Posts Tagged Writing Spider

Spider Season

Marbled Orb Weaver

I know it is truly autumn when I can’t walk more than a few steps in my yard without getting a face full of spider web. The eight-legged ones are everywhere. Females grow fatter daily, full of growing eggs. As the hunger of the females grows, so does the size of their webs. I managed to see this beauty before I walked into the web she was rebuilding. A shaft of early morning sunlight had caught her, accentuating her lovely colors. Marbled Orb Weavers are shy; they spend most of their time hiding in leaves at the edge of their webs, appearing only when a victim is ensnared. But every morning, they dismantle the web from the previous day and spin a fresh one. She was so intent on her weaving that I was able to photograph her.

Wolf spider with egg sac

This mother wolf spider was also on the move that morning. She was not interested in posing for photos, but I managed this shot. I listened to a great presentation on North Carolina spiders this week by Dr. Matt Bertone, an entomologist from North Carolina State University. Dr. Bertone’s enthusiasm for his subject was apparent, and I was touched by his gentle pleas — several times — to appreciate spiders, respect their work, and view them as the allies they are. “Spiders are very good mothers, ” he said. They defend their egg sacs and their new-born spiderlings with their lives. 

Green lynx spider with egg sac

I named this green lynx spider Lana, because she lives on a massive blooming lantana that grows beside my front door. I’ve been watching her and two other of her kind for two months. Rudi lived in the Rudbeckia lacianata, guarding her egg sac as Lana is doing above, until one day she and her eggs disappeared. Verna is still alive and well and guarding her egg sac in a Vernonia. Both Verna and Lana grow smaller daily. Dr. Bertone mentioned that they don’t eat after they produce their eggs, because they will not leave them unguarded for even a moment. It is a little hard for me to watch these once vibrantly green, plump spiders visibly shrinking in size, paler in color. Every day, I exhort Lana’s egg sac to open, hoping that if the spiderlings emerge, Lana might take time to eat. 

Writing spider

This writing spider also lives in the lantana by the door. It is a very large lantana, and there is plenty of room for these predators to share numerous pollinators attracted to its brightly colored abundant blooms. I have named this spider Agatha. I occasionally feed her a milkweed bug, if I find one sucking the life out of a ripening swamp milkweed pod. She allows me to sit beside her in the sun while I rattle on about writing (she is a writing spider after all), and life, and death. 

I find myself struggling these days to find words that adequately describe the roller coaster ride of emotions pulling at me. But when I start to flail, I step out my front door, take a seat beside the lantana where Agatha and Lana dwell, and practice breathing deeply. Agatha and Lana remind me to live in the moment, not the what-ifs, to live to ensure future lives by being a good mother to all my green children, to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.

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Recent Arrivals

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Although summer heat and drought continue unabated, the quality of sunlight at dawn and dusk has changed. First, dawn is coming later, dusk earlier. But also the angle of the light is changing. Now the sun’s rays spend more time slanting through the trees, golden arrows that spotlight lichen-covered bark, a bit of mossy ground, or a bright cardinal posing on a branch.

Fortex bean trellis

Fortex bean trellis

Both pole and bush beans are losing leaves to time and fungus, but still their growing tips actively push out new shoots and flowers. I’m doling out water to them from the shallow well about every third day, and picking tasty beans about as often. It’s been a good year for the beans.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

The tomatoes are also still producing, albeit much less enthusiastically. As usual, Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes win the prize for prolonged productivity. If I could give them more water, I’m sure they would produce even more heavily, but a handful of fruits every other day is more than enough to quell our tomato hankerings.

Broccoli tent

Broccoli tent

Last weekend at the local farmers’ market, a gentleman was selling vigorous seedlings of a number of broccoli, chard, and collard varieties. I never get around to starting fall crops in time, because my little greenhouse is too hot this time of year. I couldn’t resist the healthy broccoli babies. I got 6 Packman — a southern standard in these parts — and 6 Arcadia — a variety I’ve never tried that is supposed to be very cold-resistant, thereby extending the broccoli season into late fall — theoretically, anyway. We love fall broccoli at my house, because the frosts seem to sweeten them, but there’s a fine line between frost and freeze, and you can’t always predict when that line will be crossed.

Enter my little tent above. Yesterday, I planted my broccoli babies, mulched them with compost, and watered them very, very thoroughly. I draped spun garden fabric over metal hoops to enclose the plants completely. Right now, that’s mainly to keep out the cabbage moths that love to lay their eggs on broccoli, resulting in green loopers chomping the plants to stubs. As cooler temperatures arrive, the tent will protect the plants from frost damage; sometimes it even deflects the first few freezes. I leave one side loosely tacked down so that I can lift it easily for watering, because even though the fabric does let water through, much does bounce off. And the rains continue to avoid my house anyway. We are so very dry here that it hurts me to walk around the yard and see all my suffering, wilting green friends.

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

The Writing Spider whose web was draped parallel to the tomato trellis relocated herself. Now she has anchored her home to the trellis on one side and a tall basil plant on the other, stretching across a garden path to optimize her chances of catching unwary fliers. I think it’s working for her, as you can see.

Sunflower multiplicity

Sunflower multiplicity

Of the five sunflowers (Sunflower ‘Birds and Bees’ from Renee’s Garden) that managed to grow for me this dry summer season, four produced single large flowers on top of their stalks, while this one, which bloomed last, produced multiple, smaller heads. The pollinators seem to feel that size doesn’t matter.

Black swallowtail caterpillars

Black swallowtail caterpillars

A few insect species that I normally see by June have only just recently appeared in my garden this year. Case in point: Black Swallowtails and their caterpillars. Finally, the bronze fennel I plant especially for their caterpillars to dine on is covered in these colorful, voracious critters.

Carolina mantis

Carolina mantis

After only seeing the Chinese mantises all summer, I was quite relieved to spot this native Carolina Mantis staked out on my Autumn Daffodil daylily in the front garden. They are much smaller and differently colored. This one did not like being photographed and kept jumping about, hence the slightly blurred photos.

Waiting for unwary pollinators

Waiting for unwary pollinators

That’s the tip of a daylily petal, so you can see how relatively small this one was. I don’t think it was full-grown, but this species never attains the size of the Chinese mantises that often displace them from their preferred habitats.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

The most abundant dark swallowtail butterfly in my yard is the Spicebush Swallowtail, probably because the shrub for which it is named grows all over my yard. Finally yesterday I spotted my first Pipevine Swallowtail. The shimmery blue of their hind wings is unmistakeable, but it is very hard to get a decent photo of them, because they drink nectar while hovering — just like hummingbirds. In photo after photo, I end up with motion-blurred wings.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

I planted some native pipevines two years ago in the hopes of attracting more of these beauties. I suspect the drought may have damaged them; I’ve been afraid to look, because I just don’t have any water for them.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

This dragonfly showed up a few days ago and posed on one of my ornamental grasses. I’ve never seen dragonfly wings edged in gold before.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer's waning.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer’s waning.

Tall Formosa Lilies lean from the weight of their enormous white trumpets. Their sugary fragrance perfumes the humid morning air.



I’ll close with this somewhat fuzzy shot. The point here is that I managed to get two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in one photo. For most of the summer, even this common species has been sparse. Finally, in the last week, they are everywhere, drifting from blooming abelia to bright lantana to Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower. Finally, I am having to walk carefully to avoid colliding with these floating lovelies.

It’s been a long, dry summer, and we’ve more to go before autumn arrives. It lifts my spirits to see these recent arrivals. Better late than never, as the saying goes.

Now if we can just persuade that tropical system out in the Atlantic Ocean to send its moisture — but not its winds — our way, that would be a fine ending for this season, and a great opener for the next.

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Garden Arrivals and Departures


The Writing Spiders have grown large enough to make their presence known throughout the landscape. The yellow-and-black beauties that scrawl squiggles in their webs are probably about half grown now — big enough to spot, sited strategically among bean vines and trellised tomatoes. They know where the tasty bugs are to be found. I don’t argue with them, as long as they don’t cast their webs across the rows where I must walk. There’s nothing like a face full of spider silk to wake a sleepy gardener from her early morning harvesting tasks.

buckeye open

Butterflies continue to increase in numbers and species diversity — finally! The online butterfly group I follow seems to think they are the result of a second reproductive wave that has been vastly more successful than the first one. Whatever the reason, I am happy to see them animate my landscape as they float from zinnia to anise hyssop to abelia to coneflower.

sick coneflowers

Recently, flowers of one Purple Coneflower and one Black-eyed Susan morphed into blooms that looked as if they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. A quick search of the Web revealed they were afflicted with a disease called Aster Yellows. This disease is spread by leafhoppers; they inject the responsible organism when they feed on the plants. No cures are available. To avoid spreading the disease, the experts advise removal of the plants — and disposal in the trash, not the compost pile.

sick coneflower

The disease can affect over 300 plant species, and grasses and weeds can act as reservoirs for the disease. Two of the most likely weed reservoirs are plantains and dandelions, both of which abound in my “lawn.” Symptoms of the disease vary with the infected species, but the Dr. Seuss-like flower tops are apparently key clues. The infected coneflower also had green, sickly petals — another sign.

sick Susan

The leaves of the coneflower looked green and healthy, and even the flowers didn’t look too bad, just strange. However, the infected Black-eyed Susan was clearly sick. Like the coneflower, it had the strange growths in the centers of its flowers, but the leaves were also yellowing and dying.

sick Susan2

I photographed the infected flowers and then disposed of them. The link above also notes that the infection can be spread between plants via dead-heading, if you don’t wipe off your clippers with alcohol between plants. The disease was probably isolated to only these two plants in my garden because I don’t dead-head coneflowers or rudbeckias. I prefer to let them set seed, so the goldfinches and other seed eaters can enjoy them.

poke milkweed flowers2

The Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) that I planted last fall is blooming. Compared to the showier butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), it is a demure plant. But I find I like the pendulous pale pink flowers. Alas, so far its flowers have attracted more ants than bees or butterflies. Still, it’s there if the Monarchs manage to find my garden.

Amelia tomatoes

I’m picking tomatoes and beans daily again, now that the temperatures backed down to the low 90s and we’ve had some rain. And the basil is having an excellent year. I cut whole stems of it for a vase in the kitchen, so that Wonder Spouse has leaves handy as inspiration moves him to add them to his culinary masterpieces.

The rains have also inspired the weeds to new heights and numbers. Truly, a gardener’s work is never done. I do the best I can, as I observe and enjoy the comings and goings of flora and fauna through their seasonal dance.

spider close

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September means bugs and plant sales

A Firefly enjoys one of the abundant yellow composite wildflowers blooming in our yard.

A Firefly enjoys one of the abundant yellow composite wildflowers blooming in our yard.

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:

Her back side

Her back side

A side view that shows her sucking the last juicy bits from her latest victim.

A side view that shows her sucking the last juicy bits from her latest victim.

Her underside. Note the distinctive patterning of her body.

Her underside. Note the distinctive patterns on her body.

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.

Green-headed Coneflowers bloom for almost two months in my yard.

Green-headed Coneflowers bloom for almost two months in my yard.

And those Blue Mistflowers I mentioned are just getting gorgeous.

A profile shot to give you a sense of how it looks in the landscape.

A profile shot to give you a sense of how it looks in the landscape.

A top view to show its popularity with insects.

A top view to show its popularity with insects. Click on the photo to enlarge it for a better view.

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.

These yellow sunflower-family members have a faint sweet scent that seems to draw  a diverse array of pollinators.

Sweet dreams, avid gardeners!

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Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:

Cornus florida

Cornus florida

Virginia Creeper vine

Virginia Creeper vine

Fruits swelling.

Big-leaf Magnolia cone

Bigleaf Magnolia cone

Carmen Bull's Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Carmen Bull’s Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

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.”

Pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries

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.

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Ash Magnolia cone

Ashe Magnolia cone

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:

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia alatamaha

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.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Tree.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Flower Tree.

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.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver's sticky trap.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver’s sticky trap.

Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

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.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That's mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That’s mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

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.

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

Happy Birthday, Virgos!


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Beginnings and Endings

Illicium floridanum ‘Halley’s Comet’ flower and fruit

Astronomically speaking, autumn begins with the vernal equinox, which will occur on September 22. However in my yard, autumn’s influence is showing more every day. But at the same time, summer has not surrendered, thanks to frequent August rains and high temperatures that have not ventured near the record heat wave that plagued us during much of July.

In the last few days, our first round of autumn air has chilled our mornings, leaving heavy dew on grass, leaves, and garden benches, and bright blue, humidity-free skies that beckon birds to start thinking about their southerly migrations.

The late-summer rains have confused some of my plants — like the Florida Anise-tree in the opening photo. While still ripening the abundant fruits it produced from its spring flowers, it has put out quite a respectable second flush of new flowers. All the trees — red- and white-bloomers are doing this to some extent.

The annual flowers in my vegetable garden are also reinvigorated, looking nearly as lush as they did in June — quite unusual in recent summers.

But most plants are well into seed-production mode. My pecan trees this year set abundant fruit, but I suspect the July heat wave damaged them. Instead of being harvested and devoured by squirrels, most of the nuts have fallen to the ground. A few look as if the squirrels tasted and rejected them.

Pecans fell prematurely and are being ignored by squirrels.

Only a few nuts still remain on the trees, apparently more successful in maturing to full ripeness, as these two here:

Perhaps the squirrels will approve of these?

The bronze fennel I grow in the vegetable garden as food for Black Swallowtail caterpillars were not visited by those butterfly larvae this year. Instead, they bloomed prolifically, and now their seeds have ripened in abundance. I predict a bumper crop of fennel volunteers in my garden next spring.

I hope the birds eat some of these, or I’ll be growing a fennel garden next year.

Fruit set on the native trees is abundant. Pileated woodpeckers are arguing daily over dogwood (Cornus florida) berries, which turn scarlet well before their leaves.

By the time the leaves turn, the fruits will all have been devoured.

The long, mild spring helped the Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) produce an abundance of fruit-filled, squat cones:

Although shorter than cones of sister species, it is still unmistakably a Magnolia fruit.

Local wildlife seems to be working overtime as winter’s cold looms closer. Last week, I had noticed that a few tadpoles were still lingering in my little water feature. This morning, when the thermometer on our hill read 49.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a new froglet emerged and settled on a dew-covered leaf. These little ones never photograph well for me, but I think perhaps it’s another Cope’s Gray Treefrog. I hope so.

Warming up in the first rays of morning sun.

Two hours later, one of the Green Frogs that’s been living in the water feature all summer emerged seeking sun. These frogs have more than doubled in size since they first arrived after a rainy night.

The Green Frogs have flourished this summer.

The insects and arachnids seem to go into a near frenzy of activity this time of year, perhaps trying to squeeze in one more generation of themselves before winter’s cold shuts down production. Two days ago, I was surprised to see a male Carolina Mantis on the wall beside my front door. I know he was a male, because he was so skinny that I at first thought I was looking at a very large Walking Stick insect. Then he turned his characteristic triangular head in my direction, and I realized my mistake.

I haven’t seen a Carolina Mantis in my yard in maybe ten years. The Chinese Mantises were all I saw, and even they have been sparse this year, I think due to a lizard population explosion in my front garden.

I suspect this fellow was looking for a mate, and I hope he found one. I’m all for helping our native mantises thrive. Click on the photo below to enlarge it enough to see that he was staring at me.

This male Carolina Mantis lingered for about an hour before disappearing.

The Black and Yellow Garden Spiders (Writing Spiders) are disappearing one by one. I think they are laying their egg cases, then fading into oblivion. Two large ones remain in my front garden. This beauty resides in my lantana hedge, where she grows fat on unwary butterflies and moths. Check out the design on her back:

Early inspiration for tattoos, perhaps?

Another one lives beside my little water feature. This morning, she was waiting patiently for breakfast:

The mist from the water feature gives her a bit of a sinister air.

The other Garden Spiders that once resided in the plants that sit within my water feature have all vanished. But one left behind a very large egg case. Before I carry the water plants inside my greenhouse for the winter, I’ll gently relocate this case to a spot in the garden where the hatchlings will be appreciated next spring.

Note the messy web left around the egg case — a defense perhaps?

Finally, two caterpillars crossed my path this morning. Caterpillars are everywhere right now. I know this by the frass (entomologist jargon for caterpillar poop) littering my deck below the oak tree, and by the myriad birds that hunt for them in the trees all day. I’ve been hearing the chipping call of a patrolling Summer Tanager nearby for several weeks.

This intimidating caterpillar was on my deck railing this morning.

White-marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Don’t touch those hairs. They will sting and give you a painful rash. This one likely fell from the oak tree above where I found it.

This one and its siblings have been eating my native coral honeysuckle for a couple of weeks now.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth Caterpillar

Honeysuckle is one of this species’ favorite food groups, and my vine is huge, so I let them have their way. They don’t eat the flowers or fruits, merely stripping the vines of leaves in a few spots. Note the discarded skin on the branch behind it, left over from an earlier molting.

How do I know the identity of these caterpillars? I’m glad you asked. Everything I know about caterpillars I learned from my go-to reference — Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner. Dr. Wagner’s book is full of excellent photos and all the information you need to know about what the caterpillars eat and what they’ll turn into. I highly recommend this book.

That’s just a sample of what’s going on right now on my patch of North Carolina piedmont. I’ll fill you in on some other highlights in another post soon. Meanwhile, get out there and enjoy that autumn air while it lasts. Word from the weather seers is that heat and humidity will be returning within 48 hours. But not for long — we hope!

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Recently Sighted Fauna and Flora

Northern Cricket Frog?

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.

Monarch butterfly

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:

Great Spangled Fritillary?

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 male is always much smaller. He’s the spider in the upper right corner of this photo.

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.

The berries in this shot are on a 12′ x 6′ shrub full of crimson-berry-laden branches.

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.

When the squirrels tire of dining on acorns, they turn to the fruits of Two-winged Silverbell.

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.

The plants in this patch were about an inch shorter than me.

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.

August blooms of Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’

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.

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Residents and Visitors

Common Buckeye enjoying Joe Pye Weed.

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:

Red Admiral enjoying Seven-Sons Flower Tree blooms.

Here’s another angle:

The Seven-Sons Flower Tree blooms attract pollinators of all kinds.

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:

See how the end of her(?) tail is brown? I wonder if she injured it.

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:

Big Bertha has claimed a prime location, where many unsuspecting pollinators become her  victims.

Wonder Spouse continues to document some of the numerous dragonflies currently patrolling our gardens, like this one:

Check out the head on this predator.

This one was posing on some Coneflower seed heads:

Dragonflies are more cooperative models than butterflies, which tend to flutter from flower to flower too frequently for optimal photo ops.

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.

I’m sure it has a place in the ecosystem, but its kin are not my friends.

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.

The only shot of both birds together.

Yup, it’s really a Wild Turkey.

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.

We are guessing she is old because of the significant wear evident on her shell; the characteristic ridges seem to have been eroded.

She froze in mid-step when Wonder Spouse stepped, respectfully, in front of her for a head shot.

In this close-up, you can see what looks like green algae growing on the top of her head:

She looks almost as if she were carved from local stone, or perhaps a cypress knee.

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!

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Swallowtail Season Signals Summer’s Waning

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoying Buddleia blossoms (photo courtesy of Wonder Spouse)

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.

Seven-Son Flower Tree blooms are also current favorites of the pollinators.

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.

My dragonfly identification skills are nonexistent, but I know gorgeous when I see it.

This one appears to be made from emeralds.

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.

She waits patiently for dinner.

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.

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Writing the Season

Argiope aurantia (front view)

In my previous post, I described a few changes in the local wildlife that serve as markers for the transition from Summer to Fall. I neglected to mention one of my favorite declarers of impending Autumn: Argiope aurantia, commonly called the Writing Spider or the Black and Yellow Garden Spider.

I began to notice some smaller specimens setting up shop among my tomato plants about a month ago. But this is the first sizable spider I’ve seen. She is probably not quite full grown, but she’s getting there. She erected her web among the tall blooming stalks of Cardinal  Flowers that share space with Pitcher Plants in pots immersed in my front garden water feature.

It’s a perfect spot for a hungry spider. Unwary local pollinators drawn to the ruby throats of the Cardinal Flowers make easy prey for the quick reflexes of this predator. She is building up her reserves before creating her egg sac, which will protect hordes of tiny spiderlings until spring sunshine calls them forth.

I know this is a female because of her appearance, and the fact that males roam about in search of females; they don’t build webs. When they find a potential mate, they court her by plucking the strings of her web, sending vibrations through the gossamer threads that entice her toward him. After mating, the male usually dies, and the females eat their bodies. Unlike their Black Widow Spider sisters or female Praying Mantises, Writing Spider females do not actively kill their lovers; they merely don’t let a good meal go to waste.

Writing Spiders are so named for the squiggly zigzag of silk in the center of the web (a stabilimentum, technically speaking). Scientists have several theories about the purpose of this structure. Some think it attracts prey. Others think it makes the web more visible to those who might unintentionally walk through it.  I know in my yard when I approach a Writing Spider’s web I haven’t seen, my first clue is usually when the occupant begins strongly vibrating the web, and the first thing I notice is usually that zigzagging bit of silk in the center. But just because it prevents me from walking through the web doesn’t mean that’s what her “writing” is there for.

Maybe the scientists haven’t yet stumbled upon the real reason for the Writing Spider’s silken signal. Perhaps she is conveying a message from Autumn, letting us know that the time for summer frolicking is nearly done. Leaf raking, pumpkin carving, and turkey stuffing will accompany crisper air, bluer skies, and the bedding down of flora and fauna for another winter’s sleep.

Argiope aurantia (back view)


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