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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Caterpillar Update

Last week's blog ended with a cliffhanger. (Click here to read it.)
Were the black swallowtail caterpillars outside on the parsley plants immobilized by the cold or preparing to molt? The very next day the caterpillar above transformed into the stage pictured below. Click to enlarge. 
That black stuff below is its old skin. 
I touched him and he stuck out his little yellow stinkhorn. 
This morning it looks like this, about an inch and a half long -- about half an inch longer than it was this time last week. It is voraciously devouring parsley leaves. This seems almost certainly to be the generation that will spend the winter in chrysalis form. I want them to be fat and ready before I release them into the field of Queen Anne's lace where my other parsley cats have gone. Just waiting for the one pictured below to get a little bigger. 
I call this one Cat2. It shed a skin this morning. I'll bet it is feeling loose and empty and ready to eat some parsley. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

More Caterpillars on the Parsley

A black swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio polyxenes. This one is on a parsley plant outside on my porch. It's not the first time I've had swallowtails lay eggs on that plant. A month ago I found a family of them and wrote a blog which you can read by clicking on this sentence. I did not have enough parsley to support that whole family so I set them free in a field of one of their host plants, Queen Anne's Lace. You can read about that by clicking on this sentence. I thought it was all behind me and then this happened -- a new cohort of caterpillars appeared on the same parsley plant. I still don't have enough parsley to support them, so this group will be joining the others in the wildflower field. The caterpillar in the picture above is about an inch long. I spotted them when they were less than a quarter of that. Click to enlarge. 
I hope they can deal with the sudden cold snap. This one has been sitting still in this position since the temperature dropped two days ago. Seems to be holding its face in its hands. Maybe tomorrow when it warms up it will get back to eating and growing. Maybe it is just planning to molt its skin; it is hard to tell what caterpillars are planning, but I know it has to get through a few more stages before it is safely wrapped in its winter chrysalis. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018


Leaves are beginning to turn color and fall. It's a great time to take a long walk. 
The marshy shores of the Rancocas Creek are yellow with autumn flowers. 
A carpenter bee works in the goldenrod. Click to enlarge.
A fence lizard warms in the afternoon sun. 
There's clear blue autumn sky above and below. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Flower for a Day

Do you recognize these flowers? Click to enlarge. I am seeing them lately on lawns, and in parks and fields. Some people call them mouse ear flowers for the two blue petals. They  are also known as Asiatic dayflowers, Commelina communis. They are introduced and invasive in the U.S. and reviled as weeds, but let's put that aside for now. I'm working on a project with plants and have been brushing up on botanical terms and flower parts. I took a closer look at these flowers. 
My first reaction was, huh, what is all this stuff? There seem to be too many parts here. I was expecting stamens around a pistil like in a tulip. 
So I took a close photo and read up on this wonderfully complicated little flower. To begin with, there are three petals. There is a small white-colored one below the blue ones and behind the thready white and yellow reproductive parts. As for them: there are five stamens here. The three that look like little yellow flower faces across the top are infertile, just for show, to attract pollinators. The three long filaments with fuzzy yellow pollen-covered anthers on the end are fertile stamens. The long white thread that curves around on the right in this photo is the female style with stigma on the tip: it will catch pollen eventually that will grow down the tube to the ovary at the base to start a seed. Phew. 
Here's a diagram if you are following along at home. 1 = two blue petals. 2 = one inconspicuous white petal. 3 = one style (female part). 4 = three fertile stamens (male parts). 5 = three infertile stamens (tricky parts). And it is called a dayflower because each flower blooms for one day. I took these pictures this morning. The entire bed where I plucked them is flowerless now as dusk approaches. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Happy Fall Equinox Weekend

"Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting, 
and autumn a mosaic of them all." 
Stanley Horowitz

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Caterpillar Decisions

Last week I wrote about the caterpillars I found on my outdoor parsley plant.  Click here to  go to that blog.  Since then, the caterpillars went through a stage that looked essentially like the one above from last week, only bigger. 
Then this stage. Pretty, right? Click to enlarge. 
Then this. 
But there's another problem. I've been reading about the black swallowtail life cycle. After spending three or four week in their caterpillar stages they spin a chrysalis and emerge as adults after 10 to 20 days. That is, unless it is the end of the butterfly season, in which case they stay in the chrysalis for the entire winter. I don't know how to decide if this generation has enough time to emerge and lay eggs that can make it to the chrysalis stage, or if these are the last of the year. I'm not even sure how to decide. So I'm letting them decide. They've been liberated in this lovely field of queen Anne's lace; it's one of their favorite foods. There's enough here for many future generations. 
Here's how the grown caterpillars would have looked. 

This is an adult from another year. It was laying an egg as I snapped the photo.

One of the coolest things about swallowtail cats is that they defend themselves. See the yellow thing like a snake's tongue sticking out of this caterpillar's head? It's called a stink horn or osmeterium. Its appearance is startling, and if that's not enough, It flicks a bad smell around. Pretty cool, caterpillar. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Caterpillars on the Parsley

Earlier this summer I started growing butterfly weed, Asclepius tuberosa, from seeds. It's an orange-flowering milkweed that attracts butterflies. While I was in the hardware store picking up peat pots to sprout the seeds I bought a cute herb garden on impulse and started those seeds, too, including parsley. The butterfly weed grew great and I've planted it outside and am waiting for flowers. The parsley was growing so slowly in the window greenhouse that I thought it would be helped by time outdoors, so I put it outside. After a couple of days, I noticed there were little black caterpillars on it! Three caterpillars. 
This caterpillar is tiny, about one quarter of an inch long. It has spikes and a white saddlebag marking in the middle. I think it will grow up to be a black swallowtail butterfly. People say that this color pattern is protective camouflage that disguises the caterpillars as bird droppings. Click to enlarge. 
Here is the problem. My parsley plant is puny. Sure it can support baby caterpillars, but they will soon be big enough to eat the whole thing. And what then? Some caterpillars are very picky about what they eat. Black swallowtails want greenery in the carrot family: carrot, queen Anne's lace, dill, parsley, and all. They aren't nicknamed "parsley worms" for nothing. My little parsley plant is the only acceptable food in sight. 
So I have moved the caterpillars into protective custody. Here's their new  habitat, which I'm keeping clean, covered, and supplied with fresh parsley from the market. Can you see one on top of the foliage? Caterpillars grow in abrupt stages, called instars, emerging from shed skins bigger and, for these, with some beautiful color pattern changes. I'll photograph as it happens and hopefully we'll see these parsley worms to adulthood.
I was aiming to attract butterflies to my garden. Now I'm hoping to have some in my kitchen. :-) 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

End of August

I've heard people say that August is the Sunday of summer. 
Here's to the last Sunday of August 2018 and summer's end!
I've posted below a few favorite photos from my August blogs of years past. 

A great Egret coming in for a landing, trailing toes. Click to enlarge.

A monarch butterfly. 

Rolling hills of Northern New Jersey in August. 

A laughing gull line up. 
Honey bee drinking a drop of water from a leaf. 
A carpenter bee on milkweed flowers. 
A bullfrog keeping an eye on me.
Snow geese overhead. 
A bumblebee at work. 
A great black wasp. 
A summer azure butterfly with striped antennae.
A deer watching me watch him. 
A baby northern cardinal with punk hairdo. 
An elegant monarch butterfly caterpillar climbing upward. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Watermelon for Butterflies

Want to know what we have in common with a red-spotted purple butterfly? 
We love watermelon! 
I was walking in a field at a small farm in New Jersey and came across a broken watermelon that was being feasted on by three red-spotted purple butterflies. 
Lots of kinds of butterflies like overripe fruit and would love to dip their long curly tongues into your leftover watermelon rinds to drink the sweet juices. The same goes for your cantaloupe rinds, overripe peaches, and whatever other fruit waste you are about to throw away. Just put the fruit in a shallow dish with water, if you want to discourage ants, or no water if you like ants. The dish will make it easier to pick it up later to discard. Place the dish near cover and you are likely to attract a variety of lovely butterflies like the red-spotted purple, monarch, painted lady, and more. Click to enlarge.  
Yay! Summer!