Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Silent Scream

Often, there's a specific event that tilts someone from "enthusiast" to "fanatic." My obsession with the living things in the Not-So-Big Woods sprang from one small event that occurred just over a year ago.

It was gorgeous spring day on April 11, 2009. The sun was shining, and the wind was stirring the leaves gently. Awesome Husband was toiling under the deck, attaching it to the house (a step the previous owner had overlooked, preferring instead to lean it against the house and pound a few nails randomly here and there). My job was to stay nearby and fetch tools, nails, large pieces of lumber, and bandages as necessary.

I waited for orders in a swinging chair in the backyard, watching the birds and enjoying the sound of their wings as they flew between the trees and a thick layer of sunflower seeds laid out on the deck railing. A loud flutter grabbed my attention: a bird was very close. In fact, it had landed on the canvas back of my swing. I went statue-still. Inside, of course, I was squealing "THERE'S A BIRD ON MY CHAIR!!"

Then my eyes widened beyond their previously known boundaries: the bird had dropped down to my shoulder. "It's on my shoulder!!!" I didn't scream. "DID YOU HEAR ME?" (of course you didn't, I didn't make a sound) "THE BIRD IS ON MY SHOULDER!!"

Then it made a leap to the top of my head. I could feel the little claws digging in. I gritted my teeth as the sharp beak pecked through my hair. Inside, I alternated between an internal "OW!" and "THERE'S A BIRD ON MY HEAD? WHERE ARE MY WITNESSES??" Then the bird went still up there. The pain went away, and I was still left to the absolute joy of having a wild bird perched on my head. The bliss ebbed a bit as it bent down and painfully wrenched a few hairs from my head ("OUCH!!") and flew away. I was finally able to see it as it departed: a tufted titmouse, happily taking home some padding for the nest.

Fast forward about one year. I've just had a major haircut. At my request, the stylist collected all of my leftover hair so I could take it home and stuff it into an old suet box. I desperately hope that this is last year's bird, getting a big beakful of nest liner to take back home.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Awesome Husband called me to the front porch, where an unknown caterpillar was crawling around on a blanket the dog had been relaxing on out near the woods.

"Oh dear, the poor thing!" I thought. "It will starve if I just leave it there. I'll photograph it and then put it on a tree in the backyard."  So, photographed and relocated. Then it just needed to be identified.

Using the excellent site Discover Life , I quickly found the mystery critter.

Hm... "forest tent caterpillar Malacosoma disstria "  Uh-oh. "...often defoliates large areas..." Oh dear.

Well, it's quite pretty, anyway.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ten-Petal Anemone

One of the earliest flowers to pop out in the Not-So-Big Woods when Spring settles in is the Ten-Petal Anemone, Anemone berlandieri. Our first ones were light purple, then the mostly-white ones took over. Graceful pointed sepals cup themselves around a veritable schnozz of an ovary as they open in the late morning. Believers in a short workday, they close up again well before dusk.

The obtrusive ovary has earned them another common name: Tenpetal Thimbleweed.

As the days pass, the sepals begin to lose their grip and drop away, leaving only the cylindrical ovary behind at the tip of the stem. The look is rather like an old-fashioned microphone that Frank Sinatra might have crooned into.

They hang around in this condition for a few days, swaying in the spring breezes. Finally, a change occurs. A tiny spot at the tip seems to soften and turn white.
It's the first sign that something has been happening. Inside that cylinder, tiny seeds have been developing a coat of fluff, just waiting to ripen and develop wings. Mature now, they long to break free.
It soon becomes obvious why yet another common name for this Anemone is the Windflower. Like dandelions, they depend on the wind for seed dispersal.
Soon, all that's left is the stem, leaves, and the pointed tip that the seeds once clung to. Some may never get this far. The soft stems are a veritable buffet for bright green aphids. The fluids in this Anemone are supposed to be irritating and mildly toxic. So, don't nibble. Unless you're an aphid. Then, enjoy!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Crouching Photographer, Hidden Grasshopper

I belong to the "Assume something interesting is there, and crawl around with a camera until you find it" school of nature photography.

I spotted this guy when he jumped practically on top of me, then I lost him, then found him, then stupidly took my eyes off of him to glance up at some bird noise, then couldn't find him again, then he moved so I could see him. Then I took the picture before it was too late.

He sat almost perfectly still while I crept forward, until the camera's lens was only a couple of inches away. He was absolutely aware of me, perhaps wondering what kind of horrible lens-nosed monster-bird was after him. Knowing that concealment was the best form of protection, he willed himself to become part of the leaf litter as I approached. The only movement that I could detect was a painfully slow drawing up of his left rear leg, as he tensed for the jump he might have to make if his concealment failed him.

I slowly reached forward to pull a weed that was in the way of the picture. This was too much, and he fled a short hop away. I saw where he landed, and kept my eye pinned to that spot as I crawled over there.

I couldn't find him. I clearly saw where he landed, but I could NOT find him.

I thought about brushing my hand through the dead leaves and early spring plants to roust him out again, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It wasn't fair, somehow. My survival didn't depend on finding him. I'd gotten the picture I'd hoped for. He won. His skills of hiding bested my skills of finding.

I'm tentatively calling this the Northern Green-Striped grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Peripheral Vision" (or) "Hey! Over Here!"

I've learned to count on my peripheral vision in the Not-So-Big-Woods. Paying attention to some subtle movement only visible from the corner of my eye is how I've run into some of the most interesting things.

Yesterday, I was walking down the long driveway that connects our house to our private road (which in turn connects to a gravel rural road, which connects to a small suburban road, which connects to a larger suburban road, which connects to a minor state highway, which connects to a major state highway, all of which combines to make giving directions to The Little House a Big Pain). We've done some major tree-trimming in preparation for a project that I still can't believe I'm about to undertake. (more about that in coming weeks)

Anyway, I saw a tiny bit of movement out of the corner of my eye, a few steps into the woods on the west side of the driveway. The movement was so subtle that when I turned my head to look for it, I lost it. "Dark against light...dark against light....where was it...??....Aha!"

It was one of our honeybees, collecting the resin from a newly-sawn bois d'arc branch. Three bees intently circling the outer rim of the tree branch stub, picking out the apparently-tasty bits of softened sap that oozed out on the warm April day.

Sometimes when I take a photograph, the picture doesn't end up with quite the feel that I thought it would have. These did. I love how the bee's warm gold colors blend in with the yellowish wood and amber resin. A few times I was able to get the bee profiled against the blue sky for a nice contrast. That required kneeling down and leaning against the tree, which is how I almost put my knee down on another bee that was sap-chewing from a cut near the bottom of the tree. Oops. Lesson learned: look first, kneel second.