Friday, August 28, 2015

A Neat Little Ant Byer

The Allegheny Mound Builder Ants, Formica exsectoides, are famous for the large earth mounds created as a home for their colony.  What typically go unnoticed are the numerous less imposing structures created by the ants to be used as temporary quarters for their foraging activities.  One such construction is seen at the base of this small Tuliptree.

This pile of cedar needles contains tunnels and galleries used by the ants who are gathering food in the Tuliptree.  These strutures are sometimes called byers, an old English term referring to a small log and stick structure built to shelter livestock.  Pile of sticks is an apt description of the shelter built by the ants.

Here’s what attracted the ants.  That lump beneath the lower branch is a Tuliptree Scale.  Click HERE to read an earlier post about the scale insects.  As a byproduct of their meal of tree sap, the scales produce a sugary liquid known as honeydew.  The ants cannot resist the sweet treat.

The ant in the upper right is about to collect a freshly secreted drop of honeydew.  As long as honeydew is being produced, the ants will stick close to the scale insects.

Other ants work to maintain the byre.  This one is hauling a cedar needle up to the top of the pile.  Once the ants abandon their temporary shelter, the cedar needles will quickly settle down to a shallowly raised ring around the base of the tree. 

This type of ant byer is quite common at Blue Jay Barrens.  The unusual thing about this particular structure is the fact that it is in the open where it can be easily viewed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a nice byer uncluttered by adjacent vegetation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New Location for a Rare Plant

I was heading out to do some work on the property line fence yesterday, when I stumbled across a pair of Crested Coral-root Orchids, Hexalectris spicata, in full bloom.  The stumbling part was nearly a reality.  I was coming down a steep slope with a heavy cedar fence post balanced on my shoulder when I was forced to perform some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on this delicate plant.  The fence job had to wait for a while as I took time out to admire this lovely flower.

The exciting thing about the find was the fact that I had never before found this species growing in this location.  Finding new locations for rare plants is almost as exciting as finding a new species of rare plant.  The flower stalks are located near the lower half of a west facing slope on a steep limestone knob.  Click HERE for information about the Crested Coral-root and information on what I thought was the only location for the species at Blue Jay Barrens.

As on the other site, these flower stalks are emerging in the root zone of a Chinquapin Oak.  However, this oak is probably not over 40 years old, much younger than the trees at the other site.  This could mean that the plant is a fairly recent arrival to this spot.

Both stalks are quite tall and straight.  Deer love these plants and will eat the flower stalk right down to the ground.  I hope these last long enough to produce seeds.

Flower buds are still developing, meaning that the flowers will be around for another week or two.  Fortunately, I have several more days work to accomplish in that general area, so I should be able to enjoy these blooms as long as they last.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Potato Dandelion Harvest and Redistribution

My container grown Potato Dandelions, Krigia dandelion, yielded a record crop of tubers this year.  The half pound of tubers contained in this cereal bowl all came from a pot with an eight inch inside diameter.  My calculations estimated six tubers produced for every square inch of soil surface.

Total harvest for the year was 1.2 pounds of tubers.  I calculated that the average tuber weight was 0.78 grams.  That means there were about 700 tubers produced this year.

Tuber size ranged from about one inch down to one tenth of an inch.  The larger tubers will sprout multiple shoots next spring, while the smaller will yield only one shoot each.

Into the eight inch pot, I planted five large tubers and four small.  This equals what I put into the pot last August, and that multiplied into nearly 300 in the course of a single growing season.  I hope these do as well.

I’ve dedicated a couple more containers to Potato Dandelion production.  This pot has a 23 inch inside diameter, giving it eight times the growing room of the smaller pot.  That means it has the potential of producing nearly four pounds of tubers.  I would find that truly remarkable.

As I did last year, I planted the extra tubers into suitable locations in the woods.   Since I had more tubers to work with than I had anticipated, I planted about half of the tubers in areas away from the planned ridge top.  I moved down the hill and began planting at the edge of the tree line just above the barrens openings.  I made scattered plantings from there on up to the ridge top.

I chose planting sites that had friable soil, had little competing plant growth, were away from major animal pathways, and had a high probability of receiving plenty of early spring sunlight.

Once a site was selected, I cleared away the surface litter in a 10-12 inch long swath across the slope.

I then used the pointed end of an old two prong weeding hoe to dig twin grooves about 2 inches deep.  Into the grooves I planted 16 to 20 tubers.  For those who might misconstrue the condition of the tool as a sign of neglect on my part, be advised that I found the hoe half buried in the yard about a year after we moved here.  A thick layer of concrete on the head and lower portion of the handle suggested that the tool had been used for mixing concrete prior to its disposal.  The tool is in much better shape now than it was the day I found it.

Next, I returned the removed soil and firmed it into place.

Finally, I replaced the original surface litter.  You can’t even tell that anything had been done here.

In the vicinity of the plants that performed so well after last year’s tuber planting, I planted three small blocks of tubers.  These blocks were located near easily identifiable features that will make it easy for me to monitor their progress.  Hopefully, next spring will begin with Potato Dandelion flowers scattered through the woods.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2015 Teasel Seed Head Collection

I have completed collecting Teasel seed heads for the 2015 season and am happy about the progress being made in reducing the number of Teasel growing in the fields.  Gathering the seed heads prevents the ripe seed from being scattered about the field and producing a new generation of this non-native invasive plant.

This is the third consecutive year that I have gathered Teasel tops from the seven acres of Teasel infested young prairie at Blue Jay Barrens.  This area, formerly the site of a moderate Teasel infestation, was practically Teasel free this year.

Most of the Teasel was scattered across the field as individual plants or small groups of two or three.  Areas of concentrated Teasel were generally less than 20 feet in diameter.

Unusual this year were the random plants that appeared to have lost their tops to browsing deer.

These topped plants managed to send up new shoots that flowered and produced seed heads.  The deer are going to have to do better than this if they wish to be heralded as a new weapon against Teasel.

My entire 2015 collection fit into three feed sacks, none of which was filled.  Total weight collected this year was 36 pounds, a 63 percent reduction over last year’s 97.5 pounds.  Teasel has a two year life cycle.  Year one is spent as a basal rosette of leaves.  During its second year, the plant sends up a tall stalk and produces flowers.  The plant then dies and the seeds are dropped as the plant dries.  The reduction in population size this year is a result of the 2013 seed crop being removed from the field.  The Teasel population size should continue to shrink, but the seeds previously dropped in the field can wait several years before germinating, so it will be a while before the population is reduced to a negligible amount.

I’ve had a lot going on the past couple of weeks, so the only time I could put to collecting Teasel was early in the morning.  Awaiting me each morning were a few Teasel heads, dew laden Indian Grass and a large collection of spider webs.

The webs were the product of the Banded Garden Spider, a common resident of this field.

Each orb web was accompanied by a structure of random webs to one side.  The spider was sandwiched between these two creations.  I assume the intent of the random webbing is to give the spider notice of the approach of a possible predator, such as a spider hunting wasp.

I left one late flowering Teasel head in place for a couple of days to give this Red-Banded Crab Spider a chance to finish its meal of Robber Fly.  That big fly should be more than enough to fill up the spider.

The buzz of Robber Flies was common throughout the field.  Diogmites species like this were especially abundant.

A first for me at Blue Jay Barrens was the sighting of this Citrine Forktail.  This tiny damselfly would be nearly impossible to find if you were searching for it.  I saw it only because the low angle of the sun made the insect appear as a bright fleck of gold among the sea of Indian Grass.  I don’t know what it was doing out in the middle of a dry prairie so far from water, but I’m glad it was there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Green Heron

A Green Heron showed up the other day, giving me an excellent opportunity to view a bird that seems to rarely come out into the open.  It visits the pond regularly, but always seems to keep a tree branch between the two of us.

I had just finished lunch when I noticed this individual snagging treefrog tadpoles from the Water Garden.  By the time I got back with the camera, the heron had eaten its fill.  It stayed put for another 30 seconds before flying back to the pond.

Using that long, sharp bill, the Green Heron pulls tadpoles from the water as easily as I take cashews from a bowl of mixed nuts.

The heron’s eyes are positioned so it gets both an area of binocular view in front that provides the keen depth perception required of a predator and a panoramic field of vision that allows it to detect approaching danger.  The bird has a clear view around as well as below its bill.

Before departing, the heron did strike a few poses.

It stayed around just long enough for me to satisfy my long standing desire to photograph this beautiful species.  Now I can stop skulking through the bushes around the pond trying to get a Green Heron in front of the camera lens.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Female Fishing Spider and Spiderlings

Large Fishing Spiders are not an uncommon find in my barn.  They are usually found positioned head down on the concrete block wall.  When I noticed this female slipping into and out of the gap between the large sliding door and the barn wall, I figured something out of the ordinary must be happening.

I carefully opened the door and found an empty egg case and a mass of young spiderlings.

The female Fishing Spider carries her egg case with her until the eggs are near to hatching.  At that point she builds a nursery web and inserts the egg case near its center.

The newly hatched spiders spend about a week living in the protection of the nursery web.  During this time they utilize the last of the energy from their eggs, become competent crawlers and increase their size slightly.  After their first molt, they leave the web and strike out on their own.

I’m not sure of the lifespan of these spiders, but it must take a female two or three years before she lays a batch of eggs.  I may have been seeing the same spider for the last couple of years.  With luck, I’ll have the good fortune of meeting some of these spiderlings when they have become adults.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Monarda Returns

It’s been a few years since Monarda fistulosa has bloomed so prolifically in this opening at Blue Jay Barrens.  Something about the environmental conditions during the winter or spring of 2011 caused a massive die-off of Monarda plants in this patch. 

During the past few years, Monarda has returned and is now approaching its earlier abundance.  With the return of the plants comes a return of the butterflies.   Monarda attracts a variety of pollinator species, with large butterflies being the most notable.

At the small end of the size scale is the Silver-spotted Skipper.  Smaller butterflies, which includes the other skippers and many butterfly species, seem to find the Monarda flower head difficult to handle.  As if in celebration of the return of the Monarda, Silver-spotted Skippers are around in record numbers this year.

The showiest of the butterfly visitors are the Swallowtail species.  This is the Spicebush Swallowtail.  Its habit of constantly fluttering its wings while feeding makes it difficult to photograph.

Blooming of Monarda seems to coincide with the emergence of the summer brood of Tiger Swallowtails.  Summer brood individuals are typically larger than those found earlier in the year and they are quite showy as they glide between Monarda blooms.  There are those that exhibit the typical yellow coloration and …

… others that are colored a silky black.  Despite their black coloration, the tiger stripes still show through.
I found it interesting that the swallowtails all seemed to feed while hanging from the side of the flower head.

Great Spangled Fritillaries, however, tended to do their feeding while perched atop the flowers. 

The Monardas have even attracted a few Giant Swallowtails.  The Giant Swallowtails quickly move from flower to flower, spending so little time nectaring that I sometimes wonder if the act is even beneficial.  Finding them at flowers is about the only way to get a decent look at these fast fliers.

The Monarda is most famous as an attractor of Clearwing Sphinx Moths.  Using their front legs as anchors, Hummingbird Clearwings hover next to the flower as they draw nectar.  This species is currently outnumbering butterflies in the Monarda patch.

A few Snowberry Clearwings are also present this year.  Slightly smaller than the Hummingbird Clearwings, the Snowberries feed in a similar manner.  This is a species that I don’t often see here.

The Monarda’s attractiveness is not diminished by darkness.  A variety of moth species visit the flowers through the night.  The lack of multiple examples of nocturnal visitors more accurately reflects the photographer’s skills than it does the true number of night-time pollinators.