Natural Observations-Of lilacs and spiders-7-8-2012

Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song describes some of her observations of spiders, insects, birds, and a bat this season,  and the ways the web of nature is all connected. Audio runs  7 min 12 sec. Photos by Robin Song. Text follows photos.


[audio:|titles=NatObs-Of Lilacs & Spiders,July 2012]





With another Alaska summer in full swing, life is burgeoning. From flowers to bears, everything is busy cramming what they need to do into a few short months. By July mammals are raising their offspring and teaching them what they’ll need to know to survive on their own. Fledgling birds are following their parents, being fed and also learning to feed themselves. Many species will be migrating in the fall, and they have a lot of learning to cram into a few weeks before they begin the long flight. Many species somehow do this without the guidance of their parents.


Being a student of Nature, I am ever observant of the world around me. Each summer I watch for all the new life to emerge. Being a photographer and artist, I am always eager to take photos of the natural world. I can’t say I have a true favorite subject, for I am just as passionate about flowers as I am about birds, mammals, insects, skyscapes, waterfalls and all the rest this beautiful and diverse world has to offer an open heart.


Before coming to Alaska in 1980, I had pre-conceived ideas about this far northern State. For instance, I didn’t expect to find the diversity of insects. How tiny species and insects as delicate as butterflies can survive the long winters amazes me still. Over the years, I have found several bugs not listed in the Insects of south-central Alaska book. With the diversity of insects, such as the beetle family represented by more than two hundred fifty species in Alaska, to find some undocumented is not surprising, to me.


At Birch Creek Ranch, there is more flora variety to attract more bugs. From apple trees to timothy hay, insects have a lot from which to chose. A stroll down the row of apple trees resplendent with white blossoms reveals beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and several species of flies. Recently I was photographing a handsome Langton Forester moth-which is black with large white spots on its wings and has bright orange hairs on its hind legs-and a nearby leaf curled over in an unusual way caught my eye. I very carefully  pried the apple leaf open and discovered a spider down inside the bottom curl of the leaf. It had fashioned a web cocoon on the inside of the leaf and curled the leaf over itself and the round white sack, which was housing its hundreds of eggs. It was a gray and black striped spider, its body about one quarter inch in length. I gently re-curled the leaf so the spider and its precious eggs were protected once again.


While out birding during our annual Birdathon in early May, I came upon a cocoon of eggs on the branch of a willow. It was from last year, and the eggs had all hatched. What was left was a wonderful geometric pattern of tiny tan-colored eggs laid in neat rows, each one with a dot in its center where the caterpillar had eaten its way to freedom. The adult had spun a cocoon of silk around the egg patch, catching a leaf and curling it over the cocoon for added protection and camouflage. Looking it up later, I discovered it was the work of the Rusty Tussock Moth.


In late June I came upon a large patch of blossoming wild geraniums. In amongst the purple blooms were a few rare white geraniums. Photographing those, I was drawn to photograph bumblebees working on the blooms. Having raised honeybees in Northern California, I have a soft spot for bees. As I was preparing to leave the patch, I spotted what I thought was a sleeping bee on the center of a geranium blossom. The sun had gone behind a bank of rain clouds in the west, and when the temperature drops, bees often crawl under a leaf or inside a flower to wait for the sun and warmth to return. I took a couple of photos and headed on back to the cabin. Looking at the photos later I was astounded to discover that the bee had not been sleeping but was being dined upon by a yellow and red Crab Spider! There was no silk in evidence, and how the spider caught the bee is a mystery.


There is a large pink lilac tree out in the nursery, in amongst a row of rose bushes. When the lilac tree is coming into bloom, I watch for butterflies and moths. In years past, I have occasionally seen Hummingbird and Sphinx moths plying the fragrant blooms, along with bumblebees, and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. This year, as with last year, rain fell day after day while the tree was in bloom and none of the aforementioned insects arrived. I did receive one gift, however. One evening I heard the call of a Savannah Sparrow and traced it to the lilac tree. I managed to get a couple of photos before the little bird flew over to the raspberry patch.


On a night in early July I was pleased to watch a bat flying in loops and figure-8s near the cabin, catching insects in the cool air. Being summer, it was not full dark and I could easily watch the little mammal whipping low over the grass, then zipping up towards the high branches of the May Day tree. Like a lot of the birds, the bats are here to take advantage of the plethora of insect life. The swallow babies hatched awhile ago, and their parents are busy throughout the day and well into the night, catching insects in the air and bringing in as many as they can cram into their beaks to feed to their voracious young.


While out walking the shoreline of a lake on July 1st, I heard the calls of Rusty Blackbirds and watched a female fly by with something in her beak. She landed on the top of a nearby spruce, allowing me a few photos before she flew again. Zooming in on the photos, I was amazed to find that the bird had a large dragonfly in her beak. I have read that when the dragonflies first emerge from the nymph casing on the stalk of a water plant, the insect is vulnerable until its wings have unfurled and become hardened, thus enabling the insect to take flight. Once able to fly, they are swift and difficult for a bird to catch. My guess is that this Rusty mom had found a dragonfly in its vulnerable state and was now taking it to her nest of hungry youngsters.


And so it goes. Flora feed insects and spiders, which in turn feed birds and mammals. Enough survive to reproduce during Alaska’s short summer, and then once again life winds down in the fall and prepares for winter. All too soon the birds will be leaving and the insects will be going into hibernation. This is the time to go out and enjoy what Alaska has to offer, for like the blossoms of the beautiful flowers, soon it will be over. Indeed, this is the time to “stop and smell the roses”.


KTNA, NatObs, July 8, 2012

Of Lilacs and Spiders, by Robin Song

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