Beauty with Wings

Beauty comes in many forms. Nature has a whole pallet of colors, sizes and shapes to capture the eye and the imagination. For me this week, beauty came in on wings.

I’m seeing more green sweat bees (Augochloropsis) right now, though I can’t identify the species beyond the genus. They’re a brilliant metallic looking bee with about 140 different species. I’m working on bee identification, but it’s been a slow process.

An Andrena mining bee also favored the ox-eye daisies (see photo below). Andrena‘s are ground nesting solitary bees. In the past, I thought any bee nesting in the ground was a hornet/yellow jacket and out to sting me. Not so. Actually about 70% of our wild bees are ground nesting and most are not aggressive at all.

The bee life cycle is actually pretty interesting and is similar to the four stages of the monarch butterfly – egg, larva, pupa, adult.

Ground nesting bees emerge from their pupae in the spring, mate and then look for appropriate nesting burrows, preferring a sandy soil. They will create a small tunnel which will contain several individual nest cells which are sealed off from each other. How they are sealed off varies depending upon the type of bee. Mason bees (Osmia) seal with mud. Leaf-cutter bees (Megachile) use round pieces of leaves. Cellophane/polyester bees (Colletes) create their own cellophane-like material to seal the nest cell.

Each cell will contain a small ball of pollen and nectar upon which the bee will lay one egg. The egg will develop into a larva usually a few days after being laid. The larva feeds from the pollen/nectar ball, and after about five molts (instars), they enter a prepupal stage which could last all summer and winter before emerging as an adult bee. This is a generalization of the bee life cycle; there are always exceptions.

[The above information about bees came predominantly from The Bees In Your Backyard, Joseph S Wilson & Olivia Messinger Carrill. This book is an excellent reference filled with remarkable photos and fascinating facts about bees. I highly recommend it!]

On some of my hikes, I’ve had the good luck of capturing a few photos of damselflies. They’re colorful little insects that move rather rapidly, making photography quite a challenge. But I always admire their beauty. The photo below is of a male Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis). This little guy was sitting on the edge of a wooden planter. The board it is sitting on is about an inch wide.

Here’s a pretty little Stream Bluet (Enallagma exsulans) below. Bluets are a very difficult damselfly to identify down to species level. And they’re small – less than 1.5 inches long. Bluets tend to stay near the edges of water and hide in grasses to avoid being eaten by larger damselflies, dragonflies or birds. If you walk slowly by, they will move and better enable you to spot them. I’ve read that female Bluets can be blue, orange or green.

Last evening I wandered by our little pond on the off chance of seeing a damselfly and I hit the mother load! There were probably a couple dozen on the edge of the pond and several were engaged with females which were laying eggs in the water. The two damselflies in the photo below are Familiar Bluets (Enallagma civile). The female was just about to deposit eggs within the plant stem just below the surface of the water. Their shadows were reflected in the water. I’m afraid I didn’t have a fast enough camera speed to capture the moving wings of the male (the blue one).

The photo below shows a female depositing eggs while other males are nearby. There were quite a few Bluets all around this area with at least three females depositing eggs.

I’ve not had much luck photographing dragonflies, which have much larger, stouter looking bodies and eyes that nearly touch. Dragonflies extend their wings at rest and make for great photographs (while damselflies fold their wings back over their bodies). The Midland Clubtail (Gomphurus fraternus) dragonfly in the photo below is a little more than 2 inches long, with green/yellow coloring. Midland Clubtails are known to be strong flyers and good hunters.

And speaking of good hunters, I encountered an American Robin which was viciously shaking something white. I thought at first it was a piece of trash, but realized later it was a white moth – probably lunch for the bird. The food cycle continues.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A Little Bit of Everything

I love writing this blog. I strive to have eye-catching photos with interesting facts about nature you may not have heard before. Or if you did know it, it still brings a smile to the face and some sunshine to your world.

My hikes and walk abouts have been numerous lately. I’ve visited creeks, trails and woodlands – all within the general vicinity, but little patches of paradise none the less.

I’m taking a course on pollinators in Ohio, so I’m always on the lookout for wild bees (non-honey bees). Ohio has about 500 species of wild bees and about 70% of those are ground nesting solitary bees. And predominantly non-aggressive. Here’s a cute little green metallic sweat bee which I believe may be Augochlora in the Halictidae family. It’s photographed on fleabane so you get an idea of how small it really is.

I’m learning to appreciate the intricacies of dragonflies and damselflies. They’re amazingly beautiful. Look at this female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia). These dragonflies fly over ponds, marshes, and slow-moving rivers looking for insects. Lucky for me they like to land on objects near the water and sit with wings outstretched. Makes for a better photo.

I’ve been seeing a tremendous number of Ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) damselflies. They can be found near streams and in wet areas but also further away from water. They are the most common type of damselfly you will see in the area. On a recent hike, I saw more than two dozen in a relatively small area by a stream. Males are an almost metallic blue with black wings. Very striking. Females are more brown with a white spot at the end of their wings. Just look at those eyes…aren’t they beautiful?

They eat bugs and gnats and (according to Wikipedia) they also eat six-spotted tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) – those metallic green bugs you may have seen flying around or crawling on dirt paths and trails (shown pictured below). I’ve read their color and preference for certain types of ecosystems make them popular for ecological studies (ref: Indiana Department of Natural Resources).

Sometimes you find things you don’t expect to see. I was photographing a purple rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus) blossom when I noticed the photo contained more than just the petals of the flower. I’m not a spider person, but this one was pretty cool looking. It’s in the Tetragnatha family and is sometimes called a stretch spider. It’s usually found near water and can hide very well in plain sight as this photo shows. It’s also called a longjawed orbweaver.

Along with the creepy, crawly things I’ve encountered, I’ve also had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time to capture some poses of a Prothonotary warbler. It loves being near the water and nests in dead trees and nest boxes. We’re lucky here to have one of the best viewing sights for Prothonotary warblers in central Ohio. This warbler has been banded, though I’m not sure of the significance of this specific blue band as the photo isn’t clear enough to determine letters and/or numbers for identification.

With all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s brought out fungi. I have a tough time identifying some of it, and these photos are no exception. But this one reminds me of the old-fashioned pleated skirt I used to wear as a kid. And that makes me smile, so that’s why it’s included here.

And finally, I would be remiss if I wrote a blog that talked about being near water and didn’t include one of my favorites – the Great Blue Heron. This week I happened upon six of them playing in the stream. A couple of them kept a close eye on me, while the others continued fishing and splashing, content to allow me to observe from a distance…sharing the beauty of nature together. Peacefully. And that’s rather nice.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. And spread kindness.

A Walk About

I find myself doing lots of walks these days, camera in hand and in search of some natural area that can show me new things of interest. I’m very lucky to have the Big Walnut Creek close by. It’s a quiet little stream fishermen like, but I usually go well beyond the convenient “fishing holes” when I explore. It’s a beautiful little piece of nature.

Birds love it here. It’s common to hear Yellow warblers, Baltimore Orioles, and the raucous sounds of Great Blue Herons (when they’re disturbed). Plenty of dead trees offer cavities providing feeding and nesting opportunities for woodpeckers like this Red-bellied.

I was fortunate enough to get a photo of a Myrtle warbler, a subspecies of the Yellow-rumped warbler. Warblers are difficult to get photos of unless you have a good birding camera (and sometimes even then it’s tough). My Lumix FZ300 fits my basic needs, but unfortunately doesn’t make for really crisp bird pics. While warblers may not pose for me, American Robins and Gray Catbirds aren’t nearly so camera shy.

One of the flowering blooms I’m seeing almost everywhere is Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronlis). It’s quite beautiful with purple, lavender and white blooms – some even striped. It grows to about 1.5 to 3 feet tall, has four petals and alternate leaves. Some people confuse this plant with Phlox, which has five petals and opposite leaves. Dame’s Rocket is actually not a wildflower and is an invasive plant in Ohio. It’s considered a biennial, is a native of Eurasia and produces seeds prolifically. One of the photos below sports an insect (of undetermined type).

One invasive plant that is blooming profusely right now is bush honeysuckle. It can grow up to 20+ feet tall and smothers out wildflowers and native plants. There are many types of bush honeysuckles, but the most common invasive ones in Ohio are Amur (Lonicera maacki), Morrow’s (Lonicera morrowi) and Tartarian (Lonicera tatarica) honeysuckle. Tartarian typically has a pink to deep red bloom while the others are white to a creamy yellow.

While the blooms can be beautiful, invasive honeysuckle is a very difficult plant to eradicate. It can be pulled by its roots when very small. If it’s a larger plant, unfortunately it almost always requires some type of herbicide.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is also a very invasive bush that is blooming right now. The blooms are very sweet smelling. It has a leaf that has a silvery looking underside. This invasive can grow to 20 feet tall and also smothers out native plants and wildflowers.

Now it’s time to move onto a beautiful blooming plant that is NOT invasive – the Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra). It’s a member of the Horse Chestnut family. It’s greenish yellow blooms are beautiful right now. And when you look at the blooms up close, the colors are amazing. This plant can grow up to 70 feet tall and prefers moist wet soil like what is found in ravines. It’s one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring. And it produces the buckeyes we use to make Buckeye necklaces. O-H-I-O!

And now I just had to include a photo of a Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona) just because it’s one of the first butterflies I’ve had the opportunity to photograph this spring. This one is pretty small, as that purple flower beside it is a violet.

Hopefully we will see more sunny days that will encourage these beautiful winged wonders to come out and play.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. And stay safe.

Seeing “what is”

I’m sure we’ve probably all read something about the importance of living in the present – not ruminating about past mistakes or worrying about the future (or Covid, our finances, paying bills, or…) But if you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s easy to say and not so easy to do.

What I’m learning is that regardless of what’s happening around me it’s important to stop asking the “what ifs” and see “what is.” Nature is my go-to escape, whether it’s crawling around on the ground to get the right view of a flower or trying to get a photo of the elusive bird in the tree (always hoping it’s a colorful migrating warbler, of course).

Oh, I’m not saying this is a solution to removing life’s cares and worries, but I am saying that looking closer at things around us can give us a much-needed reprieve. It can put a smile on the face. It can help us appreciate all the beautiful things that nature offers for free. Like wildflowers and fungi…

Wildflowers are colorful – brilliant white, pink, blue, violet, sunshine yellow and deep burgundy, And the good thing is, you don’t have to plant them, weed them or care for them. Just take a walk in the woods and see what you find.

Some of these beautiful wonders bloom a relatively short time and then disappear when tree leaves shade them. They’re spring ephemerals. Purple Cress, Toadshade, False Rue Anemone, Violets and Wild Geranium are just some of what you might find.

Dutchmens Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) have been pretty prolific along bike trails and are carpeting some woodlands. They’re pretty little things, and when you look at the flower closely, you can easily see how they got their name. Kinda looks like little britches, don’t you think?

Surprisingly it’s been the white flowers and blooms that have been catching my attention of late. Violets seem to be blooming more profusely than I ever remember in the past, plus Large White trillium, Rue Anemone, Dogwoods, and Speedwell (Thyme-leaved? or Slender Speedwell? Not sure).

Woodland areas have a special appeal. There’s just something peaceful about being in a woods with few (if any) people around. I especially enjoy searching out fungi. Like this Cracked Cap Polypore (Phellinus robiniae). It’s a perennial and it typically grows on Locust trees. It grows a new polypore surface on the underside every year. It can be found on both living and dead Locust trees.

Here’s a pretty cool fungi called Devils Urn (Urnula craterium). It appears in the spring (March to May) and grows on fallen wood that is partially embedded in the ground. It can grow singly or in a small cluster. And it’s very easy to miss.

Dryad’s saddle (Cerioporus squamosus) can be found quite readily on dead logs or tree stumps. It decomposes logs but can also be a parasite on living trees as well. It has a thick stem and the fungi can grow to be up to 20 inches across. The underside has pores that are actually made up of tubes, some of which can be nearly 1/2 inch in length.

Here’s another interesting fungi, the Hexagonal-pored polypore (Polyporus alveolaris). They’re pretty cool looking as well. They can be orange to tan in color and are fan-shaped. Their underside pores are six-sided and look rather like a honeycomb when you look at them closely. It’s not easy to get photos of the underside without destroying the fungi.

The Split Gill fungus (Schizophyllum commune) is a beautiful one I rarely see. It attaches to dead wood like a bracket fungi but has a white, hairy looking top and gill-like folds from a central point underneath. According to Wikipedia, “it is the only known fungi capable of retracting by movement.” Perhaps that refers to the fact that it shrivels when dry and revives when wet? Not sure… I wonder if they have “bad hair” days?

And one last fungi photo to share with you is what I believe to be Witches Butter (Tremella mesenterica). It’s somewhat similar in look to Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus) but Orange Jelly fungus grows on conifer logs and stumps, and Witches Butter grows on hardwoods. At least I think that branch is a hardwood.

I hope some of my photos and wanderings have taken your mind off your worries and put a smile or two on your face, at least for a short time. There’s some pretty cool stuff out there to explore. Nature has so much to offer us. So next time when your shoulders feel weighted down a bit, I hope you grab your hiking shoes and go out to explore. You never know what you might see.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. And stay safe.

“…But only God can make a tree”

Joyce Kilmer wrote it very eloquently, and it says exactly how I feel about trees. They’re truly God’s miracle.

This year I’ve been more attune to the promise of Spring. Seeing the new little buds on trees, their colorful blossoms, their pollen-laden blooms. In the past, I’ve primarily paid attention to trees in their “leafing out” stage, always seen at a distance, always on the go, always in a rush, seeing it as the sign Winter has loosened it’s grip. I’ve missed so much!

In these unsettling times of the pandemic, I believe we all need to embrace something that grounds us, that provides a sense of peace, that offers us joy that can’t be taken away. Maybe it’s the essence of finding some control in our world. And for me, that’s getting closer to nature and marveling at its wonders. Really seeing all the things I’ve been missing for so long. A benefit of Covid-19? Quite possibly.

Maple trees have been capturing my attention of late – primarily red maple (acer rubrum). Their blooms have been spectacular, but most have passed their prime in central Ohio and are off to the seed stage. But even the seeds are quite colorful.

On a recent walk, I discovered catkins on this male Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) tree. They’re almost as colorful as red maples. I’ve never seen these catkins before, or at least that fact never reached my level of consciousness. These trees love the water, and you’ll find them quite often in riparian areas. They can become huge and very tall (up to 120 feet); they can grow 2 to 3 feet every year. In early to mid-summer, the female catkins (which are green and can be up to 6 inches in length) will split open and release 30 to 50 seeds each. I’m sure you’ve seen these before, just floating around in the air. Hopefully it’s not an allergen for you.

Trees are pretty magnificent, even when they’re no longer living. Some can be quite artistic looking (or perhaps the stay-at-home order has my sense of art a bit diminished). Many of these dead snags (and living trees as well) provide homes to a lot of Gods creatures, including this menagerie of squirrels pictured below.

Speaking of squirrels, I came across something recently that caught my eye. Perhaps you’ve seen these too? If you could flip this black walnut over, you would see that the opposite side has exactly the same markings. The tiny little teeth of a flying squirrel did this. I’ve never seen a flying squirrel, perhaps because I’m not out and about trying to take photos at night. Flying squirrels are nocturnal and are actually very common in Ohio.

Flying squirrels don’t really fly; it’s more of a glide from tree to tree. I’ve been told they can glide as much as 300 feet depending upon the circumstances and make 180 degree turns. That’s pretty impressive! Flying squirrels are omnivorous and eat not only nuts, but berries, moths, mice, eggs, slugs, insects and even small birds.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are only two native flying squirrels in North America – the northern and the southern flying squirrels. They are both gray brown, but their belly fur color is different. Northerns’ are gray while southerns’ are all white. Perhaps one day this blog will have a photo of one, but don’t hold your breath. My nighttime photo experience is slim to none.

I guess I can’t end this blog without another photo of a tree, or rather, in this case, a group of trees along the Big Walnut Creek. It’s not the most spectacular photo – actually it’s not even a very good one – but it brings with it the promise of Spring. Soon the branches will be full of leaves, casting shade on the stream and providing wonderful niches for birds and the wood ducks that call this little oasis home.

Stay safe and may your world be filled with much joy.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Winged Wonders

It’s amazing what you see when you slow down and really start to look. I don’t think I’ve truly realized this until just now. There’s always been so many things on my “to do” list that I’ve failed to see what’s right in front of me. Guess it’s a benefit of these strange times.

My daily walks have allowed me to see a lot of amazing things, like this Eastern Spring Azure (Celastrina lucia) which looks like it’s smiling. See for yourself…look closely at the photo on the left. Perhaps it’s just my imagination but the little guy sure looks like he’s smiling to me. And don’t those legs look like he’s wearing striped socks? Maybe if I wore striped socks, I’d be smiling too. (Sorry for the photo quality, but it was quite camera shy and very tiny!) And another of those “white” butterflies, the Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) was also out and about that day.

While our Spring has brought us some cold days, there was a few days when the temps warmed enough to bring out the non-native Western honey bee. This little girl was on the flower of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Only female honey bees collect pollen which is eaten as well as carried back to the nest. Pollen is an excellent source of protein as well as other nutrients for them.

Next time you go out for a walk, stop and listen to bird song. It’s everywhere. Birds are quite happy Spring is here. Like this Dark Eyed Junko, Eastern Towhee and Brown Thrasher, calling for mates to begin the nesting season. Their songs can be quite eloquent.

Red-tailed hawks are out and about too. This big guy had his eye on things immediately below – probably breakfast. Glad those “things” weren’t me, but his distracted attention allowed for a couple of photos, though branches and distance didn’t allow for great photos.

And here’s a pic of one of my favorites, a Great Blue Heron, which sounds very prehistoric if startled. This big guy (or girl?) was hiding behind quite a bit of brush and I’m sure he felt he was invisible because though he watched me carefully, he never flew. It’s amazing such a large bird can fly so beautifully. I hope you’re fortunate enough to see one in flight soon.

And while no one would call this big guy in the photo below”winged” (as the title of this blog states), I still found him to be quite a wonder. Mr. Groundhog didn’t seem to be very afraid so perhaps he was younger; he didn’t appear to have any “battle scars” on him. He was as curious about me as I was about him. He let me get about 6 feet (social distancing?) from him before he escaped underground.

And to end today’s blog, I’d like to share something we found on one trail walk…small colorful painted stones hidden in trees, tucked into the grass or camouflaged on the edge of the paved bike trail. It felt like an Easter egg hunt, just to find where the next one might be! My sincere thanks to whoever placed these along the trail. You brought lots of smiles and happiness to walkers this week. What a great idea…perhaps one we should all try. What a wonderful, simple way to bring joy to others!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Nature’s Effect

Now more than ever, it’s important to find ways to calm the mind and nourish the spirit. With all the continuing news of the Covid-19 virus and its devastating effects, it’s sometimes difficult to find that peace.

Exploring nature and recognizing the beauty around me has helped. A blogger I follow once commented something to the effect of (and I’m badly paraphrasing) if you find the joy in nature, joy will follow you wherever you go. I subscribe to that thought.

For me that means securely planting myself in the moment. Letting go of “what ifs” and truly seeing the spectacular beauty of nature. Not just beautiful scenery, but the true marvel of that tiny little wildflower or a small bee (Andrena mining bee shown in photo) with it’s legs festooned with pollen, or an unknown fly also enjoying the same flower.

On one of my walks, I found a fuzzy looking green plant which turned out to be Common Mullein, a non-native which is considered invasive in some areas of the United States. This plant is also known as “Cowboy toilet paper” among other things, though that’s not a recommended use! According to some things I’ve read, this plant was also used by Quakers (in days gone by) to brighten the cheeks of ladies when use of makeup was frowned upon.

This biennial plant can grow to 5 to 6 feet tall and produces rather beautiful little yellow flowers. The plant is also very prolific, sometimes producing as many as 175,000 seeds per plant. It loves disturbed areas, which is why it’s easy to see how it could be invasive.

And not to be outdone by plants, birds and ducks have been making their presence known this week. Mallards are what I expect to see, but I’ve also seen Buffleheads and Lesser Scaups, along with timid Wood Ducks camping out in trees.

A woodland walk helped bring a lot of things into perspective for me this week. There were so many things growing with the promise of Spring’s magnificent color. It reinforced the realization that some things haven’t changed and I don’t need to keep my “social distance” from them, thankfully!

I hope you have the opportunity to go for a walk soon. Take your time. Explore the things that are green and growing. Listen to the songs of birds anxious to find a partner and begin starting their new families. Find something unusual that attracts your attention and do a little research to learn more about it. Nature offers so many amazing things to explore.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Spring Emergence

This week I found myself excited to find spring wildflowers – Bloodroot, Trout Lilies and Virginia Bluebells on a walk along a bike trail not far from where I live. Wildflowers are a treasure after winter ebbs, even though this past winter has been a mild one according to meteorologists. I long to see growing things bursting forth.

Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a native of the eastern United States and is aptly named. When the stem or root is pierced, it is said to put forth a red liquid, hence the reference to blood. The flower will have multi-white petals with a golden yellow center, reaching a height of about 6 to 10 inches.

Below is a photo of Blood Root in bloom taken last year. A truly beautiful wildflower. It’s a member of the poppy family and its blooms are relatively short lived. The flower opens in full light and closes at night. It grows in shade/full shade and prefer moist soil.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are just beginning to bloom in my area. Their foliage covers the hillside near a small stream near me. Flower blooms hide behind tight leaves waiting for warmer weather so they can emerge.

The photo below is from last April and shows the glorious color of the flowers. It always amazes me I can plant and nurture a flower with little success, yet nature can produce this beauty in sometimes the most unusual places with no help at all.

Bluebells are perennials that are in the herb family. They prefer shade/part shade and moist conditions. The flower on the right (below) grew on a riverbank as well.

This year I’ve been mesmerized by the floral buds of the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) tree. I don’t think I have ever realized how truly spectacular they are when you take a close look. In late winter/early spring, the buds open to expose male and female flowers.

The female Red Maple flower is a vivid deep red while the male flower tends to be more orange. In the fall, the foliage of this tree will be a beautiful red color (though some have been known to be yellow as well). Red Maples live to be about 80 to 100 years old on average. Next time you’re out for a walk, take a look at the red maple trees and explore that bloom up close and personal. It’s pretty magnificent!

Another plant I came across this week is one I have considered a non-interesting weed, for lack of a better description. I’ve seen it growing profusely in farm fields and even in my own yard. But when you look more closely at this little plant, you’ll find it has a beautiful flower. It’s Red Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum). It’s a member of the mint family and has fuzzy spade shaped leaves with pink/purple flowers that are just 10 to 18mm. Very tiny little things.

Mason bees and bumble bees visit these little flowers looking for nectar. Next time you see this plant, look closely and you will see the lines inside the flowers which help direct bees inside. Another wonder of nature. Sometimes we overlook what is right in front of us, at least I have done so when it comes to Red Dead Nettle.

I hope you have enjoyed my first blog post, and perhaps I have shared something of interest or something new. And if you found this of interest, perhaps you will request to follow this column in the future.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.