Monday, August 15, 2016

Buzz ON

A few weeks ago, Kenn and I threw a party in honor of some dear friends. While prepping the area near our fire ring, I started to move a rotting log at the edge of the area - and the doggone thing started buzzing -- like, LOUD! At that point, I turned to hightail it outta there, but it wasn't long before three of the angry residents (some species of small bumblebee) caught up and delivered three notices to the back of my thigh to let me know how they felt about being disturbed.

After nursing the stings, and allowing what I hoped would be enough time for the buzzles to calm down, I returned to the scene of the crime, and here's what I found. 

If you look closely at the bottom of the stump, you can see the nest and
the little cluster 
of "alien pods," each containing a Bumblebee larva. 
I felt terrible for disturbing the nest. And, in order to at least turn this into a teachable moment, we cordoned off the area and encouraged our guests to peer inside. And now, I'm sharing this unique view with you, totally sting-free!  :-) 

A closer view reveals a glimpse into the bizarre and fascinating lives of Bumblebees. 

From the Bumblebee Conservation Trust: When she has chosen her nest, the queen will begin to collect pollen from flowers, to bring back to the nest. She forms a mound of pollen and wax (which she secretes from her body) and lays her first brood of eggs. She also collects nectar which she stores in a pot-shaped structure made of wax which is positioned in front of her mound. The queen keeps the eggs warm by sitting on her wax ‘nest’ and shivering her muscles to keep warm. 

Sipping from the nectar-pot gives her enough energy to incubate the eggs for several days until little white grub-like larvae emerge. These larvae are fed on pollen and nectar which the queen goes back-and-forth to collect from nearby flowers. Once they have eaten enough, after around two weeks, they spin a cocoon, inside which they develop into adult bees. Read more, here:

I encourage you to do your own research on the life history of Bumblebees. They're incredibly fascinating, and the process of sex determination sounds like something from an episode of Star Trek! (Google search "Haplodiploid.")

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Our big patch of zinnias continues to provide great habitat for pollinators and is attracting a sensational vareity of flying insects right now. Today's featured flyer: Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis).

From the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: 
"The Snowberry Clearwing is typical of a small group of clear-winged, day-flying sphinx moths that are good mimics of bumblebees -- except that they hover in front of blossoms instead of landing on them."

Here in the Midwest, the other two species in the genus Hemaris are Hummingbird Clearwing and Slender Clearwing.

Here's a video of this remarkable moth at our zinnias. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Bird's Nest Fungus

I can't even tell you how excited I am about our most recent‪ backyard nature discovery‬.  I've always wanted to see Bird's Nest Fungus, and we've looked for it in many different places on our travels. The last place I expected to see it for the first time was in our own backyard!

It's not hard to see how this fungus of Lilliputian proportion gets its name. And while the cups do look like tiny bird's nests, they're actually the fruiting body of the fungus. Inside, the "eggs," are the peridioles that contain the spores which are the basis of its reproduction.


I am not ashamed to admit that I sort of lost my sh*t when I discovered these. First, I ran to get Kenn, and then I made an emergency fungus discovery phone call to my best friend Tiffanie. Now listen, you know you're picking your friends right when they heed your emergency fungus discovery call and immediately jump in the car to race over!

These remarkable little bird nests in miniature are yet another powerful (and cosmically-cool!) reminder that the natural world never disappoints. Get outside. Exercise your curiosity. Feed your soul. #BackyardNatureDiscoveries

Friday, August 12, 2016

Ode to Baby Bluebirds

For many days we waited, watched, and hoped. We heard your tiny voices calling from inside the box. We listened as your voices grew stronger and noticed when your parents stopped going all the way into the box to feed you. Instead, perching only at the entrance while tiny beaks poked out of the shadowy hole to receive the offerings.

And today, you vaulted out of the little green box in the middle of our prairie and found your place in the sky. Oh, you beautiful little bluebirds. How you have graced our world.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Super Cool Cat(erpiggle)

Kimberly Writes: This spring, a friend gave me a flat of Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea). While I've grown many different plants over the years, this was a new one for me, and I was thrilled to have them, as they're hummingbird magnets!

I've tended them through a hot, dry summer, and they've rewarded me by doing their job, attracting hummingbirds like crazy. Yep, I expected the hummers, but I never thought of them as a host plant for caterpiggles. Not until THIS incredible creature appeared!

A few days ago, we were walking through our gardens with our friends Tiffanie and Delaney Hayes, and we paused to talk about our little patch of Cuphea. It was a total shock to look down and see this gorgeous caterpiggle munching away, and such a joy to share the discovery with our friends! 

A bit of searching turned up two of these big old cats. Kenn did some research and discovered that they're White-lined Sphinx moth caterpiggles. They've grown a lot the last few days, so I took a photo today with my hand in the shot for size reference.

Aren't they amazing?!?! Get outside and explore the natural world. You will never be disappointed!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Deer - and Near to My Heart

Kimberly Writes: Movement in the shadows of the old apple tree alerted us that she was there. It was a surprise to see her so close to the house, and we wondered if the hot, dry weather had driven her here, in broad daylight, to seek out the cooler temperatures and tender plants in the shade beneath the tree.

You have to look closely to see her among the lower limbs of the apple tree. 

 With so much financial and sweat equity in our native plants, we were torn with how to feel about her presence here. But it didn't take long to decide to simply embrace the beauty of the moment, and accept her grace and loveliness for the gift that it was.

I hope the bit of respite served her well, and I thank her for moving on with no damage whatsoever. The world seems like a dark and frightening place sometimes, but there is beauty in it too. And if our hearts are open, and we know where to look for it, it's easy to find. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Wanted: Dead But With Life

Kimberly Writes: In my last post I encouraged everyone to leave dead trees standing whenever it's safe to do so. Dead trees provide important habitat and add visual interest to an area - when you look at them through the right lens!  =) But what to do if you don't have any dead trees in your yard? 


When a big dead limb broke off our maple tree, Kenn helped me bring it back to life! And we didn't have to wait long for a sense of satisfaction: a Downy Woodpecker came to check it out right after we put it up! (Not a bad way to mask a satellite dish either, eh?!) 

Our dead tree given a second chance at life!
See the Downy checking out the hole at the top?!
It didn't take long for a Downy Woodpecker
to drop by for an inspection!
Helloooo in there..there...there.... 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Kimberly Writes: Masked marauders are forcing us to take all of our bird feeders in at night. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it. The most recent reward is watching our adult male Red-bellied Woodpecker teaching his kid the ropes. Male and female RBWOs often divide the parenting duties once the young have fledged, so you'll often see just one or the other with part of the brood. We're happy that one of the adults selected our yard for his kid's training grounds!

He has an affinity for oranges...

 ...and peanuts!

So, of course, the kid learned how to exploit these two offerings first. 

The kid's first attempts were awkward and comical,
but now it's feeding like a boss!

And while it's figured out the bird feeder gig, dad is still teaching it how to search for grubs and other goodies in our dead ash trees.

Dad delivers a juicy snack to the youngster, 

providing some incentive for the kid to search on his own.

I hope you're enjoying wonderful observations like these in your yard too. And please remember: always leave dead trees standing whenever it's safe to do so. The woodpeckers and many other birds will thank you!

Learn more about Red-bellied Woodpeckers on the Audubon website.…/bird/red-bellied-woodpecker

Friday, July 29, 2016

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Brandt's Cormorant

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Work in progress - Brandt's Cormorant

Kenn Writes: I've finished a first pass on some of the easy parts, and now I'm about to attempt the subtle greenish and bluish gloss that shows up on well-lit parts of the black head and neck. Oil on illustration board. Brandt's Cormorant is common along the Pacific Coast of North America, from Mexico north to British Columbia, with a few in southern Alaska.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lifecycle of a Black Swallowtail Butterfly

An album depicting the lifecycle of a Black Swallowtail - from egg to adult!

First, the egg...

Plants in the carrot family (Queen Anne's Lace, and herbs like Parsley and Dill) are the host plants for Black Swallowtails. The adult butterfly laid the egg in the photo above right in front of me! I'm struggling to describe the feeling of seeing something like this tiny pearl of life happen right before my eyes. I wish this feeling for all of you at least once in your lifetime. And I love the fact that the first thing the itty-bitty caterpiggles do is eat the egg shell! I watched this happen under a microscope once and it was remarkable!  

Speaking of caterpiggles...

Here's a tiny early instar. See that white "saddle" in the middle of this caterpiggle's back? Well, apparently, that white saddle is "due to uric acid deposits that may function as antioxidant to protect larvae from phototoxic chemicals in the diet." (Timmerman & Berenbaum 1999).
                  Below are various stages of caterpiggle development known as "instars."

This fully grown caterpiggle is preparing to pupate by
spinning a silken harness to secure itself with. 

And this is what it looks like just after pupating.
You can see the caterpiggle's shed skin wadded up
below the chrysalis. 
The chrysalis darkens as it hardens. 

Oh, and I just had to include an image of the bizarre "osmeterium." 
The osmeterium is a gland and you only see it when the caterpillar feels threatened. It also emits a very strong odor that acts as a defense mechanism to ward off predators. (I still can't decide if I think it smells good or awful!) Because just when you think these doggone things couldn't be ANY cooler ... BAM, they pop fleshy, wet looking, really smelly, orange horns out the top of their head. 
And here's the end result of all this effort and transformation: the stunning adult Black Swallowtail

It's hard to believe these things are even real, isn't it?! Nature seems more like magic than reality sometimes. I hope you're providing host plants for butterflies and moths in your garden, so you too can have the remarkable experience of watching this process happen right before your eyes! 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Bathing (Bird) Beauties: Brown Thrasher

Here in northwest Ohio we've had an extended period of hot, dry weather. The super dry conditions are creating challenges for farmers and gardeners, and we've been carrying lots of water to the dozens of native plants we planted this spring.

Hot, dry conditions are tough on wildlife too. So, we've set up six different bird baths and they've all been very busy. Raccoons, Eastern Cottontails, and loads of birds have been using them every day. I love watching birds bathe and preen, so it's a bit of a bright side to the extreme weather.

Today, a Brown Thrasher stopped by for a dip in my favorite bird bath, given to me by Maureen, an elderly woman who I cared for for many years. It's probably at least 50 years old, and although it looks like it isn't clean, I assure you that it gets scoured and cleaned at least once a day, and sometimes twice a day! (It's so very important to keep bird baths and feeders clean!) What you see is the lovely patina that it's developed over all these years of well water and hosting bathing critters. I cherish it!

Here's a video of our bathing Thrasher! Watch as he's a bit tentative at first, but shifts into full-throttle bathing mode within a few seconds. I imagine a bath feels pretty darn good!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Backyard Nature Discoveries: Midland Painted Turtle

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, Kimberly Writes: When we began the project of converting 1/2 an acre of grass into a prairie, we knew it would be a lot of hard work. But we never lost sight of the benefits, both to wildlife - and to us. We knew it would be better than mowed lawn, but this little dab of habitat has brought more joy and discovery to our lives than we could have ever dreamed of. For example. . .
On one of our evening walks through the prairie recently, Kenn reached out and gently stopped me. Pointing to a spot several feet ahead of us along the trail, he whispered,"Well, look at that!" And there, in the mowed trail through our little prairie, a female Midland Painted Turtle was gracing us with the honor of laying her eggs.

 We watched for several minutes until her work was completed...

...and we followed her from a safe distance as she made her way back towards our pond. 

It was shocking to see how far she'd traveled in order to lay her eggs in a spot she felt safe. Kenn stepped it off, and it was at least 150 feet.If you look closely in the photo below (L), you can see Kenn standing on the edge of the pond. Our little turtle started from there, came all the way down this section of the path...
...and all the way to the spot in the distance where you can see the circle of chicken wire protecting the nest. Quite a feat for a small turtle!

An fascinating fact about reproduction of many Ohio turtle species is that the sex is determined by the temperature at the time the eggs develop. Warmer temps produce females and cooler temps produce males. Within the same nest, the warmer eggs at the top can all hatch out as females, while the cooler eggs at the bottom will be males.

The incubation period is 10 - 11 weeks, so we'll keep tabs on them and hopefully we'll be able to share some images of the hatchlings as they make their way to the pond.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Reggie's Tree Topper

If you look closely, you'll notice a subtle alteration to our Christmas tree. It's up there, right at the top, see?

That old plastic tree topper might seem a bit out of place atop a homespun Christmas tree adorned in simple, handmade ornaments. But there's so much more to it than a simple tree topper. This is a finial perched atop a child's holiday memories. A lightening rod that conducted the best energies of a father who was hard on his family, its presence and its meaning protecting them from the things that were hard to understand.

Last night, I shared my mother's love of Christmas, and her insistence on having a live tree to decorate. As a kid, I had no idea how the tree got there, it just sort of magically appeared. I know now that there was always quite a row about getting the tree, getting it in the house, and positioning it just so.

My dad was hard on us, and there were times when it wasn't always so clear whether he loved us or just tolerated us. He had such wonderful character, a silly streak, and an abundance of friends. But with five kids, lean times, and more challenges than a child could begin to comprehend, he was demanding of his kids, sometimes downright harsh, and almost always repressed any kind of emotion in our company.

I often wondered what it was that made dad so unhappy. And it wasn't until I was all grown up that I could truly appreciate the challenges he faced, how hard the man worked, and his struggles to keep food in our mouths and a roof over our heads. I grew to know and understand that his love for us was a powerful force in his life, he just struggled to express it.

And so, as a child, I clung to the few things that brought out the best in him. The happy, silly, fun daddy that made me want to jump into his arms and beg him to always smile that smile that seemed to come straight from his heart. Things like the Christmas tree topper.

My mother and my brothers and sisters and I decorated the tree. Dad didn't participate in any way, until the very end. And then, he would root through the post-tree-decorating chaos until he found his tree topper, and, holding it above his head like a scepter, would proudly declare that it wasn't a Christmas tree until HIS topper was on! Mom would playfully object, "But, Reg, that thing is so old and nasty." (And it really was!) "Why don't we get a new one this year?!"

And, oh, how he would rant!

"There's not a damn thing wrong with this one!" he would exclaim, even though both of the side pieces that held the little bells had long since broken off, the wire that lit up the bulb in the middle of the angel hair center had shorted out, and in general, it looked like something he'd dug out of the trash! Once, mom even tried to buy a lovely new angel and just quietly replace Dad's topper on the tree. He hadn't been in the house but a minute before he noticed the switch, and he immediately went digging for that old, broken, decrepit --- amazing, beautiful, perfect topper.

In later years, dad mellowed so much, and he became the most loving father and grampa we could have ever hoped for. He's been gone for more than five years now, and I never miss him more than I do at Christmas time.

When he died, my oldest sister Laura took loving possession of Dad's Tree Topper, preserving that broken mess of beautiful memories, cherishing it as the treasure that it is.

Last Christmas, on a whim, my amazing sister Tina Googled "vintage Christmas Tree Toppers," and lo and behold, she discovered an eBay auction that had several of these vintage wonders for sale. She gave them to us with no warning last Christmas. And when I opened that box...well, I still can't think about it without crying.

And so, this year, the first of what I hope will be many, our tree is adorned with Reggie's Tree Topper. And if there is an after-life, I know my dad is here with me, smiling his best smile.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Prairapy Session

Kimberly Writes: I came home from the Midwest Native Plant Society's conference this weekend feeling totally inspired! Seeing so many people come together in celebration of native plants, pollinators, butterflies, singing insects - and just the wonder of the natural world in general - made my heart so happy, and filled me with such a sense of hope for the natural world. I am so grateful to Kathy McDonald, Jim McCormac, Ned Keller, Yvonne Cecil, and the entire team that organizes the wonderful Midwest Native Plant Conference. I'm thankful to have been able to attend two terrific programs by Cheryl Harner and Lisa Rainsong. (And Kenn's keynote was wonderful, too!) Thank you all for the healthy dose of inspiration and knowledge!

I decided to use my new-found inspiration as motivation to pull weeds in our prairie. Watching the transformation of half an acre of unmowed grass into a prairie has done more than restore habitat, it's restored something deep in my soul. When you're knee-deep and head down in an ocean of waving grass, your mind is clear, the sweat drips from an unfretted brow, and the best feeling in the world is when the stubborn roots of an invasive plant give way against your relentless tugging.

My back aches this morning, but the rewards were beautiful.

                                 Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
(one of my faves!)

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) shooting its stalk to the moon

And Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) loaded with pollinators!

And as I dragged one load of weed carcasses out to the edge, I came face to face with a little Viceroy caterpillar munching away on a small willow!

It was two hours of hard work wrapped in bliss, and the world seems like a better place this morning for my "prairapy" session!

Monday, June 22, 2015

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Red-legged Cormorant.

From Kenn's Drawing Table: Work in progress: Red-legged Cormorant. 

There are about 40 species of cormorants in the world. They occur on all seven continents but they're widely dispersed, usually with no more than four species at any one locality, so it would take a lot of traveling to see them all. 

By now I've seen most of them; my favorite is Red-legged Cormorant, a specialty of western South America (Peru and Chile), with a few also in southern Argentina. I had seen these birds on past trips, but when we watched them in Peru last winter, I knew I'd have to try painting them. The pattern of whitish spots on the upperparts is unique in the family, while the circle of sky-blue dots around each eye is another intriguing feature.