This is my first Biocap, which is weekly occurrence every Saturday where I recap my week in nature-- what I've found, photographed, and read about.
This week: ink caps, Microvelia, and flying squirrels!
On Tuesday night, I checked in on the Cornell Lab Bird Cams. If you aren’t aware of them, the Cornell Lab Bird Cams are basically a series of live cameras that virtually connect viewers with birds— these livestreams capture everything from albatross nestling colonies to backyard bird feeders. I watch them religiously, so definitely check them out if you haven’t! I clicked onto the livestream of the Ontario Feederwatch Cam, which streams in the winter during Feederwatch season (Feederwatch is a citizen science project where you can count birds at your feeder for research).
I wasn’t expecting to see anything, as it was 9:30 pm at night. But surprise, surprise…there was something! Perched comfortably on the tray feeder was a flying squirrel munching on the leftover seeds. Flying squirrels are, in my opinion, one of the cutest animals to ever exist. All but six species are native to Asia, and where the Ontario Cam is located, the Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinas) are the common visitors of feeders (mostly at night). These critters have a typical diet of a small, forest-dwelling mammal, feasting on acorns and other nuts, berries, buds, sap, bird eggs, small insects, and of course, birdseed.
Despite being called flying squirrels, they aren’t capable of true flight the way birds or bats are. The more appropriate word would be gliding. Flying squirrels glide across the canopy with the assistance of a patagium, a thin membrane of fur-covered skin that stretches from the front to back legs. Think about it like a wingsuit! How far they can glide depends on their air current and their height, but they can usually go a 150 feet from a height of 60 feet— definitely far enough to reach a bird feeder.
My lawn would not be my usual place to observe nature, but on Wednesday, a small mushroom growing out of the grass caught my eye. Now, I have no idea how to identify fungi, so I posted it on iNat to see if it could identify it for me. The first suggestion that popped up was the pleated ink cap, and it looked pretty darn similar, so that’s what I went with.
The pleated ink cap (Parasola plicatilis), sometimes known as the Little Japanese Umbrella (way cooler name), is a fragile and dainty member of the ink cap family, named after its frilled cap. It occurs in short grass, and, like many other grassland fungi, have extremely short lifespans. I kid you not when I say extremely short— these mushrooms pop up overnight (usually following rain), open up, disperse their spores, and decay, all in the span of 24 hours.
While many people would find it depressing having such a short lifespan, I think there is an odd beauty in the temporal nature of ink caps— having your first day be your last, being born in the rain and gone by the next sunset. 24 hours to make a difference, 24 hours to alter the earth. 24 hours to be in the world, and it’s overlooked how strangely wonderful it is to share the same time frame as one of these little mushrooms. How strangely wonderful it is to share the same time frame as anything, anyone, in fact.
Lastly, I wanted to discuss a taxa that not many people know about, even in the scientific community: Microvelia. Microvelia is the a genus in the family Veliidae, the smaller water striders. They are the organism I chose to research for a field project because they were abundant and easy to see and count in the plot of woods the study is being conducted in. At first, my group thought they were called “water treaders”, so I mistakenly thought they were in the genus Mesovelia. But after some background research, it turns out they are actually water striders, just the smaller kind. It was surprising news, because I originally thought the name “water striders” only encompassed the family Gerridae. However, I am most definitely not an expert in aquatic bugs, so I suppose there’s more to learn!
On Thursday, I finally got the chance to examine one of the Microvelia under a microscope. It was a big deal, since I could finally figure out what exactly I was studying. It was astonishing to see the details on this bug, seeing fine details like the little hydrophobic hairs that I never get to observe in the field because they are so tiny! It had a beautiful, sleek black body that gleamed silver from the bubbles on its exoskeleton. After I snapped some pictures of it from the microscope, I uploaded it to iNat, curious to know the precise species I was studying.
Well, I didn’t get an exact species, but I did get the subgenus Kirkaldya, which is good enough considering how little is known about this species. mpintar (thank you for the ID and the research paper you sent me) and norose helped me out on this very important identification. It was suggested to me that the species I was most likely studying was Microvelia americana, a common member that occurs in the local area. But, unfortunately, there was no way to know for sure without getting even closer looks at the specimen (e.g, examining the genitals).
These critters are pretty cool, despite how much is unknown about their natural history. Water striders such as the Microvelia I’m studying and members of Gerridae, the larger type of water strider, use hydrophobic hairs that repel water and capture air to skirt across the water’s surface. They’re like Jesus, but in arthropod form. I was thinking they might have something hydrophobic on their back too, as I observed one underwater, staying alive with a thin layer of air around its body. Perhaps its employing a technology similar to how the water anole breathes through an air bubble on its head, the equivalent of natural scuba-diving? I’m excited to learn more about these Microvelia— I may even discover something new!
Lastly, some quick bird talk:
-Fall migration has appeared come to an end, marked with the arrival of white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and yellow-rumped warblers. The juncos arrived quickly— one day they were nonexistent, the next I see ten on my lawn! I saw my first one on Monday, October 24th.
-I spotted a red-shouldered hawk! It was perched up in the canopy of the patch of woodland I am conducting my Microvelia study in. Adult plumage. These guys stick around my area year-round, and you hear them screaming a considerable amount of the time when you go outside, but its always a nice treat when you see it visually— those rufous feathers and yellow talons are eye candy to me!
-Speaking of raptors, I saw two Cooper’s hawks in my backyard, which I haven’t seen in a while! One adult, one juvenile, both perched on the low branches of the hackberry tree in my yard. They also occur year-round in my area, and they surely made a scene when they scared all the birds away from my feeders!
-As wintertime closes in, I’ve also been spotting irruptive species, birds that migrate in large numbers to different locations depending on the resources they have. I’ve seen purple finches and red-breasted nuthatches so far. Hoping for pine siskins, maybe even a crossbill! For more information on the movement of irruptive species, take a look at the Winter Finch Forecast from Finch Network.
That is all for October 29th’s Biocap! Signing off for now, Amber.