Face to the Sun

I read somewhere the flower head (capitulum) of a sunflower will track the sun when it is young and growing, and will eventually face east when mature. Tracking the sun in this manner is called heliotropism. To me, it’s a bit of magic in the plant world.

WATERCOLOR OF SUNFLOWER

Many articles have been written about the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and why the flower heads follow the sun. It’s believed there is unequal growth in the plant stem. The east side of the plant stem grows more during the day than the west side, and vice versa during the night, thus allowing the flower head to move. But that changes when the plant is mature and its stem stiffens; then the flower head will face the east.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s somewhat similar for humans. No, not that we grow more on one side than the other. But that we excel when we turn our face to the sun and feel the first morning light hit the face with a gentle warmth and a promise of the day to come. Is that fanciful? Perhaps.

But I know I experience a lift to my mood when the sun is shining. I also know I feel my mood elevate when I see the the extraordinarily beautiful creatures and plants that nature provides. Maybe, just maybe, that’s my equivalent of having my “face to the sun.” Here’s some of my face to the sun moments from earlier this week…

Just before I put on my sandals to go out for a walk, this glorious creature appeared on the bushes by the patio. It made me stop in my tracks and grab the cell phone for a quick photo. A very obliging creature I must say. It’s a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. While males and females are both yellow, only the female has the blue wash of color near its tail. It’s even more miraculous to see considering its lifespan is only about two weeks.

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL FEMALE

Okay, so I’m now on my way for a walk, and this creature greets me as I head out the front door. A Hummingbird Clearwing moth on another butterfly bush. Again, very accommodating to allow a cell phone so close for a photo. I’ve read these creatures only have one brood in northern states, laying small green eggs on the underside of leaves. Once hatched, they feed on plants and then drop to the ground to spin a cocoon and pupate where they will hide amongst leaf litter during the winter until they emerge in the spring. Yet another reason why allowing some leaves to remain on the ground can be a very good thing.

HUMMINGBIRD CLEARWING MOTH

Now, on with my tale…so I’m headed out for a walk when I also encounter this beautiful little Common Eastern bumblebee on a Great Blue Lobelia plant. The bee is a tiny female – only about half the size of what one normally thinks a bumblebee should be. She’s a great worker for the colony. See the yellow pollen on the hind leg? She sweeps the pollen off her legs and it collects in what’s known as the corbicula (pollen basket) on the hind legs. It’s how she carries this food back to the nest for the young.

COMMON EASTERN BUMBLEBEE ON GREAT BLUE LOBELIA

You never know what you’re going to see when you’re out walking. Some of the most amazing things we so easily overlook. Like this Chicory plant. It’s a pretty common sight. It grows quite readily along roadsides at this time of year. The flowers open in the morning, and close up in the early afternoon after a morning of sunshine. The bloom only lasts one day. And new blooms appear the next day. Amazing that this plant can so easily handle bad soil and road salt. I admire it for it’s toughness. And beauty.

CHICORY

We have a lot of Common Mullein growing along the bike trail this time of year. They’re huge, spiky looking plants, some easily reaching six feet tall. It’s an invasive plant in Ohio. But when you look very closely at the flowers, they’re amazing. This little Western Honey bee seems to think so. Easy to see the pollen collected on its hind legs.

WESTERN HONEY BEE ON COMMON MULLEIN

And finally, one more beautiful creature that also caught my attention and made me smile. A female Monarch butterfly on Purple Coneflowers. She’s a beautiful specimen. No torn or tattered wings. A Monarch will go from egg, to larvae, to pupa to adult butterfly in just about 30 days. And most likely she will soon be heading south for Mexico with the goal of reaching her destination in November, as I believe she may be fourth generation.

MONARCH ON PURPLE CONEFLOWER

There are so many beautiful things to observe in nature, just like the sunflower that turns its face to the sun tracking its warmth, growing tall and strong. I believe by observing and appreciating the beauty of nature around us every day that we too can experience the feeling of having our “face to the sun.”

Until next time, keep observing nature up close.

Of Expectations

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time…no, not that story. It’s the story of leaving a home in a rather bucolic setting on 3 acres along a river where a multitude of birds, water fowl, flowers and butterflies abounded. And moving into a brand new home in a subdivision on a postage-stamp-sized lot. Easier to maintain. Single story. Better for the body as it ages, right? I had expectations of sterile, orderly subdivision bushes and shrubs with no birds, no flowers, no butterflies, no nature. Just shoot me now…

So…during Covid prime time 2020, we ripped out some of those “sterile subdivision bushes” (yes, I have more to do) and created what we hoped would attract pollinators. It certainly didn’t look promising when the flowers were planted.

NEWLY PLANTED FLOWERBED 2020

Here’s just a portion of that same flower bed in 2021. If you plant them, they do grow!

SAME FLOWERBED 2021

We also added a rear patio which now hosts a multitude of blooming flowers along with Arrowwood Viburnum and Serviceberry bushes. Are they all native plants? Unfortunately no, but a portion of them are – or at least the ones I could get my hands on last year.

Surprisingly it didn’t take long for nature to find us.

In the spring, we had a momma Mallard duck and ten little ones declare our little retention pond their home.

MOMMA MALLARD AND 10 BABIES

They would visit our bird feeder daily to find anything that may have fallen (or that we may have deliberately dropped to the ground). They stayed almost all summer until they grew to full size and flew off to begin their new adult adventures. That’s Momma to the right in the photo below. She would anxiously watch over the little ones while they ate. She was a good Momma (though somewhere along the line she lost two).

SAME MALLARD FAMILY

Ducks weren’t our only water fowl visitors. We periodically had a Great Egret that decided those little frogs and tadpoles in the pond were pretty tasty as well. Made for a great mid-morning snack.

GREAT EGRET

We also had a few surprises…like this Canada Goose and Mallard duck that decided to be best buds for the day. Swimming around the pond together. No other ducks or geese in the pond, just these two. Who knew?

CANADA GOOSE AND MALLARD DUCK

And surprisingly, even in a new subdivision with no large trees, birds also made our area their home.

Shortly after our house was built, we had a visitor (Northern Rough-Winged Swallow) that was quite beautiful, which unfortunately for us decided the HVAC exhaust pipe would make a fine nesting place. Who needed to built a nest in a hole in a creek or river bank? This one was perfect. Not! It didn’t take long to add a screen to the pipe and encourage this little lady to find a more appropriate home elsewhere.

NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW

We had a pair of Tree Swallows fledge 7 this year in our nest box. Turns out the retention pond is great for easily finding insects to feed their hungry little brood. It was a very successful year for them. We also had nests of Mockingbirds and House Finches in shrubs in neighboring yards so there were plenty of these little birds fluttering around.

TREE SWALLOW

And much to our amazement, we had a Red Headed woodpecker that visited quite frequently. Seems our suet was within easy flying range of the treed area he called home. Red Headed woodpeckers are more rare in Ohio than they used to be with their numbers dwindling over the years.

RED-HEADED WOODPECKER

And not to be outdone, we had a very surprising visitor just this past week. Yep, a wild turkey. In a brand new subdivision. Huh! I guess nature really does come to you if you let it.

WILD TURKEY

The retention pond was extremely good for attracting dragonflies and damselflies. Delicate creatures that are exquisite when viewed closely like these Familiar Bluets.

FAMILIAR BLUET DAMSELFLIES

Or (what I believe to be) an Eastern Forktail, which is only about an inch long.

EASTERN FORKTAIL DAMSELFLY

Frogs were commonplace here. In spring and summer many voices were heard. Tree frogs, American Toads and Bull frogs would be the accompaniment when drifting off to sleep at night. This little Gray Tree Frog decided he liked our grill. We had to persuade him that there are better places to reside (and ones that don’t get hot).

GRAY TREE FROG

The flowers drew in their own admirers. Hummingbirds were constant visitors.

HUMMINGBIRD

As were many butterflies and moths. This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail had been battered about quite a bit; its wings showing the damage. Often times this damage is a result of eluding predators such as birds. Butterflies can continue to fly with damaged wings, but if one becomes broken, they cannot fly and will die.

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLY

Adult Painted Lady butterflies (like the one in the photo below) like Asters, Ironweed, Blazing Star and Joe Pye weed among others. Typically flowers that are 3 to 6 feet tall. In this photo it’s on Butterfly bush although Blazing Stars and Ironweed are both found close by.

PAINTED LADY BUTTERFLY

And this female Monarch. Though not visible from this photo, the male Monarch is distinguished from a female by having two black dots on its hind wings.

FEMALE MONARCH BUTTERFLY

This tiny little Summer Azure was also seen flying about. To give you a better perspective of size, it’s on a piece of clover in the backyard.

SUMMER AZURE

Bees and other insects were also regular visitors. This is a Two-Spotted bumblebee on Purple Coneflower. And if you look closely, there’s a green sweat bee right behind the bumblebee.

TWO-SPOTTED BUMBLEBEE ON PURPLE CONEFLOWER

And one of my all-time favorites. This is a Bombus fervidus (Golden Northern Bumblebee). Gorgeous, isn’t she? Not one that you see on a regular basis in Ohio.

GOLDEN NORTHERN BUMBLEBEE (Bombus fervidus)

Bumblebees have a unique lifecycle, living just one year and in most cases, less than a year. A fertilized Queen overwinters in the ground by herself. In the spring, she flies low over the ground locating a suitable habitat for a nest. She then feeds on nectar and pollen to gain strength, then begins laying eggs in the new nest. Her first nest will be of all daughters, then she ceases to forage and focuses on laying successive generations of eggs (all females). The new daughters will now be the workers that will collect nectar and pollen for the nest and all future eggs/larvae. In late summer the Queen will produce both males and females. Both sexes will mate with different colonies of bumblebees, while the rest of the daughters who have worked so diligently throughout the summer will die off, as will the Old Queen and the males. The newly mated (fertilized) Queens will then overwinter in the ground, and the cycle will continue the following year. A Queen could produce 50 to 300 bees in a year.

We also get Eastern Carpenter bees with their “shiny hineys” which some people confuse with bumblebees. These are usually quite large bees but they have no sting. This one is on a Monarda (commonly called Bergamot or Bee Balm).

EASTERN CARPENTER BEE

One bee that was a visitor to our yard was the European Wool Carder bee. It’s pretty unique. This male has black barbs that are visible at the end of its abdomen. It’s actually quite territorial and will chase away other bees from areas it determines is “his.” It’s a non-native and rather aggressive with other bees.

EUROPEAN WOOL CARDER BEE

There are so many other things I could share with you. Beautiful flowers that burst with color. Queen of the Prairie, Lupine, Black-Eyed-Susan, Speedwell, Butterfly Weed, Cardinal flower, Coreopsis, Great Blue Lobelia, Ironweed and more – flowers that can attract nature to your yard.

Beautiful color for the yard. For fresh-cut flowers. For the birds, bees and other insects that live amongst us. Even in a newly constructed subdivision.

I’ve changed my expectations about what it means to live in a new subdivision. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve given you something to think about when your expectations tell you something won’t work or isn’t possible. Perhaps you will consider digging your hands in the dirt and plant something new – sometime that may attract welcome visitors such as what you’ve seen here. There’s a lot of nature out there just waiting for you to give them a helping hand.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.