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As I enjoy the natural scenery I encounter in my rambles, I often think to myself, is that something sufficiently interesting to photograph for a nature note? My immediate answer is usually that almost everything is worthy of examination, but so many people only pay attention to the rare and unusual. Why is that, and is it a good attitude to have? I think not, and I find some of the most interesting observations to come from watching the behavior of common things in nature, since so much about common species is often unknown and overlooked.
This ladies slipper orchid is not considered common, although it can often be repeatedly observed in certain locations year after year. The leaves are much more commonly seen than the flowers, perhaps due to deer herbivory that crops the older plants. Orchids often have bizarre flowers and these terrestrial orchids are no exception. Why would this strange flower shape have evolved to attract pollinators? These flowers produce no nectar and attract bumblebees by their color and scent. Apparently the bulbous lip of the flower can trap the bee and force it to leave by an exit which smears sticky pollen on it, which can then be transferred to another plant. So this very specialized flower is in a way a parasite on its pollinators since it does not reward them for their efforts.
A common sight in the woods of our farm are rotting stumps from former logging operations. Of course woodlands rapidly regenerate from seeds and stump sprouts. Here a sapling of an early successional tree, black birch, has sprouted on an old stump and shares this rich substrate with a variety of wildflowers. This area was last logged in 1999 and any openings thus created in the forest are now closing due to rapid growth of trees. The black birches and locusts that dominated the openings are now being replaced by larger and longer lived hardwoods such as maples, cucumber- tulip- and Fraser magnolias, white and red oaks, and hickories.
Tiger swallowtail butterflies are extremely common and although quite beautiful, in our minds we tend to ignore them and think, just another "common trash butterfly." We need to fight this tendency and not only consider their intrinsic beauty, but think more deeply about their interesting life history. For example did you know that tiger swallowtails may be either yellow with black patterns (all males and some females) or mostly black (some females). Males and females also differ somewhat in the amount of blue coloration. But the amazing thing is that there are two types of females, black and yellow- why is this? The classic explanation is that large butterflies that are mainly black with bluish coloration on the hind wings are mimicking the poisonous pipevine swallowtail. But it is confusing since a number of butterflies have this general coloration (spicebush and black swallowtails, red spotted purple, female Diana fritillary but not the male). In some species it is both sexes and in others only the female.
I had an opportunity this week to attend the Mt Rogers Naturalist Rally and thereby encountered some animals that I do not normally see. Dr. Karen Francel from Radford University set 300 small traps for small mammals and I was astonished that she caught 24 mammals of seven different species, mostly deer mice of two very similar species of Peromyscus, but also a woodland jumping mouse, a masked shrew, a red backed vole, a chipmunk and a red squirrel. Except for the last two species these are rarely noticed by humans unless they enter our houses and eat our food. The photos illustrate one of the deer mice, a jumping mouse with incredibly large feet, and a tiny shrew which is rarely captured alive due to its very high metabolic rate and need to eat quite often. This should prompt us to think more about the unseen world of many creatures which exist in habitats which are somewhat parallel to our own.
I picked up a turkey wing feather in our woods and thought about the idea that feathers are so common that we give them little notice, yet they are an object of amazing structure and function. Everyone is now familiar with the concept that dinosaurs likely first developed feathers, perhaps as insulation that became useful in gliding and eventually flight, and that birds evolved from these small dinosaurs. Yet how amazing is it that such a process occurred and that we observe birds every day and think nothing of this. Just look at the feather which is made up of the protein keratin and think about how it is composed of strands which are linked together with barbs and provide the necessary strength and lightness which permit flight. In my effort to locate the nest of all the birds in our yard I found a mockingbird nest in a planted viburnum. The eggs are a beautiful pattern of dark speckles on a light background. It is easy to see how this would provide some camouflage against predators. Yet in a robin's nest about 20 feet away, the eggs are bright blue and stand out in contrast to the nest material. Do robins spend more time incubating and thus protecting the eggs, do they have fewer predators, or does this just reflect the predominant pattern within the thrushes?
So once again we observe, contemplate and wonder at the intricate patterns of nature!
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL