Lots of Ants and Birds Today, 09-13-20

Despite the incredibly bad air quality this morning — 239 AQI (Very Unhealthy) – the cool temperature (57°) lured me out for a walk at the Mather Lake Regional Park.            

The first thing I saw when I got there was a parade of Wild Turkeys walking along the paved path at the end of the pond. It looked to me like a female turkey and her nearly-adult poults.

I could also hear the chattering of Belted Kingfishers, and saw one of them dive face-first into the water after its breakfast. They’d land occasionally in the tops of trees around the lake, but were too far away for me to get any real clear photos of them.

There were loads of Bluet damselflies in the willows and other plants along the water’s edge, more than I’d seen all year. I was glad to see them… but feel it’s really late in the season for them. Fall is already coming; these guys should have been out a month or more ago. I also saw a couple of Green Darner dragonflies, both females.

The Mute Swans were on the water, including the almost fully grown cygnets. The dark cygnets are going through their major molt before the winter and are starting to get more of their white coloring now.  They’re still “peeping” like babies, though.

Mute Swans, Cygnus olor

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

On some of the Cottonwood trees there were large clusters of ants.  Taking a closer look, I realized that the ants were gathered around the open galls of the Cottonwood Leaf Gall Aphid, Pemphigus populivenae.  I’m not sure if the aphids I was seeing were that particular species – their coloring suggested that some of them could have been the Smoky-winged Poplar Aphid, Chaitophorus populicola – but they were definitely around the open galls. 

When I tried to get close up photos of the aphids by holding onto the edge of the affected leaf, the ants went immediately berserk and swarmed all over my hand and cellphone. At one point, there were I’d guess a thousand of them pouring down the stems of the tree onto the leaves and onto my hand. I shook them off and blew them off, squished some of them, and finally had to douse my hand in the lake to get them all off. Freaky!

I was surprised that the ants I squished didn’t have any kind of scent. Many ants have that odd formic-acid smell.

“…To facilitate the ant-aphid interaction, ants have evolved aggressive responses to aphid alarm pheromone emissions. In ant-aphid mutualisms, ants receive carbohydrates in the form of honeydew, while aphids receive protection from natural enemies…”  I’m sure that’s what I was seeing.

I’m not sure of the ant species, though. I think they were a kind of Nylanderia, maybe Nylanderia vividula.  They’re called “crazy ants” because of the way they respond to disturbances. And these were certainly going “crazy” when I touched the leaves. But there are so many different species of ants, I don’t really know. They could also have been Argentine Ants. Need to do more research.

It was pretty creepy when they swarmed all over my hand. None of them bit me, but there were sooooo many of them!  I felt “itchy” for the rest of the day. Hah!

I found, later on my walk, that there were similar aphid-ant outbreaks on some of the willows, but the aphids on those were bright green, not brown and tan like on the Cottonwoods.  This kind of “mutualism” is typical of several different species of ant including the invasive Argentine Ants and the household “honey ants”. This should all make for an interesting rabbit hole.

I saw several Double-Crested Cormorants in the trees and water. One was standing down on an outcropping log, sunning itself, trying to dry off after a swim.

Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus

I also came across a Pied-Billed Grebe thrashing a frog it had caught back and forth until the frog was limp and easier to swallow.

There were several Gallinules in the water, too, among the tules and cattails. At one point, they were making so much noise, I tried to get a recording of their sounds. I managed to get a little bit of it, but it was like the end of their conversation.

I was hoping to be able to see a muskrat today, and when I stopped to listen to the Gallinules I thought I saw something that looked like the flat of a muskrat’s head peeking up along the surface of the water. I thought that it couldn’t be a muskrat, though, because it wasn’t moving, even as I approached the edge of the lake. So, I didn’t have my camera ready when… it moved, turned around and ducked down under the surface of the water. Dang it!  I should have trusted my instincts.

Despite the bad air, I walked for a good three hours before heading home.

Species List:

  1. American Bull Frog, Lithobates catesbeianus
  2. Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile
  3. Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus [pink flowers]
  4. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon
  5. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  6. Bold Jumping Spider, Phidippus audax
  7. Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare
  8. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  9. California Quail, Callipepla californica [heard]
  10. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  11. California Wild Rose, Rosa californica
  12. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  13. Cobwebby Thistle, Cirsium occidentale
  14. Common Bluet Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum
  15. Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata
  16. Cork Oak, Quercus suber
  17. Cottonwood Leaf Gall Aphid, Pemphigus populivenae
  18. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  19. Crazy Ants, Nylanderia sp.
  20. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  21. Doveweed, Turkey Mullein, Croton setiger
  22. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  23. Familiar Bluet Damselfly, Enallagma civile
  24. Fragrant Flatsedge, Cyperus odoratus
  25. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  26. Goodding’s Black Willow, Salix gooddingii
  27. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  28. Great-Tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus
  29. Green Darner Dragonfly, Anax junius
  30. Green Heron, Butorides virescens
  31. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  32. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  33. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  34. Muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus
  35. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
  36. Narrowleaf Cattail, Cattail, Typha angustifolia
  37. Narrowleaf Willow, Salix exigua
  38. Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium
  39. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  40. Pigeon, Domestic Pigeon, Columba livia domestica
  41. Poison Oak, Pacific Poison Oak, Western Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  42. Red Swamp Crayfish, Crawfish, Crawdad, Procambarus clarkia
  43. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  44. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  45. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  46. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  47. Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia [white]
  48. Smoky-winged Poplar Aphid, Chaitophorus populicola
  49. Soft Rush, Juncus effuses
  50. Sooty Dancer Damselfly, Argia lugens
  51. Swamp Smartweed, False Water-Pepper, Persicara hydropiperoides [pink]
  52. Tall Flatsedge, Cyperus eragrostis
  53. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  54. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  55. Willow Aphid, Chaitophorus sp. [green]
  56. Willow Bead Gall Mite, Aculus tetanothrix
  57. Willow Pinecone Gall midge, Rabdophaga strobiloides
  58. ?? tiny unidentified beetle on willow