Photo of the Week – November 14, 2014

The praying mantis is an impressive predator, especially when it’s a Chinese mantis the length of a ball point pen.  The ones who live around here seem to have a particular affinity for sphinx moths.  I haven’t yet watched the capture take place, but I’ve seen the mantises (mantes? mantids? critters?) devouring their fuzzy prey several times, including one I photographed last year.  Almost exactly a year later, I took the following photos at the same prairie.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth.  Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth. Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

You can see from the photo how well this mantis can hide – it is exactly the same color as the pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) plant it was hunting on, and its shape and texture blend in perfectly.  Other mantis species around the world have even more sophisticated camouflage, which almost seems unfair.

ENPO140828_D056

ENPO140828_D057

After watching the mantis for a little while, I decided to try out the video function on my camera.  I’ve been trying to do a little more video work lately anyway.  If you’ve always wanted to see watch a mantis eat up close – and who wouldn’t want to?? – here’s your chance.  The barking in the background is from the dogs in the nearby animal shelter who were apparently excited to watch a prairie ecologist take video of a praying mantis…

My favorite shot of the day was this last one.  There is sure a lot of personality in a mantis face…

"Just trying to eat here... do you mind?"

“Just trying to eat here… do you mind?”

Chinese mantises are, of course, not native to the U.S., but as far as I can tell from bug-smart friends, don’t seem to be having any major negative impacts (neither are they providing the kind of “pest control” they are often introduced to provide).  Some introduced species have certainly become major ecological disasters, but it seems the Chinese mantis is just a new predator for prairie insects to watch out for, and for prairie enthusiasts to enjoy watching.

(Now would be the appropriate time for entomologically-savvy readers to correct my ignorance on the topic of the Chinese mantis and its impacts.  Please do.)

What Do Swallows Eat on a Cold Windy Day?

Today was a cold blustery day, on the heels of some severe weekend storms.  I went down to check on our prairie (five inches of rain, strong winds, and a tornado a few miles away) and was glad to see everything looked wet but ok – including the cattle.

As I walked through the prairie, I noticed some barn swallows flying and hovering just above the surface of the wetland/pond.  Since the temperature was in the low 40’s and the winds were howling above 30 mph, I didn’t think there was any chance there were flying insects for them to catch and eat, so I wondered what they were up to.  As I watched the swallows, I realized they weren’t just wasting energy, but instead appeared to be feeding by picking insects (I assume) off the surface of the water.  It was lightly raining and I’d left my camera in the truck, so I didn’t take any pictures, but I’d never seen nor heard of such behavior before.

About a half hour later, I had just left the prairie and was starting home when I saw a big mixed flock of cliff and barn swallows behaving very similarly in a flooded wetland about a mile from our prairie.  The rain had stopped by this time, so I pulled over and got a few mediocre photographs.

Cliff swallows feeding (apparently) on floating insects during a cold blustery spring day.

Swallows resting and flying over a wetland on a cold blustery spring day.

 

A wider shot, showing one swallow in the top right corner that might be feeding.

A wider shot, showing one swallow in the top right corner that I think was feeding.

When I got back to town, I did a little quick research and found that this kind of feeding behavior has been seen before – it was just new to me.  However, I also remembered a long cold period in May back in 1996, during which scientists documented mass deaths of swallows from starvation.  At the time, I remember being told that the birds starved because of a lack of flying insects to eat during the cold spell.  I wonder why those swallows died but the ones I saw today (two different species a mile apart) appeared to be finding food…?  I also wonder if they were catching enough food to cover the energy costs of doing so?

It’s a good day when I can learn something new AND come up with questions I can’t answer.  Anyone out there have answers for me?