Bruce Fellman: Blog en-us (C) Bruce Fellman (Bruce Fellman) Mon, 16 Jul 2018 12:01:00 GMT Mon, 16 Jul 2018 12:01:00 GMT Tidying up

I ran into a colleague who's a great birder and birding photographer, and in the course of our conversation about what we'd seen lately, he told me about the riches he'd encountered in what we jokingly call a "rabbitat": an area, deliberately more-or-less clearcut to create suitable digs for a near-endangered native bunny known as the New England Cottontail. The strategy seems to be working, and the hard-to-spot rabbit has made a comeback. But the critter is not the only beneficiary of the strategic removal of sections of mature forest that allow younger woods to thrive. Many birds flourish in such areas, and as I walked through a stretch of nearby state forest, I heard, for the first time in years, the ascending trills of Prairie Warblers. The birds, once common, have been gone from our neighborhood for ages, but in the proper habitat I trekked, here they were. Alas, here they were, heard but never seen. However, in a dead hardwood left behind by the loggers, a pair of Tree Swallows preened and used the tree as a perch to rest, work on their feathers, and scan the sky for collections of bugs.

clearcuts New England Cottontail Prairie Warblers rabbitat Tree Swallows Sun, 08 Jul 2018 12:15:00 GMT
Hitchhiking "cat"

Today's trekking adventure took place at the Avalonia Land Conservancy's Hoffman Evergreen Preserve, and it involved a public walk led by your humble documentarian. Hoffman is a fun place: a 200-plus-acre natural history "theme park" whose evergreens, many of which are Hemlocks, were planted and maintained by the preserve's namesake, a gentleman who loved the boreal forests of Maine so much that he recreated them in Stonington. Because it was likely to be buggy in the woods, I packed my well-traveled long-sleeved shirt, but when I got ready to put it on, I noticed the hitchhiker. The shirt had been on the clothesline at home, and I had seen evidence of a large Orb-Weaving spider from its use of the line as an anchor point for an intricate web. Apparently, it was using the shirt as a day-time hiding place, and there she was—a beautiful Cat-faced Spider known to scientists as Araneus gemmoides. I don't really see the cat resemblance, but I know her from the criss-crossed white on the front of the abdomen and the joining zig-zags on the back. After the walk, I returned the pretty girl to the backyard. At last report, she was busy building a web... but she'll have to find somewhere else to shelter. I took the shirt inside.

Araneus gemmoides Avalonia Land Conservancy Cat-faced Spider Hoffman Evergreen Preserve Orb Weavers Sat, 07 Jul 2018 04:45:00 GMT
Faux nightmare

The Lace-cap Hydrangeas have started to open and put on their annual show. In addition to a fine collection of bumblebees, the flower clusters always attract an amazingly diverse collection of Long-horned Beetles, most of whom, by now—we've had the Lace-cap for more than a dozen years—are old friends, even if, every July when the display debuts, I have to look up their names. That was today's task, as I was deep into observing and photographing the insect traffic... and then I came up short. On one of the flower clusters was a critter that appeared to be a Bald-faced Hornet, a large and fierce wasp with a bad reputation on account of its hair-trigger temper and tendency to sting almost without provocation. I backed off quickly, but as I watched it and took a few pictures, I noticed something. This was no wasp, but, rather, one of the most amazing mimics in creation. It's a Flower Fly, or Syrphid—many of this fly group resemble bees and wasps—and it's known as Spilomyia fusca. There's no common name, but "Bald-faced Lie of a Fly" might work.

Bald-faced Hornet Flower Fly Lace-cap Hydrangea mimicry Spilomyia fusca Syrphid Fly wasp Fri, 06 Jul 2018 13:45:00 GMT
A ruination of Gypsy Moths

Last year and the year before, the woods were so thick with Gypsy Moth caterpillars that you could hear a steady rain of frass—the polite name for larval poop—as the youngsters reduced the normally thick shade to a species of untimely April. Then, at about this very time, a Gypsy Moth plague struck, and the twin horsemen of the Lymantra dispar apocalypse, a fungus and a virus, swept through the runaway population and reduced the living caterpillars to corpses. By their position in death, the larvae gave away the identity of their killers: hanging head down, fungus; hanging in a Vee, virus. The carnage was remarkable, and, while few people could see its continuation, the plague returned this spring, as wet and cold conditions were perfect for ensuring that fungal spores would do their deadly handiwork on the caterpillars before they had started to grow very much. As a result, Gypsy Moths were a rarity this year, and what few remained never made it to the pupal stage. The fungus was lying in wait.

caterpillar frass fungus Gypsy Moths insect plague Lymantria dispar virus Thu, 05 Jul 2018 20:45:00 GMT
Happy 4th!

If the feature photo is an out-of-sharp-focus shot of kids with sparklers, it can only mean one thing: as has become our longstanding custom, we're enjoying a picnic with friends at a family-friendly venue with a great view of the impending Fourth of July fireworks. These days, truth be told, I'm having trouble being patriotic, since, from my perspective, the powers-that-currently-be in Washington inspire thoughts of revolution, not support, and when we were finally bathed in the proverbial "rocket's red glare," to say nothing of other colors, I was thinking about... well, give it a rest for one night... It's the Fourth... there's an election coming and with any luck, this too shall pass. Time to lean back, set the camera to manual for f/8 at 5 seconds (ISO 400), put odiousness and fear out of mind, and enjoy the show.

fireworks Fourth of July revolution sparklers Wed, 04 Jul 2018 13:15:00 GMT
Social climber

It was hot and humid all day, and though what I really wanted to do was head to the lake and spend my time in the water, I instead hit the trail to Long and Ell ponds in search of more wild rhododendron flowers. There were very few blooms, however, and it looks like we're going to experience the same modest show we experienced with the Mountain Laurels in May. It was a fine hike, of course, although it would have been better had the ponds been open so I could go swimming. I would have even worn a suit. (Long Pond was a sublime skinny-dipping hole in the 60s and 70s.) As it happened, the best I was able to do in terms of water contact was a shower, and that night, as I enjoyed the cool and dry wrought by the air-conditioner, I heard a modest thud and looked at the bedroom window on which was affixed a daring Gray Tree Frog. The little guy—you can tell it's a male by his orange inner thighs—was 20 feet up and climbing higher and higher on the glass. I wasn't sure of his destination. Maybe he was meeting friends on the roof.

Ell Pond Gray Tree Frog Long Pond rhododendrons Wed, 04 Jul 2018 02:45:00 GMT
Rhode show debut

Every month of the growing season has a signature flower or two, and early July is notable for the debut of the Rhode Show: the blossoming of the wild rhododendrons. Most of the cultivated varieties among this cosmopolitan group of broad-leaved evergreens bloom in May and June, but the native Great or Rosebay Laurel, a.k.a. Rhododendron maximum, waits until now to begin putting on a display that will easily lure an observer into the woods and Cedar swamps where the close-to-tree-sized plants hold court. This still-tight collection of Rhodie flowers is not too far from my house and it's on a particular R. maximum I always watch as a sign that the impending display is about to start. I wonder if the show will be as good as it has been the past couple of years. I will soon point my boots in the right direction and find out.

Great Laurel Rhododendron maximum Rosebay Laurel wild rhododendron Mon, 02 Jul 2018 13:15:00 GMT
Firefly field

In a perfect world, I would be standing in this local field at twilight with biologists who were skilled in the amazing art of identifying fireflies from the flash patterns they make in the darkness—dots and dashes and continual glows of light the insects manufacture in chemical factories located at the end of their abdomens. The bioluminescent messages are typically specific to each species, and they carry love notes. The male flashes his identity, and the female, somehow gauging his worthiness as mate material from his light signal, answers back either yea or nay. There's clearly a lot of love talk in the warm, mosquito-filled air, but as I watched and took a series of five-second long time exposures of all the action, I wished that I had an expert close at hand to help me read what was being proposed... and by whom.

bioluminescence fireflies Mon, 02 Jul 2018 02:15:00 GMT
Back to the lake

As a sign of just how chilly the spring and early summer have been, I have not been to the lake until this afternoon. After summer weather was beginning to look like it would never arrive, a serious heat wave is definitely upon us and I knew that the water was going to feel great. I was, however, surprised by how cool it felt, and even though I was finally able to immerse myself, I was pretty disheartened to discover that I just couldn't stay in the drink for very long. Stasia was, alas, more than a little disappointed when I had to make an exit. I was pretty disappointed too. Fortunately, Stasia's dad showed up and took over the role of Lifter-in-Chief.

Amos Lake Stasia Sun, 01 Jul 2018 02:30:00 GMT
Unexpected floral return

My dad, who passed away almost a quarter-century ago, was something of a gardener, and one of his favorite flowers came from a stretch of Japanese Iris that resided along the side of the house in Cranston where I grew up. My mom stayed there after he passed away in 1994, and the year after she succumbed to cancer more than 10 years later, we made the hard decision to sell the ancestral abode. We divided the stuff, but one thing I made sure I came away with was as much of that Iris patch as I could safely transplant into my hillside garden. The plants came through the ordeal fine, and, soon enough, they settled in to their new home. Alas, they never bloomed. Since they were part of my dad's legacy, I let them stay put, even though, more than once, I thought about replacing them with surer blossoms. This was a flower garden, after all, and a good gardener can't afford to be a sentimental softie. But the leaves were graceful, the plants were never troubled by disease and bugs, and, well... maybe someday they'd bloom. I could wait. Today, after noticing a week ago that a few of them actually had flower buds, my decade of patience was rewarded. Japanese Iris are notably gorgeous. This one, because it carries so many memories, was doubly so. I'm glad I waited.

Japanese Iris Sat, 30 Jun 2018 01:45:00 GMT
Rock frame

There were rumors of heavy rain today—not surprisingly, very little actually arrived—so we scheduled a visit to New Haven and Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History. Happily, Stasia's amenable-to-anything mood continued, and even the prospect of the hour drive didn't dampen her spirits. In the gathering warmth, she and I walked the half-mile from Yale Health to the Peabody, and I got to show off the campus. She experienced quite a bit of consternation in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs—she was having trouble with coming to grips with how birds evolved from the ruling reptiles—but she loved the new exhibit on California Gold, along with a beautifully displayed collection of rocks and minerals. I'm feeling a little sheepish here, since I didn't note precisely which mineral she's framed by—bad, bad journalism—but whatever its identity, the smooth stones clearly captivated my granddaughter. Maybe she'll find geological evolution easier to comprehend than the biological variety.

bird evolution geology gold Great Hall of Dinosaurs Peabody Museum of Natural History Stasia Yale University Thu, 28 Jun 2018 12:15:00 GMT
Raven quotes

Stasia was amenable to a hike today. Actually—and this has been something of a surprise from her recent, I-no-longer-want-to-trek, early pre-teen mood—she was happy to hit the trail and suggested we revisit our old stomping ground, Lantern Hill. Praise be. We laughed as we huffed our way up the steep, first part of the ascent, but we kept huffing, and she made constant jokes about rolling off the side. However, her new hiking boots did the job of keeping her on the footpath, even in the narrowest areas where there really is a sharp drop-off along the western edge, and that footwear played an important role when we heard a bizarre sound. It's hard to describe, but it seemed mechanic, almost robotic. I guessed, mostly by process of auditory elimination, that it came from a Raven—I'd already heard the spirit bird's croaking calls, and I knew that Ravens lived on Lantern Hill. Because Stasia felt secure on the rocks, we edged our way a little off-trail to a clearing where we could look down at the noisy bird, which was just emerging from hiding in the branches of a Pitch Pine. It made its weird call again, and then flew off.

Lantern Hill Pitch Pine Raven Stasia Wed, 27 Jun 2018 12:00:00 GMT
Snake at a distance

We've been trying, for the past couple of years, to get my eight-year-old granddaughter Stasia off of the bicycle training wheels crutch, and this year, quite by herself, she pulled it off. So today, we took our bikes to a local park for some dirt-road and trail-riding, and, protected by her unicorn helmet, she did just fine. We stopped by a stone bridge to watch the water and search for dragonflies, and as we scanned the gravel and rocks near the bottom, we noticed a very large Northern Water Snake that was also observing the natural world. People around here often call Nerodia sipedon a Water Moccasin, and they insist that the large serpent is poisonous. While our native snake has a bad temper and will bite aggressively when handled, mishandled, or just run into while in the water—I've been charged when I've been swimming—N. sipedon is not closely related to the Cottonmouth, a.k.a. Agkistrodon piscivorus, a bona fide pit viper native of the Southeast, and our water snake is definitely not venomous. It's just bad tempered, so, even protected by helmets, we observed it from a proper distance.

Agkistrodon piscivorus Cottonmouth Nerodia sipedon Northern Water Snake pit viper Tue, 26 Jun 2018 12:30:00 GMT
Catalpa climax

As I've noted too many times—OK, whined about far too often—it's been a pretty bad year for most flowering plants... except for the Catalpas. From various hikes and drives around the neighborhood, 2018 is definitely an amazing year for these semi-natives: there are two North American species, the Northern and Southern Catalpa, but the former was actually a midwesterner while the latter was a southeasterner; both, because of their spectacular flowers, have been used extensively as landscape plants. And both, because of the remarkable number of seeds they create in long, bean-like pods, have become a common fixture along highways and the sunny edges of woodlands. I think this incredibly floriferous Catalpa is about the best I've ever seen, but I don't know if it's botanically a Southerner or Northerner. They're similar in appearance, with the main field mark being the smell of the leaves: the southern species has foliage that emits an acrid odor when crushed; the leaves of the northern species lack this unpleasant characteristic. Positive ID will have to wait until the next trip to the lake we frequent in the summer; I'll crush some leaves and report back.

Catalpa Northern Catalpa Southern Catalpa Mon, 25 Jun 2018 12:15:00 GMT
Monarchs, incoming

A couple of generations past the overwintering congregation in the Mexican highlands, the Monarch butterflies are back on the ridge and in the surrounding area—just in time, of course, for the opening of the Milkweed flowers. Those sweet-smelling blossoms provide fuel for the adult Monarchs and the continuation of their journey north, and the toxic, latex-filled leaves of the once ubiquitous Asclepias syriaca plants are the main food source for the incredibly colorful larvae. I took these pictures this afternoon at one of the best Milkweed "plantations" in creation: the carefully managed fields of the Preston Nature Preserve. After a lot of tick-temptation, a.k.a. combing through lots of Milkweed leaves for eggs and caterpillars, I only found one clear sign that the Monarchs had already been in the neighborhood. Sadly, this drab youngster, no doubt less than a week post-hatching, encountered some kind of insurmountable challenge—perhaps a disease, maybe a predator or parasite—and looks like it will be one of the approximately 90 percent of Monarch youngsters that don't make it to adulthood. This is normally the way of their world, but given the abnormal state of things these days and the huge population declines that A. syriaca has experienced in the past few decades, every loss, however natural, is magnified... and cause for sorrow.

A. syriaca Asclepias syriaca butterflies caterpillars Milkweed Monarch Butterfly Preston Nature Preserve Sun, 24 Jun 2018 14:30:00 GMT
Amazing goats

My now eight-year-old granddaughter Stasia is back at the ranch for the early part of summer and, after a bike trip—she's becoming a master of two wheels!—we opted for a longer jaunt home to see some of the sights, which, of course, included a look at various farms. Along the edge of one locale, we spotted a group of goats in the process of doing some sight-seeing of their own. Stasia was happy to stop and get out of the truck to enjoy the critters, but no sooner had we pulled off the road than the goats opted to return to their field, gather together, and watch us watching them. If they harbored any guilt about jumping over the fence, I failed to see any sign of it.

farms goats Stasia Sat, 23 Jun 2018 14:30:00 GMT
Botanical yard sale

Summer is officially here and that can only mean one thing: time to get in the car and drive 90-plus miles northwest to visit White Flower Farm for the once-a-year Tent Sale! We certainly are never the only ones with this idea, and, as usual, the place was packed with gardeners and gardening bargains. The ample display gardens, of course, were just about perfect, and everywhere we looked, there were new ideas for plants and paraphernalia that would work in our mostly shady venue. Surprisingly, there were very few butterflies and dragonflies working the blossoms. I usually wind up with lots of good insect pictures while I'm enjoying the flowers and foliage, but this year, I had to content myself with acres of green leaves and blooms of every imaginable hue. Not the worst thing, of course... just different.

White Flower Farm Fri, 22 Jun 2018 14:00:00 GMT
Astilbe mystery

I love a good mystery, particularly one that involves insect identification. Usually, however, I manage to solve the mystery in advance of writing about it and showing the image that inspired the search. Alas, not this time. Let me set the scene: we are blessed with an abundance of Astilbes, and, at present, they are blooming in abundance, their white to pink columns of tiny, packed together flowers luring in an equal abundance of potential pollinators and predators attracted to the crowd. Most of the visitors are small, even tiny, and this curious wasp, its thread-waisted abdomen held in a permanent curve, is no more than half-an-inch long. I don't know her identity, but, if I had to guess, she's probably a member of the Ichneumon clan, a large group of parasitic wasps that don't sting but, rather, use that formidable "stinger," which is actually an ovipositor, for depositing eggs into prey that then serve as a food source for developing larvae. I'll keep looking for this small wonder's scientific name. I try to avoid unsolved mysteries.

Astilbe Ichneumon wasps Insects parasitic wasps Thu, 21 Jun 2018 13:15:00 GMT
Harvestman's treat

An old friend of mine wanted some Bloodroot plants for her garden, so I unearthed a few that had made fine seedpods and would help re-establish a Bloodroot bed more quickly than would happen through plants alone. But at least one of the upright pods was more mature than I thought, and, no sooner had I potted up the gift than the pod opened and scattered its contents. Bloodroot seeds are unusual, in that each one typically includes, as part of the package, a sweet white growth called an elaisome that is designed to be Manna for ants. These insects find the botanical treat irresistible and carry the elaisome-bearing seeds back in the direction of their nests, thus helping to disperse Bloodroots to new, and as I've noticed over the years, completely unexpected places. Elaisomes, I discovered today, are not just haute cuisine for hymenopterans. I hadn't noticed that the Bloodroot pod had spilled some of its contents on a boulder near the house. Somebody else, however, didn't miss the gift unbidden. A Harvestman, a.k.a., Daddy Longlegs, was more than happy to enjoy an unexpected dessert.

ants Bloodroot Daddy Longlegs elaisome Harvestman seed dispersal Wed, 20 Jun 2018 13:00:00 GMT
Maidens among us  

I will walk a mile to spot a rarity... in fact, to see a rare fern, I'll walk at least a mile and a half. That's certainly the case with Maidenhair Fern—I'd walk two miles to see a Maiden—which is certainly rare in our area and is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most beautiful plants in existence. Lacy, dark-stemmed, horseshoe-shaped, and delicate, Adiantum pedatum is a stunner, and because it only grows in the wild in soil that is much richer in calcium than is typical around here, there just isn't much of it in our forests. But I discovered one place fairly close, and as I trekked up the Blue-blazed Trail near Wyassup Lake, I knew just where to go and what to look for: the general shape and growth habit, along with its characteristic of rolling the edges of its leaves to hide its spore cases. I was distressed to see the several dozen Maidens being harassed by a variety of native, but aggressive, species trying to overrun its home, but for now, A. pedatum held its sweet-soil ground. Next trek, I think I'll bring clippers to ensure its presence.

A. pedatum Adiantum pedatum Blue-blazed Trail ferns Maidenhair Fern Tue, 19 Jun 2018 12:00:00 GMT