Caterpillars Destroy Ferns But Life Finds A Way

Caterpillars destroyed the ferns that were growing so well all along the back of the house. How disappointing!

Sensitive Fern
Sensitive Fern

Since the nasty critters literally chewed the fronds down to the ground it seemed like the plants were gone forever. But wait! A couple of weeks later new growth appeared.

The Sensitive Ferns are growing beautifully now.

Hay-scented fern has taken over the space behind the garage over the years and now is extending its reach around the side of the house and past the concrete step at the garage door. Each year the area it takes up is expanded.

Hayscented Fern Can Take Over Spaces
Hayscented Fern Can Take Over Spaces

Although it’s pretty when it volunteers in small groups in the forest, beware that Hay-scented fern can take over spaces. To keep the fronds off the house I just walk next to the house with a weed-whacker and remove the closest foot or so of fern growth.

Sensitive fern is slow-growing compared to the hay-scented fern.

All of the Sensitive Fern fronds were eaten by these totally green, nondescript caterpillars about 2-3 weeks ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture the hungry-mothers in photo.

Looking at Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is they’re the larvae of the Common Wood Nymph, Cercyonis pegata, whose adult stage butterfly we regularly see around here. Even though the little tubular muncher was totally green its large round head stood out.

It was upsetting to see these beautiful ferns destroyed by those insects. After all it is a slow-grower and it took years for it to spread out over this area by the deck.

To my amazement new fern fronds are now emerging from the ground!

Was I wrong to be upset at the demise of the first fronds? It turned out to be a necessary food source for a future flower pollinator.

The adult butterfly may be involved in pollinating several kinds of flowers and in turn be a food source for a bird or other critter. You know, the web of life and all.

Both of these ferns are growing in area facing due North on the back side of the house. Moss and lichens grow on that side of the roof. Algae grows on the boards of the deck to about 8-10 feet from the house. An area that never gets the sunshine.

It’s a great place to retreat to in the heat of summer. When it’s really hot or when you’ve been in the sun too long the shady area next to the house is where you wanna be. The space is big enough to accommodate chairs, people and dogs, and a few potted plants.

Being the coolest spot on the mountain ridge, ferns like to grow in this shady place.

Elsewhere, there are probably a half-dozen different ferns growing in our little space in the forest. They like the shade of the trees and areas where springs and rainwater flow downhill.

Mosquitoes Lay Eggs on Still Water No Matter How Shallow

Unforgotten buckets left to collect rain water can be perfect places for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. The small amount of water that accumulates in discarded tires is deep enough for mosquitoes to carry on generations.

How shallow are we talking? Only a 1/4 inch or so is all the water that’s needed for a mosquito to lay her rafts of eggs on the water’s surface. As long as the water is still or stagnant mosquitoes will find and use the smallest puddles that can’t be used for much else.

Take this shallow indentation in a plastic chair. Rain water collected in the seat of the chair and was left to lay. Algae grew, leaves and dirt collected in there, and eventually a mosquito found her quarry.

Shallow water in a chair seat was deep enough for a mosquito to lay her eggs.
Shallow water in a chair seat was deep enough for a mosquito to lay her eggs.

Even though the depth of the water was minimal the stagnant puddle was perfect for laying eggs.

Watch this video showing how mosquito larvae wriggle around in the shallow water.

Shortly after that video was taken the chair was tipped over to remove the standing water. To reduce the mosquito population around your house, make sure to tip over any buckets or other objects that can collect rain water.

The Many Pollinators of Wild Parsnips

When reviewing the photos I took of wild parsnip I noticed that there were many insects among the tiny flowers. The odd thing was the number of different kinds of pollinators who were present.

It drew my attention to see several kinds of insects on the one type of plant. Was this because of the great taste of wild parsnip pollen? Or the fact that there were many flowers to collect the pollen from?

Here’s a series of photos that show ants, mosquitoes, flies of various kinds, bees and wasps alighting on the wild parsnip umbels.

Beetle Love on a Wild Parsnip
A little beetle love happening on a wild parsnip umbel.

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Asian Long-Horned Beetle Look-a-Like Pine Sawyer

Q: What large black beetle has really long antennae and white spots on its back?

A: The Asian Long-Horned Beetle and its look-a-like the White-Spotted Pine Sawyer.

We were sitting out on the deck one afternoon for lunch when a really loud bug flew by. It made a rattling sound that really caught my attention. Was it her wing covers clicking together as she worked her wings to get to her destination?

When it landed on the edge of the deck I got these pics. Photos taken 3 June 2014.

Pine Sawyer resting on a 1 x 1" deck railing.
Pine Sawyer resting on a 1 x 1″ deck railing.

At first we thought it was the Asian Long-Horned Beetle as the general characteristics seemed right.

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Animal Activity Tells Us It’s Spring

Spring has sprung! At least the animal activity we’ve been seeing, and hearing, tells us that the old groundhog got it right. Recent snowfall and cold blast aside, the temperatures promise to creep up this month.

We’ve now passed Meteorological Spring, which was on March 1st. Meteorological spring is based on temperature and it follows Meteorological Winter, which is defined as the three coldest months or December, January and February. Meteorological spring is made up of the months March, April and May. Of course there are meteorological summer and meteorological autumn months, too.

The first day of spring that most of us recognize is known as the Vernal Equinox and it starts Astronomical Spring. The vernal equinox is one of two days of the year when the Earth’s axis points neither toward nor away from the sun – the other being the Autumnal Equinox. Both equinoxes produce days with equal minutes of light and dark. Days get longer in during Astronomical Spring, which lasts three months, until the third week in June when Astronomical Summer begins.

We see there are several ways to define Spring, but no matter what terms we use we have only to observe nature for a while to see what’s happening in the real world. Observing animal activity will verify Spring has sprung. Here are some of the activities we’ve seen and heard in central PA:

  • We’ve seen the seagulls fly up the river and drift back down several times a day. Kind of a lazy way to fish or is it just plain fun? The seagulls can be seen in cornfields picking up seed instead of a Kmart parking lot hoping for popcorn. During winter we don’t see many seagulls, if any.
  • Snow geese are flying north in big flocks. Sometimes you can hear them and never get a glimpse of them. Their muted honks tell who’s flying home.
    Snow Geese
  • Owls can be seen during the dim light of day, perhaps on a cloudy day or in the shade of a mountain. We saw a Barred Owl a couple of weeks ago near the river in an old forest. Prime habitat for this hunter. He didn’t care that we stopped in the middle of the country road to gawk at him hunting for his owlets’ supper.
  • Took a tick off the dog just yesterday. The first one this year. Sometimes he brings one home in winter, but now it’s definitely time for the tick guard.
  • Topping off my list of spring animal sightings were a pair of squirrels caught doing the “twirl”. I wasn’t surprised to see these squirrels chasing each other up and down and all over a white oak tree, but I was surprised to see how they eventually hooked up. The female grabbed onto the tree trunk about halfway up the tree with her head pointed toward the ground and the male mounted her from behind. They did this twice that I saw with a lot of chasing and limb running in between attempts. Sorry, no photos!

At our location it’s a little early for much plant activity, so we’re looking and listening for signs of Spring by tuning in to the Animal Kingdom. So, what have you seen in the way of animal activities that show it’s Spring?

May Bloomers and Bullfrogs

In the last week or so the high-pitched chirps of the Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers have been replaced with bigger sounds. Bullfrogs down in the pond have been sounding off at dusk. We’ve been able to hear their “bud” calls drifting up the hill in early evening. That’s a sign that temperatures are warming up as we slide down the backside of Spring. In a month’s time the calendar will say it’s Summer.

The first two weeks in May we’ve seen the following wild flowers blooming:

Perennial chamomile and chives were blooming in the garden at this time.

Serviceberry Trees Bloom at Woods Edge

Serviceberry trees are one of the first flowering trees in North America. Their white flowers shine bright from the edge of the woods. When I see these flowering trees I know its time to look for Spring Ephemeral flowers.

(Click any photo to see a larger image.)

Flowering serviceberry tree at the edge of a field.
Flowering serviceberry tree in a stand of trees at the edge of a field. Photo taken 5 April 2012.
Serviceberry tree flowering among maples and oaks just leafing out.
Serviceberry tree flowering among maples and oaks just leafing out. Photo taken 5 April 2012.
Flowering serviceberry trees along a Pennsylvania country road.
Flowering serviceberry trees along a Pennsylvania country road. Photo taken 5 April 2012.

Serviceberries, also known as Juneberries, will be in leaf a couple of weeks after their white blooms are in view. The flowers develop into small berries that ripen in June, hence the name Juneberry.

The tree canopy is coming in fast now that it’s the third week of April. We are surrounded by trees where we live in the middle of the woods and right about now the trees seem to be closing in on us. During the winter we can see far into the woods, but now with the greenery growing bigger the view is getting blocked near the forest edge.

Heard baby bluebirds in their bird house yesterday. The parents have been frantically flying to and fro feeding the little guys peeping in there. Their activity must have caught the eye of a hawk because I saw one on the ground about five feet from the birdhouse. Didn’t see the strike to know if the broad-winged hawk got a bluebird for lunch, but he flew away without anything in his talons.

Bluets, violets and fairy wings continued to be beautiful this past week. The flowering trees were impressive everywhere! Pink and white dogwoods, ornamental flowering cherries and crabapples, light purple redbuds, and even the yellow balls of sassafras flowers brought many smiles this past week.

Late Coltsfoot Flowers and Dark-eyed Juncos

In my early Spring post I was wrong about the Dark-eyed Juncos having gone north for the season. On the 9th of April I saw a small troupe of juncos pecking the stones on our gravel driveway. Obviously, all the juncos hadn’t flown back to Canada quite yet.

Robins made their Spring appearance and have been hopping around the place for a few weeks now. I suppose the juncos will leave any day, unless they are year-round residents that stay in the Appalachian Mountains all year.

Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.
Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.

Another blooper popped up last week when listing a few early blooming plants that are ahead of schedule this year. As luck would have it coltsfoot was mentioned as one of the plants that were finished blooming for the season, albeit earlier than normal. Such a definitive statement is bound to get one in trouble with the whims of Mother Nature.

In most places along our country roads you can see the seed heads of coltsfoot plants that have already bloomed for the year. The round, composite seed heads are much like the spent flower heads of dandelions that a child picks up to blow the seeds into the air.

Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground.
Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground. Photo taken 5 April 2012.

The flowers in the photo above faced south with at least a road’s width of open space to its south. One usually finds this early spring bloomer along roadsides and in full sun. Most of the coltsfoot flowers have ended their early blooming for the year but small pockets of flowering coltsfoot may still be seen. Look in secluded or shady areas for the last-flowering coltsfoot blossoms.

Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day.
Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day. Photo taken 12:30 p.m. on 5 April 2012.

Trading the cold of night for the warmth of sunshine, coltsfoot flowers gain enough energy to raise their heads and open their composite flowers. The coltsfoot in this particular location didn’t seem to open their flowers completely by late afternoon, so they were probably on their last few days before turning to seed.

Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine.
Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine. Photo taken at 2 p.m. 5 April 2012.

The last two photos are of the same clump of coltsfoot, taken about an hour-and-a-half apart. This grouping of coltsfoot was along a Pennsylvania country road and adjacent to woodlands on the south. Sunlight was filtered through the trees and so made for a late-blooming set of coltsfoot.