The second most abundant bird in North American, robins are endemic on the farm and are the first migratory birds to arrive in late winter and possibly winter over. Easily identifiable by their reddish-orange breast, they are often seen in large flocks on the farm in the early spring but become more solitary in the summer. They are profuse breeders. According to wikipedia, produce two to three broods a year hatched from their distinctive blue eggs. This fecundity appears to be much needed as only 25% of young robins survive their first year and the average lifespan is a short two years.

The robin pictured below was photographed on an August morning atop a willow oak. With a mouth full of  invertebrates, this master hunter was no doubt rushing home to feed its last hatchlings of year.

Robin_20158.

In the beginning…

For decades I’ve lived in Virginia’s piedmont on a farm that’s been in my family for almost 70 years. Even with half a lifetime of wandering the the 250 acres of fields and forested hillsides, I am still constantly surprised by the variety of life found in the landscape. No matter what scale – from the microscopic to the panographic – it’s abundance is astonishing.

This site is an attempt to document as many of the different forms of life as possible  within the boundaries of my family’s farm. Nothing too technical, just old school natural history. It is also an excuse. With jobs, children, parents, friends I’ve been spending less and less time outside. This project gives me a reason to get back into nature with a camera in my hand. Primarily I plan to focus on fauna. The thought of documenting the farm’s flora at the same time is honestly overwhelming. Will that change in the future? Who knows, life is uncertain.

I am also a historian by training, so my zoological skills are amateurish at best. Don’t hesitate to let me know if something has been mislabeled or misidentified.

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