June is a Frenzy of Life

Here on our VA Blue Ridge Mountain farm, June is a time of rebirth and renewal in nature. Creatures seem to be in a rush to breed and of course must consume many resources to raise their young. It is a life and death struggle but an absolutely spectacular show for the nature lover.

This is haying time on the farm since if you want to have fields, they must be cut periodically to stop woody succession back to a forest community. As a “wildlife farmer” I must consider the trade-offs that contribute to an intelligent management strategy, but the choices are rarely definitive. I am trying to allow our beautiful meadowlarks to breed once before mowing, but not wait so long that the fields will not rejuvenate before fall when we sometimes welcome migrating bobolinks which stop to feed. In other fields which we have allowed to become early successional with blackberries and other woody plants growing in an old pasture, we have breeding blue grosbeaks (which is unusual) plus willow flycatchers, indigo buntings, field sparrows, orchard orioles and other desirable birds.

The nests of birds breeding in grasslands are rarely seen but this bluebird nest in one of our boxes epitomizes the mad rush of all birds to breed. It also illustrates the fixity of avian reproduction in that birds have a certain nest behavior that rarely varies. Thus bluebirds nest in cavities but meadowlarks nest on the ground in grasslands of a certain grass height. Such rigid behavior must have been selected through evolution but seems sometimes to be problematic as humans dominate global ecosystems. Birds that are more flexible in their behavior have a greater chance of success as the pace of change in habitats varies with human influences.

I especially enjoy watching some of my ponds which are fishless and thus have a number of insect and amphibian species that cannot survive around fish. The amber winged spreadwing damselfly is one such species and it thrives only in one of our larger ponds from which fish have been excluded. The males and females pair up and form into the wheel position during which the male grasps the female by her neck and she reaches forward with her abdomen and receives sperm from the accessory genitalia of the male. It is remarkable how complex this and other reproductive processes are in such primitive insects. Life for aquatic insects is not without risk despite the absence of fish, as shown by this photo of a fishing spider which has captured an azure bluet damselfly adult. These ponds also contain amphibian predators as adult frogs; the anuran larvae are herbivorous and tadpoles from last year are now metamorphosing. I show a photo of a green frog that is beginning to reabsorb its larval tail and transition from aquatic to aerial respiration.

During one of my frequent bike trips on the New River Trail I observed the attraction of a red spotted purple butterfly and a Nessus sphinx moth to carnivorous mammalian feces. Such “puddling” behavior is due to the need of herbivores for sodium salts. So what seems disgusting to us is simply filling of a nutritional requirement. The red spotted purple’s distinctive coloration is believed to be mimicry of the toxic pipevine swallowtail. The sphinx moth is remarkable in its ability to hover like a hummingbird while extending a long proboscis to extract nectar from flowers with long and narrow corolla tubes.

While crossing the New River on an old railroad bridge I noticed a basking milk snake, which is a rare sight in this area in my experience. The cool nights and warm days make basking an important means of regulation of metabolic rate in animals lacking internal means of heat generation. This species is remarkable since on the southeastern coastal plain it has bright red bands and apparently advertises a resemblance to the highly poisonous coral snake, which does not occur in VA. Yet in my area of the mountains it is cryptic in coloration with brownish blotches. This would seem to be another example, like that of the red spotted purple butterfly above, of Batesian mimicry of a toxic species by a tasty one. Although there is much we do not understand about this process, it does indicate the amazing effects that evolution can create in coloration.

When the red hot pokers we have planted come into flower in June, we can count on seeing our local orchard orioles feeding on the nectar. These orioles have a sharp bill that is suited for drinking nectar from short broad flowers or piercing the base of flowers that are too long or twisted for direct drinking of nectar. They are adept in utilizing flowers of many types, both native and introduced, which is quite useful since they migrate between South/Central America and North America and come in contact with many different species of flowers.

In June there is so much happening in the natural world that your head can virtually spin around from watching the frenzied activities of the critters around you. Enjoy it while it lasts since soon enough it will be over for another year.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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