Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Bumblebee Returns

   Finally! The mystery bumblebee was finally spotted in the yard. I had previously only seen it on vegetation along the golf course fairway, just a mere 50 yards from the majority of our flower beds. Fifty yards doesn't seem far for a bee to fly, but for some reason it was really preferring the spotted knapweed in the golf course rough. I still am not certain what kind it is. I previously thought it might be a Golden Northern Bumblebee, but I'm not so sure now. The bees we saw in Blacksburg seemed larger and yellower. I found it on the Agastache "Blue Blazes" in our front yard, then I found another on some Gaillardia. Jeff saw one just today on the Nepeta. I love bees, they always keep me company when I'm out in the yard, and I'm happy to share my flowers with this new visitor, I just wish I knew its name!

Can anyone out there help with the identification?

Mystery bumblebee

Our resident Common Eastern Bumblebee

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I planted my first plants today...all by myself!

                                                      GUEST BLOGGER
Greetings from today's guest blogger: Jeff Stone, AKA Old Stone, or simply Julie's Husband.

            As the title says, I did my first ever solo planting project today!  Normally planting is not my arena. As I'm sure you have guessed, I am really more the super-hero type. Tough as a two dollar steak,  5'10" and 145pounds (soaking wet) of twisted steel. Kind of a Daniel Craig-young Brad Pitt sort of thing. My days are usually filled doing battle against non-native invasives, tree pruning, log splitting, cursing poison ivy and digging holes in our nearly solid slate yard for Julie to plant trees. Like I said, He-Man super-hero stuff.
          Well, Julie had recently found a great healthy batch of Common Milkweed (commonus milkweedus) at a local plant purveyor but was hesitant to buy any due to the recent heatwave. Super-hero that I am, I purchased said butterfly attractants and decided to plant them quickly and easily as a surprise!
         This morning I finished my watering and looked nervously at the 6 quart-pots. Confidence began to wane quickly. Sure, men women and children the world over do this, so could I...right?  I had planned my work, established practical planting vorticies, solved for X. I put trowel to soil. Three inches in and I hit an electrical cable. Should I have called Miss Utility??? I backed-off and started again. Soil flew, sweat poured, nerves frayed. One down. More soil airborne more sweat and there were 2. Ditto ditto and 50 minutes had passed but there were three plants in the soil. Felt like I could use a shower but I pressed-on.
        As I stood to inspect my work the horror set-in. They were not even close to where I had intended to plant them! Too close to the edge, crooked and planted so deep I could hardly see the tops of the greenery!! I was crestfallen but with the underground wire I didn't know how to solve the situation. Clock ticking must keep going. The remaining three were to go in a bed approximately 8"x30". Dig dig, root, rock, Gatorade, plant plant plant. Not quite as deep as the first three but I had now displaced enough soil to bury a '56 Buick. A bit of mulch and a touch of water. Ok, a lot of water. These were my babies! I finally stopped watering them when the the folks at Spring Hollow Reservoir called and asked me to "STOP".
      When all was said and done, I was covered dirt, mulch and sweat. A pair of Carhartt pants trashed, knees and low back ached and I had consumed enough Gatorade to float a small water craft...and I had a new respect for those of you who do the hard work of planning, planting and curating gardens and habitats.
      To recover from the morning's debacle, I spent the afternoon with my old friends Mower, Blower, Felco pruners and Silky hand-saw. Ahhhhh, back to super-hero work!

P.S. I also knew that I would be guest blogger today so my head nearly spun itself free of my person as thoughts and ideas raced inside. A new level of respect and appreciation was achieved for the bloggers who teach, entertain and share with the rest of us and ask nothing in return.
                                                                                           Julie's Husband

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A New Bumblebee

   I love bees. I'm sure few people get as excited as I do when I find and identify a new-to-me species. First, I have to rewind a few weeks, when Jeff and I went up Blacksburg to the Friendly Garden Tour.  At the first garden we visited, there were huge mass plantings of hostas in full bloom with purple flowers. They were covered in bees, most notably bumblebees. I wish I'd taken my camera! The wacky thing was, the bumblebees on those hostas were not the same species of bumblebee that I have in my yard, which is the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), of which I didn't see any in Blacksburg. They were much larger and had a yellow abdomen, the Common Eastern has a black abdomen. Roanoke and Blacksburg are only a 45 minute drive apart from each other, but somehow we have different bumblebee species?
   Fast forward to Sunday night, I go out after dinner to look around the yard, to see what there is to see, and...holy cow! There's a yellow butt bumblebee! (I didn't know what else to call it, since ours have black butts, and Carpenter Bees are shiny butts) Luckily I had the camera since the evening has proven to be a great time to look for things and the light is great for photographs. I managed to get just this one photo in focus before it flew away. The plant it's sitting on is spotted knapweed, a non-native invasive growing along the golf course. I'm pretty sure it's the same kind of bumblebee that we saw up in Blacksburg, and it appears to be a Golden Northern Bumblebee (Bombus fervidus). Maybe we do have them after all and I've just never seen them, or maybe they prefer a habitat different than what our property provides. I have since seen one again in the same area, also on spotted knapweed.
   I'm obviously not a biologist or an entomologist so maybe this isn't unusual. What is unusual and frustrating is we have two properties full of native flowers and native-cultivars, and I had to find that bee on a non-native invasive plant. Drives me nuts. (short drive, you're probably thinking) Do they not co-exist well with other species when that other species is much more dominant in number? All of our other bees seem to get along well, and we have a lot of bees. In any case, I hope it stays and lays eggs. And makes it way up the hill to our very bee friendly garden.

A blurry photo of one of our regular resident bumbles, Common Eastern, note the black abdomen

*As always, if you think I've made an error in identification, feel free to correct me, I'm not a professional.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Down by the River

   We live about a half mile up from the Roanoke River and Greenway. The Greenway is a paved recreation path that follows the river as it bisects town, and when complete, will be approximately 35 miles long. From my house, I can walk down to the river, walk a few miles out and back, and see a very diverse ecosystem much different than the one at my house or at Dean. It's great exercise and a great nature fix all in one.
   On my last walk, I discovered quite a few swell things, one being a plant I'd never seen before other than in books or online...

Ironweed, not Boneset, Eagle Scout

   This is Ironweed, aka Vernonia. It's a native that favors moist areas. Hence, here it is along the river and not in my dry yard.

   Since I'm just learning to identify trees, I was excited to find so many Paw Paws growing along the river as well. Now I know why I saw dozens and dozens of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies along the river back in the spring, the Paw Paw is their host plant! Sadly it also favors moist areas and is not likely to find it's way onto our property. Judging by how many I see along the river, I don't think it's necessary anyway.

Paw Paw leaves

Paw Paw fruit

   This butterfly landed on my shoulder, then flew up onto this tree, it looks to be an American Lady. I can add it to the ever increasing list of butterflies that we've spotted lately.

   When I go for a walk I'm always interested to see what plant is most attractive to the pollinators, as a possible consideration to add to my landscape. The hands-down winner was this mint...

   I'm pretty sure it's one the "bad" mints, non-native and escaped from captivity. I couldn't locate it in any of my wildflower books. However, it was literally covered in every kind of pollinator you could imagine, especially honey bees.

Honey Bee and Mint

   Just 10 feet away from the huge mint there's a patch of native Joe Pye (Eupatorium). Not a single pollinator on any of it. What does that tell us?

   I think the Joe Pye is leaning over because it's sad...

   Well, my walk was short and that's about all. Plus, my camera battery died.

   *Click the photos above to enlarge them, if your browser allows.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Butterflies This Week

Eastern Tailed Blue

   Monday evening Jeff and I wandered out into the back yard, there was a break in the heat and the grass felt cool under my bare feet. It was actually pleasant for a change, the heat and humidity has been oppressive lately. Our faux prairie really comes to life in the evening, grasshoppers, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, and probably mice too, hidden under the layers of grass. Our recent butterfly population explosion seems to be continuing as Jeff found this little fella in the grass, then about a dozen or so more. The picture doesn't do it justice, it's so tiny, but so beautiful. It's wingspan is about an inch and it's flight pattern is very spastic, like a moth. I've never seen so many of the same species of butterfly in one place.

   We also spotted several Halloween Pennants. They were all sitting on top of seed heads, like the one above, facing the setting sun.

   Tuesday afternoon I spotted this butterfly on the hyssop. I could easily see it from inside the house, it was huge, approximately 4 1/2 inches across. It lingered for about an hour, feeding heavily from every blossom on my hyssop plants.

   I'm guessing it's a Spicebush Swallowtail, but I'm not certain. The size is right, the colors on it's back are right, but it's lacking the second row of orange spots underneath. I just don't know what else it could be, if any of you out there have an idea, let me know! We have several Sassafras trees on our property, which is a secondary host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail, so I've been hoping to see some.

*You can click on the pictures above to enlarge them, if your browser allows.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Butterflies from this Week

   With summer beginning to heat up, we've been seeing many more butterflies lately. Skippers are by far the most numerous, but photographing them has proved to be more challenging than even the larger butterflies. Here's a few of the highlights...

   This is a Northern Cloudywing, the first one I've seen and identified. It spent all day going back and forth between my catnip plants, apparently the tiny nepeta blossoms were just the right size for this diminutive butterfly. Considering the size and dark color of the Northern Cloudywing, they'd be easy to miss if you weren't paying close attention.

   This is a Red Banded Hairstreak, another uncommon visitor. However, it's so small, around 3/4 inch, maybe I just miss them. Sumac, their host plant, is quite common around here so we probably have more than we realize. They pack a lot of beauty into a tiny package.

   We don't like dill, but these guys sure do. I planted two tiny dill plants back in the spring for the butterflies, but I hadn't paid them much attention since then. I stressed way too much over the monarchs and promised myself I'd adopt a laissez-faire attitude next time. I'd seen some black swallowtails lately, and obviously they found my dill.

   Despite having monarch caterpillars this spring, this is the first monarch butterfly I've seen. Here it's enjoying the anise hyssop. I freaked out when I saw it and ran for the camera, this the best I could do. After not seeing one for so long, it looked so exotic!

   I hope they keep coming!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Introducing...A 6 Inch Long Wasp!

   This is the beautiful and bizarre Ichneumon Wasp. For the second year in a row, Jeff has found one over at Dean, this time he was able to photograph it. It's body is only about 1.5 inches long, which is not unusual, however females can have tails (ovipositor) up to 5 inches. This particular individual was approximately 6 inches long, the Felco folding saw in the picture below is 6 inches. They can be quite variable in their coloration and appearance, but the female is quite unmistakable. Dean has quite a few dead trees on the property which undoubtedly play host to numerous species, this one included.

From an article titled The Amazing Ichneumon by Connie Hjelmeng-Johnson:

Ichneumon wasps are truly a study in contradictions. They look frightening, but they are harmless to people. They are highly numerous, but seldom seen. They are great allies against insect pests, yet few people know about them. Females penetrate wood with tiny ovipositors, but scientists don't fully understand how. And while they are common in the world of insects, they are certainly "uncommon" to those of us who have observed their amazing behavior first hand.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Phoebe Fledgelings

   The Phoebe chicks fledged yesterday afternoon. It was quite stressful for Jeff, who was keeping an eye on them, for safety. Just the night before, the weakest one fell out of the nest, but since Jeff had placed some old patio furniture and cushions underneath just in case (it's happened in previous years) he was able to quickly rescue it and place it back in the nest where it remained until fledge time. He had observed them earlier in the day standing on the rim of the nest cup, getting frisky, but they seemed too small to be considering fledging. We estimated it had been about 14 days since they hatched. I guess they know what they're doing! After making the jump, the parents called them up into the woods, and we have no idea where they are now, but Jeff's seen the parents hunting and heard them calling. There are 3 chicks in this picture, 2 are obvious and the 3rd is under a leaf on the left-middle of the photo. Good luck little ones!

A close up of the hiding chick

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Critter Cam Update

   Our night-time critter visitations slowed down in June, but they've picked back up here in July. The skunk family seems to have moved on, we haven't seen them in the past couple of weeks. However the fox has returned and has been making regular visits again. We have a "mommy" deer visiting regularly also (she has teats), but we haven't seen her fawn(s) yet. The highlight of them all occurred on the 4th of July, when a deer and a raccoon were both feeding within view of the camera, and I'm guessing they weren't enjoying each others company. It's blurry but it appears they charged at each other. You be the judge...

Here's a "best of" collection from the past couple of weeks...

 Our regular fox


 They're getting along fine here...

 Still ok...

 "Who invited you?"

 "You'd better back off, I have thumbs and I know how to use them!"

 "Did you hear what he said to me?"

 What the heck! Patience wore off I guess...

Two bucks playing nice

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Eastern Phoebe Nest

   Jeff's patience finally paid off, he was able to capture some excellent shots of the phoebe nest over at Dean. They've used this same location off and on for several years, they build it on an old hanging light fixture up under a covered patio where they're protected from rain, wind, and climbing predators.

Mud and moss perfection

Look at those fuzzy little heads!

Looks like there's 3 chicks

 "I'm next, I'm next!"

   ***Elsewhere over at Dean the blueberry bushes I planted about a month ago aren't attracting any birds yet despite the fruit being ripe. However, they are attracting little neices who like blueberries! Also good for attracting little neices is dill, which I planted for the Black Swallowtail butterflies, of which I've seen zero. I hope you enjoyed them Olie! Next year I'll plant more, enough for everybody. Don't worry, I'm not mad, I'm just glad somebody's enjoying them!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Independence Day Everyone!

                                    Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all!
                                               By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.
                                                         ~John Dickinson

   I hope all of you out there have a wonderful day! Wear sunscreen, drink responsibly, and be careful with those illegal fireworks!

   Here's a little red, white, and blue from my yard...

 Serviceberries (from May)

Monarda "Raspberry Wine" (not red, but close)

 Skunk! (with lots of white)

 Shasta Daisy

 Salvia "Black and Blue"


   *I tried to get pictures of a Cardinal, a White Breasted Nuthatch, and our daddy Bluebird, but they wouldn't play nice this morning.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dragonfly Rescues and the Skunk Family Returns

   Over at Dean, there's an old leaky swimming pool with a disintigrating cover. Obviously it's dangerous to have a cover with holes in it, it will have to wait until winter because if we get it fixed now we'll trap who knows how many dragonflies. Every day Jeff saves countless dragonflies trying to emerge from the water, ready to fly away after their metamorphosis. It usually takes them a few minutes to warm up and dry off, then off they go. They are truly beautiful creatures, we hardly ever see any at home but Dean has a very healthy population of both dragons and damsels.

   The skunks came back a few nights ago, little black and white whirling dervishes. We haven't seen them out before dark ever since. Although we miss seeing them, it is much safer for them to wait until nightfall.

*All of todays photos were contributed by Jeff*