Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fall Fluff

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) seed pods
High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Leaves turning color on sassafras, blueberry, red maple, fothergilla, and oak-leaf hydrangea have made brilliant fall colors this season.  The meadow looks wonderfully disheveled and fertile with seed.

The moleskin pods of butterfly weed have wrinkled, dried and split to release their contents.  Dark brown seeds attached to a fluffy parachute spill out and accumulate around the pods, until a breeze teases them away for their journey to another fertile place. As I collect a few seeds for propagation, the fluff feels incredibly soft and I can imagine making a down pillow out of it. But I leave most of them hoping to perpetuate this plant, which is a larval host for Monarch butterflies. 

Little Bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium)
Multicolored stems of little bluestem catch the sunlight in their fluffy seeds. This native grass turns all gold and provides winter interest and habitat in my garden. The larvae of several species of skipper butterflies use this plant as a food source. 

Maryland Goldenaster (Chrysopsis mariana)
Hyssop-leaved boneset (Eupatorium hyssopifolium)
Maryland Golden Aster makes decorative golden pompoms of seeds. Another good reason to let them be in winter is the birds like to peck at them for food. A red maple leaf rests on the fluffy seed heads of hyssop-leaved boneset. Birds in the winter garden will eat these seeds. In summer the white blooms of this plant attract native pollinators and predators of the marmorated stink bug, which is becoming a major pest in agriculture.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Meadow Fritillary

Meadow Fritillary on New York Ironweed
The pink petals and golden pincushions of Echinacea are now faded, but American goldfinch in breeding plumage delight in pecking at the thistle. Still, the late blooming native flowers create a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with all kinds of pollinators. New York ironweed is towering above the strip of meadow, Maryland golden asters are just beginning to open to a deep yellow and the Joe Pye weed blossoms are covered with bees. And, I have been observing all kinds of visitors to the mountain mints, thoroughwort, rudbeckia and butterfly weed. This summer has been a bit lean for the sighting of butterflies in the garden. I have seen only one Monarch butterfly and the number of swallowtails is way down; branded skippers and spring azures being the most frequent visitors.  So I was delighted and surprised to catch a glimpse of a beautiful meadow fritillary feeding on New York ironweed. Photographing butterflies is a challenge for me as their visits to flowers are short and sweet. But I get a second chance because, after being disturbed, they always flutter around the area for a short while before returning to the same flower for a second sip.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Buds and Bees - Signs of Spring

Mining Bee (Andrena sp.)
It has been too long since my last blog entry. But spring has been slow in coming and I have been searching the tangled wood and garden for all signs vernal. How had nature diarist Edwin Way Teale experienced early April in his patch of the woods almost 40 years ago? He walked a mossy woodland trail and found what he was hoping to see, a spring azure butterfly. Last year in March I had recorded the sighting of a mourning cloak butterfly warming itself on a rock in the sun. That was a joyful sign that spring had arrived. Now I trip along an ivy-covered path to an overgrown corner of the wood where some spicebush has survived a fallen tree. There are tiny yellow buds swelling against slender stems, but they are tightly closed against the cold spring air. The maples are beginning to blush high up against the clear blue sky. Perhaps I can get a closer look at the flowers of the young red maple on the slope. These buds are about to burst, but no blossom yet. As I walk the garden path I hear the unmistakable buzz of a bee visiting a flower. Honeybees are already out and about, brushing against the deep orange pollen of crocuses, which are blooming a good month later than last year. At another patch of crocus I spot small dark, gray bees quietly gathering pollen. These bees seem calmer than their European cousins and I realize that they are mining bees (Andrena sp.) once I see one swiftly disappear into a mounded hole in sandy soil nearby. I have seen buds of promise and soon enough there will be more flowers for this solitary bee to visit and provision her underground nest. I have yet to catch a glimpse of the spring azure butterfly, but for me spring is here!

Entrance to a Mining Bee Nest 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Counting on life in a white winter

I feel a need to watch for signs of life in the winter garden, especially during a season as hard as this one. Today I’m counting birds while taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.  I enjoy watching the antics of black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows hop about for seeds spilled on a snow bank. A female cardinal visits the feeder and there is the call of a blue jay, and the drumming of a woodpecker up in the bare, windswept canopy. 
Snow is piled high. It obliterates form, covering bird baths and creating snow caves under shrubs. Only the stiffest and tallest stems poke up through the snow - red osier dogwood, purple top grass (now straw gold), brown seed heads almost pecked clean. Yet more fresh snow is falling as the daylight fades and tree branches are defined by a dusting of white.