Monday, September 22, 2014

Around the Yard at the End of Summer

Things are looking distinctly fall-ish around our homestead of late.

Which, I guess is only appropriate, since tomorrow is the first day of fall.

We had a frost Saturday morning, that finished off our basil and cucumbers (we never really had any tomatoes to speak of).

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not ready for it yet, the cold.

But then again, I never am.

Some bugs are still working away as if winter will never come.

At the same time, red is replacing green as the color of the landscape.

These sumacs are even redder today than when I took their picture yesterday.

And for wildflowers, we're down to mostly aster--with a hold-out goldenrod or late black-eyed Susan here and there.

There are a LOT of asters out there, and I'm trying to puzzle them out.

It's interesting how Mother Nature puts on her greatest show this time of year--most colorful flowers, riotous leaves--right before snuffing it all out. There's probably a life lesson in there somewhere, but for now I'll try to enjoy the show...and try to learn the names of some of these flowers.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Insect Love

I found myself home alone for a short while Sunday afternoon. It was too cool out to read in the hammock, and when I tried to work on a writing project in the sunroom, I kept getting distracted by dragonflies whizzing by the windows. I had just been to an all-day insect class, and I couldn't just sit there without going out to try to catch them.

Darners fly fast and high, and after chasing them for a time, catching only one Canada darner, I wandered around the yard to see what else was about. I caught a small orange and black butterfly, but didn't think of taking its picture before I let it go. And then this white admiral posed for a some pictures.

As I walked through the grass, I saw a pair of little blues mating, but when I crouched down to take their picture, they fluttered away. When I looked around to see where they had gone, I discovered they had landed on my pants leg.

I was able to take several pictures, and got a good look at the orange spots on their hind wings, the dark charcoal shade of the female's upper wing surface and the iridescent purple-blue of the male's. I even saw the faint hair-thin "tail" that gives them their name--Eastern Tailed Blue.

And still they kept at it. After a while I got a little bored and moved them to a nearby clover plant and went in to get my journal. I sketched them and wrote about them and finally, finally, they began wiggling around, grasping leaves, trying to uncouple, which took several more minutes.

And then I caught one more dragon, this Black-Tipped Darner, before getting back to work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Swallowtail Update

Our black swallowtail caterpillars have become pupa!

They have now entered their most vulnerable stage of life (teenager hood--it's tough for all species), with all of their systems, except their central nervous system, dissolved into a gel, ready to rearrange caterpillar into butterfly. But first, diapause, while it waits out the winter, pretending to be just another curled brown leaf (in contrast to the beautiful jade and gold of the monarch chrysalis).

I spoke to a butterfly expert about our caterpillars Saturday, and he suggested tying thread to those very tiny strands of silk that anchor them to the sticks, and then carefully peeling away the cremaster (the anchor point) and hanging them by the thread in an open shed. The advantage of this method would be that when the butterflies emerge (or eclose), they would be able to just fly away (and not get trapped in a jar). The disadvantage is that we would not be able to bring them inside and watch it happen. The pupa might also be more vulnerable to predators, although I'm sure my pretzel jar with lime-bag netting for a cover is not exactly mouse-proof.

I decided to just put the jar up under the rafters of our carport for now. Tying thread to those tiny strands seems like it would be tricky business. Also, I do want to see the final result next spring. We just have to remember we've got them when the snow melts and it begins to warm up outside.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Curious Beast

M has a guest post about pitcher plants up at Mud Puddles to Meteors today.

With a little encouragement from his mama.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More Caterpillars

A few days ago, I went out to the garden to pick some carrots for dinner and saw the most beautiful green caterpillar with black stripes and orange dots. I didn't even have time to grab my camera right then, but later in the evening, after eating and homework and chores were done, I flipped through a field guide and found it had been an Eastern Black Swallowtail. A quick search online and I learned that, yes, they can be safely raised indoors, although its late summer appearance meant I would have to overwinter the chrysalis. I went back out to the garden to see if I could find him among the carrot tops and found a second one too.

I brought them inside and set them up in a big pretzel jar (I'm using a plastic jar instead of my usual vase since it will have to spend the winter in the garage) with lots of carrot tops and some parsley and fennel for variety (they feed off plants in the carrot family). Each evening I replace their wilted and depleted carrot tops with new ones and empty out the frass (caterpillar poop) from the bottom of the jar. (I've been trying to get the kids involved, but other than an occasional glance in the jar by one of them, it's been all me this time around).

The interesting thing about these caterpillars is that when they feel threatened, they extrude two tiny (but very, very scary) orange "horns" out of the front of their head. They also exude an odor that smells...exactly like chamomile. Which is funny, because ever since I was a child I've thought chamomile tea smells "like squished caterpillars." I have no conscious memory of squishing or otherwise encountering a swallowtail caterpillar ever before, but I must have had a run-in with one and the smell lodged deep in my reptilian brain. (I do like the smell and taste of chamomile, but it does smell like caterpillars).

This morning, they both appeared to be assuming their chrysalis-making position (clinging to the lower side of a slanted stick). When I got home this evening, they were still there, hanging out like a pair of quotation marks. I guess shedding your skin, spinning a protective coating around yourself, and getting ready to dissolve all your insides takes some preparation.

Last time I posted about raising caterpillars indoors, I received some comments expressing concern about how it might affect caterpillars, butterflies, and their environment. Everything I've read indicates that captive-reared caterpillars have a better survival rate because they're less likely to be attacked by predators (though not totally safe--we once had a very tiny praying mantis eat a very tiny monarch caterpillar we were raising). And rest assured, we raise them only to release them back into the wild, not to add to a collection.

I found our information on raising and overwintering a black swallowtail here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


When I started my Master Naturalist class in June and was given the assignment to collect and identify forty wildflowers over the summer, I asked C if there even are forty different types of wildflowers in Maine. (His answer, a rather indignant "Yes!").

Over the next two-and-a-half months, I collected and collected and collected. Everywhere I went--beaches, hikes, strolls, parking lots, weedy edges--I looked for unfamiliar plants, snagging a representative sample and stuffing it in my bag, pocket, or car to be looked up later when I had the leisure to flip through Newcomb's and key it out. 

It's amazing how learning the names of flowers, and searching for new and different ones, has made me so much more aware of all the diversity of plant life, even in my own yard. For instance, I've known what a goldenrod is for years, but I never knew there was more than one kind of goldenrod (in fact dozens!). I never noticed the great variety in leaves, growth habits, shade of yellow and size of the flowers, and blooming time. Now I see a new species I've recently learned and it's like recognizing a friend, "Hello Slender Goldenrod, I see you're looking fine today." [Of course, there are the many flowers I learned briefly, who are more like that passing acquaintance whom I was introduced to once, but who I don't quite recognize, and whose name I don't quite remember. Is that Early Goldenrod or Canada Goldenrod? I hurry past those, not making eye contact, hoping they don't notice my rudeness.]

I passed the forty mark some time ago and kept going, finding flower number 100 right on the edge of the grass outside my office Friday morning (red sand-spurry). I don't think I'll stop there, though, but rather spend the fall sorting through the many asters and whatever last-gasp of growing season flowers come my way.

Shown above:
White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum)
Slender-leaved agalinus (Agalinus tenuifolia)
Large-leaved goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla)
There's also a nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua) in the vase, but I think it's nodding so much it's out of the picture.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Holding onto Summer

Saturday was hot and sticky--the perfect kind of beach day. Unfortunately E and Z had their first soccer game of the season that morning, and thunderstorms were called for in the afternoon, so the beach was not meant to be.

Sunday, M had a commitment in the afternoon, so I got up early, made everyone breakfast (which is outside of my job description), rounded up some towels and sunblock, and hustled everyone into the car. We hit the road by 8:15--a record for a non-school day. And we made it home in time for a late lunch at 1:45, with plenty of time for M to catch a ride to band practice, and half a day ahead of us all. This is why morning people rule the world--they get twice as much out of a day as the rest of us.

For some reason, these boys of mine complain a whole awful lot about having to go to the beach, but then they have a whole awful lot of fun once they get there (except, perhaps M, who lay bundled up in a hooded sweatshirt reading the whole time).

After the thunderstorms blew through Saturday evening, our hot, humid weather went with them, bringing a cool breeze. It wasn't exactly the kind of day that begs you to plunge into frigid North Atlantic waters, but a couple of us made a valiant attempt at swimming--C and Z even getting wet over their heads (up to my waist was good enough for me, thank you very much).

It felt a little bit like it might be our last day at the beach this summer, though that's a thought I can't bear to face. Maybe one more this weekend. And if everyone grumbles about it, maybe I'll just go by myself!
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