I am a high school science teacher, National Geographic Grosvenor's Fellow and a nature columnist. This blog highlights nature columns that appear weekly in local seacoast New England Newspapers
"The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain" - Longfellow
by Sue Pike
July 25 2017 The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily and online at seacoastonline.com .....etc
What better summer pastime than sitting by a pond on a hot day? The frogs are languidly croaking, and the mosquitoes are not so terrible at the moment so just a few are buzzing by your ear. The surface of the water is a still and clear as glass, the surface broken only by the occasional minnow rising or a water strider skimming over the surface, tiny dimples where its feet touch the water.
As a biology teacher, I love the water strider. Whenever the topic of water and why it is vital for life on Earth comes up, we talk about the amazing properties of water, one of which is that water molecules are sticky. Water molecules like to stick to other water molecules to the exclusion of other molecules, air for example. So, when you have an air-water interface the water molecules will form something akin to a skin (this is called surface tension, and, scientifically, is not a “skin” but looks like one because the water molecules at the surface are sticking so strongly to each other and not to the air it makes it more difficult to break through that surface tension than to move around in the water beneath the surface). Because water has a high surface tension, some organisms, like water striders, can walk on it instead of breaking through.
I was watching some water striders on a neighborhood pond and wondering why
Water striders legs characteristic dimples where they touch the water Sue Pike photo
they were one of the few animals cruising around on the surface of the water. Why so few other insects shared their domain. An occasional water spider skittered across (but they aren’t insects) and some groups of springtails congregated in the shadows, but it seemed like everyone else was down in the water, not at the surface. I wondered how difficult it was for a small insect to break through that “skin” on the surface of the water. Would it be like punching through a brick wall or like tearing gossamer veil? (I can’t answer this yet, but still wonder — I only know that if a water strider is pushed beneath the surface it can drown).
There are quite a few species of water strider found in North America. As members of the class Insecta water striders have three pairs of legs. The front legs are much shorter than the back two sets of legs. The short front legs are used to catch prey - they eat any kind of aquatic insect or larvae they can find (mosquitoes and dragonflies are typical prey). The back two sets of legs are used to walk on the water. They are very specifically designed for this - attached to the thorax in a way that is optimal for water striding but doesn’t work at all for walking on land.
Not all insects can walk on water; water striders can because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water (the scientific term for this is superhydrophobic). There is an incredible video on the American Association for the Advancement of Science website (www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/03/secret-walking-water) that shows what researchers have learned about how water striders seem to move so effortlessly on a pond’s surface: “By vigorously rowing along the surface, striders create swirls that help propel them forward, all without rupturing the water surface.” I highly recommend watching this - you will look at water striders with an entirely new appreciation. They are incredibly fast - they can move at the speed of a hundred body lengths per second, this is like a six-foot tall person running at 400 miles per hour.
Watching water striders can be a great way to while away a summer afternoon, but I recommend against trying to pick one up. I’ve read that water striders don’t bite humans, but know from experience (my kids picking them up, not me) that they can inflict a painful “bite.” (I’ve never actually verified whether this is a real bite or imagined, but the shriek from my son seemed real). They have piercing mouthparts that can pierce their prey’s exoskeleton and suck out the juices. This is what they do to one of their favorite prey, mosquito larvae. They grab the mosquito larvae by its breathing tube when it comes up to breath, pulls it through the surface of the water and sucks it dry... it is always a good thing to have some water striders around.
by Sue Pike email@example.com published Feb 7 2017 Of the many magical encounters my students and I had on our recent trip to the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas, one of the best was a night hike in search of the remnants of a long-abandoned resort at the end of the island. We stopped in the middle of an old road and lay down to look at the stars and listen to the frogs and insects and nocturnal bird noises coming from the surrounding forest. There is almost no light pollution there, the night sky was twinkling with more stars than I have ever seen. We looked for constellations and talked about the myths behind them. I loved this. I grew up with a dad who was a physicist and amateur astronomer. We used to go camping out in remote New Hampshire (we lived in suburban New York where the sky glow from city lights drowned out the night sky) in the fall. We didn't use tents, just lay among the roots of an old tree where we could see the night sky through the leafless…
Nature News: Blue jays are an oak's best friendWhen I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about blue jays, she told me that for the longest time she had a negative opinion of them. She equated blue jays with pigeons and starlings - pesky, noisy, messy eaters, bullies at bird feeders. However, after moving away from New England, she found she missed them - their uncommon good looks, their role as sentinels of the forest and the birdfeeder, their inquisitive natures.
Blue jays are corvids, close cousins of the crows, ravens and magpies. Like crows, they are known for their intelligence and while they've never been observed using tools in the wild, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, captive blue jays have used newspaper strips to rake food pellets into cages.
I've been watching jays come to my feeder and fly away with the acorns that I collected earlier this fall. I knew that jays love acorns and consume (and stash) an inordinate amount of acorns in the wild. B…
Nature News Catch shearwaters before they migrate southby Sue Pike the York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily
While in college in the early 1980s, I spent a summer out a the Isles of Shoals taking the Field Marine Research class. It was a great course, we helped band birds, studied tide pools, scuba-dived in the cold Atlantic water and learned about the raucous gull colonies that made walking on some parts of the island a perilous venture. One of my favorite things was a whale watch - I had never been on one. This was a long time ago, but two things stand out crystal clear in my memory of that trip: the humpback whales feeding, breaching and diving right next to the boat and the shearwaters flying low over the waves.
The whales were certainly awe-inspiring, but I have to say that the shearwaters captured my imagination more than any animal I have ever seen. I love the way they fly. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the term “shearwater” refers to “any of numerous oc…