Monday, May 30, 2011

 My husband is a much better photographer than myself. He also has an appreciation for our wild kingdom and a great eye for spotting stuff. We both love finding, identifying, and watching all the wonderful insects out there, this is a collection of his best from the past couple of weeks.
Orange Patched Smokey Moth or possibly Black and Yellow Lichen Moth

American Grasshopper, boring name for an exotic looking and beautiful insect

Same American Grasshopper

Silvery Checkerspot caterpillar


White Marked Tussock Moth, my favorite of the bunch

Unidentified cricket...

Likely a Buck Moth

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How do Hummingbirds Drink?

   Have you ever wondered how a hummingbirds tongue works? Watch this video to find out!

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Friday, May 27, 2011

What's Blooming Now, etc.

Lepidoptera Family, your table is ready, Asclepias Tuberosa is now being served

Clematis "The President" weaving in between Milkweed and Coneflowers.

Penstemon "Husker's Red" and Nepeta "Six Hills Giant"

An anonymous Columbine still getting it done. These have now spread all over the yard and have been blooming since early April.

An anonymous Coreopsis

The Serviceberries are almost ripe, the birds have really been checking them out.

A Soldier Beetle on Astilbe

Ladybug at sunset

Whoa! Looks like the deer is not too happy to see the skunk. I can't tell you how many times we've been awakened in the middle of the night by skunk spray being pumped in by our our conditioner unit. I can assure you it's not pleasant.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Friends in the night?

A Deer and a Raccoon sharing a meal and a moment

Not the greatest pictures of course, but cute none the less. 

If you're a mischievous critter lover like myself and you haven't seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox then you must! This guy reminds me of Kylie (the possum) with his swirly eyes.

Speaking of Mr. Fox (or Mrs.?).....Simply beautiful.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cicadas, a snake, and more...

   I happen to really like cicadas. There's been a lot of talk lately about the emergence of Brood 19 of the 13 year cicada. Yes, cicada, not locust. People often call cicadas locusts but they are not, locusts are grasshoppers which are capable of significant agricultural damage. Cicadas do very little noticeable damage, unless you don't like their buzzing, in which case they may damage your sanity. There are annual cicadas, species which emerge every summer, and periodical cicadas, a slightly different species that emerges only once every 13 or 17 years. Our last periodical emergence was in 2003, which was brood 9 of the 17 year cicada. They sound a little different, the ones in 2003 sounded like a UFO whirring in the woods, very creepy. The annual ones are more buzzy. We don't have any emerging yet here in SW VA, but I hope we will. We can also look forward to next years brood 1 of the 17s. If you are a crazy bug lover like myself or just curious and looking for more information, check out where you can report sightings, see maps of their emergence, and more. You can also listen to a interview with cicada researcher John Cooley at the University of Connecticut on the Science Friday program on NPR here.
   I'd love to show you a picture of that cicada, but alas, I do not have one. How about a picture of a Snowberry Clearwing instead?

It's a moth, can you believe that? Closely related to the Hummingbird Moth, the Snowberry Clearwing is a bumblebee mimic. It's flight pattern is more "bumbling" like a bee, whereas the Hummingbird Moth has more of an smooth "in and out" motion to it. Otherwise they look identical. You can read more about it here and see a map of sightings in your area.
   I also spotted my first snake of the season, thanks to the alarm call of mommy and daddy Cardinal. I just love it when they say "predator over here!" with their loud "TWEET, TWEET, TWEET!".

I thought about trying to encourage him or her to move along and stop stressing out the Cardinals, who have a nest nearby, but it said "leave me alone", so I did. I really enjoy seeing snakes, I don't see them very often. They're one of those things like owls, you know they are there, they're just hiding or super camouflaged.
   Elsewhere, I just recieved an order of natives from Shooting Star Nursery. They are located in Kentucky, not too far from me, and have a huge assortment of natives from my region. I've been extremely pleased with their quality, the hard part is restraining myself from ordering everything! This time I got some Carex pennsylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge), Penstemon calycosus (Smooth Beardtongue), solidago caesia (Woodland Goldenrod), and Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed).

This picture was taken right after I unpacked them and after a day in the sun they straightened up and really looked lovely. Now, as soon as I get these in the ground, what will I order next.....

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Last nights critters.....

   We had quite the crowd visiting last night, and if it wasn't for the critter cam, I'd have missed all the action! I'm surprised I have any plants left with all the deer passing through lately, but careful planning, trial and error, and a few doses of my favorite deer repellant Deer Out, they pretty much only take a nibble or two here and there.

Last nights visitors include in order of appearrance:
  • Raccoon #1 (a nightly regular)
  • Foxy
  • Possum
  • Raccoon #2
  • Deer, at least 4
  • Raccoon, unidentified
  • Deer, at least 2
It's a zoo out there, I just hope they're careful crossing the roads.






Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I bid them a fond farewell.....

   My last two monarch caterpillars disappeared yesterday afternoon. They were the only two still alive and accounted for from the original dozen. They were definitely large enough and ready for their chrysalis stage, so I don't think they met an untimely end like the other ten. They just crawled off somewhere to pupate in privacy, the asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) plants they were on were certainly not supportive enough for them.
   It's been a very stressful stewardship for me, I was under the assumption that monarchs were immune to predators due to their consumption of the milkweed toxins. That's what all the anecdotal evidence I've read suggested. So when my caterpillars started disappearing one by one, I was quite troubled. Birds aren't supposed to eat them right? I believed I should expect at least 90% of the caterpillars to reach maturity, when in fact I lost 90% somehow. Should I have attempted to protect them? I didn't think I had to, they're supposed to be poisonous. Attempting to protect them might be interfering with the natural cycle of things.
   I can't tell you how relieved I was to come across the following information this morning: according to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP), only 5-10% of monarch caterpillars survive to the 5th instar stage, with results being extremely variable. That's real scientific data. My results are normal! Monarch caterpillars do have natural predators, with the tachinid fly perhaps being the worst. I did not know about the MLMP, now I'd like to participate next time a Monarch lays eggs in my yard. They have a ton of useful and informative data over at their website ( gathered by researchers and citizen scientists, check it out and consider submitting your observations next time you have monarchs too. It's just that easy to get involved and make a difference!

Elsewhere.....a word of warning.....check your herbs closely before you pick them!

I was making lasagna the other night and went out to my herb garden to pick some parsley and basil. When I reached down to grab a leaf, this little fella moved. It's about 12mm long, some kind of looper or inchworm (moth). I've been checking my parsley for black swallowtails, no luck yet, but this guy's pretty cool too. I haven't been able to identify it yet, according to my guidebooks only black swallowtails use parsley as a host plant. Also the books say loopers and inchworms generally use trees as hosts. If you have any ideas please let me know!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain. -Dolly Parton

I'm not complaining, for there will surely be a time this summer when we would give just about anything for some of this.

The rain barrel has been full and overflowing for weeks, we keep emptying it into buckets to store elsewhere, and it fills right back up during the next storm.

"I can't do anything with my hair when it's this humid. I think I'll take another nap."

It's almost chrysalis time!

Everybody was drinking up the nectar as soon as the rain stopped.

I like honeybees. I like purple flowers. I like honeybees on purple flowers.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Suburban Meadow

   I confess, we're cheating a little bit. Our home isn't your typical suburban home in a typical suburban neighborhood. Granted our home sits on just a half of an acre, just outside the city, but it adjoins a hundred plus acre golf course, to which we owe much of our ability to attract birds and other wildlife. I know golf courses may look green but aren't "green", they use copious quantities of chemicals, I'll save that argument for another day. One of the many perks of living here are these areas of "meadow".  Last spring they stopped cutting and spraying large sections of the rough, creating these strips of tall grass, a look similar to what you might see at a links style golf course like at the British Open. This one in the photo runs along our property line and is over 100 yards long. We don't know why the groundskeepers created these drifts, but it's alright by us. They extend all around the entire course. We should ask them why, but we just haven't gotten around to it. My guess is it saves them money, less mowing, less gasoline, less chemicals. They wouldn't actually do something for the sake of being beneficial to the environment would they? It's gotta be money.

   We happen to love it, even though we know it doesn't consist of 100% native grasses and forbs. We had no idea how much biodiversity a strip of unmowed "grass and weeds" could contain. The night I took this photograph, it was just before sunset, from a distance it looked like nothing special. But upon closer inspection, I found it bursting with life.

   There were so many insects, dragonflys and damselflys balanced on the seed heads, moths like the one above waking up for the night, grasshoppers, and many more I couldn't identify. I've seen Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Kingbirds, Flickers, Phoebes, Bluebirds, and Tree Swallows all use these areas for hunting and foraging. They leave the grass standing through the winter and don't mow it until just before the growing season begins. I know it's not the textbook way to create a meadow, but it's better than another blank section of mowed grass like it used to be.

Monarch Update:   Still munching, still growing.....

   Elsewhere in the yard I've been pleased to see the return of the honeybees. They love my catmint! All summer long the catmint (Nepeta "Walker's Low" and "Six Hills Giant") blooms and blooms, and the bees buzz and buzz. If I could only have one plant it would be have to be catmint. It blooms from spring to fall (with a midseason cutback), tolerates drought, poor soil, heat, and humidity, and all the pollinators love it. I know of no other plant that gives so much and asks for so little in return.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Termite Queens and Forgotten Dreams

   Today I would like to share two things I discovered over the weekend that I found extremely interesting. They don't directly relate to habitat gardening but do involve our endlessly fascinating natural world.
   The first was a story I heard on NPR as an offering for Mother's Day, a tribute to possibly nature's most prolific mother, the termite queen. I never thought I'd say this about a story about termites, but it's beautiful and intriguing. You can listen to it here:
   The second thing I discovered was also as a result of a story I heard on NPR, it was an interview with filmmaker Werner Herzog about his new documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". If you're even slightly interested in our natural world, art, history, anthropology, or science, I think you'll find this truly amazing. Here is a link to its info page on IMDB, where you can watch the official trailer: Here is the link to the interview of Werner Herzog on the Fresh Air program: It's about 33 minutes long but well worth a listen.
   I hope you find these enlightening and enjoyable!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mothers Day!

   First and foremost, I want to say Happy Mothers Day to my mom, I hope you're reading this! My mom gets all the credit for introducing me to gardening and getting me involved at such an early age. My earliest memory has to be the vegetable garden. I had my own little garden off to the side, maybe 4 feet by 4 feet, where I grew carrots and something else? for the bunnies. I remember the giant clematis at the back door, I loved to touch the fuzzy flower heads before they opened and the swirly heads of the faded blossoms. The robins nests next to the front door, the giant junipers that became play forts, the azaleas in Raleigh, gardening was always important. Thank you Mom for sharing your garden with me!

   Since it rained again all night and it's too wet to work outside today, I guess it's a good day to tell you all about my critter cam. All these years I knew we had occasional night time visitors, they often left a calling card, whether it be nibbled foliage (deer, bunnies) or poop (or if you prefer, scat) or dug up plants (skunks, possums, raccoons). We even had sightings of a fox every now and then. After a while I just couldn't stand it anymore, I had to see was was happening under the cover of darkness.
   I don't remember where exactly I got the idea, I don't hunt, but I knew of a product that hunters used to stake out game. I went to our local hunting supply store, Gander Mountain, and purchased a Game Cam for right around a hundred bucks. It's a night vision (and day) motion activated digital camera. You have to supply batteries and a camera card. You strap it to a tree where you think critters may pass by, like a food or water source, or a den. It took alot of fiddling to get it angled just right, I took my laptop out into the yard with me so I could trigger the camera a few times, then put the card in my laptop and check the pictures to see if it's angled right. It seems to be more sensitive angled slightly down at the ground. I have it set up under my bird feeding area. I've developed a routine where I turn the camera on and put the card in when I bring in all my feeders at night (since we have raccoons), and turn it off and get the camera card when I put the feeders back out each morning. Then I check to see who visited that night while I eat my breakfast.

   It's been very rewarding to see who visits during the night. Knowing which critters are here helps me tailor my habitat to coexist with them better.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Plague!

   A wisteria choked section along the Happy Valley Trail, in Carvin's Cove. There's an ancient house foundation nearby dating back to the 1800's, this valley was settled way back in the 1750's. Little did they know that sweet exotic vine they planted would unfortunately still be alive today!

   So there I was today, riding down that trail, when I was struck by how differently I see this place now that I'm starting to become educated about invasive plants. Long ago, when I didn't know any better, I used to ride my bike through Carvin's Cove and marvel at the beautiful, monstrous patches of "wild" wisteria. I thought they were little spots of heaven! Actually, rather big spots. Now I've learned they're not "wild" at all. They're non-native, invasive, even classified as a noxious weed in some states, and as anyone who's planted it on an arbor knows, down right destructive. Remember how as it grew it pulled apart all the wood beams? Well that same force will literally choke a tree to death. You can read all about it, including how to get rid of it and suggested alternatives here at the Plant Conservation Alliance: That is a wonderful website for learning about invasives and what to do about them, take time to look around. It especially helped us with our Japanese Knotweed problem. Please don't ever plant wisteria anywhere, and don't let your friends plant it either.

Monarch Update!

   They're still munching along. It's been almost a week since they've hatched, and since this is my first time as a surrogate Monarch mommy, I've had no idea what to expect. They don't seem to be growing as fast as I expected, but perhaps they slow down when it gets cool. Our weather has been very erratic lately, 50 degrees, 80 degrees, 50, 80, etc. I can definitely see their stripes now, and even their little antennae (or whatever they're called). I have a question for anyone out there who has raised monarchs before: What was your mortality rate with the caterpillars, how many caterpillars actually made it to the chrysalis stage? I've already noticed a few caterpillars that have perished for one reason or another. One day they are healthy looking, the next day they are shriveled and deceased looking. I still have about a dozen or more, and those are just the ones I've found without actually looking too hard. I'm afraid to disturb them too much.

   We had a very special visitor on Sunday!

   Rose Breasted Grosbeak! This is only the second time in our 8 years here that we've seen one at a feeder. Sorry about the poor image quality, I need to wash the window in case he comes back!
   Elsewhere in the yard I'm trying to practice a new technique, "Slowing Down and Looking Closely". We're surrounded by so much life and there's so much happening around us if we just take the time to slow down our busy lives and look, sometimes in not-so-obvious places, we'll see it. One trick I've started doing is turning over leaves of a tree, to see what may be hiding underneath. For example I found this lady bug larvae last night on the Birch. It looks like a little alligator!

   It becomes like a fun little game I play, just to see if I can find something, and I usually do! I've seen several lady bug larvae already, and more adult lady bugs just this spring than all of last year. Anybody else noticing more lady bugs this year?

   I also found this Copper Underwing caterpillar, but not by looking underneath leaves. It was quite obvious, I noticed some buds were missing from this climbing rose, so I just kept looking to see if I could find the culprit. He (or she) is quite large and bright, and no I'm not going to spray it with a pesticide or squish it under my shoe just because he's eating my rose! That's not my style. I'll gladly sacrifice a few rose buds to have this beautiful visitor in my yard.
   Thank you for visiting!