Two common buckeyes among blue vervain and boneset flowers

“Along the river’s summer walk,
The withered tufts of asters nod;
And trembles on its arid stalk
the hoar plum of the golden-rod.”
–  John Greenleaf Whittier

July marks the midway point of the year, when the natural world really gets going and the excitement never ends. It is the time of gathering dewberries and the flights of swallowtail butterflies. Insects get more interesting, plants are flowering with a vengeance and rainbows and sun halos bring added interest to the skies. There is still enough warm weather yet to come, and everything just seems more enjoyable when happened upon in the garden or in the wild.

Orange glow from wildfire haze in the western United States just after sunrise on a foggy morning in late July 2021

This year so far has been for the birds. There are Carolina wrens nesting in my propane tank cover, a wood duck and her young at a pond where I work that is in a very busy area, and the gardener at work discovered a hummingbird nest, which can be hard to spot as the outside is covered with lichens and often blends in with the branch it is on.

Wood duck mother and her little flock head for cover provided by cattails.
Young hummingbird is almost ready to leave the nest

Native Nymphaea odorata water lilies are fragrant and white. Walking around a friend’s property where there is a large pond, the surface of the water was covered with the first pink water lilies I ever saw in a natural setting. They may have been put in years before when ornamental N. odorata varieties that were hardy became available.

Swallowtail butterflies are suddenly in profusion and their caterpillars are always a good find. Knowing the host plants is the key. Check out small cherries and tulip trees for tiger swallowtail cats that sit right on top of a leaf.

Caterpillar of the eastern tiger swallowtail

Crawling across the lawn one evening was a pretty large beetle with mandibles to be feared by lesser creatures. It was a male yellow-thighed stag beetle Lucanus capreolus. Males use their oversized mandibles to fight with rivals in order to mate with a nearby female.  These beetles make a loud buzzing sound in flight and are attracted to lights.

Lucanus capreolus. stag beetle

Hiking in Ayers Gap woods there was a string of silk across the trail. Hanging on it was a Micrathena gracilis spined orb weaver spider. Also known as the castleback orb weaver because of the unusually large abdomen with spines sticking out like turrets, females rebuild only the center of their web daily, not the whole web like most other orb weavers.

Female spined orb weaver
Top view of Micrathean gracilis
Indian pipe in woods at Ayers Gap

Some wildflowers that bloom now in wetland areas are monkey flower, boneset and Joe-pye weed. These attract many species of butterflies and pollinators and are often found together along stream and pond edges and swamp borders. The fragrant flowers of Clethra alnifolia, a wetland shrub, make this a plant that can be smelled long before you see it.

Monkey flower Mimulus ringens
Clethra alnifolia

Here’s to enjoying the rest of summer, keeping cool, and finding nice little surprises as move too quickly toward the colder fall and winter landscape of New England. and like this piglet from Organic Roots farm, find a way to stay cool on those hot days.

Pamm Cooper

Sunflower in its glory

“This morning, the sun endures past dawn. I realize that it is August: the summer’s last stand.”
― Sara Baume,

August is a favorite month for me as many things I have been looking forward to in the scene have now arrived. Whether in the garden or in the natural environment, there are plants, birds, insects and other things that seem to be more interesting to encounter later in the summer than earlier.

Late bloomers like Caryopteris (bluebeard), turtle head, goldenrods, boneset and spotted Joe-pye weed add interest to the garden and provide food for bees and butterflies before the cold weather sets in. Closed gentians put in a more subtle appearance hidden under shrubs and small trees along pond, stream and lake edges. As many bees are active right until cold weather sets in, these late bloomers are of special value.

wool carder bee at Hill Stead museum sunken garden 8-20-2019 Pamm Cooper photo

Wool carder bee at Hill Stead Museum sunken garden 8-20-2019

Canna lilies and Caladiums, great annuals for foliage color and texture, should be at their peak foliage development now. While still in bloom, check out hedges and borders of hibiscus, hydrangeas and rose-of-Sharon that can make attractive screens with their colorful flowers in August. The hardy hydrangeas will also continue to delight throughout the next month or so as their flowers change colors as they age.

S

Sun backlighting ‘Calypso’ Canna lily leaves

hibiscus border

hibiscus border

‘Little lambs’ hydrangea

Numerous butterflies are out and about, although this year many species seemed few and far between. Monarchs, though were numerous. One butterfly that was an unexpected surprise-seen just about everywhere, it seems- is the common buckeye. Usually considered vagrants from the south, they were here as early as June and were breeding throughout the summer

 

Spicebush swallowtail on salvia

Two common buckeyes amid wild blue vervain and boneset August 2019

Check out Rudbeckia  flowers for the diminutive camouflage looper caterpillar which cuts flower petals and sticks them on its body to hide from potential predators. There are also many other small loopers that can be found on black-eyed Susan flowers.

Camouflaged looper with flower parts slapped on it to hide from predators

 

Sunflowers are a winsome addition to any garden and are easy to start from seed in June. There are many varieties to choose from, and some are pollen-less for cutting and floral arrangements. ‘Firecatcher’ has flowers that smell like Juicy Fruit™ gum.

Sunflowers can be started from seed and should be in full bloom by the end of August

Yellow sunflower

Orchards are having a terrific harvest this year. Rains were not as abundant as last year, but the sun was, so fruits like peaches and nectarines are especially sweet this August. Native trees and shrubs that ripen their fruit early include the sassafras and some viburnums, and birds will usually eat the fruits before they drop off to the ground.

sassafras fruit

Sassafras fruit

Along hiking trails, in open fields and in the woods, the caterpillars that are found from August until fall are usually more robust, colorful and generally larger than their spring and early summer counterparts. Sphinx, giant silkworm, dagger, tiger and prominent moth caterpillars are some of the more interesting ones. Generally not pests, several can occur in large enough numbers in the garden landscape to cause alarm, such as the Datanas, but in the wild, they are not a major concern. Slug caterpillars are small but many can inflict a painful sting if the urticating spines are touched. One of the more notorious is the spiffy looking saddleback caterpillar.

 

Early instar saddleback caterpillar August 2019

Northern pine sphinx

 

At any time of year check out the skies for colorful sunsets, sunriss and cloud formations. Indicative of weather to come, clouds and sky colors are good to learn about. A sweet little book on clouds and other phenomena of the skies is “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  Like anything else, it takes practice and careful study to correctly identify anything, clouds being no exception.

August dawn with a crescent moon

August 28 2019 dawn with a crescent moon

I will be enjoying the rest of August and the upcoming September, which I hope will be warm. Keep your eyes open for migrating night hawks and tree swallows. which are starting their southern journey now. Large flocks of tree swallows were seen this last week of August week at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

tree swallows Hammonasset August 28 2019

tree swallows Hammonasset State Park August 28 2019

 

One last note- if you are hiking along a woodland trail and come across a single strand of spider silk running between two trees, follow it to the main web. It is likely a spiny orb weaver, Micrathena gracilis , which eats her web every day and builds a new one in an hour the next day.

Micrathena gracilis spider

 

Pamm Cooper