Archive for April, 2012

Yellow Jackets

Yellow jacket nest entrance -- Where?

Can you find the opening to a yellow jackets’ underground nest? It’s not the small hole in the middle of the picture near the stick. I obviously wouldn’t have found it either if I hadn’t been stooped there taking flower pictures. I kept on taking pictures and then had to hunt to find the tunnel opening to photograph it. I didn’t find it until the yellow jacket came back out of the nest.

Entrance to nest, with yellow jacket coming out

The arrow in the picture (left) shows the head of the yellow jacket coming out of the nest. Today’s Tuesday, April 17. This blows my mind. On Monday, April 9th, Buffy and I were hiking here at my rural property too. We were walking up the trail in woods toward the barrens, when a yellow jacket flew in, landed and went into the hole to its nest. In all the years I’ve hiked, going back over 30 years to when my kids were young, I only saw 1 yellow jacket nest. The yellow jacket flew from its nest. There I was, and it stung me right below the elbow. That was when I found out I was allergic to them.

This other picture is one I took several winters ago when I found a nest that had been dug out by either a skunk or raccoon. Bears will dig them out too, but we don’t have them here in southern Illinois.

Yellow jacket nest dug out

Yellow jackets are 1/2 to 5/8 inch long. They live in meadows and edges of forested land, where they usually nest in the ground or at ground level in stumps and fallen logs. Adults eat nectar. Larvae are fed insects pre-chewed by adults.

Yellow jackets overwinter as fertilized queens. The queens become active in the spring, when they gather nesting materials and start a small nest. After she makes a few hexagonal cells and a covering around them, she lays an egg in each cell. The eggs hatch in a week, and the queen feeds the larvae small bits of prey for 10-12 days.

The larvae then pupate in their cells for another 12 days. The adults emerge as sterile females and start working for the queen. Late in the summer, the queen lays eggs that develop into males and fertile females. These mate. The fertilized females overwinter, and the cycle begins again.

I do hope my luck goes back to not seeing yellow jackets going in or coming out of their nest.

Eagle Diary — April 26

Well …. eagle viewing proved to be a challenge this week.

Wednesday, April 25. Arrived at 9:30 a.m. and no adult eagles in or around the nest. Three turkey vultures soared over the woods west of the nest. Clouds were thickening. Temperature 68 and storms were possible later in the day. I drove past the nest to where I usually turn around. Besides wishing I had a periscope, I wished I had bionic ears. My best friend did see both adults on the nest on Sunday. So I wasn’t worried.

Thursday. We arrived aound 10 a.m. No adults again. A great blue heron flew by. The only clouds were wind-stretched jet contrails. It was windy and already 77 degrees. My first monarch butterfly of the year fluttered by. We waited patiently for a little while before we left. On the way past the nest, I stopped and used my “deer ears” (hands cupped behind my ears) to see if I could hear any eaglet noises. They only amplified the wind noise. I did hear a frog, though.

Then I thought often during the day that I’d go in the evening. Surely they would be there then, plus I could see the nest with a sunset behind it.  This time I made a quiet get-a-way and left Buffy with my husband. Imagine my surprise and frustration when I pulled up at 6:30 and still no adults! I parked in my usual spot and sat there watching and listening to birds, and journaling. And I waited… and waited.

Obviously, I don’t think like an eagle, because I expected at least one would be at the nest in the evening. I took the sunset picture and left for home. Think I’ll wait until next Wednesday and try again … of course I am curious and a tad concerned.

Eagle nest, nearing sunset

Red-eared Slider

I obviously was at the right place at the right time when I left for town this morning. My driveway was blocked by this turtle. This happens every spring, when snapping turtles and sliders cross the highway from our yard. There’s a strip pit behind our house, and ponds scattered around to the east too.  I don’t know if they’re looking for new body of water, or just what.  I don’t know how many do make it across, because we usually see the ones that don’t.

As you can tell from the picture, the turtle was on the white line edging the highway. It’s head would come out. A vehicle would go by, and the head quickly went in. I took a few pictures, waited for traffic to clear, and then carried it into the tall plants across the road. The brown on the shell was dried mud.

This is a red-eared slider, also called pond slider. Normally they’re shell is olive-brown with numerous black and yellow lines. Their exposed skin is usually dark green with black and yellow lines, and a wide red stripe runs back from their eyes.

Melanistic red-eared turtle

Obviously, this turtle lacks the colors and markings. Older male red-ears sometimes have excess black pigment which obscures most or all of the patterns. This is called “melanism.” Adults grow to 8 inches long. This one seemed longer than that. The length of its claws impressed me!

I’m glad this one was a slider. I don’t know how brave I’d be moving a snapping turtle.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue gray gnatcatcher feeding on tent caterpillars

Definition of naturalist: a person who specializes in natural history, especially in the study of plants and animals in their natural surroundings.

I learned something new about blue-gray gnatcatchers on our hike this morning at my rural property. Blue-gray gnatcatchers are small energetic birds — 4 1/2 inches long (tip beak to tip of tail). They’re blue-gray above, whitish below and have a white eye ring. Their tail is long and narrow, black with white on the sides, and whitish underneath. They cock their tail upward like a wren does. Their diet consists of insects and spiders.

Buffy and I were walking along the road when I heard a gnatcatcher close by, high in the trees. The first thing I saw when I looked up was a tent caterpillar web … and the gnatcatcher came to it for the caterpillars. It “buzzed” around, back and forth and it left as quickly as it came. I’ve watched them for years eating insects. This was the first time I witnessed one eating caterpillars.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers feed near tips of branches, constantly moving through the foliage. They continuously move their tail, which may flush insects. Their call’s a squeaky wheezy series of notes. The first one I heard this spring returned to our area the end of March, and they will stay until the middle of September. Their range covers from northern California, to southern great lakes region, to New Hampshire and southward. They winter along from southern California, across Gulf coast, to the Carolinas and southward.

Twayblade Orchid

Finding twayblade orchid in all the green can be challenging

Can you imagine finding this 5-inch tall plant in all the green growth of spring? I had trouble finding it, and I had its location marked. They aren’t one of those things you’d spot from a distance. This one is called twayblade orchid (Liparis lilifolia). Eight of its flowers were open, with a lot more still budded.

Orchids are monocots — plants with leaves with parallel veins, and flowers with 3 petals and 3 sepals. Orchid flowers have bilateral symmetry, which means the left and right side are mirror images of each other. They have one petal that differs from the other 2 in size, color or shape. The lowest petal is called the “lip.”

Close-up of flower to better show structure.

In the twayblade orchid the other 2 petals are the thin pink “filaments” hanging downward. Only one shows in this picture. The stalk of the flower is pink too. The 2 whitish “supports” for the lip and the one angled upward are the sepals that orginally enclosed the flower. The lip was 1/2 inch long.

Orchids usually don’t have a separate pistil and stamens. The column contains the reproductive parts: the anther, with its pollen, is the male part and the stigma, the female part.

Twayblades are a perennial that grow in woodlands and wet meadows. Liparis  means “fat or shiny,” referring to the succulent leaves. They grow from a corm, which forms off shoots that develop into new plants. If you look to both sides of the base of the plant in the top picture, you’ll see 2 young plants. Also in the picture is the seed stalk from last year’s plant. It has one capsule near the top.

Even common orchids are anything but common. One of the more conspicuous ones at my place is nodding ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua). They bloom in the fall. Most years I find 5-10 at the most. One year way back when 123 bloomed! And there’s never been a year anywhere near that number since.

Eleven orchid species have been found on my place: 5 species of ladies tresses (one is state endangered),  fall and spring coralroots, green fringed orchid (which grows in the grass and is hard to spot), twayblade, cranefly and puttyroot orhids. The latter 2 have a single leaf that overwinters and wilts before the plant blooms. One of the ladies tresses that blooms earlier is a challenge to find. I know where to look, and still have problems finding its single spiral of 4-6 mm flowers.

I haven’t seen some of these species in years and aren’t sure if their populations still exist. They can go dormant for years. If conditions aren’t right, they won’t come up. I read somewhere a long time ago that showy orchis can go dormant for 40 years. That isn’t fair!

They’re always an exciting find.

P.S.  I rest my case. Twayblade orchids are difficult to spot.

I made a loop on my hike yesterday afternoon to check the blooming status of the orchid above. Then to my surprise, I found another 2 plants and one of them was blooming. Two flowers were open, and it had 8 buds. The plant was only 2 1/2 inches tall. I can’t believe I didn’t  step all over these when I was here the last time. They were only 2 feet from the orchid in the above pictures. Not to mention I spent most of my time photographing from the side where this little orchid was.

Buffy, My Hiking Partner

Meet Buffy, my hiking partner. She’s a 7-year-old, 95 pound chocolate lab. I do what I do when we hike. She explores, follows scents and plays in the creek if there’s water. Occasionally she stops and stays where she is until she sees me. She never wanders far. She’ll also sit patiently nearby while I’m taking pictures. She minds well, is SO smart, is personable and overly friendly — and I’m not one bit prejudice. Buffy does have an alpha personalty, which she seldom shows unless it’s necessary.

One of my favorite times we had together was during a camping trip here at my rural property. I left the rain flap off the tent so we had a broad view of our surroundings and of the sky. It was the middle of the night. Barred owls (one of my absolute favorite birds) started hooting in the trees around camp to the south. The whole family carried on their hooting conversation. The male had a deeper voice than the female. The 2 or 3 young ones lacked volume and proper rhythm. We just sat side by side, listening to the hooting. The owls flew without us seeing any of them.

Another time we sat at the base of the bluff at Stone Face, eating a snack. It was late fall last year. She sat quietly beside me, and we watched a big buck slowly walk across the hill below us. I kept whispering, “stay” and she did. The buck never knew we were there.

I included these next 2 pictures of the road bordering my property, which is 1 mile from the highway. My place is on the left side in both pictures. The first one shows the road leading to my pull-in at the top of the hill. The second one was taken from the pull-in, looking south. There’s a TALL hill on past that dip that doesn’t show in the picture. The road dead-ends 1/2 mile from camp. The road lost its rugged character about 10 years ago when the state put in an ATV site at the end of the road, and did extensive work on it. I can now see more vehicles in one day than I used to in a whole year, not to mention having to listen to the unnatural buzzing chain-saw-like ATV sounds.

I usually limit my hikes here now to during the week for more peace and quiet.

Road to my property on left at top of the hill

Road on south of camp

How Will My Gutter Grow?

How will my gutter grow?

It was hard to miss the wings of maple seeds standing upright in the mesh gutter guard.

Winged maple seed designed to heliocopter down

Maple seeds helicopter down from the tree in our front yard, and are scattered in the gutters of my house. The actual seed adds weight, and this is a design element so the seed will stand upright when it lands in something like grass. Standing upright increases the chance of it growing successfully. The seeds in the pictures wouldn’t reach the bottom of the gutter and have no chance of growing.

It keeps me chuckling at how the gutters would look if the seeds did sprout, and the front and back of my house was “fringed” with green baby trees.

This reminded me of a 1980 blazer I had with standard transmission and 4-wheel drive. I drove it for over 20 years. (I did drive a car during the blazer’s later years.) Without  it and the 4-wheel drive I wouldn’t have gotten to my rural property in deep snow or overly wet weather. The blazer developed a lot of character over the years. It developed better ventilation from small rusted-through areas in the floor. Water seeped in around the backseat sliding windows.

Imagine my surprise when a plant started growing in the floor board of the backseat. It grew to 4 inches tall and then died from lack of water. It died before it grew enough for me to identify it. My husband didn’t see the humor in the situation. Me, I was very proud!!

I still miss that old blazer. We went “through” a lot over the years!



The theme for our hike at my rural property seemed to be “green.” Buffy and I walked into the ravine. The trees were mostly leafed out. The west slope of the ravine, where it was burned was greening with new growth. The shrub layer of spicebush was all leafed out. Very few of the early spring wildflowers still bloomed. The sky was clear, producing a ravine canopy of mixed sunlit yellow-greens, deeper shaded greens and all patch-worked with the sky’s blue. The wind gave it all movement.

One Virginia bluebell had 3 flowers and 2 pink buds. Christmas fern fronds stood to mid-thigh. The creek was actually dry. We’re almost 4 inches behind in rainfall for the year. Water runs off at this higher elevation, and the creek doesn’t have water as long as lower-elevation ones do. The birds were quiet except for a Northern parula warbler’s buzzy call, that rose in pitch and came to an abrupt stop. The only other noise (besides our walking) was the wind.

Jack-in-the-pulpits were more numerous than usual.  A patch of them covered approximately  10×6 feet. I counted 68 plants, and most were “babies” about 3″ tall. The blooming ones were 12 or more inches tall. Only 8 were blooming. I pulled back the hood, called the spathe, on one plant. Jack, the preacher, stood in the middle with tiny dark flowers at the base. The column is called the spadix.

Tiny dark flowers at base of the spadix

Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema Triphyllum)  averages 18 inches tall; some can reach 2 1/2 feet. The plants have either 1 or 2 leaves, and each is divided into 3 leaflets. They grow from a corm. The plants bloom April into May and die back in the fall, leaving a stalk with a cluster of bright red berries. The striped spathe can also be maroon and green.

I researched online and found some really amazing facts about Jack-in-the-pulpit: The spadix produces an odor of mushrooms to attract tiny insects, known as “fungus gnats.” They fly in to lay their eggs, then become confused because the hood blocks the light. The lower part of the spathe is lighter. The gnats go lower and either pick up or drop off pollen, according to the sex of the flower. The way the spathe wraps around the male flowers leaves a small opening at the base where the gnats can get out. Ones that fly into female flowers aren’t able to get out.

Young plants are only able to produce enough energy to form leaves the next year. After several more years of growing the plants have male flowers. As they grow bigger over several more years, they then produce a spadix with male and female flowers. It then takes many more years of accumulating energy for the plant to produce a spadix with only female flowers. Apparently undisturbed populations can have plants to 100 years old.

In the fall, as the flower and leaf buds form, older plants can decide whether to be male or female. If there had been a dry year, the plant might decide to be male. That way it would only produce pollen, where a female plant would need enough energy to produce pollen and seeds.

I had no idea this was possible for some plants! (And I’ve giggled over the conversation a plant might have with itself on what sex to be next year.)

Eagle Diary — April 11

Eagle feeding young on April 11

Wednesday, April 11. Time 9am. Temperature 45, and a west wind blew. The tree was completely leafed out.

An adult stood just inside the nest, obviously tending to young. The other adult wasn’t anywhere around. I opened the door to take  pictures of the nest and heard another eagle repeat its “kleek” calls. I didn’t pay any attention to the direction the calls came from or look for the other eagle.

I took several pictures and then eased the truck up a little closer. She was definitely feeding young.   She’d bring her head up. Her beak would open and close quickly, and then she’d lean down again. I wondered what the prey was that she had in the nest to feed them. This continued for a few minutes.

I drove on past the nest and turned around. An eagle flew to the east, toward a large body of water, and maybe on from there. I lost sight of it. Then when I passed the nest, the adult was gone (probably the one I just watched flying east).  Another large bird flew to the north. No matter how hard I tried to turn the large bird into an eagle, it was still a great blue heron. The blue-gray on top of its wings was obvious with the sunlight hitting it.

Either the adult was hunkered down in the nest when I passed (which I doubted) or was out hunting for food. This must mean the young were old enough to keep themselves warm. I couldn’t imagine the adult going far for food or leaving the eaglets unprotected for very long. Of course the eaglets were probably hunkered together. The sunlight warming them. The nest would also be adequately lined for warmth.

As I left I wondered if there were 1, 2 or 3 eaglets in the nest. It would still be nice to have a periscope to see down into the nest. Patience was never one of my better virtues.

Silver Maple Winged Seeds

Silver maple leaves

Winged maple seeds

I can sure tell which direction the winds have blown from lately by the maple seeds scattered to the north all the way to our neighbor’s fence — 108 feet away — hundreds and hundreds of seeds. They even made it to our front porch with a tall box elder and arborvitae in between.

Silver maples grow tall and need their seeds to travel far from the tree, so the young trees won’t be shaded by the parent. In other words, the seeds have to stay airborne long enough to travel a significant distance. The seeds “helicopter” down because of the combination of the weight of the seed, the veins on the wing, and the shape of the wing. I found detailed information on how the seeds travel from the website: I’m a strong visual person, and the information was a tad over my head.

Winged maple seed

Maple seed

Another website said the seeds are edible and told how to prepare them. I had never thought about them being edible. The seeds should be gathered when the wings are still green. Some taste better than others. A suggestion to go by: small and sweet, big and bitter. Remove from the outer skin. They can be eaten raw, cooked or dried. Taste a few. If they’re bitter, boil them in water to remove the tannins, dump out the water and repeat until no longer bitter. Season with butter, salt and pepper. They can also be roasted on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and bake @350 for 8-10 minutes. Another option is drying them in a food dehydrator until crunchy, or placing them outside it a dry sunny spot. The dried seeds can also be ground into flour.

They sound like they might be good in salads or eaten like nuts. I think I’ll give them a try next spring.