What’s all the frass about?

I have always planted an abundance of parsley and dill in the spring… one clump for us and 3 or 4 for the butterflies. Not many butterflies have been fluttering through this neighborhood so I was overjoyed three weeks ago when I saw some frass or caterpillar poo beneath a big pot of parsley, the parsley we used for the kitchen! Immediately, I took the pot off the deck and placed it in a secure place in the garden.

I knew exactly what caterpillar made this frass… the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) that uses plants in the carrot family as hosts. I spotted several tiny caterpillars on the parsley and watched them develop through several instars for about two weeks.caterpillar poo

Dainty but constant eaters, they almost cleaned out the potted flat parsley and moved on to curly parsley and dill in the garden.

They were plump and beautiful and ready to pupate when we left for a week’s vacation.

We returned home yesterday and I checked the parsley. All the caterpillars were gone, hopefully tucked securely in their chrysalis quite a distance from the host plant. How exciting to play a part in raising these beautiful butterflies!

I keep checking for an egg, but unfortunately no monarch butterfly has visited their host plant in our garden, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). At Rolling Green Nursery where I work, I have seen a few monarchs feeding on butterfly weed we have for sale. Let’s hope the female below left an egg on the plant. Just seeing the insect is encouraging for our diminishing population of monarchs.

monarch butterfly at Rolling Green Nursery, NH

 

Dewdrops and Spiderwebs

Lately we’ve had temperatures in the high 70’s and low 80’s during the day and at night the temperature drops to a comfortable 65° and below. Those cool night temperatures bring the daytime water evaporation back to earth in the form of sparkling dew.

I love a dewy morning if only to check out the variety of spider webs that festoon the trees, shrubs, grass and just about everything else: cars, mailboxes, doors. Webs that are next to invisible on a sunny day glisten like jewels on a dew laden morn.

A Virginia friend made a small hypertufa planter for me and and it’s perfect for a few hens and chicks. I put it in a hot and sunny spot just outside the door, threw in a few herbs and annuals nearby and let it go.

hypertufa containerThis morning I spotted the dewy web draped like twinkling gauze over one corner. Let’s get a little closer to the miniature world of spiders. The spider is in there but not in this photo.

grass spider

…………………………….Click to see the full effect of crystal dewdrops

Here is its hiding place, his funnel. Who is this little spider who wasn’t showing its face this morning? It’s a grass spider, Agelenopsis sp., a funnel weaver. The web it spins is not sticky to trap insects like the orb webs. Instead the grass spider depends on its incredible speed to nail their prey. Usually hiding inside its funnel, it will often venture out and sit in the opening. But this early morning must have been too wet for this spider so….

grass spider tunnel….I stepped outside again after the sun was high to try and capture its picture. After waiting about a minute, out came our grass spider.

Agelenopsis sp.Easily identified by the black and medium brown stripes on the cephalothorax and pattern on the abdomen, it’s one of over 400 species of funnel weaver spiders in N. America. These harmless spiders are seen more often in the late summer and fall…. and sometimes in our houses. This little fella looks to me like a female with her belly perhaps full of eggs. The adult males are much slimmer.

With the extremely wet summer we are experiencing, I hope our gal catches her weight in mosquitoes daily!

Marsh Marigold: A light in the forest

marsh marigoldWith a stream running through the woods that surround us, Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), is prolific along the wettest sections of the forest floor. A member of the buttercup family, the flower’s sepals are a vibrant yellow with bees and other insects buzzing all around the early bloomer; a good source of nectar and lovely to behold!

Good Morning Sunshine…

Look who greeted us on our deck this morning!  Who do you think this is?

This lime green visitor is a luna moth (Actias luna), probably one of the most spectacular moths of North America. At almost a 4 1/2″ wing span, it’s hard to miss. We left the deck light on last night and these moths are attracted to light. I consider that light pollution and we won’t do that again.

On the fore wing and hind wings, it has eyspots to fool predators but I find a lot of wings on my walks so not everyone is fooled. The adult moth lives for about a week after emerging from the cocoon when mating and laying of about 200 eggs occurs. The moths have no mouth parts at this stage and eat nothing for this week.

The antennae are clues to the sex of the moth. Our visitor is a female. The male has fuller, feathery antennae to better sense the female pheromones at night.

Hooked on Tree Swallows

He’s handsome. He’s friendly. He’s brave. He’s funny. He’s an entertainer. He’s an acrobat. And he helps protect me from biting insects. It’s the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor or TRES), a swallow that breeds over most of North America… except the Southeast. Tidewater Virginia is in the ‘maybe’ zone and I’d never experienced this species of swallow.

Although their summer diet is insects, the male tree swallow, with his beautiful iridescent green-blue back, would land atop the bird feeder pole, looking left and right up and down at the seed-eating birds, never bothering them but looked simply curious.

From the break of day to the last rays of light at night, the pair of tree swallows that took up residence in one of our new bluebird houses commanded the skies in search of insects. Their aerial acrobatics and sweet warbles to each other made me think of the lyrics from Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love”:

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above….
It looks like muskrat love

Dipping and dancing, twirling and soaring, these agile little fellas coursed over fields and water at speeds of 25 MPH consuming insects… up to 2,000 insects each and feeding 6,000 to their offspring in the 45-day nesting period according to Dick Tuttle of the Ohio Bluebird Society.

Our tree swallows have raised their one batch of young that have recently fledged. I can see the entire family flying back and forth across the small pond across the field catching insects in the air. Since they were finished with their house, I opened it yesterday and this is what I found.

Their nests are made with coarse grasses and lined with feathers that look much like water fowl feathers. The feathers, gathered by the male, are said to keep the young warm and deter mites.

In reading more about tree swallows, I should have opened the bird box regularly to check on the chicks and evict any house sparrows that may have taken up residence. The house sparrow is a European invasive and a threat to the welfare of the swallows. To learn more about the tree swallow, click here.

From Gardening to Birdwatching

My Virginia Garden

Gardening has been a way of life for me. My grandfather, my mother, both avid gardeners, bequeathed to me and my 6 siblings and to our children the joys of gardening, landscaping, and developing a harmonious relationship with Mother Nature. Since we are still renting a home and the gardens are not mine, the intimate relationship I had with the soil has metamorphosed from active gardening to becoming a custodian, a steward and a caretaker of this property. I’ve done all I can to restore the once tangled and overgrown small gardens in this rental. Now I have developed an insatiable interest and curiosity about the grassland that surrounds this property.

Durham, New Hampshire

The salt marsh and fields behind our home have provided a great education on the habitat of breeding and nesting birds. This amazing grassland, a tapestry of color in summer bloom, has engaged me. I am entertained daily by the bobolinks, the redwing blackbirds, the eastern meadowlarks that fly in and out of their sanctuary, very vocal and always ready to defend a territory. I’m drawn to their breeding rituals, territory claims, and their banding together for common attacks on crows and hawks.

I’ve been accustomed to gazing upward to tree canopies to follow birds in Virginia. It’s a whole new experience in New Hampshire as I gaze down on meadow events, binoculars in hand, from our elevated deck east of the fields. The one bird that I especially enjoy is the colorful bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), a member of the blackbird family. This is a new bird on my life list. Their aerial displays are entertaining and their enchanting songs serenade us throughout the day.

The most noticeable thing about the bobolink is the stunning bright buff colored cap he wears. His breast is black and the bird’s back is white, almost as if he put his clothes on backwards. Males claim territories a week before the arrival of females and the bright colors are helpful when females search from above for males in the grasses.

Male Bobolink, Image courtesy of Andrea Westmoreland, Creative Commons

Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954), author of Life Histories of North American Birds, wrote, “It is unique among bird songs, a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” To experience a little of what I see and hear every day, check out the youtube video below.

This grassland is owned and protected by the homeowners. Although it will be eventually harvested to feed farm animals, that process must be delayed until the bobolink nesting period has ended, something that happens much too early in many fields. In the fall, the male changes into drab plumage, the birds begin to flock and they migrate about 6,000 miles to spend the winter in the grasslands of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

Coastal Color

Fall colors in our coastal Virginia landscape are fairly muted. We have splashes of oranges and yellows highlighting the woods and gardens and umpteen dogwood trees providing deep red accents under the pines. Soon the leaves will fall from these dogwood leaving a single bud standing erect at the tip of each twig containing the flower and two sets of leaves waiting to emerge in the spring.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Yellows are our prevailing fall color around these parts. The soft shades of yellow against the dark trunks repeat every year and we never tire of walking or driving beneath them.

Yellows on our road...

There are several trees around the yard that dazzle us with color and seem to glow in the sunlight like bright fluorescent bulbs. Two of our maple varieties are fall standouts:

Japanese cutleaf maple

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

…and my all time favorite trees, the ginkgoes that never fail to put on a spectacular display just for us.

Ginkgo biloba

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Bowls and Doileys in the Garden

Yesterday I awoke to a cool and foggy morning in Gloucester. Until the sun rose to burn it off, the river was shrouded in a thick cloud of moisture, a haze that left the landscape laden in a covering of morning dew. This heavy dew is a frequent occurrence in the fall in Tidewater and it’s a perfect time to check out the almost invisible world of miniature spiders.

Morning fog

There are hundreds of sheet web spiders (Linyphiidae) but one tiny sheet web spider interests me most. The Bowl and Doily Spider (Frontinella communis), found everywhere in the Eastern US, goes unnoticed on a dry day.  Just take a look at what we can see on a dew laden morning.

Bowl and Doily Spider Webs

These tiny webs are named for the unique shapes that the spider weaves. There are two levels to the web, an non-sticky upper area known as the bowl and a lower area called the doily. The spider that lives in the web is found underneath the bowl upside down. Entomologists believe the doily is to protect the spider from enemies below and the bowl may protect it from above. There are ‘trap lines’ that connect all parts of the web to the plants. Although I’ve never seen an insect trapped in the bowl, it’s been said that the Bowl and Doily Spider will bite an insect through this web, then it wraps the prey (mosquitoes, gnats, small flies, aphids) in silk.

Bowl and Doily Spider Web in Dew

I often lean close trying to spot the spider between the sheets of web. But I think I must disturb a trap line and the spider disappears before I can focus my eyes or a camera. We’re talking about a web of three or four inches and a spider about 4 mm in length.

However, I did get lucky this time and captured a fuzzy photo before the little one scampered away.

Bowl and Doily Spider (click for closer look)

In areas of Maine, the native Bowl and Doily Spider is under threat from an extremely aggressive European spider, the Palearctic spider (L. triangularis) that was accidentally introduced into the US. It is overtaking the webs of several varieties of sheet web spiders. The dominant L. triangularis is leading to a decline in spider biodiversity in areas of Arcadia National Park. No one can predict what will happen, but lets hope those aggressive invaders don’t like the climate in Virginia.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Virginia

Baby Turtle Passing Through..

… on its way to hibernation. This juvenile Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), shell still a bit soft from a late summer hatching, was found among the lavender plants as I was weeding recently. October is when cooler weather advances and turtles begin to prepare for hibernation. They will have a reduced intake of food and become less active before moving into leaf litter and excavating a shallow hole in the earth.

Juvenile Eastern Box Turtle

Juvenile box turtles‘ diet consists mainly of insects at this stage of life. I offered this little guy a worm and a cricket but he had no interest. So I walked him away from the garden and far away from the dangerous lawn that mister gardener mows with the tractor, all the way to the big woods. The ground was thick with leaf litter and I was sure this would be a safer hibernation spot.

In the spring when the rains appear, vegetation begins to green and the gardens are abloom, he will poke his nose through the cool earth and embark on his journey of life.  I wish him well.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Singing in the rain…

Lured by insects flying around the light outside my office at night, my once evening-only visitor now lives on the window 24 hours a day. It’s been a wet fall and this bright green amphibian, the American Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea), need not seek moist crevices during the drying sunlight because we’ve not seen the sun of late. Monsoon-like rains, local flooding, and storms seem to be the daily forecast for us in Tidewater.

Click for closeup of the American Green Tree Frog

It’s been a banner year for these frogs in the garden as well.  Green tree frogs of all sizes rest contentedly during the day on dew laden leaves and vegetation while I carefully work around them. These frogs are one of the most common amphibians of the southeast and most of us are familiar with them, if not visually, we surely know them by their nightly calls during mating season. For such a tiny fellow, 1.25 to 2.25 inches, their loud ‘queenk or quonk’ can feel deafening on a humid Tidewater evening. Their diet consists of insects… crickets, flies, worms, beetles, mosquitoes, and those fat juicy moths that flutter around the outdoor lamp at night.

I have enjoyed the antics of the visitor to my office window. He’s quite accustomed to my presence.  And while slowly climbing toward hapless moths around the evening light, he is tolerant of me following inches behind with a rather large camera.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Walk In The Winter Woods

Running Cedar

Stepping off our sandy lane onto a thick cushion of fallen leaves, we don’t have to walk far to find an oasis of green beneath the young oaks, maples, pines and poplars.  In the frigid temperatures and wet weather of January, tiny evergreen plants blanket this zone 7b woodland floor.  These are clubmosses, plants whose ancestors existed almost 400 million years ago before flowering plants populated the earth.  Along with massive tree ferns, the club mosses grew well over 100’ tall with trunk diameters of 5’.  These ancient forests of giants lived in swamps during the age of coal, the Carboniferous era and their decay led to the coal fields of today.

click each photo to enlarge

The first club moss that we encounter in our woods, with its flat branches and the cedar-like appearance, is Running Cedar (Lycopodium digitatum).  At this time of year, the tiny candles or clubs are full of spores and just brushing the plants will generate miniature yellow clouds.  The plants also expand by rhizomes along the ground, thus the name Running Cedar.  In this way, they can cover extensive areas of the forest floor if conditions are ideal. Our woods must provide what they need for the ground is covered with this variety.

Princess Pine

Nearby, we recognize our other clubmoss that looks remarkably like a tiny pine tree (Lycopodium obscurum) or what I call Princess Pine.  It grows about 6 – 8 inches off the ground in our woods but can grow larger. The Princess Pine reproduces by a rhizome as well so I suppose it could be called Running Pine.

The common name, clubmoss, describes the appendage at the tip of the plant, which produces spores for reproduction.  The spores have a high oil content and have been used to coat pills and is still used in powders to sooth the skin. Native Americans used the spores for various medicinal purposes and early Americans and Europeans used them for a wide range of healing.  Interesting, the plant is poisonous but not the spores.  The spores are highly flammable and they were used in early photography to provide the needed flash.

A request was once made for some of our Princess Pine to be used as a church decoration.  I gave my consent.  But in learning more about the plant and how difficult it is to transplant or cultivate, I now protect our miniature evergreen forest, a mere shadow of its ancient relatives.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester