Summer is a time of remarkable abundance in nature. There is a veritable explosion of life in all its amazing forms. There is so much of interest to a naturalist that there is never a lack of animals and plants to examine.
Two of the rarer plants in bloom on our farm in July are ginseng and Canada lily. Ginseng or “sang” has long been used as a medicinal plant in the Orient and elsewhere, in part because the shape of its root resembles the human form. The white flowers are tiny and unremarkable but will result in beautiful red berries that will be eaten and dispersed by birds. It is like an Easter egg hunt to find the plants since they are so cryptic on the forest floor. In comparison, Canada lily has a large reddish orange flower on a tall stalk and is fairly obvious, but not so often seen. Our plants seem to prefer open disturbed sites where competition with grasses and shrubs is minimal, and there is some protection from deer browsing.
Summer is definitely a time for insects to flourish and they are of course the predominant form of animal life that you will encounter. We are fortunate in that we have very few blood-sucking insects (ticks are arachnids) and thus can better enjoy observing the fascinating variety of insect life. I came across a tiny eastern tailed blue butterfly on a cool morning, the best time to observe insects up close and personal while they are warming up. The tiny blue flashes of their wings is startling in contrast with the lighter pattern of the closed wings. Butterflies are most often present in areas which have the food plant of their caterpillars, which would be members of the pea family for blue butterflies.
When I venture out the back door every morning I look around to see if anything interesting has been drawn to the lights the night before. On a recent morning I observed the strange insect shown which is an adult mayfly. Their life history is peculiar in that this species has an aquatic nymph that lives for years underground in streams and lakes and then emerges and metamorphoses into a flying adult with a very short reproductive life span. Dragonflies are a very conspicuous insect around our ponds and they have a somewhat similar life cycle in that the larvae are aquatic and metamorphose into a flying adult. However the adults have a much longer life span and are quite beautiful and challenging to identify. The slaty skimmer shown here was flying around the edge of one of our eight constructed ponds which are very attractive to insects and amphibians.
There are some insects which deserve considerable respect since they can deliver a powerful bite. The wheel or assassin bug is one such critter that should not be handled. I have shown both the juvenile and the adults which look quite different. These are true bugs (Hemiptera) which have sucking rather than chewing mouthparts. You can see the proboscis folded under the head by which the prey are impaled, poisoned and devoured. It is interesting that the juvenile bugs have a red abdomen which they hold erect in a rather menacing manner, as if to say, go ahead and make my day- touch me and I will bite you! Their color and stance seem to advertise their toxic nature. In contrast the adults are brown and do not advertise their ability to defend themselves. The “wheel” or cog on their back is an unusual feature of their anatomy of unknown function.
We have a number of fields on our farm which are cultivated in different types of grasses and flowers. Those which are not cut for hay grow quite tall and we have suspected that turkeys nest there but it is quite difficult to find the nests. My wife found one such nest by chance after it hatched, while pruning along one of our trails. It was very well hidden even though only two feet from a trail. It is interesting that turkeys will come down from the woods and nest in thick field sites which apparently offer them better protection from predators than ground locations in the woods.
Considering the number of deer on our farm it is surprising that we do not find fawns more often. This photo is of a very young fawn that I chanced across near Elk Garden; their response is to lie still in the presence of danger and their spotted camouflage is remarkable. I have very mixed feelings about deer since they are a beautiful native species yet they cause untold damage to our plantings. In response we have to place expensive protective fences and enclosures around many plants. Despite hunting there seems little chance of controlling their numbers. But in one sense it is reassuring to have some native species that are thriving in the changed landscape that humans have produced. It would be nice to have some more native predators of deer but apparently coyotes have minimal effect on deer and feed mainly on smaller prey. So one lesson I am learning from farm life is to become more accepting of “varmits” and to figure out ways to avoid their damage rather than to kill them.
So go out and revel in the natural abundance of summer. It will be gone sooner than you imagine!
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA