Thursday, July 26, 2012

Around the house

I took this picture standing on the bridge leading to Hatchie Coon Island. This is part of the St. Francis floodway, normally a flowing channel, but, two weeks ago when I took this, down to a few glorified puddles. The egrets are cleaning up the last of the stranded fish. By now I expect even this water is gone.

In our yard we are trying to keep things watered so there will be nectar flowers blooming, so there will be fresh green leaves, but if you pay attention to the arthropods, you will note how relatively little activity there is. For instance, judging by the number of Argiope spiderlings present early in the year, each with its postage-stamp-sized web, I thought we would have the largest number of adults ever, and not long ago they were indeed beginning to molt into their adult size, each big female immediately acquiring one or more live-in boyfriends.

But something was happening: They weren't catching anything. Their abdomens weren't filling out with growing eggs. Snowberry Clearwings, a big day-flying moth that looks like a cross between a bumble bee and a hummingbird, are usually numerous in the yard, hovering in front of flowers, and they are a favorite prey of the big spiders. But lately if we see one in the yard it is an event. And something else is happening. One by one the Argiopes are disappearing. A raccoon comes through the yard every night, and maybe it has got an eye in for them, and is standing on its hind legs to pluck them out of their webs like succulent grapes. Or maybe bats are taking them out of the their webs at night, or the cardinals with their big beaks early in the morning.

In more normal summers in the past, when I would be working at my study and feel the need of a short break, I would walk around the yard until I could find ten species of butterfly. That usually took about five minutes, which was perfect. Of course some among those ten species, like Pearl Crescents or Least Skippers, would be in large numbers, a couple of dozen maybe. Just now, 11:30 in the morning, I searched the whole yard, and found two Pearl Crescents and one Silver-spotted Skipper. It's ninety degrees now, and perhaps some of the flowers have shut down nectar production, and a few more butterflies are hiding out somewhere. Big butterflies like swallowtails seem to be doing better than small ones. We have some small plants of bronze fennel and we have been getting Black Swallowtail eggs on them. Earlier we brought in five Black Swallowtail caterpillars to raise in the safety of the house. On an earlier blog I showed a picture of their chrysalises. Two of the butterflies have eclosed. First a female:

and shortly after, a more highly patterned male:

In a few days, we saw a female egg-laying on the bronze fennel, and a new generation was started.

Even though numbers of everything are way down in the drought, that doesn't mean there aren't almost daily surprises. For instance the other day when we walked by a woodpile in the backyard a huge moth flew up. We ran to keep up with it as it circled the yard several times, all black and with wings wider than those of any swallowtail. It looked like a bat but we knew immediately it was a Black Witch and waited for it to land somewhere to see if we would get a chance to photograph it. This spectacular big tropical species (six inches from wingtip to wingtip) wanders up from Mexico every few years, some of them getting as far as the Canadian border. A few times in the past they had made brief stops in our garage, but we had not seen one for years. This one finally flew over our chain-link fence to land on our neighbor's sheet-metal fence, picking out the single patch of orange rust on it to conceal its dark body.

On that very same day there was a second even more surprising visitor. Previously in our yard we had only had very small and spindly centipedes, scarcely worthy of the name. But on this day Cheryl lifted a pot and there was Scolopendra viridis, in the mainly tropical order that includes the biggest centipedes. This particular species reaches five inches in length. Its last pair of legs can give you a pinch like a crab's claw, but it is the two poison fangs in front which pack the real whallop. The species has been observed eating toads and lizards. They are not all evil, however: The female has been seen coiled about her children licking them. We knew these occurred in Arkansas but we had never seen one before, and certainly didn't expect our first one to be on our front porch.

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