All posts by David S Johnson

Who’s hiding in your mud?

Can you see me?

Tiny U pugilator (1)

 

 

 

 

How about now?

Tiny U pugilator (2)

 

Now?

Tiny U pugilator (3)

I am a juvenile – and adorable and humble – sand fiddler crab, Uca pugilator. I am tiny and an easy snack, so I look like a grain of sand to keep me out of the belly of a bird. 

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‘Dagger-faced goons’ murder and eat victim in broad daylight

Williamsburg, Virginia

“A gruesome scene this morning has left a leafy neighborhood in Williamsburg, Virginia, in shock after a newly emerged cicada was murdered, dismembered and eaten in broad daylight.

According to eyewitness accounts, a female Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) pulled the victim off the trunk of a tree, threw it on the ground and stabbed it repeatedly with its needle-like bill. Once the victim was dead, another wren, a male, helped the alleged killer ripped the victim to pieces and began eating it. Later, a female cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Virginia’s state bird with eyes set on savagery, joined in to help devour the victim.

“It was brutal, just brutal” said a grasshopper who witnessed the attack. “The poor guy emerged right under the bird feeder. That’s just bad luck. That’s like a gazelle being born in a lion’s den.” After pausing to look over his shoulder, the grasshopper said, “But better him than me.”

We were able to obtain an exclusive interview and confession with the alleged killer, who was taking a dirt bath under a bush. “I was going to eat bird seed from the feeder. Then I saw [the cicada] on the tree. It was the size of my head! So much meat. And delicious. Now I don’t have to spend the rest of the day foraging for insects and seeds. I can focus, instead, on removing mites from my feathers.”

Asked if she had any regrets, she said, “Only that after all my work to kill the cicada, that cardinal bullied her way in. But she only got part of the thorax and the wings. I don’t like the wings anyway. Too stringy.”  

The murder happened in the front yard of a Williamsburg resident who saw it happen outside his window. “I saw the wren pecking the ground, then saw the cicada try to fly away. She grabbed it and flipped it on its back. It was gruesome. I didn’t watch the whole thing because I didn’t want to overcook my eggs. That would have ruined my day.”

The victim was a periodical cicada (Magicicada sp.). These insects remain underground as pale grubs for 13 or 17 years then emerge from the ground as winged-adults to find a mate. They are sometimes called “17-year locusts”, which is a misnomer. Locusts are grasshoppers and cicadas are more closely related to shield bugs and assassin bugs.

The grasshopper who witnessed the murder gave perspective on the victim’s life cycle, “Nothing like waiting 17 years in an underground bunker only to be killed and eaten by dagger-faced goons when you come out.”

 

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P.S. This makes my 100th post. Thank you for following! Don’t forget to tell your friends and neighbors. But not the creepy neighbors.

 

 

 

Quest of the Tick

I sit at the end of a blade of grass under a blistering 98-degree sun. I wait. The humidity is thick. I wait. The breeze is dead. I wait.

I wait for you.

I wait all day, still as a stone. When I feel your breath, your heat or your footsteps, I throw open my front legs like a spring-loaded trap the snaps open instead of closed when triggered. I wave my legs around eager to grab you. The hooks at the ends of my legs make sure to snag your hair, your clothes, your skin.

I am the tick, and I have waited for you all day.

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What our eight-legged friend* describes above is the questing behavior of ticks. They sit at the edge of leaves or grass patiently waiting for you or your dog or a deer or a raccoon to walk by. I admire their patience and their clever behavior.

I took the photos below in my backyard after looking for black dots at the ends of grass blades and seed heads. The tick is the Lonestar tick, Amblyomma americanum. Once you know what to look for, it’s amazing, and terrifying, how many ticks you can find riding on the tips of grass blades. Even scarier is the number of ticks you can’t see.

 

*Ticks are arachnids, like spiders and scorpions and mites. They are not insects.

Need a date? Just wave.

Here is a great video put together by the New York Times explaining how female fiddler crabs not only prefer males with larger claws, but also with claws that wave faster. This is based on work by Australian researchers who used robot claws to wave faster or slower. Waving is part of fiddler-crab courtship. So remember, the next time you’re in a bar or the grocery store and you see someone you’d like to court, wave your little claw off!

Blind daffodils and a splat of moss

snowdrop (1).JPG
Snowdrops with raindrops

It rained all day yesterday and the snowdrops are now dappled with raindrops. A splat of moss that has made its home on a slate of stone is without shame and has flashed its naked gametophytes (gam-meat-o-fights), sporophytes (spore-o-fights), and sporangium (spore-anj-e-um) for anyone to see. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the sex life of the mosses. I don’t either. So long as the mosses have it figured out, we shouldn’t worry. Throughout the neighborhood, the daffodils have put up their green swords ready to charge into spring. But they charge blindly because they yet to reveal their crowned heads. But I can’t criticize, when I blindly stuck my head out this morning I had to retreat and put on a knit hat. Spring may be coming, but it is winter that is here. 

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A splat of moss on a stone of slate
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Blind daffodils

*****If you enjoyed this post then please consider donating to your local food bank. Even if you didn’t enjoy it, consider donating anyway.

Wild snails of the flowerbed

Thanksgiving Day,
Williamsburg, Virginia

It’s 3:00 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day and I’m bored and slightly cold. We will eat at 4:30 P.M. I’m not sure what to do with myself so I’m sitting behind the couch using the box for the cat’s scratching pad as a mouse pad and writing a blog while my mother reads and my mother-in-law vacuums.

What to write about? Snails. A good go-to for me.

Two days ago when it was 60 F, I laid on the red-brick patio and watch a snail that I had dislodged from a planter that I moved. It had been hiding under there, probably to overwinter. But I brought it out into the open. It was nice just to watch the snail without any sort of agenda. So often in my science I’m making observations so I can scribble them down, analyze them, write a grant, get rejected by the grant, write another grant and finally give up and move on to another subject. Just like a football coach who points out the errors in the defensive line of a team he doesn’t coach, I can’t help but analyze Nature instead of just enjoying the game. My head instead asks, What species is it? How old was it? How big? How many are in the yard? What predators does it fear? But I let myself relax. I watched and I enjoyed. I watched the slide of its stomach-foot over the electric green moss that cushions the red bricks. While I didn’t take any data, I did take pictures.

And what will this snail eat for it’s Thanksgiving meal? It’s 43 F here today so it may be too cold for it to eat, but if it does feast, it will be on rotting leaves, mushrooms, and if it finds its way to my compost pile – the carcass of a Halloween pumpkin. Some meals don’t require basting. 

By the way, if you haven’t read the beautiful book The Sound of Wild Snail Eating you should. It’s a wonderfully written book about a bed-ridden woman who befriends a woodland snail.

Happy gobbling. Backyard snail (6)

Backyard snail (5)

Backyard snail (2)

Backyard snail (1)