Playin’ Possum

I first met Didelphis virginiana (the Virginia opossum) in New Jersey.  I met a mother and her babies in a cage where I volunteered at an animal rehab center on the weekends.  I don’t remember much – screech owls and bats were much more fun to care for – but I do remember the other staff stressing to be careful around a mother with her babies and I remember noting how ugly they were.  And then there were all those teeth in that long, skinny jaw.

I don’t recall seeing another possum until we moved to Halcyon.  One fall evening during our first year I heard a loud rustling outside the kitchen.  I hadn’t raked yet and that one possum lumbering over a pile of dead leaves was loud enough to increase my heartbeat as I peered out into the night, expecting to see a bear.  Again, though, I had no more encounters with possums until this year.

This fall we found that a possum had taken to visiting the cats on the side porch where we feed them.  Once Chris discovered that the possum actually knew how to open the cats’ food bin, we had to bring it inside.  I carefully measure the cat food every day and if it’s not eaten by evening, I bring the leftovers inside so as to not further encourage this possum.  Often enough to probably still be encouraging, I will realize I forgot to bring in any food at night as I lie in bed listening to the crunch of late-night snacking.  A hiss and a crash of glass confirms it was probably the ‘ol possum.  Not worth getting out of bed at this point.

I still didn’t really mind this.  Cardinals steal the cat food too and I figure I’m just sharing a little bit of protein for some hungry critters.  It helps too that I’ve been reading how important possums are in the diversity picture of an area.  More on that later, but understand that possums were endearing themselves to me and I didn’t mind that they were around.  That is, until I found one sleeping in the chicken coop the other day.

Be careful where you stick your hand!
Be careful where you stick your hand!

It is one thing to hang around and take some easy cat food.  It is another thing entirely to eat some eggs out of the chicken coop and then curl up in the straw and take a nice long nap in the nest box!  My ambivalence and growing endearment were mixed with anger suddenly at this new development.  How dare this little thing come and steal my eggs.  My girls and I work hard for those eggs.  I tried to poke it to make it leave, but it just opened its mouth to show me all those teeth and didn’t budge.  It clearly wasn’t playing dead, an involuntary reaction that leaves a possum in a near-coma state for two to three hours.  Maybe it is unsafe to be in a coma while actively digesting.  So I left the door open hoping that the bright afternoon sun would bother it enough to make it leave.

I went back to check an hour later.  I thought my plan had worked. I was just reaching in to push down all the straw when, whoa!  That little bugger was hunkered down, sleeping again!  I also noticed an egg on the ground near the coop.  I assume the possum pigged out on one or two eggs and then needed to nap.  One poor chicken that still needed to lay an egg apparently was not about to mess with the napping nabster upstairs and went about her business outside.  This possum had to go.  I don’t think my chickens are willing to share sleeping quarters and I am not willing to share eggs.

Look at those teeth!
Look at those teeth!

I prodded harder this time until it fell out of the nest box and tumbled onto the ground level of the coop.  That put us face to face where it could run right at me.  I went around to the long side of the coop and put the wire fencing of the coop between us and continued to prod it out of the coop completely.  It ran out the garden and straight up the nearest tree.  Now I had a real problem.

Possum in a panic
Possum in a panic

My problem was not that I couldn’t reach it or continue to scare it off.  My problem was not that it could easily come back anytime it wanted since it crawled right under the electric fence.  My problem was that the darned thing was cute.  And I’m not even a mama possum!  It was young and looked adorable making its getaway, and then peering down at me from a tree branch.  My problem is that suddenly I wasn’t mad at it, and for now I’m doing nothing about it.

Opossums are special.  Yes, they’re kind of ugly.  Sure, they can seem vicious.  But as the only marsupial in North America north of Mexico, I am proud to host them at Halcyon.  Baby possums are born helpless and the size of a honeybee! Good thing for the protective pouch.  You’ll notice I’ve used both the word possum and opossum in my writing.  Possum is a colloquial term for the original word opossum.  They have 50 teeth, which is more than any mammal in North America.  I am trying to imagine the human mouth with 18 more teeth – nine more on each side – and it’s not a pretty picture.

I am happy to have possums at Halcyon though because it increases the diversity of the wildlife.  Possums only live for about two years, so if I were a mama possum, I’d want my young to have a good two years (Possums have a REALLY small brain and therefore may not think much about other possums).  I am also happy to have possums here because their presence has been found to decrease the incidence of Lyme disease.  Possums may be ugly, but they are prodigious groomers and in the process of grooming eat and kill most of the ticks that took a ride hoping for a blood meal.  Not encountering ticks or the Lyme spirochete they carry is a real nice benefit to sharing some cat food and the very occasional egg.

Retreat to a tree
Retreat to a tree

Isn’t my ignoring the problem the same as playing dead?  After all, I just want the threat to go away.  Will it work as well as playing dead?  I guess that depends on how tasty those eggs were or how scary I was prodding and yelling at the poor little thing.  I am glad no one I know can comment on that second condition!  Obviously, if nondomestic members of Halcyon start eating my eggs, I will have to rethink my “do nothing for now” strategy.  I want the possums to stay.  If I relocate it, and others, I may lose the young generation that would stay and mate, and continue to eat ticks.  I am hoping I can “play possum” and keep my eggs.

Happy Anniversary!

Today is the first anniversary of my blog.  I had set a goal to keep it going for at least a year.  I have enjoyed learning about the species that live at Halcyon, sharing what I learn with you, and honing my writing skills.  I hope to keep it going, but I also hope to increase the time that I spend on other writing projects, so we’ll see how it goes.  Your feedback and encouragement have been a big help in keeping me inspired.  However, if you recall my first post ( ), I also wanted to accomplish something I called quasi-homesteading.  So I thought this anniversary post should detail some of the ways that I fed my pioneer spirit over the past year.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) is a misnomer in my humble opinion.  I have had to acquire (doing my part to help the economy) quite a number of tools and gadgets in order to do things myself.  I have also needed help whether it came in the form of advice from friends, old wisdom from a book, reinvented wisdom from the Internet, or many-hands strength from my husband and children.  For example, I cannot move the DIY chicken coop by myself, I could not eat homemade soups – we have almost eliminated canned goods – without the help of my amazing All American Pressure Cooker/Canner, and I will not get much food from my garden without the help of our $660.00 investment in an electric fence.  I remember reading a book about farming life in the early 1900s and being amazed at all the tools they needed to survive their homesteading life.

Oh, wait! I don’t need to do this to survive.  I am, by accident of birth and through decisions I’ve made for myself and with my husband, thriving as a middle class American.  I can drive to stores, farmer’s markets, shop on the Internet and get 2-day free delivery. I have worked in much less physically demanding jobs, and could do so again.  So why am I grunting, groaning, and nursing sore muscles and pulled tendons?  Why am I fighting the elements, the deer, the voles, and the toxic juglone exuding from our plethora of walnuts?  This is not easy to answer.  It’s true I have a pioneer spirit that needs nurturing.  It’s true that I want to eat healthier and not give my dollars to big agribusinesses that don’t care about our health or the environment.  But I think there are reasons less tangible, even to me right now, but related to the cliché of feeling most satisfied with a life of hard work and playing in the dirt.  Another reason has to do with just wanting to know if I can live this way.

My chickens were a year old August 1st!  I am happy to say they are alive and thriving.  Well, mostly (  I might get a few more at some point, but I’m not keen on building another coop right now.  Perhaps just two or three more could all fit nice and snuggly.

Besides the large-scale projects like chickens and the garden, I have enjoyed dabbling with many smaller projects.  I am dry curing a ham in order to try to capture some memories of Spain.  I’ve done this before and though this pig did not eat acorns in the forest, I think the Jamón Serrano will indeed bring back the flavors and good times we had in Spain.

I am curing bacon now.  It is fantastic.  The only drawback being that we are finding it very hard to eat store-bought bacon now.

I’ve made a demi-glaze following the instructions in December 2008 issue of Saveur Magazine.  I froze it in ice cube trays to have ready-to-use portions.  It is wonderful to add to soups or stews, and to make gravy.

Demi-glaze frozen in cubes
Demi-glaze frozen in cubes

I’ve eaten dandelion greens and made dandelion wine.  The wine was surprisingly tolerable, maybe even good.  It was also easy to make.  However, I only make two bottles and since I still have some left, I suspect that it is not quite good enough to spend time doing every year.

Dandelion wine
Dandelion wine

We love to eat soup in the winter.  I have made canned chicken soup, split pea soup, and black bean soup.  I have also canned chick peas (so they are ready to use and not from a can), peach jam, autumn olive jam ( ), cherries, peaches, applesauce, plum preserves, tomato sauce, salsa, and homemade baked beans.  These are all worth it.  It does take time, but I know what ingredients I am eating.  It is all real food.

Our bounty
Our summer preserved for winter

I have fermented pickles and cabbage.  This is also easy, tastes good, and works 75% of the time.  The rest of the time I get molds that I am not willing to rinse off.  I cultured too many bad things from foodstuff back in college.  I guess my gut is not as much of a pioneer wannabe as my spirit. Then there’s that notion that I don’t need to eat this food to survive like families did in the past, so I just end up composting it, mold and all, when this happens.

A plethora of pickles
A plethora of pickles

I have played with being able to make a good loaf of bread.  I know I have succeeded because my husband likes it!  I am using wheat berries and grinding them myself.  I am continuing to experiment with other breads now too.

I made my own vanilla with fresh vanilla beans and vodka.  This is much cheaper than buying the little vials in the store.  I made cranberry liquor for Christmas gifts this year.  They were a big hit.  Ever have homemade tonic?  After being frustrated from a quest to find tonic without high fructose corn syrup – this is possible, but very expensive – I decided to make it myself.  I know, why do I worry about the corn syrup and still drink the gin?  I don’t have a good answer for that either, but I am enjoying my gin and tonics.  You can find recipes on the Internet, but I’d be happy to share my trials and errors with anyone interested.

So I want to keep doing most of what I’ve tried.  I want to learn more about past techniques and balance such knowledge with present day science and technology.  I have a lot to learn.   The cycling of seasons gives me ample chances to learn from my mistakes and to try again.  I am thankful for my husband who is supportive of these endeavors.  One day all the tomatoes I can will come from my garden and not farmer’s markets.  One day I’ll have okra to add to my soups, and beans to put up, and lots of other things that the deer took this year ( ).  I want to figure out how to easily process all the black walnuts we have on our property because I fondly remember the walnut sauce we put on ice cream when we were kids.  And I am dreaming, just maybe, of goats.  Or bees.  Or both.

I’m spending a day next week helping a friend who really is homesteading.  She raises goats for milk and meat and enough chickens to not need to buy them from the grocery.  She loves and respects her animals.  She gardens and cans and makes bread and cheese.  I suspect she works a lot harder than I do every day.  I also suspect she goes to bed each night filled with a lot of that personal satisfaction of a job well done.  I’m looking forward to how a day working with her will inspire me.


More of summer
More of summer


A Cop, A Vulture, and a Misunderstanding

I had just been telling some friends recently how I needed to get my hearing checked.  I keep mishearing phrases on the radio or things my husband says.  Well, an incident on my walk soon after proved my point and probably made me appear quite strange.

I was walking on our road with my daughter Mauri, and I had stopped to take a picture of an immature turkey vulture perched on a dead branch above us – looking just like a Disney caricature.  As I was taking the photo, a car slowed behind me and I assumed the driver was wondering what I was doing.  I started explaining before completely turning and registering the driver.  It was a local county police officer.

“Yeah, it’s a vulture all right.  Don’t get too close or he’ll fill up on you.”

Huh?  Was this guy serious or pulling my leg?  So I said something eloquent and profound in response.  “But I’m not dead.”

“Don’t matter.  If you get too close they’ll fill up on you.”

Oh man, this is some tall tale spreading around the county. What a poor, misinformed soul, I thought.  This time I came back with the equally profound, “Really?”

vultureIMG_1531He pulled away continuing his admonishment, “Be careful; don’t get too close.”

This seemed totally absurd to me.  A turkey vulture, though large and intimidating, would not swoop down, attack me, and eat me.  If this were true, the population of humans in our county would be decreasing at an alarming rate.  We have a lot of vultures.  Vultures are detritivores, preferring dead flesh.  Maybe they’d changed, got a taste of fresh blood, and I’d not heard about it yet.  I doubted all this and turned my confused expression to Mauri, who had been quiet throughout the whole interchange.

“Can you believe he thinks it would eat me?”

It was Mauri’s turn to say, “Huh?”

She continued with, “He said it would throw up on you if you get too close?”

Really?  Oh, boy do I need to get my ears checked!  This first thought was quickly subdued by my ever skeptic nature and I started to wonder if this vomit proclamation was even true.

So I spent the next few days learning about vultures.  By the way, the police officer was correct, vultures are known to throw up (not fill up) on you.  It is a defense mechanism used to ward off a predator.  Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the more aggressive of our two local species of vultures and are more likely to use the tactic.  However, they will also come at you hissing and biting, so it may not be necessary to also try the projectile-vomiting technique.  Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are more passive and while they are capable of and will use projectile vomiting, they will also try playing dead – a little ironic don’t you think?  While my skepticism was placated, this fact was not what I found most fascinating from my readings.  And I’m not really worried about being targeted while walking or even while photographing a vulture.

The genus for turkey vulture, Cathartes, is Greek for purifier, and used to portray its ecological niche.  While all vultures purify, or clean up decomposing animal bodies, they have different genus designations because of evolving in different parts of the world from different ancestors.  There are only three species in the genus Cathartes: the Turkey Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) and the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melanbrotus).  The latter two are tropical species.

Vultures have featherless heads to facilitate easier clean up after eating rotting flesh because they often have to stick their heads deep into a carcass.  Their feet and toes are not strong like raptors and therefore vultures cannot take food back to a roost or fly off with it to eat elsewhere.  They must eat at the site of the carcass and the feet serve to hold it in place while they feed.  Vulture comes from the Latin word vellere, which means to tear.

The turkey vulture has a keen sense of smell – not common in birds – and can smell a rotting carcass from up to 200 feet in the air.  The tropical vultures also have this keen sense of smell, allowing them to find food despite the dense canopy.  Black vultures do not have this keen sense of smell and find carcasses by noting where turkey vultures are hunting.

I learned a new word while learning about vultures.  They have an arguably gross way of cooling off called urohidrosis – literally, sweating with urine.  This means they defecate on their feet and are then cooled as the fluids evaporate.  The waste contains uric acid, which is antibiotic, perhaps also helping vultures to fill their niche without getting an infection from their culinary habits.  Storks also utilize urohidrosis and can accumulate enough fluid on their legs to turn them white.

If after reading this, you don’t have some positive fascination, respect, or even endearment for the homely turkey vulture, then slow down and drive with more care.  Our ever-expanding highway system and increased speeds have provided a readily available source of road kill and have contributed greatly to their growing populations.  I have gained some endearment for turkey vultures, but I have also learned a valuable lesson from the encounter on the road that day.  It appears that while I do not necessarily believe everything I hear or read – a good trait to have – it also appears that I cannot trust everything I hear – a problematic condition to have.



Dear Deer

Dear Deer,

Are you familiar with the moralistic tale of the mother hen who makes bread for her family?  No one helped her with the planting, the harvesting, the milling, or the baking of the bread.  However, once the bread was ready to eat, they all wanted a piece.  Would you agree that they did not deserve to share the bread?

I have been caretaker of Halcyon now for twelve years.  In that time, I have not only shared many of the natural resources found at Halcyon with other nonhuman life forms, I have actually increased available habitat and food resources for them.  I feel I have been very kind in sharing, and in general I have only minor complaints (well, except for that hawk from any conflict of interest between my needs and that of the needs of others living at Halcyon.

You deer have crossed the line.  Or, I should say more literally, the fence.  It was bad enough when you ate most of the lily blooms we’d been anxiously waiting to see. We have hundreds of lily fans; you could have saved some for us.

Good neighbors honor fence lines.  You have not been a good neighbor.  I have 14 acres to share with you.  In fact, I think I have been exceedingly generous.  Of those 14 acres, I’ve only fenced in 3500 square feet of land that I don’t wish to share.  This is more than fair.  I’ve left you with 606, 340 square feet from which to browse, rest, sleep, find cover and whatever else it is you do in your summer feeding areas.  Perhaps this is not quite enough space for your typical one-half to three square miles of territory, but there is plenty of land adjacent to Halcyon, and Halcyon offers a variety of valuable food sources and water.  I feel I’ve exclusive rights to my mere 3500 square feet.

It is not just space allocation rights that I am arguing here.  Recall the mother hen story.  Did you help me move rocks this past winter and spring to build my beds?  Did you help me haul soil up from the floodplain to fill my beds?  Did you help me plant my seedlings and watch over them anxiously for those first precious cotyledons to appear?  Did you help me set my seedlings outside and water carefully and protect them from late spring frosts?  And weeding!  My word, did you help me weed and haul mulch to protect my plants from competition?  Do you see where I’m going with this?

So imagine my frustration when I return from vacation to find my garden eaten.  By you!  You ate the beans down to one inch of stem, and half of each tomato plant.  You ate the pumpkin leaves and broccoli.  You ate the kiwi leaves and raspberry leaves.  Given your lack of help in producing these plants, I feel you’ve no right to eat them.

I know you want to eat well and feed your lovely young.  I want the same for my family.  Given your lack of responsibility regarding the existence of those desirable plants inside the fence, I must insist that you go elsewhere.  Since the stinky deer repellent did not work, I see only two options:  I get better fencing or I learn how to hunt.  After careful consideration, I’d like you to beware that I will be installing an electric fence.

In closing, I’d like to add that I have not included in this letter any of the expletives I normally use to address you.  I am trying to exercise neighborly restraint.  However, I’m only human and if you don’t take your “only deer” fence-hopping, garden-browsing tendencies elsewhere I will be forced to take drastic measures.  I may not hunt, but I have friends that do.


Caretaker of Halcyon

This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.
This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.
Deer-browsed broccoli
Deer-browsed broccoli


From Devil to King in a Year

I could see it from my seat on the mower and from about five feet away.  It was huge and turquoise and wicked looking.  I jumped off the mower for a closer look.  It was a devil of a caterpillar all right.  So, I ran to get my camera.

The hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis), when in its fifth instar and ready to pupate, is probably the largest caterpillar in our area.  The larva can reach almost six inches in length and the one I saw was definitely that big.  What was it doing crawling along the ground, conspicuously visible?  It was ready to pupate, which they do by crawling down from their host tree and, once finding a suitable spot, burrow six inches underground and overwinter in an earthen burrow. They do not make a cocoon as many moths do.

Something akin to magic happens during its time spent in its earthen burrow. It will emerge the next spring (sometimes the spring after) having shed all similarities to a scary devil.  Well, not shed exactly, but metamorphosed into its adult form, the royal walnut moth.  As a regal member of our native wildlife, it sports a coat of greenish-gray with bright velvet-orange stripes.  There are some light gold spots upon this coat.  Its head is crowned in orange velvet with stripes of the same light gold color.  It is a stunning display, well suited to our naming it a royal moth.

Its peristalsis-like movement so transfixed me that I took a short video.  How will it pick the right spot to burrow underground?  Does it sense me peering over it?  This one day, this part of this one day in its life is critical to the success of the individual and the species (if predation while seeking its burrow outweighed successful maturation).  For weeks, it had feasted relatively protected among the leaves of a black walnut tree.  Feeding alone and at night also helps protect it.  And once underground it will be protected from most harm while it transforms.  But all could be lost in this brazen hike from treetop to underground burrow, a hike discovered to be successful through years and years of evolution.  Genetically programmed to partake in each step of its development, the hickory horned devil hasn’t much choice in the matter.   Nonetheless, it seemed intent on its quest, perhaps counting strongly on its grotesque, scary appearance to keep it safe.  My only regret is not sticking around long enough to watch it safely reach its destination.

As an adult, Citheronia regalis does not eat.  It lives only about a week.  Its sole purpose at this time is to mate and lay eggs.  Imagine spending nine to 22 months underground, for all we know oblivious to the great changes taking place in your body, only to have a week to explore the world with your new body, to mate, and to die.  Just a week to show off those beautiful new wings, surely seems unfair.  But that is because I am using a human point-of-view to see the situation.  Perhaps the regal walnut moth, with nothing more to do but mate and die, has a glorious time flying about, even if it’s only for a week.  Perhaps a glorious life and having fun is not in its schemata.

We humans, on the other hand, spend many years growing before we reach puberty.  We are (mostly) more aware of the changes that take place in puberty and get excited, often quite literally, for our adult stage, a stage we get to enjoy for up to 70 years if we are healthy and lucky.  It is funny how often we say we are so busy, when we have so much time in comparison to other creatures’ life cycles.  If you ever have the luck of circumstance to run into a hickory horned devil, please let it continue on its way undisturbed.  It’s a very busy caterpillar.



A Very Tiny Visitor

It’s a wasp, it’s a bee, no, it’s a hoverfly!  At least that is my deduction at the moment; any entomologists reading this are welcome to correct or confirm my identification.

I was walking around the garden looking for anything on which to use the macro feature of my camera – this is how I procrastinate garden chores. The bright orange of the calendula petals seemed perfect.  It wasn’t until I squatted down that I noticed the tiny insect.  It was less than a centimeter long. My first thought was that it was a small bee, but I know that many flies mimic bees.  I suspected it was a fly, and later searched for its identity online.  I think it is a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on a calendula petal.
Hoverfly on a calendula petal.

Hoverflies do look like bees.  Albeit so small it seems they couldn’t possibly hurt a fly, and they don’t.  Aphids though are another story.  Hoverflies exhibit mimicry.  Mimicry is an adaptive mechanism in which an organism looks like or imitates some protective mechanism of another organism to escape danger, yet they do not actually have the protective mechanism.  Hoverflies look like bees, but have no stingers.

Mimicry occurs through the process of evolution.  Very simplistically, a mutation would cause a hoverfly to look more like a predacious wasp or bee (or whatever the mimic-model relationship).  If the mutation then allowed the organism to better escape predation, it would be considered more successful than its fellow species that have no mutation.  In ecology, successful means a higher chance of survival and production of offspring.  These offspring would have the same mutation.  This happens slowly over many generations (unless you have a very high generation rate like bacteria) and eventually the species changes. There are three main categories of mimicry: defensive, aggressive, and reproductive, and there are different types within each category. Hoverflies exhibit Batesian mimicry, which is in the defensive category.

Mimicry, as well as many other evolutionary processes, has always fascinated me.  But what fascinated me most when I looked at my picture were simply the details of this tiny body.  The rich brown eyes are beautifully paired with the buttery-yellow antenna (more properly described as the annatto-yellow of commercially processed butter).  Then there are its delicate yellow legs walking on the knife-edge of the flower petals, an expert tightrope walker with no need for a safety net.  Hoverflies, as their name implies, can hover.  Of course with six legs and wings for balance, it is probably never in danger of tipping and falling.  Hoverflies can also fly backwards.  This is apparently a skill unique to the Syrphidae, the taxonomic family to which this hoverfly belongs.

Hoverfly adults feed primarily on nectar and are considered an important species for cross-pollination.  Adults sometimes feed on the honeydew produced by aphids.  The larvae feed heavily on aphids and are therefore a welcome agricultural insect.  So, to many, the hoverfly is a ‘good guy’.  I’m far from perfect, but I try not to evaluate other organisms from my human perspective.  In other words, I don’t like to use the terms good or bad to describe an organism or to place organisms on a hierarchy.  I know I am guilty of this judgment when it comes to the invasive plants at Halcyon, but I am trying to develop a tolerance for them.  It is not easy!

I think it is natural though to like or to dislike certain organisms even when we understand that all life is tied together in intricate ways we may never fully know or appreciate.  I really like this little hoverfly.  I think he is exquisite – males have rounded abdomens and females have pointed abdomens.  I think he is so exquisite that I spent several hours trying to identify the species.  I quickly got bogged down in the anatomical vernacular that went way beyond my rudimentary knowledge of head, thorax, and abdomen, but I narrowed it down to three possibilities:  Toxomerus geminatus, Toxomerus marginatus, or Eupeodes corolla.

Finding and learning about this little hoverfly was a pleasant diversion from garden tasks in the heat.  I should get out there soon and get some weeding done before it rains, and leave my camera inside.  On second thought . . .

Calendula flower
Calendula flower

A Harlequin Romance: Coming to a Cabbage Patch Near You

A Harlequin romance is supposed to be predictable.  Pretty girl meets handsome, mysterious man and proceeds to engage in a sappy and steamy love affair.  A harlequin character is supposed to be a zany fool, a buffoon at whom you poke fun.  A harlequin pattern is bold, red and black diamonds.  How could I miss all this?

Of course I did notice the bold, red and black coloration.  It was an interesting insect, new to me, and so I let it alone.  I thought it beautiful.  As one should with new romances, I took it slowly.  Was it a predator of plants or bugs?  I kept meaning to look it up, but days went by.  I approached cautiously, admiring its stark, sleek coat of arms.  One morning I went in search of it for a picture and saw the answer to my question:  it was munching my cabbage!

The harlequin cabbage bug (Murgantia histrionica), not to be confused with the harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus), is a black stinkbug with bright red, orange, or yellow coloration.  It is considered dangerous – to a cabbage plant that is – and it is described as an important pest.  It causes damage by sucking the sap out of plants, but what I saw appeared to be munching, not sucking.  I thought that perhaps the nymphs do the sucking damage.  I promptly removed all the eggs I could find. They are quite beautiful.  I’d not yet seen a nymph.  However, that does not mean I’d broken this romantic life cycle.  The new nymphs are basically the size of the eggs (see excellent photos at this website: and therefore, easily missed.

A Harlequin cabbage bug adult and a cabbage white butterfly larva.
A harlequin cabbage bug adult and a cabbage white butterfly larva.

I already have holes in most of my cabbage plant leaves thanks to the cabbage white butterfly. I pick off some of the larvae since they are numerous, but otherwise I try to live with the chewed leaves.  They taste the same and most of my cabbage is slated for fermentation.  No one will see the holes once I chop the leaves into small pieces.  But I’ve seen what the gray squash bugs can do to a squash plant, and I don’t want to share my cabbage with the harlequin cabbage bug.  This means daily checking.

I later realized that the harlequin bug I thought was munching on a cabbage leaf must have just been sitting right where a cabbage white larva had feasted and that is why I thought it was munching.  I soon noticed not only holes all over my cabbage, but lots of juicy green frass, otherwise known as caterpillar poop.  I wonder – since I might lose my cabbage – if there is much nitrogen in caterpillar poop.  At least I could get some fertilizer in the soil for the next go around.  All romances need a little give and take.

Beginning cabbage head full of holes and frass, and lots of larvae hiding in the folds.
Beginning cabbage head full of holes and frass, and lots of larvae hiding in the folds.

The harlequin cabbage bug is a hemimetabolous insect.  This means it undergoes incomplete metamorphosis in its development.  It goes from egg to nymph to adult through gradual changes as opposed to having a pupa stage (think butterflies), which is called holometabolism, or complete metamorphosis.  Grasshoppers and dragonflies are examples of other insects with hemimetabolism.

Harlequin cabbage bugs require anywhere from 50 to 80 days to complete one generation of their life cycle.  In warmer climates this means plenty of time for some extra-amorous affairs.  They overwinter as adults, ready for love in the spring.  I had never seen this insect before.  I am in awe of how the adults found my particular cabbage patch.  How far did they travel?  Was it serendipitous that two harlequin bugs met on my lovely cabbage? I did have lovely cabbage a few weeks ago.  I rather think not, since I found many adults and, unwittingly left them to their romantic interludes a bit too long.

So what happened to my daily checking?  Well, there is always much to do in a garden, and then we went away for four days.  Then, of course, there is much to do when one returns.  Today I got to that checking.  It seems some cabbage will indeed be lost, unless I want to spend a lot of time removing caterpillar poop before making my sauerkraut.  I also found more Harlequin adults and more eggs, this time with larva.  This means the dangerous sucking behavior has barely begun.  My poor plants.  The good news is that my chickens like cabbage and broccoli leaves.  Leaves with eggs or larvae are even better, like nuts on your sundae.  And the best news is that not all of my cabbage and broccoli are affected.  Yet.

Harlequin cabbage bug eggs and nymphs.
Harlequin cabbage bug eggs and nymphs.

Bold coloration in nature is often a sign that an organism is toxic.  This adaptation then caused some species to evolve bold coloration even though they are not toxic – a tricky protective mechanism called mimicry.  The cabbage harlequin bug is not toxic and can safely be fed to the chickens.  Of course, non-toxic does not mean tasty, and when I presented the girls with a bowl full of cabbage butterfly larvae and a harlequin bug, all but the bug was devoured.  They didn’t even attempt to taste it.  Seems I was the only fool.  No more cabbage romances for me.

Last Child at the Pond

I met the Last Child at the Pond* yesterday.  I’ll call him LC for short.  He and his father came to help me sample my creek for macroinvertebrates (See: because LC had never done it before.  Truth be told I think LC already knew the names of at least half of what we found in the net.  I already knew he was smarter than the average nine-year-old, especially about natural processes and wildlife.  But what I saw yesterday was much more than an intelligent child.  I met an explorer.  I met someone with a profound fascination for life and the world around him.

This shouldn’t be so shocking.  He is after all a child.  Aren’t children the embodiment of curious?  We tend to ascribe this curious stage to younger children, particularly three-year-olds.  Somewhere along the path of development it seems many children lose this innate inquisitiveness and need external stimulation for play.  I never once heard LC say anything remotely close to I’m bored.  Nor did his actions or body language suggest he was bored. He would have stayed for hours if not for other happenings in his day.  I’ve worked with fourth graders, who can be very excited about a chance to explore the natural world, but their excitement does not usually transfer to true curiosity, a desire to first know and then understand, and so their excitement quickly turns to boredom.  What’s next?  Now what do we do?  This is shocking.

I believe that we are all natural born scientists.  We see this in those young children, those three year olds that always ask why?  Science and exploration are related.  Wikipedia defines exploration as “the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. . .”  Watching LC explore I realized that I am not discovering as much as I could about Halcyon.  I’m not doing it right.

I do walk the property often, hoping to see wildlife in action or find a new plant.  I thought it was all about being in the right place at the right time – something interesting could happen just after I pass a particular spot, or could have already happened right before I passed through.  My senses are not as honed as most of the other species at Halcyon and so I know I miss a lot.  But this method has resulted in some pleasant discoveries over the years: fox and bear scat, various caterpillars and butterflies, box turtles, numerous birds including a flock of turkeys, and most notably a plethora of plant species.

Less often, I try and sit quietly, watching and listening.  I reason that I am more likely to see and hear wildlife if I am still.  The problem with this method is that I often find my mind traveling while my body sits, and suddenly I realize I’m not seeing or hearing anything.

LC’s method is more purposeful and honed.  Instead of ambling along my paths, he is like a magnet pulled toward possible habitat in which he peers in, over, and under.  With this technique more often than not, he finds an animal.  For example, the large rock by the bridge drew him in because of his knowledge of amphibians.  He squatted down and stuck his head under and exclaimed, “A young green frog!”  How many times have I walked right past this rock?

LC can do this because of the compounding effect of natural experiences – in other words because his parents have allowed, encouraged, and shared time in nature since (and probably before) his first question.  I’ve worked with elementary-aged students with fears of venturing outside because they’ve not explored much since uttering those first natural questions.  They’ve been told, “Don’t get muddy” and “Don’t touch that.”  They’ve seen a parent kill a snake or purposefully run over a coyote (I almost cried when I heard that story).  The outdoors is no longer an integral part of their lives, but something to be feared or at least be very cautious about.

I’ve worked with college students whose experiences outdoors are so distant or even non-existent that they show mixtures of fear and boredom.  We don’t all have to spend hours of each day exploring nature, but I believe kids have a right to play outside in nature and deserve a chance to experience nature as a co-inhabitant of the planet, not as an outsider.

My outside experience was heightened with LC’s and his dad’s knowledge yesterday.  Since I was engaged in sampling, my senses were keener than those times when I can’t seem to keep my inner thoughts at bay.  Also, three sets of senses are better than one less-experienced set.   In a short three-hour period we heard a deer snorting in the woods behind us, the raucous cries of crows mobbing a hawk, the quick warble-like chirps of a  white-eyed vireo, and lots of other birds. We counted a couple hundred macroinvertebrates including a white mayfly and another kind of mayfly I’d never seen before, several salamanders, the crows mobbing that red-tailed hawk as it flew over my chickens in the garden, a painted turtle, a green frog, some small fish, some large olive-colored tadpoles, and a lot of spectacular damselflies and dragonflies – I’ve already ordered a book to help me explore them.  We touched all those macroinvertebrates, and a tadpole; we got our hands wet in the cold stream.  We smelled honeysuckle.  We used all our senses except taste, a sense more wisely saved for the kitchen.

A stonefly.  My favorite macroinvertebrate.
A stonefly. My favorite macroinvertebrate.

So I want to thank The Last Child at the Pond for showing me how better to explore.  I understand that the more time I spend, the more I will find, and the more I find, the more I learn, and the easier it will get to find more.  I need to start compounding my experiences.  Children have so much to teach us.

A mayfly.  I've never seen this kind before.
A mayfly. I’ve never seen this kind before.

*The Last Child at the Pond name is inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006.


A Papilio on My Petroselinum

There’s a Papilio on my Petroselinum!  I didn’t actually make such a dramatic (not to mention tongue-twisting) proclamation when I saw it.  My daughter was weeding the garden with me and I think I said something much less grand like, “Oh, oh, oh, cool, a baby swallowtail!”  And, baby is not even the right term.  It is a larval stage and actually pretty far along – meaning about a week old.  It is the larval stage of the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), and it’s eating my parsley (Petroselinum crispum).

Eastern Black Swallowtail larva
Eastern Black Swallowtail larva

I have always enjoyed caterpillars.  As a child I loved the fuzzy black and brown larva fondly called wooly bears that we pretended could predict the severity of winter’s chill.  I don’t remember ever being curious about its adult stage when it becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth.  I just had fun making little beds with Parkay® Margarine containers and downy milkweed seed.

Just look at those feet!
Just look at those feet!

Fast forward to years later when we lived in Houston.  I planted Asclepia (milkweed) plants and enjoyed the monarch caterpillar larvae so much that my son, Kevin, caught my enthusiasm.  He would emerge from bed in the morning, march downstairs and straight outside, often without saying good morning.  He would come back inside a few minutes later and announce, “There are five callies on the Asclepia.”  I loved this kind of morning news.  We once brought a caterpillar inside and raised it to adult stage just so we could see its intricate and stunning chrysalis:  spring green with gold décor.

At Halcyon, I have ample opportunity to see butterflies and moths, and to find caterpillars.  I have enjoyed photographing and identifying the larvae and have made PowerPoint videos for my students.  The main reason that we planted Paw Paw trees was for butterflies.  We don’t really like the fruit.  Paw Paws are native and are the only host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus).  Host species are where adults lay eggs for the larvae to feed.  I find such a specific trophic relationship an intricate dance between species, a give and take between host and guest.  I think this is one reason only one or a few eggs are laid on each plant.   It is a beautiful example of the co-evolution of species within a community. This same obligate host relationship occurs with monarchs.  They use milkweed plants as the only host species for their larvae, though there are many kinds of milkweed.

The Eastern Black Swallowtail does not have an obligate host, but it does have favorites such as dill, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace.  When the larva is very young it looks more like a bird dropping.  This is a great camouflaged adaptation. My parsley plant has two larvae, one very young and one further along in its development.  A nearby parsley plant also has a larva that still looks like a bird dropping.  I am excited to have these Papilio larvae to watch, each at different stages of development.  Since the parsley plant is right inside the garden gate, I am sure I will get to see the chrysalis of at least one of them.  But if I’m really good – by which I mean if I check constantly – I could get the chance to see it form its chrysalis and then to see it emerge as an adult butterfly.

Younger larva of Eastern Black Swallowtail.  It is easily overlooked as a bird dropping.
Younger larva of Eastern Black Swallowtail. It is easily overlooked as a bird dropping.

By the way, I am happy to share my parsley with the Papilio larvae.  It’s a small contribution for the chance to observe such a magical transformation of life.

Do I Have to Mow all That?

Whenever I get to the first mowing of the season, I am always reminded of poor Timothy in Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien, 1972).  The various fields around the main yard are composed of foot high grass clumped and smashed by winter’s snow and ice.  I try to go slow, hoping that vibrations and noise will allow small creatures the chance to escape, unless of course they are ill like Timothy and cannot.  I did see a large rodent – a vole perhaps – run hither and thither while mowing our pond field the first time this season, and I had to “brake for black snakes” several times while mowing last week.  Truth be told though, the species that I most worry about when mowing are not mobile at all.  I care mostly about tree seedlings.

We loved Halcyon from the start, but it was a little too groomed for our aesthetic.  Most of the fields around the house were mowed.  The area around the pond and stream were mowed to the bank, leaving no riparian border, which is so important for filtering water run-off and for macroinvertebrate life.  Some areas were even barren of grass, and by the heat of July would practically scream ‘ugly’ because they were composed of hard, cracked clay.  These spaces were not only unsightly; they were impossible for roots to take hold.  To counter this overly groomed style of management, we quickly enacted our own management style: benign neglect mixed with a frenzy of mowing, trimming, and brush clearing during our teacher vacation time.  Of course, our two month summer vacation was also comprised of family visits and often a camping trip anywhere less hot and humid than Virginia in July, relegating this frenzy of yard work to a mere few weeks.  Needless to say, in our 12 years at Halcyon, the aesthetic pendulum has flipped 180 degrees.  It’s a jungle out there.

I have seen pamphlets whose purpose is to encourage landowners to conserve energy and help wildlife by reducing mowing.  These pamphlets are usually titled Do I have to mow all that?  I ponder this advice almost every time I climb up onto our riding mower.  Not because I dislike mowing, I like mowing.  It is one of those rare tasks where the outcome looks good and even lasts for a bit of time, unlike most housework chores.  No, I ponder this advice because I really do have to mow all that.  I just don’t, usually.

If I didn’t mow the hill behind the garden, “fondly” named Ailanthus Alley, we would have a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) forest in as little as 10 years, maybe earlier.  This would be an ugly forest, in my opinion, and would squeeze out many native plants because of an alleopathic chemical exuded from the roots that helps it get a competitive edge.

View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002
View of Ailanthus alley and gazebo in 2002

If I didn’t mow Mulberry Row – named after Thomas Jefferson’s Mulberry Row and because the core of our house was the quarters for slaves of the original property owners sometime between the 1830s and 1860s – we’d have an even denser forest of non-native mulberry (Morus alba).  This species was brought over in colonial times to spur a silk industry.  The industry never took off, but the tree sure has.  I only wish the native mulberry (Morus rubra) had the same competitive edge.  Alas, I’ve only one native mulberry and easily hundreds of invasive ones, no doubt tens of thousands waiting in the seed bank.

Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.
Similar view of Ailanthus alley and edge of gazebo in 2005.

If I didn’t mow the pond field, we’d be taken over by autumn olive, wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora – an aggressive native wildflower), honeysuckle, and yes, ailanthus.  This flood plain is the best soil on the property and we are undecided as to whether to keep it tree-free or not.  For now though, I selectively mow around about a dozen black walnuts, two tulip poplars, a black locust, and several redbuds.  I imagine a skyward observer thinking I am drunk as I weave, curve, brake, and back up often during that critical time of discerning native seedlings from invasives.  I mow all the fields once or twice a year, and then I mow paths for the rest of the mowing season.

Mowed pond field, April 2013
Mowed pond field, April 2013

There are two more spaces – Windmill Hill and the upper field – that are more diverse in their succession.  This diversity includes hardwood trees and cedars along with autumn olive and ailanthus.  In these spaces the cedars are rapidly taking over and in the last four years have narrowed some of my paths so much so that I cannot get the mower through.  And there is yet one more area on the property I’d love to clear of invasives, but I am getting tired just thinking about all this toil; I best close this essay and get to some brush work.

Same pond field view, May 19, 2013.  You can see a path I've started.
Same pond field view, May 19, 2013. You can see a path I’ve started.

So, I don’t mow all that in that I don’t mow it all every time I mow.  The last owners did so and, well, Halcyon just wasn’t as attractive or as diverse.  We’ve seen an increase in rabbits and other small mammals, birds, and possibly even fox, bear, and coyote evidenced only by scat so far, and nearby sightings.  I had a flock of turkeys pass through last fall and I know they live nearby.  They are all welcome, even the hawk (see to see why I might not want the hawk).  However, I do have to mow more than paths a few times every summer.  It is kind of scary to think of living in the middle of an ailanthus-mulberry monoculture if I didn’t.