About Me

My photo
I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The order of things?

A friend was horrified to learn the other day that the praying mantis preys on hummingbirds.(And I'm not making this up, as noted in this Birdwatcher's Digest post.) Our conversation was sparked by my discovery of this large mantid hanging out on our front storm door. (You can see its size relative to a door handle in obvious need of polishing. I wanted to get a picture of it in comparison to my hand, which is about the same length as this particular insect, but decided against placing any of my body parts in close proximity to a wild carnivorous creature with a very small brain. Entomologist friends: do insects have brains?)
Her horror came from the notion of an insect killing and eating a warm-blooded creature, and I have to confess that I have been unable to watch any of the videos of successful hummingbird hunts, even though I grew up on Wild Kingdom and National Geographic specials, which often included footage of lions running down antelopes (hmm...was it always the same footage?), and have lived most of my life with carnivorous mammals in the house. There is something particularly unsettling about the idea of being devoured by a creature so different from ourselves. (Case in point: of the junky horror fiction consumed in my childhood, the only story I remember is the one that ended with a man about to be consumed by a giant land snail feeling its 5000-or-so "teeth" entering his flesh. This may have been the last such story I read as it creeped me out for weeks, given that we lived in Florida and there were lots of snails about.)

I pointed out that birds eat insects and spiders all the time, so perhaps it is only fair that birds are sometimes on the losing end of the food chain. (Yes, it turns out that our mantis is not the only invertebrate that sometimes craves an avian meal.) My friend, however, shuddered and noted that birds eating bugs was "the natural order of things." Which, of course, it is, but so is the hummingbird-eating mantis. Mother Nature doesn't seem to favor any one of her children over any of the others, even though all those diagrams in the science textbooks of my childhood showed homo sapiens as the pinnacle of evolution and the top of the food chain. Which, of course, is nonsense, as any biologist will tell us.
I'm glad that, so far, no praying mantis has gotten big enough to pose a danger to humans--but wasn't there a movie about that once?

Monday, September 23, 2013

A good year for asters

The other day, our wonderful gardening neighbor was lamenting the fact that her asters have done nothing this year (probably because everything else has grown so rampantly in this year's rain that the poor things are shaded out--or perhaps they've drowned, as she has actual soil and actually waters her plantings). Looking across the street at our rampaging aromatic aster
(Aster oblongifolius, for some reason now renamed Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, a moniker unlikely ever to come into common use), she sighed and noted that our asters have had a good year. And they have.
In truth, our shale barren natives have been so happy that I've had to divide and keep moving the clumps to keep them from choking out everything in their path; they actually out-compete catmint and sedum, though I am hopeful that this young planting of aster, switchgrass, feather grass, and mixed agastache will simply make a nicely interwoven patch of pollinator delights when it matures.
All the asters have been happy this year, though they are not a well-behaved group of plants. My beloved "Wild Romance" vanished from the backyard meadow, overrun by by oblongifolium unaware that it is supposed to get no more than knee-high, but volunteered in front of a "Purple Dome" in the driveway bed.
"Wild Romance" is too tall for the spot, but its pink harmonizes nicely with the dark purples and blues of that area. It may have to stay.
Asters can, indeed, be thugs, but lovely ones. Common New England aster volunteers with abandon in various places (generally doing better than in the places I wanted it to grow), like this specimen that decided that it was a better choice than hummingbird mint and purple coneflower to set off a large "Fireworks" goldenrod. (It was probably right.)
Out back, NE aster has interwoven itself with other meadow and prairie plants native to our area, creating the kind of pollinator-friendly jumble that keeps us and our cats well-entertained as we sit on the back porch.

I've been unable (read: too lazy) to do a positive ID on the small-flowered white asters that pop up everywhere here, but we seem to have at least two species, one that wanders low to the ground and tolerates even the dry shade under our maples, and one that wants to be a shrub and made an unexpected snowbank in front of the physocarpus.
We could buy a "Snowbank" boltonia, but why bother? It's been a good year for asters on Chipmunk Ridge.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Kids are Alright

Okay, "alright" isn't a word, even though the Who used it back in the days of our vanished youth. (Theirs was probably more misspent than mine.) But I feel the need to report utterly positive news about a group of (mostly) young people.

As part of my contribution to the college that pays my salary, I volunteered to reactivate the student Environmental Awareness Group, a body that had existed only on paper since the faculty member who was its heart retired a few years ago. Another student club had taken over responsibility for our campus Earth Day observance, but earthy things are not that group's real focus, so Something Needed to Be Done. Having more hours in the day than I can fill (snort!), into that breach strode I.

And I am glad to have done so. A few students (buttonholed in the hall) had expressed interest and one had agreed to be the founding president, but I had a vision (nightmare?) of myself and the two stalwart young men who had committed to the group sitting around staring at each other. Well--the organizational meeting on Wednesday drew fifteen (!) students and the faculty adviser for the student honorary. Within the hour, the club had selected four officers, chosen a meeting schedule for the rest of the term, signed onto a volunteer project, and set up an ambitious research and community education agenda. (We have a Facebook page! We're going to have a Twitter feed! Today a student was in my office asking when we get our bulletin board!) Subgroups for particular tasks were being formed.  By Thursday afternoon, there were 25 people on the mailing list, and we had lined up our first outside speaker.

The kids are indeed alright, at least in our little corner of the world.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Autumn Light

It seems to me that the light changes in autumn, even though the equinox won't arrive for another couple of weeks. There's something about that golden glow, here illuminating "Fireworks" goldenrod and a volunteer New England aster.
The view from the other side.
And the same evening's sun doing quite nice things to the not-yet-mature grass garden.
(This may prove to be my favorite view in a couple of years--and I won't have to go anywhere except out the front door to see it.)

Evening sun highlights the pink of "Wild Romance" aster

 and does particularly nice things to jewelweed blossoms.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Yesterday on my way home from work I took a detour to a place I'd been intending to visit, Parkersburg's , Johnson T. Janes Park, a 100-acre preserve only recently opened to the public. Of course, I wasn't dressed for muddy trails and didn't venture beyond the entrance bridge, although a friendly and enthusastic walker who had just come out of the park was singing the praises of its four miles of trail. (Note to self: the park has guided walks every Monday afternoon at 3:45.) Because the trails are still very much undergoing development, trucks and equipment are common in the parking area and in parts of the park itself. Sometimes, this is a good thing.

After our wet August, the approach to the trail head's entrance bridge features tread marks from some sort of heavy equipment--not generally a feature one prefers in a wildlife preserve, but wild creatures have needs and minds of their own. This damp, sandy, disturbed area was nearly covered with tiny fluttering butterflies, mostly sulfurs and skippers of various types that came down to taste the mud and then took off in whirling hordes. One handsome black and orange fellow (later identified as a pearl crescent) was wandering about by himself and looking particularly showy--but off course, I had no camera, either.

Anyone unfamiliar with the ways of butterflies may not know that these seemingly delicate creatures do not in fact get all their nutrients from floral nectars, romantic as that idea may be. Many require salts and amino acids not found in carbohydrate-rich nectar, so they settle on mud flats, in shallow puddles, or on plain damp dirt like that on the edge of the parking lot. Some even go for bird droppings, urine, and human sweat. Nothing in the natural world is wasted.

(And this picture has nothing to do with puddling, but I did have a camera with me later that day when I spotted a skipper on a heliopsis blossom, so a close-up of a nectaring skipper seemed appropriate.)

Monday, September 2, 2013

It's coming

Yes, I know that the excitement that comes with fall flowers and falling temperatures is a cliche of autumn, but there are reasons why some cliches exist, and seasonal change, at least this one, is a delight. (I'm not so keen on late November morphing into winter, and the mud season that precedes actual spring.) Even with the anticipation of spring and the delights of full summer, there is just something about the sheer plant mass of autumn, with everything trying to get in one last hurrah, that makes me happy. Even plant thugs like pokeweed
and aromatic aster look good. (This particular poke is higher than our house and generally full of birds, and
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is attempting to colonize the entire yard--but it will have purple daisies into November.) 

Blue mist flower (our native eupatorium coelestinum) has come into its own, with the seedheads of a disobedient obedient plant giving hope that next year we might have pink spikes in among the blue mist.

"Fireworks" goldenrod (solidago rugosa) is much better behaved than common goldenrod, though I must admit that the plant has gotten much larger than the catalog descriptions indicated. This size, however, allows it to make a dramatic combination with "Dart's Gold" physocarpus

and a large (as in taller than I), enthusiastic New England aster.

And as if we weren't having enough autumn excitement, the neighbor's dogwood berries are turning red, a harbinger of the fall migration of songbirds, and sedum "Autumn Joy" is getting its first flush of pink.
Cue happy sigh.