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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Men's Restroom in Long Beach is Voted Best Spider Collecting Site

Over the past few weeks myself and Shawna Joplin, Museum Coordinator of Animal Care and Education, have been madly working to get the Spider Pavilion ready by collecting hundreds of spiders for display. This involved a trip to the swamps of New Orleans to collect the largest orb weavers in North America and also multiple collecting trips around Los Angeles for our local spider species.

Cajun Swamp Adventure
The spiders Shawna and I collected in New Orleans are golden silk spiders, Nephila clavipes, also known as banana spiders because of their banana-ish abdomen. These spiders are common in and around swampy areas and are easy to spot on their largeup to 3 feed in diameter!golden webs (especially if you flash a bright light on them at night). Collecting them was a breeze after Zack Lemann (aka the Bug Chef from Audubon Insectarium) showed us how. All you need are small Tupperware containers, an ice pick, paper towels, a spray bottle filled with water, and a geeky headlamp! Armed with our paper towel lined containers and our trusty headlamps we set off  towards the alligator infested waters looking for spiders. We didn't have to go far, the place was teeming with orb weavers. In one tree I counted 20 spiders on their webs! Thankfully, it only took us an hour and a half to collect 60 spiders. Here are some pictures of the collecting trip.

Nephila clavipes in her web on a shipping container

Me carefully collecting spiders, you don't want to squash their legs!

After collecting we got to catch frogs in the swamp!
Loitering in Parks
Although collecting spiders in our local area isn't nearly as fun as a trip to the Bayou, it inevitably still ends up being an adventure! There are lots of locations for good spider collecting around L.A., but so far we have found the best collecting site to be a men's restroom in Long Beach. Yes it's true, Shawna and I were loitering outside of a park restroom armed with a really long stick. Why the stick? No it is not for protection, it is actually a spider collecting device for those hard-to-reach web-builders. Here are some pictures from our collecting trips around Los Angeles.

Shawna collecting spiders at park restrooms

Unidentified Neoscona orb weaver at Long Beach site

Silver garden orb weaver, Argiope argentata, at Bolsa Chica

Bird Crashes into Museum Building and Dies For Science

Soras, Porzana carolina, seem to be really poor fliers. So much so that last week one flew into the side of the Museum and killed itself. This brings the Exposition Park Bird List, maintained by Kimball Garrett, our Ornithology Collection Manager, up to 167 species. "But wait," I hear you crying, "what about bird number 166?" In my previous post New Bird For North Campus List, it clearly stated that the Rufous Hummingbird was species 165. No I didn't forget to tell you about bird 166, and no Kimball didn't miscount, funnily enough bird 166 was documented the same exact day the Sora died. Bird 166 is in fact a Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni, that Kimball saw migrating overhead.

Sora, Porzana carolina, ready to be prepped in the bird lab

Sora study skin after being prepped and accessioned into the collection

Soras are secretive yet fairly common birds in the rail family. They live most of their lives in the dense vegetation of freshwater or brackish marshes, and are usually thought to be reluctant flyers. However, in the spring and fall they take to the wing, some individuals migrating up to hundreds of miles. During these times they are often found after colliding with various built objects such as communication towers, wires, and buildings just like the one we found in the loading dock! 

Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni, surveying the land 
(note this is not the individual documented for our bird list)

As with Soras, Swainson's Hawks aren't very visible in the urban core of Los Angeles. However, they can easily be seen migrating along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains during their fall and spring migrations. The individual Kimball spotted over the Museum was on its way south to its overwintering site. Although we don't know where this individual will stop, we do know it will be somewhere between western Mexico and Argentina.

Thanks to Kimball for providing natural history information and pictures of the birds and also to Michael Wilson and Jerome Brown for finding the dead Sora!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Vaux's Swifts and Ghetto Birds

This past Monday a few of us embarked on a real urban nature adventure. We traversed the city streets of Los Angeles to witness one of the coolest nature spectacles I have ever seen in downtown Los Angeles, 6,500 Vaux's Swifts, Chaetura vauxi, spiraling into an old building shaft!

Ghetto bird and swifts share L.A.'s skyline alike!

According to Kimball Garrett, NHM's Ornithology Collections Manager, these swifts stop in L.A. during their spring and fall migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and their overwintering sites in Mexico and Central America. While in L.A. they gorge themselves during the day on flying insects found in areas such as the L.A. river and Griffith Park, and roost at night in various shafts and chimneys around the city.

In recent years the roost of choice for thousands of these birds is the Chester Williams building, on the northeast corner of Broadway and 5th Street, near Pershing Square. The parking structure next door to this building is where myself and a few other Museum staffers found ourselves at 6:00pm on Monday evening.

At approximately 7:30 the swirling masses of swifts began entering the shaft. Although it is impossible to count every individual, Kimball was able to estimate the number of birds entering the roost site. They enter the shaft at a remarkably constant rate of about 10 birds per second. We watched birds enter the roost for about 11 minutes (660 seconds), yielding a rough estimate of about 6,500 birds.

Thanks Kimball!

Vaux's Swifts spiraling into the Chester building's shaft

Of course Sam Easterson was one of our party, he managed to capture this footage of the swifts entering their roost.

As a final note, its not all easy living for the swifts. Common Ravens, Corvus corax, have learnt to hang out at the shaft opening and prey on individuals entering their roost site. I managed to catch a picture of this Raven flying away with its dinner!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Paper Wasps Sting Museum Taxidermist!

When Tim Bovard, the Museum's taxidermist, told me about getting stung by wasps on the fourth floor patio, I had to investigate, especially since I sometimes eat lunch up there. During a much needed afternoon break from my computer, I went in search of the offenders.

What I found on my afternoon foray were some large and impressive nests, definitely worthy of a blog entry. So of course I asked Sam if he would take pictures for me, and I went to work identifying them. 

Common paper wasp nest, Polistes exclamans

The species living on our patio are Common Paper Wasps, Polistes exclamans, which have a widespread distribution through much of the southern United States. These insects construct a papery nest from fibers they gather off dead wood or plant stems. Next time you see a paper wasp on a wooden fence realize it might be chewing off tiny pieces of wood which they will mix with their own saliva to make paper! The nests are umbrella shaped and generally built under eaves or porches, or in similarly sheltered locations. Unlike yellowjackets and hornets, paper wasp nests are not enclosed in a papery shell, which give a really good view into the individual cells.

A view into a brood chamber, can you see the larva?

Sam was also able to get some great video footage of the wasps at work. In an effort to provide the best video documentation ever, Sam nearly sustained a few stings himself. Luckily the wasps went for the video camera instead!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dog's Vomit in the North Campus!

Why would I write about finding dog's vomit in the North Campus? Because it is, contrary to what you might think, an awesome type of fungus, a slime mold!

Slime molds are a type of non-gilled fungi that often appear on mulch. What I find really interesting about them is their unique lifecycle! Most of their lives, slime molds are hidden in rotten logs or buried in leaf litter. However, when it's time to reproduce, they have to move to an appropriate site for spore dispersal. To do this they propel themselves over considerable distances (well considerable for a fungus), up to three feet for Fulgio septica, aka dog's vomit. Unfortunately, this usually happens at night when it is cool and moist, so I've never seen it happen in person. Watch out for a time-lapse video if I can convince Sam Easterson to spend a night in the North Campus.

Here are some images of the different stages of dog's vomit we found in the North Campus.

Relatively fresh slime mold, only just starting to put forth spores

Older slime mold, now you can see the black spores

Slime mold after fruiting

While we were out and about Sam and I found more fungus. Check out these pics of unidentified fungus. Drop me a line if you know what they are!