Millipedes, butterflies, ants, and more.
I'm glad this viceroy
couldn't hear my thoughts as I rushed inside after the camera.
"Another monarch! How exciting! I wonder if their populations
are on the rebound this year?"
Of course, if you enroll
in the witness protection program (aka practice Mullerian
mimicry), I guess
you want to be mistaken for someone else?
I should have realized
that our habitat is just right for viceroys --- full of willows to host
their caterpillars --- and less prime for monarchs. I find it
hard to complain about this beautiful insect's identity when he opens
his wings and the light shines through like sun in a stained glass
Our chicken waterer makes the perfect gift for
the homesteader who's sick of poopy chores.
Have you been hearing reports
about the periodic cicadas and wonder if they'll show up in your neck
of the woods? I stumbled across a great website --- magicicada.org --- that includes answers to
every question you may have (and probably several you didn't even think
to ask) about the currently active cicadas. For those of you who
are technically inclined, 2011's edition is brood XIX, which is a type
of thirteen year cicada that lives in the areas pictured on the map
Go here and input your state and
county to find out when periodical cicadas have been sighted in your neck
of the woods. In general, 13 year cicadas live in the south while
17 year cicadas are found in the north, but the Appalachian Mountains
count as "the north" by cicada standards. Scott County, Virginia,
(where I live) had 17 year cicadas flying in 2008, which means we
aren't slated for another showing until around 2025. I guess I'd
better practice patience.
Our chicken waterer keeps the backyard flock
hydrated with a minimum of mess.
I posted a slew of photos of native
pollinators over on
my homestead blog, but couldn't resist adding one more over here.
This bumblebee moth is a sphinx moth that mimics bumblebees, and I had
the wool pulled over my eyes when I watched the insect from a
distance. Up close, though, the moth is clearly un-bee-like in
shape, and even more so in habit --- the bumblebee moth hovers in front
of flowers instead of landing to suck up its dinner.
The bumblebee moth is
also known as the clearwing moth, the hummingbird moth, and the bee
hawk-moth. The moths are easy to identify to the genus level (Hemaris) because they fly in the
daytime and hover in front of flowers, but it's tougher to get close
enough to tell the four North American species apart. Check out Bugguide for more information on
Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative
that thousands of backyard chicken keepers swear by.
eyes are always peeled for the first spring flowers, but this year, I
seem to be more interested in the insects on those flowers.
Perhaps it's because I'm obsessed with chicken foraging, and chickens
love bugs, or maybe I'm just starting to get a real inkling for how
important insects are in the landscape.
Except for our
honeybees, I hadn't seen a single insect until about two weeks ago when
the Commas/Question Marks (I never look closely enough to tell the
difference) and the Mourning Cloaks started flying. Within days,
the Spring Azures had joined them, and this week I even saw big, showy
Tiger and Zebra Swallowtails visiting my manure pile.
Butterflies are the
prettiest early spring insects, but they aren't alone out there. When
the hepaticas started blooming a week and a half ago, tiny little
beetles were busy collecting pollen, and this week I started seeing Greater
Bee Flies hovering
I love how in sync the
natural world is. Bee flies show up one day; the next day, our
first nectarine flowers open. I get bit by a mosquito one day;
the next evening a bat is swooping through the air gathering
dinner. It's all a reminder that the beautiful spring flowers we
love so much didn't evolve for human enjoyment. Flowers are here
for the bees, so we need to protect our pollinators if we want the show
to go on.
Our $2 ebook shows how to escape the rat
race and start to live.
ant column and its camp follower birds were the highlight of my
visit to Coba, dozens of other types of
animals caught my eye. As you can see in the top photo, my old
were out in force, carrying
leaves and even immature fruits along paths they'd cleared through the
Nearby, termite mounds
hung from branches. More properly known as
termitaries, these nests are made of a combination of digested wood
pulp and merely chewed and regurgitated wood pulp, which together make
a cardboard-like wall. Later, I read that trogons like to hollow
out old termitaries to make their own nests, and I couldn't help
thinking that the half-digested wood pulp would make a good garden
Speaking of trogons, I
was lucky enough to catch a view of this
perching insect-hunter. I didn't catch enough
details to tell whether my beauty was a Violaceous Trogon or a
Black-headed Trogon, but I did get to see it foray out from the branch
in search of flying prey. These photos don't do the bird
justice --- its breast is brilliant yellow.
of our most amazing sightings occurred right at the beginning. As
we poked around the Coba group (near the entrance), a rustling in the
undergrowth caught my attention. We crept closer and peered
through the leaves to see a huge turkey with a blue head. The
Ocellated Turkey was too quick for me, as you can see from this photo,
but that's probably a good thing since Mayan legend holds that the
Giant Turkey Spirit is one of the Lords of the Forest which takes
revenge on folks who kill more turkeys than they need. Maybe
snapping too many photos would also incur his wrath?
there were all of my old friends who had flown south for the winter to
Coba. This waterthrush bobbed along the ground just like it does
along the edges of our creeks, although it seemed content to spend the
winter away from a burbling brook. Later, I saw several
warblers and vireos who were
far too fast for my
camera, but who looked awfully familiar as well.
the trail, a brilliant Blue Bunting stripped grass seeds. Later,
as we ate our own lunch overlooking the lake, we were treated to a
grackles bathing in the shallow water, several Great Egrets, and a pair
of grebes who continually ducked under the surface, only to pop back up
moments later. Oh, and did I mention
the beautiful little lizard (maybe a Ghost Anole?) that was so sure of
its camouflage that I was able to poke my camera lens nearly down onto
In fact, between the
lucky viewing of the army
ants' camp followers
and the other very tame wildlife, I have to say that Coba is the best
spot I've been too for birding and wildlife viewing in years.
The ruins at Coba
were stunning, but my very favorite part of the visit
(and of the entire vacation) was running across a group of army
ants. I've read about army ants for over a decade, about how
these masses of insects march through the forest consuming other
insects, lizards, small birds, and anything else they can get their
hands on. More recently, I learned that dozens, perhaps hundreds,
of species of "camp followers" are associated with army ants.
These hangers-on take advantage of prey that flies out of reach of the
ants, but which can be quickly consumed by larger, winged predators.
was these camp follower birds who first caught my eye. At the
quieter, southern end of Coba, several birds were hanging out at the
edge of the woods and seemed relatively impervious to my
approach. I snuck closer, trying to snap a shot, and saw a
Woodcreeper (top photo) working its mouth like crazy, trying to get a
cricket to go down its gullet. Next, I noticed two Brown Jays
watching the ground, and one darted off the branch to snag another
down, a brilliant orange-brown Rufous Piha reminded me of our Wood
Thrushes. Before I knew it, a real Virginia native popped out of
the undergrowth --- a Hooded Warbler had flown hundreds of miles to
winter in the Yucatan and was enjoying its army-ant-flushed dinner.
By the time I tired of
photographing tame and unwary bird life, over
half an hour had passed and Mark had wandered off. As the
Mastercard commercial goes, "Entrance to Coba, $5. Experiencing
an army ant foray --- priceless."
Don't you wish feeding your family was as easy as dropping by an army
ant buffet? With Microbusiness Independence, making a living is even
Faunal species at Hidden Valley
are plentiful. Game animals abound including Black Bear, White-tailed
Deer, Bobcat, Raccoon, Squirrel, Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, etc. But there
are other animals worth noting too such as Southern Flying Squirrel,
numerous salamanders, dragonflies, and myriad butterflies.
Hidden Valley is well known
for its birds. Several species of high elevation warblers, vireos,
woodpeckers, cuckoos, and raptors, inclusive of an occasional Bald
Eagle, are found here.
style="font-style: italic; font-family: Nimbus Sans L;">Richard Kretz
is a photographer and naturalist who chronicles his adventures in
southwest Virginia at http://www.pbase.com/diggitydogs/clinch_mountain. Stay
tuned to read more of his writeup on Hidden Valley Wildlife Management
Area, or click on the tag for "hidden_valley"
to read previous posts in this series.
Stream monitoring through the
Save our Streams network is a great way to get involved in the health
of your local waterways. The system uses an ingenious series of
biological indicators so that your average Joe can quickly learn to
assess the water quality in a stream. Rather than measuring the
levels of every possible contaminant, you just scoop a random sample of
aquatic macroinvertebrates (water bugs) out of the stream, pluck them
off the net into white ice cube trays, and then tally up how many of
each type of bug is present. Do a bit of simple math and you can
rate your stream on a scale of 0 to 12, where 0 to 7 ia unacceptable
water quality conditions, 8 is a gray zone, and 9 to 12 means the
stream is healthy.
In the mountains of Virginia,
good quality streams tend to be chock full of scary-looking stoneflies
(top photo) and delicate mayflies, while lower quality streams host
worms, midges, and lunged snails. Although the Save our Streams
method doesn't delve further than high and low quality water, a book
like J. Reese Voshell, Jr.'s A Guide
to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America will turn your haul into
even more of an indicator of water conditions. For example,
snails are usually abundant in hard water where dissolved calcium makes
it easy to build their shells, and common netspinners (like the ones
pictured below) abound in rivers with high levels of suspended debris
for them to catch in their nets. Straight pipes in the watershed
upstream from our testing site make common netspinners especially
abundant in our portion of the Clinch --- perhaps the reason our most
recent sampling sunk the Clinch down in the unacceptable zone.
Although a few of the
aquatic macroinvertebrates we net during stream monitoring live in the
river all their lives, many more are larval stages of flying
insects. Most of the "stream bugs" live by scraping algae off
rocks, filtering or capturing debris out of the water, or eating
smaller macroinvertebrates. None of them bite.
Walton League of America developed the Save Our Streams network,
but most states seem to have their own organization that coordinates
with volunteers to sample local streams. Here in Virginia, Virginia
Save Our Streams
runs training weekends and compiles data on their website. Even
more local groups, like The Clinch Coalition, often have stream
monitoring equipment available for you to borrow and will help set up
teams of two or three to monitor each stream. If you decide to
join up, you'll be responsible for monitoring your stream four times a
year, a fun excuse to jump in the water.
Looking for clean water
closer to home? Our homemade chicken
waterer keeps your
flock healthy and hydrated with poop-free water all the time.
first time I found a gentian flower, I kept checking on it day after
day, hoping the flower would open up enough for me to identify
it. Little did I know that the bud-like flowers are the easiest
way to identify gentians.
Gentian flowers have
evolved to be pollinated by one of our most important native
pollinators --- bumblebees. These hefty insects
are able to push their way into gentian flowers, and I assume that the
exclusion of other pollinators makes gentian pollination more efficient.
I found this lovely
bloom along the Chimney Rock Trail on High Knob a few weeks ago.
Although I got too excited to take photos once I got to the top, I
highly recommend this half mile trail because of the large sandstone
cave at the peak of the hill. To get there, park at the Bark Camp Lake day use
area and walk a short way down the road toward the boat ramp.
Before you reach the boat ramp, you'll see the trail branching off on
your left. Since the trail is a loop, you'll see the trail
branching off again a few yards further down the road. The trail
is well built, with lots of switchbacks that make the climb feel
I caught this pair of Pipevine Swallowtails
mating in the garden Tuesday. Although clearly the
same species, the striking blue band on the top butterfly makes me
think that Pipevine Swallowtails are sexually dimorphic.
On the other hand, it's
just as likely that the bottom butterfly is merely older and faded from
a hard life. The Polyphemus Moth I posted about in July was a
prime example of how tattered and faded the wings of butterflies and
moths can become after a few months of flapping around and evading
explanation, I appreciate these butterflies holding still and letting
me snap a shot. Thanks for reminding me to pause my incessant
weeding and take in the world's beauty.
walking down the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, we stumbled across a line
of ants carrying bits and pieces of leaves on their backs. The
ants were following paths brushed clean of any debris, as if a gush of
water had flowed through and washed 4 to 5 inches of ground clear.
Maggie and I joined the
line of ants and soon came upon a huge mound, about twenty feet wide
and three feet tall. The mound was clearly the center of the
leaf-cutter ant operation, with trails radiating out in all directions
from their home. I tried to follow a trail to its end, but
eventually gave up --- the ants travel long distances, often running
along horizontal tree limbs in addition to their cleanly swept
trails. I decided that ants must prefer certain tree species to
go to so much trouble when they could use the leaves of the trees
growing right out of the mound.
Costa Rica is home to
two genera and several species of leaf-cutter ants, but a handy
Fabulous Leafcutters, by Amy Mertl) explained
that the most common species is Atta
Just like the Azteca ants farm mealybugs,
the leaf-cutter ants farm fungi --- they carry home leaves, chew the
plants up to feed the fungi, then eat the gongylidia produced on the
fungal strands. When new queens leave to form their own colony,
the queens carry a little bit of fungus with them, just as the first
European colonists to the Americas brought along seeds of their
Later, I watched another
colony of leaf-cutter ants gnawing circles out of an elephant ear
leaf. An ant stood on the bit of leaf it was biting off, then
reached out its legs to grab onto the main part of the leaf just in
time so that excised section and ant didn't fall together to the
ground. The leaves remaining on the plant looked like someone had
gone after them with a hole-puncher.
Maggie and I thought the leaf-cutters were unbelievably cool, farmers
are less impressed. Every day, a colony of leafcutter ants can
harvest as many leaves as an adult cow, and the ants are quite fond of
banana, sugar cane, and corn. Scientists estimate that
leaf-cutter ants harvest 12 to 17% of Costa Rica's total leaf
production every year --- and I thought our deer problem was bad!
I did have a small run
in with the leaf-cutters after months of watching their work.
During the rainy season, I often carried home plant specimens to draw
indoors, but one day I noted:
made a lot of collections yesterday in hopes of drawing them today, but
several look like they aren't going to make it...especially since
leaf-cutter ants have started cutting on them!
was a glorious and horrible day --- nearly more than I could
bear. It was the day of La Caminata, another of the Friends'
School's impressive fundraiser ideas. The concept --- La Caminata
was a 12.5 kilometer walk up to San Geraldo Mirador, from which, on
good days, one can see the Arenal Volcano. We didn't get to see
the volcano --- too misty --- but we did see the lake at its base
through the mist, saw lovely new scenery, and had a ball getting there.
money-making aspect was pretty simple. We either had to pay an
entrance fee ($3 for adults, $1.50 for kids), or get sponsors who would
pay a certain amount for each kilometer we walked. Maggie and I
just paid to get in, but most of the kids were sponsored.
we set off. After we'd completed each kilometer, we found someone
sitting by the side of the road to stamp our sheet and give us a
treat. The treats were delicious, but were eventually our
downfall as they shot us into the worst sugar reaction I'd ever
had. The treats --- home-dried bananas (chewy), Snickers
mini-bars, hard candy, soft candy, oranges, various homemade cookies,
lemonaide, pineapple, watermelon, brownies, and dried pineapple.
Perhaps you can see why we overdid it?
was a long walk, especially when we started going uphill, and I nearly
didn't make it up one steep slope. I scared myself by starting to
wheeze --- the elevation? --- and had to stop and rest a bit. At
the top, we walked into the mist, wished on a white horse on a hill,
and pressed on.
the end of our journey, Maggie entertained the kids by juggling oranges
while I lounged (and was glad we stopped in Santa Elena on the way to
get our weekly shopping done.) Then the man who'd walked the
whole thing on stilts eventually showed up, it started to pour, we ate
up the rest of the cookies, and we caught a ride home.
night Anna and
I were in such a physical crash from all the walking and sweets of
the caminata. We were in a sad, sad state. We had the type of
headaches that disable you
from moving. So at first I sat reading
while Anna slaved away at making stew for today's potluck and our
dinner. When night fell, Anna was reading and I had made the great
journey into the kitchen to sit at the table and stare out the
windows. It was raining beautifully. It soothed my headache to
watch a drip from the roof.
and I felt just about as close to being stoned (under the influence
of drugs) as we have ever in our lives. The combination of walking
12.5 Kilometers, being hot and sweating, and eating way too many
sugary things did us in.
stew was ready, and I talked Anna into eating some even though she
said her stomach was upset. She had had an Ibuprofin and I had not. So
we sat, attempting to keep as still as possible to prevent pangs
of headaches, but giggling uncontrollably. Some of the things that
we said that cracked me up were, "I've run out of chunks." (We were
eating the stew with our fingers because as Anna put it, it
was too difficult to manuver a fork. As I put it, "we might
hurt ourselves with forks." In the mental
institute that I had ran away from to get here we would not be
allowed sharp objects due to the plain spastic silliness.
it was Anna
who said, "if you are real quiet, you can hear the yogurt
talking". But for sure, we were real good at meditation last
night. At one point I sat on the kitchen counter, almost in the
sink, just being still.
ants are numerous sidekicks in just about every habitat I've explored,
these insects are main characters in Monteverde ecology. Stay
tuned for a post about the most obvious Costa Rican ants ---
leaf-cutter ants --- in the near future. For now, I
want to share the story of the most fascinating case of symbiosis I've
The common Cecropia
found in open areas all around Monteverde is home to a three way
mutualism that benefits the tree, the ants, and the mealybugs farmed by
the ants. At first, the tree does most of the work, providing
hollows within its trunk for an ant colony to move into, then feeding
the ants with nutrient-rich Mullerian bodies attached to the petioles
of its leaves.
The Azteca ants never leave the
Cecropia tree once they move in, so they farm mealybugs to round out
their diet. The mealybugs feed on the phloem of the Cecropia and
the ants lap up the honeydew from the mealybugs, so in a way the tree
is still providing for the ants, albeit secondhand.
But once an ant colony
becomes established, the tables turn and the partnership becomes more
equal. With their food and housing provided, Azteca ants have plenty of time on
their hands to protect their host tree. The ants quickly chew
through vines that try to climb up the Cecropia's trunk, and they
destroy epiphytes sprouting on the tree's branches. Azteca ants also attack and drive
away herbivores nibbling on the tree's leaves, especially the
devastating leaf-cutter ants I'll write about soon. Although less
obvious to the lay observer, Cecropia's pet ants even feed the tree ---
the frass they leave behind in the center of the trunk is sucked up by
the Cecropia and provides 93% of the tree's nitrogen intake.
In fact, when scientists
add up the pluses and minuses of the interaction, the disadvantages are
few and all three species come out winners. In nature, real
symbiosis is rare, but the Cecropia-Azteca-mealybug story seems to be a
tale of true partnership.
felt lucky to be able to take part in a ready-made
community during our stay in Monteverde, I sometimes felt like I
wasn't holding up my side of the bargain. If I had been an Azteca ant, the Monteverde
Cecropia probably would have kicked me out as not worth its while.
was a pretty bad day. Well it's only 3:30, but if the day is not
quite over, it ought to be.
came Meeting. Tyse (our neighbor's dog) has broken loose,
with chain trailing, and followed us there, despite me yelling at
him. He whined and barked during Meeting so that a lady went out
and sat with him the whole time, which made me feel horrible.
Then, during announcements, he started up again, and I took him home.
was also potluck day, and I had made a pudding. The dessert
gelled last night, but by the time I got it to Meeting, the dish looked
horrible, and of course no one ate it.
day left me feeling like I have nothing to contribute to the community
--- all I do is cause problems.
our tour of Uxmal, our guide pointed over at a
tree with green and orange patches of peeling bark. "That's the
Tourist Tree," he said, going on to explain that the Gumbo Limbo (Bursera
often nicknamed the Tourist Tree due to the resemblance of the bark to
the sunburnt skin of unfortunate tourists.
The Gumbo Limbo tree
grows wild from California and Florida, through Central and South
America, and across the Caribbean islands. But the species is so
useful that it is also extensively planted. Farmers often cut
three foot long limbs, trim each end, and poke them into the ground to
create fence posts. The severed limbs will quickly root and grow,
merely needing to be trimmed back each year so that the branches don't
overshadow the field. The trees are also used as windbreaks, for
firewood and light lumber, and the resin is collected to use as glue,
varnish, incense, and perfume. Finally, the bark has been used
medicinally to sooth itches, sores, and --- ironically enough ---
What really caught my eye,
though, was the importance of Gumbo Limbo in the life of the Stingless
have been raised in domestication by the Maya of the Yucatan peninsula
for thousands of years. Traditionally, a hive of Stingless Bees
would be collected from the wild by cutting off the entire hollow tree
limb housing the bees, carrying the log home, sealing the ends, opening
a small hole for the bees to fly in and out of, and hanging the hive on
the side of a building. The sealed ends of the log could be
opened up when necessary to allow the beekeeper to remove honey and
wax, or to split the hive to increase the number of colonies. The
Stingless Bees were considered to be sacred, with images of bees found
on various Mayan artifacts, and some scientists believe that the honey
from the Stingless Bees was second in importance only to maize in the
culture of the Maya.
Although honey from the
Stingless Bees is considered tastier than honey from the European
Honeybee, the small bees produce much less than their larger
counterparts. So it should come as no surprise that the
European Honeybee became the primary bee species raised in the Yucatan
in the twentieth century. Currently, populations of Stingless
Bees are declining rapidly, partly because of lack of interest and
knowledge, but also partly due to environmental degradation.
While the European Honeybee is quite content pollinating clover and
field crops, the Mayan Stingless Bee requires mature, flowering
trees. In fact, one of their favorite foods is the nectar and
pollen from the Gumbo Limbo tree.
What do you do if
you find a moth, want to identify it, but have no idea where to
start? Bug Guide's moth silhouette
page is a
great place to begin since it will help you narrow down your choices to
a family or group of families.
polypheumus) is a brown moth
with paired wings up to six inches across. Each wing sports a
clear eyespot --- notice how you can see right through the "windows" in
I took this
last photo as eye candy because I loved the fuzziness of the moth's
stout body compared to the feathery antennae. But the photo
turned out to be useful in identification, proving that my moth is a
female. Although her antennae seem large to me, they aren't
nearly as large as the antennae that the males use to "sniff" out the
pheremones of female moths.
My moth clung
to the leaf all afternoon, but the next day she was gone, presumably
flown away in search of a mate or a site to lay her eggs. Adult
Polyphemus Moths neither eat nor drink and survive for only about four
days, so I figure I was lucky to catch a glimpse of her windowed wings.
If your moth
has a chunky body surrounded by huge wings, chances are it's a member
of the Giant Silkworm and Royal Moth family (Saturniidae). The
luna moth is the best known species in this family, but the moth I
found perching on my dwarf
Meyer lemon tree is nearly as common.
A week and a half
ago, I noticed this little critter swimming through a puddle of
tadpoles in our floodplain. The insect
was translucent and hard to see (and very hard to photograph), but its
manner of swimming using all six legs was distinct enough to catch my
attention. Every so often, it paused in its flight and drifted to
the surface, letting its tail break the boundary between water and air
and suck oxygen down into its body.
stumbled across information about the Giant Diving Beetle and its
larval form, called the Water Tiger, on the Royal
Alberta Museum's website. I've
included their photograph, which is a thousand times better than mine,
so that you can get an idea of what the insect really looked like.
It turns out that my
beautiful, elegant critter is a cold-blooded killer. Here's what
the Museum has to say about the Water Tiger:
larvae have jaws like
hypodermic needles that allow them to inject digestive enzymes into
their prey. These enzymes dissolve the body tissues and the water tiger
sucks up the resulting liquid.
guess those tadpoles aren't as safe as they thought they were in their
Plants sit politely for you to take in their beauty, but
the amateur naturalist is often sorely disappointed by the lack of
animals along his path. To most wildlife, we bumbling humans are
potential predators, to be avoided at all costs. Since wild
animals are faster, quieter, and more alert than we are, we're often
lucky to see as much as a chickadee and squirrel on our walk along the
Think like a
wild animal, though, and signs of life quickly become apparent.
The River Trail
is the best place on Sugar Hill for wildlife watching since nearly
every animal needs to stop by the river for a drink now and then.
fertility of floodplain plant life makes it a great place for
animals to stop for a nibble too.
Patches of mud are often indented with the hand-like
prints of a raccoon or the divided heart of a deer hoof. On a
little rise, an elongated scat (that's naturalist-speak for pile of
poop) marks the boundary of a fox's territory. And don't miss the
beaver stumps, gnawed to a point where these river-dwellers chopped
down saplings and trees to strip the tasty inner bark and then tote the
remains away to build their lodges and dams.
Birds are even
more apparent --- with their wings to carry them to safety, many are
willing to let you catch a glimpse of their brilliant plumage.
The Great Blue Heron can often be found wading in shallow water at the
river's edge, waiting for a passing fish to be speared by its elongated
bill. While the heron wades, the Belted Kingfisher waits
patiently on a perch overhanging the water, ready to swoop down on the
unwary fish. Open your ears and you'll likely hear the
kingfisher's rattling call as it flies along the shore to a new branch.
hunting here too, but they are in search of much smaller prey.
They dip and soar over the water, scooping up minuscule insects to fill
their bellies. Below the water's surface, the larval forms of the
dragonflies feed the fish that feed the birds, and the circle of river
the floodplain is brimming with
life, the Clinch River's true claim to
fame lies beneath the surface. I dig my hands into the sand along
the river bottom, and before long my fingers touch something
hard. The flowing water washes away dirt and reveals an elongated
seashell --- one of the Clinch's many freshwater mussels.
The Clinch is
home to 45 species of these mollusks, with names ranging from the
evocative Little-winged Pearlymussel to the less enticing Tennessee
Heelsplitter. Although they all look pretty much the same to the
untrained eye, their astonishing diversity is one of the Clinch's main
claims to fame. For a bit of perspective, you'd have to explore
every stream in Europe and temperate Asia to find as many species!
are sedentary, moving no more than a few inches along the bottoms of
the rivers and spending their time flushing water through their bodies
and extracting microscopic organisms to eat. Their young,
however, are more adventurous. Mother mussels trick fish into
coming close by showing off fleshy appendages that act as bait.
When a fish swoops close to eat the "bait", the mussel shoos her babies
out into the water and they dash to latch onto the fish's gills where
they'll spend the rest of their early childhood.
Like the picky caterpillars of the
Pipevine Swallowtail, each species of
mussel has a different species of host fish which it uses as its
nursery. Perhaps a decline in their host fish is partially
responsible for the recent loss of mussels from the Clinch River ---
whatever the reason, over the last few decades, species after species
has dropped out of sight. In the 1960s, 53 mussel species were
found in the Clinch, but more recent surveys have only been able to
turn up 37.
An even more
likely reason for the plummeting diversity of the Clinch River is dirty
water. Both mussels and the fish they depend on require pristine
water to survive, and the Clinch River can no longer be considered
pristine. The Carbo coal-fired power plant a few miles upstream
from St. Paul has severely damaged the Clinch River through two toxic
spills, one of alkaline fly ash slurry in 1967 and one of sulfuric acid
in 1970. The combination of these two spills affected the Clinch
River for nearly 90 miles, all the way downstream to Tennessee,
and created a 12 mile dead zone in which nearly all mussel species were
Dominion Virgina Power began construction of a second coal-fired power
plant on the banks of the Clinch, putting the future of the remaining
mussels in jeopardy. Although appeals to the Virginia State
Corporation Commission, Department of Environmental Quality, and
various legislators have been ignored, a groundswell of opposition has
sprung up around the region. Please take a few minutes to write
to your congressmen and ask that the Clinch's unique beauty be
protected for future generations to enjoy.
community is not just a world of turkeys and squirrels. While
leading a hike of naturalist wannabes along the trail, I keep my eyes
peeled for millipedes' black, shiny backs dotted with yellow or
red. Millipedes are common in our mature forests, where they live
a simple life of munching on decaying vegetation and minding their own
business. Until, that is, I come along to disrupt them.
“Aha!” I exult,
snatching up the little critter. My hikers draw around me,
intrigued, as I close my fist gently around the millipede and give it a
light shake or two. The traumatized arthropod curls up into a
ball to protect its soft underbelly, and when I open my hand it lies
still, playing dead.
“Now smell!” I
command, wafting the shaken millipede under each viewer’s nose.
“Oh!” they inevitably exclaim, as the scent of almonds or cherries
rises to their nostrils. I release the millipede (frightened but
unharmed) as I explain why it is so strongly scented.
We humans often
confuse millipedes with their more voracious relatives --- centipedes
--- but the two types of animals are actually miles apart.
Centipedes have flattened bodies with one pair of legs per body segment
while millipedes have rounded bodies with two pairs of legs per body
segment, but the cosmetic differences pale in comparison to the
lifestyle differences. Centipedes, like salamanders, are mighty
hunters of the forest floor, but unlike salamanders they paralyze their
prey with their poisoned bite. If I was an inch or less in
diameter, I would run as fast as I could when I saw a centipede coming.
the other hand, are gentle critters who would never hurt anyone.
All they crave is to be left alone to nibble on their rotting
plants. So, rather than wasting energy to create a poisoned bite,
millipedes save their poisons to deter predators. When a bird
swoops down to scoop a millipede off the forest floor, the millipede
emits cyanide, iodine, or quinine out of holes along its length.
These poisons, if aimed accurately into the bird’s eyes, will
temporarily blind the predator and give the millipede time to scurry
away. When I shook up my millipede (both literally and
figuratively), the frightened critter squirted out its poisons in hopes
of scaring me away. Since the chemicals only hit my skin, though,
they did no damage.
markings along the sides of the millipede are a warning to predators
(especially birds) to steer clear. After trying to eat one stinky
millipede, most birds learn their lesson and stay away from similar
looking critters in the future. I hope that my millipedes live
long and happy lives, burrowing amid the leaf litter and scaring away
birds ten times their size.
Many of the
plants outlined in this chapter are most visible in the spring, but you
will notice the interwoven vines of Dutchman’s Pipe at any season of
the year. Like the wild grapes that grow nearby, Dutchman’s Pipe
begins as a sprouted seed on the forest floor, then winds its way up
into the canopy, draping over tree branches to cushion its
ascent. Unlike the grapevines, though, Dutchman’s Pipe has
smoother bark that does not come loose in curling strands.
If you keep
your eyes open in June, you may see another field mark of the
Dutchman’s Pipe --- black caterpillars speckled with orange
spots. These are the offspring of the Pipevine Swallowtail, so
named because its caterpillars munch solely on the leaves of Dutchman’s
Pipe and the related Pipevine. You have probably heard of Monarch
caterpillars that will only eat milkweed and related plants, but you
may not realize that several other caterpillars are just as picky
eaters. Adult butterflies, like many adult humans, are happy to
flit from food source to food source, but caterpillars are more like
human children who refuse to eat anything except pizza. To the
caterpillars of the Pipevine Swallowtail, Dutchman’s Pipe is pizza ---
the only food worth eating.
picky? Scientists cannot explain why your kid will only eat
pizza, but they have made progress toward deciphering the picky nature
of Pipevine Swallowtail offspring. As the caterpillars munch on
Dutchman’s Pipe leaves, they gather poisons out of the plants and
safely pack them away within the caterpillars’ own bodies. Blue
Jays and other predators may consider the big caterpillars and
butterflies easy pickings, but as soon as they eat their first poisoned
caterpillar, the jays get a serious case of food poisoning and quickly
learn to hunt down more nutritious food. Although a few Pipevine
Swallowtails may die in the process, the species as a whole is able to
bypass most predators through its childhood of picky eating.
As you will
soon learn, nature is full of cheats. Several other butterflies
in our area look remarkably similar to Pipevine Swallowtails --- the
most common example is the black female version of the usually yellow
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
caterpillars cannot eat Dutchman’s Pipe leaves without getting sick
themselves, but they can mimic the species that does. The
result? Blue Jays tend to leave the black Eastern Tiger
Swallowtails alone, afraid to take any chances on another noxious
nibble. Like the grapevine, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has
learned to get ahead by working the system.
Wild Ginger lacks the perky flowers of other early spring
ephemerals. In fact, most hikers miss its flowers entirely
--- to find them, you have to lift up the leaves and look for a little
brown cup that does not really resemble a flower at all. Whenever
I see Wild Ginger flowers, I think of the related species Little Brown
Jug, named for the brown blooms that resemble another product of the
wondered why Wild Ginger has such drab blooms hidden away where no one
can see them. Most of the other early spring ephemerals are
pollinated by flying insects that are attracted to the bright colors
facing the sky. But Wild Ginger has gone another route. It
seeks out ground-dwelling beetles who stumble upon the Wild Ginger
flowers as they amble across the leaf mold, crawl inside, and then
wander back out covered with pollen to dust the pistils of the next
flower. Later, ants collect the seeds and carry them back to
their burrows where some sprout and turn into new plants. Now I
find myself asking myself --- why should Wild Ginger flowers look up
when they have so much to gain by looking down?
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Just as descendants of the Arcto-Tertiary forest are
well-represented in the canopy of the cove hardwood
forest, they are widespread on the forest floor as well. Wood
Anemone and Sharp-lobed Hepatica are two examples of plants with close
relatives found both here and in Asia, but nowhere in between --- signs
of an Arcto-Tertiary ancestor. In fact, the majority of the herbs
on the floor of the cove hardwood forest show one of two related
patterns, both of which are shared by herbs in China and (scientists
believe) in the ancient Arcto-Tertiary forest.
consists of perennial plants like trilliums and Jack-in-the-Pulpit that
send up a bloom and leaves in the spring, then linger in the shade of
the forest canopy for the rest of the year, putting out no new
growth. Instead, these plants are sucking up what little light
comes their way and turning it into energy to store in their roots and
feed next year’s blooms and leaves.
pattern is even more distinctive, enough so that this category of
plants has been given its own name. The early spring ephemerals bloom even earlier
in the spring than the trilliums, some in late March when the days are
still cold and only flies are out and about to act as
pollinators. Most --- like the toothworts, Rue Anemone, and
Spring-Beauty --- have white or pale pink flowers to attract these
the ephemerals quickly unfurl leaves and soak up late winter sun before
the trees above them wake up. Then the ephemerals' leaves fade
away just as quickly. By May, most of the early spring ephemerals
are long gone, except for the roots nestled in the leaf litter that
have stored enough energy to repeat the cycle next year. Their
tiny seeds have been carried away by ants to germinate a few feet from
the parent --- small wonder that these species take so long to
recolonize a forest after it has been clearcut. Although once
widespread in cove hardwood forests, the masses of early spring
ephemerals found at Sugar Hill are now becoming the exception rather
than the rule.
Some Other Early Spring Ephemerals (Not
Name: Anemonella thalictroides
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
April to May
Name: Anemone quinquefolia
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
April to June
Name: Claytonia caroliniana
Portulacaceae (Purslane Family)
Cove hardwood forests
March to May
Name: Dentaria heterophylla
Brassicaceae (Mustard Family)
April to May
Name: Dentaria laciniata
Brassicaceae (Mustard Family)
April to May
Name: Sanguinaria canadensis
Papaveraceae (Poppy Family)
April to June