The gardener’s nemesis

Not every post can be about elegant swallows. Sometimes what catches my attention is less obviously appealing.

My father hated greenflies, because they attacked his beloved roses. Greenflies are a type of aphid, and here in Maine we have a number of different species, in a rainbow of colors, including the bright yellow Oleander Aphid, Aphis nerii, common on milkweed:


and these ruby red ones, probably Uroleucon nigrotuberculatum.


If you can suspend your distaste, they turn out to be rather interesting.  They reproduce partly by parthogenesis: the adult female produces live young, clones, without the need of a male. In the autumn, they also reproduce sexually: rather like modern humans, there is no one right way.

Although most aphids don’t have wings, as you can see in the photos above, if the neighborhood gets too crowded the female cleverly gives birth to some offspring with wings, and these then fly off to populate a new plant instead of adding to the throngs on the current one.  The biggest one below has wings:


If you are a gardener, you are no fan of aphids, but if you are an ant, your attitude is entirely different! Some species of ants actually farm aphids for their honeydew:

Ants farming aphids

The aphid sucks sap from the plant, sometimes in huge quantities. Because it can’t digest it all, it excretes a sweet sugary liquid, called honeydew. The ants use their antennae to stroke the aphids, which encourages the secretion of the honeydew, which the ants then drink. The aphids below are tiny, but just visible on the leaf stalk:


The aphids benefit because the ants protect them from predators such as ladybugs, and also move them from wilting to healthy plants. In some species, the ants will store aphid eggs in their nests through the winter and then put them back on the plants in the spring. This partnership is an example of what biologists call mutualism, since both parties benefit from the arrangement.

The spiky cornicles that project from the abdomen are used to exude pheromones for defense purposes; the honeydew is, rather off-puttingly, exuded from the rectum!

If you have read this far, congratulations: you too are obsessed by natural minutiae.




Learning to swallow

I started this blog three years ago, with photos of tree swallows nesting in an old martin house:

But tree swallows are really supposed to nest in dead trees, hence the name. This summer, on June 21,  they were nesting by my big beaver pond, something I hadn’t yet noticed, but luckily Mary Jewett’s sharp eyes spotted it. See the holes in this dead tree?

Tree swallows

The parents come and go with food, wedging themselves into the smallish holes:


And squeezing out again once the food has been delivered:


Sometimes a nestling sticks their head out, so the adult takes the opportunity to ram a large dragonfly right down her offsprings’s throat.


The youngster seems a little uncertain how to handle this rather large dragonfly :


But he gets a grip, and the mother checks before leaving:


And the nestling bravely gets it down:


No messing about pretending to be an airplane for 5 minutes when feeding your toddlers: just force it down their gullets.


Maybe human parents should pretend to be swallows, not airplanes?

Much of the feeding is done in a brief encounter while the adult remains more or less on the wing. The chick gets ready:


and the food is transferred:


Occasionally they take a well-earned rest:


A Bullfrog and his Water Shield

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is an American Bullfrog, looking as though he is waiting for his girlfriend, complete with floral offering.

American Bullfrog

He sounds like this:


The tiny pink flower belongs to a plant named after the shape of its leaf, Water Shield, Brasenia schreberi,


On my  pond  it covers huge areas at this time of year:

Water Shield

The unimposing flowers repay closer scrutiny. Water Shield is pollinated by the wind. The flowers have a two-day blooming period. On the first day, the functionally female flower extends above the surface of the water and exposes the pale pink receptive stigmas.

Water Shield

The flower then recedes below the water surface and on the following day re-emerges as a functionally male flower. It is taller now, and the darker red anther-bearing filaments are extended beyond the female carpels:

Water Shield

The anthers release the pollen, presumably to find a younger female flower, and the flower is then withdrawn below the water where the fruit develops.*

As you can see, they have a clear jelly all around the stalk, which persists as they grow taller. The underside of the leaves is also coated with it. This may be to deter grazing snails, though it doesn’t stop the beetles that eat the leaves from the top!  Despite this jelly, or maybe because of it, the leaves are a delicacy in China.

* This excellent description is paraphrased from Wikipedia. Don’t you love/hate the fact that even in the plant world, older males seek younger females, even if it is only the difference one day makes?

Butterflies: seeing double

Provided one doesn’t feel like a peeping tom, photographing butterflies is often easiest while they are mating. It is a prolonged process, indeed sometimes they fly around while conjoined, but not surprisingly they prefer to stay put.

This summer I have seen three species that I haven’t identified before.

First, the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus (or Basilarcia archippus). Perfectly named, because it is a deliberate copy of the Monarch. Monarchs are poisonous, but Viceroys are not. Their nearly identical color and patterning deceives birds into leaving them alone too.


The Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele,  has silvery dots on the underwing, alluded to in its common name. I think it looks like a little girl’s party dress.  They are seen here mating in late June, but they then disappear, and reappear to lay their eggs in late August or September on violet leaves.

Great Spangled Fritillary

The Inornate Ringlet, Coenonympha tulle inornata,  has a very unflattering name, and I can’t work out why. Possibly because the eye marking on the wing is faint instead of dramatic??

Inornate Ringlet

In this era when the climate is changing, we expect to find species moving northwards, but this butterfly has been moving south from Canada. The first ones in Maine were seen in 1968, and now they are abundant all the way down to Massachusetts.

Finding each other out there in the fields and forests isn’t easy, but these six have done it.  Happy days.


Prickly encounter

The Porcupine by Ogden Nash

Any hound a porcupine nudges
Can’t be blamed for harboring grudges.
I know one hound that laughed all winter
At a porcupine that sat on a splinter.

Porcupines are not popular around here, because they chew on wooden structures, and in New England the houses and barns are built of wood. They are largely nocturnal, so I don’t see them very often. But the other day I emerged from the woods with the dog, who luckily was on a leash, and in the field, back to us and quietly munching, was a sizable porcupine.


The dog was frantic to go and make friends, not at all a good idea, but I wanted to get closer too, to take pictures, so I slowly moved in, and the porcupine either didn’t know or didn’t care that I was there. They have dreadful vision, but a good sense of smell, so here it is realizing there might be something different in the air (me and my beagle):


Eventually, some walkers came up the road, the porcupine turned away from them and towards me, and realized that retreat was wise.


They don’t run, they just waddle, and then they erect those spines in a great halo:



They do not shoot their spines, but they detach very easily if the barbed end gets stuck in an unlucky dog. Their defense strategy, which often means standing their ground, turning their back and relying on those spines, doesn’t always work. I once saw one in the middle of a dirt road. He stood stock still, and tried this strategy on my truck, but the truck was unimpressed.

They can have up to 30,000 quills on the back and tail, but the face and belly are free of spines, leaving them vulnerable to fishers and coyotes. The ferocious claws enable them to climb trees, and in the winter they eat mainly hemlock needles and bark, and will climb high to do so.


Some years ago walking in my back woods I met this baby. The mother must have been off foraging, and had left it on a fallen tree, so I got very close, and it was quite quite charming:


PS Unlikely though it may seem, spines have evolved more than once. New World Porcupines, like this Erethizon dorsatum, have evolved their spines entirely independently from Old World Porcupines, though both are rodents. And hedgehogs are even more distantly related, not being rodents at all.  The Australian Echidna is a monotreme, an egg-laying mammal. And then there is the Porcupinefish… A lovely example of convergent evolution.

My Lady’s Slippers

I saw my first one of these orchids about 45 years ago, but still every time I can’t quite believe they really grow in our northern forests:

Pink Lady's Slipper orchids Slipper

They are 6-12ninches tall, and each flower is up to two inches long.  The pouch is a single petal, the labellum, grossly enlarged and modified. In the photo below, a tiny moth stretches out its minuscule proboscis towards the nectary, but it can’t quite reach.


The officially named Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium acaule, can sometimes be white instead:

Pink Lady's Slipper orchids Slipper

The root of lady’s slipper was used as a remedy for nervousness, tooth pain, and muscle spasms, and as a sedative.  These sound to me like traditional “women’s complaints”, and I wonder if there is an actual effective compound in the roots, or if it was all because of the lascivious shape of the flower, rather as some cultures believe that long rigid rhino horns ‘cure’ impotence. Does anyone know?

There is also a different yellow species, Cypripedium calceolus, which is even more spectacular:


The twisted side petals remind me of the payes sidelocks as worn below by Michael Aloni, star of Shtisel:


These yellow orchids do grow wild here, but I photographed these in the wildflower garden at Halls Pond Gardens in Paris, Maine (yes, really), and I’d like to dedicate this post to the memory of the delightful, modest and hugely knowledgable Mark Brandhorst, creator of the garden, who tragically died unexpectedly this spring. All these orchids are hard to grow, but he had the greenest of fingers.

P.S. Some more detailed information from the US Forest Service website, By Patricia J. Ruta McGhan:

” In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as “symbiosis” and is typical of almost all orchid species.

Pink lady’s slipper takes many years to go from seed to mature plants.  Seed-bearing harvest of wild lady’s slipper root is not considered sustainable. Pink lady’s slippers can live to be twenty years old or more.

Pink lady’s slippers also require bees for pollination. Bees are lured into the flower pouch through the front slit, attracted by the flower’s bright color and sweet scent. Once inside, the bees find no reward, and discover that they are trapped, with only one point of escape. Inside the pouch, there are hairs that lead to a pair of exit openings, one beneath each pollen mass. The bee must pass under the stigma, so if it bears any pollen from a visit to another flower, it will be deposited before picking up a fresh load on the way out.”

The fifth and final phoebe installment: Launched

As they got bigger and bigger, it was hard to see how they could fit into the nest.


It got very hot, and the exhausted mother joined them for a rest:

phoebe chicks

One evening, two of them were sitting right on the edge of the nest.

phoebe chicks

and the next morning, 14 days after I first photographed them, instead of five there were three,

Phoebe, just fledging or fledged today

Ominously, underneath the nest there was a sizable garter snake, attracted  by the smell of their droppings, and living in hope that one would fall and be easy pickings.

At 11.45am I came back from the post office, hands full, no camera, and as soon as I opened the door three flustered panicked fledglings took off over my head, milled around under the eaves, and then were gone.  The parents immediately appeared, calling frantically, but the nest was empty.

Phoebe, just fledging or fledged today

And then I saw the snake, no bulge in his middle, so they all got off scot-free. An hour or so later, this fledgling was perched in the branches of a nearby weeping willow sapling, none the worse for wear.

Phoebe, just fledging or fledged today

I hear them around, and the conscientious parents should now be feeding the fledglings for a while longer.

I will miss them.

Phoebes 4: seeing inside the nest

[If you are getting tired of my phoebes, there is only one more post to go, and then I will not show you birds for a week or two!].

By now the chicks are getting bigger, and true feathers are starting to come in. It looks as though all five are still there.


Although the phoebes above the hanging basket tolerate my photography from the kitchen window, and the chicks are unable to escape my lens even if I am nearby, the adults don’t come to the nest if I am out in the open. The nest is under a little roof, so it can’t be seen from a distance, I have to get close. Copying the BBC Wildlife team, who always tell you something about how they got the footage, I thought I’d show you my amateur solution

I remembered a birder once telling me that a car made an excellent improvised hide.  So I parked my truck near the nest, rolled down the window, and sat quietly inside. For about ten minutes they were wary, but then they settled, and all the shots that show an adult on the nest were taken by this subterfuge. Here is the setup:

phoebe nest setupShe (or maybe he) brings in a choice morsel, like this grub:


or this dragonfly:

Phoebe with food

And then delivers it to her chick:


Deliveries are fast, she rarely hangs around. This one was a big moth:

Phoebe with food

and it is delivered by air (the moth is blown flat against his beak by the speed of takeoff):

Phoebe with food

Deliveroo and Grubhub, you’ve met your match.




Phoebes 3: House cleaning

[This is another one of my scatological posts, feel free to skip it and wait for the next one!]

For the baby phoebes, food deliveries are fast and furious, often at intervals of only a couple of minutes: a small moth at 2.20pm, a large moth at 2.23pm and a huge dragonfly at 2.25pm. There are five mouths to feed.

What goes in must come out. Phoebes are meticulous housekeepers. When the young feel the urge, they raise their bottoms towards the edge of the nest:

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

The white blob is the fecal sac. It bursts out with some force

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

to be caught by the mother:

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

who then flies off to dispose of it elsewhere.

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

For some reason she made a tidy little heap of them at the top of this corner post:

Phoebe, just fledging or fledged today

As they get close to fledging, they start to just do their own thing over the edge of the nest (and onto our doormat), but until then, the environs are spotless.


Phoebes 2: en famille

Four days later, and the chicks are strong enough to raise their heads above the edge of the nest:Phoebe with young

Both parents are foraging. About 20 feet from the nest, I have a curly bracket for a hanging basket of lobelia. It is close to the kitchen window, convenient for photos. Here they perch, using the bracket as a vantage point from which to swoop on their prey, but also as sort of kitchen pass, from which to send a steady flow of food deliveries to the nearby nest.

This one is juggling a dragonfly:


This one has got a grip on a butterfly,



And this one is showing off its catch to its mate, who appears to be saying “Wow!”:


The variety of prey is interesting. A Long-dash Skipper butterfly:


A huge Dragonfly:


A white-faced dragonfly:


I think this is a Field Cricket:


And a small grasshopper:


If they keep wriggling, they get bashed on the metal bracket till they succumb.


Anyway, these chicks are not going hungry.