Posts tagged nature studies


DSCN2817One day last week when I was at your house-okay cleaning out your now empty house, I noticed the most wonderful vine of the old fashioned Muscadine grapes growing up a tree at the edge of your yard.

I have never seen anything like it! Oh, Dad, how I wanted to run in and get you and show you the redbud tree hanging full of Muscadine grapes. You and mom grew up very differently, but I lost you both in your 87th year. Mom was a few years older, so I had to watch you drown in the misery of waking up without her after 62 years together.

l I haven’t been able to write for the past few months, since I lost you. There is so much inside me, I know I will never remember the feelings as I did when they were fresh, and I will always resent it. What kept me from writing was not because of you passing, but the pain was nearly as bad. A violation by someone, of my deepest thoughts, written in my journal, had made me feel as though I had been robbed of my most precious gift-the truths, good or bad that I written in a journal to the son I lost when he was 15 years old nearly every day.

When I saw the Muscadines, I knew the only reason they had survived was because they were wound around the branches so high in the redbud tree. Your neighborhood is full of bears, and my son who lives next door has seen many walking through your yards. My aunt on the hill above you had lost her grapes to the bears, as had neighbors and friends, I couldn’t think of anyone who hadn’t lost their grapes to the bears. A surprise for you, dad, but a couple of months too late.

All this time that I have been unable to write, I have though of you and mom, of my Andrew, all the loss, the sickness and pain I have endured, all the court stuff I had to endure in order to settle your estate. Hell has been my constant companion. Maybe that’s why the wild grapes were so special-a moment of joy and beauty amidst all the pain.

I can write now, the anger over having been put through a completely unnecessary hell during the weeks proceeding your loss have dissipated to the point where not writing would let the evil win-and I damn well wouldn’t do that. So I will write a few of the memories that the Muscadines brought to me. Perhaps, in some small way, they will help me heal.

Dad, I had seen your health failing for a long time, your memory and rationality fading as well, and I had been working to get things in order. I felt a lot of guilt, many of the decisions I had to make were hard. I knew without a doubt that I was doing what you wanted me to do, but there was still a ring of guilt to suddenly be the ‘one who held the gold’.My kids and I will never forget your slightly evil (but loving) smile, when we would want something that your conservative mind could not quite go along with and we would see you smile, as you looked at us and said, “You know the ‘Golden Rule?” And we did know it. Your “Golden Rule” had always been, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”(possibly first used by Confucius) -and it had always before meant YOU. Suddenly it was ME.

Part of me anxiously awaited my turn at “holding the gold”, and part of me had always feared the responsibility that came with it. Now, that I did “hold the gold”, even though you were still here in a weakened condition, I found the responsibility both humbling and empowering. Every decision that was made was MY responsibility, every mistake made was my fault. Suddenly, I wondered how you could have held that responsibility all those years and smiled as you reminded us of it. It was completely terrifying.

Thinking back, again, (and not having allowed myself to write it), I remembered the little gift your grandchildren and I received within moments of your death. My son’s friend, who had been with us when you died and had loving called me “Mah-mah” since his childhood, had called my son on his cell phone and told him to look at a photo he had made with his phone. In his picture, directly over the spot where my mom (and soon you) would be buried, there had suddenly appeared a beautiful rainbow, so perfectly centered above your graves that it had seemed like a message from God.

Muscadines…they reminded me of so many of the moments in nature I had shared with my grandparents, parents and children through the years. Those little snips of beauty that stay with you as though your mind was a camera, even though you had no actual photo. I thought of Andrew, three or four years old, staring up at a huge sunflower. I will never forget the look of wonder on his face as he gazed up at that eight-foot high flower, as golden as the sun, above him. I remembered finding the hillside filled with bloodroot flowers whenI took a walk with my children were they were quite young. I showed them how the plant got its name from the Mercurochrome-colored fluid that flowed from the stem when it was injured or broken of. Many years later, I witnessed one of my children, telling the same story to their child.

Once, when I was about ten years old, my grandmother, aunt, my mother and I, went on our daily walk in my grandparents pasture. Suddenly, my grandmother almost stepped on a snake. My mother screamed and my aunt laughed, “Its only a garter snake.” she smiled as she saw my mother look away. My mother was never afraid of snakes or spiders and was quite embarrassed at her own reaction. “I hadn’t looked that close yet”, she mumbled, and we knew it was true. Mother always told me that she was much more afraid of men than of spiders and snakes, “because you knew what a spider or snake was going to do.”

My aunt ran a little country store and to this day, I can see my mother marching in with a black widow spider she had caught in a jar. Even the men stepped back a bit as she told them about catching it on the very steps they had just gone up. I could write a book on “the little store” stories that my cousins and I shared as we enjoyed freedoms modern children no longer have-wandering the neighborhood without supervision. To this day, my favorite “little store” stor is the time mu cousin, Johnny, who was maybe 14, pretended to vomit on the store’s steps as my furious uncle tried to sweep up the fake plastic vomit before someone stepped in it. A crowd of cousins stood at the edge of the store building giggling away. When my uncle realized that he had been duped by a teenager, he was madder than ever.

Sometimes, in this rough and often cruel life, a simple scene like the muscadine grapes will bring us back to all the good memories we have had. For a moment, we smile, we realize how much love surrounded us, even when we were a bit naughty. WE close our eyes and remember those who are gone now and find ourselves smiling rather than shedding ear. Just for a moment, those muscadine memories surround us, comfort us and ring us home. Maybe life wasn’t so bad after all.


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Admission of my Quirky Habits

aea34-img_6776I am sure that other people see me with many quirky habits. I imagine the one that people emjoy the most is my love of studying reptiles, amphibians and insects. From the time I was a child, I have had baby turtle in a box, tadpoles in a bowl and container and have loved studying insects.

I had purchased and enjoyed a 35 mm camera along with diopters, filers and lenses and had learned to take beautiful photographs on thee film. Now, in this digital age, I have re-taken very few I on film. The photos never have the quality and clarity when they are retaken. I bought a complicated new digital camera, but just could not conquer it, so I traded it in for a more simple on.

I have taken quite a few on the camera, but haven’t managed to get a lot of them on the computer. I hope to get out my old albums and make the beautiful pictures of fritillary butterflies and monarchs on butterfly weed. I remember the excitement of capturing pictures of snakes, or lizards. My neighbors were always happy to check out my latest photos of the life cycle of the praying mantis.

It is odd how hobbies and quirks come and go in our lives. Sometimes, when we find time and life moving them out of our reach we loose the time or energy to pursue it as we once did.

Still, I treasure the memories of the days when I showed my children a “new” insect or a new life faze of a butterfly and their amazement as they held a newly hatched black swallowtail on their fingertip.

Quirks aren’t always bad, just different, and isn’t being different what makes life interesting?

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Butterfly Monarch Butterflies Facts | Butterfly

I have studied insects for many years. Monarchs and their host plants, the many varieties of the milkweed plant, are  among my favorite.  I notice that the milkweed plants that we have in the Southern Appalachians, (wild and tame) do not look like some of the ones that I have seen in other areas, so there are more varieties than I am accustomed to watching.

There are several varieties of milkweed plants in our area. Some have tiny white flowers and delicate stems and leaves. Other, more common milkweed plants have slender leaves and are more “bushy”. The flowers are dainty and vary from yellow to deep orange. All milkweed plants secrete a milky white substance that makes the insects who feed on them distasteful and therefore, helps reduce predation..

I love to watch the life cycle of the monarch, which begins with the barrel-shaped egg that the female attaches to the bottom of the leaf of the milkweed. I watch as the tiny black caterpillars grown, soon showing their beautiful yellow, white and black stripes, which are visible from the time they have molted only once through several more molts, to adulthood. Fully grown caterpillars, hang upside down in a “comma shape”, suspended by a silky thread secreted from its abdomen. It looks like it is going to “dry up” or shrink, a bit, before it seems to magically turn into a mint green chrysalis with gold spots and a gold spiral.

Even through the Monarch caterpillars devour the plant as it grows, the leaves and stems will grow back on some branches, even those with with pretty severe damage. The milkweed is a perennial and grows back from a deep tap-type root that is not damaged by the monarch caterpillar. Therefore, I don’t have to worry if this season’s monarchs severely damage my plants. Next season, fresh new leave will appear, ready to blossom and then have their leaves and blossoms turn into a monarch feast.

There are several broods of monarchs, spring, mid-summer and late summer. Only the midsummer brood gets to partake of the blossoms, which seem to be the caterpillars’ favorite part of the plant.   When the monarch emerges, it secretes an orange fluid as it pumps up its wings with fluid. this is normal and necessary.  The wings will not take on their normal shape without it. It is very easy to tell a male monarch butterfly from a female because the male has a black spot in the middle of it’s hind-wing which secretes a hormone scent. The last brood of the season flies to Mexico, or Central America and over-winters as an adult, flying back north in spring to lay its eggs on newly sprouting milkweed plants. As with all butterflies and moths, the monarch is a four-cycle metamorphic insect, meaning it has 4 life stages-egg, larva, pupae and adult. Ironically, the Lady Bug,(as well as other beetles and ants) also has 4 phases in its metamorphosis.

The Praying Mantis and the Lady Bug (sometimes known as Lady Bird Beetle)are carnivorous insects.  They are often known as a “good” insects, or insects which eat insect pests that destroy many flowers and cultivated plants. Both insects start out with their favorite foods being aphids and gnats. As they grow, Praying Mantises catch and eat larger insects with their claw-shaped front legs. Lady Bugs stay with the smaller insects, mainly aphids. Praying Mantises are three-cycle metamorphic insects, as are all grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas – meaning they have 3 stages, egg-nymph and adult.

File:Praying mantis india.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Praying mantis molts from its’ exoskeleton four times. By the time they reach their third in-star, you can tell a male from a female because a female is larger and has a wider abdomen. As they grow, so does the size of the prey they feed on. Bees and small butterflies remain favorite foods throughout a Praying mantises life. A third in-star mantis has what might be called ‘proto-wings’ or wing bugs beginning to protrude from the top of its abdomen. A fourth in-star has larger wings which reach further down its abdomen, but are not yet usable. Only a full grown Praying Mantis can use it’s wings to fly.

Males , lighter-weight and looking for mates are more likely to fly. Females that are ready to make egg sacks can do little more than glide from the top of a plant. Therefore, males are more likely to end up prey themselves, likely to bats who use echo-location or a form of radar to detect where the mantis is.

Most of us have seen nature films where the prey, say a gazelle, gets away from a lion. This is true with carnivorous insects as well. I have seen a large butterfly or cicada struggle so hard with a Praying Mantis, that the Praying Mantis lost its claw! Fortunately, a young mantis starts to re-grow its claw, so if a third in-star mantis loses the end of its claw, it may have a usable claw again if it reaches adulthood.

It is also a myth that the female mantis always eats the male after mating. Ordinarily, the Praying Mantis chews off the wings of a flying insect and discards them right away , so that the victim has nothing to fight with, Using craft paint to mark them, I have marked mantises from third in-star on into adulthood with craft paint dots and have seen many male mantises mate more than once. The trick, (like that of a black widow) is to pick a mate that isn’t real hungry and “know” how to dismount. I have actually seen three male Praying Mantises trying to mate with one female at one time! Safety in number? Who knows!

Nature has so many variations of life that it would be impossible to run out of creatures to study. Some, of course, make studying them a bit easier and safer than others. I enjoyed teaching my little ones about insects and flowers and it brings a smile to me as I see them teaching these things to their own children. Observation is the best way to learn about creatures, and often, choosing whichever creature presents its self is the best way to “choose” what to study.

My suggestions: Keep a dated journal of both words and photographs. Include yourself and children in your pictures. Try to make some memorable photographs, keep your journals safe and share them with friends, family, classrooms and neighbors. Most of all, enjoy the world around you, protect and respect it so that the next generation can carry on your tradition!

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The Black Swallowtail Mystery


I saw her struggling on a spiderweb on my son’s grave. Many times, I have seen Black Widow spiders there many times. Since I study spiders, I took it as a message, “I’m, here, Mom, I love you.” Now a butterfly was caught in a Black Widow’s web. I study Butterflies too. This must be a message,

Quickly, I released the Black Swallowtail butterfly from the web. I had to work to untangle the stiff web from her leg without hurting her. I wonder if she knew that I had saved her. I wonder what the Black Widow was trying to tell me, catching one of my favorite creatures for her “dinner”.

My heart, already damaged was beating hard. I was shaking. I had to kill the spider, I had no choice. What was going to happen? Was it good, at least for me, or bad-perhaps for someone else. I took a moment to recover. It isn’t easy to get up with a metal hip. I have to get into a position which is rather like a baby starting to crawl, find something to lean on-to help me rise up. My sons black obsidian grave stone.

“What’s wrong?” my son ask when I stumbled in the door, tears running down my cheek.

“I don’t know.” I mumbled. But something is.

All I can do now is wait for the Butterfly and black widow to reveal their message.

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Life and Death (haiku)

   The crow flies overhead

watching for a baby bird

   to fall from its nest


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Lilith Watching


School was out for the summer at last. Families toured  the bird reserve.

Everyone seemed happy, except poor Lillith, neatly spinning her web on a high post that she hoped would be out of the view of visitors who may not like her. She was beautiful, a young Black and Yellow Argiope (some called her a garden spider). She was useful, she dined on insects that humans did not admire.

The sun was setting, she had caught five meals, and was ready to settle down for the night.

“Goodnight, Lillith” I whispered. ” I will check on you tomorrow.”

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Early Autumn in the Southern Appalachians


A Honeybee on a Wild Black Eyed Susan


Mushrooms are abundant in deciduous forest-this may be a Hygrophorus Milky mushroom


A family of black bears frequents my aunts yard


A male and female praying mantis mate amidst the wild asters


Annual displays of wild purple asters viewed from her kitchen window


Family reunions remind us of sweet memories


Heirlooms are passed down through generations


Making the Model A “zoom to life again!”


Golden rods still provide nectar for autumn insects

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Another Snake tale (tail?)


After my adventure with a Copperhead a few weeks ago, this entry is rather benign, but nevertheless, noteworthy. Last night as my husband got the lawnmower out of the garage, he begins shouting, “Come here! Hurry!” Having gone through as many tragedies and accidents as I have, my alarm goes off needlessly.  “Is he hurt? Whats the emergency?”

I shout that I am coming, (as fast as a woman who doesn’t feel well and has a fake hip-joint can) to find that a tiny Ribbon Snake” had crawled out from under the mower. It was about the size of a 4″ long piece of yarn, black with a yellow band on its neck. I appreciate it when he shares creatures he sees with me, because I love to study nature and it is not a hobby of his.

Trying to pick up the tiny, yet quick, creature up from the concrete was a problem, but I managed to get it to crawl up on my hand and into a plastic container. I showed the snake to several grandkids and neighbors, but after looking up the care and feeding of Ribbon Snakes,  I decided I did not want to be  a “snake mom”. Of course, I  already knew it would be best if I let the snake go.

After the snake spent a peaceful night on the enclosed porch, I left it there while taking  my son to the bus stop. Feeling confident that my guest would stay in the container until I got home, I visited my oldest son, whose house is by the bus, stop before returning home. While I was gone, my little guest had found its’ way out of the milk carton. It now lives on my enclosed porch; not a good thing because there is no water and its food of choice, earthworms, do not live there.

This is not the first time I have had a little snake as a guest on my porch after it decided the container was a bit restrictive. Unfortunately, I If I can’t find it, chances are it won’t survive. This is the story of my nature adventures, I suppose. Nothing ever turns out like I expect it to. Hopefully, my little snake will come out or be found and I can let it go, as I intended to do before it got impatient! Updates will follow.

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Black Widow Spiders are Closer than You Wish!

Black Widow Spiders are Closer than You Wish!

My first real encounter with a black widow spider occurred when I was only three years old. We lived in a new house that my father built. He was still working on parts of it. The basement was still dirt and the front steps leading to the dirt road were made of cement blocks.
My mother would often find black widows, hanging in their rather disorganized webs. There, in the darkness, they would guard their egg sacks. We would find them around the outside of our house, in the corners of the basement and inside the holes in the center of the cement blocks. The black widow produces a very strong web material. I have taught many people to take a stick and push against the web. If they find the web is very strong, it is probably leading to a black widows nest. I admit that it is fun to see the look on my “students” faces when I scatter the leaves or probe into the rocks and produce a female black widow.
My father still has stacks of bricks, boards and cement blocks around the yard. Everything is a work in progress. My mother wasn’t afraid of anything, and often caught the spiders in a canning jar. She would take them to my aunt’s “country store” to show them to friends and neighbors who came by. She enjoyed her reputation of not being afraid of spiders and snakes and passed that fearlessness on to me.

I grew up loving to study nature. Both of my parents enjoyed educating friends, relatives and their daughter ( me) about the names of plants, insects, and animals along with their habitats. We always had a menagerie of specimens in and around our house, observing them as they progressed through their life cycles.

I am always surprised by how little most people know about the different species of plants and animals they encounter on a regular basis. I have shown many elderly neighbors a black widow that I have caught in a jar and been surprised when they told me they had never seen one before.

Male black widows are not often seen. They only appear near the females’ web around mating time and do not have the large round marble shaped abdomen which is the trademark of the female. The thin abdomen of the male is marked with more color than that of the female. They often have white, yellow and red markings along their abdomens. Females store sperm and can produce more than one egg sack from one mating. Newly hatched black widows look alike, it is only with their shedding of the exoskeletons that the sex becomes apparent. Young females often have several red markings on their abdomen, even on the upper side in addition to the hour glass shaped red marking on their lower abdomen. An older female typically has only the red hour glass shape on her lower abdomen.

I only live about a mile from where I grew up, so many of  the creatures I encounter now are the same ones I grew up with. Many years ago, a neighbor who was an avid gardener, brought me some tomato plants he had started and noted the small, multicolored spider on one of the containers. Knowing that I studied arachnids, he asked me what it was. He was surprised when I told him it was a male black widow. After gardening his entire life, he had noted only the large black females with the hour glass shaded red marking on her underside.

Since female black widows hand up side down in their webs, they are easy to spot and identify if you look carefully under rocks, flowerpots or creaks in walls. I have seen them within patches of strawberries, gourds or even on the head of a fallen sunflower.  If you have read my recent blog on black widows, you will note that I have found them many times on the gravestones, or the flower containers mounted on the stones in cemeteries.

Ironically, I have found them only on the graves of my mom and my son, Finding that rather disturbing, I would look around at all the graves within the area, never spotting another black widow.  I began to think of it as some sort of message from my loved ones.  Who, but me, who studies arachnids, would think to look for them there, recognize their webs on site or even know for sure what kind of spider it was? I imagine it is quite common to find the spiders in cemeteries, however, I have never seen them on another grave.

Though black widows ordinarily nest near the ground, my children once discovered one in a toy box sitting on a patio table. They are most likely to be found among rocks, in plant growth along walls, inside pipes and in piles of fallen leaves. When I have taught classes on poisonous spiders, I have always emphasized that you should never put your hands where you cant see what you are touching.

Black widows feed on insects. When I see crickets in leaves that have dried and accumulated in the corners of steps or in garden debris, I always look for black widows and often find them. Crickets hide under rocks and debris in winter as well as summer and seem to be a favorite of the black widow. Black widows do not move around much and can survive a long time, several weeks or even months on one meal.

My children were taught early about the wild creatures around us and most of them identified a black widow in the wild at three or four years of age. I would be working nearby and one of them would shout to me, ” Mom, a black widow!” They were right every time. In fact, it was through their young eyes, that I learned a lot about the various habitats that black widows can be found in. I would have to list “life experience” as my main source of information.  My other sources were the Golden Guide series, which covers most plants and animals in small, easy to read books, and the more sophisticated Audubon Society Field Guides.

The male black widow does not have venom and the female will bite only when threatened.  They are not aggressive and ordinarily try to crawl away if their nest is disturbed. The egg sack is woven of a brown papery material with a tear drop shape and is suspended within the web. There can be several egg sacks located in at one time.  I have seen as many as five egg sacks in the nest of one large female!

The young spiders hatch before emerging, but soon disperse. They are carnivorous if the opportunity avails itself. It is not true that the female always eats the male after mating. If she is hungry and he isn’t careful, it can happen. The female can live up to three years while the male ordinarily lives only one year. This may have lead to that myth. I have seen males and females live through the winter and into the next spring together in a set of cement block steps.

The venom of the black widow is a neurotoxin, in other words, it affects the nervous system. Though bites to adults are rarely fatal, the can cause shortness of breath, redness, swelling and cramping. It is important to get an injection of antivenin as soon as possible. The black widow often hides in shoes left on a porch or in a barn or shed. Many bites occur when someone puts on a shoe without realizing that a black widow had made it into a home. This happened to a good friend of mine when she changed shoes in her barn before cleaning her horse stable.

As with any poisonous creature or plant, caution, a keen eye and respect for the possibilities are our best defense. To know the world we live in is the best way to pass each part of it on to the next generation.

Please refer to my photo and article about Black Widow Spiders at the site listed below.

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Black Widow Spider

Black Widow Spider

As many of you know, I study spiders, insects, nature in general. I have written stories on spiders many times. Ironically, Black Widows “come to me” on my son’s grave and now, my mom’s grave as well. It has happened 4 times with my son and this is the first with my mom. I will look around and there will be no black widows on any of the other grave sites. Is it a message to me because they know that only I would recognize the Black Widows web and hunt for the spider? I will always “wait” to see if it is some sort of message from my loved ones. This one I found tonight hidden in my mom’s flower vase.

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