Haiku for a windy day

Willows blown sideways
Like kelp in a strong current
Wind is air’s riptide.

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The poetry of nature

I recently found this awesome spider/insect-themed poem by Robert Frost:

Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth -
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth -
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

White crab spider with moth on white flower

What had the flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? -
If design govern in a thing so small.

- Robert Frost, 1936

Although it’s not exactly pro-spider, I love this poem because you can tell what kind of spider it is. Clearly a dimpled, fat, white crab spider that hangs out on flowers with matching colors! It highlights this great American poet’s amazingly detailed observational skill and oneness with nature and his environment. Or, in another word, awesome!

What do you think of this poem and its themes? Does it give you the heebie-jeebies or inspire admiration for the ways of the natural world? Do you identify with the deceptive spider or the deceived moth? Or with the poet, who seeks a “design” but isn’t sure one can be found? Do you think there’s a design here, or indeed overall designs in nature, or do you think it’s all random and amoral?

I’d be very interested in hearing your comments! Also, if you have a favorite poem by Robert Frost, about nature, or both, I’d love to know what it is!

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Being green when the leaves are yellow

The awesome site Big Green Head have a well-thought-out list of 8 Easy Ways to Be Green This Fall. Even though the stores are already rolling out Christmas products, we’re just getting into autumn, and you can use these tips for both fall fun (decorations, Halloween costumes) and chores (raking leaves, preparing fireplaces).

Here are a few of my favorites – check out the link above to see the whole list and all its annotations.

Indian Corn decoration on door

1. Fall decorations – Don’t buy new

  • Find your inner Martha Stewart and decorate with gourds, pumpkins, dried corn, leaves and grasses.

I would add that when the season’s over, you can compost them or use them to feed wildlife. Squirrels love dried corn so much, they will even forego your birdfeeder, at least for a while :)

3. Leaves and yard waste – No need to bag

  • Till fall leaves into the soil of your gardens….
  • Mulch the leaves on your lawn with a mulching mower….
  • Dry leaves make for great composting material….

No one likes taking care of all those leaves but they can be so beneficial to your yard and garden, and I love the idea of a mulching mower. If I had a lawn, I’d want one!

4. Local Farms

  • Visit a local farm to pick your own pumpkins and apples. You’re also likely to find homemade cider and kettle corn too!

My favorite childhood memories of fall are picking apples with my family in a big orchard every year. Kids of all ages will enjoy it and you’ll get a LOT of apples too!

7. Caulk the windows – Close the gaps

  • …All of the little cracks and tiny holes can equal the equivalent of about a two-foot hole in the average home. By caulking those spaces now, you’ll cut down on energy use and save money this winter.

You can also put film over your windows to reduce heat loss – not pretty, but on a back or upstairs window no one will notice and you’ll be warmer without turning the heat up!

I don’t have room for the whole list, so again, be sure to check the link at the top of this post to read all of it. It’s good advice, easy to do, and a lot of it is fun too!

For a more philosophical approach to this list, check out the lovely and meditative post Being Green as a Green Witch by Willow at A College Witch’s Experiences.

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Fall visitors: Brown marmorated stinkbugs

If you live in the East or Midwest, you’ve probably seen the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys): a shield-shaped brown insect, about an inch (25 mm) long, that’s trying to get into your house this month!

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys)

I see them in the city just as often as the suburbs and countryside. Today, one of them was ambling up the inside of the plate glass door of my office. Being a nature gal, I just picked it up and tossed it outside; these stinkbugs only stink if they a) feel threatened or b) are squished, crushed, or otherwise die by flattening. If you’d rather not touch them, try removing them on a piece of paper or in a small container. The answer is definitely NOT to swat them!

These stinkbugs are a non-native species that’s become a nuisance here in North America. Despite their home-entering habits and damage to the leaves of various plants, they aren’t a big threat to agriculture, and haven’t reached full-on pest status yet. (Wouldn’t you love to be one of the people who decides what counts as an official pest in the U.S.? I would nominate the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle and Lindsay Lohan!)

For a detailed life history and useful facts about these bugs, and a good deal less snark than I provide, check out the post Brown marmorated Stink Bug Invading Homes over at BugEric. His solution to the home-entering problem is simple:

exclude the bugs from entry into structures by repairing worn weatherstripping, mending holes in window screens, and sealing other possible points of entry with silicone caulking and other such materials.

After all, if they don’t get in, you don’t have to worry about getting them out :) And as I said, if you do need to remove them from your house, use a container or a soft touch; squishing is right out. Don’t bother them too much, and they won’t bother you…not more than the average inch-long bug climbing your wall does!

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Poison ivy: a burning question

And by “burning” I mean the itchy, burning, misery that touching this plant and its relatives can cause! Over at Stuff from the Attic, Connie asks, “What is its purpose?”

There are many things which serves purpose in our lives. Poison ivy isn’t one of them.
I wondered about this question from the first time I contracted this horrible affliction nine years ago.

Like her, I’ve had terrible effects from touching the plant; I’m hypersensitive to it, so much that I can’t even eat mangoes! (Yes, those luscious fruits are related to this noxious weed. It was actually harder to give up eating mangoes than to quit drinking.) However much we hate the plant, though, Connie finds some human benefit in it:

I truly believe at one time poison ivy, oak, and sumac may have served a better purpose, like stuffing it into an enemy’s bedding or mixing it into a potion of sorts.

First of all, I would LOVE to stuff some poison ivy in the bedding of some people I know! Second, it did indeed make some potent potions used in botanical remedies – she links to the no-longer-modern but very well-done “A Modern Botanical,” which lists a number of old medical uses for the plant.

So there really are a few benefits to humans. But as a nature-lover and birdwatcher married to a botanist, I’ve learned that poison ivy is very beneficial for wildlife! The berries, which remain on the plants all winter, are an important food source for birds and small mammals. Because the leaves are so toxic, the plant can grow tall/wide (depending on if it’s a more viny or tree-like variety) and produce a) lots of berries that aren’t eaten before winter and b) berries that are high above the level of an average snowfall.

That’s not to say that nothing eats the leaves. Some caterpillars happily munch on them with very little fear of any predator (“yeah, c’mon into the poison ivy and get me! I dare you!”), and certain gall insects can turn a smooth green leaf into a warty blemish-covered landscape that is at least as unattractive as the rash is on us! Here’s a photo I took of Poison Ivy Leaf Gall Mites (Aculops rhois) infesting the plant:

Poison Ivy Leaf Gall Mites infesting poison ivy

That is a very satisfying picture, isn’t it? :D Because although poison ivy does serve several important purposes, it’s still nice to see it getting a rash for once!

For prettier pictures and information that will help you identify the plant and its relatives throughout the year, check out “The Poison” by Kimberley at Life with a Possum. While you’re there, enjoy her lovely site design!

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Posted in Arachnids, Birds, Butterflies and Moths, Insects, Mites, Plants, Poison Ivy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Confusing Fall Warbler time!

It’s the second-most-exhilirating birding time of the year, the fall migration. Although the birds are not in the beautiful breeding plumage we see in spring, there are fantastic numbers of them, and the non-breeding and juvenal plumage can be lovely and intricate even if it’s less colorful.

Fall Magnolia WarblerOf course, if you associate a bird only with its adult breeding plumage, the most-commonly portrayed in field guides, you won’t be able to tell that the dull olive-green bird chirping repetitively in September is the same as the bright golden-yellow one singing exuberantly in April. And the most notorious plumage-changers are what Roger Tory Peterson dubbed the “confusing fall warblers.” (That name may be why they’re the most notorious; I have more trouble with the confusing fall gulls, myself!)

Which isn’t to say I’ve confidently identified the fall warblers I’ve seen so far this year: they’re just as frustratingly flitty as in the spring, and their duller colors match the dying leaves they keep disappearing behind. I’m pretty sure I’ve been seeing yellowthroats and pine warblers all week, but I sure wish they’d stand still and let me squint to see if they have any faint distinctive markings!

On the other hand, there are a large number of warblers that do not significantly change their plumage in the non-breeding season, and these tend to get lost in the “confusing fall warbler” trope. Immatures and females may still be difficult, but the males may retain breeding-type plumage year round! Female black-throated blue warblers are at least as hard to ID in spring as in fall (look for that white “pocket handkerchief”) but males are always black-throated and blue.

To be continued after work today….

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To rear or not to rear?

Mosquito larva (c) 2010 Dave Ingram
After reporting on the discovery of mosquito larvae in a rainwater-filled container left outdoors, Dave Ingram’s Natural History Blog ponders that very question:

Although I should probably dump the water out I think that I’m going to leave it for a while and watch as these insects cycle through the stages of their lives. The opportunity to observe this process is worth a few mosquito bites! What do you think – should they stay or should they go?

For my part, dedicated insect-rearer that I am, I would say “stay” – at least till they turn into adults, at which point I would probably whack them! But larvae can’t escape the water, and the photos he took are simply stunning. For more photos like that, documenting the life cycle of these unpopular but fascinating insects is, indeed, well worth a few bites. In fact, it may be more valuable than popular life cycles like monarch butterflies – there are thousands of those all over the internet (including my own videos!), but I have only seen a few mosquito life cycles. Even if you hate mosquitos, isn’t it worth knowing your enemy?

My solution would be to put a mesh or screen over the container to prevent adult escapes (and more mosquitos laying more eggs!). The natural climate variations would still apply – day, night, rain, sun, temperature – which is always valuable when trying to get the most “natural” results from captive rearing. Lepidopterists, for instance, will often “sleeve” a caterpillar-filled plant or tree branch with cloth (a pillowcase works!) to protect the ‘pillars from predators while allowing all other natural conditions to be the same.

My other suggestion, tongue in cheek, is to find some dragonfly larvae and drop them in the container. That would certainly take care of the mosquitos! Rather a different life cycle to photograph, though….

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Ashy-Gray Lady Beetles

Gray form of Ashy-gray Lady Beetle (c) coccinellidae.cl I dreamed about finding Ashy-Gray Lady Beetles (Olla v-nigrum) last night, which is as good an excuse as any to post about them here :)

Despite the name, not all of these beetles are gray; some are black with two red spots. They are also not the only gray lady beetles around – be careful of mistaking them for the 15-spotted Lady Beetle (Anatis labiculata). That species has spots evenly distributed on its body, while the Ashy-Gray Lady Beetle has more on the front end of the body than the rear. Also, some of its spots are heart-shaped – very charming!

Ashy-Gray Lady Beetles are, as far as I or anyone I’ve encountered knows, arboreal – they like to live in trees. That’s the only place I’ve ever found them, likewise for the entomologists I personally know. That doesn’t mean they are exclusively arboreal, but certainly if you are looking for them, you should look up! They eat tree aphids and possibly the occasional scale insect. Like almost all lady beetles they are a good thing for your yard and garden!

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Try my new Facebook gift app!

Send lady beetle pictures to your friends on Facebook. It’s an exceptionally simple little gift app, but I had fun making it :)

Facebook Ladybugs Gift App

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Video: Monarch butterfly emerging from pupa

The monarch caterpillar whose pupation I filmed last weekend has eclosed (emerged as a butterfly), and is safely winging his way to Mexico! I also filmed the emerging process. It takes quite a while, so there will be several videos showing different stages.

The first video shows the butterfly’s dramatic exit from the chrysalis. He emerges wet, fat-bodied, and tiny-winged, almost unrecognizable as a butterfly!

Watch the video Monarch Butterfly Emerging, Part 1

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