Monday, June 30, 2008

Harmless Killers

Earlier this month, we started noticing a number of large wasps around a garden near our water meter. They were very active coming and going singly from the ground.



A closer inspection, showed that they had made several burrows in the sand.


When B lifted the lid on the water meter, we found another one.


With a little research, we discovered we had cicada killers, a kind of sand wasp. It is among the largest wasps found here, with the females being larger than the males. They are so named because the females hunt and paralyze cicadas with their stingers and bring them into their burrows as food for their young. This is no small task as the cicadas are more than twice the weight of the wasp. We observed one dragging the cicada over rough terrain. The males are the ones making the show of aggressiveness while they have no ability to sting, but do have a barb. Neither males or females are anxious to harm us and will only do so if stepped on or handled roughly.

Here is a dead one.

100_2790  We continued to notice them for about two weeks, but have not seen one since. According to our research, the egg laid on the cicada will go through its metamorphosis, feeding on the cicada, and emerge next spring as an adult.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Kentucky Wonders

I (S) have just returned from taking my mother to her school reunion in eastern Kentucky. She was one of three members of the class of "37 who were present. Over five hundred attended the event. We had a great week visiting with relatives and celebrating her 91st birthday.


A highlight of the trip for me was going to Natural Bridge State Resort Park, near Slade, Kentucky. 

My parents and brother have been there many, many times, but I could not remember having been. I now understand its appeal and look forward to visiting again.

My mother told me that when her sister was 80 she made the climb up to the top of Natural Bridge. It is a rather steep walk up about 300 feet, I think I was told. I told her if I could not do this at my present age, I would surely be shamed! I walked it alone before Mom got up for the day. Well I say "alone", but here is one of my fellow hikers, a Daddy Long Legs. My own father is 6'5" and has long legs so I have always liked the name of these critters.


Here is another companion, a chipmunk. There were several of these guys around.


I found this sign amusing because below the heading it tells about why you will probably not see much wildlife here. It is fuzzy because I was focusing on the large deer in the background. It was early and shady and so the light did not show him in the picture, save one bright, glowing eye.


When I returned  there was a chipmunk running around the sign. It was as though the animals wanted to make a mockery of it.

Near the top of the sandstone arch, a pair of pileated woodpeckers were making their usual racket. This one I think is the female.


This lovely luna moth was on the paved walk.


There are several trails that lead to the arch, but I took the original one that was supposed to be the easiest.


Here is part of the arch.


At the base of the arch, is a long walk--I counted 54 paces---through what is called Fat Man's Misery. My dad said it is a natural split in the rock.



This picture below shows how wide it is: about 3 sneakers wide.


This view is looking up from inside the space.


This is on top of the arch.


Here  are some views from on top.



There were other interesting things along the trail, including a charming shelter made by the CCC in the 1930's.


And serious poison ivy! No need to remind folks to stay on the trail!


I met one family when I was going up and one pair of hikers when I was going back down. Otherwise, I had the place to myself.

It was a wonderful way to begin a day. Continuing with a large breakfast in the lodge dining room  was just icing!

My roots are in Kentucky and I can see why my family continues to return, time after time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Carolina's Bloomers

One of the reasons we were anxious to go back to North Carolina in June was to see the mountain laurel and rhododendrons. And we did!

At the lower elevations, the rhododendrons were finished, but up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, there were plenty in pink, white and purple varieties.



The mountain laurel was even more prevalent and seems to grow right out of the rocks.



Their blooms look like small, open parasols.


In places, you could look across at a mountainside that appeared to have large pale rocks all over it. A closer look showed that it was covered in mountain laurel.


Less subtle is the flame azalea. Most were bright golden orange to peach but we saw a bright red orange one way up on a rock wall, too high up to photograph well.



A variety of insects are drawn to these flowers. Here is a honeybee...


...and a swallowtail butterfly, each enjoying the sweet nectar on a warm day.100_3013

We enjoyed seeing many other wild flowers and garden flowers as we drove.

100_3019 These included daisies, clover, sweet william, poppies, hollyhocks, foxglove, queen anne's lace, larkspur, huge peonies, primroses, violets, spiderworts, irises, naturalized orange daylilies and roses of all colors. Check out these purple roses growing on a hill above the farmhouse.


Along I-26, are mass plantings of flowers that were just stunning. Interestingly, when we looked at plants in nurseries and farmer's markets, we went into sticker shock. The price per container was much higher than we are used to in Tallahassee.

When we visited the arboretum in Asheville, there was a rose show in progress and we bought a pale pink antique climbing rose that the seller thought would do well here. He said he grew it in New Orleans so that sounds about right for us.

The quilt garden that we visited in April was now as shown in marigolds and red and blue salvia :


Having come for the flowers, we saw the flowers ---and in more variety and abundance than we ever expected.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Gall!

On our trip to North Carolina, we noticed a variety of galls. Galls are, according to Wikipedia, abnormal outgrowths of plant tissues and can be caused by various parasites, from fungi and bacteria, to insects and mites.

Look at all the curly growth on this cherry branch. A fellow hiker told us these galls were caused by mites.


These below were on different kinds of oak trees and look similar to each other but very different from the those on the cherry.

100_2936 100_2938

On another white oak, we found the most interesting of all:


These were of the punk rocker variety. 8^)


Further up the trail, we found a sign. (And yes, we believe in signs!)


High up on top Pisgah Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we found galls, too. These were on the flame azaleas. These were cold and wet to the touch. Though on different plants of the same variety, it was hard to know if we were looking at the same kind of gall at different stages of maturity or not.


100_2998 has lots of pictures of other various forms of galls.

We also learned from this site that the resins and tannins in galls are used for inks, dyes, and tanning (probably not in salons!) And that the larva is used as a survival food and as fishing bait. Guess we weren't THAT hungry.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cicada Concert

The first thing you notice is the sound. You can't determine what it is: car alarm? fire alarm? fan blade gone berserk on an air conditioner? And you can't tell where it is coming from because it is all around you. And then we realize that it is the bugs that had been hitting our windshield hard on other days. They were cicadas. But not just any cicadas. They neither look nor sound like the ones at home. The pitch was different. Our Tallahassee cicadas seem to talk back and forth from tree to tree. There was none of that. Just a roar. This was midmorning off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The ranger said they were the 17-year locusts.

We learned from a local publication that while they are called "locusts", locusts are actually grasshoppers and these are cicadas. But the 17 year part is accurate. These cicadas have been living in the ground for the past 17 years as nymphs, often more than a foot below the surface, eating plant root juice. They metamorphose into five developmental stages during this period. Their final spring when the soil temperature reaches 63 or more, they tunnel up and climb into the trees and bushes. There they change into their final adult form, by splitting open their backs and emerging as pale, wrinkled adults. They will dry as butterflies do and lose their wrinkled look.

Under the trees where we witnessed the deafening concert, were hundreds of these split shells.

After mating, the female will cut v-shaped slits in twigs and lay about 20 eggs. After a couple of months, the tiny nymphs will hatch and drop to the ground and burrow down to begin another 17 year cycle. There are some that are on a 13 year cycle. has really good information about this amazing creature.

We continue to learn about cicadas. B just found this blog:
From it we learned that with these kinds of cicadas, only the males are making all that noise!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Groundhog Dog Days

As we mentioned, it was hot in North Carolina and in the South we call the long, hot summer days, Dog Days. Dog Days are actually expected in July or August. But it sure felt like they had come in June.

We spent a lot of time in the rockers on the wrap-around deck/porch, reading and watching the wildlife. One evening, I was looking across the field and saw what I thought to be a large, dark cat. There are several farm cats that wander through the properties. But no, this was no cat. It was a groundhog! He had very good hearing and seemed quite cautious. I took several shots with the camera but it was so far off, they are nothing spectacular at all. In fact we would call them "alligator pictures." In the days of old point and shoot cameras, we were forever taking terrible pictures of alligators. You know the ones: the ones where you have to be shown exactly where in the photo the alligator is! So here are some groundhog "alligator pictures":

Here is how he first looked to me, creeping along like a hunting cat. He eats grass, seeds, fruit, flowers, some insects and eggs--all of which were most likely in this picture.


When he heard us, he stood up on his hind legs by the ancient apple tree.



We watched him on two evenings as he would come and go from holes. We witnessed his loud alarm whistle, which has earned him his other name of Whistle Pig. Our last evening, we walked long this fence line and found 4 entrances to groundhog burrows and evidence of his movement through the vegetation.


At one point, he climbed up on the fence brace and surveyed his kingdom. This picture is the hardest of all, taken at the greatest distance, but the most interesting. So to help you out: You can see the leaves appear to be in the open door of the shed. He is on the fence in front of those leaves, all stretched out, head up. It is sort of a seal pose, to me. We could really see how big he is.


Every year on February 2nd, we celebrate Groundhog Day in my kindergarten class. The challenge of this is that we don't have groundhogs in Florida. It is a little difficult to teach about groundhogs when you only have 2-D pictures and drawings. So you can imagine my excitement to find on this trip a little stuffed toy groundhog. And he did a really nice job of posing for me.


Ironically, B bought in the same shop a cookbook that contained a recipe for groundhog!

So if the groundhog can predict the weather, did he see these early Dog Days coming? Inquiring minds want to know.