Thursday, May 31, 2012

Things to Look For in June

It's June and the world is abuzz with life. It's no coincidence that we've written a lot about insects at this time of year!

Mosquito by James Jordan
Mosquitoes: We're definitely starting to get bitten when we go outside, but the mosquitoes don't seem to be terrible yet. See our tips on looking for spots where they might be breeding.

Tiger swallowtail
Tiger swallowtail in our backyard
Tiger swallowtails: In the fall, tiger swallowtail caterpillars form a chrysalis in which they'll spend the whole winter, waiting for the right time to emerge. And then, on some warm, sunny day in April or May, you'll see one fluttering by. And you'll know: winter's over. In June, you'll start to see more. To me, tiger swallowtails are one of the things that make summer summer in Washington, DC. If you spend enough time outside on a sunny day, you're bound to see one.

Firefly by James Jordan
Fireflies: J.M. Barrie wrote: "when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies." I feel like you could say the same of fireflies. They've been out for several weeks now, but they're really starting to be plentiful now. We sit and watch them almost every night in our backyard. What better way to celebrate the summer?

Mulberries by akeg
Mulberries: These berries are bane of some homeowners' existence as they drop and ferment on sidewalks and driveways throughout the metro area...not to mention the purple bird poop. Still, we choose to see mulberries as a glorious abundance of free fruit, rather than an annoyance.

ramp flowers (allium tricoccum)
Ramp flowers by milesizz
Ramp flowers: Ramps are sought out earlier in the spring for their edible leaves and roots. But later in June, they send up flower stalks topped with a puffball of white flowers. If you can find a big patch, it's a very impressive sight. We've seen a lot at Scott's Run and Carderock...keep an eye out and let us know if you see some.

Cicada lyrica by DaynaT
Cicadas: Also toward the end of the month, keep an eye and an ear out for the dog-day cicadas. It doesn't take much work to hear them: they're some of the loudest insects on the planet.

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Milkweed is a beautiful, once-common roadside plant that is struggling in modern times. If you love monarch butterflies, you should show milkweed some love. Their lives depend on it: monarch larvae can only survive by eating milkweed leaves.

Deer tick
Photo credit: XplosivBadger
And while you're out looking for all these things, don't forget to keep checking for ticks. Lyme disease is rampant in our area, and a big deal if you get it. But if you find a tick within 24 hours of it attaching itself to you, chances are you won't get Lyme. So just suck it up and look for the little bloodsuckers.

What else have you been seeing on the trails lately? Leave a comment and let us know!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LOOK FOR: Eyed Click Beetles, Acrobats of the Bug World

Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus)
Photo credit: Mary Keim
I'm a big fan of eye spots. In the animal world, they're meant to be scary, but to us humans those big "eyes" just make critters look like cartoon babies.

Bug-haters may struggle to join in on my fun, but come on, is this not one cool-looking insect?

Alaus oculatus -- the eyed click beetle or eyed elater -- can be almost 2 inches long. Their true eyes are up by the antennae. Those big spots are just evolution's way of saying, "don't mess with me, I'm either a snake or a really freakin' cool beetle."

Photo credit: Katja Schulz
But the eye spots are just part of why we love this bug.

Click beetles have a special hinged thorax. And when they're threatened, they bend that hinge to snap a little spine on the bottom of their thorax in and out of a special v-shaped notch. It doesn't just "click" -- it produces enough force to flip the beetle up in the air.

It's a helpful trick when they end up on their backs for some reason.

Like, say, when they happen to be placed on their backs by amused humans.

If you ever happen upon a click beetle, don't be afraid to play with it: they don't sting or bite. Just don't torture the poor things too much!
Amateur videos of quick-jumping beetles are fraught with focusing difficulties, but these two give you an idea of the action:

Eyed click beetle larva hang out in decaying logs and eat other beetle larvae; when we've come across these beetles it's always been in the woods. And, for some reason, we seem to come across them at this particular time of year.

Have you ever seen a click beetle? Where was it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

LOOK FOR: Putty root

For the longest time, this leaf was a mystery to me.

Photo credit: cotinis

We see it scattered infrequently through forests around the DC metro area in the winter. Always just one leaf.

The pinstripes are pretty noticeable, right? If you know a little botany, you know that the fact that those leaf veins are parallel is significant. It places this plant in the monocot class. What's in that class? Grasses, but this clearly isn't a grass. Onions, daffodils, tulips...pretty sure it's not any of those. Orchids...could it be an orchid?

With a little research we figured out that this must be the leaf of the putty root orchid. A distinguishing characteristic of the putty root is that the leaf dies back before the flowers bloom. As with ramps, you'll see a leaf, or a flower, but almost never both at once.

And so for years we've been saying, oh look, there are the orchid leaves. How nice, that orchids grow here.

If we could just see the orchids. You know, the flower part.

Photo credit: cotinis
But it turns out that it's a lot easier to see a pinstriped dark green leaf in the middle of winter than it is to see a putty root flower in spring.

These are not the hot pink blooms you might think of when you think "orchid." They're more of a light green edged in a brownish purple...not colors that will catch your eye among the bright colors of spring wildflowers. The flower stalk can be 20 inches tall, but you could walk right by it without noticing.

And so, when I finally saw a putty root in flower, it wasn't because its flowers caught my eye. It was because I stopped to look at a bright yellow flower right next to it.

It took me several seconds to even notice the camouflaged orchid flowers. Then it took me several more seconds to realize what I was looking at.
And then, I looked in the leaves at the base of the flower stalk. And sure enough, even though the leaf was shriveled and brown, those pinstripes stood out. I had found the putty root at last.

Putty Root - closeup
Photo credit: NC Orchid

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

LOOK FOR: Migratory Warblers

In the last 2 years, we've had a bunch of migrating warblers come through our yard in mid-May. In fact, we've noted four of the same species two years in a row. I like to think they remember our little pond as a nice stopping-over point (but I'm sure it's just random).

Have you seen any of these birds lately? I'm keeping an eye out to see if this will be the third year in a row for our backyard guests.

Blackpoll Warbler male 20110414
Photo credit: Ken Schneider
Blackpoll warbler
Canada Warbler (male)
Photo credit: Jeremy Meyer
Canada warbler
Common Yellowthroat, PA
Photo credit: Kelly Colgan Azar
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Photo credit: Dan Pancamo
American Redstart
Yellow-rumped Warbler, male
Photo credit: Kelly Colgan Azar
Yellow-rumped warbler
Photo credit: Laura Gooch
Northern Waterthrush
For birdsongs, see the warbler list at the fantastic All About Birds.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

More things to look for in May

At the end of April I posted about several things we were seeing that normally appear in May. Here's the rest of my list of things we've posted on in May -- these usually are later in the month, but who knows when they'll turn up this year.

And there are still many things we haven't gotten to yet...what have you been seeing outside lately? Leave us a comment and tell us what to look out for!

Mountain Laurel blooms
Photo credit: ac4lt
Mountain Laurel -  The gnarled, shaggy trunks of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) make it a showy shrub at any time of year. But in late May or early June (mid-May this year?), they burst into flower.

Tiny Tim the Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse by RunnerJenny
Tufted titmice - These birds are in the Washington DC area year round, but (like many birds) they're nesting in May. This post was inspired by catching a pair flying back and forth repeatedly to their nest to feed their young.

Blue Flag Iris
Blue flag iris by dermoidhome
Blue flag iris - This gorgeous iris can be found in our local wetlands. It's one of the showiest flowers native to the DC region.

Oyster mushrooms by justresting
Oyster mushrooms - These are quite possibly my favorite local mushroom. They're not showy like chicken of the woods or early like morels, just a reliable, plentiful mushroom with a nice mushroomy flavor.
serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Serviceberries by dbarronoss
Serviceberries: We first learned these native, edible fruits as "Juneberries," but we're starting to think they should maybe be called "Mayberries" around here. (Does something already have that name, or is it just a place in tv land?) They should start ripening at the end of the month. They're scattered throughout the woods in the DC area, but you'll get the most fruit from trees that have been planted ornamentally...see our list of some of the best areas we've found.
Deer tick
Photo credit: XplosivBadger
And while you're out looking for all these things, don't forget to start checking for ticks. Lyme disease is rampant in our area, and a big deal if you get it. But if you find a tick within 24 hours of it attaching itself to you, chances are you won't get Lyme. So just suck it up and look for the little bloodsuckers.