Thursday, July 29, 2010

Butterfly Gardening

Black Swallowtail caterpillar on dill with dew

Black Swallowtail caterpillar,
Papilio polyxenes

I deftly plucked one from the stem—
a plump striped caterpillar who was making a meal of the feathery fingers of dill at the edge of our vegetable garden. And, pleased with my find, paused just long enough to snap off several stems of Queen Anne’s lace before running inside with my prize.

Setting up a small bud vase in the center of the table, I transferred her gently to Queen Anne and sat down to refresh myself from the heat of the afternoon.
Two summers ago, I had set up a vase in just the same way. Having found a caterpillar that I recognized to be of a Black Swallowtail, I watched her grow as she contentedly grazed for days amid a small bouquet of wildflowers, became a chrysalis and emerged into the freedom of an early August morning--the constant shower of frass, the only downside to hosting this unusual dinner guest.

And so I thought it would be with this one.
Yet, within the first several minutes, she dropped to the table, made a hasty trail to the edge, and tumbled off into my waiting hand below. Replacing her again and again, I watched as she repeatedly dropped and nimbly raced each time to the same edge.

My invitation to stay a while apparently not to her liking, I took her back to the dill in the garden, quite sure that by morning her walkabout would have taken her far away.
Instead, I found her tethered to the spot from which I had first picked.
Now a butterfly grows in my garden.

Tethered to a stem with silken strands


This year, Black swallowtail caterpillars, whose foodplants are parsley, fennel, carrot and other umbelliferae, have chosen to devour the dill in my garden. Commonly cultivated dill, Anethum graveolens, has bluish-green fern-like leaves and compound umbels of tiny, bright yellow flowers.
In the days between hatching from a single small yellow egg and forming a chrysalis from which will emerge a lovely swallowtail, these eating machines shed their skin several times as they grow through 5 instars (developmental stages between molts). This small and spiny dark caterpillar with the white saddle (photo below) is an early instar and barely resembles the later black and yellow speckled instars.

early instar on dill

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Friday, July 23, 2010


Dense Blazing Star/Dense Gayfeather, Liatris spicata

Last weekend was my much-awaited return to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, a date marked with exuberance on my calendar of summer events by colorful rings and several stars. Last year I had attended a workshop there for the first time, not as an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist (OCVN) for whom these weekends are designed to offer advanced training, but just as an extra—someone interested in an opportunity to explore a wonderful wildlife area and learn from the experts about it.
Since last year’s visit, having had such a great experience I investigated the OCVN program, “a research-based scientific training program that emphasizes hands on natural resource education coupled with community-based volunteer service,” enrolled in classes and completed the coursework. In a sense, this return brought me back to where it all began.
Why a second look?
Because a prairie is a place you must feel to understand.

Pinnate Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata

Defined by Webster, a prairie is “land in or predominantly in grass.” And for most of my life, the only image I knew of a prairie was the rolling field of swaying grass and waving wildflowers that Laura Ingalls, her hair in 2 long braids, bounded through as a young pioneer heroine on Wednesday night TV. Typically treeless, prairies are often primarily composed of grasses—native prairie grasses that often tower 4 feet or more such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switch Grass or Prairie Cord Grass.
And, just as the land itself can range from wet to dry, providing a dark rich loam or the challenge of leached sand flats, each is distinguished by unique prairie wildflowers that bloom wildly in profusions of color, thriving in, what to many would be, inhospitable ground.
But, the definition of a prairie is almost incomplete without the mention of time—they’re our most native landform, expanding with the retreat of the glaciers and remaining for thousands of years until European settlement.
While most of the original million plus acres of prairie in the Midwest have been claimed for agriculture and tilled until only a small fraction remains, a remnant can be found at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in north central Ohio.

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea

For 2 days, our group of 40, led by instructors David Brandenburg (botany), Jim Davidson (butterflies), George Keeney (beetles), and Bob Placier (birds) spent mornings in the classroom and afternoons walking the fields of Killdeer Plains. With spotting scopes in tow and hand lenses dangling from our necks, we dove into the flora and fauna of this tallgrass prairie habitat.
It was immersion—from dawn until dark.

Prairie Dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum

Bald eagles soared above our heads while we peered into the corollas of the tiniest flowers of a mountain mint resting in the palms of our hands. We tasted the tasty flowers and rubbed our hands against the roughness of prairie dock. We hopped in and out of vehicles as we laced our way along the narrow dusty roads, stopping to stoop at carcasses where carrion beetles performed the thankless task of decomposer.

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus Philenor

In the bright sunshine, Pipevine swallowtails flashed us with iridescent blue against a field of early goldenrod while Halloween pennant dragonflies adorned the tops of every teasel.

Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina

By dark, the sounds of the night took over.
Where the rhythmic drones of scissor-grinder cicadas had filled the heated hours of daylight, nighttime resounded with the trills and scrapes and buzzes and ticks of countless katydids.
Jim McCormac led a night hike and we waded through the brush searching with our flashlights for the leafy green singers whose songs he played as they called to us at eye level from within dense tall stands of prairie cord grass. Night brought a heavy dew, and by morning the misty web-covered field lay quiet.

Misty Morning

A prairie is more than a shrinking shape on a map, its makeup more than a list of hardy, drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants.
It is heat and sound,
tenderness and strength,
woven into a colorful tapestry that is rolled out beneath a wide sky.
To understand a prairie you must walk within one.


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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I'm baaaaack!

The Cool at the Pool

Reentry was always predictable—
compose a one-page piece entitled How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

And as the expected assignment was handed out to an audience of less-than-enthusiastic students upon their return to school each fall, part of me wondered if the intent in giving it was greater than its simply being an exercise in the retrieval of rusty writing skills.
The stories that must have been told…
the secrets shared…
the places traveled to, or not.
In truth, there was no better way for the teacher to acquaint herself with the students in her new classroom than to discover how each had chosen to spend that precious time away.

The Cool at the Pool

Not surprisingly, mine somewhat resembled an upstate New York version of Tom Sawyer, sprinkled with liberal amounts of Little Women, as the neighborhood matured and real-life replaced real children’s dreams. There were frogs and kickball, frogs and fireflies, frogs in the cool, clear Adirondack lakes and tents full of giggling Girl Scouts. There were fishing trips at dawn with my dad, days of building forts, after-dinner bike rides, nights of cartwheels on the lawn.

My time away may be from things which are different now.
But I find that I still have filled it with the very same--
play, friends and family.
And, yes, even now….frogs.

American bullfrog, female

American bullfrog, male

This photo is slightly fuzzy, but it shows how the size of the tympana (external eardrums, flat disk behind each eye) differ in male/female frogs. The tympanum of the male (photo left) is larger than the eye; whereas in the female (photo right) it is equal in size or smaller. This quick visual can be used with several species of frogs, including American bullfrog and northern green frog.

Relatively similar in appearance, green frogs can be distinguished from bullfrogs by the presence of a dorsolateral fold, a lengthwise ridge of skin on the back extending from the tympanum 2/3 the distance to the hind leg. In the above photo, the male is clearly a green frog. But what about the female?
Frogs will readily clasp just about anything that comes into contact with them, if in the mood. I've even held hands with many frogs that don't understand that, although I love them, it wouldn't work--we're just too different.

Coming soon...more of How I Spent my Blogging Vacation...
West Virginia New River Birding and Nature Festival
More of Michigan
Killdeer Plains OCVN Workshop, look here and here


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Monday, July 19, 2010

No Less Lovely

While those behind the garden gate
on fiery plumes bent low do sway
and sip the wine of kings and queens,
beyond them yet a copper.

Whose tireless flight past fields grown high
beside this ditch down dusty road,
her fare in one brave plant remains uncut.
Alas, she is no less lovely.

Bronze Copper, Lycaena hyllus, female

The Bronze Copper, Lycaena hyllus, is a butterfly primarily of open wet areas. Although adults will take nectar readily from a variety of flowers, the caterpillar must feed on water dock, curled dock or knotweed--wetland plants often in short supply when wet areas are drained or filled. With the loss of wetlands, this butterfly is declining in many areas.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Frog Days of Summer

Cope's Gray Tree Frog

The day has become dark, the air heavy.
This morning, standing waist deep in the field of blackberry brambles, their canes bent low beneath a load of plump fruit, I prided myself at having chosen the perfect day for their picking. Cool and clouded, it had allowed me to don the heavy garments that keep the thorns guarding their precious fruit at bay. And, wrapped in long pants, boots to the knee, and a double layer of long sleeves above, I had plodded out to the old pasture and taken up residence there, or so I thought, for what would be a full morning.
Within minutes, the first of many soft raindrops fell. And, not wanting to return to the house empty handed, I tucked the large bowl under a shirttail and continued picking in the rain. Steadily ticking onto the broadly-leaved canes, the shower drowned out every sound except that of some cedar waxwings above in a nearby tree. From the safety of the grass below, small tree frogs, spring peepers, climbed into view and peered at me with long inquisitive stares. Brought out from the tangles where they wait out the days of summer sun, this rainy day now suited them just perfectly. Soaking up every drop from the sky and drinking in what water covered every leaf, my sleeves quickly hung heavy, pants sagged and soon slung low. Drips found their way from my hairline to my brow, tumbling down my nose and cheek until I felt there was not one inch of me that hadn’t become wet.
As I reluctantly slogged back across the field, the few small trees rang with the raspy calls of gray tree frogs.
There is a distant rumble of thunder and still the steady rapping of raindrops on the leaves. A morning like this is what I love about the frog days of summer.

juvenile Cope's gray tree frogs

Cope's gray tree frogs use the covered top of our above ground pool for their breeding. The several inches of water they need to lay their eggs remains long enough for hundreds to turn from tadpoles to baby frogs in just a few weeks' time.
They emerge from the water as gorgeous green tiny-legged frogs and disappear into the grass of the backyard.

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