European Hornet

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While searching for snakes in southern Illinois this month, I flipped a rock and under it was this large (over an inch long) insect. This the only true hornet found in North America, having been introduced by European settlers in the 1800′s.

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Most examples I’ve seen have been in the Autumn and are probably females (mated queens) looking for a place to overwinter before starting a new colony the following Spring. Only overwintering queens survive in protected sites such as under loose bark, in tree cavities, under rocks and in buildings. All other colony members produced in the current year perish.

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I have seen European Hornets in my home state of Ohio as well. They are mainly carnivorous and hunt insects such as beetles, caterpillars, moths, dragonflies and crickets. They also feed on fallen fruit and other sources of sugary food. I saw this one at a hummingbird feeder. These insects have been observed stealing prey from spiders, which can be classified as an example of kleptoparasitism.

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Though they probably have a painful sting, they usually aren’t particularly defensive when not protecting their nest. This woodland species constructs its large paper hive in natural cavities, especially in hollow trees. The nests typically have 200-400 workers.

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It’s always a neat experience to observe one of these impressive invertebrates while out on a hike.

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Red Milk Snake

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I saw this beautifully colored serpent crossing Snake Road while visiting southern Illinois. It’s overall pattern is similar to the Eastern Milk Snake which I often find in my home state of Ohio.

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Its body color can be white, gray, yellow or light tan, with red or orange black bordered blotches. Like the Eastern Milk Snake, its belly is strongly checkered in a pattern of black and white squares.

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Red Milk Snakes are secretive and seldom seen out and about. They spend much of their time hiding under rocks and logs or in rodent burrows. They are not particularly large snakes, often only about two feet in length. They subdue their prey by constriction and feed on lizards, snakes and small mammals.

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It’s always thrilling to come across this boldly marked, colorful snake in its natural environment.

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Ant Mimic Jumping Spider

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Working in my yard this weekend, a came across this tiny, yet fascinating invertebrate. It’s very small size and body shaped more like ant than a spider, at first glance, it may be difficult to tell that this creature is a spider.

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It walks with its front pair of legs raised in the air as if they were antennae, making it tricky to identify it as a spider when first counting legs. The resemblance to ants is a defense against predators. Many types of ants are pungent to taste and are unlikely to become food for larger predators.

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Ant Mimic Spiders often live near ant hills or nests to benefit from the ant’s unsavory reputation for tasting bad. They can be found anywhere ants are found: fields, lawns, gardens, woods, on trees and under stones.

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The Ant Mimic Jumping Spider is one of the few species in genus Myrmarachne that is found outside the tropics. Its species name, formicaria means “ant-like” in Latin.

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Atlantic Ribbed Mussel

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While checking out a tiny cove in Rye, New York, I came across several examples of this bivalve that lives in low, regularly flooded marshes and mud flats.

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The Atlantic Ribbed Mussel grows 2 to 4 inches in length. Its glossy, oval, grooved shell varies in color from olive or yellowish-brown to black. The shell’s interior is iridescent blue to silvery white.

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These creatures are are filter feeders. During high tide, they open their shells slightly to draw in water, filtering out algae and other particles.

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They attach themselves to rocks and other surfaces and clumps of mussels can be found half-buried in the mud among marsh grasses.

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Mussels perform an important environmental function of filtering water entering marshes during each tidal cycle. This helps clean and clarify the water.

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An Atlantic Ribbed Mussel’s age can be determined by counting dark growth rings on the shell. Mussels typically live 10 – 15 years, but more advanced ages are not uncommon.

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Asian Shore Crab

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While visiting New York last week, I flipped a few rocks along the East Coast and encountered quite a few of these small crustaceans; they were often found in dense aggregations.

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Adults are small, measuring about an inch and a half in shell width. They have a squarish shell and light and dark bands on their legs.

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Though native to the western Pacific Ocean from Russia to Hong Japan, it is likely that Asian Shore Crabs were discharged at harbors in the United States as larvae from the ballast water of a cargo ship.

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This creature is not a picky eater, and feeds on a wide range of plants and animals. It can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions. These characteristics help to make it successful in areas where it is not native.

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Although undeniably cute, Asian Shore Crabs have displaced both large and small native crabs along the East Coast.

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Buttonbush

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Walking along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, I noticed this distinctive white, spherical flower with needle-like projections growing on a shrub.

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This plant is a member of the Coffee Family and is native to eastern and southern North America. Like the Coffee Plant, its leaves are glossy green and up to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. It’s unusual flowers are a source of nectar, attracting butterflies, bees, moths, hummingbirds and 20-something other species of birds.

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Buttonbush can be found in wet habitats such as marshes, shorelines, ditches and areas near the rivers and ponds. It is one of the first plants that will appear in areas destroyed by floods.

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This is multi-branched, round-shaped shrub typically reaches 6 to 12 feet in height. Its older trunk bark is attractively diamond-patterned with lattice-like raised ridges. Its fruit is a reddish-brown, round-shaped capsule filled with two seeds. It ripens during September and October. Ducks and other waterfowl eat Buttonbush seeds.

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If you come across a Buttonbush in bloom and patiently observe the activity around it, you’ll be likely to see spiders, bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and perhaps even a hummingbird buzzing around its flowers.

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You’ll understand very quickly why this plant is so important native wildlife and our environment.

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Mountain Chorus Frog

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This amphibian is native to Ohio, yet I have yet to find it in my home state. I have encountered it in West Virginia and Kentucky though.

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Mountain Chorus Frogs are small (1 to 1-1/4 inches long) and can be distinguished from Ohio’s similar Western Chorus Frog by the presence of two dark, curved stripes on the back which look like reversed parentheses.

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They can be heard calling in shallow water near forests or in wooded ponds, typically from February to April. Their call resembles the sound made by rubbing one’s finger over the teeth of a hard plastic comb.

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Outside of breeding season that can be found on damp, wooded hillsides often quite some distance from standing water. It’s always fun to come across this elusive little creature that goes about its life largely unnoticed by humans.

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Eastern Black Kingsnake

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Although this serpent lives in my home state of Ohio, it is uncommon there, listed as a “species of concern” and only found in a few counties. I’ve found several examples on different visits to various parts of Kentucky though.

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This is a shiny, mostly jet black snake with a white, yellow or cream belly. Some spotting may occur particularly along its lower sides. The adult length averages about 3-1/2 feet long. Like other Common Kingsnakes, its head is not significantly offset from its body.

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This species is a habitat generalist and can be found in hardwood and pine forests, bottomlands and swamps, farmlands, hillsides, meadows and suburban areas. Most of the examples I’ve found were under sheets of rusted metal in abandoned fields (including this one which has cloudy eyes because it is going through a shed cycle).

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Eastern Black Kingsnakes are powerful constrictors eat a variety of different kinds of food, including snakes, lizards, rodents, birds and turtle eggs. They are resistant to the venom of pit-vipers and they readily eat copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes.

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Kingsnakes are one of my favorite snakes to find in the wild and encountering these handsome reptiles has always been a herping highlight.

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Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

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At this time of the year it’s not unusual for me to encounter this half-inch-long, metallic green insect with conspicuous sickle-shaped jaws and large, bulging eyes on the sides of its head. I usually see them on dirt paths near waterways during warm weather.

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Adult beetles are fast runners and fliers. When they fly, they usually stay within three feet of the ground. They are very active during the day, moving rapidly in short bursts, often landing several feet in front of you only to take off again when you catch up to them.

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They are predators of other insects and can catch prey on the ground and in the air. These shiny beetles are among the fastest runners in the insect world. The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle pounces on its prey, capturing it with its powerful jaws.

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Because tiger beetles have excellent vision, you might have trouble getting close to one. For best results, sneak up on one very slowly to observe magnificent insect close up.

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The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle’s eye-catching brilliance and fascinating predatory behavior have made it a longtime favorite with naturalists.

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Multiflora Rose

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This is an unavoidable invasive species that I encounter on my northeast Ohio hikes. It is native to eastern Asia, and naturally found in China, Japan and Korea.

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In the 1950′s, it was common to plant Multiflora Rose as a “living fence,” which was more permanent and economical than a wire fence. These days it is common in uncultivated fields, fencerows and open woods.

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This is a perennial shrub with arching, thorny stems that climbs over other plants, reaching up to 15 feet tall and forming dense thickets. It’s flowers are often in clusters and may be pink or white; they tend to bloom here in Summer.

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Typically, they have seven leaflets per leaf, but can they can also have between five and eleven leaflets. The two-inch long leaflets are oval and sharply toothed.

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Their small, bright red fruit, referred to as “rose hips,” develop in the Summer and remain on the shrub through the winter.

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Multiflora Rose spreads aggressively, both by rooting canes (the ends of branches that root when coming in contact with the ground) and by seeds dispersed by birds and wildlife.

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This is a very difficult plant to control. A plant may produce a million seeds per year, and the sseds can remain viable for 20 years.

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This plant is also known as Baby Rose, Japanese Rose, Many-flowered Rose, Seven-sisters Rose, Eijitsu Rose and Rambler Rose.

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