Swarms

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bees.

~Marcus Aurelius

Earlier this week I was walking down in our woods mid-day, switching out the memory cards in our trail cameras, when I came across a termite emergence near the opossum hole. What I noticed first was a group of large dragonflies, maybe 30 or more, swarming in a sunny patch down by the soon-to-be-dry creek. There were a couple of species of dragonflies, though the larger ones (probably some species of darner) were by far the most abundant. They were zooming back and forth snagging winged termites as they fluttered up from the ground in their nuptial flight. I sat mesmerized for several minutes watching the proficiency of these aerial hunters. I thought I should try to capture some video of this spectacle, but then walked on, figuring I couldn’t capture anything worthwhile with just a phone (boy, was I wrong about that, as you will see later).

I walked about 150 feet along the creek and encountered another, smaller, termite swarm, but with few dragonflies present.

The second termite emergence spot where alates (that’s the caste of winged, reproductive termites in a colony) gathered on a twig tip before taking flight with more on the log below (click photos to enlarge)

I wrote about termite swarms a few years back and pondered then about the triggering mechanism for such synchronous swarms. I found suggestions that temperature (air and/or soil), humidity, conditions before or after storms, etc. as the causes for nearby termite colonies all emerging around the same time. Well, this happened on Tuesday last week, with no significant change in weather before or after that day, so I am still baffled (and in awe) of this phenomenon. After taking a couple of pictures, I continued on up toward the house for lunch.

As I reached our little footbridge, there was another emergence (probably 300 feet from the last one). Interestingly, they were emerging on the same log that I had photographed them on when I wrote that last termite post. When I looked at the photos from that blog post, I saw the date they were taken was May 2, 2015.

Termites emerging on the same log I photographed some on in 2015

The alates followed the same path along the log as they had back then, working their way up toward the tip (the highest point) where most of them took flight.

Here’s a short video clip of the tip of that log and the emerging brood of termites (almost identical to the video clip from 2015).

Termite emergence in our woods last week

As I had found back in 2015, these emergence flights don’t last very long (15-30 minutes), and many predators, both terrestrial (ants, spiders, lizards, etc.) and aerial (dragonflies, birds, bats in the evening, etc.) gather to take advantage of this slowly flying buffet. As this swarm started to thin, I walked up the trail, only to encounter one more emergence. This one was smaller, in deep shade, and had only two dragonflies in attendance. Still, the number of dragonflies I had seen in our woods on this walk was way above any number we normally see, especially down by the creek.

I soon got to the top of the ridge and walked through our side gate to find Melissa out in the yard with her phone making video clips of a cluster (one of the proper collective nouns, although I prefer the more fanciful, dazzle) of dragonflies attacking yet another large termite swarm. There were at least 50 dragonflies (mostly large darners, and we both think they were probably Swamp Darners) swooping to and fro in our side yard out near one the water gardens (this area is basically a small, sunny hole in the forest canopy. I was impressed by the quick clip she showed me and we continued to watch and marvel at the aerial capabilities of the dragonflies as they turned on a dime and snatched a hapless alate out of the air. After a successful snag, a dragonfly would munch in the air (you could see termite wings drop from on occasion) before continuing the hunt, with success after success in grabbing an in-flight meal. Once inside, I was blown away by what Melissa captured on video (and her editing abilities).

So, we present this short video of the amazing airy antics we witnessed (too bad the Oscars are this evening). The first segment is actual speed, but she filmed the rest in slow-motion video. Watch the sharp turns the dragonflies make as they hunt. And keep your eyes on prominent termites as they fly through the screen…do they make it?

Melissa’s iPhone video of a dragonfly swarm feeding on emerging termites in our yard near one of the water gardens and campfire ring (the large stumps)

Once again, we have witnessed synchronous termite swarms in our woods – five swarms over a distance of about 1/4 mile and a time span of about 45 minutes from creek bottom to the top of the ridge. This probably helps with genetic diversity by allowing mates from different colonies to find each other during the short nuptial flights (they drop their wings shortly after landing). But what triggers this synchrony over unknown distances and seemingly varied micro-climates?

And now I have another big question…how the heck do all these dragonflies suddenly appear at these termite emergence sites? We are both amazed that so many dragonflies appeared seemingly out of nowhere (the greatest number of darners I have ever seen patrolling the yard is probably 3 or 4 at any one time). Our friend and researcher at the museum, Chris, has studied dragonfly swarms, and states that this type of swarm is probably a static swarm (feeding swarm), although she speculated these may also be related to migratory swarms (yes, many species of dragonflies migrate). One study showed that the number of dragonflies you see in a swarm is just the tip of the iceberg, with those you count representing fewer than 20% of the number in the vicinity. Where are all these dragonflies on a normal day? Are they cruising the treetops, out of our sight? Can they communicate with one another in some way to take advantage of a short-term food bonanza? I’m hoping Chris sees this and comments with any updates from dragonfly researchers that may shed additional light on how dragonflies can gather so quickly for such ephemeral feeding frenzies. However it happens, it is something special to behold, so be on the lookout for a swarm near you (and have your phone ready).

Completing the Circle

I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.

~Drew Barrymore

Last year I finally had success in photographing a chrysalis of a beautiful spring-time butterfly, the Falcate Orange-tip. I collected four eggs and their host plants and brought them inside to rear because I had no success in locating their thorn-mimic pupa in the wild. I have kept them on the screen porch all year so they would be exposed to cold temperatures and humidity. I saw my first Falcate Orange-tip flying in the yard on Tuesday of this week, so I figured it was time to start observing my pupae. Sure enough, two emerged yesterday and one early this morning. I photographed the freshly emerged adult (a female) right before releasing her.

Below is the entire sequence from an egg from last March, to larva, to chrysalis, to the adult from this morning. The circle is complete…a sure sign of Spring.

Falcate Orange-tip butterflies with male in courtship flight (click photos to enlarge)
Egg (orange-colored structure) on host plant
Late instar larva of Falcate Orange-tip
Prepupa
The thorn-mimic chrysalis on a twig
Just emerged Falcate Orange-tip female on twig above spent chrysalis
She is hardening her wings by pumping fluid from her abdomen through the wing veins
A closer view of the head of a Falcate Orange-tip

Changes

Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day. 

~W. Earl Hall

It’s coming. We can see it and hear it in our woods. The big change is near – the approach of spring in the Piedmont! The first warm days last weekend ushered in a host of other firsts – our first butterfly of the season (a Question Mark), the first Spring Peepers calling, the first sightings of the numerous Green Frogs in our disheveled water gardens, and so much more. This morning I see the long-range forecast calls for a string of sunny days ahead, something that seems like another first for this year, so I anticipate a lot of other noticeable changes in the coming days. Here are a few of the highlights of our woods wanderings last weekend. As in many of our recent walks, all photos were taken with my phone. At the bottom is a list of bird species we saw or heard on Sunday, a very good day for bird activity, especially raptors and woodpeckers.

Melissa spotted this (we think it is a Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus) in our little creek over the weekend, a first sighting for this species on our property. Unfortunately, this is our only pic, as one misstep (mine) caused a flood of muddy water to cascade over it and by the time it cleared, this beauty had vanished. (click photos to enlarge)
The first spider webs of the season magically appeared on Sunday morning as the fog made their presence known throughout our woods – this one a tiny orb web
A Bowl and Doily Spider web in the fog
A sheet web on the forest floor
American Beech leaves continue to hang on and provide a canvas for the fog droplets
A view of our south slope woodlands across the creek and up the hill from the house (this area is much more open than the woods near our house, which is on the hill you see in the background)
Our latest bench on the south slope (one of 4 currently in our patch of woods)
One of the first plants to begin leaf out – Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica)
Our first snake of the year, a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi). These small, harmless snakes are common in the leaf litter in our woods and feed primarily on earthworms, slugs, and other small invertebrates.

Birds from our Sunday explorations in our woods:

Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, and the still usual suspects at our feeders – Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco

Living in the Wet Woods

Nana always said the rain was nature’s way of adding sparkle to the outdoors.

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Surely the woods are sparkling now after what seems like weeks of rain. We actually have had some occasional nice weather, but the past few days have been soakers. Our clay soils have added some slickness to our woods walking and the usually intermittent stream below the house has been running at full capacity for several weeks now. Yesterday, there were two small waterfalls providing a wonderful soundscape for a walk in the woods. I have left the “real” camera at home this week and used my iPhone for recording what I see (plus a couple of trail camera images at the end of the post).

The unnamed creek below our house (maybe we will call it Buckeye Bottoms for all the Painted Buckeye that thrive in the creek bottom?) (click photos to enlarge)

Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.

Raindrops on a skeletonized leaf

Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.

American Beech leaf still hanging on. This is a characteristic of this wonderful tree (especially the younger ones) – it hangs onto its leaves longer than any other species in our woods and provides a golden brown patchwork to the forest in winter
Beech trees also provide a beautiful canvas for crustose lichens
A single Heartleaf Ginger leaf in a mossy embrace at the base of a tree trunk
A fallen branch reveals the patterned underside of a fungus

I have a dilemma with the trail cameras out now. I love checking them to see what surprises they unveil, but I hesitate to walk our woods too much for fear of disturbing the wildlife I am trying to record. But, the woods provide such a peaceful and fulfilling setting that I’m sure we will find a balance. I set one camera on still photos mode for the first time this week just to see how those images compare to the video. I put it on a small tree facing uphill on our south-facing slope where the deer have obviously been digging through the leaves for acorns (and maybe hickory nuts). Below is one of a series of images the camera provided. There were six deer in this herd and four of them were bucks with 6 or more points!

The trail camera on our south-facing slope captured a herd of deer foraging for acorns

This week I started placing one trail camera on a specific spot of interest in the woods rather than along a main game trail or the creek. I’m hoping to learn how some various small woodland features are utilized. On one walk, we discovered a stump hole that had a smaller well worn hole in it. The camera shows a mouse running in and out after dark. This mouse seems to have a longer tail than most of the other mice I have seen, so I am not sure what species this is. If anyone has ideas, please drop me a note.

A mystery mouse caught by a trail camera as it runs in and out of a stump hole near the house

While we enjoy walking in our rainy woods, I am looking forward to that thing called sunshine returning this weekend. I believe the woods will start to explode with signs of spring over the next week. Stay tuned…

A Week in Winter

If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.

~John Burroughs

I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…

A pair of male Evening Grosbeaks discussing who should or should not be on the feeder (click photos to enlarge)
A male Evening Grosbeak approaching the feeder in great light.

Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.

Waiting for an opening, this male Purple Finch bides his time on a nearby branch
A Pine Siskin heading for the seed while the grosbeaks are gone

Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.

We have been spending more time on our sunny south-facing slope after creating another sit spot next to a huge oak tree
Dried stalks of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) at the base of one of our large American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees. This parasitic plant obtains its nutrients from the roots of the beech tree. It flowers in late summer, but the dried stalks usually remain throughout the winter.
The outdoor dining area for a Gray Squirrel that was feasting on hickory nuts
This avian crime scene was on a bent over tree trunk parallel to the ground. It looks like the work of an Accipiter (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk) that had caught a Downy Woodpecker. A Cooper’s Hawk has been frequenting the yard the past few weeks, hunting the many birds that have been crowding the feeders.
Another Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone hepatica) about to bloom along the creek
A beautiful fungus (I believe it is a False Turkey Tail) on a fallen tree branch
A textured land snail creeping along a rock
There are four Raccoons living in this huge Tulip Poplar just outside our deer fence. Three seem to use the dinner-plate-sized hole just below the fork, while one squeezes into the top of a long narrow slit in the trunk below. This is from one of our trail cameras pointed skyward.

With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.

A large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) crawling toward a breeding site

There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!

I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Air Traffic Uncontrolled

A song is like a picture of a bird in flight; the bird was moving before the picture was taken, and no doubt continued after.

~Pete Seeger

The Evening Grosbeaks continue to delight us by devouring sunflower seeds every morning in a feeding frenzy of yellow, black and white. My high count was one day this week when I managed to see 26 of them (mostly males) flitting between the two feeders. Things can get crazy when they all show up at once and jostle for position at the hanging sunflower tray outside our window.

This hectic scene is repeated several times each morning

I have many photos of them at the feeder and sitting in nearby branches waiting their turn. But, how many images of a bird on a stick (even a beautiful bird like an Evening Grosbeak) does one really need?

Male Evening Grosbeak perched near feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After watching them one morning, I decided to try to capture them in flight as they came into the feeder or hovered near it trying to find a space. At first, I was hand holding the camera (and 300 mm telephoto) trying to anticipate their movements. That resulted in a lot of photos like the two below…

Out of focus grosbeak headed to feeder
Many images had only part of a bird

I then figured out it might be easier to pre-focus on an area and snap the shutter when I thought the bird might cross through the field of view.

Male Evening Grosbeak with landing gear down

I didn’t like having the feeder in the photo, so I pointed the camera to the right of the feeder and hoped I could catch them coming in. I soon discovered having the camera on a tripod and just watching the birds (without looking through the viewfinder) was the easiest way to get some pics. I just pressed the shutter whenever any bird was flying (of course, this also left me with a lot of blank images to delete). Below is a selection of incoming grosbeaks…

Incoming male Evening Grosbeak
Male with wings spread
Female grosbeak zooming in
Female grosbeak making a sharp turn
This is one of my favorites, the bullet bird giving me a glance as it zooms by
Male grosbeak getting ready to land
The feeder is shaded by the roof’s shadow at about 11 a.m and this image was taken in full shade, but I like the total spread of the wing

So, I now have a bunch of images of birds in flight near the feeder. What’s next? Well, if they are still here the next sunny morning we have, I want to capture the full version of the pic below. Every once in a while, the birds take their feeder squabbles to the air and really go at it with beaks and feet locking as the fly in a tangle of brilliant feathers. I’ll let you know if I am successful.

Male grosbeaks squabbling over position at the feeder (oh, for a camera pointed just a little higher)

Wildlife Neighbors

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.

~Linda Hogan

I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.

By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.

Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…

One of the mystery visitors (what do you think it is?)
I think one of these guys is the culprit from that first clip (I have recorded 4 raccoons at one time on the trail cam, possibly siblings?), Notice the interaction of the two in the background
The second most recorded animal has been White-tailed Deer, with as many as 5 in the field of view at once
I have seen this buck on a couple of cameras, both day and night
This buck is an 8-pointer, but has 5 points on one side and 3 on the other. I have seen this one and the one above bedded down near our fence during daylight recently
This was the first time a coyote was caught on camera. He looks up toward the house before running, so I assume I made some noise like splitting wood or chainsawing a log. The cameras have caught one coyote on several other occasions this past week at night and once have recorded two. We hear them on occasion but I have only seen one on our property with my own eyes..
This is the wildlife neighbor I have enjoyed seeing the most. It has been caught 3 times now on camera. Before this, we had only ever seen tracks in the snow. The black legs (especially front legs) and lack of a black tail tip is characteristic of a Red Fox (Gray Foxes have black tail tips). This one seems to lack the usual white tail tip of Red Foxes (or it is very faint).

I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.

Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths

Winter Walks

Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and “the dead months” will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.

~William Sharp

Our two trail cameras have given me a new excuse to walk in our woods every couple of days (to retrieve images) and it has reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. We have a little over 14 acres of hardwoods on fairly rugged terrain. There is a simple wooden bench (two boards) set on stones down slope from the house and it provides a nice view of the creek bottom and opposing south-facing slope in winter.

View from the bench looking down slope to a large bed of Christmas Ferns (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wandered down to reset the cameras and took some pics with my phone of the winter woods. I like the expanded views in winter, the crisp air, the sounds of mixed flocks of birds moving through the trees, and the subtle signs of life that appear when you stop to look closely.

The creek on our property disappears underground for much of the summer, but flows nicely after winter rains

The creek bottom extends along the back side of a number of large wooded lots in two neighborhoods and offers an oasis for birds and other wildlife. It also provides a reprieve from many of the human noises we can hear from the ridge top (distant sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, neighbors out in their yards, etc.). For that reason, I decided to haul a cedar log from our yard down to the creek and create another sit spot. Again, nothing fancy, but rather something from the land that blends. This tree trunk had once stood along what I assume was a property line on our ridge and had barbed wire nailed to it (you can see the grooves in it from the years of wire being attached). It now sits on some of the countless irregular-shaped rocks scattered about the tract and is placed up against a beech tree facing the creek. I like to imagine we will spend many hours here contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.

Wooden bench along the creek

Sitting there, I started noticing things all around me that spoke of the quiet beauty of winter…

A skeletonized leaf on a bed of moss
Mushrooms on a mossy tree trunk
Vivid orange mushrooms on a fallen branch (perhaps Crowded Parchment, Stereum complicatum?)
Artist patterns turned into mushrooms on a log (perhaps Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor?)

When I returned to the house, I looked in some mushroom field guides, and reminded myself of the awe I feel for those that can easily identify our varied fungi. I plugged a couple of them into iNaturalist and labeled the photos as it suggested. If anyone has other ideas, please let me know.

Before I left, I noticed a group of tiny dancers, some sort of fly, probably involved in a mating flight, bobbing up and down in a small animated troupe highlighted by the sun. It reminded me that even in winter, life is striving to continue, to take advantage of any opportunity of warmth, of sunlight, of the future. Here’s a quick phone clip…

After spending time with the flies (it’s not often I get to say that), I walked along the creek, noticing the tracks of deer and raccoon, the diggings of squirrels, and then was startled to see a true sign of spring – the first wildflower of the season – a Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana.

Round-lobed Hepatica blooming along the creek

All the field guides talk about it blooming from February-March in the Piedmont, but here it is showing its striking purple colors in January. I had seen a friend’s social media post recently of one blooming elsewhere nearby…indeed, climate change in my lifetime. But, troubling as it may be, it is amazing what finding a hint of a season to come does to your mind. I think it is universal among observers of nature as this quote from 19th century naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, so eloquently states…

Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes. A solitary blue-purple one fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.

The hepatica reminded me we had found some other early signs of spring a few days ago – the first Spotted Salamander egg masses of the season in our small pools and an adult salamander waiting her turn for the next rainy night hiding under a rotting log just outside our deer fence. So, in spite of the abundance of winter birds at our feeders (the grosbeaks, siskins, and finches are still abundant), the march of time carries us toward the green and warmth of the next chapter in our wooded landscape’s story. I’m hoping to read many more pages as this year passes.

A chilly Spotted Salamander under a log near one of our gates

October Surprises

The surprise is that you continue to be surprised.

~Jill A. Davis

I interrupt the truck camping travelogue posts to bring you some current yard sightings. We have been gone quite a bit the past couple of months so the “yard” has taken on more of a jungle look. On Friday, I started some long overlooked chores like washing all the windows and trimming back some of the plants in front of said windows so I can get to them. Our dining room window has a Beautyberry growing in front of it (I know, not ideal placement, but I like to watch the birds feeding on the berries), so I started trimming it to allow access for the long-handled window squeegee. After a few cuts, I saw something on one of the remaining stems – a Green Treefrog! It was clinging to the branch with that typical Buddha-like expression that this species pulls off so well. Though it is likely the same individual I saw in this part of the yard back in August, I can’t be sure as I photographed them from different sides so I can’t compare the location of the few gold flecks of color (I’m not even sure if these gold spots are a constant over time on an individual treefrog).

Green Treefrog clinging to a Beautyberry branch (click photos to enlarge)

It surprised me that this little guy was still clinging to the plant I had been cutting on and jerking around, but perhaps the cool temperatures has made it more accepting of my intrusions.

That peaceful treefrog pose

As I moved around the plant to photograph the frog, I found another surprise – a late season sphinx moth caterpillar. Over the past few years, we have found several Rustic Sphinx Moth larvae feeding on Beautyberry, so we routinely scan these shrubs for signs of caterpillars.

A Rustic Sphinx Moth larva on Beautyberry

I had noticed some of the Beautyberry leaves had been eaten when we first got back home from our road trip, but assumed the caterpillar had already moved off to pupate, since most larvae are scarce by mid-October. Like the treefrog, this caterpillar did not move while I was shaking its habitat. In fact, I kept a check on it from Friday (when I first saw it) until late Saturday afternoon. It didn’t move for that entire time and then late Saturday, it was gone. Not sure if a bird found it or if it had had enough of my yard work and just crawled off to find a suitable place to pupate.

Wondering what the purpose of all those bumps might be

One last Beautyberry surprise was under a leaf near the Rustic Sphinx – a small “inchworm” of some sort. Needless to say, I carefully looked over the branches I had trimmed to make sure I wasn’t displacing any other inhabitants (I didn’t see any). This is one of the reasons I usually leave the yard a bit untidy (okay, I guess that is a bit of an understatement) until March or so – you never know what is using those standing dead flower stems and branches as habitat.

An unidentified Geometrid moth larva on Beautyberry

I found another late caterpillar yesterday afternoon as I was mowing, a tussock moth larva. Wasn’t sure at first which species as it lacked the usual hair pencils (tufts of setae) on the front end. But, after looking at BugGuide, it must be a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar. One of the experts on that site speculated that these larvae may lose the hair pencils as they near pupation.

Banded Tussock Moth larva (it is missing the anterior hair pencils)

It will be interesting to see how these and other yard invertebrates (like the few remaining orb weaver spiders) will survive the next few predicted cold nights. But no matter, it is getting to be that time of year where change is inevitable, but a few surprises may linger. And these are the only types of October surprises I am in the mood for right now.

Caterpillars and Such

When summer gathers up her robes of glory, and, like a dream, glides away.

~Sarah Helen Whitman

Though the temperatures sure don’t seem like it, I’m seeing signs that Summer is coming to a close and Fall is just around the corner. The butterflies that so many thought had forsaken us this year are now everywhere and the hummingbirds are squabbling over the feeders and flowers in preparation for their departure in a few weeks. The house seems suddenly shrouded in orb webs and a yard tour quickly turns up a host of caterpillars. And though I feel sapped of all energy every time I try to do anything outside, nature (especially in the invertebrate world) seems to be in high gear as we get ready to turn the calendar page again. Here are a few of our tiny neighbors enjoying the jungle of native plants in our slightly sunny hole in the canopy.

Black Swallowtail larva on Golden Alexander (click photos to enlarge)
Variable Oak Leaf Caterpillar
Rose Hooktip Moth larva, the only Eastern caterpillar with a long unpaired “tail”. This one is on one of several Viburnums on our property
Melissa found this Purple-crested Slug larva on the underside of a Redbud leaf
Double-toothed Prominent on elm. The jagged dorsal surface mimics the serrated edge of an elm leaf
Grasshoppers and katydids are larger and more noticeable now. I think this one is a Short-winged Green Grasshopper, Dichromorpha viridis
This is probably a male Short-winged Green Grasshopper (males are generally two-toned, green and brown)
The splayed leg Clipped-wing Grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis
One of several skipper species frequenting the yard now, a Clouded Skipper, Lerema accius
Always one of my favorite yard finds, a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar with its glorious fake eyes
After mowing yesterday, I walked the edges and noticed some rolled leaves on this legume (I think it may be a Naked-flowered Tick-trefoil, Hylodemum nudiforum)
I held up one of the rolled leaves and this little guy came out – a new species of caterpillar for me, a Long-tailed Skipper!

The highlight was definitely the last thing I found on my sweaty yard tour – several rolled leaves made by early stage caterpillars of a Long-tailed Skipper. I wrote about seeing one laying eggs in the yard last week and here are the fruits of her efforts. The abundance and variety of our mini-beast neighbors continues to fascinate and amaze us.