Monday, September 30, 2013

Solidago, Spider and the Bumblebee

Genus Solidago, encompassing a dozen or so closely related species of showy yellow wildflowers brightening the Sandhills byways this fall, is an herbaceous perennial which puts forth new growth each spring from its rhizomatous roots. From a Latin term meaning "to make whole," Solidago has long been reputed to have healing properties.
As the autumn sun tracks further south each day, the hundreds of tiny composite "sunflowers" adorning the stems of these ubiquitous herbs seem to grow more radiant, determined to fulfill the promise of their common name, goldenrod.

Hoot Owl Karma set out Saturday to photograph and identify as many goldenrod species as possible. The morning began auspiciously, dawning bright and clear, but we were soon distracted from nomenclature by the sight of this desiccated flying insect.

Drained of all its vital fluids. Dangling derelict beneath a bough of bright yellow blossoms.
 Definitely no accident.

Poised motionless on a gilded branch nearby, four forelegs fully cocked, ready to seize the next careless nectar-seeker that settles for an instant on the tip of this particular golden wand;
 a flower spider. 

One of the infamous crab spiders. Ambush predators.
Bane of bees and wasps and every late-season nectar lover that happens to fly or crawl or hop within reach of that still, silent embrace.

No worrisome webs, no tacky entanglements, just a single steel-strong strand. 
Safety harness.
Guarding against an unexpected gust or a tussle with a tenacious life-loving arthropod. 

Warm sun.
Blue sky. 
Spring-loaded spider.

Quarter moon wanes. 
Blue, blue sky. 
Death in the guise of gold.

Goldenrod and vine, weeds entwined. 

Giant goldenrod pierces the blue. 

Bumblebee imbibes with Bacchanalian delight.
Spider watches, biding its time.

Gilded jungle teems with life.

Towering giants and diminutive sprouts.
Fenced in, fenced out?
Wherever goldenrod blooms, thirsty flying stinger zooms...

Gangly stalks with golden crowns, autumn's radiant heralds hold their ground. 

Five abreast and a well-matched pair; bold, bright sentries tall and fair. 

Hover fly and bumblebee.
Intrepid descendants from the clear blue skies.
Pause, replenish.
Life is short.


Tiny golden goblin, streaked with black. 

Invisible; equal parts sunshine and shadow. 

A single, lily-white pearl of guano. Cycles of life.

The Spider and the Bumblebee.
Annuals all, the field guides say...
Lifetimes measured in weeks or months, not years.
Of what consequence, then, their fate today?

When autumn's gone the way of the quarter moon, and winter owns the land,
Of what import, the cold grey stalks of goldenrod or spidery traces on the sand?
There is no drama in these scenes. No heroes. No survivors.
If the bee should fly to live another day
Cold December yet will have its way.
And if the spider again prevail,
one harsh night of frost will end the tale.

Annuals all, the field guides say...

Of what consequence, then, their fate today?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tongue Twister - Cottonmouth Caught on Tape!

After a Saturday largely filled with cross country meets, English projects and AP US History, by late afternoon the boys were ready for a break. After a brief family confab, we headed out for Weymouth Woods  Sandhills Nature Preserve for a quick dose of nature and the great outdoors. 

The sun was already flirting with the sandy ridges and the mature old long-leaf pines had cast their long shadows deep among the loblollies standing in the bottom before we left the trailhead. Julie and Hunter moved on ahead while Jay and I lagged behind with our cameras. By the time we reached the low wooden footbridge which carries the Lighter Stump Trail across one of the tiny tributaries of James Creek, the sun was completely hidden. And one of the park's night-loving predators was on the move...

Agkistrodon piscivorus, a.k.a. Eastern Cottonmouth, one of North Carolina's five venomous members of family Viperidae, hunting here in Moore County along the extreme western border of its range in North Carolina.

A handsome young individual with distinct and beautiful markings somewhat suggestive of the "hourglass" banding of its close cousin the copperhead, the snake watched us silently for a moment before gliding smoothly across the surface to seek cover in the moss-covered roots of the black gum tree across the way.

And, as its body began to move, so too did its tongue. Tentatively at first, then frantically, almost too fast to see. Perhaps our scent intrigued it, or perhaps prey was near, but it repeatedly flicked its highly-sensitive, deeply forked tongue, sharing up-to-the-second olfactory data with the "Jacobson's Organ" located in the roof of its mouth, which made sense of whatever scent(s) had so aroused its tongue.

Fortunately for us, and our loyal Hoot Owl viewers, Jay was quick-witted enough to video a few seconds of the scene with his iPhone, so that you can witness our reptilian tongue-twister in action. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wildflower Pageant - Purple Gerardia and Friends

Autumn arrived Sunday in the heart of Carolina, and Hoot Owl Karma celebrated with a little ramble along the rural byways of Lee County, greeted at every turn by a veritable pageant of wildflowers.

The glowing golden faces of the tickseed sunflowers greeted us from a dozen dozen sunny ditches, but on this first day of fall, their purplish-pink companions were not to be outshone. 

Known variously as Purple False Foxglove, Purple Gerardia, Agalinis Purpurea or simply Gerardia, on this day it was present in all its guises, glad for a little friendly competition with the neighbors,

Partridge Pea and Goldenrod.

Gerardia in all its glory...

Great Blue Lobelia (with a quick shout out to Lobelia, NC!)...

Purple False Foxglove, again... and an autumn eagle with a bird's eye view.

Gerardia, again. We've encountered it in Septembers past, but never so brilliantly alight or in such abundance. We traveled some ten miles of country road today, and seemingly never lost sight of the next clump of bright pinkish-purple blossoms.

Coneflower strikes a half dozen poses,

as a little red clay rambler races slowly by.

Everywhere purple, everywhere gold, nowhere neglected.

Everywhere gold, everywhere purple, pick your spot.

Our old friend Bidens aristosa, sensing defeat, nonetheless puts on brave faces in this glorious pageant of color.

Tiny long-legged fly, shiny metallic toy-like fly, votes with its feet. 
Gerardia, you rock!

At autumn's dawn, golden yellow Partridge Pea entwines pal Purpurea in a congratulatory embrace.

Pretty cool.

Eye of Newt and Red Spots, Too!

There's something magical about the red spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens. Stare for a while at those hypnotic red dots, boldly outlined in black, and your mind may begin to wander...

Macbeth's three pals, the witchy gals, conjured forth spirits with a "hell-broth" which included "eye of newt" and "toe of frog" among its many mysteries. There is some dispute as to whether the incantation from Act IV, Scene 1 of the Bard's classic ghost story referred to the eye of an actual newt, or perhaps referred to some potent herb instead. Some sources suggest that the sorcerers' "eye of newt" was actually mustard seed, referencing the relatively small eyes of the newt.

In either case, the figurative or literal Old World newt called upon by Shakespeare's trio of hags would have been a close cousin to our red-spotted newt, one of only a handful of North American species of Family Salamandridae. While the adult is completely aquatic, the immature salamander may spend up to 3 years in a terrestrial phase known as a red eft. It is this land-loving form we encountered over the weekend.

Innocuous as it may appear, the red eft is a voracious predator, reputedly capable of consuming thousands of springtails and mites in a single sitting, as it sidles among the decaying leaves on the forest floor. This individual had ventured forth from the forest edge with Saturday night's rains, and meandered across a silty-bottomed gully on its way to a neighboring shady grove.

It cast a long shadow as it ambled along in the setting sun, apparently unconcerned for its safety in spite of the temporary lack of cover. Its bright reddish-orange coloration shouts a warning to potential predators, "Danger! Stop! Do NOT eat!" And, in fact, the adult red-spotted newt and the immature eft both produce toxins which are harmful to most predators.

If you'd like to see one of these handsome creatures firsthand, the watchful wanderer might cross paths with a red eft throughout the year and all across the state if conditions are right. We've met them on rocky ledges in the mountains, and crossing rural highways in the Sandhills after both spring and fall rains.
As for the would-be wiccan looking to finish off a cauldron of brew, we'd suggest you try your local garden center, where you can pick up an entire packet of "newt eyes" (mustard seeds) for a mere $1.79.

From Macbeth
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.

 "...Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
    Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble..."


Friday, September 20, 2013

Award-Winning Photos by Jay and Hunter

Jay and Hunter each submitted a photo for consideration in the Flowers and Plants category at the Lee County Regional Fair. Jay's "Waterlily" was awarded first place (blue ribbon) in the Youth (Grades 9-12) Division.

Hunter was awarded second place (red ribbon) in the same Youth Division for his
 "Coneflower with Bees".  

 For the second consecutive year, Jay's Flower/Plant entry was also selected as Best In Show for Photography. 

Way to go, guys!

Sunny Day Remembered

All day on the lake, we shared the breeze and the stillness, glittering ripples and brilliant calm; and when at last we parted, she whispered,

"Don't forget!"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

September Sunflowers - Helianthus spp.

September is the month for myriad golden yellow asters, crowned by one or many of those confounding composite flowerheads.
Dozens or even hundreds of tiny tubular disk flowers cluster in the center, surrounded on the periphery by cleverly aligned ray flowers, each bearing a singular "petal", uniting to create the illusion of a much larger single sunflower or daisy blossom, the classic "flower" of a million childhood coloring books.  

This native narrow-leaved or swamp sunflower growing alongside Plank Road in Lee County bears a strong resemblance to the western species of sunflower first cultivated by native Americans some 5000 years ago. 

In one of our earliest examples of horticulture, these domesticated sunflowers made their way to Western Europe on the ships of Spanish explorers where they were further refined and eventually perfected by Russian horticulturalists into the single-headed "Russian Giant" which ultimately returned to its American roots in the 19th Century as a highly popular garden plant and profitable agricultural crop.  

As the stifling heat dissipates across the Carolinas with the approach of autumn, even the casual observer can't miss the many sunny-hued asters at the height of their later late-summer splendor. Some, like the pale-petaled "giant" woodland sunflowers pictured above and below, are true sunflowers, one of about 50 species of Helianthus native to the Americas.

Though the flowerheads are not particularly large, "giant" refers to the remarkable height attained by the mature plants in late summer. Some of the individuals pictured below are well over ten feet in height, with the specimen in the left rear of the picture topping twelve feet.

The "petal-bearing" ray flowers are sterile, but the mass of disk flowers at the center of the flowerhead will produce the abundant crop of the seeds for which the sunflower is famous.

The blossoms offer nourishment to an array of pollinators, including bumblebees and painted lady butterflies, while the seeds are a favorite of avian wildlife, particularly goldfinches.

Some of our native sunflowers bear a strong resemblance to the ever-popular cultivated varieties;

but with over 20,000 known species in the Aster family (Asteraceae), all sharing the sunflowers' composite flower structure, it can be a bit difficult to distinguish the true sunflowers from the golden asters, coneflowers, coreopsis, black-eyed susans and tickseed sunflowers which quite often share the same habitat along roadside and wood margins. 

If you, like us, are determined to get to know our native sunflowers, however, a rural roadside in September is a great place to start...

and you're sure to be greeted by a golden horde, gazes fixed in the east, just as eager to make your acquaintance.

After all, in the words of Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra"

..."we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside..."