Garden Ramblings

A garden must combine the poetic and the mysterious with a feeling of serenity and joy.

~Luis Barragan

If I am going to be working, it may as well be in a beautiful place like the North Carolina Botanical Garden! Just walking to and from my car offers glimpses of beauty and wonder every day. But, my favorite time is after the gates close and everyone has gone home…a stroll through the quiet garden habitats can be magical. Here is some of that magic from the last few weeks.

Bumblebee on Great Blue Lobelia

Bumblebee gathering pollen and nectar from a great blue lobelia (click photos to enlarge)

Green frog juvenile

Green frog resting on a floating leaf as it transforms from a tadpole to a frog

Pitcher plants

The symmetry of some Okefenokee hooded pitcher plants

Young snapping turtle

A young snapping turtle in our Coastal Plain habitat

Yellow Fringed Orghid

The delicate flowers of yellow-fringed orchid

Meadow beauty seed "pod"

The urn-shaped seed vessel of meadow beauty

Aphids

Aphids gathering for a picnic

Jack in the Pulpit seeds

Jack-in-the-pulpit seeds ripening to their striking red color

Baby box turtle

A young (maybe 2 years old) Eastern box turtle on the path

Silver-spotted skipper on pickerel weed

Silver-spotted skipper on pickerelweed

American lotus seed head close up

Close up of the seed head of an American lotus

American lotus seeds close up

After the seeds of an American lotus mature

Green Lynxx Spider

A green lynx spider awaiting a meal

Backyard Rambles

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

~William Butler Yeats

There are times in this blog when I don’t seek to tell a detailed story of the life of some natural creature, but simply to share the awe-inspiring scenes that surrounds us, in this case our backyard here in the woods. It doesn’t take long to find exquisite beauty if you look, listen, and move at a slow pace. This is our refuge, our special place. I hope you can find one near you.

Here are a few of the small wonders found one evening this week on a slow ramble around the yard…

Imperial moth

A tattered female Imperial Moth (click photos to enlarge)

Red-humped caterpillars 1

Red-humped caterpillars feeding on Redbud

Acanaloniid Planthopper

Acanaloniid Planthopper

Red-spotted purple egg

The sculptured egg of a Red-spotted Purple Butterfly on Wild Cherry

unid katydid nymph

Katydid nymph

Citrus Flatid Planthopper

Citrus Flatid Planthopper

Double-lined prominent ?

Double-lined Prominent caterpillar

Carolina anole young

Young Carolina Anole

Blue dasher dragonfly close up

Blue Dasher dragonfly

Blue dasher head shot

A closer look at the marvelous eyes of a dragonfly

Catching Up

You are surrounded by gifts every living moment of every day. Let yourself feel appreciation for their presence in your life and take the time to acknowledge their splendor.

~Lou G. Nungesser

It has been a whirlwind summer thus far with work keeping me a little busier than I care to be at times. I have had several opportunities to carry a camera but not as much time as I like to post things or learn more about the many plants and critters I have encountered. So, here is a rambling collection of things I have seen in recent weeks. It is truly amazing how much beauty and wonder surrounds us.

Nessus sphinx moth egg on VA Creeper

Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) egg (click photos to enlarge)

One morning during summer camp, I spotted a beautiful Nessus sphinx moth hovering near some Virginia creeper leaves, one of their host plants. The gathered summer campers were able to witness her laying three eggs. I collected one to raise since one egg had only one leaf for the future larva to consume.

Nessus sphinx larva about 2 days after hatching

Nessus sphinx larva two days after hatching

Nessus sphinx larva

Six days later it looks like this…still a long way to go

Walnut sphinx moth just after emergence

Walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis)

The pupa I shared in an earlier post produced this beautiful walnut sphinx moth about two weeks after the pupa formed.

Swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Hibiscus flower buds

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) flower buds

American lotus flower

American lotus flower (Nelumbo lutea)

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cranefly orchid

Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) – the delicate flower stalk appears in late summer, long after the single leaf disappears

I need to spend more time appreciating the incredible flowers that surround me every day…after all, I do work at a botanical garden!

Southern flannel moth

Southern flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis), the adult of a bizarre, so-called stinging caterpillar, the puss caterpillar (or asp)

Rosy maple moth

A strikingly beautiful rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)

Clymene moth

Clymene moth (Haploa clymene)

We set out moth lights on a couple of nights the past few weeks and were rewarded with a variety of nocturnal visitors. Shown above are a few of my favorites.

small hellgrammite

Small Eastern dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) larva (also called a hellgrammite) found under a rock in the swift waters of Morgan Creek

Pickerel frog

Pickerel frog (Lithobates palustris)

Powdered dancer damselfly, male

Powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta), male

Margined Madtom 1

Margined madtom, Noturus insignis, a small (~5 inches) catfish found in swift waters like Morgan Creek

One of our favorite summer camp activities is a hike out to Morgan Creek, where we sample a riffle area in this surprisingly pristine Piedmont stream. We always manage to see a variety of interesting creatures including hellgrammites, caddisfly larvae, mayflies, crayfish, and a few species of fish.

Robber fly and moth victim

Robber fly with moth victim

Walnut caterpillar

Walnut caterpillars (Datana integerrima) feeding on hickory leaves

Resident bullfrog

Huge male American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

Argiope spiders

A pair of female black and yellow argiope spiders (Argiope aurantia) – they are also commonly called writing spiders and garden spiders

Any stroll through the Garden produces a rich variety of sights and sounds. The key is, you have to be out there to enjoy them. So, get outside and see what you can find.

 

Plight of the Polistes

Let us turn elsewhere, to the wasps and bees, who unquestionably come first in the laying up of a heritage for their offspring.

~Jean-Henri Fabre, entomologist, 1823-1915

We had a wasp sting two weeks ago at summer camp. The wasps had a nest inside the locking mechanism for one of our pedestrian gates, and when the gate clanged shut, an angry wasp flew out and stung the closest person. Then, last week, a wasp stung a co-worker as she tidied up the small fairy house we have in the children’ garden. Since that area is used by many visitors, especially children, I went out to check on it, and found a wasp nest inside, which I removed. We later stuffed something in the crack where the wasp probably entered, so hopefully that will take care of the situation.

paper wasp nest

Paper wasp nest under the eaves of my office building (click photos to enlarge)

We have plenty of these paper wasps (Polistes sp., maybe P. metricus?) under the eaves of our buildings (and I have in them at home) and we all manage to get along just fine most of the time. It is usually just when the nest is down low that problems may arise. So it was, with the nest I removed. I don’t like doing that, but, after the deed was done, I decided to look more closely at that nest and the ones under the eaves. First on the list of amazing things about these creatures is that the nest is paper! Wasps scrape wood from surfaces, mix it with their saliva, and slowly create the hexagonal shapes that become cells for their eggs and developing young. The nest is suspended from a pedicel under a protected area like the eaves of a building, inside a bird house, or some other sheltered location.

Paper wasp nest close up

Closer view of the nest showing different life stages being tended by worker females

The first nests of spring are started by a mated female queen wasp that overwintered in some protected spot. She constructs that first nest by herself or with some subordinate females (usually sisters) that may have overwintered as well. Her first fertilized eggs are all female and are destined to become workers. Once they emerge, they take over the duties of caring and feeding new larvae. Workers forage for caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects that they chew up and feed to the larvae. Adult paper wasps feed on rotting fruit and nectar, so wasps are important pollinators and biological controls of plant-eating insects.. The photo above shows a worker female tending some of the brood cells. Eggs, in various stages of development, can be seen in some cells. The fat, white larvae with grayish heads, can be seen in others. Cells with paper coverings contain pupae.

paper wasp egg

Close up of a paper wasp egg

I gently tore open the nest I had removed and examined its contents. Eggs are small, somewhat oval in shape, and attached on the side walls of the cells.

paper wasp pupa

An early stage wasp pupa

As I was teasing apart one of the cells, a pupa fell out (above). I am guessing this is still a female this time of year. Toward the end of summer, the queen (also called the foundress) lays a series of unfertilized eggs, which become males. Some of her fertilized eggs will receive additional care and nutrients and may become future queens that will mate and overwinter. At the start of cooler weather, the males, female workers, and original queen all die, leaving the new batch of potential queens to overwinter.

Paper wasp larva and pupa

Paper wasp larva and late stage pupa

I placed the pupae from this nest in a container and will watch to see if they emerge. What started out as an effort to rid a space of a stinging threat has turned into a greater appreciation of a common species that I have tended to overlook all these years.

Summer Details

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

~ Natalie Angier

It has been a hectic few weeks at work with summer camp. One good thing is I am out in the Garden daily, and, anytime you are out in a place with that much diversity, there are plenty of things to see. I managed to take the camera out a few days before and after camp, and found some interesting subjects. Here are a few of the recent highlights…

Waved sphinx larva

Waved sphinx moth larva feeding on fringetree (click photos to enlarge)

Walnut sphinx pupa

The mummy-like pupa of a walnut sphinx moth (the antennae of the future moth can be seen outlined in the pupa as they curl down from the top into a point just above my finger)

Snowy Tree Cricket
Snowy tree cricket  (Oecanthus fultoni), male – this is the so-called thermometer cricket. The frequency of the chirps made by this species (made by the males as they rub their wings together) is considered a fairly reliable estimate of the air temperature. In the Eastern U.S., Fahrenheit temperature can be estimated by counting the chirps in 13 sec. and adding 40.
Yellow jackets on caterpillar

Yellow jackets dispatch a pink-striped oakworm to feed to their larvae

Rabbit running in Garden

One of the many bunnies that reside at the Garden (quite happily, I presume)

Black-spotted prominent

Gardener’s friend – a black-spotted prominent larva feeding on lespedeza

Black-spotted prominent rear end

This caterpillar practices deceit with its back end looking like a front end

Sassafras berries

The beautiful and wildlife-friendly berries of a sassafras tree

Handsome Trig 1

A handsome trig (also called a red-headed bush cricket). This one is a male. The handsome part is self-evident; the trig part refers to the family Trigonidiinae, or Winged Bush Crickets.

Handsome Trig nymph

Handsome trig nymph (wings are still developing)

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane leaf beetle, an iridescent beauty

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina

A very pointy-headed planthopper (Rhyncomitra microrhina) that we caught while sweep-netting

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina, top view

Dorsal view of same planthopper

Rear end of tulip tree silk moth cayerpillar

All is well that ends well…the rear end of a tuliptree silk moth caterpillar. Eggs were laid by a female on 5/18/17, hatched on 5/30; caterpillars had all pupated by 6/29; first adult moth of this summer’s second generation emerged on 7/20. This new generation will overwinter as pupae.

 

Ambushed

We are not afraid of predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…

~Ecologist, E.O. Wilson

I took a stroll through the Garden after work one day this week, looking for some flowers to photograph as a backdrop for a needed poster. I wanted a flower off to one side, with black background for the lettering.

Ironweed, which sp?

Ironweed (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped at an ironweed plant, a great nectar source for all sort sorts insects, and took a few quick shots. I saw some movement on another plant, and went over to grab a pic of a pollinator…

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

The skipper was moving from flower to flower, probing for nectar. I moved to get another angle, and noticed something odd dangling below another flower…

Silver-spotted skipper hanging from Ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper dangling below a flower – look closely at the flower

It was another silver-spotted skipper, apparently hanging by its proboscis. How did that happen? As I bent down to look, I noticed something on the underside of the ironweed flower – a small insect – a jagged ambush bug, genus Phymata. This is one of the sit-and-wait predators often seen lurking on flowers, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to get too close. Most predators of this sort are camouflaged to help conceal them while they wait. This one appears to look more like the developing seeds in the flower to the right in this picture, than the bright purple of the flower itself, so I am guessing it waited on the underside and grabbed the much larger skipper when it landed. I gently touched this tiny tiger to get it to move up for a better look.

Jagged ambush bug close up

Jagged ambush bug close up

Ambush bugs are stout-bodied predators with enlarged, raptorial front legs, somewhat resembling those of a praying mantis. They look like some sort of alien tank out of a science fiction movie to me.

Jagged ambush bug beak

Powerful beak of an ambush bug can be seen here tucked under its head

When a prey gets close enough, they lash out and grab it with those legs and stab it with their powerful beak, injecting toxic saliva with digestive enzymes. As the insides of their prey dissolve, the ambush bug sucks up the nutrients, leaving an empty shell of its victim behind. I am guessing this skipper had just settled in for a nice sip of nectar when terror struck, leaving its proboscis stuck down in a flower tube which led to the scene I discovered.

Ambush Bug

Jagged ambush bug

The bug soon walked out onto the stem for an better view, so I snapped a few more images, When I looked at them on my laptop this morning, I noticed something else…

Hitchhiker on ambush bug

Another insect hitching a ride on the ambush bug

During the entire sequence of shots of the ambush bug, it had another insect (or perhaps an insect larva) crawling around its body. Was it a harmless hitchhiker, or some parasite? A quick web search showed another image of an ambush bug with what looks like a small lacewing larva hitching a ride, and my somewhat fuzzy image looks similar. Coincidence or collaboration? I guess I will try to find this little guy again next week and see if I can get a better image of the hitchhiker for identification and clarification of this mystery.

 

 

Baby Spiders

Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else.

~E.B. White

I have been raising some tulip-tree silk moth larvae at home and at work which has necessitated the periodic collecting of small branches of tulip poplar. Last week, when I cut one and brought it in I noticed one of my favorite spiders sitting on the underside of one of the leaves.

Magnolia Green Jumper female

Magnolia green jumper looking up at the camera (click photos to enlarge)

It was a female magnolia green jumper. I recently did a post about the males of this species when I found a couple on some pawpaw trees at the house. But this was a female (distinguished by the lack of swellings near the tips of her pedipalps) and she was apparently guarding something very precious…

Magnolia green jumper eggs

Eggs of a magnolia green jumper

…a cluster of eggs in a loosely spun silken case on the underside of a tulip poplar leaf. They did not resemble the usual spider egg case, which tends to be enclosed in a globular silken egg sac. These were loosely dispersed beneath a sheet of silk as individual eggs. I checked online just to make sure and found some other images that confirmed these were indeed her eggs. Since I had already cut the branch, I decided to keep them and watch what happened.

Magnolia green jumper seggs hatching close up

Spiderlings just after hatching

Three days after I collected the leaf with the eggs, I noticed a change. There appeared to be spider-like blobs poking off the green eggs. I must admit, I just could not figure out how this worked. Was this thing with leg-like appendages the spider emerging from the egg? The more I looked at it, I decided that the old egg shell is actually the whitish crumpled blob you can see next to each green orb in the photo, and that the roundish green thing is the abdomen of the a new spider.

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings group

Cluster of magnolia green jumper spiderlings

This was confirmed over the next couple of days as I watched the spiderlings unfold their legs (this occurred on day 5 after I collected the eggs and two days after the previous photo was taken).

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings close up

Three days after I first saw the baby spider legs appearing to unfold from the eggs

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings

Magnolia green jumpers three days after hatching

The young spiderlings have continued to develop as I watch them each day, their eyes appearing larger and darker in color, and they seem to be moving more, albeit still inside the silken covering laid down by their mother. Today, I will probably go ahead and clip their leaf to a tulip poplar branch and watch to see when (and how) they manage to leave this protective lair. I imagine, somewhere nearby, their mother is looking on with proud eyes (all 8 of them)…

Magnolia green jumper female close up

Magnolia green jumper female

 

Spittlebugs

In the spring, the eastern half of North America turns into one big spittoon…

~Amy Breau

They have always fascinated me, these little blobs of “spit” on vegetation. Must be the leftover 4th grade boy that still resides in one corner of my brain.

spittlebug spit

Spittle (click photos to enlarge)

Once or twice a year, I can’t resist the urge to touch one of the the little balls of spit, gently brushing away the foam to see what lies beneath. It is usually the same little green blob of an insect that greets me.

Spittlebug nymphs

A pair of spittlebugs revealed

Usually there is only one, but this year, after reading there are often multiples hidden beneath the bubbles, I actually found two spittlebug nymphs in one of the frothy masses.

spittlebug

Close-up of spittlebug

The aptly-named spittlebugs are related to other plant-suckers like aphids and cicadas.. The immature stage, or nymph, is the one that creates the spittle (it has also been called frog spit or snake spit) as both a protection from predators, and as the ideal humidity and temperature control chamber that helps them keep from drying out in warm temperatures. The nymph sucks on plant juices while facing head-down on a stem, and uses anal appendages to froth up the excess liquid exuded as a by-product of its feeding habits. The bubbles flow downward with gravity and eventually envelope the nymph. Interestingly, the bubbly mass has good staying power (the bubbles may last several days), which makes me wonder if there might not be some commercial use for whatever it is they use to give their bubbly cover such longevity. Another oddity about this critter is that, unlike most sap-sucking insects, this one tends to tap the xylem, the tissue that transports water from the roots to the shoots. Most other sap feeders use the phloem, the tissue that transports food from the leaves down to the roots as it is generally more nutrient-rich. This may explain why they must process large quantities of fluid (they pump 200+ times their body weight in fluid every day) to sustain themselves.

Two-lined Froghopper

Adult form of one species – the two-lined froghopper

Adult spittlebugs also feed on sap, and some are considered agricultural pests. Many are known by the common name, froghopper, due to their incredible jumping ability. A few resources state they may be the all-time champion jumpers, worthy of superhero power status, as some froghoppers can leap up over 100 times their body length, the equivalent of a six-foot tall human jumping the height of two football fields!

I am beginning to see some small frothy masses appear again on vegetation at the Garden and references state that, for many species, there are two generations per year. So, you still have time to get out and rub some spittle to see what’s underneath. Just make sure there are no 4th grade boys around.

 

King of the Marsh

Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen…

~John James Audubon, as described by his friend, John Bachman, 1840

This post should have been written a month ago, when I made these observations. But, one thing leads to another these days, so it is a bit late in getting on the blog. It started as I was searching for bears at my favorite haunt, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I paused to look for bears in trees at a spot I had seen them the day before, when suddenly, something ran out into the dirt road ahead of me. It was a King Rail! I fired a couple of quick frames, but blew the shots, as the rail moved quickly into the tall grasses between the road and the canal. As I was searching the vegetation, my eye caught another movement out in the open…

king rail chick

Juvenile King Rail pauses at the edge of the dirt road before disappearing into the grass (click photo to enlarge)

I was thrilled! I had only seen adult King Rails, and only three times over my many years of traipsing these haunts. I had heard their distinctive calls on many trips, but they tend to be an elusive critter and blend in very well in the dense vegetation of their marshy homes. The little one quickly disappeared, probably trailing its mom. I moved the car toward the edge of the canal, hoping to see the birds if they crossed.

king rail and reflection

Adult King Rail crossing a log on the canal

She suddenly appeared on a log sticking out into the canal, turning briefly to look back toward where the young bird had been, then walking across and onto the far bank. I looked up from the camera, and saw five tiny black forms swimming across the canal, all partially obscured by some tall grasses.

king rail chick struggling on log

Young rail clawing its way up onto a log

I quickly moved the car forward and managed to get one shot of the straggler as it struggled to climb up onto the log where its mom had been moments before. I could see the little gang of rails following the adult as she wound her way through the vegetation and back into the dense shrubs. These things can happen fast, and I guess I was lucky to have managed a few images, but I was thankful for the chance to see this family at all. I waited for a few minutes, but imagine she had ushered her brood far away from the road. So, I started to drive on, and then…

King Rail

Another rail feeding next to the canal, just a few yards down the road

There was another rail, just across the canal from me. This one was just threading its way through the vegetation along the canal, probing and feeding. King rails feed on a variety of invertebrates including aquatic insects, crayfish, and other small critters like frogs and fish.

King rail in alligator weed

I spent about 45 minutes with this cooperative bird

I ended up spending quite a bit of time following this bird as it moved back and forth along the canal bank, seemingly unconcerned about the car inching along on the opposite bank. This was when another vehicle pulled up, realized I was watching “just a bird” and drove off. I reported on what I saw when I turned back around to look at the rail in an earlier post.

king rail showing feet

Check out those feet

On two occasions, the rail stopped to stretch and preen. At one point it came out onto a mud bank where its huge feet were clearly visible, a great adaptation for walking on the top of marsh vegetation.

king rail calling

The rail graced me with a few calls while I watched

But, the highlight for me was when the rail let loose with its distinctive, harsh and loud kik-kik-kik call. As I mentioned, I have heard this call many times and tried more often than I can count to find the caller, and here was on out in the open, with just me as an observer. Life is good!

And here is a very brief clip for you to enjoy…

 

Tiny Dancers

Some people look at big things, and other people look at very small things, but in a sense, we’re all trying to understand the world around us.

~Roderick MacKinnon

Yesterday we hiked over to Morgan Creek at work to prepare for some upcoming trips with summer campers where we will sample the stream for macro-invertebrates. I am pleasantly surprised at the diversity of critters that still exist in this Piedmont stream.

Dusky Dancer damseflies

Damselflies on a rock along Morgan Creek (click photos to enlarge)

One of the first things to catch my eye was a pair of damselflies in tandem. That is where the male has a clasp on the female’s neck using special abdominal appendages. This is a precursor to their unusual mating behavior, and, in some species, is also carried on through the egg-laying process, with the male staying with the female to protect his interests. In the photo above, the male is the one perched upright and the female is perched on the rock.
Dusky Dancer damselflies in tandem

A pair of Dusky Dancer damselflies in tandem

The male is a particularly dark damselfly with only thin blue rings along most of the abdomen. This is characteristic of the Dusky Dancer, Argia translata. This is a widespread species inhabiting streams, rivers, and large lakes from Ontario to Argentina. They are found throughout much of the Piedmont and Mountains of North Carolina, but are generally not considered abundant in any location. I wanted to get some better images, so I kept stalking the pair, and laying down on the gravel bar to try to get a low angle image.

Dusky Dancer damselflies, Argia translata

The classic in tandem pose for this species

After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally stayed put long enough for a couple of shots. This morning, I looked them up in my field guides to confirm their identifiction, and as I was zooming in to see diagnostic features of the abdomen, I discovered something I had not noticed in the field…

Dusky Dancer with possible egg parasitoid

A tiny wasp on one of the damselflies (zoomed in to see the wasp)

…a tiny hitchhiker on the abdomen of the male. In most of the photos, the critter had been camera shy and mostly hidden on the back side. But in this last set, it was visible and I tentatively identified it as a potential parasitic wasp. In searching the web, I found that there are a few species of parasitic wasps (most in the genus, Hydrophylita) that are egg parasitoids on damselflies. If this is one of them, when the damselfly lays her eggs underwater, the wasps crawls down the abdomen, into the water, and lays eggs within the eggs of the damselfly. The wasp larvae then hatch and consume the eggs of the host. Whoa, the more I learn, the stranger it all becomes!