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Monday, June 02, 2008

Prospect Park night bugs

Steve invited me to join him for some bug-watching in Prospect Park on Saturday night. He has a portable black light that he uses to draw insects onto a white sheet for photographing. Who needs cheap beer and NASCAR racing for entertainment when there's 500 acres of creepy crawlies across the street. Yeah, I know, we're a couple of real party animals.

I planned to meet Steve in the Lullwater near the Terrace Bridge at 8pm. I sat up on my roof for about an hour, to kill time. I'm glad I did because I spotted another couple of party animals. Alice and Ralph must have left their eyasses with a babysitter because the two were out of the park and playing on the updrafts near Grand Army Plaza. It had been months since I'd seen the two in that location and, I suppose, it was an indication that they felt comfortable leaving their offspring alone on the nest for a short time.

It was like watching a pair of surfers as the two Red-tailed Hawks climbed, dove and rolled in the air above their favorite apartment building. The fun only lasted for a few minutes as Ralph headed south over the brownstones of Park Slope and Alice vanished behind the trees into Prospect Park. (The image quality it poor because the hawk's playground is nearly a quarter mile away from my roof.)

I rode my bicycle into Prospect Park because Steve was setting up near the opposite end of the park from where I live. When I arrived at the Terrace Bridge I called Steve's cellphone, because I couldn't find him. It turned out he was just out of view, below me, along the edge of the Lullwater. There was about 20 minutes of sunlight left in the day, but his set-up had already begun to attract a lot of insects.

The black light was suspended off of a copper bird feeder stand. A five-foot square, white cotton sheet held in place by an aluminum frame stood several inches in front of the light. By the time the sun had completely gone down, the sheet was covered with tiny insects.

I'm fascinated by pretty much everything in the natural world, but had never spent any extended period of time focused just on insects. The dominant insect on this night seemed to be midges, but it was difficult for me to tell, even when using my reading glasses. After about 30 minutes, my brain seemed to adjust to the unusual perspective and I started to see differences in many of the minute creatures. In addition to the midges, there were ground beetles, stag beetles, click beetles, moths, lacewings, leafhoppers, craneflies, caddisflies and probably many more that both Steve and I overlooked.

One of the strangest insect observations wasn't actually in front of the black light. When I arrived in the Lullwater, I leaned by bicycle against a mature linden tree near the edge of the water. At one point in the evening, Steve took a flashlight over to the tree to look for insects on the bark. As he shined the light onto the tree's deeply fissured bark he noticed a few woodlice. Stepping around my bike he glanced down at the seat, then called me over. Apparently, because the corner of my seat was touching the tree, some of the woodlice had taken a detour off of the bark and onto my bike. I vacillated between fascination and revulsion, as I watched these odd, metallic-colored crustacean crawling around where, eventually, I'd be placing my rear end.

In the pitch darkness of Prospect Park's interior, the glow of the black light created a tight cocoon of illumination. This envelope of light abruptly ends outside of a 10 foot radius, making it impossible to see anything beyond. We were making inane bug jokes and clowning around when we heard a deep voice coming from the darkness outside the black light border. "How long are you guys planning on being here?" The succinct question came from an NYPD officer. My pupils were nearly closed from the intensity of the black light, so I couldn't even see the man. Steve told him that we would only be another 30 minutes. He asked if we had cellphones. I told him that we did. It was weird, because he sounded like he was only a yard or two away, but I couldn't see him. I asked if he wanted to check out some really cool insects (God, I'm such a geek). He didn't respond. As he walked away, I heard him talking with another officer, who had also been watching us photograph insects.

On my ride home, I pondered the creative writing skills of those two officers. Do you think they included in their nightly report the encounter in the Lullwater with the two guys and the black light?

At home, I started editing my photographs. My insect library is limited, so I searched the Internet for some identification help. In the back of my mind, I sort of understood that insect identification was not easy. It wasn't until I was looking up beetles that it became crystal clear. I learned that the order Coleoptera (Beetles) contains 300,000 insects, a third of the world's known animals!

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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