Friday, September 7, 2018

Monarch Madness

Monarch Butterfly enjoying Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) earlier this summer
I've been away a lot this summer, but I am happy to report that our garden is doing just fine without me. Luckily, I put in a few days of weeding and thinning in June, or the whole place would be a mad jungle, overgrown and covered with towering goldenrod and swamp sunflowers. Instead, it is a lush and thriving riot of colors, but with some boundaries! And so when I returned this week from yet another trip out of town, I was tickled to discover about 20 monarch caterpillars happily munching on the big Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in the front yard. It is common to see Monarchs here all summer, but the population really picks up in September and October as the butterflies make their way, usually above the treetops, to Mexico for winter. I believe that the caterpillars I'm seeing were from eggs laid one or two weeks ago. It appears that there are two batches on the bush--the big fat ones that are just about ready to pupate, and the ones about half their size that will be grown in about a week. I saw a female laying eggs yesterday and I hope that the ravenous hordes leave a few branches for the last generation.

Monarch caterpillars, madly munching

This is important to me because I love Monarchs. They're really pretty, and who doesn't admire their amazing migration story? And they're in danger. Monarch populations have decreased by about 90 percent from numbers recorded over 20 years ago. The causes are many--habitat destruction, pesticides, herbicides, and loss of their food source--milkweed, to name a few. It's exciting and uplifting to participate in the Monarch life cycle. Our yard is certified as a Butterfly Habitat and is a stop on the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on plants in the Milkweed family. There are many varieties specific to regions of the country. We plant native nectar and host plants for many kinds of butterflies and refrain from using herbicides or pesticides in the garden. The result is a healthy habitat for all sorts of creatures--butterflies, bees, wasps, birds, moths, spiders, etc.

Milkweed Bugs eat Milkweed Seeds

Aphids infest the milkweed every year. They drink the sap. I don't mind them, but if they bother you, you can squirt them off with a hose or just brush off with a paint brush. Pesticides will harm other insects, such as butterflies.

Great big Green Lynx spider and lots of aphids

Japanese Lady Beetle (aka Ladybug) and aphids
Milkweed Beetle eats the leaves

But the garden is not without its perils for the butterflies. Last night I walked past the milkweed bush again and flushed a bird that was probably hunting for caterpillars and bugs on the stems. A moment later I spotted the female Monarch that earlier I had watched lay eggs. She was caught in the jaws of an enormous Green Lynx spider perched on top of the milkweed bush. The spider had caught the butterfly and was eating it. I felt a temporary twinge of sadness for the butterfly, but then cheered for the spider who needed food for herself. Her huge abdomen was swollen, probably with eggs, and she needed nourishment, too. The butterfly had passed on her genes through her eggs, so she had fulfilled her biological destiny and was now part of the food chain. Whether those eggs will grow to adults and also pass on genes is a crap shoot. But this is why butterflies lay so many eggs, and why it is important for there to be milkweed patches all over for them to lay their eggs on. This morning I found that the spider had caught one of the caterpillars and was busily sucking it dry. Birds and wasps catch and eat them, too. Aphids are very attracted to milkweed. They are sap suckers, and sometimes they will harm or kill the plants. But the aphids attract ladybugs and their larvae that snack on aphids like popcorn. Milkweed Bugs make their home in the plants and eat the seeds, and Milkweed Beetles eat leaves. The 20 hungry Monarch caterpillars will strip the leaves off the bush within another week or so and may eat themselves out of house and home. All these beings are competing for the resources on these plants.

Green Lynx spider with Monarch for dinner

Something killed this caterpillar, and now it is food for the ants. The green blobs are caterpillar poop, also called "frass"

Green Lynx Spider with Monarch caterpillar for breakfast

New Monarch egg, with shadow of a ladybug larvae on the back of the leaf

Big, fat Monarch caterpillars quickly defoliate a milkweed plant

Some people who grow butterfly gardens will collect the eggs and grow the caterpillars to adults inside protective enclosures to keep them safe. I totally understand their care and concern, but as I told someone yesterday, I am more of a "free range" butterfly gardener. It makes me uncomfortable to make these creatures my captives. I feel much better about providing an opportunity for them to grow and thrive out in the world, but as part of a greater ecosystem. That's another aspect of the tragic loss of the massive Monarch population. They are part of in interdependent web of life. We all feel their loss. I encourage everyone who has an interest in helping the Monarch to try to plant native milkweed in their garden or even in a container garden on a deck. Do your part to help keep this iconic insect from disappearing. Go out and garden on!

The caterpillar doesn't seem to mind the aphids
Update: a few days later I went out to see if the Green Lynx spider had caught any more caterpillars and found that it was missing! In its place was a caterpillar, casually chewing on the leaves of the hunter's lair. I thought the spider must have become a meal for a hungry wasp or bird, an ironic turn in the in the circle of life. But then I saw some movement in the Blue Mist Flower bush next to the milkweed. The spider had simply moved to richer hunting grounds. Maybe she got tired of eating bitter Monarchs, but in any case, the milkweed is now packed with caterpillars and other insects of all shapes and sizes, safer for now. The egg I pictured above hatched and its tiny contents now roam the branches alongside of the aphids. And I spotted the first of what I imagine are many chrysalids hanging from a low tree sprout, far away from the caterpillars and things that hunt them. And so it goes...

Caterpillar chewing on the spider's lair

Happy spider

New hatchling, not much bigger than an aphid

A fresh chrysalis, hopefully one of many

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ramble On

Tight Tendrils gripping Wingstem

I have a group of friends, the Nature Ramblers, who get together each week at the State Botanical Gardens in Athens to learn about nature. We are led by excellent guides, who often focus on botany, but the members of the group are interested in just about everything and we do not miss an opportunity to appreciate a mushroom or butterfly or toad that we might find along the walk. The motto for the group is "seeking what we find" and usually the group does find something interesting about every 5 feet or so. We don't walk very far, but we make up for lack of distance with excellent content.

Redbud Leaf

Today was a Ramble day, but I had a prior commitment in the morning and arrived about an hour late. I texted a friend to see where the group had gone. You'd think that a big, slow moving group would be easy to find, but there are a lot of trails at the gardens and they could be just about anywhere. While I waited for an answer to my text, I headed in what I thought was the likely direction and tried to find some more birds to add to my June Challenge list as I walked.

Young, Eastern 5-Lined Skink

(For those of you who are not familiar with it, the June Challenge is a friendly birding competition set up by my old birding community in Alachua County, Florida. The goal of the challenge is to actually lay your eyes on as many birds within the county boundaries as you can. The birding is fun and group oriented and people share sightings and locations with everyone who wants to try to add a tough to find bird. The winner gets to keep a huge trophy for the year and is celebrated at the end of June potluck. Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, I'm doing my own version here in Athens, with a couple of rule changes. First, I am allowing myself to bird outside of my county. Athens-Clarke county is small--121 square miles, vs. 969 in Alachua County, so I made my birdable region a 30 mile radius from home. 2nd, because I am the only one participating here and I don't have any teams to help me, I'm allowing myself to count some tough birds I only heard but didn't see, like the Bob White Quail or Barred Owl. It will be fun to see how many I can find.)

Katydid munching on Jewelweed

Anyway, as I was walking to find my fellow Ramblers, I heard a Barred Owl call and stopped to try to see it and maybe even get a photo. It sounded pretty close and I hooted back to try to get it to respond, but it never did. Then I looked down and saw a familiar plant at my feet--Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), which is a host plant for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. I probed the soil around the little plant looking for the tiny flowers that sometimes grow just under the soil, but didn't see any. It was a good find, anyway. I never did see the owl, but a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flew out of a tree just ahead and I followed them for a while. Acadian Flycatchers were hopping back and forth in the branches overhead. A Buckeye Butterfly landed in front of me, flashing its big eyespots. It was getting later and later and at this point I had missed most of the walk but I decided that I was enjoying myself. So when I got the text from my friend telling me they were nearby, I walked over to say hi, then turned back and continued my solo ramble.

Virginia Snakeroot

First I walked along the powerline cut to see the prairie plants and look for butterflies and other insects that like heat, sun and flowers. It seems I had chosen to come to the hottest and sunniest part of the garden just when the sun was getting strongest, and I was starting to melt. But my hunch was right and I saw some good bugs--Delta Flower Beetles on Queen Anne's Lace and Daisies, a couple more butterflies and a tiny spider hiding in a Wild Onion flower.

Delta Flower Beetle on a Daisy

Skipper on Bee Balm

Tiny Spider in the middle of the Wild Onion flowers

Next I headed down to the river for some shade and to see if I could find anything interesting in the woods. We've had a lot of rain and the river was rushing and the water sounded cool and calm. It was much cooler there, but the mosquitoes found me and were eating me alive so I turned back out of the deep shade. Luckily, the rest of the trail I followed was still shady, though not as buggy. Walking the path back towards the garden, I saw Indigo Buntings and a Hooded Warbler. Then I watched as a pair of Black and White Warblers hopped up and down the branches of a tree, then one sat still and preened. They looked ruffled like they'd been bathing in the river.

Black and White Warbler
Green Caterpillar (Skipper?) blends in with the green stems 

I think it's nice sometimes to not have an agenda and to just go where the opportunities take you. I wafted down the trail, turning over leaves here and probing rotting logs there. The recent rains that brought out the mosquitoes also brought out the mushrooms and other fungi and right ahead of the Black and White Warblers was a beautiful Eastern Box Turtle, standing on the trail and eating mushrooms. After I took its picture, I moved it out of the way so it wouldn't get stepped on by runners.

Fungus that looks like fingers
(Which is where it gets its name, I guess! I'm told it is called Dead Man's Fingers, Xylaria polymorpha) 

Big floppy tree fungus with a slug

Eastern Box Turtle with mushroom on its face

Everywhere I went I found something interesting--a red beetle, an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly, a katydid, bullfrogs, a grasshopper. I found a spider hiding behind a Wingstem plant, and chased a small toad around a tree. Though I missed the expert information and camaraderie of the real Ramble, I had a very satisfying morning just going wherever the trail took me. And I'll be back again to join the group next week.

(Read the Nature Rambling blog by clicking this link)

Red Beetle

Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly

Big, Camouflaged Katydid

Grasshopper that looks like granite

Big spider hiding behind a Wingstem stalk

Toad trying to hide from me

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Discover Florida!

Limpkin Chicks at Sweetwater Wetlands Park
One of the things I like about traveling is being adventurous and open to exploring new places. When I'm in another city or state or country, I seek out interesting restaurants, museums and parks. I get on those hop on/ hop off double decker bus tours and wander international museums with my English language audio guide. I scope out nature refuges and botanical gardens on Google maps. I want to make the most of my short stay. But when I'm at home, I'm not nearly as creative and resourceful, and I'm a terrible procrastinator. I get into a routine and stick close to home. You know how it goes--you can live in a city for years and never explore the famous local attraction just around the corner, unless an out of town visitor comes and you want to show them all the best things. So it was when my family and I were in Florida. We lived there for nearly 20 years, and yet in all that time, I never made the trip to the greater Orlando area to visit the numerous nature parks down there. I always meant to, but just never got around to it. Sure, we figured out how to go to the theme parks with our kids and out of town visitors, and drove to the airport all the time, but it always seemed too difficult to drive all the way down there to watch birds and hike for a day. But last month I finally remedied that. My husband had a week-long meeting in Orlando, so as soon as I learned that we were going, I got busy and plotted out my exploring route. I was finally going to see Merritt Island, Disney Wilderness and Circle B Bar Preserve! I guess what it took for me to really start to explore Florida was to come as a visitor.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

We started our trip with a short stay in Gainesville, where I crammed in quick visits to the parks that were so familiar when we lived there. And they are spectacular parks. This is part of the reason why I can almost forgive myself for putting off exploring more in central Florida. Gainesville has a lot going on. Now that I live firmly inland and in the Piedmont (I love saying that) the coastal areas, swamps and sandhills of Florida are very exotic and exciting. And there is an incredible amount of wildlife. I'm not sure if Floridians realize how extraordinary this is. When you live there, you can get used to seeing eagles, cranes and osprey flying overhead. A Great Egret standing in a retention pond is no big deal. Alligators, schmalligators. Ho hum. But not for me. I'm a tourist now! It had been a year since my last visit and I was pretty jazzed at all the critters around me.

Florida's unbelievable nature on display at Circle B Bar Reserve

In Gainesville, I made sure to visit the spectacular Sweetwater Wetlands Park with my photo buddy, Maralee, and got my Limpkin, Common Gallinule, and Osprey fix out of the way. Most of the birds were raising young and I saw numerous Limpkin chicks learning to eat exotic apple snails. This is a cool story. When I was first learning about birds in Gainesville, about 12 years ago, Limpkins were rare in this part of the state. Their food source, the Florida Apple Snail, was disappearing, displaced by the larger, exotic Island Apple Snail. But 5-6 years ago more Limpkins were appearing in the region and people realized that the Limpkins were learning to eat the bigger, tougher snails. After they figured out how to pry them open, it was all over. Limpkins everywhere. And soon they told the endangered Snail Kites and now a few of them have been hanging out in Gainesville for the past 2 years. Perhaps they will also adapt and thrive. One can hope. Anyway, I watched dozens of juvenile Limpkins fussing for adults to feed them huge, gloppy snails. Maralee and I also made a short visit to catch up with our friend, the Ditch. It was lovely, as always, buzzing and fluttering and alive with Sundews, Butterwort and Ladies Tresses Orchids. It was exciting to have to watch out for Cottonmouths again (we didn't see any) as we scrambled through the tall, wet grass. We don't have them up here in North Georgia.

Anhinga drying her wings at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Glossy Ibis at Sweetwater Wetlands Park
Limpkin adult feeding an apple snail to a chick at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Bobolink at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Red-winged Blackbird at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Common Gallinule and Chick at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Osprey with Chick at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Ladies Tresses Orchids in the Ditch

Little Metalmark Butterfly in the Ditch

I couldn't leave Gainesville without stopping at Morningside Nature Center. I only had a little while there, but I did see the beautiful Cypress Dome, still full of water after last season's storms, and the incredible Long Leaf Pine Sandhill. 

Cypress Dome from the Boardwalk at Morningside Nature Center

Sandhill at Morningside Nature Center

Pinewoods Milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) at Morningside Nature Center

On our last day in town, my husband and I made it over to La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie State Preserve, to visit with my former fellow Sunday trail volunteer, Helene. Most of the trail is closed currently as a result of flooding from last year's hurricanes. Thank goodness for the terrific raised board walk that allows visitors to see at least a little of the basin when the wet prairie is flooded. Looking over the railing of the boardwalk, I had the perfect vantage to see the smaller things in the water and mud, such as snakes. The water snakes were very active and I saw 5 or six, in addition to a lovely Ribbon Snake.

Ribbon Snake at La Chua Trail

And then we were off to Orlando for more adventure. Our hotel was right next to the Disney resorts and was a beautiful, tropical vacation zone. On the days when I was not away on adventures, I enjoyed walking around the lake and nature trails at the hotel. I saw quite a bit of wildlife there, golf course and tennis courts notwithstanding. I could have just stayed there and had a fine time, but I had other plans.

Bird of Paradise Flower at the Hotel

Great Egret at the Hotel Lake

Anhinga (aka "Water Turkey") at the Hotel Lake

The first morning I drove east for nearly 2 hours to Merritt Island, near the Canaveral National Seashore, where I planned to explore the Black Point Wildlife Drive. I had heard about this place for years and it was very exciting to finally be seeing it. I will admit right now that I did it backwards. I had planned to go to the visitors center, buy a Federal Duck Stamp to get me into national wildlife refuges for the next year, and use the restroom. (Did I mention that it was a 2 hour drive?) But when I mistakenly got to the entrance of the wildlife drive first, I realized too late that I was on a one way, no going back, 7 mile long dirt road. So I changed plans, paid at the iron ranger box, and drove along, birding from the car and hoping to find a porta potty. The wildlife was spectacular. There were so many birds that it was very hard to count, and I was keeping a bird list. I counted 30 species, and I'm not all that great at identifying shorebirds! But nature was calling and I decided I needed to zip through the loop and come back on a second trip, paying more attention to detail. At about the 3/4 mark, there was a rest area with bathrooms and a walking trail, so I stopped there. Much better. I finished the loop and then drove back to the beginning, hoping to see the visitors center somewhere along the way. But it was on a different turnoff, so I decided to drive the loop again and go the visitors center on the way home. The second time around was just as nice and I had a better idea of where to watch. I kept my eyes open for Avocets, but never found any. I did see Eagles, Reddish Egrets, Black Necked Stilts, Black Skimmers and Roseate Spoonbills, all of which are birds that don't usually make their way to Athens. Alas, when I finally made it to the visitors center, it was just closing. But they let me explore the grounds and boardwalk around the lake after the gates closed, so I was satisfied and tired out after a long day. Take my advice if you go plan to go there--go to the visitors center first.

Semi-palmated Plovers at Black Point Wildlife Drive

Black Racer at Black Point Wildlife Drive

Reddish Egret and Tri-Colored Heron at Black Point Wildlife Drive

Roseate Spoonbill at Black Point Wildlife Drive

The next day I drove 35 miles south from our hotel, past the turnoff to the Disney Resorts, to the Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve. It was my first visit to a Nature Conservancy property and I was very impressed. The property was immaculate and beautifully maintained. I was met at the entrance by a pair of Wild Turkeys and it just got better after that. Next I encountered a Sandhill Crane near the parking lot, followed by a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks by the trailhead. I headed out with my map and supplies, confident that I could walk the entire trail system. But I underestimated how sunny and humid Florida can be, and I soon became too tired to complete it all, so I walked just the more moderate Red Loop. As I walked through their lovingly maintained fire-dependent Long Leaf Pine sandhills, I couldn't help but note the irony that I was walking through the real Florida on "Disney" property. But regardless of how it got there, I was also very thankful that various agencies had come together to preserve this important property at the headwaters of the Everglades. I saw loads of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies and Woodstorks soared overhead all morning. At the end of my hike I got a great look at a Swallow-tailed Kite. I thank my friend Grace for recommending this spot.

Eastern Meadowlark at Disney Wilderness Preserve

Swallow-tailed Kite at Disney Wilderness Preserve

The "Real Florida" at Disney Wilderness Preserve

On the final day, I drove 40 miles to the west to the Circle B Bar Reserve in Polk County, between Tampa and Orlando. My birding friends in Gainesville all talked about this place but the timing never worked out for me to go with them. Now that I've visited, I can understand why they felt it was so special. The park has a great visitors center with fun exhibits for children, and it appears that they serve a lot of school groups. It is reassuring to know that kids all over this region of Florida can be exposed to a vibrant nature discovery center such as this. The park is very protective of the abundant wildlife, with signs directing visitors to take special care around nesting owls. Fellow visitors pointed out an adult and juvenile Barred Owl in a tree right over the main path, and later I heard 2 more calling back and forth. They also require commercial photographers to obtain a permit, which was unusual. But knowing how people can behave with their cameras and drones, I can appreciate wanting some accountability. Because I sell some of my work, they had me apply and now I have my official photographer's permit card. Pretty nifty! One of the main trails, Alligator Alley, was closed, I think due to storm damage. But there were plenty of places for me to go and I saw Alligators, Turtles, wading birds galore, as well as Marsh Rabbits, an Opossum, and a family of Sandhill Cranes. I'm so happy that I finally made it to this wonderful nature park.

Purple Gallinule at Circle B Bar Reserve
Alligator, Schmalligator. A big one crossing the path in front of me at Circle B Bar Reserve

Opossum rambling up the path, Circle B Bar Reserve

Sandhill Crane Family at Circle B Bar Reserve

Barred Owl Adult and Juvenile at Circle B Bar Reserve

So after 9 days in Florida, I went back home, content that I spent my time well. I chalked a big group of parks off of my "must visit" list. We even fit in a half day at the other Disney and had a pretty great time on Space Mountain and the other rides. It was fun to discover Florida. But I think I learned my lesson and won't let 20 years roll by before I explore Georgia properly. I'm getting the map ready now!