Friday, August 28, 2009

Summer Plague

August 28, 2009

I have a plague visiting Kalorama right now. It doesn’t seem to bother the visitors who come and go, but I assure you it bothers the curator on a daily basis. It is a tiny little flying insect called an eye gnat. It is actually a fly, and under close magnification resembles a tiny housefly. The males feed among the flowers. Pregnant females feed—warning, this is gross—on secretions of mammals. They don’t actually bite or suck fluids, but somewhere in their mouth parts there are some tiny little spines. Contact with those on the eyelids leads to conjunctivitis and is a common cause of pinkeye. They also seek out wounds and the base of hair follicles.

About the only good news about their habits and life cycle is that they do not lay eggs on mammals so we are not hosting their maggots. They lay their eggs in soil with rotting leaves and are especially fond of plowed or tilled soil with lots of organic matter. That means those armadillos that are plowing up the ground around the shrubs I am watering are catering to those flies. And the fly larva is doing a great service to the planet, along with the earthworms, breaking down organic matter.

This isn’t the first time they have been so bad. I have learned over the years that insect repellent doesn’t do much good. Glasses are somewhat helpful, until one figures out how to get behind them. Goggles are great. I have noticed that wearing a broad brimmed hat seems to baffle them, though after doing some reading on them, that apparently didn’t help the Lewis & Clark expedition. They were so bad yesterday that they were landing on my legs, arms, neck, and face. They impart the sensation of a single strand of hair on the skin and my experience is so bad than even inside, I am constantly aware of, well, the touch of a single strand of hair. So if you see me around town, well out of range of any eye gnats, swatting at myself, you know that I am having mental issues born of eye bug trauma.

Here are some recent pictures:

Spicebush butterfly on Butterflyweed. The butterfly lays her eggs on sassafras leaves at Kalorama.

This leopard frog is probably a parent to the tadpoles pictured in previous blog entries. It was hanging out in the top of a flower pot beside the fountain, very well disguised in the potting soil.

Gaura is a member of the primrose family. There are hybrid versions sold for summer landscaping that are much more compact and have deeper pink flowers than this tall, somewhat sprawling native. It is often infested with aphids which attracts smaller migrating birds in the fall. On hot days the flowers look like tiny white handkerchiefs draped all over the plant. Each flower only lasts one day.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cat Tales

Three weeks ago while enjoying dinner with friends and family, one of them spotted a cat on the front porch, right outside the dining room, devouring a blue striped skink. The cat was a gray tabby that looked to be about half grown, as in small, but past the cute kitten stage. It ran away when it noticed all the humans looking at it.

Outside cats are a no-no at a nature preserve. Feral and domesticated cats allowed to roam outside play a factor in species decline in songbirds and other creatures within their native habitats all over the planet.

Within a few days, I again saw the gray cat. Every time I would enter the garage bays where the equipment is parked, it would shoot out and disappear. Then, I realized there were two cats. Most times when I would go out the front door to replenish the bird feeders, a calico cat about the same size would bolt out of the flower bed. Within a couple of days, there were enough feathers under one of the feeders for me to conclude that a blue jay had been taken, and maybe something else had lost some feathers in a fight. We got the live traps out of the garage and I set one near the feeder and the other in the garage. We had eaten boiled shrimp that evening for supper, so I used the tails and shells as bait. I also put out some cat food in the garage in hopes of relieving the pressure on the bird feeder. The next day, the feathers around the feeder where the trap was indicated that a cardinal had also met its maker. I removed that trap out of fear that the cat had used the trap to help it reach the feeder.

After I started putting food at the shed, I didn't see the calico around the front yard anymore. One day when I put food out, I called, "kitty-kitty," and the calico came running, mewing, and wrapping itself around my ankles. That confirmed what I already had figured. Someone had "gifted" us with these two cats. Yesterday, I discovered the trap at the garage was tripped, and sure enough, the gray cat was inside. I didn't know what I was going to do with the cats. Neither one of us has what it takes to terminate them. I didn't know anyone that wanted them, and I did ask around. I put some cat litter in a pan, and some food in a big pet cage and called the calico cat and put it in. The gray cat was not at all disposed to be friendly, but its situation wasn't friendly, so I didn't hold that against it. When I tried to empty it from the trap into the cage, it managed to escape. I was so aggravated. I am sure I will never catch it again. Unsure what to do with the calico, I finally got a hold of my friend who works with the humane society and she said I could bring it. Mind you, I told her it was a half grown kitten because I didn't know otherwise at the time. This morning I got the pet carrier that I use to take our house cat who is never allowed outside to the vet. I placed the calico inside the carrier, and began walking away from the garage toward my car. Now I have a pile of pine knots beside the driveway in front of the garage. The calico was very vocal the whole time, and as I started down the driveway, three tiny white kittens tumbled out from under the pine knots headed straight for us. Aaaargh!!!! I checked the calico, and sure enough, she had been nursing. I caught the kittens and put them in the carrier with her, and she immediately began licking and tending to them. I called my friend but couldn't get her. I headed in to town to the cat shelter where they seemed happy to take them. I gave them a check, too. So far today, I have not seen the gray cat, nor has any of the cat food at the garage disappeared. I am hoping it was so traumatized that it has left us for good. And I hope that the speckled kingsnake that lived in the garage has survived the cats.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Chesney Prairie


Tonight we are in Alma, Arkansas. We drove up this morning with a good friend to explore some prairies. Our friend had heard a report of bright yellow goldfinches feeding on ashy sunflowers on the Chesney Prairie Natural Area just west of Springdale. We drove up, stopping at the two largest prairie natural areas in Arkansas on the way. We reached Cherokee Prairie and the almost adjacent H.E. Flanagan Prairie right after lunch. We had clearly missed the bloom there, and only heard one goldfinch, so we headed up to the Chesney. Though relatively small (84 acres), and visited by the aroma of a chicken house on one side and a dairy on the other, it was full of ashy sunflowers and yellow goldfinches. There was a butterfly or two hanging around, too. Also, bobwhites were calling constantly. We were never able to get a good sharp picture of a goldfinch. They were not nearly as bold as they are at our bird feeders in the winter time, but I have included some anyway. The sunflowers are Helianthus mollis, called ashy sunflower because they are covered in grey hairs.

The plant with the round white balls of flowers being visited by a monarch butterfly is called buttonbush. It is a very common shrub in the south almost always growing in water or areas that are flooded part of the year. The airy-looking grass is switchgrass. The orange butterfly on the ashy sunflower is an American fritillary. The rosy pink flowers with a monarch butterfly is some sort of milkweed. It was quite tall and full of flowers. I have not researched it's name yet.

We don't know where we are going to visit tomorrow, on our way home.