Monday, October 31, 2011

Real Zombies in Nature, and a Movie Suggestion

   Happy Halloween Everyone! How can you not love a holiday that's all about fun, candy, pumpkins, bats, owls, black cats, etc, etc.
   OK, before all you zombies experts get all riled up, I know the use of the term "zombie" is being stretched a little. Zombies are the undead, driven by an external force like witchcraft, who have no soul or mind, therefore they're not "mind controlled". I'm using the adjective form of zombie, not the noun.
   Who even knew flies and Gypsy Moths had a mind that could be controlled? Well apparently they do. Here are two fascinating stories I've heard recently that fall into the category of "Strange but True", and they're quite disgusting, perfect for Halloween.
   The first is about Gypsy Moths, no love lost here. Apparently they can become infected with a virus that turns off their appetite control, makes them eat until they're literally almost ready to pop, then climb to the highest point in their tree where they liquefy and rain down virus infected goo on the leaves below them, which the other caterpillars soon ingest and become infected too. Isn't that brilliant? You can listen to or read the story here about the Gypsy Moth zombie virus.
   The second story I heard just last night. Similar to the Gypsy Moths, but this time involving mind controlling parasites and fungus, it tells of exploding flies spewing infectious spores into the wind and suicidal crickets drowning themselves before a worm exits their *ahem* body. We've actually seen a hair worm "exiting" a grasshopper. I'm still freaked out about it. Very gory, very true, very cool. You can listen to or read the story here about the mind controlling parasites.

   Now, if you need to erase all that from your memory in order to sleep well tonight, or you're like me and like to celebrate Halloween with a good themed movie, here's a couple of my favorites:

1. Young Frankenstein          (gotta love Frau Blucher)   horse whinny
2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde      (the 1931 version, you're not a film connoisseur if you haven't seen this)
3. The Shining          (not gonna sleep after this either)

Squeak's ready for Halloween, Black Cat Zombie. (caught in the act of meowing)

Friday, October 28, 2011

One Last Look

Well, as most of you know by now, the first winter storm of the season is on it's way to the Mid Atlantic and New England. It was 75 degrees and humid yesterday, now it's 41 and sleeting. Hopefully we won't get any of the snow, it would surely do damage to the still leafy trees. Here's one last look at the colors before they're gone...

A colorful greeting at the entrance to Dean

Colors always look best on an overcast day

Bedding down before the storm

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Parting Shots

Here's a few parting shots from what's sure to be one of our last warm days for a while. I've been quite surprised how many plants are still putting out blooms this late in the year, a month from now and we're likely to have already seen snow. Two of our trusty winter migrant birds, White Throated Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos, have already landed on the scene. I want to hold on for as long as possible, but I know winter is necessary...

Honey Bee on Basil
I planted the Basil for myself and didn't realize the bee's would enjoy it just as much, if not more

Cabbage White on Anise Hyssop

Crab Spider hiding inside a Japanese Anemone blossom

Paper Wasp on Tropical Milkweed

Carpenter Bee on Lavender

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Recycling Nature, How We Spent Our Weekend

   It's that time of year, leaves are piling up everywhere, lawns, driveways, sidewalks. What's a gardener to do? They all won't fit in the compost tumbler, and you certainly don't want to bag them and toss them in the landfill. (Shame on you if you do!) Have you ever noticed the best soil is in a forest? Why? Because the leaves fall and that's where they stay until they decompose. I've been studying and thinking all summer long about what I can do with the leaves, and at the same time reading a lot (mostly on all of your blogs) about the benefits of reducing or eliminating lawns. And so it began.
   This weekend Jeff and I took advantage of the idyllic weather and raked up all the leaves and pine needles that had fallen already and began distributing them. We have grandiose visions of planting up the entire back yard but there's way too much turf to dig up and we'd like it to evolve over time. Smothering the grass as we go seems like the best option, and that's where the leaves come in. We're starting under the oak tree along the fence, where the grass is sparse anyway. What better to mulch under an oak with than oak leaves!

We started with the leaves on the ground nearby...
Then added some we raked up from the lower end of the yard...
And this morning I covered the area with netting and added some logs to hold it down and define the area.
   Project Grass-B-Gone has begun. There is/was grass growing right up to the base of the trunk, but I neglected to get a real "before" picture. As more leaves fall we will rake them into the pile and extend the logs out.
   The logs themselves are another recycling item. Every time a limb falls from a tree or if a tree is blown over, we use the wood for something. The bigger pieces I use for edging the boundary between planting beds and lawn. The smaller pieces get tossed onto a brush pile out under our bird feeding area. Brush piles are much appreciated by small critters like birds and chipmunks as a safe scurry spot, and as a great place to hunt for insects.

The beginnings of my brush pile, I've already seen a chipmunk checking it out
An exquisite piece of yard art, it's hollow all the way through, a perfect scurry spot

   One more thing you can recycle is bark, especially if you can get it in big chunks. What can you use it for, you ask? How about using it to hide ugly well heads. There's a dead tree over at dean whose bark is falling off in big strips, so Jeff brought some home and placed it around the well to disguise it. The well is right in the middle of our berry garden and we can't plant anything right up next to it in case it ever needs to be accessed. I think it looks better now, needs some more bark though, we want it to look like an old tree stump.

   Eventually we'd like to fill in this area with Winterberry Hollies, Viburnums, and maybe Virginia Creeper on the fence. All berry producers for our living birdfeeder section. Right now all we have is a Crabapple and a few Blueberry bushes, just enough to keep our resident Mockingbird occupied.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I'm Your Huckleberry...

This little Merchant of Death (aka Horsefly) landed on Jeff's car following a trail run and waited for him to drop his guard for a second as he changed clothes. Attention was maintained, pain was avoided...this time. He even managed to get this swell photo without suffering its wrath.

I got's all my eyes on you
By the way if you've never been bitten by a horsefly, consider yourself lucky. It's a pain you will never forget.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Intentions

Oh, Jeff. That crazy wonderful husband of mine. I love his enthusiasm.

He was out trail running yesterday morning on one of his favorite trails on Mill Mountain when he came across something he thought was special. 

Oh, it's special alright.

So special that he pricked off a piece to bring home for me to identify, dutifully carrying it with him the remaining miles of his run.

"The birds are gonna love this! What is it?"

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, it's not a good thing, in fact it's one of the worst non-native invasives we have around here. It's Asian Bush Honeysuckle. We only ripped out about a hundred or so over at Dean this spring. But since they were in bloom then, and now they have berries on them, he didn't recognize it. Now he'll never forget.  It can be tricky to identify since it looks similar to some native Honeysuckles when in flower. However, the give-away is if you break off a stem or branch of Asian Bush Honeysuckle you will notice it has a hollow center. The natives do not not.

You can read more about Asian Bush Honeysuckle here and here.

The offender
 He felt so embarrassed, he volunteered to go stand in the corner as punishment, bowing his head in shame...

It's OK, you can come out of the corner now

Two years ago I was running on the same trail as Jeff when I came across the same plant. I thought it looked great, loaded with berries, just waiting for a flock of Cedar Waxwings. I tried so hard to identify it and never could, it made no sense. The problem was my ID books contained only native shrubs and trees and I didn't know the difference. I had no idea we could have non-natives growing "wild" in our woods. The only problem plant I knew about was Kudzu. Now, having learned about non-native invasives, I realize why I couldn't find that, and many other plants in my ID books.

Oh, how far we've come!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Everybody's Doin' It...

*Yes, you're in the right place, I changed my background to match the season.  

   At Dean, there are oodles of Walnut trees. Nowadays, every time we drive on onto the property, there are squirrels everywhere, each loaded down with a walnut. The ones on the right side of the road race to cross over to the left to stash their prize. And, you guessed it, all the ones on the left are making a mad dash to the right side in search of the best possible hiding place.
   Kinda like a dog or cat. If indoors, wants out. If outdoors, MUST get in!

Now you just look the other way so I can hide this thing!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Bluebirds are Back!

   In the spring, Bluebirds were plentiful and fought for nestbox ownership with a group of Tree swallows. The Tree Swallows won round one, and the Bluebirds moved down to our other box in the lower portion of our yard. Apparently the top box, which gets the first sun of the day is considered the premium box. As soon as the Tree Swallow family fledged in June the Bluebirds swooped in and won round two, raising a second brood in our top box, and House Wrens (which don't show up until June anyway) took up residence in the lower box.
   Ever since the Bluebirds fledged their second brood, they moved off down the golf course and we rarely ever saw them. Until now! The weather is starting to get cooler, especially at night, and as they do every winter, the Bluebirds are back looking for a nest box to claim as their roost box. It's amazing to see 6, 7, even 8 birds wiggle their way in to a box to keep warm for the night. Here at home, at Dean, and at my parents house, we all began noticing the return of the Bluebirds at the same time. We'll see them start to congregate, then climb in for the night around dusk. They'll usually spill out before sunrise, when it's just barely light enough to see the box across the yard. The only competition they have have now is from a Mockingbird who sometimes likes to use the box as a perch from which to guard the nearby Crabapple tree. Occasionally, a Phoebe will also use the box as a hunting perch. They're all using it at different times of day though, so they're coexisting quite well.
   So, if you have nest boxes on your property, don't forget to clean them out. Get rid of the old nest and scrape out the poo, birds don't need a nest for roosting. Plus it just takes up space, removing it will allow more birds to squeeze in!      
...At Dean
...A closer shot at Dean, "You know, real estate prices are down, it's a buyers market, I'll make you a good deal!"

...At home, our "top" box, "what d'ya think Pa?"

..."I think it looks pretty swell, what d'ya think Ma?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

300 Robins Can't Be Wrong...

Hurry up! They're almost gone!
   Now add a hundred or so of his closest friends all calling and flashing from tree to tree...all day long for the past two days and you get an idea of the party that was going down in the woods at Dean. I'm pleased with the berry crop that the Dogwoods produced this year, I was concerned it may have been lackluster due to the drought of the summer. I wish some of these guys would fly over to our house, which is only about a mile away. Our Dogwoods seem to be getting ignored, the berries are starting to fall to the ground.  

"What are you lookin' at?"

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Finally! Pictures of the Monarchs!

   The Monarch Parade continues...It's really quite wonderful to see so many of these butterflies doin' their thing. I've had the hardest time trying to photograph them, they are so jumpy. It's been about 4 weeks since I started seeing them consistently heading south, with just a short break in the middle when we had some chilly weather. I don't know if it's because we live along a mountain range, but this area seems to be on their flight path. Is anyone else out there seeing the Monarchs in large numbers? It blows my mind how far these tiny fragile creatures fly.
   They're not stopping anywhere in my yard to feed, but they are feeding heavily from my neighbors yurt sized Buddleia. While I don't recommend anyone planting one because there are far better alternatives, I am happy to see it providing some much needed nectar for these hungry Monarchs.

*Click on the pictures for a larger, better view.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

That Just Happened!

   I was just going about my day when I spotted the cats locked-in on something. Upon investigation, it turned-out to be a decent sized spider. It was still moving well and I didn't want the girls to eat it or get bitten. (Our youngest, Squeak, ate a tiny member of the wasp family and took a sting on her Mao Tse Tongue!)
   I gathered the spider in a plastic cup and placed it lovingly in the camouflage mulched area just off the back deck. I felt a sense of kinship with Mother Nature herself as I had completed the Good Deed for the Day on her behalf. I walked about 3 paces back to the door and wooooooooosh! A Bluebird flew across the yard from the nestbox where it had been watching. She gave me a quick side-eyed glance, snatched-up recently rescued spider, ate it and flew away. I could only think of the words of Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights: THAT JUST HAPPENED!
   No picture for obvious reasons. I still can't believe what happened. I promise this is a true story, that spider wasn't on the ground for five seconds before it was grabbed by the Bluebird. Not only did it see the spider, it trusted me enough to fly down and grab it within five feet of where I was standing!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hummingbirds and Monarchs...

   This was one of the last Monarchs to pass through our yard, the migrating wave seems to have moved on south. I was lucky to see this particular one from my bathroom and still have it be there when I ran out with the camera. It really seemed to appreciate what was left of my sad, aphid infested Tropical Milkweed (asclepias curassavica, awesome plant by the way, easy to grow from seed, bloomed all summer!)
   The Hummingbirds also seem to be mostly gone. I'm still seeing a straggler maybe every other day or so, fortunately I still have plenty of hummer plants blooming and fresh nectar in the feeder. Pretty soon the Juncos and Yellowrumps will arrive and officially signal the beginning of the winter birding season.
   So, if you live south of Virginia, you still have a chance to see the Monarch wave pass through, for us it lasted about two weeks, peaking in numbers in the middle. Good Luck!