It’s finally gardening season here in the northeastern US, and one of my favorite spring rituals has begun: watching for interesting plants that sprout up unannounced in my garden beds. Gardeners call these plants volunteers. Every year, volunteers show up in places I didn’t put them and don’t expect them to be. Sometimes they’re weeds whose seeds blew in from somewhere else in the neighborhood. Sometimes they’re plants I grew last season that managed to spread their seeds willy-nilly around the garden before I noticed. No matter how they arrived, they never disappoint.
This year, I’m particularly blessed with volunteer dill. Lots and lots and lots of it. I’m talking about a forest of dill. Which is cool, because I like dill. I’ll be chopping it and sprinkling it on salads and soups all summer long. And I’ll dry some to sprinkle all winter, too. But the real reason the forest of dill thrills me? Some of my favorite butterflies adore it.
Late yesterday afternoon, my daughter and I spotted our first-of-the-year Eastern black swallowtail in the garden. It was female, and she was flying low over a patch of dill seedlings. We saw her alight here and there, a few milliseconds at a time. We tried to get a picture, but she didn’t stay still long enough for that. We had a good idea why she might be touching down so regularly, though. We watched and waited. Once she’d flown out of the garden for good, we got down on our hands and knees in the dill. And sure enough …
Do you see it? The yellow orb in the middle of the photo? That gift, for me, is the real joy of this year’s volunteer dill plants: I’ve got myself a nursery of Eastern black swallowtail butterfly eggs, right in the back yard! Let’s spend the next few months watching them, shall we?
It’s raining eggshells in central Massachusetts. These lovelies were collected over the past two days in various parts of our yard. There’s so much to see when you slow down and look …
This past weekend we set out our bird feeders; I’ve been staring out windows ever since. The usual fellows are visiting: tufted titmice, chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, downy woodpeckers. And white-breasted nuthatches, like the one in the image above. I’ve always loved the tidy nuthatches, so sharp-looking in their crisp gray and black feathers. But on Saturday, I spotted a pair that didn’t look quite right to me. They were scruffier than usual. Buffier in the breast. Wearing strange eye patches. Wait a second …
I’ve not seen red-breasted nuts at my home feeders in more than fifteen years of watching. We’ve not added a new-to-us species to our birding journal since this sharp-shinned hawk stopped by last year. And I’ve not felt so grateful for a bird since this little brown creeper cheered up the winter of 2010.
“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary in life,” Rachel Carson once said. This weekend, her words rang truer than ever.
Happy Wednesday, friends. I hope it’s a wild one.
I’m soaking up John Hanson Mitchell’s A FIELD GUIDE TO YOUR OWN BACK YARD: A SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE FLORA & FAUNA OF THE EASTERN US this week, and I came across these words among his early spring (April, May, June) thoughts on peepers:
“… although a great deal is known about the mating habits of this common frog, not much is known about the other nine months of its life.”
They caught my attention because I happened to have observed something interesting about the post early-spring life of spring peepers recently. For the past two field seasons, while hunting for ladybugs in a milkweed meadow here in central Massachusetts, I’ve come across a surprising number of resting peepers. I’d estimate that I’ve made 4-6 individual observations, and always on the hottest and most humid of peak summer days. In each case, the frog in question was sitting on the top face of a milkweed leaf about three to four feet off the ground, shaded by the leaves above it.
Perhaps this is common spring peeper behavior? Perhaps its been observed and recorded a thousand times? Or–and I love this idea–perhaps I’ve seen something new?
There are ways to find out, of course. I can consult field guides and amphibian research journals in search of information on spring peeper behaviors recorded in summertime. I can get in touch with amphibian experts or local naturalists and ask them what they know. Or I could simply continue watching milkweed meadows and recording my peeper observations. Citizen-scientist-style.
STEP GENTLY OUT
Poem by Helen Frost
Photographs by Rick Lieder
Category: Nonfiction picture book (but truly for all ages)
It was the title that grabbed me first. Step Gently Out. There is an ethic in those words, and they have deep meaning for me. When the book was finally in my hands, though, it was the ant on the cover that pulled me in. He is not rendered in paints as I’d thought when I’d seen the book online, but photographed. Captured atop a slender leaf, antennae waving, stepping gently. Completely enchanting.
Would you believe that things got better from there?
Helen Frost’s text is charming, and I can tell you from personal experience that it holds up to repeated readings. Rick Lieder’s breathtaking images lend a hand, inspiring closer looks at blades of grass and silken threads both inside the book and, of course, out.
I find myself reading this one over and again. I’m in love. I think that every child on the planet should have a copy. I plan to start with the half-dozen kids who know me as Auntie Loree …
My daughter and I made our first observations for MassAudubon’s Big Barn Study yesterday. We had seen barn swallows around the yard and suspected they were living in our big, old barn. What we didn’t realize was that they were entering the barn through the garage. (These doors are closed much of the day. Should we leave the garage doors open? Will they abandon these nests if we don’t? Will we be allowed in the garage once eggs are laid?) Or that they were building nests in not-so-safe places. (Like on top of a live electrical outlet.) As usual, closer observation has piqued our interest, and we’ve got a lot to look into.
We also learned that barn swallows are very hard to capture on film. We never saw one rest or perch, and trying to follow one in flight was a dizzy-making exercise. Luckily, we saw a lot of other birds while we were observing the swallows … including this yellow-bellied sapsucker. (We’d seen the strange holes on this tree–a European mountain ash–but weren’t sure who was responsible. Now we know.)
Favorite fact for this bird, mined from iBird Explorer North: A group of sapsuckers are collectively known as a slurp. Who knew?
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t actually spend a moment in the wild today. Or yesterday. And things aren’t looking too good for tomorrow either. Some weeks are like that. The good news is that all this inside-at-my-desk time translates into a steadily lengthening rough draft of my new book. (Hooray!) And since I’m sort of a wildlife-in-my-backyard junkie, I always have a backup photograph to share…
I found this moth dazed under the porch lights one night last week and was struck by its size and bright markings. It was fairly easy to identify it (through my favorite online insect field guide, bugguide.net) as a tiger moth. I followed up with my trusty handheld field guide (Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner) and was surprised with this tidbit: “Adults, when gently squeezed, may bubble generous amounts of their yellow “blood” out of the front corners of the thorax …”
Eww. I did not try it.
In the forefront of this picture is my newly dug garden. (More on that another time.)
In the background is our big, old barn. Which lately I’ve been looking at as more of a laboratory. The sort of place where I could do this.
(How wicked cool is that?)
Stay tuned …
This photo arrived by email over the weekend, along with a note from the fifth grader who snapped it. “Today I was working in the yard, and I saw a butterfly,” he said, “so I went to go check it out .. I am pretty sure it is a Spicebush Swallowtail …”
He thought I’d like to see it, and he was right. (Thank you, Bob!) In one of those fun happenings that fuels my school visiting, a teacher at Bob’s school independently sent me photos of a froglet she found in her backyard.
Look closely at the world around you, friends. There is so much to see.
(Read that last sentence every morning and you won’t even need me to come to your school. Although if you’d like me to come to your school, you should check out the School Visits page of my website. I added my first 2012-2013 school year events to the calendar this morning!)