Wild Ideas: Nature stays freaky, readers stay in touch

Parasol mushrooms bloom in the driveway following a soaking rain in July, a few days after the derecho. Normally cool-loving fungi, these quickly cycled through from button to opening up and releasing spores, to collapse within a few days because of the heat. Photo by Pam Owen.
Parasol mushrooms bloom in the driveway following a soaking rain in July, a few days after the derecho. Normally cool-loving fungi, these quickly cycled through from button to opening up and releasing spores, to collapse within a few days because of the heat. Photo by Pam Owen.

My recent columns on a bobcat sighting and hummingbirds at the feeder brought the biggest response in email since I started the column. I really appreciate readers’ sharing their own observations and knowledge, but the bobcat-sighting stories made me envy those who had seen these cats more than once – until I did, too.

Once again I was driving home in the afternoon. Rounding the last curve before my driveway, less than a mile from my first sighting of the bobcat I had written about, I saw a bobcat sauntering down the road away from me just beyond the driveway. I could see the same distinctive tail and general coloring as the first cat I’d seen, so either it’s the same cat or one remarkably like it. Before I could get close enough to confirm the identification, the bobcat heard the car and shot like a bolt across the road, disappearing into the brush on the other side.

The hummingbird column also brought out interesting stories, as well as advice, from readers. While I’m not sure I’m up for following one reader’s suggestion of using a Shop-Vac to keep wasps from the nectar feeders – sucking living things, even ladybugs and stinkbugs, into a vacuum is not that appealing to me – another story really intrigued me.

As I was buying some delicious heirloom tomatoes at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, I ran into Rachel Bynum, one of the owners. Rachel mentioned the hummingbird column and told me she and her young sons had been fascinated to watch a large praying mantis trying to catch the hummingbirds at the nectar feeder near their house. I’d read about this phenomenon before and seen videos (just search online for “mantis hummingbird”) but had never had seen it in person. The mantis in question, from her description, was most likely the large invader from Asia rather than our native praying mantis, which is smaller.

Rachel shared with me what would have been my own conflict in watching such predator-prey behavior – half wanting to see the mantis be successful because it would be so amazing to see, but cringing at the thought of seeing one of our beloved little hummers getting torn apart by an insect. Everybody has to eat, but watching the process is not always pretty. Rachel said she wanted to refill the feeder anyway, so she opted to move the mantis elsewhere before the drama came to a climax.

Whether it’s seeing a bobcat in the road or a praying mantis hunting hummers at your nectar feeder, nature is always full of surprises. On a bigger scale has been the freaky weather we’ve had this year and how wild species have reacted to it. From the brutal, record-breaking heat of July, we segued into a relatively cool, rainy August. Last year’s relatively cool and damp weather late in summer resulted in an incredible array of mushroom blooms.

The difference I’m seeing this year is that, instead of many species blooming, one has appeared surprisingly early – the parasol mushroom. It’s been popping up in my driveway since July. Mushrooms are not exactly heat loving, but apparently all it took was a soaking rain that came a few days after the derecho and the accompanying heat wave.

I’d written about parasols when they bloomed in my driveway last year. Their huge, white, umbrella-shaped blooms were hard to miss. The only difference with these early blooms has been their duration – they’re incredibly brief, probably because of the heat. The whole cycle – from the button appearing from the ground, to its spreading out into a huge saucer, to shriveling up and crumbling – took only two or three days at the height of the heat, but will last more than a week in cooler weather.

Common evening primrose usually blooms in June but this patch arose from an area along the forest edge that had been cleared this spring and has been blooming for several weeks. The blooms above, photographed shortly after dawn, soon died, replaced in the evening by new ones. Photo by Pam Owen.
Common evening primrose usually blooms in June but this patch arose from an area along the forest edge that had been cleared this spring and has been blooming for several weeks. The blooms above, photographed shortly after dawn, soon died, replaced in the evening by new ones. Photo by Pam Owen.

This is not the first reproductive behavior in native species that’s out of whack. There’s a whole patch of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), which is supposed to bloom in the spring, that has turned one section of the forest adjoining the yard into a lovely, pale-yellow landscape from dusk through dawn and on cloudy days. Each bloom opens up in the evening, then dies the next day.

Evening primrose depends on pollinators who are active at night, particularly hawkmoths. These large, hovering moths are often mistaken for hummingbirds. In the crossover time – just after dawn and close to sunset – other pollinators swarm the primrose patch, from bees to hummingbirds. Interestingly, this plant serves as a host for the caterpillars of a day-flying hawkmoth, the white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata).

The unseasonal blooming of these evening primroses may be more the result of opportunity than of this year’s strange weather. The patch appeared when that bit of the forest edge was cleared of berry and other bushes this spring, so it basically got a late start. It’s amazing how long some seeds will survive in the soil, waiting for their time to germinate.

In comparing notes with other nature observers, I’ve confirmed that many other species are exhibiting unusual reproductive behavior this year. Among many examples are plants that are having a second bloom time, some frogs that are breeding out of order and some birds that are having an unusually high number of broods. Such changes are likely due to the unusual and erratic weather we’ve been experiencing and perhaps are a harbinger of things to come as species try to adjust to global changes in the climate.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”