Hellebores Heralding Spring for Central PA…Eventually

As I let the dog out in the backyard right then I knew a flock of Canada Geese was heading home on their Spring migration. I heard them first making quite a racket so I looked up and was overjoyed to see a huge V-formation of these impressive flyers. Spring!

A little later in the day I went outside to enjoy the fresh air. It was a gorgeous day yesterday with a pretty, deep blue sky.

Caught some really cool looking cloud formations with the sun bursting through. Kinda like how I’m feeling now!

Sun Peaks Through the Chatter in the Clouds
Sun Peaks Through the Chatter in the Clouds

Even though the chatter in the clouds foretold the winter storm that is on our doorstep, I didn’t let that ruin my day. This sunshine felt amazing although the temp wasn’t very warm.

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Black and Yellow Striped Caterpillars Love Blueberry Leaves

Last week the yellow-necked caterpillar made a return! We hadn’t seen these voracious caterpillars for a couple of years then outta nowhere they’re seen huddled together on an almost naked blueberry branch.

Yellowneck Caterpillars Gorging Themselves on Blueberry Leaves
Yellowneck Caterpillars Gorging Themselves on Blueberry Leaves
(Photos taken 13 August 2017. Click on any image to see a larger view.)

Take note of the thin yellow segment just behind the black head. That’s how it got its name, Yellownecked Caterpillar.

If I just let them go on eating, I wonder how much of a single blueberry bush they could eat? Funny, when I noticed them these black and yellow caterpillars were huddled in a group on a bare stem. Do they eat at night? Or were they just finishing their meal when I happened upon them?

This morning I see another bare stem on a blueberry bush so I’ll have to go out with some clippers to prevent more damage.

One cool thing about the yellownecked caterpillar, Datana ministra, is its habit of curling both ends of its body when threatened. It’s a defensive posture that they make, but I’m wondering what other caterpillars do this?

Yellowneck Caterpillars Make a U-Shape When Disturbed
Yellowneck Caterpillars Make a U-Shape When Disturbed

If you see these caterpillars on your ornamental trees, shade trees or fruit trees, shake the branch they’re on and they’ll show you who’s the biggest!

What kind of butterfly makes the yellow-necked caterpillar?

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Swallow-Tailed Kite Spotted in Pennsylvania

I saw a new bird this week! It’s exciting because I don’t often get that experience of seeing one new to me. Funny, I don’t keep a bird list, but when you spot one that you haven’t seen before, you just know it.

While driving to a nearby Amish lady’s farmer stand to pick up some corn and tomatoes I noticed this large bird flying low. It was doing some acrobatics or maybe loop-t-loos and that made me wonder what kind of seagull is that?

This bird was about the size of a seagull, but we’re not near the ocean. Sure, we see seagulls in autumn sometimes and definitely in winter, but in the summer not so much.

Its tail was forked and the wings pointed and I was pretty sure it was some kind of kite, but I’d never seen a kite in real life. I’d have to run home and check my bird book, I like Peterson’s Eastern Birds, to see the images and descriptions to be sure.

The one thing I was totally sure of was that I had never seen one before. Cool, a new bird!

I stopped the car in the middle of that country road and glanced in the rear view mirror as I reached for my camera. Not much traffic to worry about in these parts so I pushed the lever into “P” to park for a minute.

As I watched the bird criss-cross the road and fly over the cornfields on either side it didn’t seem to be bothered that I was there.

The photos could be a lot better but you can still tell what it is…a Swallow-Tailed Kite!

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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?