Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Number 543 - Coralberry

I recently added Coralberry, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, as plant number 543 on my Blue Jay Barrens flora list. I originally found this native plant a few years ago while cutting and spraying Bush Honeysuckle, and at first glance mistook it for that invasive shrub.

I was fairly confident that Coralberry was the proper identification, but none of the plants held any of the coral-red fruit from which its common name was derived. Coralberry performs best in full sunlight, so I believe the lack of fruit was a result of the plants growing in this shaded location. Identification keys list fruit color as a primary way of separating Coralberry from other related species. I wanted to see that fruit before I committed to my identification, so I waited and watched the plants grow.

When two years went by without any flowers or fruit, I plucked up one of the shrubs and planted it into a container in a location where it would get full sunlight. The plant responded favorably to its new environment. An abundance of leaves and the development of flowers gave a promise of future fruit.

The specimen I chose for my container was not much over a foot tall. The main stems were developing the characteristic flaking bark of the species, so I’m assuming the plant was a few years old. Vegetative reproduction in the form of root suckers and underground runners allows a single colonizing Coralberry to grow into a sizable thicket. During its summer in the container, the plant produced several new shoots.

This fall it showed me the fruit. This left no question about the identification, so I moved Coralberry to a permanent position on the Blue Jay Barrens flora list.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bumblebee Season Finale

Bracketing the walkway to our front door, is a small collection of domesticated flora with showy blooms. Warm temperatures allowed these plants to thrive well into November. They continued to produce new flowers long after the blooms on native plants and disappeared. During the latter half of October, swarms of bumblebees moved in and made these plants home.

Things went well for the bumblebees until the overnight low temperature hit 26° F. Coleus, which I had allowed to flower and which turned out to be a favorite of the bumblebees, froze and was lost as a nectar source. A low of 19° F the next night put an end to the salvia and most of the zinnias.

That low temperature also proved to be too much for most of the bumblebees. The patio was littered with bodies Sunday morning. Bumblebees have the ability to warm their bodies by shivering, so they can survive some cold temperatures. Eventually, the temperatures get too cold or the bee just runs out of energy and it dies.

Most of the bodies had the classic tongue extended death repose. A check of the bodies show the bees all to be male. Bumblebee colonies are single-season affairs. The colony begins in the spring when a single fertile queen begins laying eggs and raising her brood. Near the end of summer, young queens and males leave the soon to collapse colony. The males spend their time drinking nectar and searching for queen bees with which to mate. Eventually, the queens hide themselves away in a safe place to spend the winter and the males are left with nothing to do but drink nectar and await the killing freeze.

The few bees that were left alive Sunday morning were found hanging from the flowers. They were all on the porch side of the flower planting where a little bit of warmth stored in the concrete and brick gave them a slight survival advantage. It’s typical behavior for these bees to just stop their activities as evenings begin to cool and spend the night on the flowers from which they were feeding.

When temperatures warm up, the bumblebees once again become active and continue feeding from where they left off the day before.  A temperature of 21° F Sunday night left no bees alive Monday morning.

As this video shows, after a cold night it takes the bees a little while to regain their coordination and function normally.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Field Sparrow vs Virginia Stickseed

At this time of year I’m always carrying a load of seeds into the house.  Using various methods of attachment, they catch onto my clothing as I roam the fields and stay with me to the end of my journey.  I am strong enough to easily pull the seeds from the plant, but not all animals are fortunate enough to possess my strength. Sometimes, instead of the seed detaching from the stem, the seed holds firm and the animal is caught by the plant. I’ve seen this happen to both birds and bats, with this Field Sparrow being the latest victim.

The snare in this case was the Virginia Stickseed, Hackelia parviflorus.  This native plant is not particularly showy at any time of year, it often goes unnoticed until you discover dozens of sticky little seedpods covering your clothing.

The Field Sparrow was held firmly by multiple stems of seed pods running the full length of the left wing and half the length of the right-wing. My camera was already on when I came upon the trapped bird, but I only stopped long enough to take two quick shots of the incapacitated animal before rendering aid. It remained amazingly calm as I wrapped my hand around its body and snipped the seed stalks away from the plant. You can see in the photo that it had already lost two feathers in its initial attempt to escape entanglement. I was responsible for the loss of two more as I carefully cleaned away all traces of the offending seedpods. The entire cleaning process took about a minute, after which the bird flew from my hand, showing no signs of trauma or injury.

These seedpods are vicious little things and are probably my least appreciated of all the various vegetative hitchhikers. Caught up in cotton gloves or socks, they can sometimes be nearly impossible to remove. I know the Field Sparrow would never have escaped on its own. It was nice to find this guy while he was still healthy and sound, instead of long dead and dried as was the condition of previous sticky bur victims I have encountered in the past.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Checkered Skippers - Eternal Optimists

The Common Checkered Skipper is one of several butterfly species that appear in this area during late summer or fall.  They are residents of areas south of Blue Jay Barrens and cannot survive the cold winters we typically experience.  Taking advantage of warm summer weather, they expand their range northward, often establishing temporary populations all the way into Canada. 

Plants of the Mallow family serve as host plants for the Checkered Skipper caterpillars.  I always leave a few Common Mallow plants growing along the foundation on the south side of the house to be used by the skippers.  This area warms quickly in the sun and retains heat during the day, attracting skippers by the dozens.

I don’t normally find this species still here in November, but with temperatures well above normal and an absence of overnight freezes, the skippers are still going strong.

The prime activity of the day is reproduction.  Female Checkered Skippers are hurriedly loading the mallow leaves down with eggs.

Not a leaf has been missed.  The eggs, although fertile and numerous, have no futures.  Cold weather will soon cause the death of all life stages of this cute little creature.  New individuals will move in next summer to take another try at making this area part of their permanent range.  One day, if average temperatures continue trending upward, the Checkered Skipper could earn its place as a new year-round resident of Blue Jay Barrens.