Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cicada Season

Adult Cicada

Nature's playlist for steamy southern nights is loud, starting at dusk with the "Beans, beans, beans" call of the Common Nighthawk, or the twitter of Chimney Swifts, then adding the staccato maraca sound of the Katydid, the chirp of the Cricket, and the occasional Owl hoot or frog song. Holding it all together in the background is the throbbing (and sometimes ear piercing) drone of the Cicada. The Cicada songs have been playing since Spring here in Athens, but it was only in the past 2 weeks that I started seeing a lot of them around, usually flying across the yard to escape a bird, or sometimes lying dead on the ground. Last week at our weekly nature hike, the Nature Ramble, I found a dead Cicada on the path with a Yellowjacket inside, feasting. I found a another in the opening of a Chipmunk tunnel in my front yard.

Dead Cicada become food for a Yellowjacket

Another Dead Cicada may be Chipmunk Food

Cicadas have an interesting life cycle. The adults lay eggs in the cracks of trees or branches and when the larvae hatch, they burrow deep into the ground (2 meters or so) where they feed on the sap of tree roots. They remain in the "nymph" stage underground for 2-17years. We have some of the 17 year Cicadas here in Georgia and this spring was supposed to be a massive year for them, though I haven't seen enough yet this year to be concerned. Yet! When they finally emerge from the soil, through neat round holes, they climb up off the ground, attach themselves to something, and very quickly moult, bursting open the hard exoskeleton to reveal their next phase--a large, (temporarily soft), winged body. After their wings have dried, the adults fly off to mate and start the cycle again. They live about 4 weeks. I have found many old exoskeletons ("exuvia") clinging to branches or tree trunks, but never had the chance to see the the emergence of an adult Cicada. And I still haven't!

The empty exoskeleton, or "Exuvia" of the Nymph

The other night I found a Cicada that had just emerged from the soil. I scooped it up and carried it home on top of my phone. It kept scuttling across the glass, trying to climb away, but I managed to get it home to a jar where I could watch and release it. They have very scratchy claws, by the way. I thought the transformation would take a few hours. Boy was I wrong.

Fresh out of the dirt and sitting on the curb

The Precarious Ride Home

I got the Nymph settled in a jar with some sticks to climb on and a lid to keep it from walking away. The Nymph seemed very antsy, climbing up the sticks, then hanging on the plastic wrap I was using as a lid, and "plucking" the plastic with its claws. I looked at its shell and didn't see any obvious signs of splitting or change, so I went upstairs to watch a show. My husband thought I should take the Cicada jar with me, but I was so smart and said, "no, it will take hours".

Inside the Jar, Ready to Go

One hour later, I came downstairs and found this. Magical. So cool! But I missed the whole transformation! Oh well.

Whoops, One Hour Later

We took the beautiful green adult outside, removed it from the jar and set it on a plant on the deck to harden its wings while I snapped a bunch of photos. In the morning it was gone. Next time, I will be prepared with a bigger jar and will not step away until I see the whole thing! But this was pretty neat in any case. Meanwhile, I'll keep my eyes open for more muddy Nymphs so I can try this again.

Freshly emerged
I thought it looked like a Fairy in the dark

Alien Greens

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Happy Pollinator Week!

I've talked about this in prior posts, but when I moved away from Florida 2 years ago, one of my priorities for getting settled in the new house was to recreate our native plant/butterfly/bird/pollinator garden. It took me 10 years to get the old garden the way I wanted it and I didn't want to wait that long to get one going in Georgia, so we hired a native plant landscaper to prepare the soil, pick the appropriate plants and plant everything. It took a while to find the right location and then to get the project started, but after we had to remove a big water oak in the front yard, this created a big, open, sunny spot, perfect for garden needs.

The yard when we bought the house--trim grass and dying tree

First plantings last June
Finally, last June, the first plants went in. Over the following months, we added more plants as they came available or when it was the right time to plant. And at last, 2 years after moving here, we have everything planted and the garden has had time to establish and we are enjoying the full effect of our new urban nature habitat. It has been so fun! I don't have as much experience with native plants here as I did in Florida, so when the landscaper, Jeremy, suggested something, I looked at the photos and trusted his judgement. This has led to some fun surprises. I never grew Echinacea successfully in Florida, but it thrives here, growing taller than I've ever seen. The Joe Pye Weed was popular with the pollinators last summer, but after a year in the ground, it is gigantic and I can only dream about the butterfly photos I will be able to shoot this year. And the Nodding Onions have been a delight. Then there is the Mountain Mint (Picnanthemum pilosum) hedge along the front of the yard. When Jeremy first suggested it, I was intrigued, but I didn't have much experience with the plant other than with the Florida version I learned about in a roadside wildflower class. But he insisted that I would love how it attracted pollinators of all kinds with its numerous tiny flowers, so I said yes. The plants went in the ground in December and sat low and dormant for months. My husband and I were so curious about how this would turn out. But suddenly when the weather got warmer and the summer rains started, the Mountain Mint shot up and bushed out. About a month ago the first flowers opened, and now we have a buzzing smorgasbord for pollinators and we are thrilled.

Happy Garden

Mountain Mint Hedge

Anyway, that is a long introduction into the little project I did this weekend. In honor of National Pollinator Week, and in fond memory of the people who studied the pollinators in our old yard, I spent a couple of hours and took photos of different insects that I found feeding in the Mountain Mint, just to demonstrate how diverse the population of pollinators in my neighborhood is, and what a difference a pollinator friendly plant can make. We all are aware of the plight of pollinators that we depend on in order for our crops to grow, and yet are constantly in danger due to our use of agricultural chemicals and loss of habitat. If more people planted pollinator gardens and built bee houses for the solitary native bees, it could make a huge difference. Some people are afraid of having bees and wasps around, but really they pose no danger if you leave them alone. I work all the time in the garden next to flowers and bees and climb in close for photos, but the insects don't care at all about my presence, other than to fly away if they feel threatened. We love having so much life in our yard and it just feels good to be providing a much needed habitat.

Here is my "guest book" of the insects I found in the hedge last night and today. I was hoping to see a Firefly, but they were hiding. They have been abundant in the yard this summer, no doubt thanks to the healthy habitat. I saw no spiders or dragonflies either, but I imagine they will make their way to where the food is. The birds have already caught on and I see them scurry in and out of the bushes, chasing bugs and digging for grubs. There are a lot of photos because these plants are indeed popular! But that is the point of this exercise. I am not an expert on bees, flies and wasps, so I can only identify a few. If you can help me out, please feel free to comment. And a Happy Pollinator Week to us all!

Bee, possibly a Leaf Cutter

Leaf Hopper

Tachinid Fly

Furry Bee

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

Green Bottle Fly

Pale Green Assassin Bug Nymph 

This may be a Stink Bug Nymph. 

Small Parasitic Tachinid Fly. They lay their eggs on stinkbugs.

Camouflaged Looper caterpillar that has covered itself with dead Mountain Mint blossoms

Leaf Cutter Cuckoo Bee

Small Wasp

Predatory Stink Bug

Fiery Skipper

Scoliid Wasp

Thick-headed Fly, Wasp Fly

Another Scoliid Wasp


Mud Dauber Wasp

Honey Bee

Leaf Cutter Bee

Red-banded Hairstreak

Asian Lady Beetle

Bee, possibly a Leaf Cutter

Tachinid Fly

Great Black Wasp

Half-black Bumblebee

Flower Bee covered with pollen

Possibly another Scoliid Wasp  Reader Correction: Probably a Sand Wasp. Thank you!

Gray Hairstreak

Bee with very furry front legs

Carpenter Bee all covered with pollen

Great Golden Digger Wasp

First Monarch Butterfly of the year! (to left of sign)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Motherly Musings

Sandhill Crane Family

The older I get, the more I appreciate moms. And being the product of a long line of mothers (as most of us are), as well as being a mother myself, I think I am in a position to have something to say about the topic.

There are all sorts of ways to mother, ranging from simply depositing eggs and moving on, to full on over-involvement and smothering. I hope my kids see my own personal mothering style as falling somewhere to the "more involved" side, but just short of driving them crazy. There are moms who do everything alone and those who have a nurturing partner, or a posse of friends and family to share in the important task of raising young. There are moms who just aren't up to the job, but there are also those who step into the role of being a mom, even though the children are not their own offspring. There are good moms and bad moms and everything in between. In nature it is less a matter of good or bad mothering, but rather adaptations and strategies for successfully passing on one's genes. In some species, quick development or mass quantities of eggs may lead to success, while in others, shared parenting or lengthy maturation and nurturing may be necessary. Humans fall into the lengthy nurturing and shared parenting category. But no matter what kind of mother, it is a tough job. It takes smarts, strength, tenacity and nerve. Motherhood is not for wimps.

It all begins in much the same way, with an encounter: a coupling, maybe just a moment of passion, or possibly a beautiful relationship.

Mating Red Shouldered Hawks

Mating Ladybugs

Then comes the urgent matter of preparing a safe place for that next generation. Butterflies search hard for the perfect host plant on which to lay their eggs. The hatching caterpillars will eat the plant they are placed upon, and as they grow they become targets for predators. The plant itself may provide a chemical defense for the caterpillar, as in the case of a Pipevine Swallowtail or a Monarch Butterfly. The mother butterfly needs to pick wisely because after she lays the eggs, her work is done.

Gulf Fritillary Eggs and Caterpillars on Passion Vine

Likewise, with toads and frogs, many of whom lay their eggs after lots of singing and fanfare, but hop away after the deed is done. With luck, the puddle doesn't dry up or the eggs aren't eaten before they hatch. It's a risky business, which is why they lay so many.

Southern Toad Eggs Strands in a Pond

Some ray and shark embryos are encased in hard egg sacs called "Mermaid's Purses" that they lay and leave on the ocean floor. The young animal hatches from the egg and the empty "purses" sometimes float on the waves to the shore, like the one pictured below. The Common Octopus, on the other hand, lays clusters of eggs (200-500,000) in her lair and stays with them, fluttering moving water over the eggs to keep them oxygenated and safe while they grow. She doesn't leave them, even to eat, and may consume some of her own arms while she waits. When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies soon after from exhaustion and starvation.

Mermaid Purse

Woodpeckers and other cavity builders like Nuthatches scope out the right tree and then spend hours excavating and spewing out sawdust with only their bills as tools. Gnatcatchers and Hummingbirds construct nests made of lichen and spider silk, while Boat Tailed Grackles hide their grass and stick nests in shrubs and Gentoo Penguins make rock nests on the ground, with the Skuas watching nearby. In these cases, both parents work together to build the nest and care for the hatched chicks.

Nuthatch Excavating a Nest. Note dust plume to the left.

Pileated Woodpecker pitches out the debris from a nest cavity

Gentoo Penguin Nest Colony, with some chicks hatched already

Boat-tailed Grackle Sits on Nest

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher sits on nest constructed of lichen and spider webs

And then the waiting begins. Sitting and warming and guarding the eggs. Or in the case of Alligators, letting the heat from the decomposing grass nest warm the eggs while the mama watches nearby. Animals that give live birth must eat for two or three or more as the young inside them grow larger and larger, kicking and squashing bladders, changing their mother's body with the chemistry of hormones and the impact of sheer volume. Being pregnant is uncomfortable.

Blue-footed Booby nesting on the ground. It is sitting on one egg while guarding a hatched chick.

Sometimes careful tending and watching is in all vain and the eggs or young are taken as food for another creature. Birth itself is perilous and painful, sometimes taking the life of either mother or baby. The newborn babies are so small and vulnerable. I am not sure if spiders or frogs notice or care if their young are eaten. But birds are noticeably disturbed when a chick is taken or dies, and mammals like dogs and elephants will mourn and become depressed at the loss of a baby.

Yellow Rat Snake has cleaned out a woodpecker nest (count the eggs)

Mother Sea Lion mourns newborn dead pup.
Tiny Opossum Baby fell off the mother and didn't survive, despite our efforts.

Result of a raid on a nest

Skua and Chick near the Gentoo Penguin colony. Skuas eat penguin chicks.

Despite the best efforts of the watchful parents, Otters ate most of these Black Swan chicks.

Successful hatching and birthing brings about the next challenge of keeping the baby fed and safe until it is ready leave the nest. Those tiny hatchling octopuses and toads will have to make it on their own. But birds and mammals rely on parents, sometimes both mother and father. According to one article I read, Chickadees need over 9000 caterpillars to raise a batch of chicks, so two parents and abundant caterpillars come in handy.

Hungry Swallows see Mama

Nursing takes calories and mama mammals, such as Monkeys, Manatees, Maras constantly search for food. Try eating enough to nurse a baby Rhino! Or an elephant!

Nursing Monkey

Mama Manatee

Mara Family at the Bueno Aires Zoo

Baby and Mama Rhino at the Berlin Zoo

Parents guide the youngsters as they learn to forage for themselves, watching carefully and warning them when danger is nearby. Beware a protective mother bear or alligator!

Mama Bear and Cub in Desolation Canyon, Utah. We had to be very careful not to leave food in the camp because the bears were hungry and knew that people had food in camps.

Turkey Family teaching chicks to forage

Watchful Mama Gator

And then the youngsters try life out on their own. Sometimes they take missteps and have close calls. Often they have protection from a herd or from helpful people. But eventually they are really ready to spread their wings and be independent.

Robin Fledgling

Twin Armadillo babies whose mother had been hit by a car. They were in the care of a wildlife rescue organization.

Wild Horse herd stands guard around newborn

Baby White-breasted Nuthatch I rescued from my curious dogs. It flew away later.

Baby Black Racer sunning on the sidewalk and shooed away from pedestrians.

Baby Snapping Turtle on the trail. I moved it out of harms way but couldn't tell if it was injured, sick or just small and tired and lost.

Speaking as a mother, I find this whole business of raising children to be at the same time very hard, scary, wonderful and rewarding. I adore my daughters and am in awe of the capable and fabulous adults they have become. I don't know if other creatures feel the same after their young have left the nest--whether or not they have longing memories of snuggling sweet smelling babies or spend long nights worrying about them when the going gets tough. I do know that there is a strong instinct to protect our young, to ensure the success of the next generation. Though my daughters are grown, I still feel protective, worrying when they are sick, stressed or sad. I continue to have great hopes for their futures. I imagine that I will feel the same way for the rest of my life, as I imagine my mother feels for me, and her mother before her. Like I said, I come from a long line of mothers, and for that, I am very thankful.

Newly emerged Black Swallowtail, getting ready for its first flight