One of the first wildflowers to burst upon the scene in April is Trailing Arbutus, Epigaea repens – a true harbinger of spring. This plant is also referred to as Mayflower and Plymouth Mayflower, as it was a welcome sight to the Pilgrims after their first winter.
It is a first for me to find this plant in flower at this time of year; I have never even heard of this occurring. The flowers are often well hidden beneath leathery, evergreen leaves, so can survive the cold temperatures in April and May, but they face much greater challenges flowering in late October. Most of their main pollinators (bumblebees) die with the first hard frost, which most of northern New England has experienced. And even if, by some stroke of luck, a lingering bumblebee did land on and pollinate a blossom, it’s very doubtful that even with our warming climate, there would be time for fruit to form and mature. Certainly the energy used to produce fall flowers is an expense the plant can ill afford in its efforts to reproduce. (Photo taken 10-28-17 in Hartland, VT)
At this time of year, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps take advantage of the plethora of fermented fruit that lies underneath fruit trees. Because the queen slows down the production of eggs in the fall, workers have time on their hands, as they have fewer larvae to collect food (chewed-up insects) for. Their life (but not the queen’s) is about to come to an end, and they go out in style. If you have observed these members of the Vespidae family acting more erratic, it may well be because they are drunk on hard cider. (Photo: yellow jackets binging)
If you see what look like miniature water striders skating on the surface of a stream or pond, you may have come upon an aggregation of Broad-shouldered Water Striders, a different family of water striders from the ones we commonly see. They are tiny (2-6 mm) and very fast-moving, zipping here and there with the speed of a bullet, staying on top of the surface film, or surface tension, that is created by the attraction of water molecules. Adaptations to this mode of travel include non-wettable hairs at the ends of their legs that don’t disrupt the surface tension, and claws that are located a short distance up the outermost section of their legs rather than at the end of their legs, so as not to break this film.
Broad-shouldered Water Striders are often found in the more protected areas of a stream, where they tend to congregate in large numbers. Members of a common genus, Rhagovelia, are known as “riffle bugs” and are often found below rocks that are in the current. Broad-shouldered Water Striders locate their prey (water fleas, mosquito eggs and larvae, etc.) by detecting surface waves with vibration sensors in their legs. There can be up to six generations a summer (photo shows that they are still mating at the end of October). Broad-shouldered Water Striders spend the winter hibernating as adults, gathering in debris at the edge of the water or beneath undercut banks.
The number of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) is beginning to build as their fall migration from eastern Canada breeding grounds to southeastern U.S. gets under way. Late migrants, Hooded Mergansers won’t reach the peak of their migration until mid-November. They will not completely vanish from sight, however, as many Hooded Mergansers remain in New England on open marshes, ponds, rivers and creeks where they can find fish and crustaceans to feed on throughout the winter.
Every year I receive questions about this unusual-looking insect which is often found on and in houses in the fall. As a result, I publish a post about it every couple of years. For those of you with good memories, please excuse the repetition.
Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.
In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.
These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.
Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.
Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop. A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.
If you look on the underside of the leaves of a Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) tree at this time of year, you often find light-colored, raised bumps, commonly referred to as Hackberry Nipples Galls. The creatures responsible for these growths (through chemical interactions with the leaves) are a group of small insects called jumping lice, or psyllids, which resemble miniature (1/6 “ long) cicadas, with their large eyes and wings held roof-like over their backs.
Adult Hackberry psyllids emerge in September and October from the galls they have formed and seek shelter for the winter, often in the cracks and crevices of tree bark. Because they are attracted to lights and can often fit through the mesh of window screens, these insects also seek shelter in houses. Although considered a nuisance by some, Hackberry psyllids do not sting, nor do they carry disease. They pass the winter as adults and when they break dormancy in the spring, the psyllids exit houses, tree bark fissures, etc. and lay eggs on the emerging leaves of Hackberry trees. After the eggs hatch, the young psyllids start feeding, stimulating abnormal growth in the leaves, forming small pockets, or galls, surrounding the insects. The psyllids spend the rest of the summer sucking on tree sap safely within the protective galls before exiting in the fall. As a rule, these insects do not cause serious damage to their Hackberry tree hosts.