Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer Peeper

It's high noon in mid-July, and we're melting in the midst of the milkweed. 
Cooling showers are on the way, but for now they're nothing but a distant rumbled promise in the still, hot air. 
Only a single flowerhead brightens the formerly blossom-laden roadside stand, though abundant new growth offers hope for late summer nectarers. 
Hunter and I are here for the monarchs, hoping to catch a glimpse of a plump caterpillar or two, feasting among sturdy, heavily veined foliage of the imposing five foot stalks.


A quick initial survey reveals nothing stirring but a single immature katydid, and a more thorough inspection yields naught but a motionless wheelbug, poised to pounce at the first sign of prey. 
We turn to go, thoughts advancing to the next likely milkweed stand along our way, when a strongly curled leaf near the far side of the patch catches our eye. 
A single stride brings us to the emerald brink, and a quick peek inside finds our old friend Pseudacris crucifer peering back. 

What a delightful surprise; spring peeper, likely to be ambling about in a rain-filled ditch with nighttime temps still in the 40's (Fahrenheit) in February, chilling here in the shade of the milkweed with temperatures nearing 95 degrees in July. Unexpected, but certainly not inappropriate. 
After all, our little tree frog is a most efficient predator of small insects, and there is no shortage of insects in the roadside milkweed patch. Our disappointment at the dearth of caterpillars thoroughly assuaged by this amphibious surprise, we wander on, wondering as ever at nature unpredictable...

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What the Wild Crane Knows...

For three weeks or so this spring, lucky residents and visitors to the Tramway area of Lee County, North Carolina, had the opportunity to observe and commune with a pair of incredibly gregarious and engaging Sandhill cranes.
It's been almost exactly a month since they left our fair burg, but they've not been forgotten. 
In fact, for those of us fortunate enough to spend much time in their presence, something of their wild and beautiful essence remains with us, even in their absence.  


The circumstances of their parting remain something of a mystery. Despite published news reports of them being "crated" and carried away by wildlife experts, at least one such waterfowl rescue organization indicates on its website that the birds simply flew away of their own volition. 


And, as romantic as the notion of these magnificent animals having somehow chosen our community as the place they would breed and raise their young might be, 
our present stretch of sweltering hot weather proves what a bad idea that would have been for birds accustomed to breeding in much cooler climes to the north.

So we remember our wandering cranes for the time they spent with us, accepting the mystery of their origins and their ultimate fate, but grateful for the time they sojourned in this place we call home. 


Throughout written history, humans around the world have revered this graceful and elegant creature.

We understand, and we have joined their ranks.


My father, Jim Randolph, is a scholar and a poet and a teacher of the highest order. He inspires my love of the natural world, and motivates me to never stop getting to know it better. 


Some forty years ago, on a steamy summer night much like this one, I lay in bed and listened to the thunder rumbling in the distance. 
Fascinated, but just a little bit fearful as well; 
and then I heard another sound, quiet and close and comforting, with just a hint of melancholy...


My dad, singing. 

And these were the words he sang...


"My heart knows what the wild goose knows,
I must go where the wild goose goes.


Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wandering fool, or a heart at rest?


Tonight I heard the wild goose cry, 
Winging north in the lonely sky.


Tried to sleep, but it weren't no use,
'Cause I'm a brother to the old wild goose."


And then the refrain...

"Oh, my heart knows what the wild goose knows,
and I must go where the wild goose goes.


Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wandering fool, or a heart at rest?"


Sounding for all the world like the scratchy vinyl LP of the old cowboy crooner, 
Frankie Laine himself,


my dad's voice transported me far away from our little house in the Sandhills of North Carolina,
to a rustic frontier cabin, 
somewhere smack dab in the middle of the breeding grounds of our remarkable visitors from the north. 


A place wild and free, untainted by civilization, home to birds and fowl of every ilk;
a place that called to my dad and to me,


and calls to us still.

As I sit here tonight, accompanied by the soundtrack of distant thunder, 
I hear my dad's voice, and I see a pair of wild cranes, 
winging northward in the lonely sky.

Whatever their ultimate destination, I trust they've arrived by now,
and in my mind's eye there's a rustic little cabin overlooking their breeding grounds, 
and some lucky soul is smiling from the window 
as they observe the antics of our two errant travelers,
home at last. 


Oh my heart knows what the wild crane knows,


his gaze fixed upon mine...


And I must go where the wild crane goes.


Wild crane, brother crane,


which is best?


A wandering fool, or a heart at rest?


Only time will tell,
my friend.

But until then,

Peace.

And thanks, Dad.



Thanks to Jay and Hunter Randolph for the use of their crane photos.

Milkweed Chronicles, Monarchs in the Making

Summer is nigh in the Sandhills, and it's a hot time tonight in the milkweed patch. 
Those beautiful pests, Japanese beetles, are as abundant in the wild milkweed patch as they are in your backyard flower garden, and bumblebees abound on the blossoms as well.

But we're here to check up on the monarch butterfly eggs, and we're delighted to see that at least one hungry little caterpillar has hatched (devouring the leaf on your left in the photo below). 


A quick glance at the neighboring plant reveals two more monarch caterpillars, both recently deceased, and the likely culprit is only a leaf or two away, about to pierce an unfortunate beetle with its deadly beak.


This fearsome predator, a wheel bug nymph, injects its victim with digestive enzymes, 
then sucks up its innards like a fortified nutritional shake.


Continuing our survey of the surrounding milkweed, we find hope in the discovery of several more caterpillars,


some traversing the fuzzy undulating undersides of the sturdy leaf surfaces, 


others steadily making their way across the emerald green and boldly veined leaf tops.
 These monarch larvae will likely eat their way through another warm night and a hot, humid morning, then continue to dine through the scorching hot afternoon, and right on into another warm evening, barely pausing for rest; 


for this is their one true calling as caterpillars, 
to eat and to grow, to grow and to eat, and eat and grow and eat some more...


Meanwhile, life among the blossoms is moving at a more frenzied pace, as pollinators and nectar-lovers compete for prime real estate among the heavily perfumed flowers in the drooping umbel.


The squirming mass of beetles prevails for the moment, 
as bumblebee prepares to bail in search of less crowded climes...


like the quiet little niche on the leaf below,
now occupied by our future monarch. 


As we depart the hot and humid forest of weeds, 
we happen upon an animal other than the two or six-legged kind, 
quietly introducing a new generation of octoped hunters to the milkweed scene.


And we can't help but wonder, 
as another scorching day yields to night, 


in the wild wild world of the milkweed patch,

will even one of our caterpillars a monarch make?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Saturday in the Sandhills

Saturday dawned bright and clear in the Sandhills, 
a perfect day for a walk down memory lane with Cousin Danny. 
Danny and Brother Henry and I shared many a memorable moment wandering the pine woods of the Carolina Sandhills as children and teens, 
so we were delighted to spend a few hours reminiscing with cameras in hand. 


All manner of familiar creatures were right there with us, 
eastern gray squirrel and white-breasted nuthatch greeting us from high in the shade of the pines before we even made it to the trailhead,


while green clearwing dragonflies


and ebony jewelwing damselflies filled the air all around, 
pausing from time to time for a closer look at Danny's lens.


The reptiles were clearly up for some time in the sun, 


and this healthy old tree lizard refused to yield its spot, 
even as Danny crept close enough to switch from telephoto to macro.   


The six-lined racerunners, or "sand racers", as we always called them,  
dashed up and down the sandy trails,


weaving in and out of the wiregrass, 
pausing ever so briefly to peer up at their pursuers, 
only to vanish in the underbrush when we got too close for comfort.


Recent rains had replenished the reservoir of the sphagnum bogs, 
and this southern leopard frog seemed delighted with the situation, 


as temperatures neared ninety, 
even in the shade.


Along with the carnivorous pitcher plants and thick moist mats of moss, 


the bog margins were dotted with the familiar orange "buttons" of yellow milkwort, 
and lush stands of fern, both large and small.


Cousin Danny zoomed in for a closer look at the red-veined purple pitcher plants,


quite plentiful here in this little pine barrens peat bog; 
hollow liquid-filled leaves bearing ample evidence of their hapless prey,


and reminding us again of countless adventures we both enjoyed 


while growing up wild in the Carolina Sandhills. 

It's good to know that such adventures still await in some of the same old places...

Thanks to Cousin Daniel Clark for sharing his time and memories and photos. Let's do it again soon!