Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Year in Review Part III: All the “Tiny Green Things”

I’ve always had a profound love for wild things—I’m a big kid really, having never lost that childish instinct to reach out and pet something. It’s like a biological imperative, this need and desire to touch an animal. Silly, I know! Dog, cat, horse, deer, hare, crow…I revel in how animals and birds feel. I love their fur, their feathers, their feet, their hooves, their ears and, most of all, their eyes.

But I seem to have plumbed new depths of awareness and gentleness this year, which has astonished even me. Kneeling on the ground, stretching out in the ticklish grass or on the cool brown earth, just getting down close to the tiniest inhabitants of the wetland has yielded the most extraordinary joy. They have faces! They wear their skeleton on the outside. They have so many intricate moving parts, like marvelous articulated toys.

Only insects are much more precious than any manmade thing because they are living, breathing organisms—right under our feet, near us every day, even though we might not always be aware of their presence. They are indeed the silent majority. We think of them only when they bite us, sting us or ruin our picnics. But they are so much more than pests and pains.

If you say you love wild things, you cannot just love the big, charismatic creatures, like lions and zebras and elephants. No! You’ve got to embrace them all—the small, the pesky, the ugly—the faces only a mother could love. The “bugs” we humans call pests are truly marvels of nature. Even the house fly up close is a wonder of creation. E.O. Wilson knows it. Walt Whitman knew it. Now we all need to acknowledge it. And soon. We have to start valuing every living organism from plankton to polar bears or else we stand to lose them all. Lesson for humanity: the mighty depend on the miniscule.

So now as the snow lays thick and deep all around us, my mind is turning to the coming of spring and summer. I am eagerly looking forward to meeting up with a whole host of new insect buddies, learning more about them and watching them go about their daily, important work. In the depths of winter, I’m dreaming of damselflies and dung beetles.

Yes, 2010 was a good year. I learned that lymantriidae—tussock moths and kin—are no less lovely than a lynx.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

A Year In Review, Part II

Tonight’s Nature London talk is In Praise of Spiders. Indeed, let’s praise all insects. Insects should not be overlooked or underestimated. Arthur V. Evans of the American Wildlife Federation aptly, and I believe reverently, calls them “the silent majority.” Small but significant, insects, spiders and butterflies are key members of a healthy ecosystem and the very foundation upon which all other life forms rely. And in order to protect all life on earth, we must value the insect kingdom. Where, for example, would we be without the pollinators?

My childhood fascination for insects was renewed in 2010. I found myself wanting to look at them “up close and personal.” By really taking the time to look at insects, butterflies and spiders you get to see how extraordinary they are and how really quite breathtakingly beautiful. Of course, everyone would agree with me that butterflies and pond damsels are beautiful; I can see how beetles and spiders might be a harder sell.

But take a closer look. And be prepared to be amazed, astonished and delighted. They are exquisitely constructed and extremely intelligent. Last summer I marveled at a host of fascinating creatures I never knew I shared space with. Ironically, my worldview actually expanded the more I focused on the tiny things. I bought books. I rummaged through the books I already owned. I scoured the Internet, with my descriptions and sketches in hand. What a joy to be able to put a name to some of these creatures! What a thrill to watch them!

I had to perform a number of rescues this summer too. Unfortunately, crickets and other insects end up in the pool on a regular basis. Even with the pool completely enclosed they manage to get in. Daily, throughout the long summer, I would sit for long periods of time with this or that insect on my finger, observing each one methodically drying off damp antennae.

Crane flies, for example, are exceedingly fussy. They make sure their gossamer wings are completely dry before they take flight. They’ll even do little test runs with their wings just to see how dry they are. If not, they keep drying themselves. They do this over and over until they are absolutely certain they can fly right. Then…they’re gone!

All of the tiny bugs and flying insects that I rescued this summer patiently let me carry them to gardens, fields or wooded areas. Bugs, beetles, ladybugs and skippers, they never flinched at my touch. I even rescued a couple of spectacular-looking fellows that I later learned were Bombardier Beetles.

And the crickets were a revelation. I carried one gorgeous big cricket over forty feet to his new home in the garden and throughout the journey he sat poised and erect on my finger, facing forward like a captain on the bridge of an ocean-going vessel, proud, alert. Did he enjoy the trip? I wonder.

And then there was the day of the magnificent Gladiator Katydid, who nonchalantly walked out of the vacuum cleaner that’s kept in the sun room. She let me carry her to the east garden, seemingly confident that she would not be harmed. She reluctantly left my hand only when I set her gently under a leaf.

As for spiders, where do I begin? The decorous Platycryptus Undatus has got to be one of the most interesting spiders we humans could ever encounter. Harmless, intelligent, inquisitive and easy-going, they seem more interested in us than fearful. Want to get to know spiders better or overcome an irrational fear of them? Start with handsome Platycryptus. You will be glad you did.

As for me, I can hardly wait for spring.

(Thanks to Nature London for the picture of Platycryptus Undatus.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Of Birds and Bugs and Butterflies: A Year in Review, Part I

What will I remember about 2010? One of the most delightful sights of my year was the daily stroll of the turkey mums with their young. Slowly and with great patience, these ungainly birds would take the kids out for an afternoon “constitutional” along the creek bed under the willows, all in single file. The little ones would straggle a bit from time to time, curious about their surroundings, but then they would hurry to catch up as best they could. But no youngster was ever left behind too long, as the attentive adults would occasionally stop and wait. Then the silent, methodical procession would resume. I counted twenty-six birds winding their way along the creek one day. By autumn, the young birds had grown so much it was hard to distinguish adult from offspring.

By the way, anyone interested in learning about wild turkeys can attend Nature London’s Talking Turkey on Tuesday, January 18, part of the Nature in the City series.

Looking back over 2010, I think I can safely say that, overall, the wild things that call this tract of land home seem to be doing reasonably well and holding their own. Sadly, the number of frogs and turtles was down this summer, yet the number (and variety) of birds observed was up. Birds not observed here in a very, very long time were turning up again, like the Bobolink. And there were birds we had never seen here before, like the Northern Mockingbird. Even now, with winter firmly entrenched and the snowdrifts deep, an Eastern Towhee has opted to stay around and seems to have taken up residence in a spruce tree. This is first time a Towhee has been officially spotted at the wetland and the fact that she is still here in December makes it doubly surprising.

And the butterflies! Giant yellow swallowtails were regular visitors, not to mention the many Red Admirals and more Monarchs than we have seen in years. These are all good signs. But I am still trying to identify one particular butterfly, an almost-black beauty that I caught only a fleeting glimpse of once I’m sorry to say. Hurry, summer!

I'll talk about "my bugs”in the next blog post…

As for the photo of the turkey hens above, I must thank D. Gordon E. Robertson and Wikimedia because I never seem to have the camera handy when I see my turkeys.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Our "Mascot"

Danny Boy may not live at White’s Wetland, but I like to think of this sweet white Standard mule as our mascot. Danny Boy’s home is the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada in Guelph, Ontario, where this docile and gentle creature gets lots of tender loving care.

This is the second year that I have participated in their Sponsor a Donkey Program. This program is a wonderful opportunity to give with both your heart and your pocketbook to help defray the costs of a donkey’s ongoing care through the year.

The DSC is home and refuge to donkeys and mules that have been abandoned, neglected or abused. So if you are interested in sponsoring one of the residents or just want to learn more about the DSC, visit their website or find them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

I am told that Danny Boy is doing very well, and I am sure you will agree that he does indeed look the very picture of good health!

Bless you, Danny, and Happy New Year!