These sexy Ghost Plants don’t photosynthesize. There is never anything even remotely green about them. As we learned today at the Biophilium some plants have evolved into heterotrophs meaning they get their food from someone else, like we do, rather than magicing it up out of thin air and sunlight like most autotrophic plants do.
This one in particular grows in an intimate relationship with the mycelium of a Russula mushroom. The fungus isn’t fruiting today so I couldn’t see them, but I’m sure they’re down their in the soil mycorrhyzaling with the Ghost Plant and the Jack Pines. The Pine tree is huge and has green photosynthesizing needles way up in the canopy that turn sunlight into carbohydrates and brings them down into the soil. The word mycorrhyzae (fungi+root) refers to the physical connection between the plant and the mushroom who support each other by sharing sugars and minerals and water back and forth. Its a super survival strategy because some parties are much better at collecting one and not the others so they have far better chance of survival if they share their resources. 80% of plants depend completely on mycorrhyzal partnerships. It’s what people mean when they say the ‘wood wide web’. The Pinesap flower, unable to make its own carbs takes them from the fungus who takes them from the tree.
The flowers look to me like they would be pollinated by a bee, but I read that although the fall Pinesap, who can be very red all over are pollinated by bees, summer Pinesap are yellow like this and are mostly self pollinated, which doesn’t sound like a great strategy to me, but who knows. Do you who how self pollination works?
Milkweed is a lovely wild flower that grows in meadows around here. The flowers smell delicious. I made Milkweed ice-cream today. In the fall they make those big crunchy pods that explode with fluffy parachutes that sail their seeds around. This stripy caterpillar is eating the leaves of the plant, they are one of the only animals that can eat the leaves, because the plant exudes a toxic latex. There is also a beetle who can eat it, but if he’s not careful the milk can glue his mouth shut. The stripy Monarch caterpillars are able to digest the poison without getting sick, but it makes the whole caterpillar poisonous and they stay poisonous as adult butterflies. This is why nothing eats Monarchs. Any species that lived within the Monarch’s range who thought red, black and orange butterflies looked tasty died and didn’t pass their appetite for Monarchs on the their offspring because they were never born. This makes it very safe to look like a Monarch. Poisonous ancestors thoroughly cleared the way for their safe passage. Similar looking butterflies also enjoy this safe passage. Monarch caterpillars continue to enjoy Milkweed and eat nothing else.
Since parts of the plants are toxic (some parts are very nice for us to eat) they were banned in my province! Legally they are ‘noxious weeds’ and it is illegal for any one to let them grow in our gardens if they are anywhere near a cow field. (As I write this the neighbor cows are mooing. ) So Milkweed became endangered. And so Monarchs became endangered. In recent years there have been campaigns to plant Milkweed to save the Monarchs and it seems to be working. We went from seeing 1 or 2 a season 5 years ago to seeing at least 25 a summer. So keep planting Milkweed!
This Caterpillar is eating the plant that his mum chose to lay her eggs on, but she wasn’t born around here. She was born somewhere in the States. And her mom was born further south, and her grandma was born around Texas and her great grandma was born in Mexico and her great great grandma hibernated in a forest in Central Mexico. (I visited them a few winters ago, the place was dripping with millions of mating Monarchs. It was raining Monarchs. Trees drooped under the weight of Monarchs.) Each of these mother Monarchs successfully found a Milkweed plant to lay her eggs, but many of their sisters didn’t. Those caterpillars hatched on Maple leaves, or Burdock or Plantain and they all starved to death.
Since Monarchs take 5 generations to do their migration it’s important that we keep the farmers from destroying the grasslands, banning host plants and poisoning the world with insecticides and herbicides. We have to keep a safe path of Milkweed habitat all the way from Canada to Mexico.
Citronella Ants are Yellow! But not this one and that’s not how they got their name. They are called Citronella because if you startle them they make a Citronella stink. I am fond of beings who communicate chemically and particularly fond of animals that live underground and can fly. There are some birds who do it, and mushrooms too if you count sporulating as flying. Today during dinner this Queen Citronella Ant landed on our table and dropped her wings.
She was born underground to a Queen, I suppose you could say that almost all ants are Princesses, but most of them are worker princesses who tend the farms, in this case: the subterranean plant sucking Aphids that produce a sweet honeydew that the Ants eat! Those worker Ants always stay underground. But not this Princess. She was chosen to become a Queen. She grew wings, flew from the nest, found a mate, I imagine that they mated in the sky, then she landed on our dinner table, dropped her wings and walked off in search of the site for her new colony.
Tonight she will begin to dig and maybe make her royal chamber where she will stay for the rest of her life laying eggs that will hatch into worker larvae and… Hmm… I’m not sure how the first worker larvae are fed, but some how she will feed them until they pupate and become adults who will feed the next larvae. I bet she has a secret pocket built in just for snacks. Ants have some cool pockets. Our Queen doesn’t need to mate again, she keeps today’s sperm in a pocket for her whole life and uses it to make new female babies. The male babies she makes to fly out into the world to mate with soon-to-to-be-Queens are unfertilized. They don’t have the DNA of her King, but of their maternal grand King.
I’ve seen ants farming Aphids on the undersides of leaves and I always imagined that they just lived there on that leaf, but that’s not it. They all live underground and during the day the Ants corral the Aphids out to graze just like cowboys do with Cows, except instead of riding Horses, or using a Sheep Dog, each Ant carries an Aphid.
The Selfheal flower makes sweet nectar and this attractive color to lure insects into her boudoir, where she powders them with pollen and hopes they will deliver it to a different Selfheal flower where this pollen will inseminate that flower and make fruit with fertile seeds.
The Bee collects pollen because its a super fantastic food packed with carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. (And probably all sorts of phytonutrients that do magical things too, this is a powerful medicinal plant) She picks it up and puts it in her leg baskets so she can carry lots home in one foraging foray, just like I do when I fill my basket with mushrooms in the fall.
The Crab Spider is a hunter. She finds sexy flowers and hides in them, waiting for a pollinator to come by and while they are distracted by the bounty of pollen she jumps out and delivers a Vampire bite like this and sucks the life juices right out of them. I bet she eats the pollen baskets as desert.
Lady Crab Spiders are amazing at camouflaging. I actually took several photos of this bee before I saw the spider and I was actually out in the meadow looking specifically for Crab Spiders so I could tell you this story! I saw her as an anomalous red striped white flower on the purple flowers and my brain accepted that as normal. The nifty thing is that these spiders are…. What’s the word for when you can presto-chango your colors to blend in with the environment? Like Chameleons and Octopuses? Later I was musing about it, I thought it was weird that she would even try to hide in a purple flower because she can be white and yellow but not purple. Since yellow is the opposite of purple, maybe being as unyellow as she can makes sense. I mean, I saw her but I couldn’t see her.
Male Crab Spiders are different, they don’t do any of that stuff. They can be 50x smaller than females. The boys don’t hunt, it takes too much patience, instead he jumps from flower to flower looking for girls and eats pollen and nectar as he goes. This is not the only animal I can think of where the boys are vegetarian and the girls are vampires. It takes a lot of protein to make eggs.
June’s full moon is the Strawberry Moon because that’s the one that wakes up the Wild Strawberries who are smaller, slyer and sweeter than Market Strawberries.
I have an inconsistent relationship with Fairy Rings, those very green, nitrogen rich patches of lawn where Mushrooms grow in circles around vortexes, places where it’s dangerously easy to slip through to other realities. I know that the superstitions like wearing your hat backwards to protect you from inter-fairy-ring-soul-transmission are just rumors started by the fairies hoping to trick us into entering the faery realm so I usually manage to keep a safe distance.
The thing is, some years I take extra care to stay on the safe side of the rings, and some years I can’t help but head right inside as if pulled by a magnetic attraction that blocks my cautious thinking. When you go through a fairy ring its hard to know what’s changed. Humans are very adaptable. We accept our situations, and often don’t notice transcendental change.
Today the Wild Strawberries were growing inside a fairy ring and I tried to photograph them but they kept disappearing. They were delicious.
There’s been lots of talk this month at the Biophilium about control, planning, and intention vs wandering, trusting and going with the flow in the wild and in the studio. It’s hinged on questions of self identity, integrity and confidence. As an exhausted adventurer recovering from Spring migration, I’m struggling to hold on to control of my decisions, like the one to stay out of fairy rings, but the flow is taking me to nice spontaneous experiences like the sweetness of special Strawberries, so I’m deciding to trust myself to make the most of what ever shenanigans I find myself in.
This is the Fairy Ring Mushroom that grows in my lawn; the one that cuddles with the Wild Strawberries. It’s been there for years and fruits for months every summer. They are good to eat because they TASTE LIKE MAPLE SYRUP!! They are relatively easy to learn to identify, partly because their stems are so robust that it’s difficult to break them with your hands.
You can find Fairy Rings growing in lawns even when they are not fruiting by noticing how the grass grows. Most plants can’t access the nitrogen that makes up most of the atmosphere, and need another organism to ‘fix’ it, so they can use it to grow. The Fungi grow in roundish patches in the lawn expanding every year. The new growth around the outside edge is where the Fungus is digesting dead plant matter under ground and releasing loads of nitrogen into the soil. The grass around the outer edge picks up this nitrogen and grows faster, bushier and more healthily than the rest of the lawn. Lawn care cult leaders call this a ‘symptom of Fairy Ring disease’, but it’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Grow trees not grass.
While planning a birding route on Gmaps I found these massive Fungi growing in an island sports field. (Compare with the size of the Baseball diamond). What I like so much about this is that we can’t see the Fungi, but we can see what they are doing to the grass, and so we know exactly where, how big and what shapes they are.
The Fungi are growing in the soil around the grass roots. Each individual mycelial mass is expanding radially as it grows over the years. The outer ring of the mycelium is supplying more nitrogen to the grass and making it greener.
You can see where individual Fungi bumped into each other and fused together and became one individual. I mean. It looks to me like that’s what’s happening. If they were simply overlapping, or interlapping, weaving themselves through each other, sharing space but staying separate unique entities, wouldn’t we see the luscious green rings as ven diagrams as I do with fruiting fairy rings of different species that overlap and share territory?
I could be wrong. Maybe something different is happening where they connect. Maybe they are not making love. (Mushrooms have sex by fusing together, swapping DNA and staying connected forever) Maybe they are doing battle. Fighting for territory and resources, and where the battle is happening they are too stressed to do what ever grass enriching magic is happening along the rest of their boundaries.
On second thought, when one Fungal entity bumps into another they together would digest the nutrients in the fresh dead grass at the boundary between them and then have no new fresh food to turn to nitrogen. This would trigger fruiting, so I’d have to go back in the fall to see if mushrooms grow in a ven diagram showing distinct overlapping individuals or if they fruit only around the outside border as a new unified being.
Look at this weirdo. He’s like a snake with no face or scales and he can taste with every part of his body.
Earthworms are not native to North America. They arrived here in ballast, you know, all the earth carried on ships coming from Europe to fetch lumber and fur that would have been too light to stay the right way up if they were empty. The earth was be dumped when they arrived in America. There were probably lots of worms stowed away in flower pots too.
Now they are everywhere. You can hear them at night chewing leaves. They work in the dark foraging fallen foliage that they carry (I don’t know how, they don’t have hands) back to their holes to chew into lovely soil. When the dawn breaks they squint and then quit. They go strait to bed no matter what they were in the middle of, which is why you sometimes see leaves standing up on the lawn early in the morning. They are leaves abandoned by worms part way down their holes that I expect act as flags for early birds.
I am a swamp spirit. A fen fan. A Marsh maiden. And I like Bog birds.
Snipe have mostly been invisible ghostly sounds to me. I hear male Snipe doing their display flights all spring and summer, their aerial dance is accompanied by tail feather music called winnowing. You can see their fancy tail feathers here. I sometimes see them as tiny fast and irratic dots in the distant sky but today I heard them singing so I went down to the swamp to look and 2 pairs were racing in and out of the Cat Tails and flying at high speeds through the rain.
Snipe are not actually forest ghosts like they pretend to be. Really they are bog birds. They wade in shallow water (their legs are very short) and dip their very long beaks in the mud. Their beaks are very sensitive to pressure and taste and they can feel and smell food moving in the mud. They suck insects and snails up their beaks like a straw.
There has been some noise in the mornings this week. I’ve thought a few times that the train folks were using jackhammers again, but it was the Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker back from his winter vacation hammering on the chimney to let us know he is home.
The Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker is one of the Woodpeckers that nests on my land. They don’t actually suck sap, they don’t have lips, but they do drill holes in trees and let the sap flow out. I’ve read that they do it because insects inside the tree get swept away in the deluge of sap and the birds eat those insects, but now that I’ve tapped a few trees I think I see what’s happening. Insects are attracted to the sap because it’s sweet. My Birch bucket is filled with little bees squirming and swimming and stuck in a stupor. The Sap Suckers can just scoop them up. I think they make holes as traps. Every inch of our Apple Tree is perforated with Sap Sucker lip shaped holes.
I’ve read that humming birds who arrive too early in spring before the plants flower and produce nectar follow the Sap Suckers around to sip their sweet tree drips but I suspect they are less interested in the sap and actually eating the insects.
I spent 2 hours in torrential rain, my camera in a plastic bag, to get this shot of a Prothonotary Warbler’s tongue just for you. I may have to buy a new camera. My lens is now home to a tiny rain cloud that comes with me everywhere I go, like a genie in a lantern that softens the edges of all my bird pics.
I really wanted to see a Tern. This was my first one ever. He is diving for a snack on his way home to breed as seen through the cloud in my camera.
The bird at the top of my wishlist to see this spring was a bird that was probably impossible to find, but that I probably did see, I’m not sure. The second was this, not particularly uncommon bird, the Red Bellied Woodpecker who I probably had never seen before, but I wasn’t sure.
Now, the Red Headed Woodpecker is rarer, he’d never come to my house, and some might say he’s fancier (I admired a bunch of them this year for the first time and their red feathers shine as if they were made of metal.) Sometimes the Red Bellied bird does show his brilliant firetruck red feathers around where I live, like once last year:
I was sitting in the house with my camera on my lap staring out the window into space. Only it wasn’t space, I was staring at a Hairy Woodpecker, the one who is almost always on my feeder. Sometimes he even falls asleep there so I’m used to seeing him. Remember back in the day before social media when we were tired we’d just zone out and think about whatever and stare into space? That’s what I was doing. Then I noticed that the light shining through the Hairy Woodpecker’s red feathers was especially fiery today and I focused my eyes and IT WAS A RED BELLIED WOODPECKER! A bird I’d never seen before! One I had gone off chasing after other people’s reports around town. And he was on my feeder! My phone was in my hand and when I clued in I flinched and threw it into the air, it bounced of the desk onto the floor. I aimed my camera just as a Red Squirrel leaped across the deck, landed on the feeder and flushed the Woodpecker. I didn’t get a photo. I’d stared at this bird for several minutes and didn’t get a photo. I marked it as a lifer on my list but before the end of the day I’d questioned myself so much that I took it off the list. I mean, would a Red Bellied Woodpecker actually come to a feeder? He seemed far to fancy for that.
So, when I saw my next first RBWO on a feeder in the campsite this spring I stopped traffic to take a photo and I answered ‘Yes! Yes they would come to a feeder!’ and now I believe myself that I’ve seen a RBWO. Well, since this one I’ve seen lots of them. There were so many where I was birding this spring that I got to know their voices well and even found a tree where two parents were preparing a nest.