Nature Sightings: A Scarab Beetle, Green Tree Frog and Coyote

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There were a number of unusual sightings reported last week, but the most talked about wildlife sightings were the mosquitoes. May and June rains raised the water table enough so that ephemeral perched ponds and groundwater fed vernal pools are full and there is a sheet of water covering the leaf litter in many of our swamps. This has created perfect conditions for mosquito breeding, and it looks like the pesky insects will be with us for the duration of the summer.Lisa D’Andrea reported another, much more unusual insect sighting from her backyard garden: Phanaeus vindex. I had to look that one up. It’s a dung beetle called the rainbow scarab beetle. Dung beetles are so-named because their life cycle is closely related to dung. Adults feed on dung, mainly that from large mammals such as deer, and they rely on dung as a food source throughout their underground larval stages, or instars.

Lisa found a male, as evident by the pronounced horn on the top of its head. This striking insect’s exoskeleton has a metallic sheen: Yellow around the head, a bronze-colored thorax and green wing covers.

The adult male and female will excavate a tunnel under the dung pile, and carry pieces of the dung, rolled up into a small ball, into the underground chambers. The female lays her eggs inside the dung balls, one per ball, and when the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the dung that surrounded their egg.

By feeding on dung, these beetles play an important role in limiting populations of flies. In fact, Australia imported dung beetles in 1967 to control flies on cattle and sheep ranches in the outback.

Despite their unseemly lifestyle, dung beetles were considered sacred beings among the ancient Egyptians. Carved scarab beetles were often placed on the bodies of deceased royalty before their tombs were sealed.

Hilary Osborn Malecki stepped outside her home last week to see who was doing all the barking. Tracking down the source of all the noise and expecting to see a small dog in the bushes, she was surprised to find a small, bright-green tree frog climbing the wall near her front door. The frog has been identified as the aptly-named American green tree frog (Hyla cinerea), whose range—or so it was thought—does not extend north of Delaware.

So, what is it doing in East Hampton? Hilary pointed out that she lives close to Whitmore’s nursery, and it’s possible that this southern species hitched a ride north on some tree or shrub specimen dug out of a southern nursery. This frog is also available for purchase at some pet stores, so it’s possible that it escaped from someone’s home. Or the owner tired of its nightly barking induced by this warm, wet weather, and sent it on its way.

That brings me to the final unusual sighting reported last week: a coyote. Rick Wesnofske photographed a large canine in his potato field near Water Mill, and those photos raced, via e-mail, through the list of naturalists and biologists from here through Albany to Cornell.

Although I’ve been saying for some years that it’s only a matter of time before coyotes extend their breeding range onto western Long Island from populations in the Bronx, and eventually spread east to the South Fork, I was skeptical of the grainy photographs captured on a cellphone. I thought that we would be tracking their progress through Nassau and western Suffolk counties first, and that arrival here was at least a few years away.

Apparently not. Several knowledgeable biologists have weighed in that the canine photographed is indeed a coyote. Scott McMahon, who hunts geese on the Wesnofske farm, first sighted the coyote in the fall of 2011. There were several possible coyote sightings reported over the past couple of years. In June 2011, John DeCuevas forwarded me an e-mail from Springs resident Francesca Rheannon, who startled a canid in a nature preserve that she claimed was much too large to be a fox. Could it be a coyote, she inquired?

Having had experience with people misjudging relative sizes of animals in the wild—as in a muskrat (at less than 24 inches from nose to tip of tail) being mistaken for a 4-foot-long otter—I wrote that, and other sightings, off as mistaken identities.

Now I wish I had followed up on some of those sightings. Still, I won’t be convinced that we have a resident coyote until we get some scat in hand. Let’s hope the dung beetles don’t eat it all first!

Remember, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has an easy-to-use, online mammal survey for the Long Island area. Please get involved in the survey by reporting sightings or roadkills of otter, beaver, skunk, gray fox, mink, weasel and coyote.

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