Archive for category Native Wildlife
Pardon my silence, loyal readers. It’s that time of year, when freeze warnings pop up for my region, and Wonder Spouse and I must scramble to prepare our yard and gardens for their winter sleep.
First up last weekend was the water feature in our front garden. It was full of murky greenish water. We knew we’d need to catch and relocate the two Green Frogs who lived there most of the summer, but we were surprised to find that about 50 or so tadpoles were still alive and well and not yet ready for metamorphosis. Some had sprouted back legs, but most were still fully tadpole in form. We spent over an hour painstakingly scooping up tadpoles as the pond drained to reveal their hiding spots. I have no idea what species of tadpoles we moved, but they seemed to be at least two different sizes, colors, and shapes.
Frogs and tadpoles were relocated temporarily to a bucket filled with pond water. When we were sure we had all of them, Wonder Spouse carried them down to a small pond on our floodplain, where he gently poured them out. We know it’s tricky for them to make their way into territory already claimed by other amphibians, but we figured at least this way they have some chance to survive.
They can’t stay in the water feature all winter. If we happen to have one of our colder winters, the water would freeze throughout, cracking the pond, and killing anything trying to overwinter in it. When Spring warms the air, we are always surprised at how quickly frogs and toads find the newly re-filled water feature. It is a favored courting and egg-laying spot in our yard, probably because it is more protected from predators than the pond or creek on the floodplain. Nothing says spring like a raucous nighttime serenade by amorous amphibians.
Reptiles in our yard move themselves to their winter homes. Many seem to prepare for winter hibernation by shedding their skins. We found several two-foot-plus-long recently shed skins from our resident Black Racers. One lives in the rock wall holding up the beds around my greenhouse. Another lives somewhere beneath our front deck, and I know several others nest somewhere on or near the floodplain. I encounter them on patrols every few weeks during the warm months.
Suddenly visible in great numbers again are the Green Anoles. About a dozen of these color-changing lizards spent last winter living around the west-facing front of our house and the south-facing wall of our garage. They dispersed when the weather warmed. I’d occasionally meet one hunting among my flowers or vegetables, but otherwise, they seemed to have disappeared. But now, my goodness, they are not only back, they have multiplied.
A number of them seem to also be shedding summer skins, as you can see here on this one I spotted on the corner of the garage:
At least a dozen anoles have reappeared along the west-facing entry to our house. We now must check our screen doors before opening inner doors, lest a dozing anole drop into the house. A recently acquired pot of chrysanthemums by the front entry has been adopted as a favorite resting spot.
Every warm sunny afternoon, they emerge from their hiding spots to catch a few rays.
This year, I’ve spotted a least three anoles enjoying our back deck, which faces south and is protected from west winds. They even seem to be enjoying our deck chairs.
Sometimes, they join the squirrels in watching the humans indoors:
Of course, freeze warnings mean it’s time to relocate all summering potted plants to their winter quarters in the greenhouse. The pitcher plants and sedges that live in pots inside the water feature all summer get moved into individual trays that hold water. I refill them regularly, so that their favored moisture levels are maintained.
All the potted plants that spend their summer beneath the shelter of the Southern Magnolia also move into the greenhouse, along with pots of still-flowering annuals on the back deck. By the time we move in the deck plants later today, the greenhouse will be very full.
A packed greenhouse is actually better for the plants. Humidity levels are easier to maintain, and any insects or other critters who succeeded in hitching rides on the plants don’t usually cause much trouble. One year, a Cope’s Gray Treefrog snuck in for the winter. He just dozed quietly through the cold months until I moved him and his pot back outside the following spring. I keep my greenhouse cool all winter, so that plants mostly sleep but don’t freeze.
The plants growing on our five acres don’t need any help from me to prepare for winter. The Tulip Poplars have already dropped most of their leaves. Berries on the native dogwoods are almost gone, thanks to flocks of marauding American Robins and hungry Pileated Woodpeckers. They have moved on to the Southern Magnolia. Most of its seed cones are open now, revealing tasty red fruits coveted by wildlife of all kinds. I can lose an hour quickly this time of year just watching birds and other critters argue over magnolia fruits.
Fall color grows more glorious daily, of course. I’ll show you some examples soon. Right now, I’ve got to get the potted plants on the back deck tucked into the greenhouse. The weather seers are calling for a freeze tomorrow night. At my house, that likely means lows in the mid-twenties. Time to break out the extra blanket for the bed, find my cozy winter slippers, and wait for next season’s seed catalogs to start filling my mailbox.
Humanity world-wide loses a piece of itself every time we lose more of the natural world that nurtures and protects us. When we destroy the natural world, we lose pieces of our soul, the part of us that thrives on the beauty of a cool mountain breeze kissing our faces, the melodic chatter of a clear-running stream, and the exquisite call of a Wood Thrush echoing through a healthy forest. Our hearts are so much smaller without our connection to the beauty of the natural world.
In the southeastern Piedmont region of NC where I live, the natural world is under assault every hour of every day. The population of my region is soaring, mostly due to the arrival of many new residents from other parts of the US and the world. As people move in, the forests I grew up with are disappearing. The dwindling patches left are degrading rapidly, due in large part to the invasion of an increasing number of non-native invasive exotic species of plants, animals — especially devastatingly damaging insects — and diseases.
One casualty of this urbanizing landscape — throughout the US — is the Monarch butterfly. My generation grew up knowing this beautiful creature — one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. In school, we learned about their life cycle, admired their emerald green chrysalises, and marveled at their annual migrations to Mexico. Every gardener who plants with butterflies in mind knows that species of milkweed are the only plants that Monarch caterpillars will eat, so we tuck them into our yards to ensure Monarch visits.
However, in recent years — and most especially this year — our milkweeds have been uneaten by the colorful Monarch caterpillars. In my yard, I’ve only seen two adult Monarch butterflies during the entire growing season. Wonder Spouse took the photos of the one in this post last week. We were so excited when we spotted it in our front garden that we dropped what we were doing and ran for our cameras.
Many experts believe that Monarch butterflies are in serious trouble. Much of the reason is probably habitat destruction, both in North America and in their winter homes in Mexico. You can read an article about their decline here.
Monarch butterflies are well known and loved, and still they are in trouble. Multiply their peril a thousand-fold for a delicately exquisite, extremely rare wildflower: Oconee Bells.
Oconee Bells live in just a couple of spots along a geographic region known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. This part of the Blue Ridge Mountains rises abruptly up from the piedmont regions of South and North Carolina, creating a remarkable rise in land elevation over a short distance. The region is also characterized by very narrow gorges; at their bottoms, sunlight never penetrates, and temperature and moisture levels remain remarkably steady.
Such areas possess unique microclimates that an astonishing array of species of plants and animals have exploited. So much so, in fact, that this region holds more than three times the number of plant and animal species than undisturbed rainforests in Central and South America. The diversity of life is astounding, and tightly adapted to the unique geography and microclimates of this region.
The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is beginning to be degraded by the intrusion of concrete and asphalt, consequently destroying the delicate ecology of gorge bottoms, where Oconee Bells live. Deforestation on the ridge tops leads to massive erosion down the sides of the steep gorges. In some cases, the Oconee Bells living at the bottom have been scoured from their homes by water cascading down eroded ridge tops.
Oconee Bells were never plentiful, and now their increasing rarity makes them coveted by gardeners who want to possess every rare and beautiful plant they can. Oconee Bells are almost impossible to propagate; growing conditions cannot vary for them at all. Thus, plants sell for very high prices, making them a target of plant poachers.
In North Carolina, we have plant poacher problems at both ends of our state. On the coast, they steal into our preserves at night to dig up Venus Fly Traps. This species, native only to a 75-mile area around Wilmington, NC, is successfully propagated in the horticulture trade. Even so, plant poachers steal thousands, degrading their habitats at the same time.
In our mountains, plant poaching is worse. Folks illegally collect our native ginseng, goldenseal, and other wildflowers known for their medicinal properties. They steal Oconee Bells for covetous gardeners. They do not care that they may eliminate a plant population from a site. They see dollar signs, not irreplaceable beauty.
In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a group in our government with an important mission:
The Mission of the Plant Conservation Program is to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.
Three individuals comprise this department. They are working to identify and protect the rarest and most threatened plant species in the state. They’ve identified plant populations all over the state. That’s a big job for three people. Fortunately, they have help.
The Friends of Plant Conservation is a non-profit organization founded explicitly to support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program. Members volunteer to help manage and protect the preserves created by the Plant Conservation Program by participating in activities such as work days devoted to clearing out competing vegetation. They also provide essential financial support, since, like every governmental department in NC, the Plant Conservation Program’s budget does not begin to pay for the work that needs doing.
Right now, the Friends of Plant Conservation are frantically trying to raise enough money to pay for the purchase of land holding the last healthy population of Oconee Bells in North Carolina — the last natural population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in the world. The owners of this property love and appreciate this unique wildflower, and they’ve agreed to sell it, at cost, to NC to create a preserve. The owner who has protected this population from poachers and who cherished his land recently died after a long illness. His heirs wish to honor his memory by fulfilling his dream of creating this preserve for Oconee Bells. Time is critical. Funds are short.
An anonymous lover of natural beauty has recently stepped forward and is offering to match all donations — four dollars for every dollar donated. Imagine — a donation of $100 will become $500. For once, perhaps beauty can be saved.
To learn more about this wildflower and how to send your donation to save beauty, please go here. Even small donations will make a difference, thanks to the anonymous matching donor.
Of course, saving rare species like Oconee Bells, and suddenly declining species, like the Monarch Butterfly, is about much more than saving beauty. Scientists compare these imperiled species to canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors, miners carried caged canaries. The canaries were more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than humans. When the canaries keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape the same fate.
No animal or plant exists in a vacuum. They are parts of ecosystems, intricate groupings of species that evolved together and depend on each other in ways that are still not fully understood. Scientists do know that every time another species disappears from the delicate dance of an ecosystem, remaining species are also imperiled. No one knows how many species can disappear before the dance stops.
The natural world feeds us, body and soul. Please follow the link provided above, and if you can help save this uniquely special place, know that you will become an invaluable contributor to saving Oconee Bells, and a piece of our souls as well.
You’re in luck, loyal blog readers. Wonder Spouse found himself with some time this weekend, and he spent much of it post-processing the backlog of yard and garden photos that he had accumulated. All of the shots in this entry were taken in one morning in early September, as summer plants were fading, and autumn fruits and flowers were starting to appear. Remember that you can click on any photo to see a larger version.
Late summer through early fall is the peak bloom period for one of my favorite moisture-loving wildflowers: Jewelweed. Here’s a clump blooming on our floodplain:
You really need a close view to appreciate the delicate beauty of the flowers:
Late summer is always adorned with lobelias in my yard. Some are planted deliberately, but many randomly pop up without any input from me. I do take the ripe seed pods each fall and walk about the yard sprinkling tiny cinnamon-colored seeds as I go.
Equally breath-taking are the Great Blue Lobelias — same genus as the Cardinals, but a different species.
Seed production was getting serious in early September when Wonder Spouse took these photos. Check out his gorgeous close-up of a Bigleaf Magnolia Seed Cone:
The Jack-in-the-Pulpits in the wetland still held on to their ragged-looking leaves, but they were being pulled down by the weight of their bright red fruits.
One Joe Pye Weed cluster was still blooming just a bit:
While a large one in the front yard was all feathery seed head:
The seeds of these River Oats made a nice resting spot for this little butterfly.
I don’t think I’ve ever written about my Garlic Chives. This easy-to-grow herb sends up lovely flowers every late summer. The leaves have a more assertive onion flavor than Chives.
Pollinators always swarm the Garlic Chive flowers when they open.
As is always the case, we encountered a few animal residents as we wandered our five acres that morning.
And, finally, to close this impressive display of Wonder Spouse’s photographic skills, one of our many dragonflies. This large one was briefly resting on our TV cable line high above us, making for a positively artistic shot.
Well, Monkeyflowers, anyway. To be precise, Winged Monkeyflowers (Mimulus alatus). This native perennial wildflower has been showing up here and there on my active floodplain ever since we started tending this yard in 1989. But this year’s uncharacteristically wet summer resulted in a veritable explosion of violet blossoms. The yellow and white throat patch gives the flowers an orchid-like appearance. Very showy, in my opinion, for a wildflower.
The winged aspect refers to the small wings on the petioles (leaf stems), bits of tissue that flare out on either side of the stems, a bit like wings — at least to the eyes of the botanist who named this flower.
The common name apparently arose because someone decided the flower shape and coloring resembled the face of a monkey. Personally, I don’t see it. What I see is a lovely 1-3-foot bright green opposite-leaved plant covered in showy pale violet flowers.
You’ll find this relatively common wildflower in consistently wet areas throughout most of the eastern United States. It has a relatively lengthy bloom period, from mid-summer to early fall. My monkeys finished blooming by mid-September.
I didn’t plant them. I assume floodwaters deposited seeds some years ago. They can spread a bit by rhizomes as well, and certainly in my yard, I have distinct patches of these beauties, as well as odd singles popping up here and there, often near Cardinal Flowers. The two species look fabulous together, especially when backed by early-blooming goldenrods.
To be happy, Winged Monkeyflowers require wet to consistently moist conditions and rich soil with abundant organic matter. They will thrive in full sun and light shade. If they look small and yellowish, they probably are getting too dry and hot. Mine were greenly lush this year, and astonishingly floriferous.
Winged Monkeyflowers prefer undisturbed wetlands, but mine are doing just fine despite significant disturbance from several floods this year. I suspect they would do very well as rain garden plants, and you can find commercial sources for this species, though it takes a bit of research.
If you’ve got a consistently moist spot in a bit of light shade, I would encourage you to try these long-blooming, showy wildflowers. They don’t have any fragrance, but bumblebees and other pollinators adore them anyway. They must not taste good, because mine are wholly unprotected and often surrounded by fresh deer tracks, yet remain uneaten.
And who can resist being able to brag about growing Winged Monkeys? At least that’s always where my admittedly strange mind goes — to Oz — when I spot one of these lovelies.
The grand finale bloomer of my native deciduous azalea collection is Hammocksweet Azalea. Some folks call it Sweet Azalea, some call it Swamp Azalea, and depending on whether your taxonomic bent leans toward lumping or splitting, some consider it a separate species named as in the photo (Rhododendron serrulatum), while others either lump it entirely under R. viscosum (Swamp Azalea) or call it a variety (R. viscosum, var. serrulatum).
Personally, I think the good folks at one of my favorite nurseries, Woodlanders, make an excellent case for keeping this beauty as a separate species. They note, for example, that this azalea blooms later and looks different in form and other characteristics from R. viscosum. I agree. I grow R. viscosum too. In my yard, it bloomed before R. prunifolium, which finished its glorious display of red flowers in July.
Hammocksweet Azalea, on the other hand, had barely started blooming by the middle of August, and it’s still opening clusters of sugar-sweet tubular white flowers as I type this. This is the first year my specimen has bloomed enthusiastically, and I suspect our wonderfully wet summer is responsible. Hammocksweet Azalea is native to swampy areas of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. A hammock (a variation on the word hummock), for those unfamiliar with southern swamps, is a little hill in a swamp — a speck of slightly drier land surrounded by mucky water. Alligators like to doze on hammocks.
I sited my Hammocksweet Azalea at the bottom of my north slope near my creek in the hopes that the ground would stay moist enough there to keep this shrub happy. It has survived but not flourished over our recent hot, dry summers. Growth was also slowed, I suspect, by its incarceration within a wire cage — necessary to prevent deer predation, since this azalea lives outside my deer-fenced area.
Thanks to the wet summer, this shrub is now about 3.5 feet tall and about as wide (it needs a bigger wire cage). In its ideal environment, the shrub can grow 10-15-feet tall and 4-6-feet wide. Woodlanders warns that it prefers moist, but not saturated, soil.
This year’s wet summer pushed my specimen into a growth spurt that included many healthy sets of flower buds. To be sure, the flowers are not as showy as those of some of my other deciduous azaleas. In fact, they look a lot like the flowers of the evil invasive vine, Japanese Honeysuckle. Even the scent is somewhat similar. The flower buds on my specimen are tinged with a faint pink, but when the flowers open, they are a very pure white, narrowly tubular, and quite fragrant. On a humid afternoon with a bit of breeze, I can smell my blooming shrub from a fair distance away.
If you have a moist, bare spot in your yard, even in a shady area, and you’d like to add sweet fragrance and hummingbird-beloved blooms to your landscape, consider planting a Hammocksweet Azalea.
We’re approaching the ideal time for planting such an addition, and I know of at least one local source in my area, so I don’t think it will be hard to find, wherever you live in the southeastern US.
Deciduous azaleas are one of the reasons I love being a southeastern Piedmont gardener. The array of sizes, colors, habitat requirements, and bloom times, means there is at least one type suitable for every Piedmont garden. And if you’re an avidly obsessive gardener with more yard space than sense like me, you may find yourself accumulating your own special collection of native beauties, guaranteeing you a succession of color and fragrance from spring’s warming temperatures to autumn’s cooling breezes.
Yes, that’s right, folks. Wonder Spouse celebrates another trip around the sun today, and like fine wine, he just keeps improving with age. I took this shot of the Ace-Photographer-in-Action last weekend, when he shot all those pictures I told you about in my previous post. You’ll see more of those as he finishes post-processing them.
Wonder Spouse believes his birthday should be ignored, but I could not be prouder of my spouse and his achievements, so today, I want to share just a few more of his amazing photographs. These were taken over the course of the last 4 years, and I think you’ll agree they are spectacular.
Lest you think Wonder Spouse only shoots botanical subjects, I thought I’d include a couple of his photos from our trips to the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro, NC. We try to get there at least once a year, usually in the late fall when there are fewer visitors, but the animals are still active. This shot speaks for itself, I think.
I love this one. It proves that wrinkles can be beautiful!
Long-time readers may remember this photo. Our now 50-foot-tall Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ glows magnificently in our landscape when she’s in full bloom. But you really need to view her flowers closely to fully appreciate this tree.
I love the details visible in this close-up of a Luna Moth — the feathery antennae, the almost fur-like look of the wing scales — exquisite, yes?
This Wonder Spouse photo really highlights the subtle beauty of this daylily. If you click on it to enlarge it, you’ll see the petals almost shimmer. Daylily blooms only last one day. I’m so glad Wonder Spouse preserved this blossom for eternity.
This photo really shows off Wonder Spouse’s artistry. He wanted to play with light, so he brought a bloom into the house and experimented with lighting until he got the effect he wanted. I think he got it right. What do you think?
I think this shot really shows off the beauty of our native Common Buckeye Butterfly. Although, I don’t think its looks are “common” at all. Wonder Spouse makes it look easy to photograph butterflies and other creatures, but, trust me, those little critters never stay in one place for very long. It takes considerable skill to frame a shot like this one. Even plants are trickier than non-photographers might think. The slightest breeze can turn a perfect shot to blurred fuzz.
We haven’t had a photo-worthy snow in a few years now. I love the way a good snow obscures all the imperfections in a landscape while highlighting structural elements like trees and garden benches. The Birthday Boy’s skill in framing a landscape shot is fully evident here. I think you’ll agree with me that he is a true artist with the camera.
He has many other praise-worthy attributes as well, but he’s likely going to be unhappy with me as it is for making him the subject of a blog post.
Too bad, Wonder Spouse. Today is your day. It deserves to be celebrated. And I count my blessings daily that I get to share your journey with you.
This past weekend, I was able to persuade Wonder Spouse, Ace Photographer, to join me in a walk around the yard. He took just over 200 pictures, and he’s still post-processing most of them. But he released a few finished shots to me now, so that I could show them off.
As the leaves begin to color up and tumble from the trees, the insects and spiders in our yard seem to accelerate their activities. Flowers buzz audibly as the diversity of busy pollinators gather as much pollen as they can before winter stops them cold.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the spiders seem to get especially busy now. Orb weavers in particular erect massive webs between trees big enough, I imagine, to snag small birds. Not that I’ve ever seen a bird trapped in a web, but I do wonder sometimes.
The Writing Spider I showed you before now has a name — Big Girl — BG to her friends. She has grown enormous feasting on butterflies. Their discarded wings litter the ground beneath her sizable web. Last week, I watched the tiny male move his mini-web ever closer to the object of his fancy. I think he must have succeeded in his quest, because now he’s gone, and BG is distinctly fatter — full of fertilized eggs, I imagine.
Wonder Spouse took such amazing photos of BG that I must show you all three views:
We are fortunate in the southeastern Piedmont to have a wealth of autumn-blooming wildflowers. And this year’s uncharacteristically generous rainfall is making for especially widespread and colorful displays. Our floodplain is full of the red spires of Cardinal Flowers, numerous yellow composites, goldenrods, Monkey Flowers, and Blue Mistflowers. Wonder Spouse’s shots of the Monkey Flowers are still being processed, but here are a few photos to give you an idea.
My Green-headed Coneflowers have gone nuts this year. If you’ve got room for a 4-5-foot tall wildflower in your landscape, I highly recommend this one.
And those Blue Mistflowers I mentioned are just getting gorgeous.
As the humidity levels begin to drop and the mornings grow cool and filled with cricket song, my mind turns to fall planting season. In my region, fall is the best time to plant most perennials and all woody trees and shrubs. Our usually prolonged falls give new plants plenty of time to focus on root growth before the ground freezes — if it ever freezes at all.
Most years, our Septembers are still hot and very dry, so I’ve tended to wait until October to plant new additions. However, this year, the ground has remained blessedly moist all season, and the heat has remained astonishingly bearable — no 100-degree temperatures at all (knock wood).
Thus, I feel comfortable encouraging my Piedmont readers to go ahead and start getting serious about fall planting. Local plant nurseries will all be advertising sales soon, but there’s one sale North Carolina Piedmont gardeners should be sure to put on their calendars now: The NC Botanical Garden’s Annual Fall Plant Sale. Members get first pick from 5:00-7:00 p.m. on Friday, September 27. The general public is welcome the next day, Saturday, September 28 from 9:00 a.m. to noon.
Bring your own trays or boxes to carry home your purchases, and if you’re like me, only bring as much money as you can afford to spend. The wide array of vigorous native flowers, trees, and shrubs is more than most avid gardeners can resist.
I am a firm believer that there’s always room for more special plants in a landscape. Now is the time to survey your yard for spots crying out for color or shade or scent — or all three! Go forth, survey your yard. Then acquire the new plants that will help you realize your dream landscape.
Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:
I first heard about it from the flock of American Robins that blew in about three weeks ago. As they stripped purple Pokeweed berries from magenta stems and gobbled elderberries, branches bent from their weight, they muttered among themselves: “Autumn’s on its way.”
Raucous cries of Pileated Woodpeckers echo through the forest as they argue with greedy robins and complain about magnolia cones ripening too slowly. A few mornings ago just after sunrise, three of these crow-sized woodpeckers called and flew in circles over my head for a minute or so. Two were chasing a third, making it clear that the interloper was not welcome.
And today, as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside the creek, we startled Wild Turkeys on the other side. They squawked once, then ran silently to the blackberry thicket, where they disappeared amid its prickly greenness.
We were down by the creek so that Wonder Spouse could photograph this beauty for me:
Our wonderfully wet, mild summer made our two Franklin Trees very happy. Both grew several feet higher, and the mature specimen produced more flower buds than I have ever seen before. Spent snowy blossoms littered the ground beneath it, still faintly emitting their gentle rose-like scent. I held down the branch, so that Wonder Spouse could take the shot. You can see its close kinship to camellias by the form of its breath-taking bloom. The leaves of our smaller tree are already sporting garnet hues. But the flower-producing tree remains green-leaved.
Every time I think the record numbers of swallowtail butterflies are waning, another wave of fresh-winged beauties descends on every bloom in the yard. The Chinese Abelia still plays host to dozens, even though its sweet white flower clusters are beginning to diminish, but that’s OK, because the Seven-Son Flower Tree is in full, fragrant bloom, attracting every pollinator in the neighborhood, from butterflies to bumblebees, mason bees, and hawk moths. I cannot use my front walk without getting bumped into by a floating winged beauty.
The abundance of butterflies has been a bonanza for predators as well. Myriad dragonflies pick off the lazy flutterers in mid-air, scattering severed wings of gold and black along the walk.
And the most certain early sign of autumn abounds: spider webs. As fast as I knock one down walking anywhere in my yard, the industrious weavers rebuild. A particularly clever female Writing Spider has declared her domain over the water feature in our front garden. The abundant blooming spires of Cardinal Flowers are irresistible to butterflies, and this fattening weaver is taking full advantage of that fact, even bending the top of one spire to anchor her web.
Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.
Perhaps in response to her rapid growth, today a male Writing Spider has built a modest web adjacent to this queen, even using a corner of her web as an anchor. Much smaller than the female he lusts for, he will wait for just the right moment to woo her. It won’t be long, I predict. Usually the females deposit their egg sacs in thick, winter-proof webs well before the leaves begin to fall in earnest.
Cricket songs now rule nights and mornings, replacing the steady thrum of summer cicadas. Occasional cold fronts rush in behind lines of thunderstorms, freshening our air for a day or two before summer reasserts itself, cloaked in humidity.
Autumn will dominate soon enough, that we know for sure. For now, we can revel in the transitions, as plants and animals shift from growth to fruit to sleep.
It’s a transitional time of year for many people too. Schools start, and birthdays occur in bunches, as those born under the sign of Virgo celebrate another dance around the sun. I send best birthday wishes to all my Virgo kin and friends, and most especially to my favorite nephew, AJR, who celebrates what many consider a milestone moment tomorrow. Happy Birthday, sir. May your journey lead you everywhere you want to go.
Record amounts of rainfall this growing season continue to create ripple effects throughout my landscape and gardens. For the first time I can remember, I harvested two zucchinis today. Normally by this point in the summer, heat, drought, and insect pests have exterminated my squash crop. Not this year. Zucchini spice bread, anyone?
Likewise, the Fortex pole beans seem to be ramping up for another surge in bean production. The vines have already climbed their six-foot trellis, grown down the other side, and now I’m trying to persuade them to climb back up again.
Tomatoes? Oh yes, we’ve got tomatoes. The plants are fighting fungal diseases, but the fruits are coming in bigtime. Ornamental flowers, which have often surrendered to the heat by now, continue to bloom with abandon. I’ve got sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos among the annuals. Perennials like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, verbenas, daylilies, and now cardinal flowers have never been happier.
The rain has also produced a bumper crop of biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, among the aerial pests. But that’s not all bad, because the record abundance of flying insects has also brought record numbers of predators to prey on them. Insect eaters like Eastern Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, and Eastern Phoebes patrol the skies from dawn to dusk. Numerous bats take care of night patrol. And during the heat of the day, when the birds relax in the shade, the sky dragons take over.
I have not yet spent the time needed to learn the names of our local dragonflies, but I can tell you our landscape is blessed by quite a number of species, some small, some as large as the hummingbirds with whom they share the sky. Wonder Spouse was so struck by the diversity of dragonflies in our yard last weekend that he spent some time capturing them with his camera. In fact, all the photos in this post were taken by Wonder Spouse.
Dragonflies are efficient hunters, and yes, they do grab and devour an occasional butterfly on the wing. But they glitter like jewels; their wings appear to be made from delicate lace, yet are strong enough for aerial maneuvers any stunt pilot must envy.
As much as I love the butterflies, this year we can lose a few to the dragonflies. My Chinese Abelia, a massive shrub about 10 feet tall and equally wide, has been blooming since June — and continues to do so. All day long, it is visited simultaneously by at least a hundred butterflies. I’ve never seen so many!
Between the drifting flight of butterflies and the zooming quick starts and stops of the dragonflies, I get bumped into on a regular basis as I walk around my yard.
Patterns on the wings of the dragonflies are likely diagnostic. I really must learn the names of these hunters.
Butterflies, of course, are silent creatures. If I stand right next to the blooming abelia, I can sometimes hear a gentle fluttering of wings by the Spicebush Swallowtails, which never seem to remain motionless for more than a few seconds. Dragonflies make a bit of a buzzing noise as they zip erratically through the air, snagging snacks on the wing.
But for aerial maneuvers with sound effects, you can’t beat the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This season has brought a bumper crop of them to the front feeder. The bejeweled beauties visit it from dawn to full dark. It seems to be a pit stop for them when they tire of dashing from coral honeysuckle to cardinal flower to salvia to abelia, all the while chittering as they argue over the rights to a particularly tasty nectar source.
After an early morning harvest session in the vegetable garden, I spend probably too much time sitting in the shade and watching the aerial show. I’m not the only one. I often spy a Green Anole perched on a shrub or vine within grabbing distance of unwary butterflies. And a large Green Frog usually meditates in one of the pots of sedges and pitcher plants sitting in our front water feature. The cicadas thrum, the hummingbirds swoop and squeal; in the distance, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls from the treetops, predicting more rain.
Pesky bugs and all, it’s the best summer we’ve had in years. I reckon I’m not going to feel to guilty for enjoying it as much as possible.