Got Mint? (I do, and a video too!)

Mints are known to attract a wide variety of insects, and I’ve spent many hours watching and documenting the beetles, bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and wasps visiting the mint family plants in my garden. I enjoy my wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), but I definitely have a favorite in the mint family, and it’s Monarda punctata, known variously as dotted horsemint, spotted beebalm, or any combination of those four words. When I try to think about how to describe it to someone, I get all tongue-tied because it’s so pretty and the structure is unlike most other plants that I know.

Each stem holds whorls of small yellow tubular flowers dotted with maroon (thus the name), and below each whorl of flowers are large showy bracts (they look like leaves) that can be purple, pink, white or yellow. Sometimes as I’m watching insects crawling all over the various levels of a stem, I imagine it as an insect condominium tower, with everybody going about their own business on a different level.

I have just a small amount of dotted horsemint in my native garden, and most of it has been in a pot for the last three years. I grew some plants from seed, and then I’d bumped the seedlings up to small pots that are meant to biodegrade. The idea is that you can just put them in the ground in the pot, without risking the soil falling away from the roots when you unpot them. So I put several small pots in a larger planter and intended to put them in the ground at some point, but they did so well that I decided to leave well enough alone. And now that I see how well it’s doing in a planter, I may try to get a few more planters of it going so I can have them right beside the patio and keep a closer eye on the insect activity.

I spent some time the other day trying to photograph more of the insects who were feeding (and doing other things) on this wonderful native plant. I saw many of the “regulars” and met a couple new species, much to my delight. So let’s see who’s been to visit.

My happy place, with my camera on the ground beside the dotted horsemint.

The easiest to photograph are the large wasps who are here every day, the great golden digger wasp (1″) and the great black digger wasp (1.4″). They allow me to sit very close while they explore every nook and cranny of these complex blooms.

Great black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus)
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

This was the first time I’ve ever seen the noble scoliid wasp, and I watched a pair of them feeding and mating.

Noble scoliid wasp (Scolia nobilitata), the first one I’ve ever seen!

An ambush bug lay in wait, hoping for a meal to wander close enough. I didn’t see him (her?) catch anybody while I was there.

Pennsylvania ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica) – shhh, pretend you can’t see him.

As I started to get bored watching the ambush bug sitting motionless, there was other motion nearby. I’ve seen this little character enough times that all I had to see was something ‘weird’ twitching around and I knew who it was. The camouflage looper caterpillar uses pieces of flowers to disguise itself and protect it from predators. I’m not sharing my first shots with you because the caterpillar was so well dressed that I didn’t think you’d be able to see him through all the fancy stuff. I went back a little while later and he was out in the open, where I was able to get a much better shot. But…I’ve just discovered that I took those pictures without the memory card in the camera — haha, one of the perils of not yet being familiar with your new camera. So here’s a picture of another one from another day.

Camouflaged looper caterpillar, on black-eyed susan on a different day

Isn’t he smart? When this caterpillar grows up, it’ll become the wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), a lovely little green moth.

I wonder if the ambush bug was wishing he could reach that caterpillar?

And now I give you the pièce de résistance from the “mint extravaganza,” a wonderful beetle that doesn’t even have a common name. Meet Macrosiagon limbata, and tell me this doesn’t remind you of two stag reindeer facing off for battle with their huge racks of antlers. Aren’t they fantastic?!

Until a couple weeks ago, I’d never seen these beetles anywhere, let alone in my own yard. But they’ve become regular visitors to this patch of horsemint now. My earlier sightings had been females, and when I saw these males acting aggressively toward each other, I knew the females must be nearby. And sure enough, a few minutes later I saw a pair of them mating. (Another photo I took without a memory card…sigh, you would have loved it.)

After mating, the females will lay their eggs on the plant. When the larvae hatch, they’ll sneakily hitch a free ride on a bee or wasp, and when they get back to the host’s nest, they’ll disembark and burrow into the larvae in the nest. This practice of babies eating babies is very common in the insect world, as I’m learning.

I hope you enjoyed this focused study of the life that’s happening on a single plant. I’ve written about this a couple times before — the most recent was Thirty Minutes Under an Elm Tree. Last week was my secret staycation, and I spent it with limited contact with other people, focusing instead on my home and garden and quiet study of the insects who live here with me. It did me a world of good, and I feel refreshed and happy. Sitting on the ground in my garden was a perfect way to end the week, with gratitude for the natural world.

I have one more surprise to share with you before I go, but it has nothing to do with dotted horsemint. After I finished my outdoor photo session, I walked in the garage and found this adorable Putnam’s jumping spider (Phidippus putnami) on top of my trash bin. He’d caught a leafhopper for his dinner, but he had to tolerate me holding my phone in his face for a minute before he finally chased me away so he could eat in peace. I almost edited off the last couple seconds of blurry footage, but I thought you’d like to see that I’m apparently afraid of a tiny, cute spider charging me.

Going Native in Toledo – Update

Just in time for Independence Day, things are starting to explode in the garden, so I thought I’d give you another progress update. (There’s a link to all the posts about my native garden project in the main menu, or here.) Come along and look at some of the floral explosions happening in my little corner of the world.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), a pollinator favorite and prolific bloomer

After the spring ephemerals finished, there was a period of time in which nothing much was blooming. Then the golden alexander and wild geranium bloomed and gave me some early season excitement, but then things went quiet again. No flowers, and therefore no insects. Only in the past two weeks have I seen an uptick in things starting to take off. (Note to self: I should probably find some more early bloomers to plant so I don’t have that long boring period with no food for pollinators.)

Starting to bloom for the first time! Common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
I hope to see this in my yard soon! Tiger swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. (Boom!)

As I walked around to check on the progress of the various beds the other day, my breath caught in my throat as I saw a buttonbush with actual tiny “buttons” on it!! I knew I was taking a risk trying to grow these water-loving shrubs in my sunny and mostly-dry yard, but this one is really thriving only a year after I planted it. And I’ve not watered it regularly or done anything special to help it along. Two others that I planted in a different location two years ago are still struggling, and I think it might be because there’s a huge root system leftover from the gigantic burning bush I removed in that spot several years ago (a beautiful but very invasive plant from Asia). I continue to fight the root sprouts of burning bush all around the two buttonbushes, and may just dig them up and move them somewhere else if I can find a good spot.

Blue vervain just beginning to open (Verbena hastata) (Boom!)

Blue vervain has been a favorite plant of mine for years, and every time I see it I think of the thrill I got when I captured a snowberry clearwing moth feeding on it.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) feeding on blue vervain

My center island bed is still very much a work in progress, but it’s coming along. When I bought this property four years ago, this bed was full of irises and hostas, and hosted a half dozen bird feeders where seed had accumulated in a thick layer for years. I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it up before planting in it, but I’ve learned a good lesson from that. I should have done a more thorough preparation of the bed because now I have to fight the invading grass and other weeds while trying not to damage the native plants I’ve already put in there. Here’s how this bed looks today.

This bed doesn’t have a defined edge or any type of border yet, so it looks messier than I’d like. The butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the only one that survived from several I planted last year; it’s jumped out of the bed and I’m probably going to allow it to stay there because this is one native that doesn’t like to be moved. When I get around to putting some kind of edging around this bed I’ll just make a little curve out around that butterfly milkweed. I’ve got a small patch of dotted horsemint to the left (some in a pot), and that’s where I enjoy sitting to watch the large digger wasps that come to pollinate it.

Dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), aka spotted beebalm (Double boom!)

Here’s a great black digger wasp, and the great golden digger wasps also love this plant. Here’s one of them feeding on rattlesnake master, another one of my favorite native plants.

Great golden digger wasp on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (BOOM!)

Last fall I removed a Japanese maple tree beside my sunroom so I could use that space for natives. I added a couple dozen pussytoes along with a few butterfly milkweed, calico aster, and a wild fennel plant. The fennel is here specifically because it’s a host plant for the caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. I hope somebody finds it and lays some eggs there!

The newly-planted sunroom bed

The pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) are here for the butterflies too, as they host the larvae of the American lady butterfly.

I should probably take this opportunity to point out the difference between a “pollinator garden” and a “butterfly garden.” These two terms get tossed around interchangeably, and it’s great that so many people want to plant for these valuable insects. But a pollinator garden is designed for adult insects to use the pollen and nectar from the plants — bees, wasps, butterflies, and flies primarily.

Spicebush swallowtail nectaring on Monarda fistulosa (not a butterfly host plant)

The purpose of a butterfly garden, on the other hand, is to provide host plants for the butterflies to use as nurseries for their young. Many butterflies require a specific plant or family of plants, because their caterpillars are only adapted to eat those plants. This is why so much effort has been made to educate people about the fact that monarch butterflies must have milkweed or they will go extinct. The caterpillars of the monarch can only feed on milkweed plants — common milkweed, swamp milkweed, Sullivant’s milkweed, and others in that genus (Asclepias). It’s the same principle for other butterflies, so if you know the host plant for a species you want to attract, you can grow it and get to experience their entire life cycle in your own yard.

If you want to know more about this idea and see a list of host plants for various butterflies, I’ve posted that information for you on our Wild Ones Oak Openings website, here.

Shrubby St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum)
Boom!

And speaking of fireworks, take a look at this shrubby St. John’s wort. This is a gorgeous and fast-growing shrub with glossy leaves and fantastic yellow flowers that look like those big fireworks that radiate out in a circle. I hope you enjoyed this fireworks-themed garden update as much as I enjoyed writing it for you. Happy 4th of July, America, and happy gardening.

Life is Good in Toledo

A couple months ago I mentioned that Metroparks Toledo (“Metroparks”) had recently been named the best park system in the country but I want to expand upon that little tidbit today. I just participated in a volunteer meeting on Zoom, along with about 150 other volunteers who help make our park system the gem that it is.

The volunteer coordinator staff expressed appreciation for all we do, whether it’s monitoring invasive plants or breeding raptors or dragonflies (me!), or being a trail safety monitor, or helping with the manor house at holiday time, or any of the hundreds of other things that volunteers do for Metroparks. It felt good to have our contributions acknowledged like that, and it made me proud to be part of it.

One of the many rustic trails in Oak Openings Preserve

The story of how I ended up here is long and complicated, but I’ll just say that it’s ironic that I settled down in a place that I used to scorn as I drove through it on my trips back and forth from Michigan to visit my family in southeastern Ohio. For 15 years, I drove past the city thinking it looked kind of…um…uninviting. From the highway, you see big, dirty oil refineries, and lots of other industrial stuff associated with the major shipping port activity that goes on here (cargo ships and railyards). But if you get off the freeway and look beyond that, you discover that this city has a lot to offer, even when you’re used to living in much larger cities with their ample cultural and recreational opportunities.

Grapeleaf skeletonizer moth on yarrow – Oak Openings Preserve

We’ve got a wonderful art museum with free admission, a zoo, a symphony, community theatre, the University of Toledo, the beloved Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball), lots of ethnic restaurants, and so much more. I’m not much of a sports fan these days, but I absolutely adore our art museum and community theatre. But the thing that made me decide to move here was the metropark system, hands down. And seeing the park system continuing to shine as it is, well, that helps to reinforce in my mind that I made a good decision. Recently I was reading a thread on social media in which somebody claimed that Metroparks were an important factor in convincing people to move to Toledo. Somebody else mocked the idea, and I just couldn’t let that stand…so I stepped in to set him straight by telling him that I, in fact, am a person who chose this city primarily because of the fantastic park system. So there.

Pileated Woodpecker, Oak Openings Preserve

In recent years, Metroparks has been telling us they had a goal to build a park within five miles of every resident in Lucas County. At the end of last year, with the opening of Manhattan Marsh in north Toledo, they achieved that lofty goal. It’s hard to keep track, but I believe we have about 20 metroparks now. And they’re not done yet. They’re nearly finished with the first phase of a new park on the riverfront in downtown Toledo; Glass City Metropark will eventually be part of a majorly-renovated riverfront along the mighty Maumee River that should reap big economic rewards for the city. Apparently for each dollar a city invests in riverfront improvements, it can expect a return of $7-20. And already there has been construction of nearly 400 luxury loft apartments right beside the park; the builder has said that he was only able to make this investment because of our metropark system.

And as if that’s not amazing enough, Metroparks recently opened the largest treehouse lodging in the nation, with Cannaley Treehouse Village. The various accommodations there are already being booked nearly a year in advance!

I know that people have different priorities in life, and everyone doesn’t care about the parks in the way that I do. But these parks are central to my life — I spend hundreds of hours in them studying dragonflies and other insects, and walking the trails for exercise or just to give my brain a rest. (Ecotherapy, ya know?)

Flag-tailed spinyleg, Wiregrass Metropark

Metroparks also runs an award-winning nursery that grows native plants for the park system and for other restoration projects in our region. I’m so thankful for their leadership in demonstrating the importance of native plants in our community. Their Blue Creek Seed Nursery supplies many of the plants for our Wild Ones/Green Ribbon Initiative Native Plant sale that takes place each May during Blue Week. Last year we had to run the plant sale as an online event, but we still had huge demand, and are gearing up for this year’s online sale with even more plants. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the website for the sale, and can’t wait to see how it goes this year.

I hope I’ve not bored you by gushing about Metroparks Toledo. I just wanted to express how important these parks are to my life, and do a little bit to improve the image of my city for anyone who might think of it the way I did before I moved here. My friend Sherry is an avid urban birder, and when people are surprised at the birds she finds in the city limits, she always reminds them that “birds are where you find them!” I’m borrowing her sentiment to express how I feel about Toledo — you can find happiness anywhere if you look hard enough. I’m so glad I kept looking. Thanks for reading!

(All of the photos in this post were taken in the Metroparks system– I have thousands more of them and I’ve only been here four years so far!)

The Peace of Wild Things

Blue sky and clouds at Maumee Bay State Park

Today was a gorgeous March day in the northwestern corner of Ohio, with the temperature rising to about 70F and south winds of around 15-20 mph. This is the kind of day that gets naturalists excited around here, because those south winds can usher in waves of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

During spring migration, as birds arrive here at the shore of Lake Erie, they take time to rest and feed before continuing their journey across that massive body of water. That gives us wonderful opportunities to see them in large numbers in fields, woodlots, marshes, and on the beach. And that’s why northern Ohio is a world-renowned migration hotspot, and explains why you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a birder.

But birds aren’t the only migration story in town. Some of our dragonflies are migrants too, and the first green darners have finally begun to show up in the Toledo area this week. It’s no secret that I await my first dragonfly sighting each year impatiently, and this year was no different. But this week was especially difficult, as my mother went in the hospital on the same day that a good friend went into hospice. Thankfully my mom is home and doing well, but I’m mourning the passing of my sweet friend Susie, who left us this weekend after a long battle with cancer.

Today I was in dire need of some intensive nature therapy, so I headed out to the Lake Erie marshes for some healing. I hoped to see my first dragonfly of the season, but even if I didn’t, it would help me to be out there immersed in the drama of spring in the animal world.

Painted turtle crossing the road

My first encounter was this little painted turtle sitting on the road at Magee Marsh. It’s common practice around here to help a turtle or snake off the road whenever possible, so I stopped the car and walked up behind him to encourage him to continue moving. He hissed at me (thanks?) and quickly scuttled off into the grass. I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from the car waiting behind me, and continued driving toward the beach area. I’d felt so helpless all last week, so I felt a bit of happiness that I’d been able to save the little reptile, at least.

When I met Susie four years ago, she said we should be friends so I could teach her about nature. And so that’s what I did. I took her birding at Magee during spring migration, and helped her start to learn the warblers. I introduced her to my birding friends, and showed her caterpillars on our hikes. She was a joy to be around, full of enthusiasm and optimism, and with an ever-present smile. She seemed to become instant friends with everyone she met, and I admired how she did that.

I saw three killdeer standing on the road, and remembered how we’d had lunch on the beach there, watching killdeer running around on the sand. I loved teaching her about birds that were so familiar to me. Seeing so many animals on the roads today made me think about how animals live without any awareness of death and how near it may be. I recalled the beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, and realized that I was seeking the ‘peace of wild things’ today. (You can listen to Wendell Berry read his short poem, The Peace of Wild Things, here.)

Killdeer on the road, discussing who knows what

How freeing it would be to not have any awareness that your life would end one day. The birds and turtles go about their lives, doing what they need to do and avoiding danger as best they can, but they don’t think about the inevitable end of their lives like we humans do. I envy them that.

As an immature bald eagle circled above the beach, I thought of how each day last week passed in a blur, a spiral toward…something…moving too fast and too slowly at the same time. I desperately wanted Susie’s pain to stop, but the thought of a world without her smile was hard to accept. She was like a big sister to me. I will miss her dearly, but will long remember how she modeled bravery and optimism for me.

Immature bald eagle soaring over me at the Magee Marsh beach

I’m filled with gratitude for the time she was in my life, and it’s my hope that I enriched her life as much as she did mine.

Oh, by the way, I did find my first green darner of the year today. I would show you a photo, but it was flying fast, and my pic was so blurry it could be mistaken for one of those so-called Sasquatch photos. Instead, here’s a photo of Susie and me having some fun with Sasquatch a couple years ago. Just look at her smile — I bet you can almost feel how wonderful she was.

Maybe Dorothy Was Right

It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.

Monarch on butterfly milkweed
Monarch on butterfly milkweed

My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.

I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.

You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one.  That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.

One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.

Shrubby st john's wort

Anemone virginiana - tall thimbleweed
Tall thimbleweed flower, only an inch across

Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.

I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.

grasshopper collage

One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain

I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.

Green darner on blue vervain

And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!

Blue vervain - verbena hastata

I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.

When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome

Young rabbit in my yard
One of my resident bunny twins chowing down on ferns

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.

 

Two Things Are Bugging Me

When I wrote my post on January 13 about starting Kim’s Big Bug Year (KBBY), I had completely forgotten that I’d already photographed an insect in 2020. Back on January 5, this little moth was hanging out in my house. He was here for a couple days and then I couldn’t find him again; I wouldn’t be surprised if the last thing he saw was a cat paw.

Grass tubeworm moth
Possible grass tubeworm moth (Acrolophus sp.)

At this point, my best guess is that he was one of the grass tubeworm moths in the genus Acrolophus. I’ve posted this photo in my KBBY project on iNaturalist, and am hoping someone more knowledgeable than me can help narrow down the identification. One of the frustrating things about insect identification is the fact that sometimes you can’t determine the species without examining the bug under very high magnification or seeing various photographic angles. And sometimes you just can’t get the shots you need before the critter disappears. I’ve learned to accept that reality and I’m just happy to learn whatever I can and move on.

This past weekend I participated one of our many Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trips. Our objective was to find urban birds in a metropark along the Maumee River, and we certainly had a gorgeous day for it. The temperature was in the mid-50s…in February…in northwest Ohio! And just look at that sky. That’s a cell phone photo without any editing. So pretty.

Anthony Wayne Bridge over Maumee River

But on this birding trip, I had a side mission: to find a winter stonefly.

As we searched for birds, my friend Mark helped in the quest for stoneflies. He’d told me before that I should be able to find them as my first insects of the year. And sure enough, I found this one basking in the warmth of the sun on the back of a bench beside the river.

Winter stonefly at Middlegrounds
Small winter stonefly (Capniidae family)

These are some of the earliest insects to emerge from the water each year, and they have the ability to withstand much colder temperatures than most other insects. I found an article on the blog of Scientific American that goes into great detail about how they’re able to survive the winter cold, so jump over and read that if you’re interested. (Winter Stoneflies Sure Are Supercool.)

Eastern Comma butterfly - blog
Eastern Comma

So I’ve tallied my first two insects for the year, with many more to come after winter ends. Over in the right sidebar you’ll see my KBBY logo; it’s linked to my observations on iNaturalist so you can check my progress whenever you want. Feel free to place bets on which insect will be my next sighting. I’m thinking it might be one of the butterflies that overwinter here, like a Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, or Question Mark…stay tuned!

Senescent Saturday

Fall foliage at Secor - Kim Clair Smith

Senescence is the process of deterioration with age. We humans like to deny or ignore it in our own bodies, but we’re huge fans of it in trees. The changing colors of leaves in the fall are a result of senescence. As a natural part of the life of a tree, the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing the other pigments beneath the green.

Song for Autumn excerptSay what you will about spring and the rebirth it symbolizes, but I’ve always been partial to autumn. The most obvious reason for this attraction is the stunning beauty of the trees draped in splendiferous* robes of gold, red, brown, and orange. But when I’m in a more contemplative state of mind, as I am today, I think of how my appreciation of fall is also driven by the knowledge that it will be so brief. Fans of summer or winter have months to enjoy those seasons, but autumn demands your full attention before it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Or after a day of wind and heavy rain, as we’re having right now in Toledo.

Fall at Secor v2 Kim Clair Smith

I almost let fall slip past me this year, and have only gotten out briefly a couple times so far to take it all in. I fear by tomorrow much of the beauty will be on the ground, leaving us only bare branches to gaze upon for many months.

I’ve traveled to chase birds and dragonflies before, but this is the first time I’ve considered chasing fall. I might take a trip to southern Ohio to get a few more opportunities to capture fall with my camera. It’s a bit challenging up here in the flatlands of northwest Ohio to get interesting angles for landscape photos, but I expect it’ll be quite a different story in the hills down near the Ohio River. I’ll be anxiously watching the weather forecasts to decide if I can manage to fit in a quick trip.

Fence and fall foliage
The rain was just starting to fall as I made this last quick stop at Salamander Flats today. 

Fall foliage with gnome - Kim Clair Smith

Alert readers of this blog will have noticed this little guy before. He seems to show up often when I walk in the woods, and I’m always tickled to see the interesting places he chooses to take his naps. This time he was comfortable on this enormous tulip tree leaf — it was almost twice as big as my hand. I wonder if he’ll show up in the Appalachian foothills of Shawnee State Forest next week?

Gnome on fence - Kim Clair Smith

*Yep, splendiferous is a real word! I had to check, LOL.

Know Your Quarry

Experienced hunters understand that they’ll have more success if they take the time to learn about the lives of their target species. Someone hunting deer or rabbit needs to know the needs and habits of those animals in order to track them down: Where do they eat? Where do they go for water? Where do they sleep?

Lilypad clubtail LIFER w sig
Lilypad clubtail

And so it is with hunting dragonflies. Of course I’m not hunting them to kill them, but I do need to be stealthy in order to shoot them with my camera. After all, these are insects with a field of vision very close to 360 degrees. so they’ll always see you coming. Your best chances of getting close to them are when they’re so preoccupied with eating or mating that they don’t pay as much attention to you as they normally would.

Right now seems to be peak flight time for Flag-tailed Spinylegs, one of my favorites in the clubtail family.  As their name indicates, clubtails are distinguished, in part, by the enlarged sections at the end of their abdomen. The width of the “club” varies among the species, from barely noticeable to knock-your-socks-off-and-pop-your-eyes-out-noticeable. Just for reference, I’ve shown you two species that don’t have large clubs: a Lilypad Clubtail above, and an Eastern Least Clubtail below.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail

At the opposite end of the spectrum are species like the Skillet Clubtail and Cobra Clubtail, with massively enlarged clubs. I’ve not seen either of those two species yet, so  until I find one of them, the most impressive clubtail I’ve found has been the Flag-tailed Spinyleg.

Flag-tailed spinyleg in obelisk position - blog

Flag-tailed spinyleg - blog
Flag-tailed Spinyleg — check out his big “flag”

Flag-tailed spinyleg - flag cropClubtails tend to rest on the ground rather than on vegetation like some other dragonfly families. They often use large rocks as hunting perches, and one of the best ways to find them is to search the surface of each and every rock along the edge of a body of water.  It’s not really that difficult to track them down, but there’s a slight problem in getting photos of them. You see, since their prey consists of insects flying over the water, they tend to perch with their faces turned toward the water — and away from me standing on the shore. And so that has meant that it’s been hard for me to get photos of their beautiful faces.

But I’ve got a new strategy. I’m hunting them from a kayak now, so I have a better chance of seeing those stunning blue and green eyes as they sit on the shore watching the water. Pretty smart, huh? It’s not a perfect system though, because I’m on the water and constantly moving, therefore making it even harder to hold steady for a sharp photo.  But it’s fun to keep trying, and to see how close they’ll let me get as I slowly drift toward them from the water instead of walking up behind them from the land. Being in a kayak gives me a lower, less-threatening profile too.

I recently discovered a large quarry lake and have been having a ball kayaking around the perimeter hunting for Flag-tailed Spinylegs. The video above gives you an idea of what it’s like to hunt them. You may notice something fly quickly from left to right in the last few seconds of the video — that’s one of the spinylegs. And that’s the reason the video stopped at that point, so I could turn around and photograph him.

The other day I spent three hours out there and saw at least a dozen spinylegs. It was windy though, and often my kayak would be pushed in the opposite direction from the dragonfly I was trying to photograph. It was quite the challenge! Luckily there are some little coves around the lake, so I tucked my boat into those and got some shelter from the wind. A couple times my kayak drifted so close to the odes that it was too close for my lens to shoot them. When that happened I just took the opportunity to sit quietly and watch them up close for as long as they would allow me.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - leg crop of spinesSo you know where they got the “flag-tailed” part of their name, but what about the “spinyleg” part? I think this photo explains that pretty well. Wouldn’t it be easy if everything had such a perfectly descriptive name? I had some fun writing about ode names last summer, in a post titled, “What’s in a Name?” I hope you’ll check that one out if you missed it the first time.

Limestone quarry lakes have the most beautiful, clear water. The limestone leaches calcite crystals into the water, turning it an incredible blue. As I drifted lazily along gazing into that azure water, I could almost believe I was in the Caribbean instead of in rural northwest Ohio.

Quarry scenery

Rocks under clear water at Silver Rock Quarry

Double-crested cormorant in quarry lake - blue green
Cormorant drying its wings on a tree snag in the quarry lake

This quarry has several miles of shoreline to explore, so I expect to have many more hours of enjoyment out there. And it seems to be a well-kept secret because I’ve only seen a couple other people on my first couple of visits. There aren’t many places left in this world where you can get space from other people, so I’m thrilled to find this spot close to home. I just wish I’d discovered it earlier in the summer when there were more dragonfly species flying. But that just gives me a reason to anticipate getting back out there next spring.

Writing that sentence made me sigh as I thought about how close we are to the end of summer. It seemed to take forever to get through the rainy spring this year, and once we finally got into summer, it seemed to fly by so quickly. I can’t believe it’s going to be time to pull out sweaters and jeans soon. I love autumn, but I’m so not ready for it yet!

Spring Ephemerals

I spent last Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, attending a spring wildflower symposium. After the day’s events concluded, I spent a couple hours photographing wildflowers in the area. Dayton is about 150 miles south of Toledo, and so things bloom earlier down there. It’s always so hard to wait for things to bloom up here when I start seeing pictures from more southern parts of the state. But down there I got my first looks at this year’s Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches, and that got me excited about getting out to see what might be blooming up here in the northern part of the state.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)  Here’s proof that fairies hang their laundry beneath magnolia trees.

So a few days ago I drove west to Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a remnant of the black swamp forest that once covered much of northwest Ohio. Not only does Goll Woods have oaks and cottonwoods that are 200-400 years old, but it contains a magnificent cornucopia of spring wildflowers as well.

I was disappointed at first, when I couldn’t find anything blooming in the first few minutes of my walk. But as I slowed down and looked closer, I began to find single early blooms here and there.  I figured I might not get the photos I’d hoped for, but then again, this was a good opportunity to study the leaves of the soon-to-bloom wildflowers and learn to identify them before the flowers appear.

It was easy to identify trout lilies by their fish-inspired leaf patterns:

Trout Lily at Goll Woods w sig
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

Last year I photographed a huge swath of trout lilies, shown here:

Trout lily collage w sig

And I had just learned about waterleaf on Saturday, so it was another easy one to identify. It looks like there’s water spattered on the leaves, doesn’t it?

Virginia waterleaf w sig
This is large-leaved waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophyllum) – thanks to JM for the correction

Another flower I just learned about is this one, harbinger-of-spring, also known as salt-and-pepper, for obvious reasons. It’s very tiny, only a couple inches tall.

Harbinger of spring w sig
Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Hepatica at Goll Woods w sig
Hepatica nobilis

I soon found little clumps of spring beauties and hepatica, and then a few larger clusters at the bases of trees or next to decaying logs. Hepatica is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and maybe it’s able to survive the cooler temps of late winter and early spring with help from its hairy stems and leaves. I’ve sometimes found this flower by gently moving aside decaying leaf litter in March to find it tucked underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth from its winter protection and reach for the sun.

I found a small patch of bloodwort in full bloom but the bright sunlight made it hard to get a nice photo, so here’s a single alabaster bloom:

Bloodroot at Goll Woods w sig
Bloodwort (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Ephemeral - graphic for blogAll of these flowers are known as spring ephemerals, flowers that arise from the leaf litter early in spring, taking advantage of the sun before the trees get their leaves to shade them out. They bloom and then retreat back into the ground to await their next performance the following spring.

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate things that are only around briefly? I’m thinking of the fall colors on trees, or cherry blossoms, or warblers during spring migration, and of course, spring wildflowers. And conversely, we take for granted those that are around more often. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of the time I was chatting with some birders from California who had traveled to Ohio for the spring migration. They were excitedly telling me about the cardinals they’d seen, and it renewed my appreciation for this common yet stunningly beautiful bird that lives in my backyard all year long.

And speaking of getting excited…I am geeking out over something insect-related right now.  At Goll Woods I saw my first hoverflies (aka flower flies) of the year. They were plentiful but the only species I was able to photograph was Helophilus fasciatus, the narrow-headed sunfly. Isn’t he lovely?

Narrow-headed sunfly - helophilus fasciatus - on leaves w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Field Guide to Flower Flies of NE N America cover imageLast fall I wrote a post about my budding obsession with these tiny but important pollinator flies that are sometimes mistaken for bees. (You can go back to that post for some background and prettier photos.)

As I was googling around to confirm my identification and refresh my memory from last year, I stumbled upon this new book. Several months ago someone told me this book was going to be published soon, but I’d totally forgotten about it. I just pre-ordered it and it’ll be here in a few short weeks, and I’ll finally have a resource to help me identify these little cuties. I’m trying hard to restrain my excitement as I write this, but I am oh so geeked right now!

P.S. You can be sure there’s going to be more talk of hoverflies here in the very near future.