Thursday, August 25, 2016

Invisible Mantis, Not Quite a Walking Stick

The barely perceptible twitch of a limb in the stillness of the dead calm noon 
brings the invisible stalker into the realm of the seen. 

For months, the mantis has been growing steadily, 
nourished on a strictly carnivorous diet of its arthropod kin, 
violently snatched by this stealthy stalker of shadows and sun,  
 slender stick-like frame cleverly cloaked 
in the glorious green of the Carolina summer.

This voracious ambush predator is similar to the native 
Carolina Mantis, Stagmomantis carolina, 
from its "neck" up, 

including the perpetual "praying" posture of its raptorial forelimbs, 
replete with a wicked and inescapable array of spikes, 
ever poised to engage in swift and deadly embrace.

But from there down, its spindly frame is quite different.

Its nubby vestigial wings long ago gave up flight 
in favor of stealthy creeping and a wickedly swift strike,
and its overall appearance is much more suggestive 
of the ingenious physical disguise of the Phasmids, or walking stick insects, 
than either the native Carolina mantis or any of our non-native mantises.

This brown-eyed beauty is the Walking Stick Mantis or Northern Grass Mantis, Brunneria borealis,
a Carolina native that combines all the stealth and ferocity of the mantis 
with the cleverly elongated form of a walking stick. 

Although hanging out in the shrubby undergrowth today, 
the elongated body of this slender green ghost 
enables it to virtually disappear in the tall grasses it generally haunts. 

This individual, like all the others you are likely to encounter from this species, is a female. 
Brunneria borealis reproduces through the fascinating process of parthenogenesis, 
which does not require the participation of a male. 
Given the female praying mantises' reputation for sexual cannibalism, 
whether deserved or not,
perhaps Brunner's Mantis has simply taken that practice to its logical extreme, 
dispensing with the male of the species altogether. 

Special thanks to Cousin Daniel for bringing this remarkable Carolina native to our attention. 
We're mighty glad to have made her acquaintance,
though there's nary an insect alive 
that's likely to share that sentiment...

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Lilies and the Orchids

There's something about
the lilies and the orchids,
juxtaposed so jaunty and orange
against the commonest kind of roadside rabble...

Why do we seek them so zealously on an August afternoon,
leaving supper not yet cooked and lawn un-mowed
lest the sun should set on our yearning?

It's not as though they're hiding;
they appear each year,
regular as clockwork,

where the soil, just so, 
and sunlight, just right,

make their annual appearance 
something of a foregone conclusion.

The particulars,
they vary,

depending upon the time and date of our arrival.

Perhaps others will be in attendance, 
or predators,
or any number of folks.

Perhaps they come to see 

the lilies and the orchids.

Or, perhaps,
like we,
they're just part of the common roadside rabble...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Green Swamp, Revisited

Nearly a year after Hunter and I made our first trip to the Green Swamp Nature Preserve in Brunswick County with a band of intrepid explorers from the Sandhills Natural History Society, 
we make a return visit with Julie and Jay.

Thankfully, nothing has changed. 

Nature, undisturbed, is timeless. 

But for seasonal transitions,
a century's passing might seem merely a day, 
beneath the lonely longleaf pines of the Green Swamp savanna.

Of course, time does not actually stand still,
even in such timeless places as these. 

The subtle shades and superficially similar forms 
of Meadow Beauty (Rhexia sp.) and St. John's Wort (Hypericum sp.) 
and the amazing Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata), may dot the longleaf pine savanna alongside the Grassleaf Barbara's Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia)
just as they did twelve moons ago,
but it's now been years, not months, since the last fire roared through.

The wire grass is thicker and taller,
and scraggly shrubs are beginning to appear again in the understory.

Without regular burning, wild or prescribed, the pace of change accelerates rapidly in the dappled shade of the majestic longleaf stand.

The exquisite little sun-loving orchids, with their fringes, and their crests and their spurs,
facing outward like a pack of ferocious little fire-breathing dragons
defending their turf from a marauding army,
will soon vanish in the shade of broad-leaved shrubs and other dense foliage
if periodic fires don't keep them at bay.

And the clever little yellow-orange orchid spider might very well go with them...

For now, at least, 
the Green Swamp visitor can count on seeing the orchids

and the impressive stands of carnivorous Yellow Trumpets, 

who call the swamp home,
along with the ubiquitous Green Lynx spider, 
a frighteningly efficient predator.

Yes, you can count on seeing these magnificent creatures,
because the Nature Conservancy and their partners in the region have collaborated to develop and implement an ongoing regime of controlled burns in this ancient woodland,

where fire-tolerant trees and ferns and flowering plants with their outrageous blossoms

offer the curious visitor a glimpse into our prehistoric past.

Palamedes Swallowtail drifted on the gentle forest breezes here 
long before humans set foot on the continent, 

and it quietly quaffs the thistle dew as we make our way along the woodland path, 

or unconcerned
or both, 
intent upon exploiting an old reliable energy source for the day ahead...
ensuring that Papilio palamedes will still be around for next year's visitors to admire.

Many other colorful and ancient clans are represented here in the heart of the savanna,
including orange milkwort, Polygala lutea,

and Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula,
a carnivorous plant known and celebrated around the world,

but naturally occurring only here,
in the coastal plain of the Carolinas.

Red milkweed resides here too, in the sunniest spots,

and the adult wheelbug, 
among the most ferocious of arthropod predators,

patiently awaits the landing of careless pollinators.

The sun has begun her steady descent toward the horizon, and the pines cast their long shadows beyond the glorious Marshallia blossoms,

when at last we take our leave.

Yellow fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris, a bit larger than P. cristata,
guides us homeward along the trail like a glowing beacon,
aided by the pure white light of the false asphodel...

Another exhilirating trip back in time draws to a close as we near the edge of the pines,

and old friend Sabatia sp.,
one of the white pinks,
bids us farewell from the dense stand of ferns guarding the exit...

As we mount the ditchbank to our waiting transportation, 

one last surprise awaits -
Savanna bluehearts, Buchnera floridana,
a bit past prime blooming time perhaps,
but a delight to meet, nonetheless;

and perfectly camouflaged green lynx winks an eight-eyed farewell 
from its still sun-drenched perch near a delicate purple blossom.

Farewell, green lynx.

And fare thee well, Green Swamp...

'til we meet again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Milkwort - More Wild Carolina Flowers

Rambling the back roads near Swansboro with Cousin Daniel, we encounter a number of cool natives of the Coastal Plain, 
including several from genus Polygala
a.k.a. Milkworts.

So called because they were once believed to enhance milk production in livestock, the native North Carolina milkworts have earned our appreciation not for their legendary effects on cows, 
but for their intricate and eye-catching blossoms.

First up is Polygala cruciata, or Drumheads. 

From a distance, their attractive pinkish-purple flowerheads
resemble a single bulbous blossom,  
but upon closer inspection,
the flowerhead looks like something from an undersea reef or another world entirely...
a colony of tiny purple and yellow tentacled hydras sporting showy pink collars! 

This up-close encounter leaves us wondering once again at the astonishing biodiversity in our little corner of the universe;
or, in this case, right here beside the road.

Pick any spot of ground, no matter how poor the soil;
say, perhaps, a roadside ditch in Onslow County.

Add sunlight and rain, 

and marvel at the miracle that is life...

Orange Milkwort, Polygala lutea.

The flowerhead of tiny bright orange blossoms,
arranged so that their outstretched "wings" suggest flickering flames,
have earned Orange Milkwort the nickname "red hot poker",
a wild flower even more spectacular in our estimation than its cousin, P. cruciata .

Long ago, when this roadway was originally graded,
ditches cut perfectly parallel on either side,
this was a barren landscape of lifeless sandy soil, 
baking under the harsh rays of the sun.

But beneath the desolate surface, there lay a seed (or two, or three)...

And while today's busy beach-goers might glance at the weedy roadside and perceive that little has changed in the seventy-five years since this seldom-travelled byway was first carved from
the now scattered and flattened dunes, 
a closer look reveals a landscape alive, 
teeming with various and wonderful lifeforms,
perfectly suited to the conditions found right here, 
a few short miles from where the land we call North Carolina
gives way to the vast Atlantic.

There are other remarkable creatures abiding on the lonesome roadside,
but today, we're focused on the diminutive milkworts,
well worthy, we believe,
of the time it takes for a little closer look.

Polygala ramosa, low pinebarren milkwort, or yellow savannah milkwort, 
is right there to greet us with a thousand tiny golden wands!

And she's a favorite today with the pollinators,
as she and little lobelia soak up the rays on the sandy ditch bank.

Eventually, we part ways, happy to have made the acquaintance of these three Coastal Plain Milkworts.  And, as luck would have it, we aren't quite done with Polygala yet; 

a hundred miles to the west, and no more than a mile from home, 
on the shoulder of Highway 42 in Lee County, 

we meet more Milkworts beside the way,
these little pink and lavender lovelies, 
Polygala curtissii,
Curtiss' Milkwort or Appalachian Milkwort.

As we kneel quietly by the wayside,
already perspiring outside the air-conditioned comfort of the car, 
tender knees irritated by the coarse sand and eyes nervously straying to the nearby fire ant mound,

we wonder,

why do we love these wild flowers so? 

Why, indeed...