Friday, June 18, 2010

Science Camp "goodies"

We just finished our week of the American Museum of Science and Energy's summer science camp. This was my 21st year to do the program! It is always interesting to see what kind of critters we find out at the Freels Cabin. Every morning the kids (rising 5, 6, and 7th graders) study a different habitat. I take the groups to a grassy field with a small wetland area. Today I was so excited to photograph and then catch a very unusual insect called a Phantom Crane Fly. One of the boys saw it yesterday in the same area, so I hoped it would be there again today --- it was! These insects look as though they are floating in the air as they fly. Their black and white-striped legs stick straight out when they are flying and when they land. It had been years since I had seen one, and I have been wanting to photograph one for a long time!

Another interesting creature we enjoyed finding in the field was the tiny Spring Peeper frog. I had told the campers that these frogs are so small they could fit on a thumbnail. It was hard for them to believe a frog could be so little! So, it was a lot of fun when they started finding them as we walked through the field each morning. It is amazing that this is an adult frog!

Today one of our co-workers who is a wildlife "rehabber" came to speak to the kids. She brought an opossum, 2 corn snakes and a tiny red phase Screech Owl. These little birds have the most intriguing yellow eyes!

I've been squeezing in time at night to go out on the carport and see what comes to the black light and sheet. Last night I was happy to find "Mr. and Mrs. Stag Beetle" out there. Actually, I played matchmaker by placing them next to each other on the sheet so I could photograph them. I guess there won't be any grubs (baby beetles) anytime soon, they weren't too interested in each other! :( Maybe she didn't like his big mouth! ;)

We find lots of interesting spiders each day. This one is very well camouflaged! She looks nearly identical to her discarded remains of her prey that she keeps in the center of her web. It was hard to point her out to the kids!

This is also the time of the year that the cicada nymphs come out of the ground to begin their short period of life as an adult. Some of the campers spotted this cicada emerging from its nymph skin when they were looking at the trees. It is amazing how much more 26 pairs of eyes can observe, especially with a little bit of training!

This huge black spider caused quite a bit of excitement when he ran across the grass during one of our classes. That is one of the interesting things about science camp, you never know what will happen! :) I caught him in a jar and put him on a tree so I could get a better photo of him! The kids said he looked like a small black tarantula!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some Smokies Wildlife (in more ways than one!)

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the first 2 weeks in June are famous for the Synchronous Firefly light show! Kenny had never seen this awesome spectacle, so we headed up on Friday afternoon. I had gone up there a couple of years ago to see it, but I didn't get home until 2:00 AM; I promised myself I would never do that again! So, I made reservations to stay in Gatlinburg for Friday night. Gatlinburg is not on the top of our places to visit because it is horribly commercialized, so it takes something REALLY special to make us stay overnight there! I was afraid we were in for a long, sleepless night when we pulled in and there were probably 100 souped-up Dodge Challengers filling the parking lots and gobs of people sitting on coolers drinking beer! These photos of the "aftermath" were taken the next morning! Jeez, haven't these people ever heard of recycling!? This carshow stuff is just incomprehensible to us, I can't imagine anything much more miserable than spending a weekend in 90+ degree weather walking around a parking lot looking at a bunch of shiny cars and listening to guys talking about the RPMs their engines have!!! Of course, those folks would probably think the same about going out in a pitch dark woods waiting for and watching a bunch of lightning bugs to light up! :)

So what could possibly make us go to such extremes? The Synchronous Firefly light show lasts only about 2 weeks and this is the end of the second week. There are only a couple of places in the world that has these fireflies. Wow! What a spectacle it is! If you have never seen it and get a chance to go over the next few days, I strongly recommend it! We found out they are in many areas of the park, not just Elkmont like the park advertises. We got to the Sugarlands parking area too late to ride the tram, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise! The ranger told us that the Chimney Tops Picnic area, Cades Cove and the Bullhead Trail were good places to go too, so we headed to the picnic area. The rangers chased everyone out of the area at 8:30 p.m. to lock the gate, so we had to park up the road and walk back. But, believe me, it was worth the hassle! The "fireworks" started at about 9:45, 1/2-hour later we were enthralled at the spectacle in the woods. I was trying to describe what we had seen to some people we met in the park today. The best explaination I could come up with was to imagine standing in the middle of a pitch black football stadium and someone in the crowd begins to flash a camera over and over. Then the people nearby start to do the "wave", flashing their cameras rapidly as they move around the stadium. Suddenly the lights all stop, then seconds later one person starts the process all over again with the "wave" going in reverse to where it began. Then imagine that going on for hours! This is definitely a "bucket list" experience for anyone who loves nature and insects! As an added "treat", we saw 2 bears (or maybe the same bear 2 times!). He was sniffing around the picnic grounds and didn't bother anyone. It was very nice not having to wait in line for an hour or so to take the tram from back to the Sugarlands visitor center like we would have if we had made it to Elkmont! :) I tried to get a movie of the fireflies lighting up, but it didn't work. I'll try a different method next year. Here is a photo of one of the male beetles on the ground.

On Saturday we headed back into the park. I always like to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There are often some nice moths on the wall and yesterday was no exception. I had to use my telephoto lens to photograph these because they were so high up on the wall. The one on the right is one of the Sphinx moths. The moth on the left is a Common Lytrosis, it is amazing how well-camouflaged this moth would be if it landed on a tree!

On our next stop we went to the Cades Cove visitor center (it is a long time until the next bathroom stop!). I found yet another gorgeous moth, a Rosy Maple Moth. It almost looked fake, it was so colorful. I saw a man standing on a bench in the amphitheater area and he was waving his hand at a nest of baby Barn Swallows to make them open their mouths. I told him he shouldn't harass them like that. When the mother came to feed them, I snapped a couple of photos. I love this one! :) How cute is that!?

Later, we drove to Cades Cove to drive the Loop Road. We had not been on the road since it was resurfaced this spring! We were impressed, no more minefield-sized potholes to drive around or hit! Here is a movie clip of part of the drive.

As we drove along the loop, there were the usual slow-downs due to deer, turkeys or other critters. We usually don't stop for deer unless they have a really impressive rack! One particular slowdown had me jumping out of the car very quickly! There was a flock of male turkeys out in the cove and they were strutting their stuff! I've been wanting to get a photo of male turkeys with their tails spread out for a long time! What handsome guys they were!