A June Nature Ramble at the Farm

Here on our VA Blue Ridge Mountain farm we are still having some cool nights in the 50’s, but many days are sunny and warm and nature is in full growth and reproduction mode.

I enjoy re-acquainting myself with the resident odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and lepidopterans (butterflies ). One of my favorite damselflies is the ebony jewelwing in which the male has black wings and a spectacular iridescent blue/green body, the color depending on the angle of the sunlight. When I was growing up in GA these were called “snake doctors” since they sometimes landed on basking water snakes. The remarkable metamorphosis of dragonflies from aquatic nymph to flying adult is not fully appreciated until you observe the process as seen in photo # 4352aa. All dragonflies are highly carnivorous, but the impressive dragonhunter actually feeds on other dragonflies and must appear as a miniature T rex to its prey.

Butterflies are appearing in our fields in increasing numbers and this male black swallowtail was attracted to a patch of white clover along a trail. When grass is mowed repeatedly in our hay fields, the result is often a dense patch of white clover which is beneficial to butterflies. The black swallowtail is one of the confusing “black and blue” butterflies which appear to mimic the toxic pipevine swallowtail. The “tails” are likely to be a head mimicry trick to appear to be antennae and divert the strike of predators away from the real head. Great spangled fritillary butterflies are out in numbers and are strongly attracted to the first common milkweeds to bloom, as well as to orange butterfly milkweeds.

Spring is of course a time of considerable amphibian breeding, but it is now time for summer breeders such as bullfrogs to lay their eggs. The early spring breeders such as wood frogs lay large globular clusters of eggs communally in a sunny area of the pond to elevate the temperature for development. In contrast, bullfrogs lay a thin surface sheet of eggs and jelly from one female which maximizes the oxygen available in warm water and leads to quick hatching. Warm rains encourage the movement of the terrestrial phase of the aquatic red spotted newt, the red eft. These brilliantly colored salamanders are advertising that they are very toxic due to the presence of tetrodotoxin in their tissues.

Bright colors in a male box turtle, however, seem to be instead a species identification mechanism. Although there is an anecdotal report that box turtles can be toxic after they have eaten poisonous toadstools.

Many birds have completed raising one brood already, perhaps the case with this mockingbird nest with three hungry babies on June 18. So the rush to reproduce in some species continues at a frantic pace.

Middle June symbolizes the end of the springtime magic of wildflowers and overwhelming bird song. Get ready for the long hot summer of equally exciting but different natural wonders.

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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