Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Fifty Shades of Grayness

July 16, 2012

Pandora Sphinx Caterpiller

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
(Isabella Tiger Moth)

I guess I should have realized that if I invested in fancy new lights, borrowed a cool and quiet generator and picked up a nifty pop-up white sheet contraption, it would rain on the night of my moth program, my favorite of the entire year. I’ve been the naturalist here at Hill-Stead for going on six years, and I’ve tried to offer programs that will excite, educate and entertain. And I’m shameless. I’d stand on my head in the center of Farmington, Ct (where we are located) if it would make people see how exquisite and vital nature is to us, and how much Hill-Stead offers in terms of natural beauty and value.

When I was a child I was scared senseless by moths. Something about their fluttery-ness, and their nighttime habit really blotted out all reason in me.  It was terrible-a naked, irrational phobia. And of course I had only seen the brown and gray jobs (talk about fifty shades of gray!) my mother referred to as “millers”.  “Don’t be afraid, its’ just a miller,” she’d say, as I freaked out.  What the heck is a “miller” anyway?

But later, as I grew as a naturalist I read of fantastic moths, pink and yellow, green, purple-and so important to the ecosystem.  I was hooked-and determined to get over my irrational horror. I bought a moderate set of UV lights, dragged a white sheet out of the closet and brewed up some sticky bait in a bucket. I pretty much try everything that I plan for the museum out in my backyard first, in case of glitches. It wasn’t easy.  The moths fly around your head when you bend near the sheet to examine things and for a while I had to wear one of those big hats with a veil. But in time I didn’t mind the moths brushing against me, and I felt kind of honored to be part of their soft yet scaly world. I taught myself everything I could using the old books that were around, Covell and Holland and a few others. I watched moth websites carefully. To me, it is a hard subject-there are twice as many moth species as butterflies. And as our resources become better we are likely to discover others. There is quite a bit to remember.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I really want to spread enthusiasm about this wonderful topic.  Moths are as vital to the pollination of plants as bees are, for example.  But I don’t hear too many people extolling their virtues.  Yet.

Huge Geometer Moth I saw on vacation in the Caribbean

“Mothing” is growing in popularity these days, but it isn’t in the everyday vernacular right now. But National Moth Week is coming up soon,July 23-29 and I even have the T-shirt. People ask about it a lot (it has a really big silk moth silhouette on it) so it is a very good ambassador for the whole subject. Since my official Hill-Stead Moth Event was rained out, I’ve changed my plan for participating. I’m having a “Celebrate the Diversity of Life” party at my house. I’m putting up my lights and calling my friends on Wednesday July 25 from sundown until I can’t stand it anymore. You can come too if you want. Just contact the museum and they’ll put you in touch with me. Just don’t freak out when the moths.  You can borrow my hat with the veil.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Fertilizer Happens

March 10, 2011

It’s been a bitter winter. Record snow and ice, roofs collapsing day after day, kids home while crews shovel mountain-loads of snow off the school roof. After a beating like that, I have a hard time lifting my head and getting on with it.  I am not a winter person.  I do my best to enjoy it, adding snow shoeing to my repertoire of sports, but this winter I only made it out once and I lost my car keys in the snow. After that I wound up like a meadow vole, ten pounds of snow overhead, living alone in my own sub-nivean world.  Now I’m struggling out of my lair, looking for a reason to stay above ground.

I saw a mosquito yesterday, though temperatures were barely in the 40’s.  He must have woken from diapause, that state of suspended animation that insects enter in the fall as days shorten.  In diapause you are just about nearly dead, and I think that free-flying mosquito and I are in nearly the same situation right now.

Soon we should start seeing an occasional Mourning Cloak butterfly floating along. These guys are the Magellans of the butterfly world, first out to explore. They over-winter as adults too, and venture forth when the days are still relatively cool. Look for them, about the size of a four-year-old’s fist, rich brown with a creamy edge all around. When I think of them, I think of possibly getting out of my armchair.  I’d hate to miss them.

As the snow melts, it’s a shock to see what’s been going on outside. When the layers recede, we see a winter’s tale of survival by those who cannot enter diapause.  Mammals don’t have this option.  So what do we see that reveals their winter lives and rituals? Footprints are preserved in ice, sometimes new ones appear in the moist snow overnight. We know there were rabbits here earlier this winter. Did they make it? Food was scarce, plants were covered. Deer had the same problem and even coyotes started to feel the pinch. In fact, there were loads of animal sightings in crazy places this winter as predators were forced to make bold to find food, any food at all. Owls revealed themselves in frantic efforts to locate mice, moles and voles, all hidden tidily under three feet of snow.  No chance to hear a telltale rustle and soundlessly pounce out of the sky.  Rehabbers reported a record number of emaciated owls brought in for nursing.  A friend tells me bears are out now, and another has seen a bobcat, so things are easing.  And that’s especially good news for animals enduring winter without a snug den.

As dog owners can tell you, there are a few other things exposed by snow melt. No,not dog toys!  There is frozen scat everywhere. Personally, I am thrilled. The educational value of poop is not to be underestimated. Nothing gets a kid’s attention like poop. And let’s be honest, grownups tend not to forget that part of the nature walk, either, though possibly due to delicate sensibility rather than potty fascination. Coprology, the science of scatology, is a biggie.  You can tell which animal did what.  Size, shape and composition are nature’s mug shot.  And it provides essential information about the diet of animals in a given area, their health and which diseases if any, are present. Tapeworm, anyone? Included in the package (pun intended) is information about where the animal has been and whether populations are rising or falling.

I better get out there before it all melts.

See you out on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Hill-Stead Farmer’s Market

July 17, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again jiggedy jig!

I used to think of myself as a farmer’s market connoisseur, since I’ve been a devotee of them long before the “eat local” craze happened. I trolled around markets in Vermont, driving my edible booty home to Connecticut in my back seat. Once on the cutting edge of fashion, now I don’t even have to leave Farmington for my weekly organic kibble. I can just stroll over to Hill-Stead Museum with my reusable sack over my arm. The trend for farmer’s markets is growing fast. There are urban farms, urban markets, country farms and country markets. They are thick on the ground in trendy suburbs. We need many more. It seems evident that an important key to restoring all manner of food integrity is local farming. In a sense, we are harvesting our food tradition to sow a food future. And it’s not just some la-di-dah keeping up with the Jones kind of food trend, either. You could argue that the value of recycling our food culture is fundamental to our long-term well-being, both at the stove and elsewhere, and is reflective of something organic in ourselves.

“Well-being” isn’t what prompts us to visit a farmer’s market. Rather, it is almost as though there is a part of our cultural DNA that has been wanting for decades, to get us back to the activity of “market day”. What would Thomas Hardy be without them? Many a plot is turned in the market square of literature. Think of Jane Austen, George Eliot, The Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell. There are today markets held all over Europe throughout the year, whereas most of ours, for now at least, seem to be summertime phenomena. Why do so many of us get so excited about about a few stands of vegetables and flowers popping up in the same location up every seven days? Why have some cultures never left off doing it?

A farmer’s market provides a “front porch” for a culture that has sadly grown away from such things. We see neighbors, offer tips to strangers about how to use an unfamiliar vegetable, embrace a fondly remembered farmer. Mr. Bingley bows deeply there to Miss Bennet. As so often also happens at the Hill-Stead poetry festival, one hears happy whoops of recognition punctuating the atmosphere as we see old friends. We begin to make new relationships, too. The crowd is heterogeneous, and thus community is made, not just among a few select neighbors, but in a town and region.

A farmer’s market turns us toward one another, emphasizing our fundamental interdependence on the level of comestible and emotional sustenance. There are other organic connections we cannot name. Joining together over food is perhaps the oldest form of community, save for procreation itself. Earthiness is, as it turns out, a great leveler.

Join us this Sunday and every Sunday until October 24, 11am-2pm, rain or shine. Beyond the vegetables, you’ll find quite a lot that is special. Enjoy companionship, hear music, get community information at our tent, pet a farm animal, drink a coffee or simply enjoy the atmosphere. After you’re done with that, take a walk on one of the historic trails. For a small fee, go inside the house and see rare art and glimpse a lost lifestyle.

For more information on our website: http://hillstead.org/activities/farmersmarket.html

And look for me, I’ll be there. Or, I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Take Back Your Mink

May 28, 2010

After my mother died, I saw her everywhere.  I followed people whose hair reminded me of hers before shaking off the idea that it might somehow be her. This kind of reaction is completely normal, and in a way comforting after a loss, but I never expected to feel similarly about a few muskrats.

Earlier this year I thought I saw a weasel of some kind around the pond, and one day I got a good view. It was a mink. They are very handsome animals, and I don’t think most people think of them as weasels although they are a member of the same family. They think of them as coats. Weasels, of course, have a bad reputation and it isn’t nice to call someone a weasel, or be called one yourself. The insult is intended to mean “sneaky and low-down”. Weasels are also considered (by farmers especially) to be cruel and needless killers. Because they often “scalp” their prey and simply leave it, people think that the weasel kills for sport. Not so-he kills and returns later to eat the prize. He’s not fussy about a little putrification, and he also “caches” his food.  A farmer who wakes to a hen house full of scalped chickens regards the weasel as the worst kind of varmint, and the natural history of it is of little importance to him.  But a weasel has to kill when the opportunity presents itself, and also have a little something to fall back on. You never know when a meal is going to come along and a mink has a high metabolism. Think of them as the Holly Golightly of the animal world. And I think I remember that Holly Golightly had a really nice mink coat.

Minks are solitary, except during breeding, at which time they virtually define the word “promiscuous”, with both males and females mating as much as possible, with as many partners as possible. So the gene pool is nice and healthy, and the DNA for survival very strong.  These animals are smart and canny predators, eating fish torpid from cold during winter and switching to slower, more defenseless animals in warm weather. Which brings me back to the muskrats.  Mink will eat anything, but they really love muskrat.  Also, “abandoned” muskrat lodges make swell mink houses. So I think it is pretty clear what happened to the Hill-Stead muskrat family. Of course, muskrats need water that covers them. Our pond is getting more shallow all the time, so the muskrat days were numbered in any case.

For a while, I saw the muskrats in my imagination, too.  But, as with my mother, I finally had to accept that they were gone. In the hierarchy of small mammals, the mink with its sensitive nose and killer instinct has it all over the poor vegetarian muskrat, who just likes to noodle around the pond eating weeds. And even in the hierarchy of coats, the mink is the trophy outerwear, the muskrat for wannabe’s.  

But nature has a way of equalizing things, and the mink may eventually be taken by a coyote or even an owl. And then I’ll miss the mink.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

May 12, 2010

There are so many things that need saving it can really be demoralizing. Whales, wolves, panthers, funny little owls, hundreds of songbirds, frogs. The list is endless. All you have to do is say the word “rainforest” and you summon up images of destruction. It’s why I don’t believe in teaching elementary kids about the rainforest at all. Let them enjoy the pleasure of nature and develop a love for it, before you discourage them with tales of extinction and despair. That people think the only interesting nature exists thousands of miles away, really only demonstrates the need for education about local natural history. There is a fascinating backstory everywhere you look, no matter where you look.

The American Kestrel is a bird in need of intervention. It depends on areas of grassland, and so is getting squeezed out of survival by the minute. Instead of farms with fields, we now have either forests or building sites, so things are tough for grassland birds like grasshopper sparrows, woodcock, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, kestrels and others.

The American Kestrel is a tiny falcon that resembles its larger cousin the Peregrine, only with a swankier color scheme. It has blue, cream, black and rusty shades of feathers, along with stripes beneath the eyes that cut down on the glare during high-speed chases after fleeing prey. All the better to see you with, my dear. The female of the species is color-wise a little more subdued, the better to remain camouflaged as she sits on a nest.

Perched on a fence, nest box or other spot overlooking the meadow, a kestrel darts off to snatch prey out of the air. In that way, it resembles a flycatcher. But it has the ability to hover in the air scanning the area and adjusting its trajectory before diving out of the glare like a Kamikaze pilot. The hovering would make you think of a hummingbird. Because the kestrel is diminutive in comparison to just about every other bird of prey, from far off it isn’t too hard to believe you are looking at a hummer, but only for a moment. Kestrels are about the size of a robin, and the hovering behavior is a great skill. Some people still refer to the kestrel as a “sparrow hawk” (I can’t help thinking of Foghorn Leghorn and his precocious sidekick here), from its ability to take down smaller birds.

Kestrels are faithful, both to a mate, and to a nesting place. Research on one pair showed that they returned to the same nesting spot for six years. It is a remarkable statistic, given that the bird has a mortality rate of nearly 50%. Kestrels themselves are frequently the prey of larger birds, and their own reproduction depends on the availability of cavities within which to make a nest.

They are well adapted to nest boxes, and this is where Hill-Stead and Art Gingert come in. Art is on a mission to save the American Kestrel. With a keen admiration for the little bird, a wide experience as a naturalist and a steady arm with a hammer, drill and ladder, Art is scouring the state for locations that might tempt the kestrel to nest in one of his specially-designed boxes. They are fashioned out of quality wood, and follow a design he has developed based on his long experience.

Art and I put a box up the other day in one of our meadows. One of Hill-Stead’s many claims to fame is the three full-sized elms that have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. One of them, and by far the prettiest in my opinion, sits out in one of our hay meadows. No other tree is near it and the eye is drawn automatically to its graceful form. A Kestrel would probably see it as easily as we do. At least, that is what we hope. Art carefully hung the box, even using a level to make sure the look of it was pleasing. Now all we have to do is attract the birds. It’s a gamble to be sure. There aren’t even that many Kestrels left, comparatively speaking, and it may be vain of us to imagine that one or two will happen along and notice our box.

But there is much to be said for preserving local treasures. Just ask some of those men and animals that used to live in the rainforest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Muskrat Love

April 7, 2010

I am dating myself to admit I remember a certain popular song describing the romantic antics of two muskrats.  I believe the animal’s names were Suzy and Sam, though I wouldn’t swear to it.  If I did, I’d have to admit that I actually remember some of the mortifying lyrics. If there’s a list somewhere of egregious top-forty tunes, this should be number one. The musical duo “The Captain and Tennille” should relinquish any royalties they earned from it to the George Gershwin estate, or maybe Cole Porter’s. The crazy thing is that they unwittingly hit on a certain truth: Muskrat family relationships are marked by a touching constancy.

A muskrat family lives at the edge our pond. Their tunnels extend into the surrounding meadow. The waterside part of their home is made from plants, so if they get hungry during a winter cold snap, they just crawl down and take a few bites. The tunnels make nice, snug winter quarters, and they start low near the water and go upwards, keeping the burrow dry when the water rises.

I enjoy watching the muskrats, and though they are largely nocturnal, you can see them during the day, particularly in the early morning. They glide around the pond, busily chomping up wetland weeds. Sometimes they carry a big mouthful of greens, pushing it along with relaxed determination. They never seem to hurry, even if disturbed by a possible threat. Instead, they gently flip underwater leaving a little eddy to mark their place.  I’ve read they sometimes slap their tails to warn of danger, like the beaver, but I’ve never seen that.

Baby muskrats are called both kits and pups, and sometimes pinkies,-though I don’t care for that name because it is the same as the tiny baby mice you can buy frozen to feed pet snakes with. Muskrats do look like little puppies paddling about with their mother in the spring. Prolific breeders, muskrats can turn out up to four litters in a year. Gestation is a month or a little less, and the pup has to move on after about a month of life, to make room for the next batch. In this they are much like big, aquatic field mice. But families don’t stray far, just further on into the wetland. They live essentially in an extended family group, with grandparents, cousins, aunts and parents all within shouting distance.

Vegetarians, muskrats don’t pursue prey, they instead forage for plants. Cattails are catnip to them. It’s their favorite food, and not a bit goes to waste. Cattails are edible (even by people) from root to flower. It’s sad that cattail colonies are destroyed by the graceful but useless phragmites plant, an invasive species that overruns wetlands that cattails (and those dependent on it) favor. As cattails disappear, muskrat families peter out too, to disease, predation by coyotes or foxes, or they just move on if they can manage it.  Muskrat families become fragmented, much like the American family after World War II. Before 1940 25% of Americans lived with parents, grandparents and children. Often aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by.  The habits of children were policed by legions of well-meaning relations. Forty years later, that life had become an anomaly, vanquished by the post- war economic boom.  Phragmites is a world war to cattails, and to muskrats. Fragmented family units fare poorly in contrast to those that are intact, be they one mammal or another.

We have a big stand of cattails which is holding its own. We have phragmites, too, unfortunately, but not nearby. Though phragmites spreads like wildfire, it would have quite a distance to cover before reaching the pond. So I think our little muskrat family is safe at least from that threat.  I’d hate to see them split up.  Pretty soon we’d be seeing those little muskrat pups listening to thumping popular music on ipods, wearing droopy pants, with no nosy aunts to disapprove.

Interestingly, today economics is driving a revival of the extended American family. Expenses for seniors and a paucity of entry-level jobs for young people are keeping us together longer.  It’s not muskrat love, but it’s a start.  Pass the cattails, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Overcoming Nature

July 4, 2009

“Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put on this earth to overcome.”  So says Katherine Hepburn’s tart missionary in The African Queen.  I have this very much in mind lately as I try to overcome my bad attitude about the “reign of rain” we are experiencing in Connecticut the last month or so.  The fact that it shows no sign of abating isn’t helping one bit.  african queen

The weather is keeping me inside to some extent and I find it hard.  June is spittlebug season and I feel like I missed the whole thing.  Spittlebugs are manna from heaven if you like to gross out people who think they are actually spit. 

But there are so many spittlebugs, or frog hopper nymphs if you prefer, that meadows and grassy areas are full to the brim with them in June.  If there is someone in the world who can spit in such quantity, I want to meet him!  No one person nor ten could expect to expectorate enough to confuse the issue.    spittlebug

Spittlebugs are little arthropods with a straw-like mouthpart for living off the moisture of plants.   The immature frog hopper uses a little of the excess moisture and (get ready for it,) blows it out its hind end along with a little air to form the foamy mass that will hide it from predators and serve as its home while it grows.  Combined with some waxy enzymes the foam is pretty resilient.  So much so, that science is looking for ways to adapt it to things like sneakers and surgical glue. 

The frog hopper has wings, but they are barely worth a mention.  Their real claim to fame is as a jumper.  Rather than flying from stem to stem, they propel themselves at death-defying speeds using their rear legs.  If a man could jump with the same velocity, he would collapse from the force of the “g’s”.  The spittlebug takes it in stride, though.  The power he has is by no means death-defying to him.  He’s just getting around, propelling himself up to 120 times his body length.  

frog hopper

Like their cousins, the cicada and the aphid, a frog hopper can distort the look of a plant, but it is generally harmless.  For example, it won’t bite you at all if you try to coax it out of it’s spitty camouflage.  Just tease it gently out of the bubbles with the end of your finger and show it around.  When you’re finished, place it back near the stem on the same kind of plant you took it from.  Before too long, it will blow some more froth out and luxuriate in some slippery camouflage.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

You Are Not Alone….

June 30, 2009

You’re never more than nine inches away from an insect at any time.  That’s got to make some people uncomfortable.  But given the enormous population and diversity of insect life on this earth in comparison to numbers of humans, it’s got to be pretty accurate.  After all the rain we’ve had here in New England this June, it may be even more true since standing water helps hatch out mosquito larvae in record numbers.

argiope

Ants and worms, that’s another story.  Living as they do mostly in the ground, they are refugees of late.  Low places and just about anywhere is waterlogged now due to our swampy spring.  It rained all of June, save for an hour here and there, and made me wonder why so many people seem to like Seattle.

We have “bugboards” all over the place at Hill-Stead.  Lots of nature-y places have them.  They’re even fun to make for your own backyard if you like bugs and such or have children who do.  Take a piece of plywood and set it down somewhere.  There, now you have a bug board.  Over time critters of all types will crawl under there and leave signs that they have done so.  You may even find the creature still there when you look.  There really is no way to say exactly what you might find, but common enough habitues include pillbugs, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, spiders, salamanders, snakes, mice and meadow voles.  It really depends on where you put the bug board, how long it’s been there and what the weather has been lately.

ringneck

I think we have very nice bug boards at Hill-Stead.  They are without a doubt the fanciest in my experience.  Ours have handles (though the tractor seems to squish them now and again), and are painted with a message to encourage you to look underneath and see what you find.  You don’t need handles or a message for the bug board to do its magic, but it’s nice.  If you find anything you want to know or tell about, leave a message here, or in the trail log at the trail head to the rear of the parking lot.

bug board pic

I fear our bug boards look like puddles with boards over them right now.  Some may have become rafts and we’ll never see them again.  Even when it doesn’t rain like this, our boards have a way of walking off.  I don’t know where they go.  It seems an odd thing to steal, even as nice as ours are. 

With a little good weather, the trails and bug boards will dry out.  I don’t know about all the bug populations that may have been negatively impacted by all our rain.  Bug breeding is generally not supposed to be a soggy affair.  Fireflies need a clear night, and eggs of certain insects can be washed away or even become waterlogged.  Spiders generally are ok, they can just climb out of harms’ way. 

I thought the other day that successful fledging of baby birds seemed down, too.  But that may be my imagination.   Anyway, nature mostly finds its balance.  With fewer bugs to eat, it makes sense that might cut down on the number of insect-eating fledglings as well. And the rain itself was no favor to baby birds.  Storms at the wrong time can play havoc with bird reproduction.  

Big weather events affect large and small.  Just ask us here in Farmington, CT.  A tornado touched down here a few days back and we are just beginning to poke our heads out and take the measure of things.  The power was out for a couple of days.  It seems that the storms blew the constant rain out to sea, as it hasn’t rained here since.  Along with me I am betting that the birds and bees are happy about it. 

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist