"Bill Dunson"

The Wood Cutter Bee

This time of year our various farm out-buildings which are made out of untreated/unpainted wood receive some unwelcome visitors, the carpenter bees (genus Xylocopa based on the Greek name for wood cutter). These large bees (not the same as bumblebees which have a hairy abdomen) do two things that make them pests- they drill holes in wood for their nests and the males hover in a menacing fashion right in front of your face.

The holes are almost perfectly circular and it is remarkable how the bees are able to cut them out of wood with their jaws. The tunnels enter and then turn at right angles to parallel the edges of planks and can be a potential problem to the strength of the wood if there are enough of them. Although Wikipedia says that the burrows do not pose a threat to wood structures, you may judge for yourself from the photo of some siding with multiple burrows. It seems to be similar in some ways to the threat posed by teredo ship worms (actually a mollusk) to wooden-hulled ships in salt water; one or two is a minimal problem but a large number can indeed threaten the integrity of the wood.

Male carpenter bees have a whitish face, tend to hover close in front of you, but lack a stinger and are harmless. Females do have a stinger but are docile unless bothered. Males have larger eyes than females because of their mating behavior.

So do we tolerate these bees that can be a nuisance or exterminate them? This is an interesting conundrum that can often arise in dealing with animals that like to live around human habitation. Since many of our rather primitive sheds and barns are not really threatened by carpenter bees, I can afford to take a "live and let live attitude" and enjoy observing their antics.

For comparison I am attaching a photo of a bumblebee nectaring and obtaining pollen from a false indigo flower spike in our yard. The flowers have been unusually prolific this year perhaps due to heavy rainfall and the lack of killing frosts when the buds were forming. Note the hairy abdomen of the bumblebee (not always so easy to see beneath the folded wings), the huge amount of orange pollen stored on the hind legs, and the abundant grains of pollen scattered all over the legs, wings and body. Clearly this bumblebee is a pollinating machine! Indeed the entire story of how bumblebees operate in cool climates to forage, collect and store food is fascinating. For more information see a book by B. Heinrich entitled "Bumblebee Economics."

Bill Dunson, Galax,
VA & Englewood, FL

Fire & Water in the Blue Ridge

We like to briefly enjoy early spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains while visiting our farm near Galax, VA, in mid-March. It still freezes almost every night and we often need a roaring fire to keep warm, but a few days are sunny and the signs of early spring are all around. Tree swallows are migrating through, woodcocks are peenting, the spring peepers and wood frogs are breeding, and a few flowers are blooming.

A wildlife management tool we utilize at this time of year is burning of some of our grasslands. We are hoping to achieve a greater amount of open ground under and between the clumps of grasses and wildflowers to encourage grassland birds such as grasshopper and savannah sparrows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and quail. If you look at a panoramic photo of the area surrounding our 1880's farm house, you will notice a wide variety of habitat types: cow pasture in the foreground, hayfields made up of exotic grasses such as fescue in the background, restored meadows planted with 7 species of native grasses and 12 species of wildflowers, mowed lawn, gardens and various out-buildings, brush piles, marshes with spring-fed streams, small ponds, forests on the far horizon, and shrub borders/hedgerows. Such a diverse mosaic of habitat types is essential for maximizing biodiversity.

We have constructed 8 small ponds as part of our plan to increase habitat diversity and several of them can be seen in the photo of the house. An additional part of our plan is to maintain some ponds with and some without fish, since different communities of aquatic insects and amphibians will exist in these two situations. Three ponds near the house contain fish, in part due to colonization upstream from a creek below, and also from our stocking of the ponds. We also have four ponds that lack fish and which are beginning to attract amphibians that require such habitat. For example pond 7 (see photo) a tiny pond surrounded by woods, had 6 eggs masses of wood frogs deposited recently. The embryos are developing rapidly and will soon hatch and feed on the abundant algae. The adult wood frogs spend their entire lives in the woods except for a brief period at breeding. There was also one egg mass of the spotted salamander in fishless pond 8 nearby (see photo of milky egg mass). This was very exciting since these predatory salamanders are rare in our area. Their egg masses may be milky or clear; the cloudy masses contain large numbers of tiny crystals of protein that reflect light, but the purpose of this is unknown. It is known that the two egg mass varieties are laid by the same species. The egg masses usually become quite green later due to colonization by a symbiotic algae that helps to keep the embryos supplied with oxygen in exchange for carbon compounds excreted by the baby amphibians.

The only flower in bloom at this time was coltsfoot (see photo), introduced from Europe because it was widely used to treat colds and asthma. It has since become suspect since it contains toxins that can damage the liver. This close-up view reveals that this "flower" is in fact made up of numerous smaller "flowers" which carry out distinctly different functions. Thus the widespread and very common members of this Asteraceae or sunflower family used to be called "composites" since the flowers are made up of many individual flowers with functions that differ (ray and disc flowers). But I hardly thought of this as I simply enjoyed the first flower of spring.

So venture out beyond the confining walls of human habitation and enjoy the natural beauties of spring, one of the most wonderful times of year since it exemplifies rebirth and renewal of life after a winter period of quiescence.

Bill Dunson

Birds at Galax Thanksgiving week

We traveled back to Galax from Florida for Thanksgiving week and were not only surprised by the beautiful warm sunny weather but the number of birds and their willingness to vocalize. There were lots of sparrows (white crowned, white-throated, Savannah, field, swamp, song, chipping), a purple finch, 3 WINTER WRENS, a BROWN CREEPER, a YB sapsucker, hermit thrushes, 4 red tailed hawks in a group, a "pair" of HARRIERS, a kestrel, a sharpie, a KINGFISHER (still here!), lots of bluebirds, meadowlarks, cedar waxwings and the usual cast of characters. Our numerous and well cultivated "weeds" are getting a lot of attention from the seed eaters.

A quick photo out the window documented a behavior we had not seen before- namely a chickadee feeding on the seed pods of rose of Sharon or althaea. I knew that this hibiscus/mallow was very attractive to hummingbirds for its flower nectar, but the value of its seeds to winter birds had not been that obvious to me previously. So this is one exotic Asian species that is quite beneficial to birds. It can be invasive in some circumstances, but if you plant one of the newer hybrids that produces few seeds you will get the flowers but will not provide a benefit for winter birds. I advise planting the fertile varieties and just pulling up seedlings that are unwanted.

Margaret had incredible looks of close golden-crowned kinglets, in one case a kinglet with a huge yellow crown & next to it one with a large brilliant orange crown. So what is so different about the feeding habits of ruby crowned and golden crowned kinglets that the GCK can stay so far north while the RCK must migrate further south?

So overall we really enjoyed a late fall visit to SW VA, but aside from one autumn meadowhawk dragonfly, a few lethargic grasshoppers and a stink bug, the insects were MIA.

Bill & Margaret
Galax, VA

One Small Pond - One Big Wonder

One of the most amazing transformations occurs when you build a small pond and observe the arrival as if by magic of a whole host of organisms that fly, crawl, swim, drift and drop into the new aquatic habitat. Newly constructed aquatic habitats are the classic scenario of "build it and they will come." Our 107 acre paradise in the Virginia mountains had a variety of small streams and seeps when we arrived, but lacked any ponds. This represented not only an aesthetic deficit, but many species of birds, arthropods, amphibians, reptiles and plants were not present because of this lack. To remedy this situation we have built a series of pools along the bottoms of small valleys which had been channelized by the previous farmers intent on drying up the land and increasing their tillable acreage. To some extent this can be considered restoration of wetlands which used to be present historically, and to some extent creation of new habitat. Since our goal is to maximize habitat diversity and thus biodiversity, both approaches are valuable.

There is an old saying, to make an omelet you must break eggs. It is equally true that to restore and create new habitats you must modify what is present. This can be painful for those of us that like to think about ourselves as protectors of nature. However if I have learned one thing in life it is that biodiversity requires maintaining variety in habitat, and this often requires intervention by the landowner. Thus we maintain our grasslands by mowing, burning, planting and sometimes applying herbicides to kill unwanted exotic weeds. Similarly we maintain forest gaps by bulldozing openings and cutting selected trees and saplings. Creation and restoration of wetlands certainly requires similar kinds of intervention. The two main approaches we have used are to divert channelized streams back into what used to be wet meadows, and to excavate small ponds of various depths and sizes and build dams to hold appropriate amounts of water.

This story deals with what I call pond number two, originally built as a tiny "frog pond" about 20 feet in diameter, as a catchment basin below a larger 0.2 acre pond. It carries surface and spring-flow drainage from an area of grasslands down to a stream in the bottom of the valley. From the before and after photos you can see that it started as a raw clay-lined pond which gradually morphed into a pretty little pond with a profuse growth of planted pickerelweed and native rushes. We have had a wonderful variety of insects, fish, amphibians, and birds visiting and living within this pond within the three years of its existence. Although most of the plants you see in the photo came in naturally, I did plant pickerelweed which has beautiful blue flowers that are very attractive to butterflies (see photo of least skipper nectaring). The birds which have visited that are the most exciting have been migrants such as solitary sandpipers (see photo), marsh wrens and sora rails that pass through every year. Dragonflies and damselflies have accepted the wetland in large numbers. We have a total of about 28 species on our property to date but especially enjoy the green and shadow darners, blue dashers, widow and 12 spotted (see photo) skimmers, common whitetails and bluets which swirl around the pond feeding and breeding. Since this pond is connected by a small stream to a larger valley stream, fish have worked their way into the pond; these are mainly green sunfish which although generally considered to be somewhat undesirable as gamefish, provide an ecological balance as food for our green and great blue herons and kingfishers.

So look around your property and see if you can find a low spot with a bit of surface or groundwater flow that might allow you to build a wetland. It will repay your efforts many times over in the astonishing abundance of new life that will come.

Bill Dunson

Galax, VA and Englewood, FL

Why are some Snakes Black?

Red shouldered hawk. ┬ęBill Dunson

It is a normal reaction for the human mind to become accustomed to certain things and not to question them. So among the myriad of things I come into contact with every week I often see a large black snake whether I am in VA or FL. In VA this is a black rat snake and in FL a black racer. Although they resemble one another superficially they are not closely related and differ in several significant details. For example the black rat snake is a very accomplished climber and feeds heavily on birds (see photo right, black rat snake eating a starling) it is a relatively slow mover, it constricts its prey, has keeled scales on the back, and has flecks of white intermingled with its shiny black exterior. The black racer can move very quickly and tends to remain on or near the ground, it does not constrict its prey, it has smooth scales, and is colored a dull black color. So why are both of these two snakes so similar in color, and why black?

The story becomes even stranger when one looks at the juvenile snakes (see photos). Both are mottled in coloration and again somewhat similar. In addition to the differences in the shapes of the head and body (rat snake has a "loaf of bread" configuration, the better to climb trees), the blotched pattern is somewhat different. For example look at the top of the tail where the racer has no pattern and the rat snake has blotches. The purpose of this immature pattern seems clear as a means of camouflage. Indeed another member of the rat snake clan, the southern yellow rat or chicken snake has a similarly blotched, if yellowish juvenile.
Juvenile Black Racer. ┬ęBill Dunson

The purpose of the black coloration in the adults is less clear. In the north there are both black rat snakes and black racers, often in the same general areas. In the far south, in addition to plentiful black racers, there are yellow, red (corn) and gray rat snakes but no black rat snakes. So there is some geographic effect on the presumed value of the black coloration. The purpose of the coloration seems most likely to be related to protection from predators and/or a means of camouflage while the snake is hunting prey. One intriguing theory I have heard is the possibility that, depending on color, the unusual sinuous movement of snakes can make it difficult for predators to focus on a spot to attack. So snakes which are black or striped may receive some protection from capture by a predator such as the red shouldered hawk. These medium-sized hawks spend a lot of time perched in trees watching the ground for any movement. Some hesitation in attacking because it was hard to focus on the prey might be crucial in allowing a snake to escape. At least this is a plausible theory that might be tested. What are your favorite theories?

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Bullfrog tadpoles or not?

Tadpoles can be tough to identify and I do not often have the patience to count tooth rows or such. I netted some tadpoles yesterday at one of our ponds where I know that both bullfrogs and green frogs are present. I only know for certain that bullfrogs have bred here. Many of the older tadpoles (see photos) show distinct black spots. If I recall correctly, such punctate, clearly defined spots are characteristic of bullfrog tadpoles, not green frogs.Does anyone else have similar or different experiences?

Bill Dunson, Galax

The Summer "horn of plenty"

In walking around our farm in this late Summer period I am struck by the exuberant production of Nature including flowers, fruits, seeds, green vegetation, etc. I especially notice the fruits of the hackberry (likely Celtis occidentalis), which grows along one of our fence lines. This is not a species I see often although it is touted as a bird-friendly plant because of its fruits. We have tried planting it and its more southern relative the sugarberry, without a great deal of success. I think it requires a richer soil and more moisture than our sites generally provide.

Another beautiful and bird-friendly plant is the relatively rare cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) which is highly specialized for pollination by hummingbirds. It has a very interesting ecology since it is a poor competitor with grasses and thus is found most often along streams, disturbed by occasional floods, or in wet areas of pastures where competition is reduced by grazing. It appears to be poisonous, as is ironweed, and is thus not eaten by horses. Ironweed is also one of our favorites due to its wonderful flowers and attraction to butterflies, and later to seed eating sparrows, such as the white crowned which spends Winters here on the farm.

Of course we should not ignore the growth of grasses and their abundant seeds which provide food for many animals. Indeed some herbaceous plants that farmers may consider weedy and less than desirable can be highly beneficial for wildlife. For example consider the foxtail (various Setaria species), grasses that flourish in Summer if the competition from cold-season grasses such as fescue is removed by cutting in mid-June. If you allow this to grow (we have a patch next to our garden) it will attract resident indigo buntings and even migrating bobolinks to harvest its seeds.

In contrast to this late Summer explosion of plant growth, most birds are past their breeding periods and are relatively quiet, many have begun migration, or are filling their bellies with the "horn of plenty" available all around them from the natural foods that have sustained them for eons. Given the luxury of such natural foods, it is very hard to justify artificial feeding of birds in the Summer. Let's try to balance our desire to enjoy birds in a backyard setting at feeders, with the best interests of the birds themselves. There is an alternative that can serve both the best interests of birds and their human watchers, namely the planting of appropriate native and exotic plants around our houses that provide foods in a manner consistent with natural patterns of behavior.

Bill Dunson
Galax, Va & Englewood, FL

Mayfly on the porch

One of the best ways to see some new insects is to leave the back porch light on a bit during these dog days of Summer. Here is a visitor to our porch last night in Baywood/Grayson County, VA. I believe that this is an adult mayfly, possibly a burrowing mayfly of the genus Hexagenia.
If anyone knows better please inform me. This group lives for long periods as a larva in the sediments of streams and lakes and thus the immature form is rarely seen. In contrast the adults do not feed and die after about one day, hopefully after reproducing- thus the name of the order Ephemeroptera (ephemeral life). A pretty strange life reminiscent of periodical cicadas.


Hornworms or hummers?

My wife and I have devoted a lot of effort to providing plants for wildlife to utilize for food and shelter. I greatly prefer to have a plant provide nectar for hummingbirds than to put out a feeder with sugar water. Coral or trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a native species that provides a beautiful red flower with abundant nectar for hummingbirds (see photo above). This seems to be an unequivocal win for the garden since it is beautiful, hardy, and highly attractive to hummingbirds. But today I discovered the "rest of the story" as it pertains to the biology of this wonderful honeysuckle.

As I sat rocking on our porch without a care in the world, I suddenly noticed something troubling- there were bare spots on our two honeysuckle vines and tell-tale small dark pellets on the ground underneath. The pellets seemed to be "frass" or caterpillar poop and this indicated something was eating our valuable vines! A quick search and about 10 minutes picking produced the haul shown in the photograph of a group of caterpillars, mostly green but a few brown. A close-up of one of the more common green ones (see photo below right) indicated that this was clearly a hornworm with a terminal harmless spine. I checked this out in the "bible" of caterpillar identification (Wagner's "Caterpillars of Eastern North America") and found a match with the snowberry clearwing sphinx moth. This moth in fact resembles a hummingbird in its flight characteristics and feeding on nectar, but mimics a bumblebee as a means of protection from avian predators.

So here I had a conundrum- some very interesting caterpillars of a species that I value were competing with both hummingbirds and their own adult stage by eating the plant that produces their nectar. My solution for the moment is to pick off all the caterpillars that I can find (far from an easy chore since they are VERY well camouflaged- green and subtly counter-shaded to blend in extremely well with the foliage) and put them in a container where I will feed them on less valuable honeysuckles until they get ready to pupate, when I will release them.

So what have we learned- that once again Nature is more complex than our simple mindsets, and that manipulation of plants for our purposes is often diverted to other ends? This provides an education for us to remain open to new ideas and to value this complexity and not to find it frustrating. Indeed it is exciting that the unexpected can break out and astound us- we have only to be observant and find wonder in the events as they unfold. I also learned that I can sometimes learn more while rocking on the porch and contemplating Nature from that perspective than hiking in the woods and fields!

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Giant swallowtail in Grayson County, VA

An exciting sighting at our butterfly bushes today at 7 PM was a giant swallowtail (see photos). It is a difficult critter to photograph since it constantly flutters its wings while feeding.
I see one of these every few years but they are sporadic. It was a very huge year for tiger swallowtails but this may have not impacted the giants which is logical since they have different food plants.
Bill Dunson
Galax, VA

Marvelous milkweeds

I am a huge fan of milkweeds due to their special attraction not only to monarch butterflies but also to a considerable list of other insects that are milkweed specialists, and some generalists who use milkweeds as a community to forage in. But the problem is that those of us that own hay fields will cut the grass including the milkweeds once or usually more per year, slaughtering the marvelous milkweeds. However I have come up with a compromise that I think both feeds the cows, and preserves the milkweed community. See what you think of my solution.
My plan is to cut the grasslands only once per year and that is in mid to late June in our location here in the SW Virginia mountains. This serves not only to harvest the grass for use in fodder but removes woody vegetation that invades the grasslands, and removes a layer of cold-season grasses (such as fescue) that are primarily exotic to this area. This releases the warm-season grasses and allows them to grow and produce a crop of seeds by Fall for use by native birds. But you may ask what about the milkweeds and their fate? It appears to me that this regime may actually be beneficial to the milkweed community in the following way. I retain a certain number of fields that are not cut except very occasionally (they are burned every three years in late Winter) and which have natural populations of milkweeds (in this case mainly the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca). The fields that were cut this year on June 17 began about seven weeks later in early August to produce a wonderful crop of milkweed flowers, while the uncut milkweeds are setting seed and are no longer blooming. The leaves of the uncut milkweeds are old and tough whereas the cut and regrown milkweeds have young tender leaves. Thus my single-cut method of harvesting hay fields stretches out the milkweed season but does not obliterate it, as would happen if the fields were to be harvested a second time, a common practice among farmers to maximize hay production. Also I have noticed that the monarchs often do not arrive in this area in time to fully utilize the naturally cycling milkweeds, and indeed seem to use the "second crop" milkweeds extensively.
Some illustrations of the re-grown milkweeds are shown in photos of an adult monarch gathering nectar from a "second crop" flower, of a female yellow morph tiger swallowtail also nectaring on a re-grown plant, and a monarch caterpillar feeding on a re-grown leaf. Surely there is much yet to learn about the characteristics of milkweeds that are cut and then sprout again- do they provide proper food at tolerable levels of toxins, and in a timetable that is appropriate? Certainly it appears from my observations that this is a win-win situation that can preserve the habitat of many species that depend on milkweeds while also providing some income for the farmer. Of course subsequent hay cuttings must be sacrificed for the pleasure of observing and fostering the milkweed animal community, and providing enhanced food and cover for birds in Fall and Winter.
One of the other lesser known insects that I encounter among our milkweeds is a bit sinister- the famous assassin or wheel bug (see photo)! It is a predator with a wicked beak, a poisonous bite and a reputation for delivering a painful zap with its tubular mouth. It eats insects that come to the milkweeds and it would be interesting to observe whether it is capable of devouring those that are protected by the milkweed toxins, in contrast to others such as tiger swallowtails that are not.
So many puzzles and so little time! So get out there and check out the milkweeds and their fascinating inhabitants.
Bill Dunson
Galax, VA
Englewood, FL

Another Beautiful Mystery Flower

Do you know what this flower is?
If you have a guess, let us know!

While hiking north of Elk Garden (between Whitetop & Mt Rogers) along the Appalachian Trail performing a bird survey, a group of us noticed quite a few flower stalks in the forest at about 5000 feet elevation, perhaps 7-10 inches high with a tuft of white flowers at the end. But there were no leaves evident.
I am not familiar with this strange plant and cannot find it in any of my books. It reminds me in some ways of a mountain lily (Clintonia) without leaves, and vaguely resembles book photos of a false asphodel, which I have never seen.
Any help will be appreciated.
Bill Dunson
Galax, VA

Beware the red eft

While on one of my daily nature walks I looked down and spotted one of the true beauties of the woods, a red eft (see photo). They wander around, especially after rains and are very slow-moving and unafraid. Of course there is a reason for this- they are protected by a very potent poison, tetrodotoxin. You cannot be poisoned by handling the young newt, but if you eat it your nerve cells will have some severe problems. The bright orange/red coloration of red efts, which are juvenile stages of the red-spotted newt, clearly warns potential predators to leave them alone. As the red efts mature into adults, they become more greenish-yellow (see second photo). The adults return to the water where the gilled larvae started life and spend the rest of their lives there. This "reverse" life history (embryos, gilled larvae and adults are aquatic, but juveniles are terrestrial) is in contrast to typical amphibians, where only the embryos and larvae are aquatic. While there is much about this process that is unclear, it does seem likely that such an alternation of generations between habitats is probably a means of minimizing competition for limited food resources. One strange thing is that not all populations of newts have an eft stage, perhaps due to unsuitability of land habitats or less competition for food in the water. A similar phenomenon may cause retention of gills in some populations of tiger salamanders (leading to presence of aquatic, reproductively adult axolotls that resemble gilled larvae).

Another really interesting feature of red efts is that they are probably mimicked by other amphibians such as the red salamander (see photo). This latter creature is apparently tasty but may be protected by its resemblance to the very toxic red eft. Isn't it intriguing how the color red has come to be used as both a warning and an attractant, for example as the prime color for flowers used for nectar by hummingbirds, and as the color of ripe fruits? Remember also that the recognition of the color red requires that an animal has color vision, which many mammals do not. So the target predators for this red-hued message by the efts is likely to be birds.

Here we have another example of the complex interactions that govern the lives and appearance of critters- just amazing!

-Bill Dunson

Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Those amazing and confusing Spring flowers

Flowers are of course some of the most beautiful objects within Nature's realm and they can be considered at a number of emotional and intellectual levels. If one thinks simply of the amazing variations in color and form, flowers can be perceived purely in terms of these aspects without any thought given to how or why they may look like this. There is nothing wrong with this "child-like" appreciation of flowers or nature in general, although it usually leads to a gradual accumulation of knowledge about natural patterns that are observed, and thus a more intellectual approach that involves some directed study. You might argue that asking questions about flowers might diminish their wonder, but I think it is actually the opposite. The more one learns about natural objects, the more fascinating and remarkable they become.

For example in walking around our farm in this glorious Spring-time I am struck by the diversity in form and color of flowers and what this might mean to their function. To take just three examples which are in bloom at this moment in early May, consider the "flowers" of the Fraser magnolia, the cranberry viburnum, and the ox-eye daisy (see attached photos). I put "flowers" in quotes to indicate that these flowers differ considerably in their structure. The magnolia is a very large single flower. The viburnum contains a group of flowers which are not equal- the large white flowers around the edge are sterile and are apparently designed to attract insects to the small fertile hermaphroditic flowers in the center. The familiar daisy (a composite) is a complex group of a large number of flowers which are specialized to produce either ray/petal or disc flowers; but the overall effect is that one is observing a single flower! You can see how these could represent an evolutionary sequence from the more primitive (magnolia) to the more advanced (daisy).

So what is a flower? It is simply a reproductive structure whose sole function is to propagate the species. The wonder lies in the incredibly complex forms and variations in patterns of growth, pollination and seed dispersal. Does the exhilarating riot of color and form exist only because of the eyes of insects and birds with color vision who will pollinate the flowers and disperse the seeds? Probably so, but we can consider ourselves fortunate that we are descended from primates with color vision who needed to be able to distinguish between ripe and green fruits and to distinguish leaf color.

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

Migrating with the darners!

We are "migrating" north to our VA farm tomorrow from SW FL and the most interesting natural event this morning locally was a virtual swarm of large greenish darners flying around at Cedar Pt park. The only one I could find on the ground is shown in an attached photo- I am guessing it is a juvenile green darner. Those odonatologists out there please let me know if I am wrong. I assume these are migrating from S FL or even the Caribbean, or possibly including d'flies which have just emerged from local ponds? There are quite a few large darner nymphs in local wetlands.
The question is do these dragonflies actually migrate to VA/NC- I am assuming this but wonder if they can over-winter as nymphs in VA? I know that the adult green darners abruptly leave our VA ponds in late Summer (and thus appear to be migrating) and are replaced by equally large shadow darners well into the Fall- I assume they are also migrating south but may be more tolerant of cold than the green darner.
So let us not forget that even "lowly" insects can do amazing things like migrate over long distances.
Cheers- Bill

What eggs are those?

On a visit to Chapel Hill on March 22 I was astonished at how many spotted salamander eggs/embryos were present in ponds of the area, especially in and near the UNC North Campus site.

If you are not too familiar with spotted salamanders eggs you may not realize that they can present a variety of patterns from clear, to greenish to milky white. The younger egg masses are clear or milky (the latter a variant with tiny crystals of protein in the jelly matrix for some as yet unknown reason). As they age a symbiotic green alga begins to grow inside the embryonic capsules and this is assumed to have a beneficial effect on supplying oxygen to the larvae.

An egg mass of a wood frog (from Grayson County, VA) is shown for comparison- in general they are clear and contain larger numbers of eggs per mass and the individual jelly capsules are more distinct. But they can also get quite greenish as they mature.

Since both of these species avoid ponds with fish they have relatively few places to breed in Grayson County. I think migrating shorebirds such as solitary and spotted sandpipers probably take a considerable toll of the hatched larvae if given an opportunity.

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA

Jack or Jill in the pulpit?

A brief and comforting glimpse into our snowless future, from Bill Dunson:

I imagine most of you are familiar with the Jack-in-the-pulpit which is a not uncommon wildflower in wet woods of eastern North America. However I doubt if any of you have encountered this interesting member of the arum family on Feb. 7 in bloom as I did today at Lemon Bay Park in Sarasota County, FL. Taylor lists it as missing from Sarasota County which indicates how special this fresh water swamp is on the shore of Lemon Bay.

The pulpit or spathe surrounds the spadix (Jack and/or Jill - let us not be male chauvinists!) which holds the flowers. They are fertilized by flies attracted to the odor and heat of the flowers. Remember that their cousin skunk cabbage (also an arum) has a similar means of attracting pollinators. Young plants tend to have all male flowers; there are more female flowers as they age. Indeed some studies have shown that the predominant sex of the flowers is determined by the condition of the plant. If it has been a good year and the plant is healthy and has a good supply of nutrients in its bulb, it becomes female. In a bad year it produces male flowers. Why do you suppose this could be a good strategy for reproduction? Consider that it is "cheaper" to be a male and produce a lot of pollen to fertilize other plants. Producing fruits with seeds is a lot more expensive in terms of energy and a poor year could result in very few prospects for reproduction in female mode.

Pulpits (Indian turnip) can be eaten if properly prepared, but contain calcium oxalate crystals and other toxins that are poisonous. Fruits are bright red and are presumably eaten by birds and dispersed.

So watch out for the marvelous if somewhat sexually confusing Jack/Jill in the Pulpit in early Spring in your area.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

And a follow-up story from Bill:
On a second visit to my pulpit site in a freshwater swamp I noticed a difference in the distribution of male and female plants. There seemed to be a correlation between sunlight forest canopy gaps (mostly red bays here as an over-story) and the presence of more large, female plants (which have two leaves). The male-flowering plants only have one leaf and thus fewer resources available. I also opened the bottom of the spathe to see the actual flowers clustered at the base of the spadix (see photos). There is quite a difference in appearance of the two kinds of flowers.
Pulpits seem to be a common member of the early-blooming wildflower community so look for them in damp areas (boggy spots or north-facing wooded slopes) along with May-apples in your area. Note that May-apples have a similar resource-based flowering in that only plants with two leaves will flower. A similar phenomenon occurs with ginseng in that a minimum number of leaves is necessary for flower and fruit production.

Bill Dunson

The tranquility of Nature- NOT!

A story from Bill Dunson of three species that frequent the woods and river valleys of the Blue Ridge highlands. Have you ever considered these types of interactions?

There can sometimes be great drama in the lives of birds as well as humans, as we have been observing a pair of ospreys and their tormentors, a pair of great horned owls. We have not directly observed all the specific interactions of these two wonderful species, but can surmise what must be happening. It appears that the owls drove a pair of ospreys from their nest and occupied it (see photo of owl's head just above the edge of the nest). Then the ospreys moved further down the island at Stump Pass State Park and built another nest (see photo) and seemed to be happily engaged in domestic bliss. But just yesterday it appeared that the osprey pair had left the nest and were flying around somewhat distraught. The male was carrying a stick and chasing the female and no one was minding the nest. We are afraid that something may have happened to the baby ospreys or the eggs; perhaps the owls are involved or not- we do not know.
A pair of bald eagles also moved from a nearby nest site occupied last year and built a new nest in a tall Norfolk Island pine just north of the owls, where all seems to be well, except that here we can see in a great photo by Paula Kaye that an immature eagle is harassing the adult on the nest! Eagles also have quite a lot of trouble from owls themselves but in this case junior may want to inherit Mom's territory or maybe is just curious about what married life is like.
So when we might think sometimes about how wonderful and stress-free the lives of animals wild and free in nature must be- think again! Life is a struggle, perhaps for creatures great and small?
Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL

Banded shorebirds on the loose

In the great expansive outdoors, it is nearly undeniable that all things are connected in some way. Ecosystems overlap and changes in one will have affect upon others. This is made more possible by the components of ecosystems that move around a lot, like birds, large mammals and insects. Other very fluid parts of systems are streams and air. They transport bits and pieces over great distances. Within this realm of connectivity, one can imagine distant patterns of activity having repercussions locally. One can imagine, on the geologic scale, a mountain range reducing to the sands that blanket our coastal plain and continental shelf. One can also see the importance of a highland river to the health of a shore ecosystem, as it carries nutrients that continually replenish the food source of millions of plants and animals in far off places.
The New River in these highlands is one such provider, sending its bounty to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There the shore birds feed upon the resulting plethora of food.

Below is a recent post from Bill Dunson, focused primarily on banded shorebirds and their migratory movements. Immediately upon reading this I wondered if any shorebirds make it to the Blue Ridge during migration?...to the headwaters that drive nutrient flow to the shores. Upon inquiring to a few bird "experts", the answer is yes! Shore birds in the Mountains, rare as it may be, happens. Keep your eyes open! Here are a few that have been verified:

"shorebirds that I see at least once per year are sanderlings, woodcock, Wilson's snipe, spotted sandpiper, least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, and yellowlegs. I have also seen semipalmated sandpiper and short-billed dowitcher. Other species are much more irregular."

From Bill:

You might be interested to know that there is a huge effort to band and track shorebirds underway in the Gulf of Mexico and some of these birds may come your way at some point. I was at Don Pedro Island State Park yesterday on the SW coast of FL and was pleased to see a flock of about 85 red knots feeding in the surf.
I did not have binoculars since I was "beaching" with the grandkids but did have my trusty 18x camera. I took some random photos and was surprised to find that 5 of the birds were banded in an unusual way. There is the usual silver metallic USFWS band on the ankle,but also a colored strip with letters and a number. So for example in the photo attached the code seems to be upper right leg/light green/JN4.
I found a website which solicits reports on such banded birds: bandedbirds.org
The website allows you to report your findings and check on previous reports of the individual sighted. This particular group of red knots has been working its way up and down this coast between Clearwater and Sanibel Island since banding. But they will be heading north I suppose to Delaware Bay in the Spring.
So look closer when you see some shorebirds and maybe you will be able to help solve some of nature's mysteries, the migratory movements of our wonderful shorebirds.

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

A tale of 2 "nutty" butterflies- the buckeyes

Lemon Bay Preserve in southern Venice, FL, is an interesting place for many reasons, but it has some remarkable butterflies illustrating the role of habitat differences in speciation. For example during a nature walk there yesterday we saw a mangrove buckeye butterfly in a tidal area sitting on some saltwort (see photo). The name is a bit strange since the buckeye tree does not occur here; the tree is named for its large brown nuts which somewhat resemble the eye of a deer/buck. Indeed this butterfly does have 6 distinctive eye-spots, likely useful in deterring predatory birds. Buckeye butterflies often sit in open areas with their wings spread, allowing an observer to admire their unusual coloration. What really excites me about buckeyes at Lemon Bay Preserve is that there are actually two different but closely related species there, the mangrove and common buckeyes. The other photo shows a common buckeye that I found there on another day. If you look carefully you will notice some subtle but distinctive differences between these two sibling species. The common has lighter or even white borders to the large eye-spot on the fore-wing; in addition the two eye-spots on its hind-wings are much more different in size than in the mangrove buckeye. While these differences are clear, they are not so striking that it is that easy to recognize them in the field.

So what is going on here? How can two closely related species co-exist in the same area without competing? The common buckeye is by far the most widespread in N. America (larvae feed on gerardia, toadflax & plantain) whereas the mangrove buckeye, as its name indicates, is primarily limited to the sub-tropical tidal coastline, and its caterpillar feeds mainly on black mangroves. This situation illustrates one mechanism by which new species originate- habitat specialization within one species splits off a separate species. Whereas speciation normally requires considerable geographic separation, the degree of isolation here is very small and due to juxtaposition of two distinctively different habitats (saline mangroves and adjacent uplands). Sometimes the argument is made that evolution is hard to observe, but here in our backyard we can actually see the end results among two "nutty" buckeye butterflies!

Bill Dunson
Englewood, FL & Galax, VA