Wild Ideas: Birds do it, butterflies do it . . .

Birds do it, bees do it, and even ever-loving butterflies do it, as these great spangled fritillaries demonstrate.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Birds do it, bees do it, and even ever-loving butterflies do it, as these great spangled fritillaries demonstrate.

Signs of reproductive success among many plants, animals and fungi were plentiful this spring.

Ticks and gnats seem to have had a really good start this year . . . unfortunately. And despite the predation I witnessed by native birds on eastern tent caterpillars earlier this spring, plenty of the larvae apparently survived. All around my house and yard, I later found furry little (three-quarter-inch) moths of this species, looking like a cross of a caped billy goat and an escapee from “Where the Wild Things Are.” When the adult moths emerge in mid-spring, the reproductive cycle starts over. The females lay their eggs on twigs of host trees, producing a single generation each year.

Great-spangled fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele) have also been amazingly plentiful up here this year. Pretty much any afternoon I’ve counted up to a half-dozen on my butterfly milkweed blossoms — by far their favorite nectaring plant here. When I accidentally surprised a couple in the act of mating nearby, they flew off, the male dragging the female with him, still attached, They eventually settled on a tuliptree branch to complete their business. The abundance of these butterflies points to success in their egg laying last summer and survival of the resulting caterpillars over the winter, although some adults migrate into the area each spring. I’ll be curious to see the countywide numbers for this fritillary from this year’s butterfly count in July.

Eastern tent caterpillar moths, looking like tiny escapees from the “Where the Wild Things Are,” were abundant this spring.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Eastern tent caterpillar moths, looking like tiny escapees from the “Where the Wild Things Are,” were abundant this spring.

As usual, the first brood of ruby-throated hummingbirds fledged by mid-June, judging by the sudden crowding at my feeder. The males are now spending a lot of time running off other males, but when they fly at the females, something else appears to be on their minds. Diving down on females from above, the males pull up before contact and swing in the other direction, obviously more interested in getting the females’ attention rather than driving them off.

According to Operation Rubythroat’s website, as the females arrive on the breeding grounds, the males start displaying through these courtship flights in which they fly upward 15 meters or more and then dive down at top speed, “pulling up at the last moment to complete a U-shaped pattern,” usually repeating this pattern several times.

Ultimately, the males shorten the arc to where they’re doing a “shuttle flight” that may be only a foot wide and within inches of the female’s head. After the shuttle flight, I often see the male land on top of the female, with the pair then flying off together. It’s hard to know how successful the males are, as the pairs usually disappear into the thick foliage a few feet from the deck. During courtship rituals, male hummers often also chitter, and produce a high-pitched sound during their rapid flight through the male’s mouth or wings — opinions vary on which.

The females at my feeder seem more harassed than willing during this ritual, but hummers have hit-and-run courtships, with the males typically trying to mate with more than one female during the breeding season. This polygamy helps to keep populations up, as females outnumber males. I’m beginning to think of my feeder as more as a singles bar than a fine-dining experience for these feisty little birds.

Herps were busy this spring, too. Up the mountain from my house, I was happy to see plenty of wood frogs, red-spotted newts and other amphibians producing masses of eggs and larvae in the fishless pond there this spring. Last week, down near my house, a female eastern box turtle diligently, if misguidedly, started to dig a hole in which to lay her eggs in suboptimal spots — first on my driveway, then near the landlords’ porch. Fortunately, she thought better of both locations and was last seen heading into the woods, where her eggs are much less likely to get disturbed.

Some plants are also quite prolific this year. Vines have shot up everywhere around my yard, and blackberry bushes exploded with blossoms in May. Their lovely, delicate scent was overpowered by the more cloying one of Japanese honeysuckle when it bloomed a bit later. Unfortunately we don’t get a lot of sun on the mountain, so no matter how much fruit the blackberry plants produce, it often goes from small and sour to small and rotting, or gets eaten by insects before it has fully ripened.

The damp spring led to a good bloom for a variety of mushrooms, including this lovely, delicate one almost hidden amid violets and coreopsis. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
The damp spring led to a good bloom for a variety of mushrooms, including this lovely, delicate one almost hidden amid violets and coreopsis.

Mushrooms also seemed to have been happy with this spring’s cool, damp start, popping out blooms all over my yard. One particularly good host, an old tuliptree stump, had oyster mushrooms blooming on it, along with several other species I have yet to identify. Small, brownish mushrooms were also popping up all over the yard. A small, particularly charming one —delicate and gray with a parasol-shaped, ribbed cap with yellow at its center — grew among violet and coreopsis leaves in one of my garden patches.

From perusing my mushroom guides, I’m guessing this mushroom is Parasola plicatilis (formerly Coprinus plicatilis), more commonly known as “pleated inkcap” or “umbrella inkcap.” P. plicatilis is an ephemeral mushroom whose blooms appear during rains, release their spores and disappear, often within 24 hours.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Turkey harvest up this spring

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, a record number of wild turkey, 20,580 gobblers, were harvested this spring during the 2015 spring season. “Because the spring harvest is believed to be the best index to turkey populations,” a spokesperson says, “the 2015 spring harvest suggests Virginia’s turkey population is at record levels for modern days.”

This year’s harvest was 17 percent higher than the 2014 one, and beat the previous record, set in 2013. As it takes a couple of years before turkeys are mature enough to be hunted, a “key factor” in this year’s uptick in numbers is good reproduction in 2013, according to the spokesperson. Two other factors that probably affected this year’s spring turkey harvest are the start of hunting on Sundays on private lands and the weather.

Wild turkey populations have shown a steady rise of 2.7 percent annually, although the amount of increase varies by region. Areas east of the Blue Ridge Mountains scored the greatest numbers this spring — a 20 increase over last year’s harvest. Rappahannock County did not make it into the top 10 counties this year, but our neighbor, Fauquier County, did.


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 332 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.”