1-14 June 2008

Installment #403---
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Recently an Internet listserv for bird banding carried a thread in which banders tried to one-up each other over which bird-in-a-mist-net had inflicted the most painful bite. Things started out small with complaints about the annoying habit of chickadees and titmice to attack one's cuticles and quickly moved to tales of more distressing bites from Northern Cardinals, Evening Grosbeaks, and Northern Shrikes. Then tropical biologists leapt into the fray with frightening tales of blood being drawn by hooked bills (and talons) of cockatoos and parrots. We thought about such agony this week at Hilton Pond Center when we got the dickens pinched out of our finger not by a bird but a Giant Stag Beetle. OUCH!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We've commented before about the non-selective nature of mist nets we unfurl to catch birds around Hilton Pond and how we sometimes capture other aerial animals such as bats and butterflies. We were a bit surprised this week, however, when in broad daylight we snared a creature more likely to be seen flying around a porch light at night. Fortunately, we observed this big beetle hit the net and hurried to get it BEFORE it had opportunity to become tightly enmeshed; unfortunately, the beetle was therefore free enough to twist and turn and use its gigantic, inch-long, sharply pointed mandibles (above) to clamp down on a sensitive fingertip. OUCH! We'd rather be nipped by a cardinal.

The Giant Stag Beetle, Lucanus elaphus, is a relatively uncommon resident of the southeastern U.S. as far west as Oklahoma. Its technical name comes appropriately from two Greek words for a kind of beetle and a male deer (or stag) that has antlers shaped like the enlarged mouthparts of the male Giant Stag Beetle. (Incidentally, this insect is sometimes incorrectly called "Elephant Beetle" when people misinterpret its species name.) Like deer, male Giant Stag Beetles battle each other with their "antlers," grasping and flipping opponents until the victor gets to mate with a nearby female (right) who is adorned by much, much smaller mandibles. (Despite the tininess of her mouthparts, the female can still pinch and--we can report from memorable experience--will do so if given half a chance.) Overall, a male Giant Stag Beetle can be a little more than 2" long--half its length is mandibles--while the female is only about 1.5" long and with a head narrower than her thorax. Individuals vary in color from chestnut brown to brownish-black, with the male's head and mandibles being somewhat paler than the rest of his exoskeleton.

After mating the female Giant Stag Beetle chooses a hardwood snag or stump in which to lay her eggs; this site provides a food-rich home for her larvae for at least 12 months, possibly for multiple years. The white, red-headed grub (left)--which molts through several stages and eventually reaches a length of two inches or so--consumes fungus-enriched, carbohydrate-laden dead wood that is, in turn, digested by symbiotic bacteria and other microbes in its gut. (Dead microbes provide a good source of fats and proteins the grub needs to grow and metamorphose.) Stag beetle larvae--which sometimes occur in large colonies in a particularly rich rotten-wood locale--are true decomposers and do no damage to living trees.

Eventually the grub forms a non-feeding pupal stage, with adults emerging in late May and June; they seek mates and dine on sugary liquids such as fruit juice, tree sap, or aphid honeydew. Despite his impressive toothed mandibles (above), the male is unable to use his other mouthparts to chew--nor is the female. Perhaps because their diet is energy-rich but completely lacking in protein and fat, adults die in about a month.

As members of the Stag Beetle Family (Lucanidae), Giant Stag Beetles can be distinguished from other large beetles by examining their paired antennae (see two photos just above). In lucanids these structures are distinctly elbowed and the four terminal oval-shaped segments are separated and inflexible; they do not fold together as in Scarab Beetles.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

One reason a Giant Stag Beetle can make a mess of a mist net is because its antennae, huge mandibles, wing covers, and legs all get caught on strands of mesh. And, since it has six of the latter, that's a lot of appendages flapping around getting snared. While we had our macro lens set up to photograph the beetle's antennae we decided to look at its legs and found each was tipped by an impressive pair of tarsal claws (above)--curved just right to capture net strands. Enhancing its ability to get caught were the beetle's "empodia," tiny forked structures that lie behind and between the tarsal claws. Again from past experience at Hilton Pond Center, we know male Giant Stag Beetles can cling to mist nets AND to human skin with decurved tarsal claws--all the better to grab hold of a bird bander's fingertips with their mighty antler-like mouthparts.

Did we say OUCH?

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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birds banded or recaptured during the period,
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1-14 June 2008

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--5
Northern Parula--2
Brown-headed Nuthatch--4

Eastern Phoebe--3
House Wren--1

Chipping Sparrow--2
Carolina Chickadee--5
Acadian Flycatcher--2
American Goldfinch--2
Red-eyed Vireo--1
Wood Thrush--1
Summer Tanager--1

Gray Catbird--6

Brown-headed Cowbird--1
Northern Cardinal--4
Carolina Wren--4
White-breasted Nuthatch--2
House Finch--16
Downy Woodpecker--1
Tufted Titmouse--11
Eastern Bluebird--1
Brown Thrasher--1
Mourning Dove--1

* = New species for 2008

23 species
77 individuals

43 species
974 individuals
7 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
51,141 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (6)
06/06/06--after 3rd year female
05/26/07--after 2nd year female
05/28/07--after 2nd year female
05/29/07--after 2nd year male
08/09/07--2nd year female
08/14/07--after 2nd year female

Carolina Chickadee (2)
06/29/05--4th year male
06/18/07--2nd year female

American Goldfinch (1)
09/17/07--2nd year female

Carolina Chickadee (2)
08/24/06--3rd year male
10/08/07--after hatch year male

Northern Cardinal (2)
07/23/07--2nd year female
10/22/07--2nd year female

Eastern Bluebird (1)
06/21/07--after 2nd year male

Tufted Titmouse (1)
06/19/07--2nd year female

Carolina Wren (2)
06/22/05--4th year female
11/09/06--after 2nd year female

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the


--On 1 Jun we were delighted by a unique occurrence: Two Brown-headed Nuthatches AND two White-breasted Nuthatches caught in the same mist net at the same time. Considering we have banded only 45 BHNU and 17 WBNU in 27 years at Hilton Pond Center, you can understand our excitement. All four nuthatches were recent fledglings, three of which undoubtedly were drawn to the net by vocalizations from the one first caught. (We caught two more BHNU in subsequent days.)

--On the evening of 12 Jun we heard loud thunder not far from the Center, so we shut our mist nets in anticipation of heavy wind and rain, finishing just before the electrical storm began. While we gazed out our office window at the deluge, we experienced a lightning strike followed instantaneously by a deafening thunderclap. This dreaded coincidence meant the lightning had hit close--something that happened two summers ago when the giant White Oak beside Hilton Pond took a direct strike. That this year's lightning struck nearby was reinforced as all the lights in the old farmhouse went out and we had to use our trusty oil lamps for illumination. Power was off for about 20 hours but this time the computer network was saved; unfortunately, however, lightning once again blew circuitry on the heating/air conditioning system, so it was a long, hot weekend before the repairman could get parts. We learned our lesson and had the furnace technician install a whole-house surge protector that we hope will minimize electrical damage during future storms; total bill: $600. (For those who have wondered, our big oak tree survives so far but has several dead limbs from the 2006 jolt.)

--Ruby-throated Hummingbirds finally began showing up again at Hilton Pond Center this week, with five new birds banded and six returns from previous years (left). This is still our slowest year ever, with only seven RTHU captured through 14 Jun; on average, we have banded 18 by that date, with as many as 39 back in 1997 and 34 last year. More ominous: This time last year we had 42 returns from previous years; in 2008 we've had just seven. Of these, all except one were banded last year, and only one is a hatchling from 2007; i.e., we're seeing very few "old" OR "young" RTHU.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including all articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

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