Going Native in Toledo – Update

It’s been far too long since I updated you about the progress in my native garden project, so let’s fix that today. In re-reading my earlier posts in this series, I discovered that I hadn’t shared very many photos either. I guess I was more focused on writing about the ecological basis for this project, and hoping to get everybody up to speed about the critical importance of native plants. So you can go back and read those earlier posts if you’re interested in the background stuff. Today you’ll see photos and get a few more details about what’s been working and what’s not. (Depending on what kind of device you use to read this, you’ll see a link to “My Native Plant Project” at the top or bottom of the blog, so you can find those posts all together.)

When I started this project, I was so enthusiastic that I started ripping out everything that wasn’t a native plant. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I stopped myself from continuing that. I’ve come to accept that this will be a years-long learning project, and I may end up keeping some of the non-natives that I have a particular fondness for.  There are some allium cultivars here that are structurally interesting and attract lots of pollinators, so they can stay. And the 15-foot tall Rose of Sharon shrub is a hummingbird magnet, so it stays too.

Hoverfly on NE aster w sig
Hoverfly on New England aster

But at this point, I have about 60 species of natives in my garden. After three growing seasons, I’ve started to become more familiar with the habits of some of the plants and am able to make better decisions about when and where to add new plants or more of the same species.

New England aster monster
New England aster last August – what a monster!

For example, I know that New England aster can take over the entire garden while you’re at the grocery store. In late June I cut it down to three feet tall and it’s back up to about six feet again and leans over onto the less-sturdy plants around it. Its purple and yellow flowers are beautiful, and are important for migrating monarch butterflies and other late fall pollinators, but it’s definitely a tough one to control. I’d like to try putting in some goldenrods and other asters for fall blooms, and maybe then I can eliminate some of the N.E. aster.

Here are some photos of the first native bed I started along my east fenceline.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (1)
My first native bed, in its third year

You can see a gap in the middle where some plants had to be removed, but the rest of it is doing great. Scanning from right to left, you’ll see common boneset (white flowers in back), pink coneflower, monarda (bee balm), and Sullivant’s milkweed, and then across the gap there’s rattlesnake master, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and shrubby St. John’s wort. It’s funny, last year the black-eyed Susans were on the right side, in front of the coneflowers, but this year they showed up on the left side. Apparently they’ll move around from year to year, so you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There are some other plants mixed in this bed too, but I want to show you closer shots of a couple of these amazing native plants.

First up is rattlesnake master, a plant that grabs your attention simply by saying its own name. And if that’s not enough, just look at these wonderful globe-shaped flower heads! In this wider shot, it’s on the right side.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (3)

Rattlesnake master flower heads - blog - NIMT
Rattlesnake master

I’ve got some cool photos of insects on those globes, but I’ll save that for my update about Kim’s Big Bug Year.

The shrubby St. John’s wort is also a beautiful plant, and I’ve regretted putting it back there in the corner where it’s mostly hidden. The flowers and leaves are so pretty. But thanks to my friend Kate, I’ve got two more young plants of that species that I’ve just put down as specimen plants in another new bed. First a wide shot, then a close up:

East bed alternate view with shrubby St John's wort - blog - NIMT

Shrubby st. john's wort with bumble bee
Shrubby St. John’s Wort with bumble bee

If you look back at that wide shot above, you’ll see my swing, and behind it two huge boxwood shrubs. I want to take those out and put some natives in there eventually. Have you ever smelled a boxwood shrub? It’s not something you want to sit beside for any length of time. The only reason I’ve hesitated removing them so far is that there’s only a 3-foot tall fence behind them, so when they’re removed there won’t be anything blocking the view into my garden from the road in front of the house. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to see the garden, but the reason I tucked the swing back in that corner is because it’s the most private part of the yard, and I like that. If I could buy mature native shrubs that were already five feet tall, I would do that in a heartbeat. But whatever goes in there will take years to grow big enough to give that privacy back. Decisions, decisions. Oh wait! I just realized I could plant something on the other side of that fence and let it grow up, and then remove the boxwoods. Aha, a plan materializes!

I’ve had some manual labor help lately too, and I’m glad I did, even though it was shockingly expensive.  There was this area back by my shed that had shrubs that were declining and just kind of ugly — there was hibiscus, purple smoke, and a huge arborvitae, along with a few raggedy hostas that didn’t like all the sun they got there. Here’s what it looked like before the contractor arrived a few weeks ago:

Before shrub removal 7-16-20
Before….

And a few hours later, I’d already started filling it with native plants…button bush, ninebark, shrubby St. John’s wort, white snakeroot, purple coneflower, and Riddell’s goldenrod. I’ll be adding some more in this bed after I go to the last native plant sale of this year in a couple weeks. It should look great next year.

New garden bed July 29 2020 - blog - NIMT
…and after! So much potential!

That’s one of the shrubby St. John’s worts front and center, ready to be the star that it should be!

This year also brought the first blooms on the gray-headed coneflower that I grew from seed and planted in 2018. I had been impatiently waiting for them, and when I saw them finally bloom last month I could have jumped for joy. I raised them from teeny tiny seeds and they are spectacular! I did that! (Well, the Earth did that…but I helped.)

gray-headed coneflower - blog
Gray-headed coneflowers beside tri-color beech tree – nice combo

That tri-color beech tree was here when I bought this property, and I thought it was probably going to remain a small tree, but I’ve seen some in the neighborhood that are forty or fifty feet tall, so I guess I’ll find out…in twenty years.

So that’s a good update for now, I think. Maybe next time I’ll show you some of the other native beds. I’m having so much fun growing native plants, and–especially this year–have enjoyed spending much more time than usual just being among the plants and insects. My fellow Wild Ones members have continued to be generous in their support of my new-ish garden; they give me plants and advice whenever I need it. And when I visit their mature native gardens, I feel better about what I’m doing. I see that, even for the most experienced among us, this is a process of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s hard work, and it’s never done. But it’s definitely worth it.

Yucca_filamentosa from Wikipedia
Yucca photo by Moriori on Wikipedia

I’m going to finish up here with a sort of warning — a “buyer beware” message. Three years after moving here, I’m still waging an epic battle against the yuccas (Yucca filamentosa). There are probably 15 of them scattered around the property, front and back. They look like they would be native to the desert southwest, but it turns out they’re native to the southeastern part of this country. I’m still a bit confused because the USDA Plants Database shows them as native to Ohio as well as much of the eastern US. But regardless of whether they’re natives or not, I have a strong dislike for them. And yet many people plant them around their houses, probably because they’re evergreen, and they don’t require any watering or other maintenance other than cutting down the enormous flower stalk that towers above the leaves each year. But they multiply prolifically, and turn into these monstrous multi-plant clumps that are so tough to eradicate that a web search on “how to get rid of yuccas” turns up hundreds of results. (Some of the videos are quite entertaining, like this one, and the one where Mike doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough.)

Yuccas removed from yard Aug 2019 - blog
A few yuccas I dug from my yard last year

Despite what Mike-on-YouTube thinks, I am trying hard! I’ve tried digging them up. Nope, life’s too short. I paid landscapers try to eradicate some of them two years ago, but they used a stump grinder which only served to chop up the massive root system and sprout hundreds more of these horrible plants. Last year I chopped one off at the ground and painted herbicide on the stump. It came back anyway. Earlier this summer I paid the teenager next door to try to dig one of them out. He spent more than four hours digging up ONE plant, and it re-sprouted a month later. (That poor kid will probably never come over here again after being defeated by a yucca.) Here’s a pile of the roots from that one plant — and this is only about a third of them!

So I’m experimenting with another technique now — I’ve covered the yucca hole with two layers of thick cardboard and a heavy layer of mulch. I’ll check on it next summer and see if I’ve finally managed to kill one of them. Stay tuned for my next yucca update, in which I fully expect to report that they’ve tried to kill me in my sleep.

At Home…Still

Carolina wren with dandelion w sig
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my yard

Have you seen the articles about how the pandemic stay-at-home orders have had unexpected benefits for some people? I was just reading about families who have begun eating dinners together and spending more time playing games at home, enjoying each other’s company.  Freed from the need to commute to work or school, many people have more time to slow their lives down.

I’m retired and not part of a household, but there are parallel changes happening in my own life. Over the past six months or so, I’d started to feel that I had too many obligations; I wanted to figure out how to slow my life down without missing out on fun events with friends.  I was trying to get better at saying “no” to new obligations. Suddenly the Coronavirus poked its head up and fixed that problem for me. My life came to a screeching halt. Everything was cancelled. Every day was scary and confusing.

But now that I’ve adapted (somewhat) to this new pandemic-restricted life, I’m rediscovering the pleasures of staying at home. The other day someone asked me how I was doing, and I said, “You know…I’m still at home.” As the words came out of my mouth, I thought of another meaning of “still” — being quiet, peaceful, serene, not moving. And I realized that I’m really enjoying this time when my calendar has nothing on it. Most days there’s no place I have to be at any given time. Such freedom! That was disorienting at first, but I’m getting used to it now. So yes, I’m still at home, and I like it.

Carolina wren hunting for insects in grass - blog
Carolina Wren hunting March flies in my yard

In no way am I suggesting that the pandemic is a good thing, but I wonder if this period of forced slowing down might have some long-term benefits to our lives. Will we take any positive life lessons from our experience, or will we go back to our normal busy-busy ways after this is over? Will I be better at saying “no”? Will we remember what it’s been like to have more time to just sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window, or sit on the garden swing and watch a wren plucking March flies from the grass?

Speaking of sitting with a cup of coffee…the other morning I was on the sofa with my morning java, when this young Cooper’s hawk dropped dramatically out of the sky to land on a mole in the front yard. He was less than 20 feet away from me, separated only by two panes of glass.

Cooper's hawk with prey v2
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) standing on his prey

Realizing time was of the essence, I moved as quickly as I could toward my camera, trying not to spook him. I had an advantage because raptors seem less likely to spook easily when they’re young, and especially when they’re attempting to subdue their next meal. So while he stood there squeezing that mole to death, I managed to grab the camera and get a few shots off before my cat Sam ran at the window and caused the hawk to fly off, mole dangling below him. This was one of only a few times in my life when I’ve been able to take a bird photo from my sofa. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cooper's hawk with prey v3
I think he knows I’m watching, but he doesn’t feel threatened enough to fly

Last summer was full of meetings, field trips, and conferences for dragonflies, moths, and native plants — I was constantly going somewhere. This summer isn’t likely to have any of those events, so I can easily imagine myself redirecting my attention to some intense nesting behaviors at home. My native garden project has been a wonderful anchor for me, leading me to spend lots of time watching the insects that come to live out their lives here. I foresee even more time spent in my own garden this year, documenting and learning about the wildlife I share this property with.

Speaking about documenting insects, don’t forget to click the big beetle icon on the sidebar to check in on Kim’s Big Bug Year. I’ve found some interesting things so far, including this beautiful tiger beetle, a subspecies of the Festive Tiger Beetle called the LeConte’s Tiger Beetle.

Festive tiger beetle - blog
LeConte’s Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei)

Having said all that about enjoying my time at home and wanting to slow down, I do miss my friends quite a lot. I don’t want to turn inward so much that I don’t see my friends at all. But maybe I’ll start inviting them to visit me and sit in my garden, one person at a time (six feet away from each other, of course). I always get more satisfaction from interacting with people one-on-one than in groups anyway, so maybe this can work out for me after all.

Do you think you’ll make any permanent changes in your behavior as a result of the pandemic? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Sora w sig
I was lucky to find this secretive Sora yesterday while on a rare birding walk with a friend, six feet apart.

Focus on Home Birds

Since I moved to this house three years ago, I haven’t spent much time watching birds in my backyard. There’s a large noisy flock of non-native House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) that dominate the neighborhood, and those aggressive bullies have discouraged me from keeping my feeders filled most of the time, and they dissuade many other birds from staying too long as well.

So instead of birding the yard, I’ve focused more on trying to establish my garden, and on documenting the insects that come to my native plants. Here’s my main native bed, just cleaned up and showing early signs of the explosive growth to come — it contains monarda, asters, goldenrods, various milkweeds, boneset, blue lobelia, and many more native lovelies.

Native bed early in season 2020

But on this beautiful afternoon, knowing that my favorite walking trails would be too crowded for safety, I sat at my patio table (in the shade of my new umbrella!) and renewed my acquaintance with some fine feathered friends.

Patio umbrella 4-28-20
Those gallon jugs are mini greenhouses growing native seedlings for my garden.

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) has been in the yard for a few days now, and I hear his familiar trilling song often. Even when he’s not singing, his diminutive size compared to other sparrows allows me to identify him from inside the house without binoculars. Beginning birders often struggle with identifying the various sparrows, calling them LBJs — little brown jobs. I spent much more time learning the colorful “easy” warblers than the sparrows, but now I’ve got a good handle on most sparrows.

Chipping sparrow - my yard - blog
Chipping Sparrow on empty cylinder feeder — oops!
Chipping sparrow on rock - blog
Chipping Sparrow giving me the evil eye because the feeders are empty

This morning I was thrilled to see a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) inspecting my empty feeders for a few moments. I quickly filled them and left for a walk in the park. When I came back home, I could hear his beautiful soft song from the redbud trees, and sure enough, there he was.

White-throated sparrow in redbud tree
White-throated Sparow in Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As I’m writing this, a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has just flown over my head, calling out his squeaky “wicka-wicka-wicka” before landing in the big cedar tree in the front yard. I tried for a photo but missed. The flicker is a beautiful woodpecker that often forages for ants on the ground — here’s a pic I took on another day.

Northern Flicker on grass - blog
Northern Flicker

American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are prowling the lawn areas, snatching insects and listening for the sounds of worms underground. They’re so much fun to watch as they cock their heads and listen. The one I’m watching now is having great success, hopping around and plucking one insect (or maybe spider) after another from the grass.

Robin with head cocked listening - blog 2Robin with head cocked listening - blog

I was pleased to get a visit from this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), a blackbird that often gets overlooked by birders in search of “prettier” birds. But I challenge you to convince me that this bird isn’t gorgeous with his sleek black and iridescent blue feathers, and those yellow eyes!

Common grackle with dandelions in my yard - blog

Notice how nice he looks among the dandelions too. Those dandelions are symbolic of my yard’s chemical-free status. As I look down my street, I see mostly manicured lawns with very few dandelions. My neighbors probably think I’m a lazy homeowner, but it’s the exact opposite. I intentionally allow those dandelions (and clover and other early flowering weeds) to grow because they help the early pollinators survive until more flowers are available to them. And I also think a lawn covered in dandelions is just as lovely as a lawn full of cultivated flowers like daffodils.

I don’t see birds foraging for insects on the lawns of my neighbors either, because they keep their lawns even more sterile than their homes, killing everything except their non-native grass with pesticides and herbicides. I know it’s what our culture has come to accept as a sign of prosperity, but those attitudes really need to change if we want to preserve the biodiversity of this planet in a meaningful way. Sometimes I feel defensive about my dandelions because I know people are judging me harshly for their presence. But I’m also judging them for the absence of dandelions and insects on their own lawns. It’s funny in a sad way, I guess. We humans are quite complicated animals, aren’t we?

White-throated sparrow in maple tree w sig - blog

By the way, if you want to hear the songs of any of the birds in this post, go to the Cornell Lab and type the bird name into the search bar. I hope you get to hear some birds singing in your yard this spring!

Your Pantaloons are Showing

Every year when I go to the woods searching for the latest native wildflowers, I’ve got one particular species in mind as my most-hoped-for find: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods

These dainty little pantaloons are common in moist shady woods throughout the eastern US, and are sometimes also called bleeding hearts or little blue staggers.

The straight little stems holding waxy white and yellow flowers rise above the basal clump of fern-like compound leaves as if to say, “Here we are, look at us!” You might think they would stand out and be easy to spot, but that’s not the case. In fact, they’re so tiny that you have to be looking for them or you can easily walk right past them.

Here’s a wide shot for scale — the big tree stump was about three feet tall. The red circle indicates the Dutchman’s breeches:

Dutchman's breeches - wide view for scale - red circle

Now that you have a sense of their size, you’ll understand why I imagine them to be fairy laundry hanging out to dry.

Last year I found an entire grove of them under a magnolia tree…I would have believed it if you’d told me there really were wee folk living in there. They probably scattered and ran for cover when they saw me inspecting their skivvies on the line.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig

I’m not sure why, but I often find large clusters of this plant at the bases of big trees. Here’s one I found last week:

Dutchman's breeches cluster at base of tree - blog

This group had some teeny tiny new flowers in it:

Dutchman's breeches babies - blog

Here’s another shot of new-ish flowers:

Dutchman's breeches - very new tiny flowers - blog

Dutchman's breeches (3)

I always try to photograph pollinators on wildflowers, and I was doing that on this visit as well. I didn’t see any insects using these flowers, and I discovered that only long-tongued bees like bumblebees can reach the nectar deep inside these blossoms. Other insects have to settle for the pollen, apparently. And ants like to eat fleshy appendages on their seeds, so they carry the seeds to their nests, eat those parts, and discard the seeds, which can then germinate and make new plants. And that’s one way the seeds of this plant are dispersed to new locations. Cool little fact, huh?

I eventually found the owner of this laundry, napping under the clothesline. He sure looks like he’s enjoying life, doesn’t he? I hope you’re finding time to slow down and enjoy the simple things in your life too.

Gnome under Dutchman's breeches laundry LOL v2 blog

P.S. Happy 50th Earth Day! I marked the occasion by planting a native chokecherry tree in my yard today. 🙂

Boo-yah! Stop the Presses!

Kim depressed Bitmoji
I don’t have blue hair yet, but I’m considering trying it out.

I know I promised to write about a special native wildflower this time, but there’s BIG news today, so that will have to wait. Yes, thanks to all that’s good and holy, I have FINALLY found my first dragonfly of the season!!! This is what I’ve been waiting for, the thing that I knew would help pull me out of this wretched depressed state.

I had to force myself to go for a walk today, as I’d been moping around at home for days, simply unwilling to be among people. I logged out of the time-sucking social media site a week ago, and have been wallowing in my isolation loneliness. But that’s a self-defeating behavior, I know. In a time when I most need to be around people, I avoid them because it reminds me of how much I miss my friends and how I can’t hug anyone. But I digress.

Just look at this Common Green Darner (Anax junius)!!!!

Common Green Darner FOY - blog

I hadn’t expected to find any odes flying today with the cold north wind, but suddenly there she was, flying low and slow on the edge of a small pond. The cold wind helped bring her to the ground where I was able to get very close to her from a few different angles.

Dragonflies have virtually 360º vision, with their only “blind spot” directly behind the head. So my first approach was from the rear, verrry slowly. I couldn’t believe I was able to get within about four feet of her, shooting from almost directly above. That angle allowed a great view of the distinctive bulls-eye mark on the top of the head of this species.

Common Green Darner female - view from above v1 - blog

Here’s a closer crop of the head:

Common Green Darner FOY top of head crop - blog

Green darners are usually the first species I see each year because they’re migratory, and arrive here before other non-migratory species emerge from the water.

Common Green Darner profile head crop - blog

Whenever I get a chance to get close photos of a dragonfly, I get lost in the wonder of their fascinating bodies and lives. Today during the few minutes I spent with this individual, I was transported out of a world of suffering and fear and into a place where nothing mattered except this insect and me, sharing a moment.

I don’t think she could have possibly enjoyed our special time nearly as much as I did, but I’m grateful that she allowed me to watch her resting and then feeding on tiny insects I couldn’t even see as she grabbed them out of the air. I constantly tell people that nature is healing, but sometimes I forget just how intensely important that healing can be. Like right now.

Kim Bitmoji yayNotice the difference in this second Bitmoji compared to the first one above? That’s what nature can do for you. It’s an exaggeration of how I felt today, but it expresses my relief at finding affirmation that the natural world continues despite our human problems. Our current troubles will end at some point, and I will be able to walk side-by-side with my odeing buddies again. I’m holding on to that for dear life.

Be well everyone, and look for that special wildflower post next. 🙂

Wildflower Progression in NW Ohio

I’ve been going out once a week to check the progression of blooms among our native wildflowers here in northwest Ohio, and things are definitely starting to happen. The day I went to survey them last week was quite chilly, with temps in the low 40s. I was even pelted with beads of graupel for a few minutes after I stepped out of the car. (And as I write this today, I’m watching a steady snow falling outside my window…winter doesn’t want to let go of us just yet.)

As expected in these conditions, the Bloodroot was tightly closed against the cold.

Bloodroot closed on a cold day - w sig blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

I was pleased to find that the variety of blooms had increased since my prior week’s survey. There were still lots of Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Spring Beauty blooming, but Purple Cress was the superstar on this day. Its tall stems lifted it up above the carpet of leaves formed by all the other plants that are still thinking about whether or not they want to poke their heads up yet.

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And here are the Spring Beauties:

Spring beauty - native wildflower - blog
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

I discovered a little bee that’s a specialist pollinator of these flowers — meet the Spring Beauty Mining Bee (Andrena erigeniae). The term oligolecty is used to describe this kind of specialist relationship between a bee and a particular flower or genus of flowers. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Spring beauty mining bee specialist pollinator - blog
Spring Beauty Mining Bee on…wait for it….Spring Beauty!

The Yellow Trout-Lilies were just beginning to rise from a carpet of spotted leaves. The other day my friend called them Dogtooth Violets, and I thought that seemed a strange name because they’re not violets. So I came home and read about this species in one of my favorite reference books (The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders). That’s how I discovered that the “dogtooth” part arose because of their similarity to a European version of this flower (Erythronium dens-canis), in which the corms apparently look like dog’s teeth. Still not violets though.

Trout lily twins - blog
Yellow Trout-Lily (Erythronium americanum)

The seeds of this flower are dispersed by ants, ground beetles, and crickets. Once a plant is transported in this manner, it will eventually begin spreading by means of underground corms. Trout-lilies form big colonies through a type of cloning process, and only about 1% of the plants in a colony will bloom in any given year. A few years ago a friend took me to visit a little colony of them not far from my home, and now I realize that there must have been many thousands of them still underground, biding their time. This is a photo collage I made from my visit to that colony:

Trout lily collage w sig

And here’s Harbinger of Spring, also known as Salt & Pepper (Erigenia bulbosa). These flowers are so tiny, I always feel victorious when I find them on the forest floor

Harbinger of spring - salt and pepper - blog
Harbinger of Spring, aka Salt & Pepper (Erigenia bulbosa)

These pretty white blooms are Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), a member of the buttercup family. I like its distinctive three-lobed leaves.

Rue anemone cropped - blog
Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

I had intended to show you one more species today, but I think this is long enough. And I could probably devote an entire post to that other species, so perhaps that’ll be coming up next.

Hang in there, everyone, spring is really coming and soon we’ll all be able to spend lots more time outdoors getting our recommended doses of Vitamin N (Nature). Be safe and be well. 🙂

My Big Bug Year is Finally Taking Off!

So what is it now, something like week five of the “new normal”? Or is it 500? It’s hard to keep track of time these days. And if you’re like me, you’ve perhaps been surprised at how many different emotions you can feel in a single day on this roller coaster. But I think I’m starting to get adjusted to the routine-that’s-not-a-routine of my new daily life. There’s some peace in accepting that, I suppose. There’s no point in fighting it, in any case.

Brown thrasher - blog
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

I’ve been helped enormously by the emergence of insects, so I can really dig into Kim’s Big Bug Year — finally!!! Every year I watch with envy as my friends to the south start posting their photos of insects many weeks before we have any up here along the shore of Lake Erie. But it’s finally our turn to play, and I’m so grateful that I started this project a couple months ago. And as I’ve been out looking for insects lately, I’ve been surprised to find that I’m rediscovering the joy of birding. Today, for instance, I was walking around a small lake surrounded with woods, when I heard the distinctly beautiful song of a Brown Thrasher. And the encounter was made more special because I was there alone with the bird for a couple minutes, so I could enjoy him without distraction. (You can hear their song here.)

Greater bee fly on bloodroot
Greater Bee Fly probing Bloodroot with his long, stiff proboscis

Our native wildflowers are just starting to bloom, and that’s why the insects are suddenly here in larger numbers and easier to find. I spent a half hour observing various pollinators visiting the alabaster blossoms in a bloodroot patch.  One of the insects I see most often on bloodroot is the Greater Bee Fly. Even before I focus my camera on it, I can see the  long, stiff proboscis probing the center of the flower. I always thought a proboscis was used to gather nectar, but I’ve just discovered that bloodroot doesn’t have any nectar; it only offers pollen to its insect visitors. I think I need to investigate this further, because it doesn’t seem possible that pollen could be sucked up by the proboscis, so why is this particular insect so fond of this plant? In times like this I wish I could have a quick conference call with a botanist and an entomologist!

The lovely leaves of bloodroot persist long after the flower is gone, sometimes until mid-summer.

Bloodroot leaf texture - blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Also among the insects cruising among the bloodroot were hover flies, mostly a single species in the Helophilus genus. I believe they’re H. fasciatus, the Narrow-headed Marsh Fly. Hover flies (aka flower flies) are some of my favorite insects because of their intricate patterns of brown and yellow. This one was enjoying a lovely pink patch of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Helophilus fasciatus on Spring Beauty - blog

I’ve also discovered a few new-to-me species, like this Unequal Cellophane Bee. I was intrigued by the name, and found that this family of bees are so named because of  a clear substance they use to line their underground nests. I saw lots of them crawling out of their burrows in the sandy soil and flying around low to the ground. Occasionally a pair would “tussle” on the ground, which I assume was mating behavior.

Unequal cellophane bee - Colletes inaequalis - blog
Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inaequalis)

And this Ridged Carrion Beetle was obviously well named, as you can clearly see the ridges on his elytra.

Ridged carrion beetle - blog

Spiders are out in full force now too, but I know lots of people are squeamish about them, so I’ll only post the one I know can’t possibly be scary to anybody. Meet the most adorable Orbus Paradise Spider, one of the jumping spiders. Jumping spiders have a way of looking at you like they’re as curious about you as you are about them. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this group of spiders, and I was so excited I was in my own little paradise as I watched him hopping around in the dead oak leaves for about five minutes. He’s so tiny that each leaf must have been like a mountain to him, but he never faltered, never hesitated, just took a flying leap and kept going. Over and over again.

Orbus paradise spider - jumping spider - Habronattus orbus (1)

Come to think of it, that’s probably a good attitude for all of us as we navigate the coming weeks. We have so little control over what’s happening right now, and that can be scary. But maybe the thing to do is just take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And until things get back to normal, maybe we should also make sure to take a cue from this other little guy, and make some time to nap under the wildflowers.

Gnome napping under bloodroot - blog

 

A New World

It’s been more than a month since I’ve written here, and my gosh, how the world has changed in that time. Six weeks ago I could not have imagined the reality we’re living with today, as a frightening pandemic sweeps the globe. In just the past week, Ohio has ordered the closing of all schools (for at least three weeks), as well as all bars and restaurants (except for take-out orders). People have been hoarding supplies of toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, and bread, as they try to come to grips with an uncertain future.

Milk-white toothed polypore - fungus blog
Fungus on tree trunk – maybe milk-white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus)?

We’re all scared and confused. We’re told we should stay at least six feet away from other people who don’t live with us. I began my own “social isolation” immediately after getting a haircut last Friday, and it’s already starting to drive me crazy. I usually love being single and living alone, but I’ve discovered that there’s a huge difference between choosing to be alone and being forced to do it. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to cope with a deep loneliness that’s settled over me. Today I finally started reaching out to friends, because I realized that many of them may be so absorbed in their own lives that they forget about those of us who don’t have a built-in support system in our homes. It’s going to be up to me to admit when I need someone to talk to, but that’s hard. I told a friend today that I feel a little bit of shame that I feel so lonely. But I’m determined to fight those feelings and get the support I need to get through this. And I swear, when this is all over, I’m going to organize my friends for the biggest group hug ever.

Insect tunnels on pine bark - Oak Openings - blog
Tunnels made by some type of boring insect

When the world was “normal,” my calendar overflowed with things like board meetings, field trips, lunch dates with friends, and yoga classes. Within about three days, all of that was wiped clean, as almost everything has been cancelled for at least the next two months. I feel adrift, unsure what to do with myself.  Right now my brain is too distracted to do much reading or writing, two of my favorite things to do.

I quickly realized that the solution for getting me to the other side of this crazy time is going to be, not surprisingly, the natural world. Nature is really and truly going to be my therapy for the foreseeable future. I’ve got to double down on my Big Bug Year, and use that to focus myself on something other than my fear. It’s still a bit early for much insect activity up here though, and so I’ll just go for walks and do some birding until the bugs are active again. The photos in this post were all taken on my walks over the past few days. Despite how it feels in the human world, the natural world is proceeding without regard to our problems. Plants are starting to send out new growth and birds are beginning courtship rituals.

mint - dried seed heads - blog
Dried seed heads of mint — I can’t resist crushing them and inhaling!

The other day, as I unloaded groceries in the sun-infused kitchen, I watched a squirrel at my bird feeders. He was performing his normal acrobatics to raid the bird feeder, and I found myself envying him his ignorance of the human world’s troubles.  While I look at my email filled with notifications of events being cancelled and businesses closing, the squirrel just keeps reaching into that feeder and basking in the sun.

Wild cucumber - echinocystis - blog
Seed pod of a wild cucumber

Each morning as I drink my coffee, I’m serenaded by the boisterous songs of the male cardinal in my yard, with backup from the muted cooing of the mourning doves. The beginning of spring bird activity is always a welcome sign at this time of year, but it’s especially important this year. To me, it’s a reminder that life will go on. It may seem that chaos reigns everywhere right now, but when I pay attention to what’s happening in nature, it calms me. When I’m focused on the natural world, my breathing slows and I know my blood pressure probably goes lower as well.

Lately I’ve been enjoying the loud performances of chorus frogs in vernal pools. Sometimes they’re so loud it sounds like there could be thousands of them. And yet I can’t find a single frog! Here’s a short video of one of their performances:

I hope you’re able to get out in nature often in the coming weeks as we settle into a new normal of reduced human contact. If you’re on Facebook, I would love it if you would share your nature experiences on my blog’s Facebook page.

Be safe out there, and be kind to one another.  It’s going to be okay.

 

This Too Shall Pass

Rattlesnake master with snow - B&W
Rattlesnake master in my garden today

Well, I sure wasn’t ready for this yet! We got our first snow of the season yesterday, and it wasn’t just a teaser, it was a smack-you-in-the-face-wake-up-call. Of course I’m being dramatic (it’s only four inches), but I really dread the cold sloppiness of a northwest Ohio winter.  I cleaned my gutters twice last week because they were jammed with leaves from my prolific maple trees, and today I shoveled snow. Most years we have time to get through fall before winter comes lumbering into our lives like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It feels unsettling to have a significant snow this early. There’s supposed to be a rhythm to the seasons, gosh darn it, with time to make the mental adjustment to the next one.

Rudbeckia with snow - blog
Rudbeckia with a snow toboggan

I complain mightily now, but I know in a few weeks I’ll be resigned to it and will be able to find enjoyment in (some aspects of) winter.  This morning after I shoveled the driveway, I begrudgingly trudged around the backyard with my phone, taking photos of the native plants in their winter hats and coats.

I remember a day about a decade ago when I went for a walk in the woods one winter and had a sort of awakening, because I’d never done that before. It seems unbelievable to me now, but before that day, I had never gone outside in winter for the sole purpose of taking a walk. Sure, I’d gone sledding or birding, but never just walking and paying attention to the details.  I found interesting ice formations on a creek, wind patterns in the snow, and the stunning sight of bluebirds in the black-white-gray woods. I felt I’d discovered an exciting new world, and now I treasure winter walks.

Fire in woodstove - blog
My favorite spot on a cold day – my Happy Chair

I must admit, though, that one of the best parts of a winter walk is coming back to the warmth of the house and curling up with a blanket and hot cup of tea.

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, already starting its job as Melter-in-Chief.  I’m grateful for that today; it helps me see the beauty of the snow and not dwell (too much) on the long, dark months ahead. Sophie is making the most of her favorite sunspot, blissfully unaware of the cold on the other side of those windows.  I envy animals sometimes for their ability to live in the moment, without worrying about the future.

Sophie in sunspot - blog
Sophie napping in her favorite sunspot

WInd patterns in the snow - blog

When I started writing this, it was intended to be a sort of venting of my begrudging acceptance of winter. But as I’ve been writing and thinking about it, I’m reminded that we only appreciate the warmth because we know the cold.  We appreciate the flowers and insects in summer because of their absence in winter. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere that didn’t have the dramatic seasonal changes that we have here. Change is what makes things interesting.

Spring tree birds avatar - blogI doubt I’ll ever be converted to one of those people who love winter, but I can tolerate it, and sometimes even appreciate it. Well…as long as I know there’s another spring at the end of it.

Before I go, here’s a short video I just took looking out my kitchen window, showing leaves falling on fresh snow. That’s just not right, LOL.

Creatures of the Night, Again

I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!

In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that these are not exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.

Using a UV flashlight to light up a caterpillar
A few of my friends on the hunt for caterpillars

Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them.  Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.

Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:

Waved sphinx moth w sig - blog
Waved sphinx moth larva (Ceratomia undulosa)

I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal.  So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.

Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.

Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!

Io Moth caterpillar
Io moth (Automeris io)

During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:

Io moth on Angie's pant leg - blog

I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern.  In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.

This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.

This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:

Promethea moth caterpillar close head crop - blog
Promethea moth caterpillar (Callosamia promethea)

I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.

Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.

Tiger swallowtail caterpillar - blog
Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)

Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.

Stick mimic moth caterpillar - blog

As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes.  I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings.  On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.

Pawpaw sphinx moth caterpillar - blog
Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar (Dolba hyloeus)

The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.

And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!

White furcula moth caterpillar - blog

That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator.  Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!

Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest.  That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)

Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.

Spring peeper - blogOkay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!

And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.

Kim on night hike
Kim the Bugdork (don’t judge me, LOL)