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.