In recent years milkweed has received much attention as habitat for dwindling populations of monarch butterflies. Most of the more than 100 species in the Americas are tropical, but one species in particular is a staple of monarchs in the North: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
My backyard milkweed project started in 2015 with a few transplants from a nonproductive, roadside location. Establishment was slow, but they’re now flourishing. Vegetative reproduction by root sprouts has created a colony of about 30 stems and the large, fragrant flower clusters are insect magnets (according to the US Forest Service, over 450 insects are known to feed on some part of the plant, including flower nectar). I focused on the Lepidoptera, attempting to document the variety of butterflies and moths that benefit from flowering milkweed. Multiple benefits from a single management action is a best-case scenario. The value added from a colony of milkweed is much greater than monarch habitat.
I’ve observed 9 or 10 species of butterflies and moths thus far, as well as countless bees, flies and other insects. This is a sample!
As I follow the sequence of bloom through the seasons, my focus is “wild” flowers, plants that occur in natural, uncultivated landscapes. There are exceptions of course, and no better example than Glory of the Snow. This hardy garden escapee, naturalized in my lawn, appears in late March and early April, often blooming in snow.
In addition to the visual treat of seeing the first floral color of the season, Glory of the Snow gives me an opportunity to observe the influence of annual variations in climate on the life cycles of plant and animal life (phenology). I selected and dated images from 2016 through yesterday to illustrate this fascinating annual conflict between winter and spring. Spring always wins, but more convincingly in some years than others!
18April2018: A week or more (?) until full bloom
14April2017: full bloom and a welcome event for hungry honey bees
29March2016: approaching full bloom, but experiencing a snowy delay
Foraging and perching dragonflies are an entertaining – and valuable – component of wetland landscapes in summer. Meadowhawks like this one (Sympetrum spp.) are smallish and very common, but a male under magnification is a thing of beauty. The mosquito population has exploded during this wet summer, so I hope to see lots of plump, well-fed dragonflies in my travels!
This is a story about the management of a landscape tree in decline, management with an underlying theme of benign neglect.
Last summer I heard the unmistakable sound of a Pileated Woodpecker hammering on a large old white pine tree near the edge of the lawn. I was thrilled to see our largest woodpecker so close to home, but also knew that its presence was a sign of a tree in trouble. Sure enough, there was advanced decay at the base of the tree and the Pileated was foraging on carpenter ants. The probability of tree failure and subsequent damage to nearby targets was high. The White Pine was a “hazard tree” and had to be removed.
My contract with a professional arborist for removal included an unusual request. I wanted to minimize the hazard – but leave a large snag for wildlife.
The decision to create a snag payed dividends almost immediately. A Pileated Woodpecker is a frequent visitor, foraging around new wounds as well as old ones.
Pitch oozing from the fresh wounds on a warm day provided an unplanned photo opportunity and aesthetic experience. The fascinating world of magnified pitch droplets kept me busy long after the woodpecker had left the scene!
Pine pitch droplet, fly and spider; the droplet is about 1/8th inch across
I follow the bloom of a group of wild swamp roses along the edge of a swamp. They appear to be thriving in several inches of water and muck, their feet wet year-round; an incredible display of site adaptation and tolerance.
Bees swarm the blossoms, presenting a target-rich environment for my favorite Arachnid: the Flower Spider. Also called Goldenrod Spider or Crab Spider, they’re an impressive ambush predator with a deadly toxin that immobilizes prey instantly. Bees are common prey, but I’ve photographed Flower Spiders with kills as large as the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly and Hummingbird Moth (Clearwing) in their grasp!