Morning visitors

It’s that time of the year again, when the bugs and the deer discover all the tasty plants in my garden.  While the Japanese beetles ravage the leaves of the apple trees and raspberries, the deer fawns chow down on the wildflowers.  I don’t mind them, though, they are pretty cute, and very shy.

White-tailed deer fawns

Breakfast at the wildflower garden buffet

White-tailed deer fawns

The twin is completely hidden underneath the giant cup plants.

White-tailed deer fawn

Hyssop must not taste good to deer; they left it for the bumblebees.

This time, last year: a foxy morning

The usual suspects have returned to the back yard this summer, but one of my favorites is still missing, the pretty little red foxes.  So, here’s a glimpse of their visit to the backyard last year.

June 30, 2017:  What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

Building a nest

This is a tale of “if at first you don’t succeed”, keep trying.   Mr. and Mrs. Robin decided to build a nest above a light fixture on our garage.

Male American Robin

Mr. Robin: “this looks like a great place for a nest”

It’s a very unstable platform, and every stick added seemed to fall between the lights to the ground.

Robin with nest material

Incoming: bring more nest material…

Robin getting nest material

Outgoing: get more nest material…

But gradually, after a few sticks held in place, and with the addition of some critical flexible, long leafy material, a platform began to take shape, and the nest cup was added on top.

Robin with nest material

It’s a busy two or three days of flying back and forth adding to the nest structure.

Robin nest on exterior lights

Well, at least this nest is well protected from the rain…

I hope it’s strong enough to hold the weight of several growing chicks.

Back yard visitors

It’s nice to see familiar wildlife in the backyard.  These were my first (vertebrate) visitors since returning from May travels.

A singleton fawn (no twin around?)

Single fawn without doe

No mom around either…maybe it’s just exploring on its own.

Tom Turkey

Tom Turkey came to visit because I finally filled the bird feeders again.

Tom Turkey displaying

His display was half-hearted (no tail fan), but his gobble was pretty loud.

Tom Turkey

A beautiful bird, with a homely face.

now if only the fox family would come to visit…

A pretty pest

Looking for bees in the garden the other day, I came across an insect that looked a lot like a honeybee or small bumblebee, but something was not quite right.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

Right color, right hairy abdomen and thorax, expanded upper segment of rear legs where pollen baskets are located — but is this a bee?

It’s the eyes — they’re too large and round, and the antennae are too short.  It must be a bee mimic fly.

Honeybee, NPR science news, June 7 2018, photo by don Farrall/Getty images,

A honeybee, for comparison, has a triangular rather than round head, and ovoid eyes.  Photo from an article on NPR science news, June 7, 2018, by Don Farrall, Getty images.

I think my bee mimicking fly is a Narcissus bulb fly, and if so, my iris, lillies, and chives are in trouble. Adults feed on the nectar and pollen of a wide variety of flowers.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

A male Narcissus bulb fly dips its proboscis deep into the chive flowers. The two eyes touch at the center of the head of the male, but are separated by a small space in females.

But their larvae infest the soft tissues of the bulbs of these perennials.  Females lay from 40 to 100 eggs at the base of a leaf of bulb-forming plants, and the larvae crawl down into the soil and burrow into the bulb, eventually hollowing it out completely as they feed and mature to pupal stage.  Lillies, iris, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, etc, are all susceptible to infestation.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

There doesn’t seem to be a good way to control these pests, introduced from Europe, probably along with bulbs, in the late 1800s. Their strong bee mimicry makes most insect predators leave them alone.  Apparently, if you grow bulb-bearing plants in your garden, you’re very likely to have these destructive pests present.

Pollinators, large and small

The purple flowers are blooming in my garden: spiderwort, weedy creeping charley, iris, bellflower, mountain cornflower, and lovely blue wild indigo. And there are a few bees around, doing their best on the limited amount of nectar and pollen available so early in the summer.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

This queen(?) common eastern bumblebee approaching a flower of the false wild indigo is faced with the task of getting to the nectar at the base of the flower through what appears to be closed “doors” (lateral petals) of the flower.  She is really too big to fit.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Her weight is sufficient to separate the wings (lateral petals) of the flower, so she can poke her head (and tongue) deep into the base of the flower where there is nectar.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

The two halves of the keel petals at the bottom of the flower also separate under her weight, exposing the anther pollen and the bright, orange-yellow, three-pronged stigma (female receptive surface). Pollen she carries on her legs and body from another flower will stick to the stigma and travel down its tube to fertile ovules in the flower ovary to make seeds.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Pulling away from the flower before flying to the next one, you can see the contact between bee and pollen.

Lady Bumble made the rounds of the newer flowers at the top of the raceme, working her way from oldest at the bottom to newest opened at the top, and then on to a different spike of flowers.  But the small solitary bee working these flowers had an entirely different strategy.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

You can see how tiny this little bee is in comparison to the flower.  It preferred visiting the older flowers, whose petals were drooping and not fitting as closely together as in the younger flowers. 

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Now, how to get inside the flower to reach the pollen? Squeeze through the tiny crack between petals.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Crawling inside finally, the bee disappears for a few minutes before crawling out and making its way to another, older flower.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Older flowers may not produce much nectar, But smaller bees don’t require as much as large bumblebees anyway. And perhaps pollen collection was of more interest to this tiny bee.

a rare beauty

Lady’s Slipper Orchid may be one of the slowest growing plants in the world, taking 6 to 11 years to reach the size when it first flowers.  But when it does, we rarely fail to notice, and marvel at its color and structure.  All this from a minuscule seed the size of a speck of dust!

(Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

I was quite excited when my neighbor showed me the Lady’s Slipper Orchids growing in his back yard.

(Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

The name, of course, comes from its shape, the swollen labellum appearing to be a dainty shoe for a pixie-sized lady.

Like many showy flowers, orchids are dependent on pollinators to transfer pollen from one plant to another.  But Lady’s Slippers and another 40 percent of the 20-30,000 orchid species of the world attract their pollinators with color, fragrance, or even by mimicking the shape of a female pollinator of the same species, and offer no nectar reward.  How do they get away with “cheating” their pollinators and still ensuring pollination success?

By “inviting” them in, trapping them momentarily, and then providing a narrow escape route that forces the pollinator to squirm by sticky pollen sacs on the anther as they exit.  Here’s how it works.

One way route through the (Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

It’s a one way route through the flower, in through the enticing, colorful and fragrant labellum, and out through the slit in the back, top of the flower.  When they visit the next Lady’s Slipper flower, they rub the acquired pollen onto that flower’s stigma.  Voila, Pollination!

Bumblebees are too large to fit through the narrow slit at the top of the flower, so they exit the way they came in.  Smaller bees land on the hairy pad at the back of the inside surface of the labellum, crawl toward the light showing at the top, and squeeze themselves through the slit, as shown on the video below.

Practicing this deception seems risky, especially since bees are less prevalent today than they once were.  This rare beauty, once found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia is in decline world-wide.  It suffers from being over-collected, loss of habitat, and now —perhaps, a decline in the numbers of its pollinators.

eye level

My neighbor called to tell me there was a big snapping turtle on his patio, so I went over to make friends.  It was indeed a big one, maybe a female looking for a soft garden spot to lay some eggs.  I decided to get down on turtle level to take some photos.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles often come up into our yards from the lake across the street. Sometimes they bring a collection of algae on their shells, but this turtle is remarkably clean.

They are called snapping turtles for a good reason. Those toothless jaws can produce a powerful pinch, strong enough to tear flesh.  And if they can’t nail you with a vicious bite, snappers will put a nasty gouge in your skin with those long, sharp toenails.  Beware of picking one of these up!

Snapping turtle

That’s eye level, for sure. Look at all that loose skin under the head, which allows them to stretch their head far out of the shell and take a good bite of something.  They can extend their neck and flex it perpendicular to their body, latching their jaws onto whatever is nearby.  I was a little surprised not to see leeches or some other ectoparasites clinging to the turtle’s skin.

Once the turtle got tired of watching me, it moved off the patio toward the garden, raising itself up on its toes to step over a hose. How does a beast whose eyes are at the top of its head know where it’s feet are in relation to an obstacle on the ground?  Obviously, snapping turtles have a wider visual field than you might think.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtle walks over kinked hose by rising up on its toes!

You don’t go to Iceland for the weather…

A familiar phrase we heard from Icelanders during our visit this spring, “you don’t go to Iceland for the weather”.  But you do go for the fantastic scenery, which is often enhanced by the weather.

Iceland coastline at Villa

The weather looked menancing at Vik on the southern most tip of Iceland. But we ate our picnic lunch on the beach anyway, and finished just as it started raining.

Another common saying about their weather we found to be very accurate was, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”, or perhaps a little longer. Rain/sleet showers usually passed over us quickly, and sometimes we drove around them, as weather blew in from the coast and clouds got stuck on the high peaks.

Iceland weather

It looked like it was raining furiously off to the right side of the highway, but was pleasantly sunny where we were.

Iceland weather

Different day, different area of the coast, same weather.

If you like dramatic clouds and big skies in your photos, iceland is the place to visit.

Iceland weather

Usually the mountains were clear in the morning but then started to cloud up in the afternoon, as weather rolled from the coast.

Iceland weather

Why such a curvy road traversing a vast, flat lava field? Keeps drivers awake, appreciating the scenery?  I shot this out the front window of our car traveling at 50 mph, in sunny conditions.

A few minutes later, the scene looked like this.

Iceland weather

The white specks in the photo are the snow pellets raining down on us.

The Rift Valley of Iceland

Mid-ocean ridges on the ocean floor encircle the globe like the seams of a baseball.  Along their more than 40,000 mile length, magma seeps upward, building chains of underwater mountains and pushing continental land masses riding on massive tectonic plates further apart.

Mid-ocean Ridges, Wikipedia

The mid-ocean ridge system, Wikipedia.

Iceland is one of the few places on earth at which one can see the evidence of this activity, as the entire island sits right on the mid-Atlantic ridge and was formed from the volcanic activity at that site over the past 24 million years.

Mid-Atlantic ridge in Iceland

The best example of activity of the Mid-Atlantic ridge is at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, just 25 miles northeast of Reykjavík. Iceland Magazine.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

Separation of the North American and Eurasian plates can be seen in the fissures and cracks that develop along the mid-Atlantic ridge in Iceland.

What an unusual sight this area is, as land mass is added to Iceland at a rate of about 2.5 cm (one inch) per year.  The land here forms crumpled and jagged cliffs of rock surrounding flatter rift valleys.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

In Þingvellir National Park, a path takes visitors right down the rift between the North American (background) and Eurasian (foreground) plates.

The grounds at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park were a sacred spot for the Norse and Celtic people that settled the island in ninth century AD.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

A parliamentary assembly occurred for two weeks here each year from 930 to 1798 AD. An elected law giver would recite all the laws, new laws were debated, and merchants traded their goods.

Thousands of people attended these annual gatherings, to participate in the parliament as well as the trade of various goods.  Temporary homes were constructed, but no permanent buildings were erected on the site.

Lava flow, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

Recent lava flow is gradually broken down, allowing plants to colonize, but this Rift Valley is really relatively sterile and devoid of life.

There are a few birds, but most of them rely on lake or lakeshore habitat instead of barren lava fields for food and nest sites.

Tufted Duck pair

A pair of Tufted ducks can find enough aquatic invertebrates and vegetation to sustain them in the lake.

Graylag geese

Graylag geese seem to be found everywhere in Iceland, so cold water and barren lava fields are no barriers for them.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

However, interesting biological changes have been going on in the lake formed at the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago), when it was cut off from the sea.

Icy cold water that trickles into the lake seems to be the perfect habitat for growing king-sized brown trout that weigh up to 30 pounds, and Arctic char found open niches in the lake’s varied aquatic habitat, allowing them to split into six different species during the past 10,000 years.  Great news for fishermen everywhere that come to fish here and in the many fresh-water streams throughout the island that attract salmon on migration.