Wild Ideas: Harbingers of summer

Along with other hibernators, stink bugs emerge

The emergence of another hibernator — the brown marmorated stink bug — has been more annoying than usual at my house this spring. The numbers of this very unwelcome guest were much higher than I thought from the bugs I saw come in last fall, and far exceeds numbers in previous years. I can only imagine where they’ve been hiding. I wouldn’t mind the stink bugs so much if they didn’t poop everywhere in the house.

It doesn’t help that the there’s a ton of ailanthus, a host plant from their native country, near the house. The stink bugs usually go to ailanthus when they first emerge, then on to other plants as they flower and bear fruit. I’m trying to nip that in the bud, so to speak, by firing up my small but powerful vacuum. I’d purchased this expensive vacuum when I moved to a house in Rappahannock that was infested with Asian multicolored lady bugs. Where I am now, lady bugs are few but stink bugs abound, and the vacuum works just as well on the latter.

I’ve also found that low ceilings make catching the bugs easier. I’ve collected quite a few by just holding up a large jar with soapy water in it. The bugs generally try to escape by flying down off the ceiling — which in this case launches them into the water. If they don’t take off into the jar, I just put the jar up over them, and slide it until the bugs do fly or drop into the trap.

On the upside from what I saw myself and heard anecdotally last year, more and more of our local predators, from native wildlife to chickens, are warming up to the bug, so we can only hope that things will balance out . . . eventually.

I saw my first fireflies of the year on Memorial Day weekend, lighting up the dark outside my window. Their twinkling mating displays each spring always bring magic to the nights and remind me that summer is not far behind. They also remind me how important dark skies are. The males depend on potential mates seeing their visual come-on, which is most visible on dark nights.

We’ve had a pretty nice spring so far up here on the mountain, except for the four inches of rain that moved one of my flower gardens to my lawn and briefly created a fountain in my herb garden. Although occasionally the heat has climbed to summer heights, it’s mostly been pretty darn nice this May, and more than just we primates have been enjoying it. The herps (reptiles and amphibians) are now out in force. I came home one warm, sunny day recently to find a couple of large, fat five-lined skinks romancing each other on my porch.

Earlier in the week, in rearranging some rocks that serve as a border to my small herb garden, I found an eastern wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus). These shy, harmless little snakes spend most of their lives under rocks and logs looking for invertebrates. If you pick one up, it will usually wrap itself around your fingers. The wormsnake is small (less than a foot long), with a roundish head. They blend in well to their surroundings and have a wormlike appearance, with brown backs and a pink belly.

I found a small pickerel frog hanging around the outside water tap. It’s undoubtedly hoping to score some of the insects drawn by the moisture that drips from the tap when I use the attached hose to water my gardens. Once breeding season for this species wraps up in May, many head for grassy or weed-covered areas for the summer.

Another gorgeous male box turtle also appeared one morning, crossing the driveway. While the one I wrote about in my May 22 column had bright yellow and black markings on its skin, this one was orange and black, with the same red eyes. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t some special food here that is making these males so colorful.

A small pickerel frog waits for insects lured by water dripping from an outside faucet.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A small pickerel frog waits for insects lured by water dripping from an outside faucet.

Blackberries are blooming in abundance this year. With the help of some warm, dry weather and some hard-working pollinators, we may be enjoying a bumper crop of berries this summer. The most conspicuous pollinator to be working the blueberry blossoms around my house is the zebra swallowtail butterfly.

Also known as the pawpaw butterfly, it’s rarely found far from its host, the pawpaw. Although I’ve never noticed any pawpaws up here, I’ll be looking more closely for them now. Maybe I’ll finally beat our local wildlife to some of their delicious fruit, which I haven’t accomplished since I was a kid. Suddenly they’re ripe, then they’re gone.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the first batch of baby phoebes in the nest on my kitchen vent fledged. The parents started with five eggs this year — a bumper crop. I photographed the eggs just after three had hatched, but when I returned to photograph the nestlings 11 days later, I could only see four. Apparently either one of the eggs wasn’t viable or a hatchling died. A week later, the mom was back working on her second brood. In checking the nest the next day, I found two eggs, but more are likely to come. 

A couple of Carolina wren nestlings in a pot near the phoebe nest disappeared a few days after the phoebes fledged. I’m hoping they, too, fledged as opposed to getting discovered by a predator.

While I was house sitting near Amissville over the holiday weekend, I heard a mockingbird singing in the middle of the night for the first time in years. I always associate that with steamy summer nights, so it was a bit of a surprise to hear it so early in the year, but welcome just the same.

A zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose host is the paw-paw, helps pollinate what is likely to be a bumper crop of blackberries this year.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose host is the paw-paw, helps pollinate what is likely to be a bumper crop of blackberries this year.

Back at home, I got a rare visit by a beautiful male scarlet tanager, which had deigned to descend from the heights of its realm to the copse of trees behind my house. Usually I’m craning my neck to try to spot these guys high in the forest.

On the mammal front, a very shy yearling bear has been hanging around for a few weeks, likely finding some leftovers at the fishing operation down at the ponds. I’m hearing tales of other bears trying to get into houses in search of food, in one case succeeding.

It was a hard fall, with a very low or nonexistent acorn crop, which followed a summer with low soft-mast crops (berries and other fruits) in some areas. That was followed by a hard winter, with lots of snow and not much food available, so bears are likely hungrier than usual now that they’ve emerged from dens and their metabolism is back up to speed.

Bears basically turn into eating machines as spring progresses. Other than mating, their focus is on trying to layer on as much fat for the next winter as they can. Right now the pickings are still a bit slim, but bears enjoy a varied diet.

As the naturally occurring food they’ve evolved to eat, including insects and fruits, becomes more plentiful, they are likely to start shopping more for groceries in places besides our homes. Until then, securing home entrances as well as pet food and bird feeders helps encourage them to move on.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 325 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.”