Monday, April 29, 2013

It Just Keeps Getting Better...

You'll have to indulge me a bit longer. I'm now obsessed with my ditch. (Notice how I've taken ownership!) I went back yesterday to get some more photos of the Sundews. I also wanted to get back to get a few more pictures of a Grass Pink Orchid that I had found in the preserve last week. (Probably the prettiest flower I've ever seen in the wild). I got one last Orchid shot (they don't last very long, so I'm glad I went back).

Grass-pink Orchid (Calopogon multiflorus) 

Last Blossoms and a Friend (Taken 4 days after the first picture. Flowers almost done!)
Then I turned my attention to the ditch. This time I walked a little further down the fence line to explore. What a difference 100 yards makes! I found more Ladies Tresses Orchids, Yellow Colic Root and Blue Flowered Butterwort (both new ones for me!), Rough Skullcap, Tiny Duck Potatoes, an abundance of Wild Onion, White Lobelia, and best of all, Hooded Pitcher Plants in flower!

Yellow Colic Root (Aletris lutea)

Blue Butterwort (Pinguicula caerulea)

Rough Skullcap (Scutellaria integrifolia)

Duck Potato (Sagittaria graminea) and Katydid

Wild Onion (Allium canadense)

White Lobelia (Lobelia paludosa)

Hooded Pitcherplants in Flower (Sarracenia minor)
Hooded Pitcherplant
The simple beauty of this unassuming stretch is astonishing.
Quiet Roadside Ditch
The Sundew pictures didn't turn out so well, but who cares? I felt so lucky out there at the side of the road, surrounded by carnivorous plants and listening to the roar of the wind as it blew through the pine trees.  An occasional sprinkle caused the Spring Peeper frogs to strike up a chorus. As always, the Little Metalmark Butterflies were there fluttering and basking in the sun when the clouds broke, and little Bee Flies that resemble flying Kiwi Fruit buzzed around the Betony. Even the spring wave of Love Bugs seemed magical at that moment.
Little Metalmark

Bee Fly and Betony

Lovebugs on Heartwing Dock (Rumex hastatulus)
I love this place! There is rain in the forecast this week, and soon we'll be entering the rainy season. I can't wait to see what else pops up. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

Yellow Hatpins,  Extreme Closeup (Syngonanthus flavidulus)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Life's A Ditch

Once again, I was reminded that there is wonder all around us, and you can find beautiful things in the most ordinary places. Today I found wonder in a lowly ditch. Actually, I think this is a pretty good ditch. This is a ditch I have visited periodically for several years because it often has lovely wildflowers. Fall beauties like Catesby's Lilies, Deer Tongue and Rayless Sunflowers (when they don't get mowed) and Barbara's Buttons in the Summer. Also, there are almost always great butterflies in this ditch. It happens to be right next to a piece of conservation land but there are many, many more like it on roads all over the country. Anyway, I was in the mood for a good flower/butterfly safari and so headed out to my sure thing spot with the hopes of finding something pretty. I got to my destination in time for the last bit of perfect morning light. Half an hour later it would be in full sunlight and start getting kind of hot. But now it was just right. At first I honed in on the tall, obvious things, which would have been satisfying all by themselves. Big purple Horrible Thistle, Oakleaf Fleabane, Gaura, Woolly Mullein, and some lovely Blueheart that comes in white and purple.
Horrible Thistle (Cirsium horridulum)

Oakleaf Fleabane (Erigeron quercifolium) and little grasshopper

Gaura (Gaura angustifolia)

Woolly Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Blueheart (Buchnera americana)

I got some nice pictures, and then I noticed that I had somehow missed seeing the bajillions of Hatpins and Polygala all around.
Bog Batchelor's Button (Polygala lutea)

Yellow Hatpins (Syngonanthus flavidulus)

So I squatted and crawled around in the grass to get a good angle, aware of the fact that I would probably be covered with ticks and chiggers, and ever alert for snakes. Also, my ditch is on the side of a scenic county road, which is great, except that people seem to need to drive very fast on this road, so I always keep a careful eye out for traffic. But traffic was sparse today, and I could hear the pretty "Here Kitty Kitty Kitty" call of the Bachman's Sparrows in the Longleaf Flatwoods in the distance. It was a totally pleasant morning. I walked along the ditch, looking for butterflies, and suddenly saw a Lady's Tresses Orchid! Then another, and another!
Ladies Tresses Orchid (Spiranthes vernalis)

This was great! Turning around, I realized there were White Long-leaf Violets all around my feet.
White Long-leaf Violet (Viola lanceolata)

Then I saw the tiny Dwarf St. John's Wort and got really excited because I'd never found these by myself before. I only learned about them on a guided wildflower walk.
Dwarf St. John's Wort (Hypericum mutilum)

Looking down at the minute yellow flowers, that's when I saw the Dwarf Sundews. Thousands of them! I'd been stomping all over them in my enthusiasm to find butterflies. I crawled around and took lots of closeup pictures of the tiny (dime sized) Sundews. Their sticky red droplets were shiny and pretty in the dappled light and I could even see a few insects stuck in the glue. Most of them had tiny flowers, too.
Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris) with flowers

Sundew droplets up close

That's when I saw the big shiny spider. I think it may have molted recently because it looked so fresh and new in the morning sun.
Not sure what kind of spider--maybe a Trapdoor, or a Purseweb.  If you know, tell me!

It was all too beautiful to keep to myself, so I called my buddy, Maralee, to share what I'd found. After she arrived, we took lots more photos of the Sundews and Polygala. Then the Little Metalmarks came out to pose!
Little Metalmark on Polygala lute

We got some great shots, and as I was leaving, I saw my first little Argiope spider of the season.
Zipper Spider
So the lesson for the day--there are wonderful things in the most everyday places. You just have to look.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Whooping Cranes--Happy Earth Day!

Yesterday I had my final volunteer shift of the season at the information trailer at La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. It was a beautiful, cool, overcast day, and the water in the canals was higher than it's been for a while, due to some rainy days in the past week. The Prairie was alive after all that wonderful moisture. Wildflowers that hadn't been visible the week before bushed out all along the trail. Blue Spiderwort and White Sweetclover were predominant, but there were also a few White Prickly Poppies and Nuttall's Thistles stretched tall with spiky flower buds, ready to pop open any day. Further down the trail, purple clumps of Pickerel Weed dotted the wet prairie. A Great White Heron (unusual visitor, normally confined to the Keys) picked this week to stop by for an appearance, and I saw my first flock of Bobolinks of the season. The biggest bird activity was down at the viewing platform, where white birds ruled the day.
White Birds Everywhere

Wood Storks and Ibises
There were probably a couple hundred White Ibises, about 50 Snowy Egrets in breeding plumage scrabbling over territory, 15 big white Wood Storks, White Pelicans, and three Whooping Cranes. I was thrilled as I looked over the Prairie Basin at this glorious scene. The other visitors and I said a collective "oh wow!" as a single crane walked closer to the platform and foraged. The Whooping Crane was unmistakable--about 5 feet tall and brilliant white, with a red blaze on its forehead and bill. And you could not miss the large, bright colored bands and a radio tracking unit on its legs. I stayed and reveled, photographing for about 45 minutes before finally dragging myself away to give my fellow volunteer, Helene, a chance to come see the wonder.

Whooper Comes Closer

Bands and Tracking Radio
Back at the info trailer, we told every visitor who passed that the "Whoopers are out at the platform!". People who knew what that meant were excited and hurried down. Those who were unfamiliar got a quick lesson from us in how extraordinary these birds were, and then they hurried down, too. But one blasé visitor pooh-poohed us by saying that the Whooping Cranes come every year and he already had lots of pictures last year. Helene and I were shocked. Yes, the cranes do seem to come back here every year. Last year, a pair mated and laid eggs (but no surviving chicks, alas). One amazing year 8 cranes spent the winter at the Prairie. But this is the reason we get excited--there are so few of them, there is no guarantee that they will come back next year. Whooping Cranes are critically endangered. They have been brought back (just barely) from the brink of extinction. At one point there were only 21 of them left in the wild. Now, there are a whopping (whooping!) 599 in the wild and in captivity combined. That's it. In the whole world. And here in Gainesville we are privileged to have between 1-8 of them as honored visitors every year. Over the years, I've visited several bird refuges around the country where Whooping Cranes have were rumored to be, and never saw one in the wild until I came to Paynes Prairie. I never want to forget that being able to see them in Gainesville every year really is a special treat and just can't be taken for granted.

Foraging for Tubers

Whooper and Pickerel Weed
These are the birds that are (mostly, right now) hatched in captivity and "mothered" by crane colored hand puppets and people in costumes. In the early days, there were so few Whooping Cranes in existence that the chicks that hatched from rescued eggs had no adults to teach them. The conservationists at the Crane Foundation had to figure out how to teach the chicks to behave like cranes, while at the same time keeping them from imprinting on humans and becoming too used to them. So the chicks are always fed or taught by people in white crane costumes, and their only exposure to "humans" is to be intentionally scared by them so they will fear people. When they are mature, the young cranes are led from Wisconsin to Florida by ultralight aircraft, piloted by a person in a crane suit. This happens every year and people eagerly follow the progress of the migration online and watch from below as they fly over on their way to Chassahowitzka, Florida, in the fall. It's an amazing story, and I encourage you to learn more about it at the Crane Foundation website. Our family lived in Wisconsin for many years and had the opportunity to visit the Crane Foundation in Baraboo. It is a marvelous place.

Whooping Crane
So on this 43rd Earth Day (created by Gaylord Nelson, former Governor of Wisconsin--there is something special about that state!) I honor the people who have worked and still work tirelessly to preserve our natural heritage. But we must recognize that, despite great hope and success, we are living in perilous times. We are seeing species decline and disappear every day due to habitat loss, pollution and over-hunting, and now climate change. There is much work to do if we want to be sure that those Whooping Cranes can return next year. Our air, water, land, animals, plants, fungi are all connected. It's all important. It all matters. Our earth. Our home.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Pipevine Saga

A Beautiful Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly
Investing oneself in nature can be emotionally trying. We humans like cute baby animals and storybook endings. And when things don't turn out the way we expect or hope, it can feel like a sock in the stomach. But the natural world is unemotional. Living things exist within systems and interconnected webs, without good and evil and without judgement. The cute baby squirrel is nourishment for an equally deserving, but maybe not so adorable (to many people) snake. The green darner dragonfly struggling in a banana spider's web will give the spider strength to lay eggs at the end of the season. The mud dauber wasp paralyzes dozens of spiders, turning them into zombie food storage, to feed its larva. The heron spears the bullfrog with its long sharp bill and eats it as it struggles. The wind blows the cardinal nest full of eggs out of the tree, and they break on the sidewalk. I know intellectually that I shouldn't be sad, but then I can't help myself. I am a nurturer and a carer. I forget that it's a jungle out there, and start to cheer for one side or another. And that's where I get into trouble.

My current story started a 6 or 7 years ago when I had planted a Calico Flower/Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia elegans) in the yard. It grew huge, with strange, spotted pinkish flowers. One day I went out and saw several huge caterpillars munching the leaves. At that time, I was not raising the plants as caterpillar food, and I was a little upset to see my marvelous flowers being chewed back to the stems! But I got over it as I realized what I'd attracted to the yard.
Gold Rim Swallowtail Caterpillars
I thought at first that they were Pipevine Swallowtails caterpillars, because this was a Pipevine plant. But it turned out that they were the Gold Rim (Polydamas) Swallowtail caterpillars. I was able to watch one of them eventually form a chrysalis and then emerge as an adult butterfly. It was a fascinating experience and I looked forward to seeing this happen again the next year, because the plants were healthy and established. But then I learned that the Calico Flowers were class II invasive exotic plants and I was working on making my yard Florida Friendly. As I've written again and again, invasive exotic plants are not good to have in your yard. So I pulled out the plants and felt a little sad that I would not see the return of the butterflies in the spring. Determined to change this, the next year I purchased a native Wooly Pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa), took it home, planted it and waited eagerly for the Pipevine Swallowtails, who supposedly use this plant as a host. Weeks turned into years and no swallowtails moved into our yard. I stopped believing that they would ever come. (In hindsight, I think that the butterflies knew that there had to be enough vines available for their larvae to eat and it took years to get to that critical mass of growth.) I would occasionally see Pipevine Swallowtails as they flew over and nectared on the flowers, but they didn't stop and move in. Finally, this spring, I saw what I thought could be a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly wafting over the, now abundant, tendrils of pipevine! The butterfly flitted and touched each vine, then flew to another as she picked the perfect location for her eggs. The next day I went out and found a nice little zigzag line of tiny, geometric eggs. A day later I found another bunch, and in the following days I found several others, tucked all over the yard. Finally, our yard had made it!

A few days later, I went out to see the eggs and found that they had recently hatched! The caterpillars were so tiny, and I was so excited! I could see the minute creatures next to their empty eggs, which they were busily consuming for their first nourishment.

Day 1
I was fairly sure that they were Pipevine caterpillars, but I was not completely sure. I looked in my books and online and the eggs looked like they could have been Pipevine or Gold Rim. I couldn't see any photos of either type of caterpillars at that very early stage, so I decided to watch and photograph them as they developed. This turned into a project and I was invested. Danger! Warning! I never learn.

I observed them every day as they ate and grew. The eggs had been laid over several days, so their development was staggered. The first clutch would reach a milestone and the others followed the next days in order.

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

6 days in, they molted for the first time. As they outgrow their old skin cover, or "cuticle", they shed it and form a new one. They will go through 5 stages as caterpillars, called "Instars". After the 5th Instar, they molt into their chrysalis. After this first molt, they started to exhibit characteristics that made me fairly certain they were Pipevine caterpillars. For one thing, they had rather long fleshy appendages near their heads which I didn't see in photos of the Gold Rims. Also, I just wanted to have attracted Pipevines!

Day 6 (See shed molts off to the upper right)
Still small, the caterpillars stayed together and spent the days underneath leaves, hidden from predators and the sun. On day 7 I went to my usual spot for the first group, and something was wrong. Their vine lay on the ground, broken and withered. Tragedy had struck! But scanning the area, I was able to locate all of the group. Whew!

Oh no! Dead vine (with old cuticles stuck to underside)

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9
By day 10, the rest of the caterpillars had spread out and no longer clustered together. Their appetites were too big to share one leaf! I found one of the larger caterpillars next to its shed cuticle. Molt #2. Now I was certain that they were Pipevines. Look at those long tentacles!

Day 10, Molt #2
The caterpillars were growing quickly, but I could no longer find more than just 2 or 3 from each group. I just hoped that they had dispersed and had not been eaten. Supposedly, the pipevine is toxic and makes them taste bad to birds. I don't know if you can say the same for Anoles, though, and we've got a lot of them. On day 18, I looked all over and found only one large caterpillar, attaching itself with silk to a stalk of Society Garlic. I believe that it was getting ready for another molt. Looking closer, I could see that there was a dead caterpillar at the base of the same plant. I have no idea what happened to the dead one.

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 16

Day 17

Day 18
Then on day 19, the inevitable happened. I went out to check on the last caterpillar, and it was gone. Whether it had been eaten, or died of disease, or had just moved to a better vine, I'll probably never know. I also don't know if it was quite mature enough to pupate, although I'll keep looking around the yard to see if I can find a chrysalis. In any case, I felt pretty disappointed that all of those caterpillars were gone. It's a tough world out there, with lots of hungry predators and hazards. During those 18 days, we had freezing cold nights, some rain and scorching heat. Anything could have happened, and this is why the butterflies lay so many eggs. But as I look around the yard and see the scores of pipevine sprouts and the chew marks around the margins, I can feel fairly sure that the butterflies will continue to visit and the cycle will continue in the future. And if I'm lucky I'll be able to watch a Pipevine butterfly emerge from a chrysalis in my yard one day soon.