BIRDS AND BEYOND

What’s happening in the summer heat

By Claire Curry | Published Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It’s so hot now it seems like a good time of year to just sit in the shade with a glass of cold lemonade. Life goes on for all the critters and plants that live here in the summer, though. Many insects reach their peak activities during the summer since they require warmer temperatures to be active.

Right now there are lots of butterflies in the sulphur family (Pieridae) out and about. These include the big, lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphurs, the tiny, dark-smudged Dainty Sulphurs and the in-between-sized Little Yellow (yellow with black wing tips).

This is also a good time of year to look for dragonflies and damselflies. With a bit more rain this year than last year, there are more of them out. Sometimes it gets too hot even for these warmth-loving animals, though. Some dragonflies will perch in the shade, while others adopt a position called the obelisk. They stick their abdomens up in the air to reduce the surface area exposed to the sun.

The spring wildflowers are gone, and a few summer ones are struggling open now. Ironweed has tops of magenta-purple flowers that are favored by butterflies. Gayfeather is another purple flower that blooms all along its stalk. Bluebells only bloom at this time of year, too. They have big blue-purple flowers with yellow centers and green-gray foliage.

Lizard’s tail gaura is a tall, gangly plant with small pink and white flowers. I assume it gets its name from the tail-like shape of the flower stalk. There are lots of caterpillars on it right now. Some small ones that are either green or purplish-yellow with vertical stripes are the larvae of the Clouded Crimson moth (Schinia gaurae). The adults are small but beautiful, with pale sherbert-pink and cream colors.

There are also White-lined Sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) caterpillars on the gaura. These are hornworms, rather like the ones that eat everybody’s tomato plants, except that they specialize on different host plants.

With the heat, you are likely to see birds doing what they can to cool off. They often pant with their beaks open for evaporative cooling (since they don’t sweat). They also love a good bath, as you are likely to see if you have a sprinkler on your yard.

Providing water in a bird bath or garden pond is a good way to attract birds to your yard in the summer (when feeders aren’t as tempting with all the tasty grasshoppers and other insects to eat). We have everything from cardinals to Painted Buntings to cuckoos stop in our yard for a drink.

We recently put in a new garden pond in the woods. It’s got a happy little leopard frog that is sitting on a log there every time we visit. You can distinguish these from one of our other common frogs, the cricket frog, by the two thin white lines on the back (one on each side).

The pond was also colonized within days by numerous small water striders (and a few big ones). The very first resident was a water beetle. Although they live only in the water, they are strong fliers and can disperse to new aquatic habitats easily.

Another visitor to the new pond was a box turtle. It was swimming across the pond. As we approached it sank to the bottom (so apparently they can control their depth somewhat). We rescued it and set it on dry land and it walked off. We added another log so that any future thirsty box turtles can climb back out on their own.

If you find a box turtle, you identify individuals by the patterns on their shells. This turtle was one that we first spotted last fall. You can also distinguish male and female box turtles by the color of their eyes. Males have red eyes, and females have brown eyes.

Despite the heat, there are still plenty of fascinating finds in nature. Keep your eyes peeled, because you never know what you will find.

The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Aug. 1 and Sept. 5. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office at (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, email them at larksparrow@eeclaire.com.

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