Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Last Mantis

I have to say that for me there is something totally fascinating about praying mantises. I never tire of seeing them as I always do in late Summer and early Fall. Take a look at this one. On the one hand they are kind of comical. On the other hand they seem alien, almost like they are not from this planet. They are slow moving but capable of flight. They are clumsy afoot in their chosen habitats but swift of "hand" when it comes to capturing prey. They are masters of stealth and camouflage but easily seen once the eye is trained to look for them. So, permit me one more entry about mantises. Actually this one is about a particular praying mantis whom I got to know over the course of a few weeks, right outside my front door. I call her "The Last Mantis." The story is not pretty and a few of the images may be upsetting to some. Click on any image to see a larger version. Reader/viewer discretion is advised.

The Last Mantis

As the season stretched toward Winter without showing the slightest hint of what is to come, I continued to watch this one praying mantis just outside my front door where she had taken up residence in a large boxwood bush. Normally by this time of year all of them are gone. The females have deposited their last eggs into those tough brown egg cases and cold weather has weakened or killed them. Sightings are rare. The Last Mantis had already outlived her expected time. Her lifespan was extended into early November by the unseasonably warm temperatures of this year's Fall. For weeks, I had counted on seeing her in the same bush almost every morning as she basked in the early sun.

Sometimes it was not all that clear who was watching whom. At first when I approached, she would immediately turn and look at me with that typical mantis stare; the one that says, "I am watching you and I hope that's enough to keep you from getting too close." After a while, though, she seemed to get used to my presence and more often than not she just ignored me. Most days I did nothing more than just stand and look at her for a while. On a few occasions, I brought my camera out with me just to capture a few shots of whatever she was up to at the time. Sometimes she was moving slowly toward some other position. Other times she was eating. Mostly, though, she just seemed to be sitting there waiting and watching.

I suppose one could say she was hunting, but for her the hunt was not much of an active stalking, at least not at first. It was more like being in the right place at the right time. It meant being someplace where there was some reasonable likelihood that another insect would land nearby or perhaps crawl within striking range of those extremely quick forelegs. If something landed a bit too far away she would creep toward it but speed-of-leg was not her strength. It was the speed of those forelegs that really did the trick. She hung out in the upper parts of that boxwood where her favorite perch was at least four feet above the ground. That was something of a puzzle for me. Why was she so high in the bush when all of the good stuff seemed to be on the ground?

On several occasions, I had seen The Last Mantis consuming either a cricket or a grasshopper. No surprise that she would catch and eat them. The surprise was where she caught them. For some time I had wondered why I never saw the mantises down on the ground in the very thick grass where, it seems, all the grasshoppers and crickets lived. Instead mantises seemed to prefer the higher perches in bushes and heavier brush, at least during this time of year. Perhaps it has something to do with preferred egg laying sites. Whatever the choice, it did seem to work. Enough grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects ventured toward the upward reaches of the bushes to make large and presumably tasty meals for the mantises that waited there.

--- The Last Days ----
One day in late October, The Last Mantis managed to catch a really huge grasshopper,  much bigger than she could normally hope for in that bush and much larger than anything I had seen her tackle before. As it turns out, this largest meal was probably be her last, at least as far as I know.

Normally they eat from one end to the other. Everything goes down. This time it would be different. She removed one hind leg and ate the juiciest part of the large muscle before just dropping the rest of it to the ground. Then she moved to the soft body parts in the abdomen and thorax and ate her fill there. A little fly who, at any another time might, itself, have been a tasty morsel for the mantis, now sat right in front of her watching the feast, perhaps hoping to share some of the leftovers.

But this was not going to be a windfall for the fly, not that day. As I watched, The Last Mantis suddenly lifted her head from the open cavity, released her grip, and dropped what was left of the grasshopper to the ground. She was done. It was time for some preening to remove the spatters of the meal. I watched as she carefully wiped and licked every part of her face, eyes, forelimbs and anything else that had been soiled during the capture, struggle, and subsequent meal. She reminded me of a cat. The meticulous preening seemed such a counterpoint to the rather brutal scenario that preceded it.

Within seconds of hitting the ground, the grasshopper was discovered by dozens of ants who may already have been alerted by the earlier droppings from the meal. It was amazing. They dispatched the entire corpse in less than an hour. It was like it never happened. The ground was absolutely cleaned of any trace.

As for The Last Mantis, after cleaning herself all over, she just hung in the same place for a long time, upside down, her quick and powerful forelimbs just drooping, as if they were limp. She was looking down, almost reaching, toward the fallen grasshopper, now teeming with ants. She seemed to watch as they consumed the remains particle by particle. It was as if she were contemplating her own future; a future that would come sooner rather than later.

A few days later it got very cold. Nighttime temperatures fell into the thirties. I knew what that would mean for The Last Mantis but on the following days I went looking for her anyway. Nothing. I probed the bushes, gently pulling the branches apart so I could peer into the lower areas. To be honest, at this point I was looking for her remains, hoping to take her inside for some last photographs. Nothing. She was gone. Perhaps a bird picked her off or perhaps she dropped to the ground and the ants took her away. In any case I know I will never see her again.  She is now a memory, a collection of photographs, and another source of deep gratitude for my many experiences that come from just watching.

Oh, there is one more thing. In rambling through the branches of the bush looking for her body, I discovered one more fresh egg case left there by The Last Mantis. She had not wasted the nutrients she took in during her final days. Something to look forward to next Spring.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Praying for Mantises

I don't remember much about praying mantises from my childhood. I have to think that I didn't see very many of them if I saw any at all. Surely anything that fascinates me so much as an adult would have grabbed my attention as a curious youngster. Oh, and rest assured I was curious if nothing else. I examined everything and brought way too much of it home. Many of my childhood fascinations have followed me into adulthood. Since I cannot remember them from childhood, I have to assume that praying mantises came relatively late into my life. Oddly, though, I don't remember when that might have happened. But  it did happen and for a long time since they have occupied a prominent place in my consciousness, especially at certain times of the year.

It is usually in the late Summer and early Fall. I go into a state of high vigilance as I go on the lookout for one of those most interesting of insects, the praying mantises. When the weather is hot and the vegetation is lush in mid season, I almost never see them. It is not that they are not there. It is that they are secretive, stealthy hunters who are well camouflaged in the vegetation they use for ambush. They are busy eating and growing in the run up to the mating season when their normally solitary existence begins to change to something more social. Once the Summer starts to fade into Fall, I know I can count on seeing one or two of them, usually females, somewhere in my yard.  Nevertheless, there is always an element of suspense to my annual search. I never know for sure when and where I will have that first sighting. I just know I can't wait.

Perhaps I should call it a hunt even though that sounds too predatory for the way I feel. If I am the hunter or predator in this case, it is only with my eyes and my camera. My shot does not ring out with the explosion of gunpowder and my target does not fall fatally wounded from a high tech projectile hurled from ambush. I do not stuff their murdered bodies and mount them in my den for all to see and I don't eat them. I am only after the image and maybe the connection with this most interesting creature, not the body and not the soul. I have to trust that those are simply wrong who believe that by capturing an image I am imprisoning a soul .

The first sighting of an adult mantis is always a thrill. This year it was a real bonanza. There were three different mantises in one bush at the same time. They were in a place I always check because at least one seems to show up there every year. I worried that these three might encounter each other and that some sort of conflict might ensue. Nothing happened that I could see. The three of them stayed there for most of the last part of Summer. They were all females and it was egg laying time. Conflict with others was probably the last thing on their minds.

Finding that first mantis is one thing. Getting the photograph I want is another. Don't get me wrong. It is very easy to get a picture of a mantis  once you have found the insect. They are very cooperative in that way. It is almost as if they can't wait to pose for the camera. And that is precisely the problem. Getting a candid shot of a mantis is a bit of a challenge because the are difficult to sneak up on.  Here I have spotted one deeply concealed in a bush but I can get only one shot off before she turns  and looks me straight in the eye. So much for mantis candids.

 They are very wary but show little or no fear of humans. If they do feel threatened, they either move away or turn toward the threat and show a threatening posture of their own. Even though they can fly, that doesn't seem to be their first impulse when confronted.

This one has assumed a threat/defense posture which is telling me that I have gotten too close and should back off. Students of the martial arts, especially Kung Fu, will recognize the classic raised arms of the Praying Mantis Style. If one persists in getting too close, some mantises might actually attack by jumping toward the threat. That despite the fact that they represent absolutely no real danger to humans. They have no stingers and the grasping forelegs that are deadly to smaller insects can barely penetrate human skin. Nevertheless, the quick strike of a defensive mantis can be an intimidating experience, even for old school nature lovers like myself. I am forever grateful that they do not get much bigger. A two-foot mantis would be something to contend with.

Both of the adult mantises in this entry (one brown and one green) are female and both are heavy with eggs. Hence the large abdomens. In late Summer they lay their eggs in foamy secretion that forms a surprisingly tough bell-shaped case once it is dry. The foam comes out as a very wet, bubbly, sticky foam not unlike that expandable foam used by builders to insulate and fill cavities in home construction. It hardens quickly to form a tough, almost impenetrable place for the eggs to develop. The small case shown below was deposited late in the season by the very same female shown above in threat posture.  The case is small as she was nearing the end of her egg supply and the end of her life cycle. Her last few eggs were probably laid in the smaller, incomplete case just to the right. She will spend the remaining days in a weakened state and vulnerable to predation by other creatures seeking provisions for the upcoming Winter.

If all goes well and some pesky parasitic wasp doesn't find the egg case right away, the little ones are safe for now. Over the cold months of Fall and Winter, they begin their slow development, accelerating when there are warm spells and slowing down during the coldest periods.

(I once made the mistake of bringing one of these egg cases home after finding it during a fall hike. I left it out on a warm window sill in my kitchen. You can guess what happened. One day in December I noticed lots of little grayish "ants" crawling all around the egg case and well beyond. They weren't ants at all. They were what seemed like hundreds of little praying matises busy trying to make a life for themselves. Sadly none of them survived. The few I managed to capture just ate each other until only one or two remained. They did grow a bit but finally succumbed despite my best efforts to feed them fruit flies and some small bugs that I managed to find outside in Winter.)

By Springtime they are ready for the world and the end of anything even close to safety. The little ones hatch as soon as it starts to get warm in early Spring. They emerge by the dozens, maybe hundreds, from the egg cases and begin life as formidable little hunters. Barely over a quarter of an inch long, they come out as nymphs, fully formed preying mantises except for the wings. They are complete with over-sized eyes and those lightning fast front legs that have inspired martial artists for centuries. They emerge as minuscule but very effective little predators.  The little ones will attack and eat anything that moves as they disperse quickly from the egg case. Often that means attacking and eating any of their kin they happen to encounter. For many of them, life is a simple zero sum game to be played out first with siblings and later with other small creatures. Eat or be eaten is the rule. One is either the diner or the dinner. It is just that simple. These two youngsters are in just such a standoff. In this mini-drama, the one on the left must decide whether to turn and face the advancing sibling or leap for the closest branch. In this case discretion proved to be the better part of valor. He made the leap.

Most mantises don't survive their infancy. Those that do have made it through a gauntlet of spiders, wasps, birds, big raindrops, their own kin, and lots of other potential misfortunes. At least they do not have to worry about adult mantises. None of those will have survived the previous Fall or Winter. The big ones are all gone. Some of the new ones will grow up to be adults in their own rights and take their places among some of the top predators of the insect world.

Here is one of the adult females at work gathering in the last bits of nutrients for the season. She has caught a grasshopper. This is the same mantis that was looking so threatening in one of the photos above. For now she is getting just enough nutrition to see her through the physically demanding process of laying her eggs. While it might be difficult to tell them apart by color and some elements of structure, there is no mistaking their different roles. Mantis and grasshopper are diner and dinner respectively. It may not be pretty but it is what there is to be seen. So I watch and learn and share, another carryover from childhood.

And so it goes every season with little variation. I plan to be there again in the Spring to watch it unfold all over again. Maybe next time I will get lucky and see something I have never seen before. That, after all, is why I keep looking. If I am really fortunate I'll have my camera close at hand. In any case, you know I will share.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Butterfly No More

In some sense this is a continuation of the Cicada Story from a previous blog, but not really. There are no cicadas involved here and that turns out to be a real mystery. That will make more sense if you have read the previous entry. In any case . . .

It was in the mid nineteen seventies, many years after that first encounter with the cicada killer wasp, the one that took down Grandpa Cricket right before my eyes. I was spending a beautiful late Summer afternoon walking along the shore of Kerr Lake in Warren County, NC when I heard a strangely familiar sound. It was a kind of dull buzzing, almost brittle rattle.  Maybe like the sound of a crumpling cellophane candy wrapper, only not so brittle. But this was not paper and nothing so sweet as candy. This was a ruckus and it was coming from a patch of pine straw and dried leaves that only served to amplify the noise. As I went to investigate I somehow felt that I knew that sound and knew what I would find.

I was almost right.

There in the leaf litter a cicada killer wasp was wrestling with her prey. The ruckus I heard was the sound of clashing wings and rustling leaves. It didn't take long for all the struggling to stop and the victim to fall motionless and quiet. Quiet? Well, actually the victim never uttered a sound that I could hear, not even during the struggle. There was only the sound of the wings and the leaves.

I don't think I had seen one of those wasps up close for years, not since I saw one take down Grandpa Cricket, that larger than life figment of my childhood imagination. This time she had a surprise for me. Her prey was not a cicada. It was a butterfly! The cicada killer had attacked a butterfly, a tiger swallowtail. I had arrived just in time to watch the drama unfold. There was a brief struggle then all was quiet. She straddled the butterfly, grasped it by the body and tried to fly away with it. It should have been an easy task for her. After all, a butterfly is much lighter than her normal prey. But it was not to be. The load was light enough but much too cumbersome. The large butterfly wings were interfering with the wasp's flight. Each time she lifted off with the quarry, she had to drop it to the ground or fall out of the air herself. Her normally quick, graceful and powerful flight looked clumsy and amateurish. I watched her make several attempts to take the butterfly to the tomb she had prepared for him, a tomb that was in fact a nesting chamber for her soon-to-be brood. She was failing every time.

After many attempts she gave up or so I thought. Instead she had a  plan B. That is when I saw the most remarkable thing. She dropped the butterfly for the last time, landed on the ground nearby, crawled over to the victim, and  began to chew off the wings! First one wing, then another dropped to the ground. It was absolutely surgical. She methodically removed all four wings right where they attached to the thorax. Then she picked up the wingless butterfly body and flew away. They were gone in an instant, just like before. I stood there absolutely stunned. That little wasp had solved a problem in a very elegant way. I had already held the cicada killer in some esteem. After all, it was she who reduced Grandpa Cricket to a mere insect of manageable size. But now she had raised the bar. This insect could think! She had solved a problem right before my eyes.

After some moments of reflection, I picked up one of the butterfly wings and went home. That was enough adventure for one day. It supplied me with a story that I have shared many times, this being the latest. One of the great mysteries of that day is why I only took one of the wings. I left the others there, perhaps as testimony to what had happened. Not that anybody would be able to decipher the story from that little piece of evidence.
When I got home, I placed the wing in an envelope, quickly penciled in some notes, stuffed it in a notebook, and forgot about it. I think I had a haiku in mind when I made the notes but didn't want to take the time to properly construct one. It was some years later when I rediscovered that lone butterfly wing while browsing through one of my notebooks. It was badly deteriorated so I decided to mount it and keep the notes as they were, some form of imperfect, unrefined "lowku" with way too many syllables and lines to be anything else. I suppose I could use the first line as a title, then it would come close but that is not how I originally wrote it. Here is how it appeared in the notebook:

Butterfly no more
Paper-thin rattle
A burden for the hunter
Just baggage
No more

Now the wing, along with the original note, is matted, framed, and placed where I can see it from time to time. Nevertheless it has continued to deteriorate. The color has faded, pieces are missing, and the tiny scales that make up the mosaic of the design are falling off.  No doubt, though, this one lasted much longer than its mates, the three others I left lying there on the shore to tell the story to anybody who happened by and who was willing to listen.

Added Note:
(Warning: This part is kind of geeky. Don't read it if you think it might spoil the story for you.)

Over the years I have continued to doubt myself and this accounting. Did I really see it? Would a cicada killer really switch prey species? Under what circumstances? What would the next generation prey on if they developed a taste for butterfly? I do know that prey switching is not uncommon in other predatory species. What about the parasitoids, do they switch? Could it have been another predatory wasp that large with those markings or another kind of predatory insect? How about a robber fly? No, not the right kind of mouth parts for the surgery. I have finally decided that this one was certainly a cicada killer who might have been adding extra provisions to a nesting cell for a female egg. The female larvae are bigger and require more food. There already could have been  a cicada or two in the chamber. The butterfly was just a little extra insurance (or dessert if you prefer). Entomologists please weigh in here. 

I would love to have added one of my own photos of a cicada killer wasp but I wasn't able to get one this year. If you want to know what one looks like try this external link. Just be sure to come back here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grandpa Cricket: Cicadas and Childhood

For me there is a certain melancholy that comes with this time of year. It is triggered mostly by the daily choruses of the male cicadas looking for mates. The adults are nearing the end of their long life cycles, some as long as seventeen years. They are spending the short summer as adult flying creatures, preparing to mate, secure the next generation, and die with the coming of Fall. Those cicada songs portend the end of my beloved Summer and the beginning of the darkness of Fall and Winter. It is the annual cycle that lifts me up and puts me down with every orbit of earth around the sun. Whatever it is for them is one thing. For me, the cicadas sing a song of coming darkness.

My introduction to cicadas came long before I knew what they were and long before I ever saw one. As a little boy I was mesmerized by that sound. I can still remember running around with a jar, catching lightning bugs on late Summer evenings . I recall being focused on the little flashing things that I could see while ignoring the chorus of things that I couldn't see as the daylight faded away. But sometimes the raspy voices would penetrate my consciousness and there they would be! Those invisible, loud singers who started as soloists then built into some kind of mysterious and magnificent choral crescendo of textured sound. Who were they? How big must they be to make so much noise? Where were they? Why couldn't I see them?

My dad supplied the only answer I had for a long time. "Listen," he would say as one of them started up. "It's Grandpa Cricket." That was all the information I had and all the information I needed. My little four-year-old mind took over and constructed Grandpa Cricket out of just the name, the big sound, and an overactive imagination. Grandpa Cricket was huge,  mysterious, formless, and probably had an appetite for little boys who strayed too far from their parents on late Summer evenings. My dad allowed the fantasy. In some way it helped keep me in check. I am sure he was amused to no end but he never let on. As far as I was concerned, Grandpa Cricket was real and at least as big as I imagined. He was real because my dad, the biologist, had told me so. That was good enough.

  Newly Emerged                Mature 
It was years before I ever saw Grandpa Cricket in person. Even as I picked up those strange brown cicada nymph casings, I did not make the connection. I think I must have been twelve or thirteen years old before I learned about the life cycle and associated Grandpa Cricket with those large flying bugs with the clear wings, huge eyes, and greenish frosty looking exoskeletons who were not really crickets after all. I had even handled a few of the mostly dead or dying ones I found lying about during the late Summer.

Nymph Skeleton and Adult Remains

My very first focused encounter with an active cicada turned out to be my most exciting. I was maybe fourteen years old at the time. I heard a cicada calling from a nearby large bush and decided to try to find him. I wanted to get close enough to watch him make that noise. I wanted to be close enough to see every detail of that elusive big bug. So began the dance. I would move toward the sound. The sound would stop. I would freeze in place and wait. The sound would begin again and I would move again, closer and closer. It would stop. So would I. Sometimes I could barely move before it stopped but I was a determined cicada stalker. After what seemed like a lifetime of juvenile stealth, I was close enough for the sound to be almost deafening. But I still could not find the cicada. Something about his sound made it impossible for me to pin down his location, even though I knew I was within a few feet of my quarry.

I may have been having trouble finding the cicada but somebody else had no trouble at all. Something streaked past my head and into my field of view! Wham! My eyes followed it to where it landed and there right before me was Grandpa Cricket! But he had company. That streak was a large wasp, heavy bodied with bold yellow stripes on the abdomen. It had flown right past my head to attack the cicada. The two of them were locked in a struggle that was going to have only one outcome. The wasp stung the cicada who let out one last weakened crackly call then fell silent and motionless. After a short time, the wasp took off carrying the cicada into the air! They vanished as suddenly as the wasp had appeared. The once mighty Grandpa Cricket was gone, carried away by a creature smaller than himself but impressive enough. Grandpa Cricket's magic power over me was gone too, at least most of it. A bit still lives inside that little boy who still lives inside of me.

Grandma Cricket still looks pretty formidable
In the age long before the internet and long before Google, I set out to find out about that flying streak that had taken down the mighty ghost of my childhood. I was not ready for what I found.The flying predator does not kill her prey to eat. In fact she doesn't kill it at all, at least not right away and not directly. She is known as the  cicada killer wasp. As with many such wasps, they sting their prey, not to feed themselves but to feed their as yet unborn young. Cicada killer females are specialized predators. They sting cicadas to paralyze them, not to kill them. They bury the living cicada in a nesting chamber they have dug in the ground. They lay a single egg on the hapless cicada who remains sealed in the chamber until the young wasp larva hatches. The youngster feeds on the cicada throughout his early development until he becomes an overwintering pupa. The following Spring it emerges as an adult and begins the cycle all over again. Adult wasps don't eat cicadas. They are vegans like lots of wasps and seem satisfied with flower nectars alone.

Just recently as I was having one of my frequent walkabouts in the backyard I came upon a cicada in the grasp of a cicada killer. Unbelievable! There it was again. Just what I had been writing about in this blog. Now I could have the perfect photo to go with the rest. I ran for my camera but by the time I got back to the scene the wasp had gone. The cicada was still there, motionless but abandoned. I was so disappointed but not surprised. Sometimes the wasps  will abandon prey if it seems too much trouble to get it to the nesting site. I waited at a distance for almost two hours to see if she would return and claim her prize. She never came back. I guess I will have to publish this one without my own picture of one of the stars of the show.

As for the cicada, not to worry. Nothing goes to waste in nature. The ants had already begun to investigate. If they had not come along, a bird certainly would have. It was fresh protein. It was also a fresh opportunity for me. I shooed the ants away and brought the cicada inside for a more formal photo, this time of Grandma Cricket. She is still here. I thought about returning her to the outside to meet her already sealed fate. But then I began to imagine that she might be aware of what is happening. Being eaten by bird might make for a quick and merciful end. Being slowly dismantled by a swarm of tiny ants seems like a pretty horrible way to go. Perhaps neither is as bad as being a long term meal for the offspring of the creature that paralyzed you in the first place. Maybe nature is more merciful than I think. Maybe with the paralysis comes complete unconsciousness. I hope so. In any case, for now she is here, uneaten but not going anywhere.
Female Cicada: Alive but Paralyzed by Cicada Killer Wasp

Many years ago and miles away from here, I had another encounter with the cicada killer wasp. It changed my whole outlook on the insect world. But that story will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, before it is too late in the season, go outside this Summer and listen carefully to that chorus of the cicadas. Imagine yourself to be a little boy who had been told that those voices have a name: Grandpa Cricket. If you listen carefully, you may hear one of them emit a short stutter of a call, one that sounds like it has been interrupted or choked off. Chances are that one has just met a cicada killer (or perhaps a hungry bird).

August 14, 2010 Update:

While Grandma Cricket might have remained alive but paralyzed in the confines of the cicada killer's nest, she did not survive the week here with me. Now I am wondering what keeps them on life support during the period of confinement before they are eaten by the young wasps. In any case, I have sought to immortalize her with one last photo before I release her to the elements.

Panoramic View of Cicada. Click on Image to Enlarge

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Who Else Lives Here?

The place I call home is home to others as well. Not all of them are cute, furry, or feathery. Once one gets past the bunnies, squirrels, and birds, there is much more to see.  I try to pay attention to the seldom seen beings and their stories when I can. This is a small collection of some of those episodes from my yard.  All of the images are from right here on Nelson Street. It is amazing how many dramas are played out on a small scale right under our noses. They are all parts of the ordinary cycles of life and death amongst the small creatures that for the most part escape our notice. For them almost every encounter is a zero sum game that has a definite winner and a definite loser. We can start with one I have rarely seen, let alone photographed.

This female parasitic wasp has captured, stung, and paralyzed a caterpillar. She will drag it into a nesting hole she has dug in the ground.
There she will entomb the caterpillar and lay a single egg. The caterpillar will remain alive but paralyzed and sealed in the hole until the young wasp hatches. You can guess what it eats until it is ready to emerge and begin the cycle all over again.

Had that unfortunate caterpillar escaped the sting of the wasp and lived to complete its normal life cycle, it might have grown up look something like this beauty just out of the chrysalis.

Then there is the magnificent black and yellow mud dauber as seen here from underneath. I caught this lovely one inside my house and couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a closer look. After keeping her in the fridge long enough to slow her down, I placed her on my scanner and got this image. She was later released unharmed. Mud daubers, another of the parasitic wasps, build those crusty clay nests that seem to show up under eaves, mailboxes and other protected places in our homes that we do not clean very often. They sting and paralyze (but not kill) mostly spiders which they stuff into cylindrical clay tubes. Once they have enough spiders in a tube, they lay a single egg on one of the spiders and seal the tube with clay. She may create multiple tubes, each containing one egg and enough spiders to do the job. Then the whole thing is plastered over to make it look like a clay blob. When the young ones hatch, -- well you know the story by now. I will do a more detailed blog on the mud daubers later.

Speaking of spiders, I don't necessarily recommend allowing black widow spiders to hang around in places that you frequent, but they do make interesting neighbors, worth paying attention to.

This one has just captured a June bug in her web. If all goes according to plan, she will wrap her prey with silk bindings, paralyze him with venom, inject digestive juices into the body, and leave the chemicals to do their work of turning the insides of the bug into a juicy pulp. Then she will return, suck out the nutritious bug juices, and discard the empty shell of a carcass.

June bugs are probably not a favorite prey for the spider. It would be a big meal but they  have too much strength and too much armor. This captive has already wrecked the web with his struggles. He eventually escaped before she could wrap him up. As it turns out, this arachnid mother  had more than a few mouths to feed. Shortly after the June bug escaped, dozens of miniature black widow spiders emerged from an egg sac that had been hanging hidden under a nearby rock.

There is no way such a small area can accommodate that many black widow spiders. Most won't survive anyway since they are cannibalistic at that age. Others will fly away attached to a fine thread of silk blown by the wind. My guess is that some of them will wind up in one of those clay tubes that the mud daubers prepare.

My favorite predator neighbors are the preying mantises that show up every year. They deserve their own blog entry which is forthcoming. For now just consider this beauty looking back at me as I invade her space. Imagine being a fly and coming face to face with this.

That's it for now. In future postings I'll talk in more detail about other specific animals or plants that inhabit this little corner of the ecosystem and share some of my photos of them. For now I hope you have enjoyed these little sketches.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wildlife Habitat at Home in the City

For a couple of years I have intentionally allowed a part of my front yard to grow wild. It started as a way of providing Buttercup, a very large tortoise, a place to graze.

Since then it has become something of a habitat for rabbits (that is one of them in the picture), birds, and more insects than I can count. In addition, a number of young trees that I had been mowing down over the years have decided to emerge. Several junipers, a maple or two, and some unidentified larger growths as well. There are many different grasses and broad leaf plants added to the mix. I even harvested some viable grass seeds last year that I used elsewhere in the yard this year.

Most amazing of all, though was the little rabbit's nest, all lined with fur and marked by a well used pathway. It was a few square feet of wilderness right in my front yard. The rest of the place looked pretty normal. I mowed the grass around the habitat, kept the hedges trimmed, and even walked around the neighborhood picking up other peoples trash. Admittedly, I do not fertilize, water, or weed but I do mow. Actually I wish nobody would fertilize, water and weed. We would all be better off.

Imagine my surprise when I came home one day and found a sign in my yard that said I was in violation of some city code and that I had ten days to cut it all down or else! Here, read it yourself.

That's right, a public nuisance! Apparently somebody called the city to complain. The code enforcement officer from the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department came, took a look, and drove a sign-bearing wooden stake right into the heart of my front yard. Well, that might have been a little dramatic but you get the idea. This was absurd! What to do?

First I yanked up the  offending sign. Then I called the offending office.  After a couple of days of phone tag I finally got to talk to the code enforcement officer, the one who had driven the stake. (Okay, I know. I need to let that part go.) He explained that there was really no recourse. There had been a complaint and to him it looked like a neglected yard. What about an appeal? He said I could talk to his supervisor but unless it was some kind of wildlife habitat, there wasn't much he could do. He indicated that he was willing to come back to take another look and even bring his supervisor. I didn't want to involve any supervisors so we left it that I would get back to him about a second visit.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had picked up on his reference to "some kind of wildlife habitat." So I went online to the National Wildlife Federation website and found out how to have my place designated as an official Wildlife Habitat. The process is pretty straightforward. You just answer a few questions that show your place provides shelter, food, water, etc for  wildlife and that's it. You pay a small fee (a little extra if you want a sign) and you are in. A few weeks later I had my certificate and a nice sign to replace the ugly wooden stake that had been driven . . .okay, I'll let it go now.

So there you are. From "Declared Public Nuisance" to "Certified Wildlife Habitat" in a matter of a few days.

This one has a good ending. The code enforcement officer came back to have another look. He agreed that it was exactly what I said it was, an intentional wildlife habitat (not simply the result of a negligent homeowner). He said he would make a note in my file and any further complaints would be directed to that note. We wound up talking about some miscellaneous gardening topics and other conservation efforts in the city including the Beaver Marsh Preserve maintained by the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. I left the situation happy with the outcome and, just as important, impressed with a city official who is open minded and professional enough to reconsider his own decision in the face of additional facts. He was even tempered, cordial and cooperative in every encounter. Many other officials would have simply dug in their heels and the battle would still be going on.

Since all of this started I have been seeing those Certified Wildlife Habitat signs popping up in a few other places around the city. Maybe one day I will see one at your place.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Time at the Tracks

After much hesitation, I have finally resolved to begin a blog. I use the word "resolve" advisedly since, well, you know. Sometimes these things just do not have legs. For now let's just say I will try.

Recently I have been spending lots of time at a couple of sites in Durham, NC where I have been photographing railroad tracks. The two sites, one in East Durham near the old grain silos, the other near the new train station in downtown Durham, are both abandoned. The tracks have not been used in years. Ties are rotting, hardware is rusting, and vegetation is slowly reclaiming the tracks. 

I go there because of an almost lifelong fascination with railroad tracks. My childhood wanderings often led me to the railroad tracks, either along some  neglected and rusty remote spur surrounded by woodlands or across the dangerous territory of an active urban switch yard. The engines and cars were thrilling to see up close but it was the mechanics of the track that always fascinated me. 

This current project is about those tracks, the old ones. The images are close examinations of what made the tracks work and survive. While it is a series about technology, it is also a series about human imagination. The images reflect the  sculptural elements inherent in engineering solutions to technological problems. They also show the interplay between industrial production of components and manual installation of those same components. It is industrial perfection vs. human imperfection. In some sense there are ghosts of dead industries present in the images, references to defunct US manufacturers and former steel cities. Some of the older spikes might show hammer blows from some long-gone Gandy dancer while others show the precise marks of hydraulic drivers, the new robotic dancers that sing no songs but have work rhythms nevertheless. It is about  progress and decay. 

I have made a little slide show of some of the earliest images. You can find it at the Track Pix page on my website. This is only the beginning of a longer project that I hope will result in a show someday. For now the collection of images is growing and the project is taking on a life of its own.

In addition to making photographs of what I am seeing, I am also picking up little pieces of discards from years of track maintenance and track neglect. There are the railroad spikes, tie plates, track bolts, track anchors, and other odds and ends that I just pick up and bring home. Some of them have become parts of an ongoing sculptural exercise in my front yard. At some point these will be incorporated into a formal showing of photos and sculptures in some gallery or other public venue. That was a hint to any curators out there who might like to take this on.

As much as anything, this is about childhood vision. I am going back to a place I loved and seeing it all over again, through he same eyes, naive, full of wonder and fascination, but now with a sense of perspective. All the time I am hoping a real train will happen by while I am there. It never happens. Not on these tracks.

Like many kids, I had toy trains (after a certain age we started calling them "model" trains because "toys" were not cool) and all of the interest in trains that came with that youthful territory. In the real world though, I was always most fascinated with the tracks themselves. Sure the Locomotives and various cars were great, but for me the infrastructure was the most interesting part. I just loved the tracks. I used to walk along the very tracks that were recently torn up to make way for the American Tobacco Trail. I loved to walk them, even the trestle that crossed South Roxboro Street, a dangerous enterprise that has its own set of stories.  Now that is where I ride my bike. The area is built up on all sides of the trail now. It is truly an urban trail. The temptation to leave it and wander around in the wilderness is gone.

Back in the day the tracks made their way through undeveloped territory, across streams, through woods and small farms, across roadways, and even through little neighborhoods. It was far from the urban area that is now that part of Durham City/County. One could stay on the tracks and see all sorts of wildlife from snakes sunning themselves on the rocky ballast to the occasional fox or deer who always seemed surprised to see a human on foot in their territory. The tracks were something like a main trail from which one could have any number of adventures. A little detour into the woods or along a stream would always lead back to the tracks. They were the marker, the way back home.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doing the Right Thing

I was at the Beaver Marsh Preserve, just behind Compare Foods and Big Lots in on Avondale Drive in Durham, NC just a few days ago, right after the Beaver Queen Pageant. It had only been four days since a big work event that involved a hundred volunteers from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, dozens more locals from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, and even a herd of goats from the Goat Patrol. We had done tons of work hauling trash out of the marsh, clearing brush, disposing of invasive vegetation, building an information kiosk, setting fence posts, installing signs, marking trails, and anything else you can imagine a well kept nature preserve might deserve. The place looked really good.

Imagine my surprise when this guy drives up with a truck full of yard waste and starts to dump it right between the brand new kiosk and all the signs that say "No Dumping." The fact that I am standing there next to my parked car with a camera in my hand, seems to make no difference to him at all. So I speak up.

"Hey, you do know you are not supposed to dump stuff here, right? This is a nature preserve and dumping here is illegal."

"This stuff is biodegradable. There is nothing illegal about that."

"It doesn't matter. You are not supposed to dump anything here, biodegradable or not. People have put lots of work into making this place a relatively clean nature preserve. It is not a dump."

"If you can show me the law, some kind of ordinance that makes this illegal, I will stop. Otherwise, I know what I am doing" (He keeps unloading his truck and dragging the debris onto the bank behind the kiosk).

I put the camera to my eye and start shooting. He pays no attention.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" I ask as I keep shooting. He doesn't answer.  I get him. I get the truck. I get the license plate, I get the load, I get it all. Click, click, click. He keeps working. To be very honest, this is something those of us who care about the marsh have been waiting for, somebody caught in the act of dumping and enough evidence to establish his identity. A successful and highly publicized prosecution could be just what we needed to stop some of the dumping that is constantly spoiling the marsh. Game on!!!!

Finally the truck is empty and now he begins to try to hide his face. I keep shooting. He drives away, t-shirt pulled up in front of his face.

As he drives off, another Beaver Marsh admirer drives up and we begin to talk about how great the marsh looked. Of course I tell her about my face to face encounter with a dumper. 

Just then the truck returns. What now? I brace for trouble but somehow don't really expect anything to happen. I wait and watch. He goes right back to the dump site and begins to pull all of the debris out of the marsh and load it back into his truck. He was having second thoughts. We watch for a while. Then I go over and thank him for doing the right thing. He says he hopes this would satisfy anybody I had reported him to. I tell him that no report has been made and that the matter is closed as far as I am concerned. We shake hands, exchange names, and agree that the preserve is something to be protected. Then he asks me to take one more picture, this time with him doing the right thing.

By the way, I do realize that this might have had a very different outcome and that I was at some risk in the confrontation. I should also say that I have gone to some lengths beyond simply blurring this guy's face to disguise his identity. I did want to tell the story but I certainly didn't want to subject this young man to any unnecessary ridicule. Had he not come back, it would have been a very different situation. His real face and his deed would have been spread way beyond this little blog.