Nature in the Blue Ridge as Summer Comes to a Close

The nights have been getting cooler but the days are still sunny and warm. Most plants have bloomed and are setting seeds and fruit. Some birds have migrated and most can hardly be heard anymore. There is a frenzy of insect activity on the remaining flowers.

If you walk by a pond you will notice a lot of activity among the dragonflies. The autumn meadowhawk is a species that emerges late in the season whereas the blue dasher occurs throughout the summer. Although primitive, dragonflies have complex behaviors and you can observe males fighting for territory and females, and guarding females while they lay eggs. In both of these species, the males are much brighter in coloration than the females (sexual dimorphism), which indicates that the females choose which males to mate with. More striking colors may cue the female as to which males are more virile/viable.

 Blue dasher

Blue dasher

 Autumn meadowhawk

Autumn meadowhawk

One of the striking flowers of late summer which many dislike is the thistle, a giant weed with thorns. However, it is highly favored as a butterfly plant and you will notice here a great spangled fritillary drinking nectar from a pink thistle. I used to devote some effort to cutting their seed heads off but eventually found that they are typically found only in disturbed soil and will gradually diminish with succession if you protect the soil from physical disturbance.  

 Great spangled fritillary on thistle

Great spangled fritillary on thistle

Bumblebees are quite active in late summer and early fall since they can maintain a body temperature higher than the environment by muscular contractions. They show what appears to be intelligence in forging for nectar when they bite the base of flowers such as these black and blue salvia to obtain the sweet fluid, which they cannot reach with their tongue down the narrow flower corolla tube. Although they are a large and well-protected bee they can be preyed upon by the remarkable robber fly. This predaceous fly had captured a much larger bumblebee and was in the process of eating it when I noticed the battle underway on a garden path.  

 Bumblebee stealing nectar from black and blue salvia

Bumblebee stealing nectar from black and blue salvia

 Robber fly catches a bumbleebee

Robber fly catches a bumbleebee

 Bullfrog female

Bullfrog female

This bullfrog female (note the ear drum is smaller than the eye) was sunning in a protected spot along a small creek. The male has a much larger ear drum which presumably assists in detecting the famous jug-o-rum calls that are exchanged between males and are involved in territorial disputes.

One of the common aquatic mammals that you may not often see is this muskrat which I noticed as it swam under a bridge. They are interesting as a specialized semi-aquatic mammal which feeds on herbaceous plants instead of the tree bark and shoots eaten by beavers. They have a flattened but narrow tail and webbed feet. The yellow flowers on the right are green headed cone flowers which are composites near their peak of flowering in late summer.

As the weather becomes cooler, turtles are seen basking more often along logs and rocks. This thermoregulation is useful in increasing metabolism of these reptiles that lack an internal metabolic means of heat generation. The warmth and drying also likely improve the health of their skin. These red-eared turtles are actually the result of babies that were kept as pets and released and thrived in local ponds. They are an invasive species in many places throughout the world.

 Red eared turtles sunning on a log

Red eared turtles sunning on a log

 Muskrat in Chestnut Creek

Muskrat in Chestnut Creek

Enjoy the last days of summer since they will soon enough disappear.  Already I have noticed that red leaves of black gum are falling, notifying us of the coming frosts.