Thursday, March 12, 2015

Phenology: Sydney, Wasps, and Peepers

Today's weather is delightful. After a month of ice and snow, we're finally walking around, comfortably, on dry, solid ground, in sweaters and windbreakers rather than heavy coats. Temperatures in the fifties and sixties (Fahrenheit) have finally made it across the Virginia-Tennessee border.

Gnats and the despised Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs are hatching. So are the paper wasps who do so much good at the Cat Sanctuary. I've seen two of Polistes fuscatus so far, one at home and one at the Dog Sanctuary. This is especially good news because I've not yet seen any of Polistes dominulus, the invasive species that can displace and out-compete the paper wasps who belong here.


(Image credit: Mrmac at Morguefile,  http://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/m/mrmac04/preview/fldr_2008_11_28/file0001137602340.jpg )

P. fuscatus are about an inch long; dark-colored, as the name suggests, though if you look closely you may see red or yellow as well as dark brown on the body, with black transparent wings. Mature males and females don't even have stingers, although the females can scratch and nip. Wasps of this species who fly toward humans are sometimes hunting for the gnats or mosquitoes we attract, sometimes just checking us out. They have very keen senses of sight and smell and use these to recognize humans as threatening or non-threatening. Once you convince the "queen" of a paper wasp family that you're harmless, you can enjoy protection from nuisance insects with very little risk of being stung. The slightly smaller "worker" wasps, who do have stingers, hatch later and usually take their cue from the queen. I think of these little animals as a sort of non-cuddly pets.

Of course, at this time of year, paper wasps and hornets are not our only natural protection from gnats, flies, and mosquitoes. Songbirds are passing through. This morning Gate City's green space was full of sparrows, wrens, warblers, and finches, as well as blue jays, crows, and cardinals. All of them are hungry, and most will eat insects. But in summer, when most of the songbirds have gone further north and the others are replacing their wing feathers, paper wasps will be our primary defense against nuisance insects.

They will have support, competition, and occasionally danger, from another insect-eating species, the little frogs called spring peepers. (Image credit: SoundMan73 at Morguefile.)


We always hear spring peepers' chorus ("cree-ee-eek") from a distance; they stop calling and hide when we come near.

Parts of Grogan Park are still under water. The Little Moccasin Creek, which flows through the park, is still muddy and close to the tops of its banks. Spring peepers don't mind this extra water and seem to be advertising--"Creek! Creek!"--at the tops of their little lungs.

I had promised Sydney, the Australian shepherd dog, that I'd walk with her in the park when the snow and ice went away. Yesterday, when a light rain kept the ground very wet, she seemed to be expressing disappointment that I hadn't done that; she barked, and when I asked her what she was barking about she tried to herd me toward the door. So this morning we walked in the park. Sydney behaved very well--no barking, no pulling on the leash, no effort to intimidate a smaller dog we saw from a distance. I had taken the camera phone, with some vague idea of making this post a series of pictures and calling it "Dog's View of Grogan Park," but the phone's battery was too low.

After the walk Sydney was definitely ready for breakfast, but before she settled down to eat breakfast she grinned at me and wagged her tail. She liked the walk. She likes this March Thaw weather.

Don't we all.