Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) Trochilidae, male
June 12, 2016
Male RUHUs are probably the first hummingbirds to arrive here in Montana in the spring. They are our most aggressive hummingbirds and will chase anything that gets too close to their territories. Look for them in moist or riparian woods throughout the Pacific Northwest from April to September. In Western Washington, males will arrive with the first blooms of Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) in late February and March.
Calligrapha verrucosa “Warty Willow Leaf Beetle” Chrysomelidae
May 26, 2016
The genus name “Calligrapha” is a reference to the beautiful calligraphic script on the backs of many species. This species’s coloration is not quite as script-like, but it definitely still appears painted. These beetles are most common in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, but, according to some older sources, their range is far broader, stretching from Nebraska to California to Alaska. If you have photographs of these beetles please contact me to supplement our scientific understanding of their distribution!
Ranatra fusca “Brown Waterscorpion” Nepidae
Lake Inez, Lolo National Forest, MT
May 23, 2017
There’s something genuinely unnerving about insects viciously preying upon vertebrates, and waterscorpions are superbly specialized for this terrifying task. They sit near the surface of the water, head down, with their elongated, raptorial front limbs outstretched, waiting. Their long paired “tails” remain in contact with the water’s surface like a snorkel, allowing them to breathe while fully submerged. When some unlucky fish or tadpole swims too close, they snap them up like a mantis and immediately stab them with their sucking mouthparts. Their saliva both subdues and begins to digest their prey, allowing them to suck out the animal’s insides. On a completely unrelated note, this individual looks worse for wear, which led me to discover that adults actually overwinter in lakes and ponds here in Montana – not an easy task considering that most bodies of water freeze-over completely at some point. So apparently they’re indestructible AND hyper-specialized predators. Thank goodness they’re only five inches long.
Phacelia heterophylla “Varileaf Scorpionweed” Hydrophyllaceae/Boraginaceae
Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
June 13, 2016
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not very familiar with members of the genus Phacelia, but this species perfectly exemplifies why they have received the common name, “scorpionweeds.” Those tightly coiled flower heads will progressively unravel until they’re long and straight (a very Boraginaceaous growth pattern). P. heterophylla is an abundant, weedy species in our area, and, unlike elsewhere in its range where their flowers are drab and white, here in Missoula ours tend to be deep lavender in color!
Phacelia linearis “Thread-leaf Phacelia” Hydrophyllaceae/Boraginaceae
Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
June 13, 2016
I can’t say I’m particularly familiar with the genus Phacelia. In fact, I was quite stumped when I first photographed this flower on the trails behind the university. Turns out, Phacelia has perplexed botanists as well over the last few decades as well. Most members of this genus are called scorpionweeds (for obvious reasons which I’ll elucidate in my next post), but this particular species is definitely not recognizable as such. Its large, broadly campanulate flowers are not what I immediately associate with members of Hydrophyllaceae either. What’s more, the family Hydrophyllaceae is now accepted as a subfamily within Boraginaceae, and this plant absolutely does not remind me of forget-me-nots and bluebells. So in summary, the Thread-leaf Phacelia is an oddball in the world of Phacelias and the genus Phacelia is generally also odd as a member of Hydrophyllaceae which, oddly enough, has odd traits that do not conform to those that tend to be most common in the family Boraginaceae, to which it now belongs.
Philodromus histrio “Theatrical Running Crab Spider” Philodromidae
Blue Mountain National Recreation Area, MT
May 16, 2016
I have no idea why this species of running crab spider has been given the species epithet “histrio.” In Latin, histrio means “actor” or “player.” Perhaps the arachnid’s propensity for waving its arms about whenever a predator (or camera) approaches earned it this descriptor. Or perhaps some early entomologist first encountered it engaged in an impressive act of twig-impersonation. In fact, when I first stumbled upon this individual, its legs were perfectly aligned in the shape of an X and pressed flat against the underside of this Artemisia stem, perhaps hoping to be mistaken for plant matter. Regardless, these Philodromids are widespread, common, and relatively recognizable. Look for them in northern latitudes and in the Rockies anywhere you might find weedy Asteraceous plants like Artemisia, Tanacetum, Centaurea, or Senicio (yes, I know, that encompasses just about every habitat).
American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) Pelecanidae
Yellowstone River, Saugus, MT
13 May 1975
prep. Larry DePute; photo. Robert Niese
Unlike their brown counterparts, the American White Pelican is an overland migrant, spending its winters in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico before flying thousands of miles to breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States. To facilitate this epic travel, these birds have an 8-10 foot wing span, the second-largest of any bird in North America. Now that we have fully articulated this massive specimen, we’re not entirely sure what to do with it… He can hardly fit through doorways!
Philadelphus lewisii “Lewis’ Mock Orange” Hydrangeaceae
June 11, 2015
This species of Philadelphus was discovered by Meriwether Lewis in 1806. It’s flowers and scent are reminiscent of orange blossoms, thus it’s common name, the mock-orange. Unlike oranges, these attractive shrubs produce dry, 4-parted capsule fruits that are wholly inedible. Their leaves, however, contain saponins and can be crushed to make a mild soap. They are a popular ornamental plant here in the eastern PNW and are the state flower of Idaho. Look for them scattered throughout drier slopes in the west, where they tend to grow singly or in small populations. Here in Missoula, they cover the hillsides with gorgeous white blooms at the beginning of summer, much like Amelanchier in the spring.
Chrysis sp. “Cuckoo Wasp” Chrysididae
May 17, 2016
Cuckoo Wasps are a massive, possibly polyphyletic group of parasitic wasps. More than half the members of this giant family are placed in the genus Chrysis (more than 1000 species!). Undoubtedly, in the coming years this genus will be stripped, split, and reorganized in favor of a more monophyletic and phylogenetically accurate set of genera. As their common name might suggest, cuckoo wasps lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps, and many specialize on a single host species. This lovely individual appeared to be waiting outside an old nail hole on the side of my house that was occupied by a cavity-nesting wasp of some sort.