Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Signs are taken for wonders

Our bedroom window faces east, and we have, across the fields, an unobstructed view of the sunrise. The technicolor ones with all the clouds are wonderful, but my favorite is simply the red ball of the sun rising into a blue sky. From years of watching I can almost tell you the date by the position of the sun. On the darkest day, December 21st, it is all the way to the right (south), and in my line of sight it comes up through the trees of my right-side neighbor's backyard. Then as the days go on it works its way to the left (north) so that I am looking through my own backyard towards the point where it rises. Then the sunrise point goes out of sight behind my outbuilding, reemerging weeks later to the left of the building and now in my left-side neighbor's land, going behind his small outbuilding, and finally becomes visible to the left of that by the summer solstice. I hear people in Alaska have a moment of depression on that first day of summer, because it means the sun will turn around and the days will begin shortening again towards winter darkness.

I'm the opposite. From the time of the winter solstice, I begin watching for signs of spring, and obviously a first sign is the days getting longer. You think that would mean every morning the sun would come up, say, a minute earlier, and the sun would set a minute later in the evening, but it doesn't work that way. The rotation of the earth is skewed. Yes, the sun goes down later every evening, but for another several weeks after the solstice, the sun is still rising later every morning. For instance, around the solstice it was rising at 7:00. When I looked at it a week ago, it was rising at 7:08. But now a couple of days ago I checked, and it came up at 7:05. It was finally going in the right direction, an important mile post. A funny thing is, the sun has already worked its way so far north that it is almost going out of sight behind our outbuilding.

Yesterday it was sunny and a little warmer, the higher 50s, and we went up to Crowley's Ridge State Park in Greene County for a walk and a search for signs of spring. We walked up a dirt trail flushing big American Bird Grasshoppers from time to time, but they don't count as a sign of spring. They are the most winter-active large insects that I know of. The beech trees, however, were beginning to push out their long pointed buds. So were the buds on the red buckeyes beginning to move. I like the whole process of the red buckeyes coming out. The bud itself is beautiful, and it slowly opens into exquisite brightly colored leaves, then finishes up with its spray of red flowers that are synchronized to open just as the hummingbirds arrive. Every year I mean to photograph each step, but always forget.

Cheryl looked down at her feet and saw a white oak acorn had split open and was sending its root down into the forest litter.

A few flowers were actually blooming. The tiny white flowers of hairy bitter cress were showing. They are always one of the first things out, the flowers rising up from their basal rosette of leaves.  Also out was a single frost-nipped dandelion with a flower fly landed on it. Flower flies are among the earliest spring insects. There are dozens of kinds of of them, frequently bee or wasp mimics (though they are quite harmless themselves). They are important pollinators, and the larvae of many kinds are carnivorous, feeding on aphids.

We saw a movement in the dead leaves; a tiny thing had hopped. That was grasshopperly behavior, so we scoured the leaves and finally spotted a tiny nymph. Grasshoppers are among those insects that don't have full metamorphosis. A butterfly, for instance goes from egg to caterpillar, molts several times growing steadily larger, then forms a pupa, at last emerging as the adult butterfly, totally different from the larval form. A grasshopper goes from egg to small grasshopper, molts half a dozen times becoming a larger grasshopper with gradually developing wings, and finally in its last molt becomes a fully mature grasshopper, with fully developed wings and genitalia. In this case there has not been a dramatic change between immature and mature forms. Now I shouldn't exaggerate this. The young grasshoppers change enough in shape from molt to molt that it is often very difficult to identify what adult a tiny nymph will end up becoming. I normally ignore nymphs. But this particular nymph was immediately identifiable by the high arching keel on its pronotum (the cover over its thorax). It was an Autumn Yellow-winged Grasshopper. As the name suggests, the adult form suddenly appears later in the summer and then is active until late in the fall. In fact they were still common in mid-November last year, and probably would have been out until December except there was a spate of bad weather after which I didn't see them. The eggs can barely have lain in the soil for two months, before the little ones emerged. So with good luck this little one might live actively for ten months, a very long time for an insect to live without diapause. At any rate this little creature neatly closes the circle of the year: One of the last grasshoppers seen is the same species as nearly the first one seen. I'll put its picture here next to a picture of a last year's adult.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Almost nothing, but always something

After a couple of days of rain, sunny with wispy clouds, and low 50s.

We walk around Craighead Forest Lake, as always wearing our binoculars. But there is very little in the way of birdlife (a flock of 35 white-fronted geese flies over), and virtually no sign of insect life. Well, there is one sign of life: In the bare branches of a small birch tree on the edge of the lake we easily pick out four walnut-sized cocoons of the polyphemus moth, a spectacular big silk moth. Cheryl takes a picture of one of the cocoons. It reminds us of the pair we saw mating in our back yard last year.

We get back home and eat our lunch looking out the dining room window at one of our bird feeders. A southern bog lemming darts out from under the leaves from time to time to grab a spilled sunflower seed then darts back into hiding again. I snap a blurry picture of it through the glass.

Three days ago our downy woodpecker started  drumming, and now he is tolerating a female in the yard. This is a sure sign of spring approaching.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Beauty of Rarity, or, the Commonness of Beauty?

Cheryl and I were walking around Craighead Forest Lake yesterday. Out on the water were the usual big white barnyard-like geese, the fake mallards, the fake muscovy ducks, and especially, the flocks of "non-migratory" Canadas which are such a nuisance these days. Three in a line swam by close to us and we noticed a half-sized Canada manfully paddling along behind, trying to keep up. Normally we wouldn't glance at a park Canada, but suddenly we were all attention.

We scrutinized the round head, the tiny bill, the short neck, the dark breast: It was a Cackling that had flown in and joined the tame birds. It was something of a rarity, and we noticed how handsome the plumage was, the shape, the pattern. And only as an afterthought realized how handsome the virtually identical big Canadas were.

This morning it was sunny and clear, and we set out looking for a snowy owl. We drove country roads in western Craighead and eastern Jackson counties between the Cache and Black Rivers, open wet fields full of raptors in winter, suggesting abundant prey is available. Almost immediately we came to a huge field completely covered with snow geese, some unimaginable number of tens of thousands. They were close to the road and I stopped carefully to avoid setting them off, and we scanned the flock quickly. Lined up along one side were a number of Ross's geese, getting commoner these days but still a little bit special. Down at one end were a few white-fronted geese, keeping to themselves. Otherwise there was nothing but endless snow geese, so we drove on.

There were the usual shrikes, kestrels, harriers (virtually all males this day), and one redtail after another, in all their different plumages. We tuned them out, concentrating instead on every white bleach bottle or white plastic bag on the far sides of the fields.

Of course I knew what the odds were. There very possibly were two or three snowy owls in the state at the moment, but most likely they were coming down the Arkansas River Valley from Oklahoma. They wouldn't be up here.

We were passing by flooded fields, one chock-a-block with shovelers, the next with pintails. We were scrutinizing little white chimneys perched on top of distant farm machines. In the morning we had gone first to the southern part of our area, now we were returning along a northern route, and pulled up overlooking empty fields to eat our lunch. Miles to the south of us must have been that spot where we had seen all the snow geese. Either someone had stopped his car and walked out to them, or perhaps an eagle had flown low over them, anyway there was a sudden dark cloud of them, too far away to see individuals, but it was the entire mass. It gained elevation, then spread out in a long line across the horizon like dissipating smoke.

We chewed on our sandwiches, and when we looked again they must have turned because now they were coming towards us. When they got close enough to see as individuals, we looked with our binoculars and they had already set their wings in a glide. They were going to land right in front of us. It was a very gradual lengthy process. First they continued rising higher and higher, then they began circling like the world's biggest wash basin beginning to drain. Out of the bottom of the vortex individual geese began spilling out, corkscrewing crazily towards the ground. The bravest (or most foolhardy) geese had already hovered and then dropped the last few feet to the ground while the wariest were still rising into the clouds.

The solid tide of white spread across the ground towards us and took shape, all the white-fronts in rows closest to us, the snows behind them in family groups with the grayish youngsters. All necks were raised stiffly, then one by one they dropped their heads to graze.

We finished our lunch and I drove off as carefully as I could, but even so those massed nearest us leaped into the air with a concussive sound. Cheryl snapped some pictures out the window as we drove through them. I could see them in the mirror circling back and landing.

Now all owls are beautiful, and snowys perhaps even more so with their huge yellow eyes and trusting childlike expression, and here they have the special value of being supreme rarities. But I'm thinking back to when we lived in Washington state before moving here, and a few snowys showed up every winter, and in a big year you could stand in one place and count a hundred. When I drove to work in the morning I would notice them on their various fence posts, but I didn't bother to stop and put the binoculars on them. What I'm trying to say is, a flock of tens of thousands of snow geese circling into a rice field from a great height, or starting up in a brief panic, must be the greatest and most beautiful avian spectacle in Arkansas, but we would turn our backs on it in a second if, say, a dull winter-plumaged golden-crowned sparrow turned up.

"Cheryl," I said. "Do you know what I've just realized: the redtail is the most beautiful hawk in North America!"

Or am I just saying all this because we didn't find a snowy owl?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is there life without bugs?

The cold dark has closed in again.

When I opened my eyes about seven, my weather station said 33 degrees, 99 percent humidity. The famous lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (he was also a novelist) as a little boy in Russia would wake up in the morning and look to see if the sun was shining through the curtains. If it was, it meant it would be a good day for butterflying, if it wasn't, he went back to bed. I'm one of thousands of citizen scientists across the country who checks his official CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network) rain gauge at seven every morning and reports how much rain has fallen in the past twenty-four hours, so I had to get up.

No rain had fallen, but I could feel a mist on my face, and fog obscured the bare row-crop fields behind the house. When I got back in the house, Cheryl had already gone online and checked the Arkansas bird reports, and it seems some non-birdwatcher had taken a picture of a snowy owl down by Hot Springs in the center of the state and it was printed in a local newspaper. It's a snowy owl invasion year, and they have been seen as far south as Missouri and Oklahoma, and the Arkansas birders were dying to get one in their own state. But by the time the word got around, the bird hadn't been seen for a week.

Since this is a Sunday, I imagine every birder in the state is going to be driving the roads around where the bird was last seen. I thought: Cheryl and I will just drive the roads in northeast Arkansas and find our own snowy. We got everything ready to go, and then I went outside and realized the fog was now so thick I couldn't see across the front yard.

So I'm sitting here at my computer thinking, Well, that's a reminder that in winter (at least when it's not foggy) there are other things than insects around, birds and mammals, for instance. The acre lot our house is built on has been planted and managed entirely to attract wildlife, which means a pond in the back and the rest mostly native stuff allowed to run wild. Our guiding moral principle comes from the great British landscape authority Oliver Rackham ("The Illustrated History of the Countryside"): "You must learn to despise the word 'tidiness.'"

So in the 35 years we have lived here we have recorded twenty or so species of mammals on the property, undoubtedly missing some of the smaller ones. We try to practice ahimsa, reverence for life, which means everything is welcome, at least until it begins to cause trouble. At first we were charmed when the opossums moved in with us. One day we looked out the back window and an opossum gathered up a pile of dead leaves and wrapped his prehensile tail around them to carry them under the house. After that when we took our bath we could hear him in his nest under the bathtub scratching and snoring. Then the ticks and fleas began invading the bathroom, then he began ripping the insulation off our central-heating ducts to line his nest, so one night when he was out on his rounds I sealed off all the openings to under the house.

That was not the worst. When the fields behind the house are harvested, all the small rodents move to our back yard. One year it was brown ('Norway") rats. These are filthy scary things in cities, but out in the country they are more like regular animals, and are actually rather handsome. I learned that they are technically considered to be burrowing animals. They came to the compost pile we have in the back back yard, where we put all our soft garbage, and sure enough they dug burrows with runs between them and it was fun to watch them sitting at the mouths of their burrows, or racing down their runs, like a miniature prairie dog town. Then one night we had four inches of snow. When I checked back there I saw their little footprints where they had all deserted the compost beds, run along the side of our outbuilding (where we have our garage and my study), crossed the driveway, and made a bee-line to one of the vents leading under the house, burrowed under the screen blocking the vent, and entered the house.

They were a disaster. They sounded like ponies galloping up and down in the attic. I woke in the middle of the night, my stomach tensed, as I heard them gnawing on what were undoubtedly live wires. When something was in the way, like the floor, they simply chewed a three-inch-in-diameter hole straight through it. I set traps everywhere and they avoided them with contempt. One night we heard one in the kitchen. We went out there and the sounds were coming from the electric stove. I had come naked from the bed, but feeling a little vulnerable, had put on heavy boots.

We've got him, I said. I pulled the stove out into the middle of the room. We could see where he was hidden inside one of the legs. I got between him and his escape hole where the plug came out of the wall, turned on every burner to full, the oven on to cleaning-temperature heat, and waited holding a broom handle cocked over my head. Instead of backing me up, Cheryl kept threatening to take photographs of the scene. We were sweating from the heat in the room, but the rat patiently waited us out, and we gave up and went back to bed.

I finally did trap them out, and we no longer keep a compost bed, and for the most part we enjoy our mammals. When we have our bird feeders going in winter a hispid cotton rat (a well behaved outside rat) sits on his haunches eating sunflower seeds with the sparrows, a couple of squirrels sitting on either side of him like big brothers. The dead leaves ripple as the voles and bog lemmings race along out of sight underneath, occasionally sticking their heads out to pick up seeds dropped by the birds from the tube feeders.

Our feeders are hotting up at the moment. Up to now this winter we had had our usual local birds, our usual few dozen white-throated sparrows, juncos, and scattering of other sparrow species, and so far about a dozen goldfinches in their rather drab winter plumage. Suddenly in the last few days the goldfinch numbers have increased to 40 or more, and they have been joined by half a dozen beautiful purple finches, and, even more special since West Nile Virus devastated them, half a dozen house finches. We are of course watching now for some really special finch to show up. An evening grosbeak would be nice.

But sunshine, warmth, the chance for a bug, and we'd leave all this in a minute.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Beginning (with some trepidation) an insect blog

If the writer should at all appear to have induced any of his readers to pay more ready attention to the wonders of the Creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences . . . his purpose will be fully answered. But if he should not have been successful in any of these his intentions, yet there remains this consolation behind, that these his pursuits, by keeping the body and mind employed, have . . . contributed to much health and cheerfulness of spirits, even to old age.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selbourne

Here in the northeast corner of Arkansas, along Crowley's Ridge, winter is seldom severe. Still, for an insect lover, the middle of winter (when most insects are in diapause) can be a depressing time. You can only devote so much of your attention to planning the coming season's campaign, or trying to memorize field marks from the insect field guides, or checking endlessly over your photos from past years. At last you find yourself dozing off and nearly crashing into the keyboard.

But I'm spoiled living here in the MidSouth. By the end of February Spring will already be a sort of damp smell in the air, and by March the major groups of insects will be in full swing. We can even push the season a little bit right now. A couple of days ago we had a sunny day with a temperature approaching 60 and went to an old quarry north of here. Quarries are always good in cool weather, sheltered, and sort of focusing what warmth from the sun there is.

We were looking for grasshoppers. Last summer you see we decided to learn something about grasshoppers, that we had never paid much attention to before. I can only learn things by total immersion, so I more or less spent all day every day working on this, and by the end of the summer had found and photographed about fifty species (I'm guessing Arkansas has about 75 species). Some of my IDs are a bit dodgy, but it's a start. Part of my strategy was, that I had often seen grasshoppers in mid winter, and when in December or January I was desperate to see a living insect, they would be my escape valve.

Sure enough at the quarry we turned up a few American Bird Grasshoppers, plus a Scudder's Short-winged Grasshopper. I'm sure both species are out every month of the year. Cheryl with her sharp eyes also noticed the mud puddles at our feet seemed to have little rafts of dark seeds or dust, but when we looked close, they were Podura aquatica, the very common springtails that look like the Michelin Tire Man.

Then she turned over a bit of wood and there was the slenderest millipede I have ever seen, very different from any other millipede species I know of.

Today we had another sunny day, though not so warm, low fifties. We went to the prairie at the Jonesboro Nature Center, which last summer was terrific for grasshoppers, and easily found 8-10 American Bird Grasshoppers. They kept flying away from us time after time, but I finally got one to pose. At close to four inches long it is one of our most spectacular insects.

And there it is, the first grasshopper picture of the year. I plan to complete my grasshopper project this year, and the season has now officially begun.