Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Praying Mantis

Today is our first perfect late summer/early fall day, with 52 degrees this morning, rising to the low 80's with low humidity this afternoon. I spent most of the day outside, relishing the warm sunshine, the light breeze, and the late summer sounds of insects, along with the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk soaring against the clear blue sky and the singing of Chickadees, as they alighted near me to grab sunflower seeds I had spread on the table for them.

I was sitting on the deck reading, when I caught sight of some motion out of the corner of my eye-- a Praying Mantis was slowly bobbing as she walked along the railing.

She paused and turned to look at me, even reaching out her forelegs to try and grab for my camera and then my hand.

 She walked right up onto my hand, as if curious about what I was

 I don't actually know if this was a male or female. I've looked it up, and the best way to tell is to count the segments on the abdomen, but since I didn't know that at the time, I didn't check. Next time I'll know to look. Females have six segments, the last one quite large, whereas males have eight..

The mantis ended up walking up a nearby tree

I'm always glad to see a Praying Mantis here, not only because they are fascinating to watch, but because they are beneficial insects, eating many insect pests. The females also often eat their mates immediately following mating. We saw one female dining on her hapless mate in the garden a number of years ago.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

American Avocets!

After watching the wind whip up the river and a cloudburst obscure the downriver view for a while,  Stephen and I were strolling along the Newburgh waterfront on August 7th, when I stopped to sketch a friendly duck, who was following people along the sidewalk. While I was sketching her, Stephen asked me what some birds were down by the water's edge. I turned to see two striking black and white birds of a kind I had never seen before perched on rocks on the river's edge.

The name "Avocet" immediately came to mind, but having never seen an Avocet or even a suspicion of one, I really wasn't familiar with them. I did a couple of quick sketches, along with some notes to help with identification, then ran to the car where I keep a field guide and checked-- they were indeed American Avocets! We went back to watch them for a few more minutes, until they flew off low over the water, headed down river, in the direction of Beacon or Cold Spring.

The American Avocet is not typically seen this far north along the east coast, so this is considered a rare bird sighting for our area, all the more special for us, as we were out on a dinner date for our anniversary. American Avocet Species Range Map

Monday, July 15, 2013

Chicken of the woods mushroom

I hurried through Fahnestock State Park a few weeks ago, bypassing scenery and even ignoring birds in my effort to get back to my car before the cloud of mosquitoes that had appeared drained my lifeblood, or at least my enthusiasm. Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly spotted shelves of bright orange and had to stop for a quick sketch, mosquitoes notwithstanding. I recognized the fungus growing from a rotted log-- Chicken of the woods, a mushroom considered to be one of the "Foolproof Four"-- four mushroom species which are easy to identify and not easily confused with poisonous species. (See Mushroom Collecting 101: The foolproof four)I did a quick pencil sketch, snapped a couple of photos, then dashed for the car, flapping my hat over my arms to fan away the hungry hordes. I knew the brilliant color and shelf-like growth habit of Chicken of the woods from when I had last seen them.

My father and I had collected some of these from a hardwood tree in his yard (hardwood is important, as a closely related species that grows on conifers is more likely to contain toxins). He cooked them for our lunch, and I can attest that they are indeed delicious. I can also attest to the fact that some people, approximately 10% by some estimates, have an adverse reaction to this mushroom. My father, who ate more of them than I did, was fine, as he had been whenever he had eaten the mushrooms from that tree. I, on the other hand, had barely gotten home before the severe gastrointestinal distress hit.

From now on when eating a new variety of wild mushroom, I will follow the advice to only try a little bit and see how I feel after a while, before enjoying a full portion (See The Long-lived Wild Mushroom Eater's Golden Rules) I will also content myself with drawing, rather than eating, Chicken of the Woods.

A sketch from earlier on my hike, before the mosquitoes descended on me and drove me from the woods

Sunday, June 30, 2013

17-year Cicadas

I settled into my hammock a couple of weeks ago, ready to enjoy a glass of iced tea (with chocolate mint from my garden), a good book, and some peace and quiet. Until I heard a pulsing hum in the distance. With a sigh I tried to ignore what I assumed was some sort of motor noise from a distant neighbor's yard. The pulsing wasn't loud, but it was continual and somewhat irritating, since too often I feel inundated by various types of engine noise that drown out the quieter sounds of nature and eliminate silence from my world. It occurred to me that it might be some sort of insect sound, but it seemed so regular in its pulsing that we figured it must be an engine.

The next afternoon the motor noise was louder, and I began to think it might be the 17-year cicadas I had been reading about, but I wondered why I hadn't seen any in our yard. When I went for a walk around some neighboring roads, though, the humming was much louder in some areas and almost nonexistent in other areas, even along a two-mile loop. And, I began to see a few red-eyed cicadas. It turns out that these periodical cicadas can be very localized and may emerge with great density in some areas and be completely absent in immediately adjoining areas.

Interestingly, once I knew the noise I was hearing was a cicada chorus and not a motor running loudly in the distance, it no longer seemed irritating. Now I wanted to hear it more closely and see more of these red-eyed singers, more fully experiencing this brief and fascinating visitation of long-lived insects.

By yesterday the chorus was dying down and I began seeing dead and dying cicadas on my morning walk, so I brought a few dead insects home to sketch. I also looked them up and found out that there are both 13 and 17 year cicadas, with three species of 17-year cicadas and 4 species of 13-year cicadas. One fact I found particularly fascinating is that all these species have life cycle lengths that are based on prime numbers (13 years and 17 years). I just love the way math shows up in nature cycles and systems and structures!

I am sorry to say good-bye to the cicadas and their song, and I look forward to seeing and hearing their offspring in 2030.

Click image to enlarge

Interesting links with more information:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Nature and Wonder

I remember hiking in Vermont years ago and suddenly being surrounded by a magical sound-- liquid notes of gold, silver, and many other hues, flowing through the spruce trees all around me. I searched and searched until finally I spotted a tiny brown bird perched way atop the tallest spruce. As I watched, my neck nearly bent in two, he raised his little head, opened his beak, and poured forth his glorious tune.

I had no idea at the time what kind of bird I was observing, but I did some research and found out it was Winter Wren, one of my favorite woodland mistrels to this day. I heard one again a few weeks ago, this time as I painted at the Pawling Great Swamp, and was one again transfixed by this little creature's melody.

My purpose in starting this new blog, Melissa's Nature Notes, is to attempt to capture in words and pictures the wonder of nature as I experience it, in order to help others also experience it. Sometimes a sense of awe and wonder comes with something small but dramatic, like the song of the Winter Wren. Other times it is a new view or understanding of some fairly ordinary aspect of nature that is easily overlooked. And other times it might come with some unusual or less common situation, such as the 17-year cicadas that are humming and whirring until, in some places, their roar is loud enough to drown out most bird song.

I hope that readers of all ages find their sense of wonder growing as they share in my delight in the world around us, and I look forward to reading of your experiences with nature. Please feel free to comment and tell me what has awakened wonder in you today.