As I've been thinking about writing this second installment of my walkabout 2 days ago, I've also been trying to figure out why I think it's special and worth writing about. Just a little over an hour out back walking, with 2 large dogs disturbing everything around. Sixteen different wildflowers blooming that I remember (none of which I planted or even seeded in). Six different butterfly or skipper species that I photographed. Beetles. Wasps. Flies. Spiders.
Compared with my first walks over the same territory 5 years ago, this is a cornucopia of plant and animal life. We've done little except let the plants grow and burn twice. Oh, and we mow a new path each year, have seeded a few wildflowers in (but have only seen compass plant germinate and grow for sure), and have pulled up a lot of yellow sweet clover. The recuperative power is impressive...but not boundless.
But back to the recent walkabout....
Leaving the Cedar Grove, the boys and I wandered into the Back 5 Acres. The path was full of a small, grayish green, rather dainty plant that I knew I'd seen before but couldn't remember. It had dainty, pinkish white, pea shaped flowers...looking it up, I've re-identified this pleasant prairie species as prairie trefoil (Lotus unifoliolatus), an annual with seeds that quail apparently enjoy eating. (Maybe its presence explains, in part, why I've been hearing bobwhites call almost every time I walk out back!)
Green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis) was everywhere, still with a few blooms here and there, but mainly sporting lots of ripening pods. A couple pods had even split open and were already releasing their fluffy contents to the winds. This pod had extra contents: a gaggle (what would be the correct group term?) of small milkweed bugs (Lygeaus kalmii) having a rather risque party, from the looks of it. Adults eat flower nectar and may eat milkweed seeds; if times are lean, they have even been known to scavenge and become predacious.
Just down the path from the milkweed pod milkweed bug pad was a milkweed pod that had been sliced in half by the mower several weeks ago but had not shriveled and died. This let me see the structure of the pod walls in a semi-mature pod, which I thought was rather interesting. It reminds me of bird bones or of roof trusses.
The green antelopehorn wasn't done showing me things yet. I started noticing that many of these plants had mature short-horned grasshoppers on them; these two stayed still long enough for me to snap their picture. When I enlarged it, I noticed that they had a shy friend - note the antennae sticking up from the tip of the pod! Obviously grasshoppers don't find milkweed sap all that disgusting, based on the damage being done to the pods of grasshopper-laden green antelopehorn.
This abundant milkweed species had one last interesting inhabitant to share with me: baby bugs. This cluster of green antelopehorn pods was hosting another bug gaggle, this time of nymphs (young) of the large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus). With very similar looks, life cycle, and eating habits, it's easy to mix the two species of milkweed bugs up, especially in the nymph stages. There's just a slightly different pattern of black behind their head. If you look closely, you can see that several of these nymphs have their beaks (the official name for their strawlike mouthparts) stuck into the pod. These beaks consist of 2 tubes: one tube is used to insert saliva into the food material and the other tube sucks back up the mix of saliva and, in this case, plant juices.
Nectar seemed to be the appeal of the yellow coneflowers, Ratibida columnifera, that I started seeing about halfway through the Back 5. I saw numerous beetles, a few flies, and several butterflies partaking of this treat - this particular bloom is hosting a female common checkered-skipper, (Pyrgus communis). Common checkered-skippers actually overwinter as full grown caterpillars; thus, a particularly hard winter can result in a sharp decline in numbers the following spring and summer. Certainly I'm seeing plenty this year!
Well, my eyes are getting tired and my thoughts are turning towards a good night's sleep. How about if we continue this walkabout sometime tomorrow?