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Starting off..

For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England.  I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.

I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.

The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.

For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.

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Cruising along…
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She often fed them without touching down at all
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It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick

 

 

The monarchs’ boudoir

[Some of you may not know that these stunning butterflies have become iconic in US environmental circles because they make an epic migration annually from New England to Mexico and back, depend entirely on milkweed, and their numbers are dropping.]

I do hope you are not sick of monarchs, because I have some very intimate photos for you this time around.

Monarch life starts when two consenting adults meet:

Monarchs mating

The male grasps the female’s abdomen with his claspers, and hangs on. Usually he is the one on top, and she dangles underneath. The mechanics are mainly shielded by their wings, but I caught a glimpse:

Monarchs mating

They remain joined for anything between one and eighteen hours! They can fly around while conjoined like this: here the one on the left is being towed backwards and upside down through the air by the other:

Monarchs mating

This pair started in my flowerbed, flew up high into a small birch tree (I stood on a ladder to photograph them), descended to a goldenrod, and then flew up into a huge spruce, at which point I gave up.

In the fullness of time, the female lays her egg, and eventually a tiny caterpillar emerges. (I showed you the egg and first stage caterpillar in an earlier post.)

A caterpillar is basically a tube. Food (milkweed leaves) goes in one end:

Monarch caterpillar

and out the other:

Monarch caterpillar

Just like toddlers, they grow inexorably, and eventually they split their skins, to reveal a new one waiting underneath. (Why don’t human children have a new set of clothes waiting underneath the old ones?) Anyway, in this photo the old discarded shriveled skin is sitting in a little heap just behind the freshly garbed caterpillar, whose antennae are still bent and floppy, showing that he/she has only just emerged.

Monarch caterpillar moulting

Exemplary mothers

Nursery Web spiders lay their eggs on a silk pad, and then wrap the whole thing in several layers of thick silk until it is spherical. They guard this egg sac carefully, carrying it around with them. This one was on a milkweed pod: it is a Pisaurina brevipes.

Nursery web spider with egg sac

In closeup, you can see the six eyes, and also the short furry pedipalps; they use their jaws and pedipalps to carry the egg sac.

Nursery web spider with egg sac

The sac contains a few hundred eggs. When they are ready to hatch, the ever-vigilant mother builds a tent-like web structure and places the egg sac inside it. This nursery is what gives the species their name. When the young emerge they are fully formed tiny spiderlings, and stay inside the tent for about a week, while she guards them.

This different much smaller unidentified species has an egg sac too:

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To the right, just visible behind the leaf, is a predatory insect lying in wait, so these eggs may not have long for this world.

Some spiders hang their egg sacs from a thread. I think these exquisitely decorative hanging egg sacs are created by the Common House Spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum, although the photos I can find online don’t have this marvelous oriental lantern shape, so it is possible it is some other species.

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Next time you shudder at a spider in your bathtub, try to remember their softer side. Louise Bourgeois’s giant Spider sculpture (1996) was conceived of as a tribute to her mother, who was a weaver, and its protective posture reminds me of all the maternal spiders out there.

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Marmite for plants

Most plants create their food by photosynthesis, with minerals extracted from the soil via their roots, but some have a more sinister strategy. If the land is nutrient-poor, they supplement their diet with essential minerals from passing insects.

The Round-leafed Sundew, Drosera rotundifoliaentices the bugs in with sugary droplets, too sticky for them to escape from. (The grey specter towards the top of the photo is not the remains of a sundew onslaught. It is the exoskeleton of a dragonfly nymph, from which the dragonfly has long since emerged unscathed.)

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Then the leaf tentacles close over its victim, as you can see on the right below,  and the leaf absorbs the nutrients.

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The round-leafed sundew above was growing on the edge of a pond in sphagnum moss, and it is green.  This red one below was in a very dry area:

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Most online sources talk about the red coloration as the norm, and I have not been able to work out why my pond-side ones are green. Lastly, although they may seem so alien, like normal  plants they have flowers:

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In another way to catch the unwary, the pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpureadrowns them in its vase-shaped leaf:

Pitcher plants at Holt Pond

And the Horned Bladderwort, Utricularia cornuta, has tiny bladders under the swamp water. When an insect touches the minuscule hairs on the bladders, it triggers the opening of a teensy trapdoor, engulfing the poor bug. And yet, the flowers are exquisite, giving no hint of what perils lie beneath.

Horned Bladderwort

PS For those who don’t know, Marmite is a dark brown salty spread made from yeast that British kids are raised on. It elicits strong pro/con reactions, and is now used by extension to describe people, as in “Boris Johnson is a Marmite politician.”

PPS The function of the red coloring of many carnivorous plants is unknown.  It has been shown not to help attract insects, nor to be useful as camouflage.

“Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood”*

It’s butterfly season here in Maine.

Butterfly wings are made of two chitonous membranes that are nourished and supported by tubular veins. The veins are astonishingly strong, as I think you can see in this close-up of an Eastern Swallowtail wing .

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When a butterfly first emerges, its wings are all scrunched up. As they unfold, we talk of a butterfly “drying” its wings, but in fact the veins are being pumped full of blood to form a skeleton over which the membranes can stretch, very much like the unfurling of an umbrella canopy as the spokes extend. This is a Monarch, soon after emerging from its chrysalis:

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And here it is with veins distended and wings all outstretched:

Monarchs

Butterfly wings are covered by tiny scales, which are what give them colours. Here is the Eastern Swallowtail again, in closeup. The individual scales are visible.

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This is a British Common Blue:

Female Common Blue

and this is a très chic French moth, Saturnia pyri, Grand Paon de Nuit (Great Peacock of the Night).

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Like many moths, this one has large scales, which make the wings look hairy or shaggy.

Butterflies can normally fold their wings together, but some Lepidoptera, like these two different Plume Moths, can also fold them into narrow bands,

Plume Moth, feeds on wild grapes

or even roll them up tightly:

Plume Moth, feeds on wild grapes

Tiny, delicate creatures, but a marvel of engineering.

*Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.

 

 

 

Scrubbers

Scrubby thickets are often unsightly, but they are wonderful hiding places for birds.  In the interests of honesty I decided to only use photos of the birds in situ in the thicket behind my flower garden. Here are six denizens of my untamed underbrush, some more visible than others.

When the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris,  is not hovering next to a flower, it retreats to the cover of bushes:

Hummingbird

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is a flycatcher, in the family Tyrannidae. She nests every year above our back door, but once the young are raised she hangs out in the lower branches of trees, and in the thicket.

Phoebe

The Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis tracheas,  is in the warbler family. It nests on the ground, but this male was singing noisily in the scrub:

Common Yellowthroat

 

Two young Black-capped Chickadees were preening after rain:

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A female Purple Finch, Carpodacus purpureus,  is feeding on the berries:

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The Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus,  is unusual for a woodpecker in often feeding on the ground. But it too finds the thickets useful cover: the yellow undertail is all you can see!

Northern Flicker

The main reason all these birds rely on dense brush for concealment is this:

Immature broadwinged hawk

The immature Broadwinged hawk, Buteo platypterus,  is perched on a small tree a few yards away, watching closely.

My thicket is a messy mix of lilac, chokecherry, wild grape vines, gnarled crabapples, and brambles, and I have been tempted to landscape it out of existence, but then where would the birds go for refuge? Songbirds like forest edges and thickets for a variety of reasons, cover being only one of them. Some species nest there, some feed on the berries,  some use them as launch pads for insect hunts or nectar flights. One way or another, they are very important habitat, and deserve our guardianship.

PPS Today I cleared a few low-hanging branches from the thicket where they were smothering my phlox, and the Gods took their revenge: I got stung by a hornet right next to my eye.

Following the fruit

It’s raining today, and anyway I thought you’d like a break from bug posts, so I’ve pulled this one out of my files.

A couple of months ago I posted pictures of birds and monkeys gorging on fresh fruit. This is a codicil.

In the rain forest, different trees fruit at different times, and so fructivores move through the canopy until they find a fecund tree, and settle in until they have stripped it. The tall tree in the background is such a tree, in Borneo in 2015. If you look closely there are two dark blobs near the top, and those are foraging orangutans:

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Borneo is depressingly hazy from the smoke created by fires burning down the rain forest for palm oil plantations, so these photos are taken at a huge distance, in the haze, but I thought you would enjoy them anyway. We were very lucky, this is close to our lodge, but in the forest, not a rescue centre, so they are still roaming in the true wild.

Adult orangutans are solitary, but of course the young stay with the mother for several years. Mama is picking fruit, while he hangs out; this time I can be confident that I am using the right gender pronouns.

Easy-peasy.

Personally, I would have left the kid home with the sitter. It is a long way to fall, but for him (and his mother) it is just another lackadaisical day hanging out in the trees. They use all four limbs interchangeably for locomotion: this photo is taken in a rehabilitation centre for young orphans, and you can see the hands and feet more clearly:

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Back in the trees, the fruit is clearly delicious: this is a young male, in the same tree.

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He kept his distance from the mother and baby, though our guide thought he was not only hungry but also interested in the female, who did not seem to reciprocate.

In this video, you can just see how she moves calmly, with the baby on her front, picking fruit. She rubs the fruit against the tree-trunk, I am not sure why. At at the end you can also see the young male. Apologies for the noises off, made by other transfixed visitors.

 

Bornean Orangutans are now classified as Endangered. Their population has dropped by more than half between 1999 and 2015, and it is still dropping fast.  The main cause is habitat loss, caused by logging and oil palm plantations. And a female has a baby only about every seven years, so let’s hope the one in my photo survives. A good summary can be read here:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/orangutan-habitat-loss-hunting-killing-borneo-spd/

The Monarchy in miniature

Monarchs are circling around my milkweed in Maine at the moment:

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Her mission is not find nectar, but to lay eggs. She finds a small young tender milkweed. and grabs the edge of a leaf, curling her abdomen underneath:

Monarch laying egg

If you keep your eye on that particular leaf, and turn it over after she has gone, there is a single tiny white dot, 1mm across, about the size of a pinhead. It is her egg:

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I became mesmerized by the intricate geometry of these minuscule beads: it took somewhere around 40 photos to get these shots.

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After about 4 days, the caterpillar emerges. This next photo is taken one day after the photo of the egg:

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They are very tiny at first, about 2mm, but they eat continuously: this one is already munching away. They shed their skins four times, and after each shedding emerge bigger and fatter. Each of the five stages is called an instar. The one below hatched about 10 days ago,  probably a fourth instar, and it’s pretty hefty: use the central spine of the leaf as a gauge of the relative size of the newborn above and this heffalump below:

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed, Asclepius syraica, so I encourage the milkweed on my land, and its sensuous perfume wafts around the edge of my meadow at this time of year. The flowerheads are elegant:

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And in closeup they have a lascivious whiff of Georgia O’Keefe:

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Here is one of her flower paintings:

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Thanks to the Art Gallery of Ontario for this image.