Archive for August, 2012
In the last two weeks, a new species of frog has been hanging out on the edge of our little front yard water feature. Yesterday, two were sitting on opposite sides of the pond. Both are about three inches long, and this zoomed-in photo I took makes me think they are Northern Cricket Frogs.
This species is common in my wetland, but I’ve never seen them sitting on the edge of my little front pond before this year. I think perhaps they were born in the pond and recently emerged. They’re probably waiting for a rain event to disperse to less exposed areas. I was surprised by the lumpy texture on such petite amphibians.
A couple of new butterfly species have flitted through in the last couple of weeks. They didn’t stay long in one place, so my pictures are not optimal. But I think I have identified them correctly.
I almost walked into this Monarch butterfly as it was sipping from my row of lantanas. Of course, it flew away before I could take its picture. It then briefly landed on the Chinese Abelia, which is where I managed to snap a very quick shot before it dashed off. I haven’t seen one since then. My Swamp Milkweed didn’t fare well this year. The July heat wave and drought made it surrender without blooming. I’m hoping to add at least one more species of milkweed to another area — a species that’s more heat- and drought-tolerant.
Another brief visitor to the vegetable garden was this battered specimen:
A few of this species have visited my yard off and on throughout the summer. This one stopped to sip from a bean flower just long enough for me to snap its photo. I think it’s a Great Spangled Fritillary, but I confess the fritillaries look very much alike to me. I’m mostly basing my guess on my location.
The most interesting recent faunal encounter was a love story, well, perhaps more of a lust story. I spotted a male Writing Spider dancing at the edge of a female’s web. I saw him there two days in a row before he vanished. My research tells me that if he successfully courted the female, he either died soon after or was devoured by his lover.
The plants have been busy too. Most are finalizing fruit production. The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) set an unusually large number of gorgeous red berries this year. I think the fruit-loving birds will be pleased when they notice, if they haven’t already.
As is always the case, the branches of my Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) are adorned by zillions of the large “two-winged” fruits from which its common name arises. When they are fully ripe, they turn brown, and soon after, squirrels devour every fruit.
Flowers still abound also. I’ve come to expect Jewelweed’s (Impatiens capensis) arrival in late summer/early fall. Sure enough, it’s popping up in abundance right on schedule. Especially dense thickets line our side of the creek. In deep drought years, the water-rich stems of this wildflower are irresistible to thirsty deer. This year, we either have fewer deer, or they’re not as thirsty, because the Jewelweed is blooming enthusiastically from one end of the floodplain to the other.
One recent bout of flowering was a surprise. My two white-blooming Florida Anise-trees (Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’) reside beneath dense shade that protects them from western and southern sunshine. I think that location, combined with off-and-on measurable rainfall for most of August, triggered a second round of blooming in these evergreen shrubs. Interestingly, I planted one of their red-blooming cousins (Halley’s Comet) in the same location, but it did not rebloom.
Sometimes when you see a second round of blooms from a shrub in the fall, its spring blooms are less impressive, because the plant spent much of its energy on autumn flowers. It will be interesting to observe how many flowers my albas produce next spring. For now, we are enjoying the unexpected bonus of glowing white star-like flowers against deep green leaves.
As I observe my landscape transitioning from summer to fall, my prayers go out to the folks enduring a visit from what was Hurricane Isaac until quite recently. Hurricane Fran was the beast folks in my region still talk about; forests still show clear signs of the damage caused by her winds and water. Mother Nature is indeed capricious, simultaneously bestowing unexpected flowers and unforeseen chaos in different parts of our country.
Here’s hoping Isaac is the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States this year.
The recent and uncharacteristic (at least for the last few years) August rains in my area have encouraged the local Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) population to new heights of enthusiasm. When we first moved to our patch of NC Piedmont over 20 years ago, I didn’t see any of this common wetland wildflower, so I actually bought a couple of plants to add to the back of a flowerbed, where the height of these late-summer bloomers would not overpower smaller flowers.
Ironweed is perfectly happy in a typical flowerbed, as long as it receives adequate moisture, but it flourishes best in its native habitat — creek edges and floodplains, where its purple flowers contrast beautifully with the many native composites and goldenrods that can make late summer a monotony of yellow.
Of course, after I planted my store-bought plants, I began to spot native volunteers all over the wetter areas of our yard. Clearly, they had been there all along; I had simply overlooked them in the early years.
During drought years, I sometimes see no blooming plants, or at best, one. This year — the dampest we’ve had in a while (though not wet at my house) — Ironweed is blossoming randomly all over the moister portions of the yard.
When it’s truly happy, it can grow seven feet tall. My wildflower volunteers are more in the 4-5-foot range, which I deem quite respectable, especially given that two-week round of 100+-degree temperatures we endured in July.
The flowers are beloved by pollinators, and the seeds, which botanists call nutlets, are favored by a number of native bird species. I leave my plants wherever they pop up and let them complete their life cycles on their own terms. Inevitably, a few seeds escape the birds and sprout into new plants the next spring. You can also propagate this perennial from stem cuttings taken in June or July.
Even the native asters that come into their own a bit later in the season are not as deep and rich a purple as the flowers of Ironweed. I highly recommend this trouble-free native perennial wildflower for any spots in your yard that can accommodate its height and moderate moisture requirements. Your reward will be amethyst-colored flowers for over a month, abundant butterflies, and happy local seed-eating birds — a wildflower win-win for everyone.
My five-acre patch of Piedmont is positively bustling with animal life these days. Perhaps the creatures have noticed the sun’s later risings and settings, and have begun their preparations for winter. Whatever their reasons, every day we seem to stumble upon an interesting resident or visitor.
Wonder Spouse spotted this Common Buckeye nectaring on the abundant blooms still perfuming the yard. We see them off and on throughout the growing season, but it had been a while since we’d seen one. Here’s what it looked like with its wings folded:
Earlier that same day, I spotted a Red Admiral hanging around the front flowerbeds:
Here’s another angle:
I’ve been spotting a small anole hunting in the pineapple sage and lantanas for about a month now. It is only about three inches long, and I suspect it may be the result of an encounter I documented here. But it is too small and too shy for me to catch with my camera. However, the same day that I saw the Red Admiral, I also spotted a large, Green Anole climbing in the warm sun on the south side of my house. I saw no evidence of a throat patch, so it might have been a large female, but I’m not sure. See for yourself:
She was reasonably patient with me, but eventually turned to face me, as if to say, “Enough already!”
The Writing Spiders continue to flourish. Some are growing faster than others. I call this one Big Bertha, because she is by far the largest:
Wonder Spouse continues to document some of the numerous dragonflies currently patrolling our gardens, like this one:
This one was posing on some Coneflower seed heads:
The creepiest photo Wonder Spouse took that day was this fly. I don’t know its species, but I do know it is big, mean, and aggressive. This fly and its kin are the reason we do not wear shorts in our yard. The bites of these monsters hurt for weeks.
Today is has rained much of the day, so we didn’t expect to see as many critters going about their business as we usually do. Imagine my astonishment this morning when I looked out my window onto the floodplain and spotted two dark shapes. I soon realized they were too small to be deer. When I decided they were birds, my first thought was vultures, because we have a group that sometimes hangs out around our creek. However, these birds were walking around in a very un-vulture-like manner. A thought occurred: “Could these be Wild Turkeys?”
They were walking in the mowed area at the far end of the floodplain, strutting about in the rain, one often chasing the other. Once we got the birding scope on them, we were able to confirm these were indeed Wild Turkeys. Over the years, we’ve seen a few not far from here, but never in our yard. As we watched, they gradually wandered closer to us, but never closer than the large Red Buckeye that grows near the creek. In fact, when the rain grew heavier, they both huddled beneath the thick canopy provided by that Red Buckeye. We could just make out their dark shapes through the driving rain.
When the rain let up, the Turkeys wandered back out into the grassy area, so Wonder Spouse grabbed his tripod and set up his camera — with telephoto lens — in front of the sliding glass door overlooking the floodplain. It was still raining too hard to take the camera outdoors, the light was dim, and the Turkeys never stayed in one place long enough for a decent shot. But these photos at least confirm a visit from two Wild Turkeys — females, we think.
Despite the off-and-on hard rain, the Turkeys wandered around the floodplain for about 45 minutes, until something caused them to dash out of sight for good. We thought we were done with visitors for the day, until we spotted what had caused the Turkeys to flee: a large Common Snapping Turtle! We don’t think she was after the Turkeys, but we don’t blame them for erring on the side of caution when dealing with this species of reptile.
When the rain paused for a bit, Wonder Spouse and I went out for a closer look at the Snapper slowly lumbering across the floodplain. We see Snappers and River Cooters every once in a while; they are always females in search of the soft sandbars they prefer for nesting sites.
Wonder Spouse was able to get a few close shots of what we think is an old female during a pause in the rain.
In this close-up, you can see what looks like green algae growing on the top of her head:
We didn’t bother her for long. A quick online search revealed that these turtles often come out to lay eggs in weather like today’s, probably because the ground is softer, I imagine. We have a healthy respect for the Snapping Turtles that share our property. We leave them to their business, and they don’t bite off our toes or fingers. Seems a fair deal to me.
I’ll be keeping watch for another visit by the Wild Turkeys. We found a Web site that included recordings of their various calls. When I listened to them, I realized I’ve been hearing these calls all summer. I think Wild Turkeys probably nested in the floodplain woodland across the creek from our property. I had been hearing bird calls I couldn’t identify, and had decided they must be a neighbors’ poultry. But now I realize that the Wild Turkeys have been talking in the adjacent woods all summer.
What a great day this has turned out to be. Not only did the plants get a much-appreciated dose of moisture, but the Snapping Turtles got a chance to multiply themselves, and a new bird species stopped by — in the pouring rain!
Abundance abounds on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont. As summer winds down, plants are multiplying with enthusiasm, and native animals are taking full advantage of the bounty. My area saw a week of what the weather seers call “unsettled weather,” which means thick humidity, uncomfortable (but not intolerable) heat, and random thunderstorms. As usually happens of late, my patch of Piedmont was ignored by most of the rain clouds, but we got enough to push plants and animals into a bit of a late summer frenzy.
Butterfly multiplicities are evident on every blooming flower in my yard. Species diversity seems to be multiplying too. I’ll show you in another post. I caught the two above as they were basking in the first sunshine we’ve seen in several days. I think they missed the light as much as I did.
Most of the plants are in the final stages of seed production, filling up seed heads and capsules, preparing to release their progeny into autumn air when it arrives in a few weeks. Here’s a pair of Tulip Poplar “cones.”
All the Tulip Poplars reproduced well this year. I predict I’ll be sweeping their seeds off walks all fall and winter.
Another member of the Magnolia family — Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) — was kind enough to produce one of its spectacular seed heads within range of my camera:
Animal multiplicities include the deafening, constant, ebb and flow of cicada thrumming. They are maximizing their time in the humid air that makes me stick to myself after two minutes outside. Also present in astonishing numbers are the American Robins. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many this time of year. These are not the flocks of spring and autumn migrators that I’m accustomed to seeing. These are local birds — newly adult ones, judging by their very motley breast feathers.
The American Robins are here because of the bumper crop of Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) dominating every untamed corner (we have a lot of those) of the property. Easily eight feet tall with stems thicker than my wrist, these magenta and green very poisonous natives are currently weighed down by the biggest crop of berries I’ve ever seen them produce. The American Robins have claimed this crop for themselves. From dawn to dusk, I hear their muttering and exclamations as they devour every purple berry they discover.
I admit I don’t argue much with this plant. Unless it pops up in a spot that just won’t work, I usually let it have its way. However, if I had children or dogs with a habit of eating fruits in the wild, I would eradicate this plant from my yard. It is extremely poisonous to humans, from its roots to its leaves and berries. Yes, young leaves, if boiled for long periods, are consumed by some as “poke salad,” but I think the dangers aren’t worth the risk. Proceed with caution if you welcome this species into your Piedmont yard.
Also multiplying in my yard: spiderwebs! I can’t walk anywhere without walking into one.
The arachnids even build across our often-used front walk. Every morning this time of year, it’s best to wave a stick in front of you to intersect the webs before your face does.
Multiplicities of fungi are also popping up all over the yard. Today, I encountered this large collection of delicate beauties:
They are quite exquisite up close, as you can see here:
I am not an expert on fungi, so I assume they are all poisonous. I leave them to adorn the landscape and only consume mushrooms I buy at grocery stores.
As summer begins its reluctant transformation to fall, Nature’s multiplicities ensure that next year’s growing season will be productive — barring the usual weather catastrophe caveats, of course.
I revel in the beauty and diversity of this abundance, but I’m also hoping for a real winter this year — one with prolonged bouts of weather cold enough to freeze the ground and kill problem insects, diseases — and maybe even a few Pokeweed plants. One can only handle so much magenta and purple in the landscape after all.
I count myself lucky to be gardening in the Piedmont region of North Carolina this year. Sure, it’s still hot, but the unrelenting 100+-degree temperatures have backed down to the unrelenting low 90s. And although most of the good thunderstorm rains are still bypassing my yard, the air is soupy, sticky with humidity. The dregs of summer are here.
Signs are clear in the vegetable garden too. All tomato varieties are losing lower leaves to climbing fungal attacks, yet still their tops soldier on, producing enough ripe fruits to share with friends. The peppers are ripening well, but fruit worms are boring into the nearly ripe fruits, ruining some completely, rendering others only partly edible. Such are the usual late summer consequences of gardening without toxic chemical weapons of mass destruction.
Although the few rain showers that deigned to stop at my house have not brought enough water to help my stagnant creek and pond, the drops that fell were sufficient to revive the flowers. The giant Chinese Abelia that resides beside my vegetable garden had almost stopped blooming — much earlier than in previous years. But the recent rains persuaded it to reopen for business; now clouds of swallowtails, other butterflies, day-flying sphinx moths, and myriad bees animate the bush with drifting flows of color from dawn to dusk.
The Seven-Son Flower Tree is equally popular with the pollinators. Heavy perfume from these small flowers hangs in sticky morning air, an invisible entity waiting to envelop unsuspecting passersby with fragrance.
Without question, butterfly and dragonfly populations are at all-time seasonal highs in my yard. The butterflies literally bump into me as I walk from my front door to the garden, so intent are they on finding the next tasty blossom. Dragonflies in metallic shades of blue, green, amber, and red zip through the skies, grabbing insects on the fly. When I try to photograph them, they seem to grow interested in me, following me short distances before returning to sky patrol.
Wonder Spouse was out in the yard yesterday trying to photograph a few of the sky dragons. Check out these shots.
A final sign of summer’s waning is the arrival — in abundance — of Writing Spiders. Last year, I showed you the large Black and Yellow Garden Spider that set up shop among the plants I grow in pots that sit within my front yard water feature. This year, instead of one large spider residing over this space, seven smaller Writing Spiders have overtaken this area. Perhaps they are the offspring of last year’s large spider, or perhaps word leaked out into the spider community that this locale was ideal for their purposes.
However they came to find this spot, it is quite wonderful to see seven webs strung between sedge leaves and cardinal flower stalks, the characteristic spider writing prominent in their centers, along with seven growing black and yellow weavers waiting for unwary prey to stumble into their sticky traps.
Here’s to the waning of summer stickiness, the rise of sky dragons and butterflies, and the hope that the perfume of late-blooming blossoms will soon summon autumn’s kiss.