Friday, March 29, 2013

Les pigeons terribles

Although I was disappointed that there were no insects in the flowers, I did observe some flowers  receive a visitor of another kind.  As I was walking along and admiring the blossoms on a group of small fruit trees, my eye was caught by a large shape that dropped onto one of the branches, bending it nearly to the ground.

The common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) just after landing in the tree.
The bird that had landed was a common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), which is considerably larger than the standard pigeon (a.k.a. rock pigeon or rock dove, Columba livia).  I was surprised that the pigeon had landed on a branch that could barely support its weight -- and I was even more surprised when the pigeon turned towards the nearest bunch of flowers and ate them. 

A common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) eating the pretty flowers.
The pigeon then proceeded to eat all the flowers it could reach from its precarious perch.  Later on, I was no longer surprised to find that not only are these pigeons shameless, they are fearless as well!

A common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) calmly sitting tête-à-tête with an eagle.

Monday, March 25, 2013

La maison des insectes

After a few mild days in Florida, it was time for me to return to winter -- or rather, à l'hiver.  I arrived in France on a warm and sunny day, which was abruptly followed by several days of bitterly cold winds and snow flurries, then several more days of rain and sleet.  Nevertheless, many early spring flowers were blooming and I was determined to see them -- and check them for insects and spiders.

Crocuses blooming in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.
However, there did not seem to be any insects that were similarly determined to disregard the weather and visit the flowers.  After finding a sign warning that there was a 'danger' of bees, I had a bit of hope that I might at last encounter some insects.

"Do not walk on the lawn. Danger bees."
Yet, even at the headquarters of the dangerous bees, all was quiet.

The hives of the danger bees.
Apparently, the bees were spending a quiet day at home in their hives.  Meanwhile, were all the other insects left to fend for themselves in the elements?  Mais, non!  They could retreat to their very own refuges within the Maison des Insectes.

A shelter for many other beneficial insects.
Explore some more: Build your own insect house

Monday, March 18, 2013

Spilling the beans

While I was in Florida, I was asked to solve a new mystery involving a very strange object that had appeared on the fence.

A mysterious and very large (6" x 2.5") seed pod that appeared on the fence.
Although it seemed to be a seed pod, it did not resemble any seed pod we had ever seen before.  However, back in December and January, we had seen clusters of what looked like bean (Fabaceae) flowers on some of the vines.

Yellow bean (Fabaceae) flowers that were frequently visited by ants.
Since the seed pod did not appear to be ripe, I turned to the internet to find out what kind of seeds were developing inside.  Surprisingly, the answer was something quite familiar -- for years, we had been finding the seeds washed up on the beach.

A brown hamburger bean (Mucuna sloanei) partly buried in the sand.
We brought many of these seeds home and most of them ended up in jars.  A few others were left by the gate – and one or more of these must have eventually sprouted and grown into the vines that now cover the fence.  After identifying the vine, I checked the outside of the fence for more seed pods.  Though there were none on the vine, I did find an older one that had fallen to the ground.

An earlier crop of brown hamburger beans (Mucuna sloanei).

Monday, March 11, 2013

... and a surprise welcome present!

A short visit to Florida last week gave me the opportunity to check on the progress of the egg sacs that had posed such a mystery a couple of months ago.  So many spiderlings had hatched recently that I found miniscule spiders and their similarly diminutive webs nearly everywhere I looked in the garden.  Many of the young spiders (such as the one pictured below) were easily recognizable as spinybacked orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis).

A small spinybacked orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis).
However, many others were even smaller and simply looked dark and round.  Nevertheless, I was eventually able to establish that these too were spinybacked orbweavers.  As I was looking for thrips on the ficus hedge, I noticed yellow and green silk sticking up from the back of one of the leaves.  When I turned the leaf over, some of the silk snagged on a branch, revealing a ball of white silk underneath.  Within this inner silk compartment,  I could see a mass of spiderlings that had hatched from their eggs but still remained within the egg sac.

A spinybacked orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) egg sac.
Once disturbed by my handling of the leaf, some of these spiderlings were ready to enter the wider world.  One by one, they crawled out of the silk ball, made their way to the edge of the leaf, and jumped.  

A spiderling emerging from the egg sac.
Although I temporarily lost track of the spiderlings once they left the leaf, within minutes I began finding new spider webs stretched along the ficus hedge.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The perfect goodbye present

Yesterday, I surveyed my garden in Washington for the last time before I depart for several months on a series of trips.  Although the snow was gone, it was still cold and there were hardly any more signs of spring than there had been a month ago.  As I looked over the wintry vegetation, I felt sorry that I was going to miss all of the spring -- and especially the progress of the new generation of crab spiders.  Then, just as I was nearing the end of my circuit around the garden, I saw a cluster of snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) poking up between the cotoneaster branches.

The first flowers to bloom in the garden: snowdrops (Galanthus sp.).
So, I had stayed long enough to see the first flowers of the year after all!  However, these flowers were merely the pretty packaging of my real present.  When I knelt down to photograph the fourth and last of the flowers, I saw that it was occupied by something with long, spindly legs.

Something is inside the flower!
I recognized the legs at once as belonging to a crab spider, yet I could not quite believe my luck.  Since my camera did not fit underneath the flower, I cautiously rotated the flower up.  Meanwhile, the spider emerged from its hiding spot and sat photogenically on the outside of the flower.

A very small crab spider on a snowdrop flower.
Though I am still sorry not to be able to chronicle the development of this crab spider and the rest of the garden population, I now feel like I am leaving the garden on a high note -- and, as I travel, there will be other gardens with new encounters to be had!

Friday, March 1, 2013

A green and white knight

As I was strolling through a nearby botanical garden, I heard a rustling sound coming from a bush alongside the path.  After searching for a moment, I located the source: a green lizard that was considerably larger than any of the anoles in our garden.

A green lizard with white markings amongst the foliage.
Although I expected the lizard to scurry off as I approached, it did not.  Instead, the lizard froze, and I was able to get a closer look at it.

A juvenile knight anole (Anolis equestris).
However, a closer look just convinced me that I had never seen a lizard like it before.  I thought that the distinctive-looking white bands would make identifying this lizard a simple task.  In fact, it was the reverse.  I eventually learned that the white bands are only present in some juveniles (possibly only the females) of this species: the knight anole (Anolis equestris).  In contrast, the stripes below the eyes and above the shoulders persist into adulthood; these can be used much more reliably to recognize the knight anole, which is yet another species introduced to Florida from Cuba.