Ten Little Celebrations – September 2019

September was a transition month…the end of the Wings of Fancy exhibit and the gearing up for the Howard County Conservancy’s fall field trips for county schools. That overall theme carried over to almost all the little celebrations I’m featuring in this month’s post.

Beginning yoga. I was surprised that I could do some of the poses with relative ease….and others with a little practice. It’s surprising how quickly the benefits begin to be noticeable.

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Question Mark Butterfly. I was thrilled to notice the butterfly in the mulch at Brookside Gardens when its wings were open. I would have never seen it had its wings been closed. I celebrated a second time after I got home and figured out what kind of butterfly it was.

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Mount Vernon. What a place for a volunteer appreciation day…and the weather was perfect! I celebrated the place and the people I was meeting all day long.

Longwood Gardens. The place is always special – because of what we see there during our visit and the memories of other visits.

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Toad near the stream. There are always those serendipity events that make an ordinary hike extraordinary.  During one of our training sessions at Belmont we hiked to the small stream….and were finding mushrooms and moss and macroinvertebrates….and then a small toad jumped into our midst! Being naturalists…we all celebrated.

Large monarch caterpillar. My milkweed didn’t have many caterpillars this year…but one morning when I looked there was a large one (obviously had been there eating). I celebrated that he was probably big enough to make a chrysalis.

Casemaker caddisfly. We’ve had almost no rain for the past month or so and the stream was low…but we found several casemaker caddisfly larvae! They looked like a small clump of debris at first….and then they moved. It’s good to see living things in the water even when there is not much water around.

Carrot cake. I was celebrating something but the carrot cake itself overwhelmed whatever I was celebrating. Yummy!

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Wings of Fancy. The next to the last volunteer shift in the Wings of Fancy exhibit was a light day for visitors and I celebrated some quiet time with the butterflies.

Day at Little Patuxent River. High schoolers in the river….interested and focused. The water was low but they found some macroinvertebrates and they were so organized in the chemical tests of water quality (my station for this field trip) that we finished everything with a little time to spare. Celebrating high schoolers!

Monarch Caterpillars

This has been a disappointing year for Monarch butterflies in our neighborhood. I haven’t seen many butterflies and only two caterpillars…and it’s relatively late in the season. I first saw a medium sized caterpillar on the milkweed in my front flower bed (the milkweed came back after I pulled it earlier in the season). I took pictures of it two days in a row…eating away. On the third day I couldn’t find it. I hope it will reappear at some point although I am wondering if something is killing or eating Monarch caterpillars.

I found a bigger caterpillar on a milkweed plant behind the bushes (maybe the location of the plant is protective). The caterpillar was actively eating and is big enough that it will make a chrysalis soon.

The milkweed plants look OK but not as good as I remember them from the 1990s. The leaves sometimes curl and deform and there are a lot more aphids. It looks like there may be some parasitoids of the aphids which are beginning to control the population.

It’s frustrating to have host plants but so few caterpillars. Are there just too many factors leading to the Monarch decline? It’s worse than last year.

Brookside Gardens – July 2019

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Even though the weather has been very hot this month, there are still plenty of flowers at Brookside Gardens that are weathering the heat.

The buttonbushes have all stages of flowers and seed formation now.

The green cones are forming on the bald cypress.

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The butterfly weed seed pods are bursting open even as the Monarch caterpillars are munching on their leaves. The common milkweed pods are still green.

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There are quite a few butterflies out in the gardens enjoying the flowers. The tiger swallowtails particularly enjoy the Joe Pye Weed. Last weekend I noticed more Monarch butterflies in the gardens. Maybe these are arriving from Mexico although it certainly is later than usual.

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I walk around the gardens before my shifts at the Wings of Fancy exhibit. There were only two this month because of the travel I did during the first half of the month. There are plenty of things to see like chipmunks and milkweed bugs.

I even found a feather on a leaf that I could get close enough for a macro shot.

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In the exhibit, the caterpillars are eating and growing. There was a Palamedes swallowtail caterpillar that had a ‘sun worshipper’ pose on a ‘excessive heat’ day.

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There are plenty of Monarch caterpillars of all sizes on butterfly weed in the caterpillar house as well.

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Inside the conservatory, I don’t have much time to take pictures of butterflies (lots of visitors) but I did manage a few. One day it was so hot that even the butterflies were desperate for water (on the floor) and not flying as much.

Our Front Yard

The milkweed is up in the front flowerbed. Hopefully some monarch butterflies will show up soon to lay eggs on it and my monarch nursery will be in business for this year.

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The day lilies are still just green – no bud stalks yet. I’ll try to cut the buds before the deer eat them (enjoy them in vases indoors) and just leave the greenery behind. There are some black eyed susans that should offer some yellow to the beds once the temperature is warm enough.

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The smell of mint rises as I pull weeds – I try to leave the mint behind.

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There are plenty of weeds and grass to pull in the front flower beds. It helps to have the day lilies shading out some of them.

The ninebark bush has some blooms this year and seems to be healthier. Maybe the deer did not eat it as much this past winter.

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I have one iris that is about ready to bloom. I cut it to take inside a few days after this picture was taken. The other irises have leaves but no stalks yet. They do seem to be recovering from whatever ate most of the rhizomes year before last.

Virginia creeper is growing on the oak. I’m leaving it for now because I like the contrast it makes with the day lily leaves around the base of the tree.

Over all – I’m slowly making progress to get the front flower beds looking lush with greenery and weed-free. The Next chore will be trimming the bushes. There is one I will wait on; it has a catbird nesting in it.

Monarchs of September

Back in August it seemed like we were seeing more Monarch butterflies that at any time during the summer. They seemed to be everywhere. And they were laying eggs.

Toward the end of the month, there were large caterpillars and smaller ones too.

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Then – I only found large caterpillars

And the chrysalises. Some still looked like jade pendants and others were already beginning to become clear – the monarchy colors coming through.

The elementary school that I delivered chrysalises and caterpillars too had their first butterfly emerge last Tuesday – 11 to 12 days after the chrysalis was made. When they released it, the butterfly flew away to the south! Hopefully it is not waylaid along its journey by Hurricane Florence.

Just this week I have had two butterflies emerge and fly way. They were both on the same window frame – opposite corners. On Wednesday morning – the first one emerged and stayed near the empty chrysalis until it flew away.

The second one emerged on Thursday morning. It crawled up onto face of the lintel. It took several hours for it to fly away – perhaps because it was a cloudy day and the humidity was about 90%. It is clearly a male based on the dark nodes on the lower part of the wings.

With all the diseases monarchs have these days – there have been disappointments too…at both the caterpillar stage and the butterfly. I’ve observed deformed butterflies probably caused by the parisite  Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha (OE) – and lethargic, shriveled caterpillars probably from Pseudomonas bacteria (aptly named ‘Black Death’)…so having an apparently healthy butterfly emerge is something I need to keep trying to help the Monarch butterflies! It’s a lot harder to raise healthy Monarchs now than it was back in the 1990s.

Butterfly Macro

When I use my phone for photography I resist using the zoom (since there is not optical zoom available…only digital) and just try to get close to what I want to photograph. Sometimes that it enough – like these to pictures of small Monarch caterpillars in my front flowerbed. They are still small enough that the black bands are dominating the yellow ones!

The clip-on macro lens is something I use frequently too. It requires getting even closer and a steady hand to focus. The touch samples at the Brookside Gardens Wings of Fancy  Discovery Station provided an excellent opportunity to take a macro look at butterfly wings.

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The clear wing has a small patch of white scales but otherwise the wing is membrane stretched on a copper colored structure.

The blue morphos show the variation in blue from the incident of light even at the macro level. It is just barely possible to make out individual scales with the macro lens.

Monarch Buddy

I started preparing for being a Monarch Buddy the week before school started (post about the prep here). By the time I delivered the larvae and leaves to the school at the end of the second day of school, I’d had further adventures.

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The monarch egg that I’d gotten from the school garden on August 31st, hatched on September 3rd! I was checking it so frequently that I managed to take a picture before it ate its egg case! Compare the size of the caterpillar and its egg case just above to the straight pin used to hold the original leaf to a fresh leaf.

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Twenty-four hours later the tiny caterpillar had eaten some holes on the fresh milkweed leaf and had visible stripes. It was still very tiny when it went to the school.

Wednesday morning, I had 2 of the 4 caterpillars making chrysalises. I was panicked because I wanted the school to have at least three caterpillars and I had only 2 (and 3 chrysalises).

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I went outside and found no caterpillars – just lots of chrysalises. Then – in the tender top leaves of a milkweed – I found a tiny caterpillar about the size of the one that had hatched on the 3rd. I was thrilled and quickly set up to take it to the school later in the day. I ended up with two very small caterpillars, one medium to large caterpillar, and 3 chrysalises….and a gallon Ziploc of milkweed leaves that – hopefully – will feed the caterpillars of a few days at the school.

Monarch Buddy

The third grade science curriculum in our county starts with a module about life cycle and traits important to survival….using Monarch butterflies as an example. I signed up to assist one of the school close to where I live to have raise Monarch caterpillars in their classroom. That means helping to find eggs or caterpillars and a supply of milkweed for them to eat. School starts tomorrow and I’m as ready as I can be for my Monarch Buddy role.

I started preparing last Thursday by collecting a large caterpillar from the milkweed in front of my house. It continued eating all day Thursday and I learned how to handle the leaves and caterpillars in the large plastic cups with a coffee filter held in place with a rubber band covering the top.

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The covering worked. The caterpillar climbed to the top on Friday – hung in the J shape – and made its chrysalis. It should still be in that stage when I take the 4 cups to the school on Wednesday afternoon.

On Friday, I visited the school and teacher and I looked at the small garden that has been planted several years ago. It hasn’t been maintained recently but the common milkweed and butterfly weed was doing great without any intervention. There were lots of Monarch caterpillars. We decided to leave the garden as is; the teachers will us it as an outdoor classroom for their students. We did harvest a leaf with a Monarch egg on it and I am trying to keep it moist so that they egg would hatch. It would great to have a tiny caterpillar for the children.

On Sunday morning I collected 3 caterpillars: two larger ones and a smaller caterpillar.

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I hope that at least two of them will still be caterpillars on Wednesday afternoon….if not – I’ll have to look for other caterpillars on the milkweed. My goal is to have 3 caterpillars and some chrysalises. The challenge might be to find very small caterpillars!

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Brookside Wings of Fancy Caterpillars – August 2018

The caterpillars at Brookside Gardens Wings of Fancy exhibit are maturing….getting ready for cooler temperatures. On the walk up the ticket taker table, the last of the milkweed tussock moth caterpillars are finishing their leaves and pupating. A large number had to be moved to milkweed plants further from the caterpillar house so that the Monarch caterpillars would be on view to the visitors waiting to enter the caterpillar house of the exhibit.

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The caterpillar house in August featured a white case (for the saddleback caterpillars) and then places for 3 pots (starring cecropia moth and monarch butterfly caterpillars).

The saddleback caterpillars grew bigger in August. I talked to at least two people that has been stung by them in their gardens!

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The cecropia moth caterpillars made cocoons one my one over the course of the month. Yesterday there was only one caterpillar left on the black cherry – and it had been the runt of the caterpillars from the beginning; it’s catching up now.

There is a spicebush tree in a pot next to the black cherry where the caterpillars have moved to make their cocoons.

The monarch caterpillars have been the most fun to watch. I was in the caterpillar house once just after a caterpillar shed its skin.

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They alternate between resting and eating….mostly eating.

When they are big enough to pupate, they try to leave the host plant. One started the walk-about when I was volunteering in the caterpillar house (round and round the pot looking for a way off) and we moved it to a portable mesh cube where it made its J and then chrysalis.

Outside there were many Monarch chrysalises on the plants and the structure of the caterpillar house. They always look like jade pendants to me.

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Fishmobile – Take 2

My first experience with the Fishmobile was back in April at an elementary school in Carroll County (posted about it here). I got an email just after I returned from Texas asking if I could help with the Fishmobile’s visit to a nature center near where I life for a weekend event. I still had committed to anything else so I accepted. The day started out well when I checked the milkweed in my front flower bed and found a good-sized Monarch caterpillar!

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The day was not too hot and my ‘shift’ was from 10-12 when the temperature was in the mid-70s. Most of the animals that were there for the school were in the tanks again: horseshoe crabs, Larry the diamond backed terrapin, a blue crab, and a box turtle.

The American eel was silvery and was more active this time. The only thing I missed from last time were sea horses but there were some preserved ones to talk about with the families that came through. In the two hours I was there, almost 200 people came through. Some of the children came through the exhibit several times (after they built up their courage to experience the two touch tanks).

During one lull I stepped off the Fishmobile bus and photographed some bees on the plants just outside. The bees were very active and focused on the flowers…not flying amongst the people coming to the Fishmobile.

After my shift was over, I walked over to the compost demo and filled out the form to get a free compost bin. After the tour yesterday and further education today, I am going to do my own compost. My plan it to put the bin back near the forest and start it off with some shredded paper and veggie/fruit scraps from the kitchen. This time of year taking the watermelon rinds to the compost bin will be a lot easier than lugging them to the curb in a trash bag that might leak! Stay tuned for posts about my compost adventure.

Caterpillars and Day Lilies

Since I’ve been home, I’ve started doing some remedial yard work…more on the changes to the flowerbed later. I’m focused on caterpillars and day lilies that were a biproduct of the work. The biggest excitement was a very small monarch caterpillar on the milkweed! I can’t cut it down now. Every morning I look at the plants and I haven’t found the caterpillar again but there are a lot of other insects on the plants. Milkweed is popular with the insect crowd.

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Yesterday there was a different kind of caterpillar on the milkweed. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe some kind of Tiger Moth caterpillar? It isn’t a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar since those are orange and block and white and bristles are shorter and there are more of them.

The day lilies that I thought would be so gorgeous in the front flower bed always make beautiful foliage and then last year the deer ate the buds before many of them could open .  Evidently the buds are deer candy. I’m giving up on day lilies after this year. So - while I was working in the flower bed, I cut all the flower stalks I found and put them in a big vase. The next morning, I took the vase outside and took pictures in the morning light.

I appreciate the opening buds and the spent flowers of the orange lilies. Placing the vase on the deck railing and using the out-of-focus forest as the background worked out well.

I photographed the one pink and white lily from different angles. It was the only non-orange flower in the vase.

At least this way I get to enjoy the flowers one last time rather than getting mad at the deer.

Wings of Fancy Volunteering Retrospective

I enjoyed volunteering at Brookside Gardens’ Wings of Fancy exhibit. The seasonal exhibit ended on September 17th and I’m missing it this week; I’m already keen on volunteering when the 2018 exhibit starts next April. I started later this year because I only decided to volunteer for in in May…but even so – I managed 26 shifts during the summer months and the first weeks of September. I’ve posted about the earlier shift previously…but am including the last 7 (all in September) in this post.

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Shift XX was a sunny day and I enjoyed a walk in the gardens – flowers and butterflies.

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Shift XXI was wet and there were times that the only people in the conservatory were volunteers! I took some pictures inside the conservatory with my cell phone.

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I parked near the Brookside Gardens Visitor Center rather than near the conservatory for Shift XXII. I hadn’t noticed the horsetail and gingko planting in the bed around the conservatory before…and the brightly colored bench. As I walked down on to the conservatory, I noticed a rotting stump with bright yellow function growing on it.

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The moon was still out when I got to Brookside prior to Shift XXIII. Along the butterfly walk (the path to the ticket taker for the exhibit) the gold finches were enjoying seeds and there was still a Monarch caterpillar on one of the milkweed plants.

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Shift XXIV was rainy – again. I manage a picture of a spider web that held big drops of water. Attendance was light enough that I took pictures inside the conservatory.

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It was a sunny day again for Shift XXV…but attendance was light again. I took a series of Monarch pictures: caterpillars and two mating pairs.

For the final shift, I was fixated on palpi (structures that start on either side of the proboscis and then lay between the eyes) again because I had seen so many blue morphos that appear to not have any. Evidently the blue morpho frequently breaks its palpi while the owl butterfly (second picture) does not!

And so – a fond farewell to Wings of Fancy…until 2018.

Family BioBlitz at The Howard County Conservancy

The Howard County Conservancy hosted the Maryland Diversity Project last Saturday and I volunteered to help with the public part of the program that had families spending the morning photographing and recording the plants and animals at Mt. Pleasant.

Caterpillars seemed to dominate our finds: young milkweed tussock moth caterpillars as well as large Monarch, black swallowtail and orange striped oakworm moth caterpillars. There were also autumn tent worms.

We also saw a millipede, insects mating, a spider guarding a large egg sack…and a carpenter bee (male) that was lazing on a Joe Pye weed.

Near the end, I saw the birds nest fungus growing on mulch near the nature center. I was pleased that our group – which included a young child – all had fun and enjoyed our finds!

The slide show is in hike order….enjoy!