This is a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) who is not actually a hornet but a wasp.  

In my opinion, hornets are extremely handsome and it really wouldn't be fair to post a picture of a hornet nest without a picture of the hornet.  These wasps are “eusocial” which basically means that they live in a colony and care for each other. It’s like a hippie commune except the wasps work harder (actually, they work themselves pretty much to death,) and there is no sex since the queen starts the colony having mated the previous year.  As with hippies, the females do the work. 
Macro photograph of bald faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata,) a wasp looking a the camera
Bald faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata,) a wasp.
This one was collecting pollen but these wasps have chewing mouthparts and have a varied diet that includes carrion and picnic scraps. 
I’ve not been stung by one of these (yet) but each year I come across their nests in my woods.  Luckily, they usually nest fairly high up. 
Like most wasps they are not aggressive away from their nest — if they are feeding and you put your hand in their path they will happily stroll across it.  
Insects don’t have a lot of cranial space, so to speak, and can only do what they are programmed to do.  For example, if you walk up to a wasp nest and bang on the side you will trigger a defensive response and a pack of them will come flying out and sting you — if you are sensible you will run and they are programmed to chase you for a while.  
Away from the nest or hive, they have nothing to protect (except themselves) and no reason to sting; they basically ignore people unless we put our hands on them or somehow get one entangled in our hair or down a shirt.  
No insect I know of is programmed to fly about the place stinging people. Why? Evolution is a battle for efficiency as well as survival and stinging is extremely costly in terms of the production of toxins and physical risk. 
It is against the interests of the species to "waste” a sting on anything other than protecting themselves or future generations.   That's why swatting at wasps is a sure way to upset this apple cart, provoke an unnecessary defense reaction, and get stung.  This photo was taken with a Nikon d750 and a 105mm.  I much prefer my Olympus for this sort of photo. 

Mystery caterpillar. Spider mimicry in play?

A possible example of Batesian mimicry. Caterpillar with pattern that looks remarkably like a spider.
Do you see owl-fly larva,  spiders, or scorpions?

I found this caterpillar in the forest about 2 hours from Iquitos, Peru.  

What initially interested me were the two or three tiny insects sitting on his back (the live ones.) Caterpillars are often hosts to various parasitic wasps and I was hoping I’d found one depositing her eggs. I know, I know... but I’ve been trying to photograph a parasitic wasp in the act of ovipositing for two years. 
I’ve found wasps "guarding" a host, I’ve found a ton of parasitized creatures, I’ve even found larvae emerging from the host and spinning their cocoons — but never actually shot a wasp laying the eggs.
Anyway, once I realized they were not wasps but flies of some kind I took a couple of photos and moved on.  
I was also pondering the pattern on the 'pillar's back — could it mimic the form of two spiders as a means of warding off parasitic flies or wasps? 
Once home, I spent a fair amount of time trying to ID the ‘pillar with no luck except that it may be in the Hesperiidae family — and that’s tenuous at best. 
So I posted the pic to both iNaturalist and to my Instagram account.
On IG someone pointed out that the patterns on his back could also be interpreted as owl-fly larva -- another insect predator.  
So look at his back. Would parasitic wasps or midges be more or less likely to land on the caterpillar and lay eggs or feed on his hemolymph (blood) as it appeared the flies were doing? And why is this scheme not working? Food for thought… 
Shot in the field using Olympus OM-D E-M1ii. Lens: Zuiko 60mm. TT350 Godox flash with DIY diffuser.  Species ID and fact corrections always welcome. 


Three Virginia Salamanders

Two-lined salamander hunting on a leaf.

You can see salamanders at almost any time of year here in Virginia. 

But the best time to look for them is in the cooler months when it has been raining for a couple of days.  
The species I see most frequently in the Shenandoah National Park here in Virginia are the red-backed (Plethodon cinereus), the Northern two-lined (Eurycea bislineata) and the Northern slimy (Plethodon glutinosus.)  
“Red-backed” is a poor naming choice since their colors are highly variable and there are three main color schemes: A reddish-brown one, a golden brown one, and a slate-colored one. 
Slate morph of redback salamander. 
The red-backs I find range in size from about 1.5” (unusual) to about 5” (typical). I assume the smaller ones are uncommon simply because they stay hidden.  Red-backed sallies seem to like to hunt in open spaces. I’ve occasionally seen dozens of them on just twenty or thirty feet of trail — walk carefully on forest trails at night!
They also climb a couple of feet up the bottom of trees or onto logs and perch there waiting for a meal.  
Two-lined sallies are a little smaller in size than red-backs and have a slightly different hunting style. They climb up onto a leaf (often near wet areas or small streams) and lie in wait for insects.
The unfortunately-named Northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinous.)
The slimy salamander is much larger than the red-backed or two lined — as long as 8” or 9” in my area, although I frequently see smaller ones in the 3" to 5" range. The slime is protection against desiccation -- these salamanders don't hang out near water. They do not seem to climb and I have seen several that stayed close to their holes where I would see them every time I walked by. Salamanders, in general, are supposed to be territorial and will argue over the square meter of so that is their domain although I've never seen this. To me, they seem pretty indolent and unmotivated.  Occasionally I've been lucky enough to find two of them courting in the spring. 
I've no way of knowing if it was the same individual (I suspect it was) but I saw one in the same hole for three consecutive years.  To see more photos of amphibians from various countries visit my website here:
I don’t like photographing in the rain but it is the best time to find salamanders -- these were all shot at night with an Olympus OM-D E-M1ii, the Zuiko 60mm, and my usual DIY diffusion and Godox flash.

Slime Mold (Protista.)

A macro photograph of 7mm tall slime mold from the Shenandoah National Park
Slime mold. About 15mm tall.

Slime molds are the 2mm-10mm organisms that city folks hate to see on their mulch. 

But they provide a source of nutrition for small insects and a fun photographic diversion for those of us who are lucky enough to find them. I only “discovered” these stunningly beautiful and tiny organisms (1mm-4mm is typical) fairly recently. They look like fungi but are off in their own evolutionary corner with an alternative lifestyle which I don't completely understand.

Wikipedia defines them as, "unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures." 
I look for them on the sides of rotting logs, in leaf litter, among mosses and in similar damp, poorly lit areas. Individually, these tiny organisms may only be 3mm tall, but a mass of a single species can be much larger — inches or even feet in width. I often spot one species and, on closer examination, find several others nearby. I don't attempt to ID them, but slime molds have wonderful common names such as “dog vomit," “witch’s butter," or “chocolate tube mold” (which I think is the one in the picture,) as well as unintelligible scientific names.
This one is from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia but I’ve seen them in Malaysia, Costa Rica, and elsewhere. They love cool, moist, shaded areas.
When there aren't a lot of insects or amphibians about I look for them. If I put a Raynox on and get some magnification I frequently see springtails, tiny unidentifiable nymphs, small beetles, and similar creatures wandering about in among the slime mold clusters.  If you look at the bottom left there is a very small beetle and a tiny pseudoscorpion lurking to his right.  Confession: I only noticed him when I was looking for a photo to post here! 😂. 
To see more slime molds see the gallery on my website:

Olympus OM-D E-M1ii. Lens: Zuiko 60mm. TT350 Godox flash with DIY diffuser.  Species ID corrections are always welcome.

The Homing Instinct

Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis,) walking on path at Circle B Bar Reserve, Florida
Sandhill crane, (Grus canadensis) Circle B Bar Reserve, Florida. 
I took a photo of this sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) ambling along a trail at the Circle B reserve in Florida -- which reminded me of Bernd Heinrich's wonderful book "The Homing Instinct."
He starts the book by talking about two sandhill cranes, Millie and Roy, who live in Texas or Mexico for most of the year but return each April to a specific bog near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Heinrich then proceeds to meander about the globe, through history, geology, and all manner of life forms and weaves a narrative that centers around homing instincts. The book is 300 pages and reads like a series of essays and, at times, like observation notes collected over many years of study — which it often is.
He takes us to look at colony nesting weavers in the southern Sahara, helicopters us into the otherwise inaccessible forest in Suriname, and explains honey bee nest-site selection (with mention of his bumblebee studies). He climbs trees to band baby birds, monitors "Charlotte" (a spider who shares his cabin), and records her eating and web building habits while conducting a cool experiment… and, well, you get the idea.
Heinrich does a fantastic job of translating and simplifying complicated ideas and studies. When things get complicated, he explains concepts and terms so the reader doesn't have to dive for a dictionary. I've read a couple of his other books, and I highly recommend this one!

Bernd Heinrich is a former professor of zoology and biology at the University of Vermont and author of numerous studies and other books, including "Mind of the Raven" which is also a fascinating read. "The Homing Instinct," Bernd Heinrich. Mariner Books. Buy it.


Radar Weevil!

This is the radar weevil:  (Curculio nucum) aka the acorn weevil and the long snout tells us she is female.   

This lovely appendage is not merely an accessory to the equally lovely shoes she is wearing. She will use it to build a place where her children can grow up safely, and, during her spare time, she'll use it to scan the skies for high-frequency signals from alien life forms.
On the child-rearing front, she will make a hole in an acorn into which she will deposit an egg. She will then hope that nobody is looking while she seals it with her own special hole-sealing recipe, which consists mostly of feces. Seriously -- that's how they do it.
Macro photograph of an Acorn weevil (Curculio nucum,) walking on a leaf in Virginia.
Acorn weevil (Curculio nucum.
I'm not sure how frequently she checks the skies for those signals — I'll guess she does it at night when the stars are out, and the children are sleeping. I'll also guess that she occasionally picks up some dots and dashes or the distant babble of alien voices.
If you get too close to a weevil, it will likely deploy its primary defense and fall off its leaf. Very occasionally, they spread their wings as they fall and take flight -- but usually, they just plunge to the ground.
I think this is probably more effective than it sounds. In fact, I've spent a fair amount of time looking for weevils that have fallen off leaves. Once down in the leaf litter, the typical weevil is extremely hard to spot since they tend to be the same color as leaf litter. They also tuck their little legs under them and play dead.