Bermeo sea wall

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The sea,

trapped here by battered walls,

spits frothy curses at heaven.

They fall on deaf ears.

nature’s twinkies: the monarch and the viceroy

remember when your kids or those of someone you knew were around 10 years old, how they began to dress like their best friend and they would call or text each other the night before to decide what “look-a-like” outfit to wear the next day to school? i do. i had 2 very sociable girls and they loved to dress alike and like their “besties”! in nature there are  also “twinkies”, but there are much more practical reasons for “dressing alike”: survival! there is more than one kind of survival mimicry as well. in batesian mimicry, a harmless species imitates the characteristics of a toxic species in order to deter would-be predators. in müllerian mimicry a more mutually beneficial relationship exists. a given number of species may look alike because they both have toxic qualities and imitation becomes a mutually beneficial arrangement.

the monarch the viceroy butterflies are one of the best known butterflies to be recognized as “look-a-likes”. it has long been thought that the viceroy looks like the monarch so that predators of the viceroy will be fooled. the belief that only the monarch is really toxic (batesian mimicry) guided this view, but recent research seems to suggest that both are toxic in different ways so that their mimicry is mutually beneficial (müllerian mimicry). In the “finding that emerged from an early study—the viceroy, though more palatable than the monarch, was still less palatable compared with non-mimetic butterflies.”

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monarch butterfy (Danaus plexippus)

viceroy

viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)

to the casual eye, these two butterflies look alike, but there are several ways to tell the difference. here are two. the easiest sign is the black stripe on the viceroy’s hindwing. in addition, viceroys do not migrate so depending on where you live you will see them at appear at different times in spring.

spinning silken tales

everyone loves a good tale, a storyteller that weaves mystery and surprise with the complexity of an orb’s web; wondering how, from a story line moving in apparently indiscriminate directions, we are left with a perfectly patterned tale. to approach what the writer/storyteller does, i decided to explore the spider and its web, and to let their mastery shine in nature’s morning rays. this is a perfect time of year to find them! here are some interesting facts:

although orb spiders love the heat of summer they really get down to business making intricate webs throughout the autumn months. this is when many reach adulthood and they are their biggest. the eggs of this species hatch in the late summer or autumn, but the hatchling spiders become dormant and do not leave the egg sack until the following spring. BBC has a lovely nature post about spiders in autumn.

the web of the orb spider, those wheel shaped and intricate designs, begins with a single foundation thread, a base for the entire structure. then she spins radius threads. once they are completed, beginning from the center, working outward, the spider spins auxiliary spirals around the foundation, followed by the sticky threads. as the sticky threads are released, the spider eats the auxiliary threads which convert to the web-like material that can be re-spun. a very cool animation of how the spider spins her web can be found here.

here are some photos i took from my spider watch project.

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and two great links; one shows the anatomy of a spider. the other is a good overall link with info about the black and yellow argiopes.

a writer that can spin a tale as beautiful as an orb’s web is a master of spinning tales!

and of course there’s the copperhead!

talk about stumbling… there i was almost sitting on the ground on the woodland trail at meeman shelby forest, photographing a beautiful, and probably poisonous mushroom.

no sooner than i got up and back on the boardwalk i heard a “shshshsh” noise. i looked around. it sounded like something moving under the leaves. then i heard the noise again and saw the copperhead snake about 5 feet in front of me in the leaf litter. it was between where i wanted to walk and where i stood planted. what to do, what to do? the first thing i did was take a picture (well, two, to be exact)… some presence of mind, eh?

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then, the snake moved quickly under the boardwalk that i had to traverse. i stood still, a few minutes then made a wide circle around the boardwalk. i did not feel fear, but i was a tad concerned. after the fact i became slightly unnerved. when i got home i looked up all the info i could find on copperheads. they say that god takes care of fools and babies. i know i am not the latter but have thought myself a fool on more than one occasion. age, however has given me the wisdom to learn from my experiences. since last week i have been more watchful for dangers when walking in the woods. i also made a decision to wear proper foot attire, regardless of summer heat. an ounce of prevention is worth a pund of cure.

i did learn that while very painful, the bite of a copperhead is rarely fatal to adults. according to Dr. Peter Bromley, N. C. Cooperative Extension Specialist in Zoology, “Copperhead bites are typically not fatal. Small animals, like small dogs, may receive a fatal bite from a copperhead. The venom causes local tissue destruction and secondary infection often sets in. If you or your pet are bitten by any snake that you suspect is venomous, get medial attention immediately. For the most part, if you let snakes alone, they’ll leave you alone.”

never try and kill a snake. that is a major reason that people get bitten.  according to the university of florida wildlife and conservation lab, “you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snake bite“. that’s a downright comforting thought! maybe i should look out for storms!!!

tiny potters, living pots.

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you never know when you will stumble upon an interesting find. this morning it was the nest of potter wasps, (family: Vespidae, sub-family: Eumeninae) that i encountered on a the branch of a cinnamon vine (chinese yam vine). they form little pot shaped chambers  and place one egg in each. then they capture insects and caterpillars, placing them in the chamber as food for the devolping eggs. then the wasp seals the basket with a cap. above is the nest i found on my morning walk and below is a video of the potter wasp constructing her living pot.

pretty neat.

Summer quartet

butterflies inspire artists on many levels. painters, dancers, musicians and writers have all dedicated works to their elegant beauty and delicate movement. beginning with the butterfly waltz by brian crain. although the piece is somewhat repetitive, it is altogether pleasant. i can imagine walking through an expansive meadow, humming, as i relish the plentitude of july and august butterflies.

although little is known about the significance of salvador dalí’s landscape with butterflies, they were present enough in his psyche to inspire this painting.

landscape with butterflies (click link to see dalí’s painting)

now, for a change of pace, i move to a chinese ballet/acrobatic performance, called butterfly lovers, that exquisitely captures the grace inspired by butterflies in fragrant fields.

vladamir nabakov, the famed russian novelist, literary analyst and part-time entymologistonce said, “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” the author was passionate about the blue butterfly, went on yearly lepitopteral expeditions and wrote several essays that focused on… “the connection between art and the changing subtlety of these fragile insects.”

After the death of his mother in 1778, william wordsworth wrote “to a butterfly”. here is the poem (from the bartelby website):

          STAY near me--do not take thy flight!
          A little longer stay in sight!
          Much converse do I find in thee,
          Historian of my infancy!
          Float near me; do not yet depart!
          Dead times revive in thee:
          Thou bring'st, gay creature as thou art!
          A solemn image to my heart,
          My father's family!

          Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,                       
          The time, when, in our childish plays,
          My sister Emmeline and I
          Together chased the butterfly!
          A very hunter did I rush
          Upon the prey:--with leaps and springs
          I followed on from brake to bush;
          But she, God love her, feared to brush
          The dust from off its wings.

i love the ephemeral, yet nostalgic connection in this romantic poem, with the loss of his beloved mother and the transience of the species. and so ends this brief summer quartet, inspired by nature and interpreted though art.

eating lotus seeds

Mulan was sitting on a low chair, picking lotus seeds from a pod in her hand, and looking at the lake through the red balustrades. Redjade, having been brought up in Hangchow, was quite familiar with such things and was working away at the seeds with her nimble fingers, sitting at a high table with Afei and Huan-erh. Mr. Yao lounged in a low rattan chair. Lifu was sitting close to Mulan on the balcony and watching her pick the seeds. He had eaten sugared lotus seeds, but he had never eaten them fresh from the pod, and was staring with great interest.

“Do you eat them raw like that?” he asked rather foolishly.

“Of course,” said Mulan, and she took one she had just plucked out and gave it to him. Lifu tasted it and said, “It is good, but different from the sugared ones. It is so mild you almost don’t taste anything.”

“That is just it,” said Mulan. “We eat it just for its pure mildness and its slight fragrance. That is why a busy man cannot enjoy it. You must not think of anything when you eat it.”

Mulan showed him how to pick a seed, and after eating it, Lifu exclaimed with delight.

“If you shout, you will lose the flavor again,” said Mulan. “You must chew them slowly, one by one. After a while, take a sip of good tea and you will find a pure fragrance in your cheeks and palate for a long time.”

Lin Yutang – Moment in Peking, 1939

That is how life should be approached, like eating lotus seeds, chewing each one, slowly. Busy people cannot savor life. They pass through, and often the flavor completely escapes them. Yesterday I wandered around the lotus pond at Shelby Farms and happened upon a miracle; a praying mantis. It would have escaped my vision, but for the intensity with which I was studying every leaf and action on the pond. I cannot even begin to fathom what I missed, the complexity of life within each blossom, on each leaf, up and down each stalk, in the mud, in the air, on the immediate shore… Yesterday, for a brief moment in time, I tasted the lotus seed, enjoyed its subtle flavor… and it was delicious!

click, click and a really cool trick!

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just one gift a day keeps me happy and today is no different. while walking my dog at shelby farms i came across this rather large, yet barely visible eyed-click beetle on the trunk of a tree. very aware of my presence, the beetle siddled to the left, making it’s way around the trunk in an effort to hide… but not before i snapped this image with my i-phone!

the click beetle gets its name from the audible sound it makes when, upended, it tries to right itself. the beetle throws back it’s head and prothorax launching itself into the air a distance of as much as 4 times the measure of the length of its body (somewhere close to 2 inches). now how cool is that!

oh, the funneled webs they weave…

the wooded trail along the levee at big hill pond state park was carpeted in funneled webs on my recent visit; in leaf litter, between low lying fallen branches… i found myself looking for them as i walked, like counting out of state license plates on a car trip when i was a kid. what kind of spider made these webs, i wondered? some things are easy to look up. these webs are so distinctive that it took all of a minute to discover they are the webs of grass spiders, (Agelenopsis spp.), a rather common spider; one of around 700 species of funnel web weavers with a wide distribution in the US and Canada. they can be easily confused with the wolf spider in appearance, but their web is very distinctive. they also have a distinguishable arrangement of eight eyes in three rows. i have included a common spider ID chart for comparison purposes. sometimes it is helpful to view look-alikes side-by-side in order to focus on and learn about the most salient differences.

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map of trails at big hill pond state park

apple wasp gall

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i think i take pictures like a kid collects treasures… to later bring them home, study them and enjoy the richness of what they teach me as i explore the details of nature’s mysteries. on the last leg of my walk around mineral slough this morning i looked up to see an oak tree ripe with four greenish nut-like looking “fruits”. i thought they must be some kind of gall but had no idea beyond that. turns out they are oak apple gall wasps; which in and of itself is a pretty awesome discovery, but there’s more. lots. more. in mid to late summer, a female wasp injects eggs into the root of the oak tree and then the hatched larvae eat the roots. when these females pupate in spring, they make their journey up the tree to inject a single egg into the midrib of an oak leaf, where it grows, causing a chemical reaction in the leaf. it is this reaction that creates the round, green apple like gall. the pupated larvae becomes the wasp and the cycle continues. much more information can be found on this oak apple gall wasp link. a discovery like this just makes my day. it’s the kind of information i remember and return to. not exactly the stuff of party conversations, though i have been known to bore family, neighbors, colleagues and former students with my passionate tales. i don’t like parties anyway and my true friends just smile and say, “really?” how interesting!” and then smile some more. i am blessed to have such friends, an eye for the absurd and an ageless curiosity; probably the only part of me that is not ready to collect social security.

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