Thursday, September 21, 2017

Take A Load Off

Dewy Wingstem seen at a Nature Ramble (Verbesina alternifolia)

I try to be a cheery person, but lately I have really felt the worries of the world weighing on me. It just feels like there has been one awful thing after another for months now. The tragic earthquake in Mexico City. Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean. Even a tropical storm up here in North Georgia. The death of an old friend. Constant, ugly politics. Social unrest. Data hacks. Nuclear missiles. Health. Family. Good grief. All together, it has been overwhelming and it is hard to not get bogged down and filled with despair. Sometimes my shoulders hurt and I find myself clenching my teeth and needing to remember to breathe. There are days I don't want to leave the safe comfort of my snug home/nest.

Gynandromorph (has characteristics of both sexes) Tiger Swallowtail in my own yard! Good thing I went outside that day!

Field Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) from a wildflower field trip just over the NC border. A new flower for me!

I get a lot of happiness seeing the fine details of tiny things like this immature grasshopper. Look at its eyes and the markings on its body.

But I come back to this time and time again. Along with my loving and supporting family and friends, one sure thing that always soothes my soul and helps me keep moving along is to put myself in nature. To take a Nature Bath, as my photo buddy Marilee would always say. When I take a walk outside in the woods or in a park or a field or our yard, and look and smell and listen to the greater world around me, troubles melt away. I can feel calm and wellbeing seeping through me from the first step on a leaf covered path. Out in the wildflower meadow, it is very difficult to hold onto those scary thoughts that want to take over my brain. The sadness, anger, frustration or fight or flight response are replaced with awe and appreciation and wonder. The endorphins course through me when I see a butterfly or salamander or rare flower or magnificent forest and I can feel the optimism and happiness push their way to the front of my brain. I start planning my next hike or trip or photo safari and feel motivated to immerse myself in the things that I love and find are most important, rather than letting those more distant and abstract worries drain me.

An American Snout butterfly that I found feeding in my front yard. I never knew they were so stunning, and strange. They camouflage by hanging upside down in trees. With closed wings, they look like leaves. The snout resembles the stem or petiole of a leaf.

A giant Black and Yellow Orbweaver spider and her egg sac at the nature center. The sack was hanging 15-20 feet away, so the size comparison is not accurate. But that was some spider, and some egg sac.

Beautiful blue fungus. I learned from a friend that it is called "Terana caerula (often referred to as Pulcherricium caeruleum)- commonly referred to as 'cobalt crust' or 'velvet blue spread.' In 2009, the German Mycological Society named this species 'Fungus of the Year'" Who knew there was such a thing as fungus of the year?

There are few plant activities as fun as popping the seeds of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). They are trigger activated and when you touch a ripe pod, the seeds shoot out. It is very surprising. And fun! Seen with friends in NC.

Part of a healthy lifestyle is to be active and reduce the stress in your life. Nature walks cover both of these. Of course, most of my walking on the trail is pretty leisurely and needs to be supplemented with harder exercise from time to time. But getting out and moving, even slowly, is so much better for you than sitting at the computer or on the couch. It is good for you physically and just makes you feel alive. So I have been trying to take advantage of every opportunity for family camping trips, bird walks, wildflower field trips, rambles, nature lectures, school trail guiding and hikes with friends that I can fit in.

Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia), one of the spectacular flowers we got to see on the wildflower field trip to NC.

A tiny salamander, about 3/4 inch long form head to tip of tail. I thought it was a little worm in the wet dirt.

An Orbweaver spider gathering up the silk from the web she had stretched out this morning. She will digest the silk and start a new web tonight. You can see her spinnerets on her abdomen.

Big Praying Mantis seen on a Nature Ramble. I think her abdomen is full of eggs.

I often prefer to walk and explore on my own, but these days I have felt a strong desire to surround myself with friends. It's nice to have people to talk to and share with. And it is especially nice to walk up to the trail and be greeted by a friendly face (or 20!). Being with other people helps remind me that there are many others who care about the same things that I do. Sometimes when we set off on our hikes, we commiserate for a moment about the latest bad news, but then we quickly move on to the purpose of the day, whether that be wildflowers, birds, insects or just exploring the trails at a new location. It feels healthy and good to be connecting, sharing, moving, and appreciating together.

Sleepy Orange Butterfly Chrysalis seen on a Nature Ramble at the Botanical Gardens

The rich blues of Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberuba) 


Because, in reality, we never know how much time any of us have to appreciate the beauty of this wonderful world. Tragedy strikes when we least expect it. So spend your time appreciating what really matters--family, friends, and this amazing world we live in.

The vibrancy of this gruesome but beautiful scene almost took my breath away. Purple, yellow, green.
A lucky Yellow Crab Spider has caught an unlucky Bee Fly.












Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Totality

Total Eclipse

After a year or so of anticipation (on my part, at least), the great North American Eclipse of 2017 finally happened! I was pretty excited, having gone through 2 partial eclipses, one in Salt Lake City in the late '70's and another in Madison, Wisconsin in the '90's. Athens, Georgia where I live now, was slightly southwest of the total coverage path for the 2017 eclipse, getting about 99.1 percent coverage. And if it hadn't been for a generous invitation to a lakeside celebration in the full eclipse zone, about an hour's drive from Athens, my husband and I may have been pretty satisfied with an "almost eclipse". I had eclipse glasses for the whole family and even bought the thermochromatic stamps put out by the post office to commemorate the rare event. The last time a the totality of an eclipse crossed the entire United States was around 100 years ago. So it was very lucky for us that our friend's kind offer brought us to the totality, and it was spectacular. And now that we've seen the whole thing, we know there is just no substitute. Wow. We're marking our calendars for the next one in 2024, and I even raised the possibility of heading to Argentina in 2019 since we've been there several times and have friends there. That's not so crazy, is it?

Logistics

Prepared!

We almost couldn't believe our luck when we set out driving, because there was just no traffic. News reports of crazy eclipse crowds had me a bit worried, but there was nothing on our little highways. I guess they were too far off the beaten path for most people heading out of Atlanta. Richard Russell State Park, where we celebrated, was just off of the radar, which worked wonderfully for us. Our only worry was that big stormy looking clouds were starting to gather in the east. But there was nothing we could do about that, so we drove on. We figured that if it was cloudy at eclipse time, at the very least we would experience the moment of darkness, so we continued with our fingers crossed. When we arrived at the park, the setting was perfect. We had a picnic pavilion surrounded by trees, with an open "deck" overlooking the lake and a clear view of the sky. The clouds moved on, giving us clear blue skies, and our party merrily started the countdown to totality. Some swam, while others prepped for the picnic. Around 1pm we checked through our solar glasses and pinhole cameras and saw that the moon had taken the first tiny bite of the sun. Bite by bite the mark grew, and by around 2pm the light was noticeably dimmer, as though we had on sunglasses. In fact, everyone wearing sunglasses had to take them off at this point in order to see. The light shining through the leaves onto the ground showed the progress of the eclipse, too, in ghostly images resembling charcoal drawings. The light dimmed more and the temperature felt cooler. The shadows on the ground became crescent sun slivers.

Hamming it up with our host. What a Sight!

The Eclipse is Visible in the Shadows

Crescents
Cereal Box Pinhole Camera

Taken through welding glass with my phone. I'm not actually sure which one is the sun! Probably the tiny crescent.

5 minutes before the totality, at about 2:33, gnats began to swarm around the trees and crows flew by, cawing in alarm. Cicadas ramped up their drone to fever pitch. The sky quickly darkened as if night. A dark shadow wall loomed behind us and everything grew quieter, except for the cicadas. We tilted our heads up with our glasses on and counted down as the last sliver of sun disappeared. And suddenly there was a ring around the sun with a bright flash at the top--the Diamond Ring! We took off our protective eye covers and stared in wonder at the glimmering ring in the sky. A collective gasp and cheer went up all around the lake and people shouted "oh wow!" and "I never imagined!" Some in our group caught a glimpse of stars. 1 minute and 20.7 seconds later the diamond ring was back, on the other side of the sun now, and the glasses went back on. As quickly as it began the darkness lifted and it was sunny again. The eclipse was happening in reverse now. The eery, dim light returned, and the shadows reappeared, but this time the direction of the crescent suns on the ground was reversed. The cicadas got even louder. By 4pm the whole event was over. We felt changed, renewed, illuminated, exalted.

The Light Sparkled. 

Diamond Ring starting again. Time to put the glasses on again.

Same branch as above, but crescents are reversed. I think this image looks like a charcoal drawing, but it is just shadows and light.

Sun Slivers

Slightly dazed dragonfly lets me come very close

Click here for a one minute time lapse video of of the changing light before, during and after the eclipse, compressed from 7 minutes, 40 seconds.

I'm struck by how normal it feels today, the day after the sun disappeared from the sky for a brief moment. Shouldn't there be some indication other than our memories that this even happened? A burnt mark, a notch, a scar, even a small pile of sun shavings? But there is nothing to show that yesterday we glimpsed a wonder of the universe. Maybe this is what Terry Tempest Williams was thinking when she posted the statement, "Post Eclipse Hangover" on Facebook. The sun beams down today as it does every day, and as it did yesterday until about 1 pm when it shrank to nothing and quickly reappeared. Today the light patterns on the ground are unremarkable. So until the next eclipse, I'll dream of light slivers in the shadows.

Slivery Shadows

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

Fly

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)