Archive for April, 2012

Yellow Jackets

Yellow jacket nest entrance -- Where?

Can you find the opening to a yellow jackets’ underground nest? It’s not the small hole in the middle of the picture near the stick. I obviously wouldn’t have found it either if I hadn’t been stooped there taking flower pictures. I kept on taking pictures and then had to hunt to find the tunnel opening to photograph it. I didn’t find it until the yellow jacket came back out of the nest.

Entrance to nest, with yellow jacket coming out

The arrow in the picture (left) shows the head of the yellow jacket coming out of the nest. Today’s Tuesday, April 17. This blows my mind. On Monday, April 9th, Buffy and I were hiking here at my rural property too. We were walking up the trail in woods toward the barrens, when a yellow jacket flew in, landed and went into the hole to its nest. In all the years I’ve hiked, going back over 30 years to when my kids were young, I only saw 1 yellow jacket nest. The yellow jacket flew from its nest. There I was, and it stung me right below the elbow. That was when I found out I was allergic to them.

This other picture is one I took several winters ago when I found a nest that had been dug out by either a skunk or raccoon. Bears will dig them out too, but we don’t have them here in southern Illinois.

Yellow jacket nest dug out

Yellow jackets are 1/2 to 5/8 inch long. They live in meadows and edges of forested land, where they usually nest in the ground or at ground level in stumps and fallen logs. Adults eat nectar. Larvae are fed insects pre-chewed by adults.

Yellow jackets overwinter as fertilized queens. The queens become active in the spring, when they gather nesting materials and start a small nest. After she makes a few hexagonal cells and a covering around them, she lays an egg in each cell. The eggs hatch in a week, and the queen feeds the larvae small bits of prey for 10-12 days.

The larvae then pupate in their cells for another 12 days. The adults emerge as sterile females and start working for the queen. Late in the summer, the queen lays eggs that develop into males and fertile females. These mate. The fertilized females overwinter, and the cycle begins again.

I do hope my luck goes back to not seeing yellow jackets going in or coming out of their nest.

Eagle Diary — April 26

Well …. eagle viewing proved to be a challenge this week.

Wednesday, April 25. Arrived at 9:30 a.m. and no adult eagles in or around the nest. Three turkey vultures soared over the woods west of the nest. Clouds were thickening. Temperature 68 and storms were possible later in the day. I drove past the nest to where I usually turn around. Besides wishing I had a periscope, I wished I had bionic ears. My best friend did see both adults on the nest on Sunday. So I wasn’t worried.

Thursday. We arrived aound 10 a.m. No adults again. A great blue heron flew by. The only clouds were wind-stretched jet contrails. It was windy and already 77 degrees. My first monarch butterfly of the year fluttered by. We waited patiently for a little while before we left. On the way past the nest, I stopped and used my “deer ears” (hands cupped behind my ears) to see if I could hear any eaglet noises. They only amplified the wind noise. I did hear a frog, though.

Then I thought often during the day that I’d go in the evening. Surely they would be there then, plus I could see the nest with a sunset behind it.  This time I made a quiet get-a-way and left Buffy with my husband. Imagine my surprise and frustration when I pulled up at 6:30 and still no adults! I parked in my usual spot and sat there watching and listening to birds, and journaling. And I waited… and waited.

Obviously, I don’t think like an eagle, because I expected at least one would be at the nest in the evening. I took the sunset picture and left for home. Think I’ll wait until next Wednesday and try again … of course I am curious and a tad concerned.

Eagle nest, nearing sunset

Red-eared Slider

I obviously was at the right place at the right time when I left for town this morning. My driveway was blocked by this turtle. This happens every spring, when snapping turtles and sliders cross the highway from our yard. There’s a strip pit behind our house, and ponds scattered around to the east too.  I don’t know if they’re looking for new body of water, or just what.  I don’t know how many do make it across, because we usually see the ones that don’t.

As you can tell from the picture, the turtle was on the white line edging the highway. It’s head would come out. A vehicle would go by, and the head quickly went in. I took a few pictures, waited for traffic to clear, and then carried it into the tall plants across the road. The brown on the shell was dried mud.

This is a red-eared slider, also called pond slider. Normally they’re shell is olive-brown with numerous black and yellow lines. Their exposed skin is usually dark green with black and yellow lines, and a wide red stripe runs back from their eyes.

Melanistic red-eared turtle

Obviously, this turtle lacks the colors and markings. Older male red-ears sometimes have excess black pigment which obscures most or all of the patterns. This is called “melanism.” Adults grow to 8 inches long. This one seemed longer than that. The length of its claws impressed me!

I’m glad this one was a slider. I don’t know how brave I’d be moving a snapping turtle.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue gray gnatcatcher feeding on tent caterpillars

Definition of naturalist: a person who specializes in natural history, especially in the study of plants and animals in their natural surroundings.

I learned something new about blue-gray gnatcatchers on our hike this morning at my rural property. Blue-gray gnatcatchers are small energetic birds — 4 1/2 inches long (tip beak to tip of tail). They’re blue-gray above, whitish below and have a white eye ring. Their tail is long and narrow, black with white on the sides, and whitish underneath. They cock their tail upward like a wren does. Their diet consists of insects and spiders.

Buffy and I were walking along the road when I heard a gnatcatcher close by, high in the trees. The first thing I saw when I looked up was a tent caterpillar web … and the gnatcatcher came to it for the caterpillars. It “buzzed” around, back and forth and it left as quickly as it came. I’ve watched them for years eating insects. This was the first time I witnessed one eating caterpillars.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers feed near tips of branches, constantly moving through the foliage. They continuously move their tail, which may flush insects. Their call’s a squeaky wheezy series of notes. The first one I heard this spring returned to our area the end of March, and they will stay until the middle of September. Their range covers from northern California, to southern great lakes region, to New Hampshire and southward. They winter along from southern California, across Gulf coast, to the Carolinas and southward.

Twayblade Orchid

Finding twayblade orchid in all the green can be challenging

Can you imagine finding this 5-inch tall plant in all the green growth of spring? I had trouble finding it, and I had its location marked. They aren’t one of those things you’d spot from a distance. This one is called twayblade orchid (Liparis lilifolia). Eight of its flowers were open, with a lot more still budded.

Orchids are monocots — plants with leaves with parallel veins, and flowers with 3 petals and 3 sepals. Orchid flowers have bilateral symmetry, which means the left and right side are mirror images of each other. They have one petal that differs from the other 2 in size, color or shape. The lowest petal is called the “lip.”

Close-up of flower to better show structure.

In the twayblade orchid the other 2 petals are the thin pink “filaments” hanging downward. Only one shows in this picture. The stalk of the flower is pink too. The 2 whitish “supports” for the lip and the one angled upward are the sepals that orginally enclosed the flower. The lip was 1/2 inch long.

Orchids usually don’t have a separate pistil and stamens. The column contains the reproductive parts: the anther, with its pollen, is the male part and the stigma, the female part.

Twayblades are a perennial that grow in woodlands and wet meadows. Liparis  means “fat or shiny,” referring to the succulent leaves. They grow from a corm, which forms off shoots that develop into new plants. If you look to both sides of the base of the plant in the top picture, you’ll see 2 young plants. Also in the picture is the seed stalk from last year’s plant. It has one capsule near the top.

Even common orchids are anything but common. One of the more conspicuous ones at my place is nodding ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua). They bloom in the fall. Most years I find 5-10 at the most. One year way back when 123 bloomed! And there’s never been a year anywhere near that number since.

Eleven orchid species have been found on my place: 5 species of ladies tresses (one is state endangered),  fall and spring coralroots, green fringed orchid (which grows in the grass and is hard to spot), twayblade, cranefly and puttyroot orhids. The latter 2 have a single leaf that overwinters and wilts before the plant blooms. One of the ladies tresses that blooms earlier is a challenge to find. I know where to look, and still have problems finding its single spiral of 4-6 mm flowers.

I haven’t seen some of these species in years and aren’t sure if their populations still exist. They can go dormant for years. If conditions aren’t right, they won’t come up. I read somewhere a long time ago that showy orchis can go dormant for 40 years. That isn’t fair!

They’re always an exciting find.

P.S.  I rest my case. Twayblade orchids are difficult to spot.

I made a loop on my hike yesterday afternoon to check the blooming status of the orchid above. Then to my surprise, I found another 2 plants and one of them was blooming. Two flowers were open, and it had 8 buds. The plant was only 2 1/2 inches tall. I can’t believe I didn’t  step all over these when I was here the last time. They were only 2 feet from the orchid in the above pictures. Not to mention I spent most of my time photographing from the side where this little orchid was.

Buffy, My Hiking Partner

Meet Buffy, my hiking partner. She’s a 7-year-old, 95 pound chocolate lab. I do what I do when we hike. She explores, follows scents and plays in the creek if there’s water. Occasionally she stops and stays where she is until she sees me. She never wanders far. She’ll also sit patiently nearby while I’m taking pictures. She minds well, is SO smart, is personable and overly friendly — and I’m not one bit prejudice. Buffy does have an alpha personalty, which she seldom shows unless it’s necessary.

One of my favorite times we had together was during a camping trip here at my rural property. I left the rain flap off the tent so we had a broad view of our surroundings and of the sky. It was the middle of the night. Barred owls (one of my absolute favorite birds) started hooting in the trees around camp to the south. The whole family carried on their hooting conversation. The male had a deeper voice than the female. The 2 or 3 young ones lacked volume and proper rhythm. We just sat side by side, listening to the hooting. The owls flew without us seeing any of them.

Another time we sat at the base of the bluff at Stone Face, eating a snack. It was late fall last year. She sat quietly beside me, and we watched a big buck slowly walk across the hill below us. I kept whispering, “stay” and she did. The buck never knew we were there.

I included these next 2 pictures of the road bordering my property, which is 1 mile from the highway. My place is on the left side in both pictures. The first one shows the road leading to my pull-in at the top of the hill. The second one was taken from the pull-in, looking south. There’s a TALL hill on past that dip that doesn’t show in the picture. The road dead-ends 1/2 mile from camp. The road lost its rugged character about 10 years ago when the state put in an ATV site at the end of the road, and did extensive work on it. I can now see more vehicles in one day than I used to in a whole year, not to mention having to listen to the unnatural buzzing chain-saw-like ATV sounds.

I usually limit my hikes here now to during the week for more peace and quiet.

Road to my property on left at top of the hill

Road on south of camp

How Will My Gutter Grow?

How will my gutter grow?

It was hard to miss the wings of maple seeds standing upright in the mesh gutter guard.

Winged maple seed designed to heliocopter down

Maple seeds helicopter down from the tree in our front yard, and are scattered in the gutters of my house. The actual seed adds weight, and this is a design element so the seed will stand upright when it lands in something like grass. Standing upright increases the chance of it growing successfully. The seeds in the pictures wouldn’t reach the bottom of the gutter and have no chance of growing.

It keeps me chuckling at how the gutters would look if the seeds did sprout, and the front and back of my house was “fringed” with green baby trees.

This reminded me of a 1980 blazer I had with standard transmission and 4-wheel drive. I drove it for over 20 years. (I did drive a car during the blazer’s later years.) Without  it and the 4-wheel drive I wouldn’t have gotten to my rural property in deep snow or overly wet weather. The blazer developed a lot of character over the years. It developed better ventilation from small rusted-through areas in the floor. Water seeped in around the backseat sliding windows.

Imagine my surprise when a plant started growing in the floor board of the backseat. It grew to 4 inches tall and then died from lack of water. It died before it grew enough for me to identify it. My husband didn’t see the humor in the situation. Me, I was very proud!!

I still miss that old blazer. We went “through” a lot over the years!