This time of year you can often find many orange and black bugs on milkweed leaves. If they are black with an orange “X” on their forewings, they are small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii). This combination of colors, which many insects that feed on milkweed have, warns predators that, due to ingesting milkweed toxins, red and orange insects may be bad for their health. Adult small milkweed bugs feed mainly on milkweed seeds, but they also consume the nectar of a variety of flowers. In addition, they occasionally prey on insects, such as the ant in the accompanying photograph.
Red maple leaves can already be seen scattered on the forest floor. Their red color, as well as the purples of autumn foliage, come from a group of pigments called anthocyanins. Unlike carotenoids, pigments which produce yellows and oranges and are present in leaves year round, anthocyanins are produced towards the end of summer. At this time phosphate, which has been helping break down the sugar that the plant has made during the warmer months, begins to decrease in the leaf, and this triggers the production of anthocyanin pigments. The amount of anthocyanin produced is, in part, determined by the weather — cool and sunny days, and cold, but not freezing, nights all but guarantee brilliant foliage. Let’s hope the temperature drops a bit in the near future!
This morning I discovered the exoskeletons of nine millipedes clumped together at the top of a rotting stump. They were covered with slug slime, with said slug still at the scene. Presumably its stomach was full of millipede innards. If anyone can explain this phenomenon to me, I would be most grateful!
I want to share some exciting news with readers of my Naturally Curious blog and Facebook page! For the next year or so I will be working on a new book, NATURALLY CURIOUS KIDS, which Trafalgar Square Books will be publishing in 2013. While I am looking forward to this project, it means that I won’t have the time to continue to make daily postings on my Naturally Curious blog or Facebook page. Daily walks, photography, research and composing posts – even short ones — consume much of my time, and in the coming months that is time that I will need to put into my new children’s book. Please note that I will continue to post entries (how could I stop sharing my discoveries?), they just won’t be as frequent – perhaps once or twice a week. I hope you will continue to follow them and enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. I look forward to sharing my new book, and the photos I capture in the course of its development, with you in the days ahead. (The curly-headed cutie is my daughter Sadie, 25 years ago…)
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of the most sought-after native hardwoods. It has been heavily logged for its fine, straight-grained wood which has been used to make furniture, gunstocks and flooring. Because it is becoming increasingly rare, black walnut today is used primarily for veneer. The fruit of this tree is also highly prized, both for its meat as well as its shell, which is extremely difficult to crack, as anyone who has tried to do so by hand knows well. Because of this hardness, the shell has a number of commercial uses, including metal cleaning and polishing, oil well drilling, paints, explosives and cosmetic cleansers. If you would like to sample the sweet nut inside this shell, and are fortunate enough to know the location of a fruiting tree, the trick is to beat the squirrels to the nuts. After the first hard frost, collect the nuts. Eventually the green husks turn black and soften. After rinsing the nuts under water to remove the husks (beware that the husks are a natural dye and will stain your fingers), keep the nuts dry in a cool spot. The biggest challenge comes when you wish to extract the meat – commercial production involves running the nuts between two steel wheels. Barring that method, a hammer seems to do the trick.
It is not hard to figure out how coral fungus got its name, with its branching fruiting bodies that resemble aquatic coral. These fungi come in a rainbow of colors – white, yellow, orange, red, purple and tan, depending on the species. Typically found growing on the forest floor, coral fungi bear their spores on the sides of their branches (not on or ingills or pores, like many fungi). All fungi that look like coral were originally lumped into one group, but DNA analysis has determined that while these fungi may look alike, there are many differences between them, and taxonomically they belong to many different families. While many species are edible, some species are poisonous, and distinguishing between the two can be extremely challenging.
Birds and mammals that rely on beechnuts as a staple of their diet include black bears, white-tailed deer, fishers, porcupines, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, wood ducks, tufted titmice, and numerous small rodents, to name but a few. There is a good reason for this – beechnuts have about the same protein content as corn, but five times the fat content. Beechnuts also have nearly twice as much crude protein and twice the fat of white oak acorns and about the same fat content as red oak acorns. Given the number of husks and nuts that are on the forest floor this fall, it appears that this is a good year for beechnut mast, or seed production. Research has shown that high beechnut production in the fall is correlated with a high percentage of reproducing female black bears in the coming winter.
If you spend enough time looking under rotting logs, you’re bound to come across the tiny, pearly white eggs of a slug. With the right climate conditions, slugs will mate and lay eggs twice in a summer — once early in the spring, and once in late summer. Thirty to forty days after mating, the female slug lays her eggs under leaves, mulch, or in some other cool and moist location. They will hatch in 10 to 100 days — the length of time slug eggs take to hatch depends upon the temperature – the warmer it is, the faster they hatch.
This hen turkey is on the lookout for potential danger as she and her passel of young scour an overgrown field for grasshoppers. Often a flock of turkeys will form a line, with the hen near the center, as they advance across a field in search of insects. In the fall, turkeys also forage for acorns, beechnuts, fruits of black cherry and white ash seeds. They swallow their food whole, where it is then stored in their crop and later moves to their powerful gizzard, which crushes the nuts and seeds into digestible-sized pieces.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), is a perennial plant in the Aralia / Ivy family, commonly used in Chinese and herbal medicine. It is found in hardwood forests in New England, but due to over-harvesting, is quite rare (Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett are said to have made large sums of money in ginseng trafficking). It has a light tan, gnarled root that often looks like a human body with stringy shoots for arms and legs. If a plant looked like a part of the human body, it used to be assumed that it could cure that part. Because ginseng’s root resembles the entire human body, it was used to treat just about any ailment. American ginseng was used traditionally by Native Americans as a stimulant and to treat headaches, fever, indigestion, and infertility. Today it is associated with alternative treatment for diabetes, cancer, colds and flu, ADHD, immune system enhancement and sexual impotency.
Many ladybug beetles (ladybeetles) mate in the spring, but some species do so in late summer and fall. Each species of ladybeetle has its own pheromones for attracting a mate. Mating can last up to two hours, with the male climbing up and holding onto the female’s outer wings, while intermittently vibrating rapidly (making photographing them somewhat challenging). Their eggs hatch in 4 to 10 days, and within two weeks the larvae have matured into adults. Most of these aphid-eating predators will spend the winter hibernating, becoming active in the spring, when aphids are available once again.
We think of monarch larvae as being impervious to the ills of milkweed, but they are very vulnerable when it comes to the sticky latex in the sap of their host plant. The mandibles of young monarch caterpillars are often glued together by this latex, preventing them from eating. Research shows that about 30 percent of monarch larval loss results from miring in this glue-like substance. One strategy young larvae use is to chew a near circle in a milkweed leaf, blocking the flow of latex to the enclosed surface area, which they then eat. If a monarch survives the first few stages, or instars, of its larval life, it uses yet another strategy to circumvent the latex. Older, larger larvae often cut through the midvein of a leaf they wish to consume, which dams the latex flow to the entire leaf beyond the cut. Look for limp leaves as you peruse a milkweed patch. If you find one, you may be rewarded with the nearby presence of a monarch caterpillar.
Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are parasitic plants which obtain nutrients from the American beech tree. They insert a root-like structure called a haustorium into a beech root, absorbing enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October. Beechdrops belong to a family of plants (Broomrape), all members of which live as root parasites. Being annuals, beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees. Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the base of American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now.
You may well have heard the single “peep” of a male spring peeper emanating from the woods recently. It does seem odd to hear this call now, often far from water, as we associate it with spring courtship. This phenomenon occurs so regularly in the fall that herpetologists have given it a name – “fall echo.” They speculate that peeper calling is spurred by light and temperature conditions, when fall climate conditions are similar to those of spring.
In an effort to look even more like a stick, this wingless common walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), the only species of walkingstick in the northeast, has stretched its front pair of legs out straight in front of it, to either side of its two long antennae. In addition to being very well camouflaged, some species of walking sticks will rock their bodies side to side, resembling a twig swaying in the breeze. Worldwide, walking sticks range in length from an inch to over a foot and are often green or brown. Those in New England are usually about three inches length. Walking sticks are herbivorous, consuming the leaves of trees (often oaks) and shrubs, but we rarely see them, due to their camouflage as well as their nocturnal habits.
Robber flies have been covered in a previous posting, but their beak, or proboscis, deserves its own post, in my opinion. These predators perch and scan the sky for prey. When they see it they anticipate the prey’s direction and speed of flight and fly out and intercept it mid-air. Their objective is to paralyze the prey and liquify its insides so that the fly can drink it. The tip of the robber fly’s beak is covered with microscopic stiff bristles, designed to secure it within the wound it creates. Once this is achieved, a dagger-like shaft hidden inside the beak is used to stab its victim in the head or thorax and inject the paralyzing neurotoxic and digestive enzymes. The resulting fluid is sucked up by the fly’s beak, or proboscis.