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.