A Cold Wind

Winds gusted up to 41 miles per hour over the weekend, ushering in colder weather and, as it turns out, lots of plastic bags.

I used a large one from Pier 1 to gather up all of the others, as well as some wrappers (evidence of Halloween is still out there!) and scattered pages of newspaper. The wind also scattered some more natural debris, like this little nest of grass and cottony seeds:

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It likely belonged to a mouse or some other small rodent sheltering in the tall grasses just beyond the floodplain. Last week my younger dog managed to stir one out of a hollow log along the sandy banks of the river. Although I didn’t get a very good look before it disappeared, I saw enough to know that it was a long-footed mouse.  There are several species of mice in Maryland (see Maryland’s DNR mammals page for a list). This one, I hope, was able to make a new home for itself (if a hawk didn’t get to it first).

Yesterday, as the winds were calming, I discovered the first ice on the river. It was thin and only very spotty, but still a sign that winter is coming.

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I like winter, so that is something to be thankful for.

Fun with Fungus

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I’ve been reluctant to address fungus in this blog, not because I don’t appreciate it but rather because I know so little about it. Classifying it is well beyond my ken. (Although I suppose I could ask my uncle, who just retired from the USDA and for years drove a van with a bumper sticker that read, “Mycology is Mushrooming.” When I say that I think of my uncle when I see fungus, I mean it in only the best way.) Sometimes, though, I just can’t resist making a foray into another field. Because, let’s face it, fungus can be fun.

This week I encountered some puffballs growing on a felled log. They are the funny little fungi that squirt out greenish spores when you touch them. My boys love to squish them and watch the “smoke” disperse into the air, and, honestly, so do I.

After some research, I discovered that these fungi are called Pear-shaped Puffballs, or Lycoperdon pyriforme. I used various resources to confirm my identification, but perhaps the most helpful was the Maryland Biodiversity Project website (see http://marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=5036), which is concerned with cataloging all the living things in Maryland. I wouldn’t say that my puffballs were pear-shaped, but I’m not going to get into any body-shaming here. They puffed as well as any other puffball I’ve encountered.

Go have some fun with fungus!

Invisibility

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I’ve posted about the wonders of nature’s camouflage before, but a chance meeting with a mantid (stagomantis carolina, I think) persuaded me to revisit the topic. I’m sure that you can see the marvelous bark-colored creature above, but can you see it below?

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Much more difficult, isn’t it? It’s a miracle he didn’t get stepped on. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize I was taking a picture of this insect, a Green Stinkbug nymph (5th instar, chinavia hilaris):

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I simply meant to take a picture of the touch-me-nots. But he matches perfectly – clearly a cool pre-adult with style. He needs to give this grasshopper nymph (a schistocerca nitens, I believe) some tips on not being quite so matchy-matchy monochromatic:

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And they all need to explain to this mylar balloon that its attempt at camouflage is an absolute fail:

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That green is too bright, and it’s altogether too shiny.

More Monarchs on the Monocacy

 

In a field awash in purple and yellow and green, butterflies float between plumes of goldenrod and sturdy ironweed blossoms. Among the plain, white cabbage moths and big, brilliant swallowtails, are a few ever-popular Monarchs, whose recent population decline is of particular concern (see Monocacy Milkweed). On my way back from scavenging the banks of the Monocacy, I like to stop by the open fields and look under the leaves of the scattered milkweed plants, where the distinctly striped caterpillars of the Monarch are likely to be. Yesterday I found a pair of the wee larvae munching away. As it is early September, these caterpillars, if they survive to butterfly-hood, are of the generation that will make the famous flight to Mexico. That’s a big future for such a little insect. But I’m rooting for them!

A Few of My Favorite Things

Because I can’t pick just one thing when I have such little time to write, and The Sound of Music is inspiring any time of the year…

A doe, a deer, a female deer. There’s a Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt going on in downtown Frederick this month, but at the river we like to do things a little differently.

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Raindrops on…Sharp-winged Monkey-flowers. Because the bloom of the mimulus alatus is beautiful, but the common name is even better.

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Ford every stream. Seriously. It’ll cool you off.

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How do you solve a problem like… trash? Clean it up, one piece at a time.

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Dangerous Beauty

 

The Honey Locust, or Gelditsia triacanthos, is a remarkable but treacherous tree. Its lower trunk is covered in 3-inch barbs so sharp that in the past they were used by woodsmen as pins, spear points, and animal traps. (More recently, they’ve been known to pierce running shoes and flatten bicycle tires with a budget-busting regularity.) The trees are common along the Monocacy River, and currently they’re festooned in the long, flat, curling seed pods that inspired the “honey” in their name. The pulp of the pod is sweet enough to tempt wildlife like deer, squirrels, and rabbits, and Native Americans, in addition to using the pulp of the Honey Locust as a thickener and sweetener, also roasted its seeds as a source of protein. I, however, prefer to admire the trees from a distance.

Cicada

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As I was walking along the island trail yesterday, I noticed a new adult cicada just emerged from its exoskeleton. It’s not one of the famous 17-year cicadas that periodically make the national news, but a simple annual Dog-Day Cicada (Tibicen canicularis), whose rasping buzzes fill the air along the Monocacy River every summer. This cicada was unique, however, for choosing to molt on the leaf of a Japanese Hop plant rather than on the bark of a tree, where cicada nymphs usually appear after feeding on the tree’s roots for 3 years.

The Green Stuff

There are wildflowers that aren’t wildflowers.  They’re green or brown or furry or smooth or fringed or winged, in bunches and fronds, clubbed, tall, short, and everywhere. They’re “grass flowers.” I discovered a short article about them by Jennifer Frazer on Scientific American‘s blog “The Artful Amoeba,” which was very good but further persuaded me not to tear my hair out trying to identify grasses as well as flowers and birds. Still, I can’t help but notice the grass flowers now that I know that they’re there, and often they’re weird or dramatic enough to merit a picture. Even the seeds and pods can be interesting. Right now there’s so much green that it’s tempting to overlook all of it, but the most average of green stuff is worth a little bit of time.

Fairyland, Maryland

 

At this time of year, the silver 2-week period when the Virginia Bluebells bloom in concert with the delicate Spring Beauties, Trout Lilies, and even the alien Lesser Celandines, I can’t help but feel that I’m in Fairyland. And today, when the white sunlight shone beneath the gray rainclouds, it lit the world in crisp, clean, and almost metallic shadow, and I felt as if I was walking through a photograph.  With one effect on top of another, I might have been unreal myself, and, as must always be true when a proper fairy has you in its sphere, I was a little unnerved.

A few years ago, my father showed me an old drawing of mine that he had found in his basement.  Surrounding a smiling girl were curlicues and flowers, mice and birds, and I had written across the top, “Nature is Love.” My father, who has a wry sense of humor, laughed at me for having been a young, secret pantheist, and I was suitably embarrassed by the naivete and simplicity of my early drawing. Only a year ago, I was even more embarrassed when my nieces started reading aloud from my early diaries. They contained the usual, painful nonsense about boys, family problems, and worries about my appearance (listen to the podcast, Mortified, and you’ll get the idea), but they also had the affected, pretentious prose of someone who wanted very much to be a a writer and had read way too much Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, not to mention piles of Andrew Lang’s many-colored Fairy Books (Olive! Pink! Orange!). I wrote in high-flying language of my love of nature, of the joy of sitting by “the creek” and making up stories, of the respite from the “real world” it offered me.

In Fairyland, you lose time, or maybe you gain it.  At any rate, Fairyland changes time, so that you can be in two places at once, be two people at once, and yet be one person in one time all the same. Am I 10 or 40?  Have I grown up at all? I’m not a pantheist.  Or a pagan. More often, I’m a simple rationalist with a Lutheran upbringing.  But I can feel the magic, even if I don’t believe in it. That’s why there can be trash in Fairyland.

Save the Invertebrates

Foraging for trash proved a lifesaving mission yesterday.  While exploring the island, I came upon a bright yellow container advertising “18 Canadian Nightcrawlers.”  Since the top was off, I could see that there was still dirt inside. Assuming that a fisherman wouldn’t leave perfectly good bait to shrivel in the sun, I dumped the soil to put the container in my bag and was surprised to see several long, meaty worms fall writhing to the earth.  Hastily, I gathered them back up into the container.  But, after looking around in vain for the careless fisherman, I agreed with my boys that we should liberate the nightcrawlers (poor, displaced Canadians) and give them an opportunity for a new life on the Monocacy.  The boys decanted and reburied them a safe distance from the water.  On the way home, I attempted to throw away yet another piece of garbage, a random square of cardboard caught in some wintry underbrush, when I discovered a few snails clinging to its underside.  It was an easy decision simply to return the cardboard to the ground with snails intact.  After all, cardboard biodegrades, and the snails weren’t being particularly offensive.

UPDATE, 6/14/16: I have since learned that I absolutely should not have liberated these nightcrawlers as they are an invasive species that can harm the native wildflower population and change the composition of the forest floor. Read more here. My apologies. I really am ashamed of my ignorance!

UPDATE, 4/11/16: It seems I’m destined to uncover little critters.  Today, trying to lift a piece of plastic (which I have since learned is irretrievably buried in the sand), I found a most impressive wolf spider.  He wasn’t inclined to have his picture taken, so I had to chase him around a bit. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from arachnophobia. (To be honest, I only mentioned that last bit because I have to take advantage of the few times Greek comes in handy).

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