Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trying to get summer underway.

One sign of winter shifting slowly into spring and summer is when we stop putting food in all our bird feeders. The feeder birds themselves are mostly leaving now, heading back up north. The big winter flock of American Goldfinches that inhaled our bags of niger seeds changed from their olive drab winter plumage to their lemon yellow breeding plumage, and have left us; of the even bigger flock of White-throated Sparrows, those that were already in adult plumage when they came down last fall, after entertaining us with their high-pitched whistling, have all left us for their breeding grounds. The hang-up is that the immature first-year birds have lingered behind, now themselves in adult plumage, but still living off my charity. "Get up there and get jobs and settle down, you malingerers!"

I stopped putting out sunflower seeds and they glared at me like they had been betrayed (and a few days later deserted me without a word of thanks).

Also living in our house on our generosity are the three or four species of ants that hang-out on our kitchen counters. Here, we are following E.O.Wilson's instructions: A woman after attending one of his lectures on the desirability and necessity of ants asked him afterwards, "Yes, but what should I do with the ants that come into my kitchen?" He said, "About once a week give them a teaspoon of tuna. They love tuna."

Well, they don't cause us any problem at all, and we were glad to see them dress up their marriageable girls in wings and send them flying off to meet suitable husbands and start new homes. They had a bit of a problem that they were inside a house, so every time there was a surge of new females, we had to keep slipping the window open to let them out into the greater world.

There are some moochers out in my study I don't feel charitable towards, and those are the dermestid beetles. When I find interesting dead insects or other small creatures I often bring them home and set them on a shelf in the study while I decide what to do with them. What generally happens is, they mysteriously turn into dust. For instance I found a dead mummified snapping turtle that must have died right out of the shell, because its body was only an inch long. It was a perfect little specimen.

It was too young to have many hard parts, and the next time I looked all its leathery parts were powder. If you look closely, you will see the many empty beetle pupal cases lying around it.

It turns out that not all the creatures I generously share my quarters with are ungrateful. I allow the cellar spiders to live in my study, filling the room with their billowing cobwebs. Today this one was eating a dermestid beetle.

One morning we found this elaborately complicated thing like a decorated cake on the side of our garbage can.

We knew what it was at once. It was the caterpillar of the butterfly, the Red-spotted Purple. The small cherry tree next to the garbage can had cranked them out all last summer, and they had hung their chrysalises from the cherry tree twigs, and we would often come by in time to see them eclosing, and holding to the empty chrysalis cases drying their wings. We hadn't realized before that they also came out in early spring when it seems like there would be little for them to feed on. This one had already attached its tail-end to the garbage can in preparation for shrugging off its larval skin to expose the chrysalis beneath. The garbage truck was coming the next day, and it would probably smash it up, so we separated it from the can and brought it in and let it attach itself to a stick, which we then put on the window sill in front of the kitchen sink. It immediately made its chrysalis.

We learned something: The chrysalis was one of those active jobs. If you saw it at night, it hung straight down.

If you saw it in the morning, it angled itself towards the east, to minimize its hanging shadow, which would give it away to a passing bird. In the afternoon it angled itself to the west.

After three weeks it emerged, and we put it out on the porch, and when the cool damp morning finally dried and warmed sufficiently, it was gone.

It is one of the prettiest of butterflies, and a day later we saw one of the prettiest of moths, a Luna Moth. Every time we see a fresh one, just out of its cocoon, we photograph it. How could you resist? But this one was the most beautiful we have ever seen.

In the really hot weather of midsummer, snakes tend to become nocturnal, so you don't see very much of them. The best time to see lots of snakes is in spring (when it is first warming up and they spend a lot of time on the move, and a lot of time basking), and in the fall. So far this spring we have already seen two rather neat snakes. The first one we saw (and it was the first time we had ever seen this species) was the Pygmy Rattlesnake, a beautiful little pit viper only about eighteen inches long.

Not long afterwards we got lucky again, and saw another seldom-seen species, Graham's Crayfish Snake, a watersnake that, as the name makes clear, feeds almost entirely on crayfish.

I think the natural year is off to a good start. To be ready, I have just bought upgrades on all my photographic gear. If I can ever figure out how everything works, I hope you will see an improvements in my illustrations.

Let me end this blog with a nice photo Cheryl took of a Gemmed Satyr, a drab little brown butterfly which has as its only claim to our notice, half a dozen little three-dimensional blue "gems" on its hind wing. This unusual individual had what resembled a setting of tiny diamonds around the gems.


  1. What is the Attenborough segment of a snake eating crayfish? All I remember is that it can smell when they have just shed, and are soft enough for it to swallow and digest.

  2. I don't recall that at all, but it's a neat idea.

  3. I think the Gemmed Satyr's wing spots look like a jumping spider.