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

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.

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

 

 

Oh Yeah, It Must Be Spring

The incredible but annually commonplace change that is life eternally renewed has begun to stir.

~Hal Borland

My last post dealt with the rapid changes in weather from the first spring wildflowers in our yard to the switch to bitter cold and time for chopping more firewood. The vagaries of “spring” weather really hit home when I went to visit my mother over the weekend and it snowed two inches overnight. Back at home earlier this week, I looked out the window and saw butterflies! I actually saw my first butterfly of the season last week, but didn’t manage to get out to get a photo before it disappeared. Tuesday, it was the same species, and not just one, but two, American Snout butterflies, flitting about the yard interacting, resting, and nectaring at one of the few flowers to be found, the diminutive yellow blossoms of Northern Spicebush.

American snout butterfly on spicebush

American Snout butterfly, Libytheana carinenta (click photos to enlarge)

This is one of my favorite, and certainly one of the more bizarre, local butterflies. I don’t remember seeing them before as my first butterfly of the season, and here were two chasing each other around. After a brief bout, they separated with one going to spicebush flowers, the other settling on a post in the garden. I grabbed the camera and went out to try to document the event, but, at first, they were having none of it and were difficult to approach. That surprised me a bit as I have described this species to folks as “the friendliest butterfly” around. They have a habit of landing on people to imbibe our salty sweat and being somewhat fearless in doing so. I have had this happen several times in places where they congregate at puddles or other moist soil sites to gather minerals.

Snout

The common name comes from the enlarged labial palps, which give the appearance of a long snout.

I finally positioned myself and stood still, waiting for one to return to the tiny yellow flowers. That paid off and I was rewarded with several minutes of close observation. When I did a little research on my “nosy” neighbors, I was surprised to learn that this species overwinters as an adult, and thus is often one of the earliest butterflies seen. The large palps (part of the mouthparts of all butterflies, but greatly elongated on this species) that give the American Snout its name are believed to provide some additional camouflage for this unusual creature. This species often rests on a twig, head upward, snout and antennae touching the twig. Look at that first picture again and imagine it is not on the flower but on the twig. The brown coloration of the underwings resembles a dried leaf. When the snout and antennae rest on the twig, they resemble a leaf petiole, so when this guy stops and rests on a twig, it virtually disappears as dead background vegetation!

American snout butterfly on spicebush wings spread

The squared off shape of the edge of the forewing is also characteristic of this species.

American Snout caterpillars feed exclusively on species of Celtis (Hackberry and Sugarberry in our area) and are more common in hardwood forests, especially near bottomlands. In the southwest, they occasionally undergo massive unexplained irruptions that can darken the sky and have been estimated to number in the millions. I was thankful to have just these two to brighten my day.

Syrphid fly on spicebush

A Calligrapher Fly, Toxomerus sp.

While waiting for the snouts to land near me, I started noticing some other early spring visitors to the spicebush. A few syrphid flies were buzzing around and collecting nectar or pollen. I got a close look at one and believe it is a member of the genus Toxomerus. The genus name comes from the Greek, taxon, bow, and meron, thigh, and refers to the bow-shaped leg segment (femur) which can be seen in this photo. The other characteristic of this group is the V-shaped notch along the trailing edge of the eye (again, visible in this picture). These flies are wasp/yellow jacket mimics, but are harmless.

Lady beetle on spicebush

An Asian Lady Beetle (ladybug), Harmonia axyridis. I didn’t notice the small spider nearby until I looked at the image on my laptop.

Asian Lady Beetles (also commonly called Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles) are a highly variable (in color and pattern) species originally from eastern Asia. One key to identification is that they generally have a white pronotum (the shield behind the head) with what looks like an M or W showing. They have been intentionally released in various states since the early 1900’s as a biological control of aphids, but it wasn’t until  the 1980’s that the species really took off nationwide. They are considered a pest by many for their habit of overwintering inside dwellings and their impact, through predation, on many of our native ladybug species.

Sprig azure on spicebush

A dainty Summer (?) Azure, Celastrina neglecta

My second butterfly species of the season caught my eye as a tiny light blue speck flitting across the yard and then landing on a dead leaf on the ground. I assumed it was a Spring Azure, but was unable to approach close enough for a photo. Once again, I stood next to the blooming spicebush, and my quarry finally landed close enough for a portrait. When I went online to confirm its ID, I was reminded by several sources that the azures are a complex group of species that can be very difficult to sort out. My favorite source of information on butterflies in our state, the Butterflies of North Carolina, states that Summer Azures are more abundant and fly just as early as Spring Azures. The Summer Azure is considered the palest in color (both above and below) and in comparing images online, it seems like this one more closely matches the Summer Azure photos I saw. Of course, if any readers have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. This may be the best thing about retirement, the ability to take the time to observe and learn something new about the many incredible natural moments that happen right outside my door.

Wasn’t it Just Spring?

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

~Anne Bradstreet

The past couple of days have been warm and spring-like with highs around 60. Yesterday morning dawned with a gray coating of fog across our woods, coating everything in tiny jeweled droplets that highlighted the onset of early spring wildflowers. Today changed all that with high temperatures more than 20 degrees colder and a brisk wind. Even though I love the cold weather (and it is much better for tasks like chainsawing and splitting firewood which I did today), the taste of spring was appreciated. Here are a few photos of what was out yesterday and a hint at what is coming…

spider web in fog

The first spider web of the season on the arm of a twig (click photos to enlarge)

wild columbine flower bud

Wild columbine flower bud covered in “fog dew”

wild columbine leaves after foggy morning

A black and white of fog dew on wild columbine leaves.

spicebush blooms

The tiny spicebush flowers have opened.

bloodroot buds

Buried in snow last week, this bloodroot flower bud is now reaching high.

windflower

Windflower, one of my favorite spring ephemerals.

spring beauty

Spring beauties have been blooming for several days now, but are mainly closed today in the cold.

giant chicweed flower

The first giant chickweed flower of the season.

giant chickweed flower close up

When I looked at the image on the computer, I noticed a couple of insects I had missed while taking the photo.

Trout lily flower buds

Trout lily flower buds on our north-facing slope are a bit behind those in some other woodlands in the area.

yellow jessamine flower

A yellow jessamine flower. This is the first year (after climbing a dead snag a few years ago) that this vine has flowered.

 

Natural Art

All nature is but art unknown to thee.

~Alexander Pope

Earlier this week, I accompanied some friends on a stroll through one of my favorite local natural areas – Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County.  This area is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy and is one of their more popular sites. I love exploring this beautiful tract, especially in early spring when sections are carpeted with wildflowers like trout lilies and spring beauties. But, this time of year, a stroll through the bare forest allows you to notice and appreciate other details of the landscape – tree bark, fungi, textures, shapes, and, on a warm day like last Monday, the early stirrings of insects, amphibians, and other animal life.

mossy tree trunk

Vibrant green moss at the base of a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

I appreciate the winter woods for their openness and the ability to see the bones of the landscape – the trees, vines, and boulders that give character to a forest. The trails at Johnston Mill are well-marked and pass through a variety of habitats from bottomlands to beech bluffs to open meadows along a power line. My favorites were the new Aphid Alley Trail (not yet marked on the kiosk maps but available on their maps online) and the Beech Loop. They highlight beautiful American beech trees and some steep slopes along creeks with wonderful vistas.

creek

A beautiful stream flowing through a beech forest is a trail highlight

_-2

Boundary lines between crustose lichens on a tree trunk

Beech trees often provide a perfect canvas for a variety of interesting lichens. These flattened colonies of symbiotic algae and fungi are known as crustose lichens. I learned a new word when looking for information on lichen competition online – corticolous. This refers to lichen communities that grow on tree bark (those on rocks are known as saxicolous). Melissa mentioned she had learned in a lichen course that the distinct lines that you can see between some colonies could mark sort of a DMZ between warring lichens and that lichens may use chemical warfare to guard their boundaries. My online search shows some evidence for this but it still seems a bit controversial. It is a bit mind-boggling that these slow-growing assemblages set up zones of defense to ward off intrusions by their neighbors.

lichen patches on tree trunk

Modern art or lichen competition?

Tree trunks rarely get their due outside of winter, and even then, few hikers probably pay them much attention. But I find them fascinating, especially when covered in moss and lichen or when sporting unusual growths like the numerous burls we spotted on a few maples.

gnarly maple trunk

A knotty Red Maple trunk adds modern sculpture to the forest

Burls are a bit mysterious in origin with common causes believed to be infection by bacteria, virus, fungi, and perhaps certain insects.

shagbark bark

Peeling plates of bark help to identify this tree as Shagbark Hickory

The peeling bark of American sycamore and shagbark hickories are another tree trunk treasure easily observed in the winter woods. Once again, the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear cut. Some trees may exfoliate (the term that describes shedding of bark) to rid the trunk of parasites, others to increase gas exchange or photosynthesis of bark tissue, but I’m mystified as to the ecological advantage of peeling plates of bark on a shagbark. Undoubtedly, it makes for good habitat for a host of associated organisms from insects to bats, but I’m not sure what the advantage is to this species of hardwood (I welcome your thoughts or references).

odd hollow tree trunk

An unusual hollow trunk beckons a closer look

Sycaore roots in crrek

The gnarly texture of the root mass of a blown over sycamore along the creek bank

japanese honeysucj=kle vines twisted

Entwined honeysuckle vines

Celtis bark

One of the most noticeable tree textures along the trail – the warty bark of a Hackberry

I have  hard time passing by the knobby bark of a hackberry without pausing to look closely, or rub my fingers across it. I took a few quick images of the layered bark bits and moved on. As often happens, when I was reviewing images and adding some sharpness (I usually magnify the image for this), I saw something I had missed earlier. Even with magnification, I was lucky to notice these ragged shapes hidden among the stacked hackberry bark pillars. After searching online I believe they are larvae of fireflies in the genus Pyractomena. Their distinctive head shape and the fact that they were out this time of year is pretty diagnostic. Larvae from this group are known to climb tree trunks to pupate in late winter or early spring and emerge as the first firefly adults of the season. They apparently hunt snails and other soft-bodied critters.

insects hiding in Celtis bark

A closer look reveals some hidden surprises

lacewing larva

A lacewing larva carries its texture on its back wherever it goes

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk 1?

We thought at first that these tiny fruiting bodies were from a slime mold, but experts are now suggesting otherwise…

During a brief pause, I glanced down and saw a line of tiny mushroom-like structures on a nearby tree trunk. Our first thought was slime mold fruiting bodies. My friend, Jerry, submitted some pictures to his local fungi expert who thinks it is probably a fungus, maybe Phleogena faginea. One common name I saw for this species is Fenugreek stalkball. When warmed, the fruiting bodies apparently smell like fenugreek (another new word for me), a curry-like powder derived from a plant of that name.

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk close up?

A local mushroom expert suspects these are the fruiting bodies of a fungus,

fungi on log

Patterns of fungi on a fallen log

slime mold?

That same log had a patch of what looked to me like a slime mold…but…

It’s not only upright, living tree trunks, that are adorned with interesting garb, but also fallen logs in various states of returning to the soil. One large log had a variety of mosses, lichens, fungi, and a mysterious orange blob that we thought might be a slime mold. It turns out to be a fungus in the genus, Phlebia (thanks, Van Cotter, for the fungi ID assistance). Once again, when I looked at the image on my laptop in higher magnification, my eye caught something I had missed in my quick field photo. Along the upper edge of the picture are some dark elongate “mini-bugs”. They look like springtails of some sort.

slime mold close up with springtails?

When I looked at the image on my computer, I saw some tiny dark-colored organisms along the edge – Springtails

Springtails are members of the Class Collembola and most are defined by an usual forked appendage called a furcula. The furcula is tucked up under their abdomen and acts like a spring to propel these tiny beasts many times their body length (not all Collembola can spring). These are abundant creatures and play an important role in decomposition and may also graze on molds and mildews. Many species are aquatic and some are active in the dead of winter where they aggregate on the surface of snow (snow fleas).

ceramic fungi (Xylobolus frustulatus))

The aptly named Ceramic Fungus looks like broken pottery

deer skull

An eight-point buck skull found near the trail

running cedar

Discovering a patch of Running Cedar always brings a smile

Spissistilus festinus - Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper ?

I believe this is a Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper, Spissistilus festinus

Three-cornered alfalfa hopper

Characteristic shape of this hopper group can be seen from above

spring beauty

My first spring ephemerals of the season, a few Spring Beauties in bloom along the trail

We ended up spending a few hours hiking a little over 4 miles (a naturalists’ pace) and found several mysteries, natural sculptures, and other natural art to provide a memorable sensory experience on a warm winter walk.

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open

painted-buckeye-bud-with-flower-stalk.jpg

The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging

painted-buckeye-bud-opening-wider.jpg

Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge

 

Anticipation

The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

Trending Now…Spring

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.

~Proverb from Guinea

It has been a busy couple of weeks, both at the office, and in the Garden outside. Temperatures have swung widely – 60+ degrees a couple of days ago, a nice fire in the fireplace last night, a pretty typical February in North Carolina. But the natural world has its own schedule, its own to-do list. It starts start slowly, and then erupts – it is the arrival of spring. One of the first signs is an auditory one. On one of the warm mornings last week, I noticed birds starting to sing (especially the Northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, and Eastern bluebirds).

Early saxifrage

Early saxifrage in bloom at the NC Botanical Garden (click photos to enlarge)

The first wildflowers of the season make a quieter appearance. Early saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis, is easy to miss when walking the paths at the Garden, my mind full of things to check off my to-do list. Luckily, someone alerted me to the first flowers, but I still had to look hard to find them. The generic name means small flower. an appropriate name for a a plant with tiny white flowers less than 1/2 inch across. Ironically, the common name, saxifrage, bestows a more powerful status to these tiny plants. It means stone breaker. Many species of saxifrage are plants of rock outcrops, with the tiny plants often nestled in soil deposits of the cracks and crevices of boulders. People once believed these plants to be responsible for the splits in the rocks where they grew.

spotted salamander egg mass in turtle pond

The first spotted salamander egg masses of the season

Some early spring amphibians are also on the move as the days lengthen. The first spotted salamander egg masses appeared in the pools at the Garden and in my home woods last week. Not a huge run of salamanders as yet, but a sure sign that warmer weather is on the way.

Upland chorus frogs in amplexus

Upland chorus frogs in amplexus

While salamanders and saxifrage can appear without fanfare, the frogs of spring can’t be missed. Last week, we heard the first trills of our earliest frog breeder, the upland chorus frog. Instead of the vernal pool, their favorite dating hot spot last year, they were calling from the artificial “stream” at the back of the herb garden. This species is normally quite shy, and will quickly cease calling as you approach their breeding habitat, disappearing beneath the leaf litter or vegetation in the shallows. But at this location, the water is contained within concrete stream banks with little leaf debris, making it harder for these cryptic callers to vanish. You can usually locate one by a slight ripple in the water when they duck under the surface. Indeed, they all quit calling as I walked over, so I scanned the water’s edge, and found a pair in amplexus (the mating position of frogs and toads, in which the male clasps the female about the back and fertilizes the eggs externally as she deposits them). Unfortunately, I only had my macro lens with me, but I eased closer anyway, hoping to get at least one image. To my surprise, I was able to creep up, kneel down and get a close-up portrait without disturbing them The next evening I could hear more calling as I walked to my car. Then, two nights ago, the first spring peepers of the season were calling in the vernal pool in the woods next to the parking lot. It is coming…the eternal march of the seasons is quickening its pace. Get ready, the great greening of the landscape is not far off.

The Spirit of Spring

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

~William Shakespeare

Things have been so busy at work that I have failed miserably at getting outside with camera in hand to document some of the beauty around me. I made amends Saturday afternoon, and spent a few hours just wandering around the yard, observing and enjoying. I highly recommend it, especially this time of year. It is good for the spirit.

The species name means “spreading”, and, indeed, it does. There are large patches of this beautiful early bloomer in our shade garden.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers, wild geranium can vary quite a bit in the intensity of flower color. The ones in the yard are pale compared to those at work.

When viewed from above, a patch of mayapples looks like a crowd of ornate umbrellas. Kneel down and you see something quite different this time of year. If the plant has two leaves, it can produce a large white flower.

The common name comes from the small, apple-like fruit produced on fertile plants. These fruit are eaten by box turtles and mammals such as opossums, and the seeds dispersed in their droppings. Ripe fruits are edible, but all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Extracts from this species are being used to treat some forms of cancer.

 

This small creeping wildflower is easily overlooked, but is well worth the effort once you find it. I planted some in a soil-filled split in a log and it has now started to spread out on the ground around it.

Wild ginger

Hexastylis arifolia – Little brown jug (also called heartleaf, and wild ginger)

The distinctive heart-shaped leaves always give me pause to scrape away some leaves to see if I can find the flower that gives this widespread woodland plant one of its common names, little brown jug.

 

The flowers are believed to be pollinated by beetles, thrips, and small flies. Seeds are ant-dispersed.

 

This wildflower is quickly becoming one of my favorites. I bought a few plants from the NC Botanical Garden and the combination of unusual leaves and abundant flowers is a great addition to any woodland garden.

The airy nature of its abundant white flowers, coupled with long stamens, gives this beautiful wildflower its “foamy” appearance (and common name). I enjoy watching large bumblebees grab onto the column of small flowers and take a rapid dip toward the ground as their weight bends and bounces the stalk, providing some nectar, pollen, and a joy ride to the foraging bees.

The nodding yellow flowers of this plant have warty knobs on the inside of the petals. The protuberances may help bees get a better grip on the flowers as they climb in for nectar and pollen.

Sometimes, when you take the time to look around you, the familiar things take on a new beauty that helps you appreciate them. A pine cone among the wildflowers caught my eye and helped me appreciate the many patterns in nature.

Tree seedlings are a constant source of work in any woodland wildflower garden. If allowed to grow, they may quickly overtake and shade out many of the plants we hope to grow. But, I occasionally leave some as potential host plants for passing butterflies and moths. One tulip poplar sapling, growing at the corner of the house, managed to entice a passing female tiger swallowtail to pause and lay an egg. This egg seems to have an extra supply of whatever it is she uses to “glue” the egg to the leaf surface. Sometimes, less weeding pays off.