Attention to Detail

Details create the big picture.

~Sanford I. Weill

Back in the day, I worked for a truly remarkable visionary, Mary Ann Brittain. I learned a lot from her and (I think) we made a good team for the museum as educator/naturalists. I remember when I first started going on the road with her to do school grounds workshops all over the state, I was amazed at how she could take a long nap in the car (as I was driving), arrive about 15 minutes before the workshop, get out and race around the school building, and then be prepared to take a group of teachers out and show them what they could find and use to teach all sorts of subjects outside their classroom walls. Of course, I also figured out that I had to be sure to bring the essential supplies or they might get left behind. We soon came up with a moniker for ourselves – Broad-brush Brittain and Detail Dunn. Well, over the years, I learned some of her techniques for quickly assessing the potential subjects to share with others out in the field. I’m afraid I also started relying on others to help take care of the details (yes, Melissa, I know).

Though I occasionally (okay, maybe more than that) forget the details of a task, I still find the details of nature extraordinarily fascinating and beautiful. So, here are few up close looks at some details of spring in our yard. See if you can guess what each thing is before looking at the list at the end of the post. After your first guess, try to match a name on the list to a numbered photo (the names are not in the same order as the photos). Some are pretty obvious, others maybe not. Expect more of these nature in detail images in coming posts. Meanwhile, get outside and look closely at what nature is sharing each and every day.

Bead-like spore containing structures on Sensitive fern

#1 (click photos to enlarge)

top view of foam flower

#2

silk trail left by eastern tent caterpillars

#3

muscadine grape tendil from last year

#4

looking down on flame azalea buds

#5

dandelion puffball

#6

cluster of Eastern tent caterpillars

#7

close up of umbel of goldne alexander

#8

flower tip of red buckeye

#9

spotted salamander eggs near hatching close up

#10

tendril tips of cross vine

#11

dwarf crested iris flower bud

#12

The photos above show details of the following (match an ID with a number – answers tomorrow).

  • Golden Alexander flowers
  • Muscadine grape tendril (a threadlike part of climbing plants that attaches to or twines around another object to support the plant)
  • Azalea flower buds
  • Dwarf Crested Iris flower bud
  • Sensitive Fern spore-containing structures on last year’s dried fertile fronds
  • Spotted salamander eggs one day prior to hatching
  • Tendrils of Cross Vine
  • Cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Red Buckeye flower
  • Foamflower
  • Silk highway from Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Dandelion seed head

The End Result of Butterfly Courtship

Paying attention to the world around you will help you develop the extraordinary capacity to look at mundane things and see the miraculous.

~Michael Mikalko

Last week I did a post on the courtship behavior and egg-laying by Falcate Orangetip butterflies in our yard. I watched a female lay two eggs on two different plants of Hairy Bittercress, a common yard weed in the mustard family.

Falcate orangetip egg

Falcate Orangetip egg laid on March 20 (click photos to enlarge)

Times being what they are, I figured I would dig up a couple of the plants that had eggs on them and bring them inside to observe. I have never found one of the incredible thorn-mimic chrysalids of this species (they are tiny and apparently really blend into branches and tree trunks), so I thought this might be my chance if I could keep these little guys alive long enough. Most butterfly eggs I have watched hatch in just a few days, so I was getting worried when a week had gone by and nothing had happened. Each morning I pulled the now potted weeds out of the butterfly cage and examined them with a hand lens to see if the egg had hatched. Finally, yesterday morning (March 30)…

hatched egg of falcate orangetip

The remnants of one of the butterfly eggs; the other egg was apparently totally eaten by the larva.

…both eggs had hatched – about 11 days after they were laid! The first plant had about half of the egg shell remaining. When I searched the other plant, there was no egg casing at all. That is pretty typical since many butterfly and moth hatchlings will eat their egg shell right after emerging.

Falcate orangetip larva first instar 2 days old

The tiny first instar larva of a Falcate Orangetip butterfly.

It took some searching with a magnifier to find each of the new larvae. They are only about 2 mm in length and have tiny hairs scattered on their body with what looks like a drop of liquid at the tip of each hair. This may be some sort of predator deterrent. I found both larvae feeding on a developing seed pod of their respective plants. With the month ahead being one of mainly home-bound observations, I’ll keep tabs on these guys and try to provide an occasional update on their progress and changes (because I know you just need to know:).

 

Haw River Saunter

…whenever I felt emotionally overwhelmed, I would take a walk in the woods. Being in the stillness and grandeur of trees had always calmed me.

~Brenda Strong

We hiked (I suppose sauntered is a better word, really) along a short section of the Haw River with some good friends on Saturday (practicing social distancing, of course). It was a beautiful day and spring was putting on a display of varied forest greens, buzzing insects, and bird calls. I carried my 300mm telephoto (and some extension tubes), hoping to get some bird pics, but ended up using it as a long distance macro lens instead.

spring beauties

Spring Beauties are abundant in the woods bordering the river and small tributary (click photos to enlarge)

giant chickweed

Giant Chickweed provided a delicate display in scattered locations along the trail.

The start of the trail meanders through a tangle of invasive species for a few hundred feet before opening up into a beautiful forest dotted with spring wildflowers. Spring Beauties and Giant Chickweed were abundant and the bright greens of new tree leaves painted a hopeful picture in these challenging times. We saw numerous butterflies (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Falcate Orange-tip, Cloudless Sulphur, Eastern Comma, some Duskywings) and heard (well, at least Melissa and Deb heard) a variety of birds, including many spring migrants (Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush).

Cicada nymph uncovered 1

At the edge of the creek, someone had moved a rock, revealing a cicada nymph’s chamber.

But, on any saunter, we usually notice a lot of the small things, the things that blend into the background. I’ve never really been a fast hiker, and now, with some knee issues, my pace is interrupted with occasional sitting on a trail side rock or log. This gives me plenty of time to notice and appreciate the details of the woods.

Carolina anole

A Carolina Anole in its early spring brown suit.

toad

Your identification quiz for the day – which species is this?

Of course, sometimes I miss that which is right next to me. Melissa spotted this toad next to a spot where I was sitting. It remained perfectly still and allowed a few profile portraits. We discussed our opinions as to which species this might be (American and Fowler’s Toads are the common species in these parts) but they occasionally hybridize, making identification difficult. What do you think, and why? See this link and this one for some ID tips.

Six-spotted tiger beetle blue morph

I have not seen many of these beetles that are bright blue instead of the usual metallic green.

As we departed, Deb spotted a shiny beetle in a sunny spot on the trail. When she called out, I assumed it would be a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, a common species in our area in that type of setting. They are usually brilliant metallic green with a few white spots on the dorsal surface. But this beetle was a bright blue! But, looking online at a couple of resources, I think it is just a color variant of that species. It does have a couple of faint white spots on its back and there are examples of a blue coloration in some individuals of this species. Nature is nothing if not beautiful, and variable.

Outside Our Door

…it places its nest at a great height, sometimes fifty feet, attaching it to the twigs of a forked branch. Here the nest is small, thin but compact, composed of the slender stems of dried grasses mixed with coarse fibrous roots and the exuviae of caterpillars or other insects, and lined with the hair of the deer, moose, racoon, or other animals, delicate fibrous roots, wool, and feathers.

~John James Audubon

Audubon called this little bird the Pine-creeping Wood Warbler because of its preference for pine trees and its feeding habits – creeping along the branches and trunks searching for insects. It is the common winter warbler in our woods and readily comes to our suet feeders, often in group of three or four at a time (I have seen as many as seven at once waiting to get to the suet cage). Now that is nesting season, they are less frequent visitors. Instead, we are hearing the male’s trill throughout the day as he defends territory. According to research online, surprisingly little is known of the nesting behavior of this common warbler, probably because of its propensity to nest high (30 – 75 ft) out on the branches of pine trees.

But this week, a female has been visiting a patch in our vegetable garden just outside our kitchen door. I saw her on three occasions, gathering nesting material in the same spot. She intently picked through the straw, leaves, and old stems in about a one square foot spot, filled her beak, and then flew off. We watched as she made a couple of stops (typical behavior as the female heads toward her nest site so as to not give away where it is located) and then disappeared across the road to a stand of tall pines about a hundred yards away. On one of her visits, I slowly cracked open the kitchen door, stood on my tip toes to get over the edge of the side porch, pointed the camera down and took a few images as she searched.

pine warbler gathering nesting materials

Pine warbler gathering nesting material (click photo to enlarge)

 

 

Redbud Critters

A breath of fresh air after a long winter…

~Michael Dirr

That quote is in reference to one of my favorite native trees, the Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis. And right now, they are at their peak in our woods, casting sprays of pink blossoms in the understory.

redbud trees

Redbud trees from our back deck (click photo to enlarge)

We have quite a few of these dazzling springtime trees around our house, but relatively few (and certainly no young trees) outside the deer fence as the deer have browsed the young ones for years, leaving only older trees along the roads and scattered elsewhere in the woods. With so much more time at home now, I have been watching all the comings and goings in the trees near our deck. Unfortunately, I did not get out the camera (was busy doing some much needed yard and garden work) on the few recent sunny days when the trees were abuzz with all sorts of bees, flies, and a few early butterflies. It really made me appreciate how important these abundant flowers are as an early nectar source for many of our pollinators.

pine warbler in redbud 1

Male Pine Warbler adorning a flowering branch with some bright colors of his own.

junco in redbud

Dark-eyed Juncos are still abundant but will soon migrate to their nesting grounds farther north and to higher elevations.

Several redbud branches are close to the suet cage mounted on my deck and serve as a staging ground for birds approaching the feeder. One day last week, I sat on the deck and watched the parade of species as they waited their turn. Most managed to land behind a tangle of branches without a clear chance for a photo, but a couple of notable species shared something I did not know about birds and this tree…

junco eating redbud 1

Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on a redbud blossom.

I watched as a few juncos and a male and female cardinal nibbled on many of the flowers. A few times, it almost looked as if the birds were just squeezing the flower, but I also saw them pull off a flower and eat it a few times in the hour or so that I watched.

cardinal eating redbud flower

Female cardinal puling at a flower.

cardinal eating redbud flower close up

She chewed the blossom and then dropped part of it.

Many of you may know (or may have seen Melissa’s FB post about it) that redbud flowers are actually quite tasty as a treat alone or as part of a salad (or other types of foods). So it should come as no surprise that other critters may find them suitable as a food source. I have often wondered about the use of the incredibly abundant seed pods by birds and other wildlife, but have never seen anything actually eating the seeds.

salad

Our yard salad prepared with chickweed, redbud blossoms, and dandelion parts (photo by Melissa Dowland).

After watching the birds squeeze some of the flowers, I tried a couple to see if there was abundant nectar, but could not really tell anything definitive, other than the flower itself is tasty. The other thing I noticed when I looked closely was how the tiny irregular flowers look a lot like excited, big-nosed dogs with large ears. Maybe its just the self-isolation talking….

redbud dogs

 

 

Butterfly Courtship

My scientific life has been spent describing the interactions that occur when butterflies meet and trying to understand what is going on and why…I persist in following butterflies with stopwatch and notepad.

~Ronald L. Rutowski, North American Butterfly Association

Yesterday’s sunshine (why can’t we seem to have at least two days in a row of that here lately?) brought out the invertebrates in the yard. I looked out the window at one point and saw a fluttering small white butterfly checking out the Hairy Bittercress weeds in the front yard. It was a female Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea), and those weeds, members of the mustard family, are one of her host plants. These tiny butterflies are one of the sure signs of spring as they fly for only a couple of weeks early each year, looking for members of the mustard family on which to lay their eggs.

Hairy bittercress

The distinctive developing seed pods of the common yard weed, Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta (click photos to enlarge)

I grabbed my camera and by the time I got outside I saw another butterfly, this one with orange wing tips (a male Falcate Orangetip), pursuing the female. What followed was 3 minutes of intense butterfly behavior (and burst mode shooting on my part). The male’s flight pattern was rapid and erratic and he would dive in and briefly flutter near her before darting off and circling back.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior 2

Male Falcate Orangetip (with orange wing tips) fluttering near female perched on one of her host plants.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior

The female maintained an abdomen up position the entire time.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior 1

It seems as though the male’s efforts were unsuccessful as he eventually flew off and she continued patrolling the yard for bittercress.

I have seen this abdomen up behavior before when watching Falcate Orangetips. I have always assumed it was the response of a female that is not interested in the male’s attention. But, some research on a closely related European species shows that both receptive virgin females and non-receptive, previously mated females, show this raised abdomen behavior when a courting male comes a calling. The difference may lie in what chemical compounds the female is releasing when the male gets close. In one case, it may be an attractant pheromone. In the already mated females, it is believed to be a repellent.

Falcate orangetip egg

A single tiny egg on the flower of the host plant.

After the male departed, I tried following the female around the yard to see if she was going to lay an egg, but she eventually wandered off through the woods. I went back to the original plant I had seen her land on and began to search it for an egg. I finally found one – a tiny sculpted egg, laid at the base of a flower, just where the online references had said it would be. She supposedly deposits a pheromone on the egg that keeps other females from laying an egg on that same plant as the larvae are known to be cannibalistic. Now I want to try keep track of it as the larvae (and especially the thorn-like chrysalis) are extremely hard to find. The things you can do in self-isolation…

For more on the behavior of butterflies and their mating habits, check out this article, When Butterflies Meet, from the North American Butterfly Association.

How Much Wood Could a Wood Beetle Chew, If…

The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Last week I cut and split some firewood from a hickory that fell across the road in the storms of October, 2018. The wood has been stored under a tarp (with sides exposed) since that time. When I pulled the tarp off to start cutting, I immediately noticed the many piles of sawdust from the activities of wood-boring beetles.

sawdust on wood pile

Sawdust on the hickory wood pile (click photos to enlarge)

I have often encountered the grubs of beetles while splitting wood, but I soon realized this was an exceptional concentration of these guys in this pile.

Hickory borer beetle larval chamber

A split log reveals the source of the sawdust – galleries from the chewing of wood-boring beetle larvae.

Hickory borer beetle grubs

The excavators – the fathead grubs of a long-horned beetle were falling out as I split the hickory logs.

As I was chopping this wood, I had a whole new respect for the chewing abilities of these larvae. I mean, hickory has a well-deserved reputation as a very hard hardwood (hence its common use for tool handles, etc.), and on several swings of the maul it seemed like I was trying to split petrified wood. And yet these 1/2 to 3/4 inch grubs had tunneled through it like it was cream cheese.

Hickory borer beetle pupal chamber

Pupa of a long-horned beetle in a chamber in the wood.

Hickory borer beetle pupae

Several long-horned beetle pupae that were exposed as I split wood.

This species of long-horned beetle emerges in early spring, so these pupae are almost ready. After mating, a female will lay up to 50 eggs (that explains the abundance in my logs) in the bark of weakened wood or wood that has been dead for no more than a year. Hatched larvae chew into the wood and feed for 10-12 weeks before making a larger chamber for pupating, where they will remain until the following spring.

Hickory borer beetle

One beetle started slowly crawling after it dropped out of a split log (I don’t think it was quite ready to be out in the world). It is a Hickory Borer (aka Painted Hickory Borer), Megacyllene caryae. This species closely resembles the Locust Borer Beetle, and both are considered wasp mimics due to their appearance (but they are harmless).

firewood

The freshly cut and split firewood. The dark spots visible on some log ends are the long-horned beetle galleries.

I admit to feeling a little guilty about dislodging all these beetle larvae and pupae but I think the Carolina wrens are quite happy about my wood chopping endeavors. But, I think there will be plenty of survivors in the remaining stack of logs to continue their boring behavior this spring. Seeing this community of critters in the wood and then feeling the warmth of the fire from these logs serves as a vivid reminder of the lasting legacy of a single tree. I look out the window and see so many stories in the forest…

Waiting for Warmth

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.

~Ralph waldo Emerson

These are interesting times for sure and we are all going to need a large dose of patience to get us through to the other side. Melissa and I are lucky to live in a place where it is easy to be socially distant and yet have the beauty of nature just outside our window. I know that is not the case for everyone. But, wherever you live, there is a bit of nature close by…birds singing or flying overhead, yard weeds growing in your garden or cracks in the sidewalk, a greenway or local park, or a schoolyard or church cemetery. Nature has some claim in the most surprising places. So, to help myself through this time of self-isolation, and maybe to encourage others to spend more time in the healing presence of nature, I am going to try to post observations more frequently these next few weeks (ideally every day, but at least 4 or 5 times a week). I think most will be rather short with a single topic and only a few photos. It would be great if environmental educators and other nature-lovers would post informative and fun nature stories that can share the wonders around us and maybe even be of some use to teachers and students that are looking for ways to integrate natural science into their disrupted class schedules. I wish I could produce some simple videos of natural moments, but I worry that our incredibly limited internet here in the woods will be a limiting factor (but I may try anyway).

So, here is something we discovered over the weekend while working in the yard. We are building some new garden beds for herbs and wildflowers and Melissa was rearranging some rocks to make a new tiered bed. She picked up a smallish, moss-covered rock and started to move it a few feet away and discovered a beautiful surprise…

rock with skink under it

This rock turned out to have a nice surprise underneath (click photos to enlarge)

It was a juvenile Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) curled up waiting for winter to finally be over. Reptiles are not true hibernators, but go through a state of inactivity or torpor known as brumation during periods of cold weather. In our area, you may see these and other lizards (or snakes) out on warm winter days and then disappear again with the return of cold temperatures. This species typically becomes active in late March or earl April here in the Piedmont, so this little guy doesn’t have to hide much longer.

Skink uder rock

A juvenile five-lined skink waiting for the warmth to return

I have to admit that I find it difficult to distinguish between the three species of blue-tailed skinks in our area (Five-lined Skink, Southeastern Five-lined Skink, and Broadhead Skink). Herpetologists can often do it by sight alone, but the best way is to do scale counts around the jaw and/or underneath the tail. I didn’t want to disturb this one to look under its tail (how rude), but I think it is a Five-lined Skink as I can only count 5 lateral lines down the body (the other two species have 7), and this habitat is not particularly dry (the Southeastern Five-lined prefers sandy habitats). As always, if someone out there knows for sure, please drop me a note. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we postponed our rock movements until warmer weather and very gently replaced this one.