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Sunday
Jun192011

Journal Notes: Late Spring

Summer Grape vine rising from the earth. (Click on each of the photos on this page to enlarge)It's a challenge to keep pace with nature's acceleration in spring. The rate of growth and development of plant and animal life is staggering, and even a few days of being bogged down with administrative and personal obligations means missing what's taken place in nature in that interval.

Baby Eastern Cottontail RabbitColumbine flowerWhite Mulberry tree with fruitReturning after a few days away from my work at the sanctuary, I notice that the fawns, the baby rabbits, the vegetative growth of vines, grasses and leaf-out on trees have all grown and progressed noticeably. I can almost hear the popping, squeaking, and stretching growth of tall grasses and plants! Baby House Finches have already fledged, and new eggs have been laid in the nest outside my door.

There are quite a few Woodchucks at the sanctuary nibbling flowers and herbs from the fields. Sometimes I find their den entrances as I wade through tall grass and plants in the course of my habitat management duties. This is somewhat hazardous, as it is easy to step into such a hole in the ground concealed by overgrowth, and suffer injury. These large rodents are entertaining to watch, and their eyesight is very keen. It is a challenge to sneak up on them for a closer look before they haul their chunky, fur-covered bodies into their nearby den with surprising speed. I was recently watching a baby Woodchuck, or "chuckling" browsing nearby and followed him for a while. Chucklings are so cute and curious, but still wary and quick. It was fun to observe the little one exploring his new surroundings: what to eat, what to play with, what's dangerous or threatening, and how far from home they should venture.

Woodchuck family under the shed (Click to enlarge)In this photo, the mother (I assume) may have had a health issue that kept her from gnawing for a while. One of her lower incisors has grown very long and is protruding up over her upper lip. Rodent teeth grow continuously and so they must gnaw constantly to keep them at proper length or they won't be able to eat properly. While I stood quietly taking their family portrait, she repeatedly put her head on the ground and closed her eyes, resting. The young one's were all excited, not sure what to do about me, but seemed quite interested in my presence.

Raccoons will often rob bird nests of their eggs and even the young chicks if need be. At the sanctuary, this year's Killdeer hatchling tally is a big fat zero out of 16 eggs I had counted. While Fish Crows may be to blame as well in some areas of the sanctuary, the Raccoon shown here is the culprit behind at least one raid on Killdeer nests. Though mainly nocturnal animals, Raccoons do venture out in daytime if they are hungry or sick, so I followed this one to be sure it was not rabid. Thankfully, she was just really hungry, having recently given birth to two more masked bandits! Her den was 20 feet above the ground in a large tree cavity. The Canada Geese that were hanging out near by did not approve of the Raccoon skulking around nearby, and I watched as they slowly closed in around the wary mammal and, with their heads lowered, chased the Raccoon into the thicket and up a tree! Even a skilled survivalist like the Raccoon gets run out of town from time to time.

For some people, spring and summer mean inevitably acquiring another rash from Poison Ivy. It's a native vine that many species of birds and animals can browse for food with no ill effect and can brush against it with impunity. Humans, unfortunately, are not one of those species. This plant takes many forms and hides well amidst other vegetation, including trees. It can appear as short ground cover and low shrubs, or climb up trees and other structures as a vine. The older vines become thick and hairy-looking as they grow up tree trunks where they put out branches that mingle with those of the host tree. Surely, Poison Ivy teaches us awareness! Unlike other non-native vines like Asian Bittersweet or Porcelain Berry which can smother trees and over time cause them to break or topple in high winds, Poison Ivy grows straight up the trunk of the tree where the tree can support the weight of the vine.

Poison Ivy flowers & branchesHairy look of mature vine.Virginia Creeper vinePoison Ivy climbing treeThe mature plant puts forth elegant, somewhat obscure flowers in spring, and in autumn the leaves turn from green to a beautiful palette of yellows and reds. It is considered a "warrior plant" in some Native American traditions in that is defends its habitat from human intrusion. Have a look at these photos. The Virginia Creeper vine is often mistaken for Poison Ivy, and often grows in the same locations. However, the non-poisonous Virginia Creeper has five leaves, where Poison Ivy has only three.

Each spring, the bulbous buds of Peony plants growing in flower gardens are covered by small, reddish brown ants. They aren't even moving around that much, and appear to be waiting for something. There is no sweet nectar for them to collect, and they do nothing to "assist" the plant in unfurling its tender new flowers. Once the flower has opened, the ants move on. The only Peony flower bud with ants. (Click to enlarge)explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that the plant may exude some sort of chemical attractor to ants. The ants presence on the tender bud may be a deterrent to other insects that might want to chew the bud or suck its juices with piercing mouthparts. As far as I could tell, no one seems to really understand why the ants are present.

Well, I suppose there are a million other things that I could mention regarding late spring happenings in nature, but I'll let this suffice for now. However, I do have a bunch of photographs that you can view in the Gallery section of this website. There are several categories on the main Gallery page, click on each to see a different set of photos. Scroll down for the most recent additions if you've already viewed some. I hope they inspire in you a sense of wonder and delight in the nature that surrounds us.

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