Winter Night Flyers

When we purchased a trail camera earlier this year we were expecting to see the night wildlife we knew were in the neighborhood like rabbits and raccoons. We weren’t disappointed. As soon as we started recording the nighttime activity in the yard we captured all of these as well as mice, Virginia opossums and illegally roaming cats. What we really are hoping for is to record one of the neighborhood foxes visiting our yard but that hasn’t happened yet.

What has been a surprise and has gotten me intrigued is the repeat appearance of night-flying insects well after what I thought was the normal season for them. They’re too small to set off the camera themselves, but I’ve seen them frequently when an animal has triggered the video.

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Here’s one where the raccoon waddling away at the top of the steps has started the recording. The critter can be seen swooping down and up at the top of the frame. The first image is at normal speed and the second is slowed down to one quarter speed. Sorry I had to resort to animated gif images, but I can’t figure out how to put videos into a post without subjecting you to more advertisements. The temperature at the time this video was taken was about 15°F/-9°C.

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Here’s a one-quarter-speed shot of another sighting the following night, this time flying from the lawn area at the top of the steps in over the deck. The temperature at this time was around 25°F/-4°C.

So what’s flying around in the middle of the night, in below-freezing temperatures, when all the plants are dormant and there sure as heck isn’t any nectar out there to dine on? One of my BFFs is an actual entomologist. He suggested what I was leaning toward—that these are moths, probably in the family Noctuidae.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and I may have observed a suspect in the case.

I spotted this beauty hanging on the screen of the kitchen window around 8 PM when the temperature was a balmy 37°F/3°C. I’ve tentatively identified it as Eupsilia morrisoni, Morrison’s Sallow, using iNaturalist’s computer vision identification application. Over several recent evenings I’ve deployed a primitive light trap I cobbled together in the back yard. It hasn’t accomplished anything but perhaps annoying or puzzling the neighbors. The weather has turned wet so I’m going to put off trapping attempts for a while. I was kicking around the idea of creating a better setup using UV light next year but maybe I’ll move that project up a bit and see if I can capture any other winter night flyers.

Have you ever encountered critters in winter you assumed wouldn’t be out? I’d like to hear about them in the comments.

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Encore Appearance

I’m not a big fan of winter, to say the least. If autumn just graded back into spring I wouldn’t dread its coming so much. But as the situation is where I live, it signals the end of the lively summer and ushers in the comparatively lifeless season of cold and snow. This was on my mind when I went for a walk a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t expecting to see any more insect life to speak of this season when I came across dozens of these beautiful Virginia Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) caterpillars on a trail in the Biocore Prairie.

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It was already the first week of November and I had it in my head that as far as invertebrates go, 2018 was a wrap and in the can. I guess that warmish day was enough to entice them out for some last-minute feeding before they bedded down for the winter.

Different species of butterflies and moths overwinter in different stages of development depending on the species. Some hide out in the adult form, some form a pupa to while away the seasons. Still others, like this species of day-flying moth overwinter in the larval stage huddled under leaf litter or another safe place. When the weather is amenable they will become mobile again.

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The well-known Wooly Bear caterpillar like this one I found near the trail full of  Ctenuchas is another species that spends winter as a caterpillar. It’s the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth and, no, the width of its brown stripe has nothing to do with predicting the severity or length of the coming winter. Sorry. I’ve found them running around at the end of December and if I remember correctly it didn’t feel particularly warm when I did.

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The adult Virginia Ctenucha moth is quite eye-catching and a treat to find flying around the prairie. It has beautiful dark wings that set off its golden orange head and metallic blue body.

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I photographed the individual above hanging upside down on common milkweed for a while before I realized it was dead, possibly the victim of an ambush bug that had already fled the scene of the crime. It did give me the opportunity to see that stunning blue body better.

I returned to the same location of the caterpillar party the next day and again found the multitude of yellow-and-black beauties crawling around and munching on grass, but the day after that I could only locate one. Still, the whole experience was a good reminder that despite some appearances, there is still life out there, just waiting for the right time to get busy again carrying on.

Pollinator Garden Progress

Over a year ago I dug into converting my perennial gardens to include more native plants as resources for pollinators. The first thing I did was dig out several large patches of bugbane (Actaea sp.) to make room for more of a variety of species. While the bugbane was actually a favorite of the bumble bees, it was a prolific seeder and it’s high, dense leaves crowded out many other plants. I did keep one small patch contained between the house and a brick patio, but the rest I tore out with a vengeance, along with a couple other weedy species. I then covered the area with a double layer of cardboard that stayed in place through the fall, winter, spring and summer until I took it up only recently.

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Between the cardboard treatment and the strategic relocation of the Eutrochium and a couple of Hosta I ended up with three decent-sized areas of bare ground waiting for me to plug in new plants.

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I had bare-root Rudbeckia laciniata and Asclepias incarnata I got from Prairie Moon Nursery. The plants were very robust so I expect them to be awesome next season.

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I also had several Agastache foeniculum in pots I grew from seed as well as seed-grown plugs of Allium cernuum, Elymus hystrix, and Symphyiotrichum shortii.

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To round out the variety a friend gifted me a boxful of excess Polemonium reptans from her garden and I purchased some end-of-season sale Monarda of some cultivar whose name escapes me at the moment. It will be interesting to watch for visitors to the Monarda as there is a discussion going on currently in some circles about the attractiveness to pollinators of cultivated varieties of native plants.

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Since digging squirrels are an ongoing problem at Brakewynde I covered the most vulnerable of the transplants with plastic hardware cloth. The smaller plants were going dormant anyway so I just gently bent them to the side. The bare-root transplants had taller, stiffer stems so I placed cobbles on either side of each one to keep the plastic from crushing them.

After the transplanting was complete we had several days of gentle rain showers to help settle them in and then the leaves fell in earnest providing an insulating layer. My intention is to get the plastic off next spring as soon as shoots start to appear. Despite having quite a few plants there is still space to fill so I’m going to spend some time this winter prioritizing which species I will be obtaining early next year. I’m very much looking forward to enjoying a greater variety of blooms in 2019 and, with any luck, a greater volume and variety of visiting bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and beetles.

I Changed My Mind

One of the benefits of time and experience is that you can change your mind about things and change your actions relative to your new perspective. When I began creating the gardens at Brakewynde nearly three decades ago I knew little to nothing of native plants and their value in the landscape. I undertook a “Me vs. The World” approach of planting and nurturing what I liked and ruthlessly weeding out what I hadn’t planted myself or didn’t recognize as contributing to my efforts.

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For years I waged a futile battle against the blue wave of Scilla that bloomed every spring, choking out the smaller plants I was trying to nurture. Then, when I began to appreciate the value of these obnoxious aliens to pollinators, I softened my view of them. Now they provide a reliable attractant for stalking bees in my own back yard. I no longer waste time trying to eradicate them or to grow plants I know they’ll outcompete. But I don’t feel particularly bad when I unearth and probably kill their abundant bulbs when I’m digging and planting as I was last weekend.

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Another plant I tore out every time it dared to pop up was White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. The leaves are boring, the flowers are small, white and boring, and most importantly, I hadn’t planted it. Then, this year I did a little project. I made a chart of all the flowering plants in the gardens at least to genus level and dutifully checked off which ones were in bloom each week of the growing season. I wanted to see where the flowering gaps were that I could fill to make my garden more pollinator friendly. The first revelation was that after the riot of spring bloom there wasn’t much going on until the Hosta kicked in later in the summer. The second revelation was that there were only a few species that trooped on blooming through October, Ageratina being the most conspicuous one.

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The Snakeroot first got my attention when the Monarchs we were rearing in the house started to emerge and I looked for flowers to place them on outdoors in case they needed a nectar snack before heading off to Mexico. They were the tallest plants still in bloom and seemed like a logical choice. It was then that I decided that in the future instead of ripping them out when they appeared where I didn’t want them I will transplant them to more appropriate spots and cultivate them as valuable members of the pollinator garden.

Curious about the ecology of Ageratina altissima I turned to one of my new favorite resources, HOSTS. It’s a database of lepidopteran caterpillar host plants around the world.

In HOSTS I found that the caterpillars of the Clymene Moth, Haploa clymene, live on Ageratina. Above is a pretty specimen of that species I found in the garden. I’m going to keep my eyes open now for caterpillars on the plants and perhaps try to rear some if I discover any.

Another resource I consulted was the list of insect visitors to this species at Illinois Wildflowers. It’s extensive! I’ll be staking out its blooms in coming seasons as I work to add to the list of pollinators in the garden.

Finally, the grim side of White Snakeroot—it’s poisonous to grazing animals. What’s more, the toxin can be passed on through milk and meat to humans who consume it and it’s even suspected to be what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother! Good thing I’m not planning on pasturing cattle in the gardens any time soon.

September Ends

I got out yesterday for a nice hike, nature walk, some naturalizing. I’m still not sure what to call these walks. With the weather changing somewhat precipitously I wanted to grab the opportunity to spend what the forecast indicated would be the last sunny day of my long weekend. As luck would have it, the clouds moved in before I got out. Consequently it was difficult to get decent photos, especially in the woods. Still, it was a nice, rejuvenating outing.

Despite there still being flowers in bloom there wasn’t a pollinator to be seen. The temperature was around 50°F/10°C. In the prairie there was a lot of bird activity but that and the occasional pile of coyote scat were the only signs of animal life. Seems I nearly always see something new and interesting on my walks and this time was no exception. It was very quiet out so a rhythmic tapping sound in the prairie caught my ear. A little searching revealed a downy woodpecker hunting on a tall forb’s woody stem. Makes sense but I haven’t seen that before.

September was kind of a disappointing month here for me. There was so much rain and then when we went north to do some camping there wasn’t much to see. Still, even though we came back a day early because of the cold and boredom, I did get some last-of-the-season observations of pollinators, a good, long look at an accommodating ovenbird, and an encounter with a wonderfully-disguised hemlock looper moth caterpillar. I also made some fungus and moss observations I’ll work through trying to identify before I post them to iNaturalist this winter to combat cabin fever. I’ve also got dozens of bumble bee observations there I want to add to Bumble Bee Watch, but their system isn’t as streamlined as iNaturalist’s, in my opinion.

As autumn turns into winter my walks are going to be more for exercise than nature observations so I’ll resume listening to podcasts while I’m out. My search for good natural history content hasn’t yielded much so I’m open to suggestions.

Besan Ki Roti

I finally got around to making something with a portion of the chickpea flour I planted, harvested, and ground. In the past I’ve made roti, an Indian flatbread, with only whole wheat flour and water. This time I whipped up a batch that blended the whole wheat, some white flour, and the chickpea flour or besan. A little yogurt was added this time as well and I think it added some softness and flavor. I just mixed up all the ingredients, kneaded it a while, and divided the dough up into balls that were  hand-rolled to be seamless.

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Then, after a rest I rolled them out to their finished size.

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This type of bread is cooked on a flat griddle. I used our non-stick one cooking them one at a time and turning when they started to brown.

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Then the real fun began. When the bread was cooked enough, I pulled it off with tongs and lay it directly on the gas burner. When done correctly, it puffed up like a balloon, as you can kind of see in this horribly-lighted image.

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Most of them turned out nearly perfect. Perhaps even good enough to earn me a handshake from Paul Bollywood…

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In any case, they went well with the curry I made using some of our winter squash.

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Three New Crops: Part Three

Several years ago a horticulturist friend of mine gifted me with a paw-paw fruit to taste. It had been grown by another friend of his and he thought I’d appreciate giving it a try. I liked the taste and was impressed with the large, beanlike seeds. Since I’m always trying to grow random things, I potted up the seeds in some number one nursery containers I had sitting around and waited to see what happened. If I remember correctly–this was eight or ten years ago–they actually took over a year to send shoots up. When they were a couple feet tall or so I planted them along the west fence in the back garden which was the brightest spot at the time but still shady. Those are the conditions paw-paws like.

Fast forward to the spring? of 2017 when I was looking at the garden and noticed something weird on the largest of the trees. When I got closer I could see it was the pendulous maroon cup of a flower. Closer inspection revealed that there were several more on the tree. It was finally blooming!

As luck would have it, our next-door neighbor also has paw-paw trees and when I told them we had blooms, he suggested we cross-pollinate them since they are supposed to not be strongly self-fertile. We traded pollen back and forth between our trees several times as more flowers became receptive and I tagged mine with the dates. The flowers were also being visited by what may have been small flies. The flowers are not sweetly scented but are rather more carrion-ish.

Not all took and some that started forming small fruits failed and fell off.

In the end there were two that looked promising hanging just above head height.

Paw-paws fall off the tree when they’re ripe and ready to eat so I rigged mesh bags below them to keep them from just becoming squirrel and chipmunk chow.

I think that would have worked, but somehow one of the little buggers managed to chew a fruit through the mesh and ruin one end of it. Not wanting to lose them completely, I picked them a little early and cut them open after trimming off the damaged bit.

The flesh was soft and sweet-smelling, though maybe not as much as if I had been able to leave them on the tree longer. If you haven’t tasted paw-paw you should if you ever get the chance. It’s the most northern growing of the members of the custard apple family and definitely has a tropical flavor sort of akin to banana or mango but unique.

Now that I had some, what to do with them? Two of our best besties were in town that weekend and we were going to dinner at their place so I offered to take care of the cocktail course. I found a recipe online for something called a Paw-Paw Rum Runner that called for both fruit-infused rum and puréed flesh.

They were good, but I think the rum overpowered the flavor of the fruit. Additionally, I felt like I was wasting some of it in making the infused rum. That bit of fruit became inedible and didn’t really impart much flavor to the booze.

Just as before, those many years ago, I saved the seeds from both fruits and potted them up in my homemade compost. There are now seventeen pots sitting in my propagation area waiting to possibly, slowly, eventually bring this tropical-flavored native fruit to the gardens of my friends and neighbors.