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.
It’s nice to see familiar wildlife in the backyard. These were my first (vertebrate) visitors since returning from May travels.
now if only the fox family would come to visit…
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.
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!
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.
The devastation caused by two back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. has been tragic for the people that live(d) in these areas, but we haven’t really heard much about the impact of Harvey and Irma on the wildlife there. The massive deforestation caused by record high winds and extensive flooding in low-lying areas leaves little habitat and forage for resident wildlife, and will certainly prove challenging for the migratory birds that make their way south through these areas this fall.
High winds and storm surge swamped the Florida Keys as well, where the diminutive Key Deer live. These pint-sized relatives of the very common White-tailed Deer are endemic to the island chain, but exist there in relatively low numbers (700-1000 animals) on the Key Deer reserves on Big Pine and Little Torch Keys.
You would think their small size might make them vulnerable to being swept away in hurricane winds and/or floods, but the Key Deer have inhabited these islands for the past 13,000 years and have somehow survived the worst of inclement weather there. A story today in the Washington Post reports a sighting of 4 Key Deer crossing a local road, so at least some of the population has survived. Low population numbers is a long-term concern, however, since increased inbreeding can lead to an accumulation of detrimental recessive genes, and result in reduced fitness and resilience to cope with weather disasters like the recent hurricanes there.
Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats. I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.
What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.
Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species). Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.
But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies. The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,
but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed. You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.
What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail. A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.
With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.
White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.
Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.
Hiking at high altitude is hard work. Carrying a pack more than 1/4 of your body weight at high altitude is seriously hard work. Hiking uphill with said pack on your back at high altitude is not recommended unless you have a deep desire for hurt. So, when engaging in this unthinkable activity, I have to believe that feeling tired is just a state of mind…
which can be relieved in a number of ways when that tired feeling hits during a long, hard uphill climb.
photos by Becky Chaplin-Kramer
Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.
Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.
Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail. The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.
Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.
Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.
The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing. But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).
And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.