Thursday, August 20, 2015

Phenology Post for August 20: Farewell to the Naked Ladies

The summer heat has broken, the Perseid meteors have done their thing, some mixed flocks of small migrating birds are heading south, and the garden flowers known as naked ladies have stopped blooming. I've not made the time to write a phenology post for more than a week...what follows should really have been two or three separate posts, although the natural phenomena have been observed on the same days.

Local resident cardinals are finding a lot to say for themselves. What they're saying is probably what dogs often say--"This is my home, and it's not for rent! Move on!" Coming out of cardinals it sounds more pleasant. "Birdie, birdie, birdie," "pretty-pretty-pretty," and "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" are what their "songs" often suggest to English-speaking people. Another common cardinal "song" might sound just a bit like a slow, leisurely drawled "Wait" or "Move it." Cardinals usually repeat one or two notes three times in each call, but individual birds recognize each other by their different calls. Some cardinals distinguish themselves by repeating their notes only twice, or more than three times.

Cardinals look cheery in winter, with the male's bright red coat and black mask and the female's chic red feather crest standing out against bare branches or snowy ground. What I've always understood the resident cardinals at the Cat Sanctuary to say to me has been "Cheer! Cheer!" What other small birds understand them to say is probably another thing. Male cardinals sometimes fight other songbirds; the birds don't kill one another, but my cardinals are quite good at keeping other birds off what they perceive as their roses and their privet hedge.

Flowers still blooming include dayflowers, red and white clover, Queen Anne's Lace, queen-of-the-meadow, boneset, morning glory, Black-Eyed Susan, the "Rose of Sharon" (Hibiscus syriacus) at the Cat Sanctuary and, yes, a few full-sized hibiscus bushes imported to Kingsport from Florida. Grandma Bonnie Peters used to have "angel's trumpets" (Brugmansia) blooming along the walkways, at this time of year, when she moved into the house where I'm typing this. Considering how toxic these plants can be and that stupid people experiment with them just to see for themselves how much damage they can do, GBP replaced them with a couple of hibiscus bushes. This year the hibiscus have bloomed well and still have one or two huge, bright red blooms.

About Brugmansia, the tone of this Wikipedia page expresses my belief. People survive tripping out on this poisonous plant but nobody seems to describe the trip as pleasant.

Those who want to make fun of people's ignorance can have enough fun enticing the ignorant to chew a leaf of boneset, which is bitter but not toxic. Chewing one leaf of boneset stimulates salivation slightly. Several leaves of boneset, dried and brewed like tea, can help speed the process of sweating out a fever. This interesting-looking native plant is sold as a home remedy; people who harvest boneset leaves may not need to pay for aspirin. (The plant has no scientifically confirmed effect on broken bones, but Wikipedia suggests that it may have earned its English name as a remedy for "breakbone fever.")

I have walked fewer miles this August than in other years, due to a minor injury and helpful friends. The foot itself, not the ankle, was strained, so walking on smooth, level surfaces feels almost normal; I still feel the strain when walking on hills, and stepping on uneven ground was what did the original damage. There is remarkably little smooth, level ground in my part of the world. I've been taking one- and two-mile walks around downtown Kingsport as breaks from work.

On one of these walks I found an interesting small animal...a good-sized black caterpillar with no fur and orange pinstripes. Although there is some debate about whether the variant forms of Anisota are really separate species or merely sub-species, this individual was easily identified as the "Orange-Striped Oakworm," A. senatoria. I looked up that species in 1989, when I'd been researching and writing about gypsy moths and had several moth books. The one I saw this week appeared younger and slimmer, with thinner stripes, than the final-instar caterpillar shown here:

Individuals can vary. Or it may have been a different species or sub-species...earlier stages of A. senatoria show more orange or yellow and less black, and are smaller of course. These late summer caterpillars spend most of their time in the treetops, so although they're fairly common in Virginia and Tennessee, they're not often seen. The ones we see are usually older caterpillars who have left their original nest site and are looking for places to pupate; while it's strongest in Malacosoma, an instinct to stay close to their place of birth while eating and growing, then wander about and pupate somewhere farther away from siblings and closer to outsiders, is observed in many moth and butterfly species.

Anisota seem to be harmless here. Guides to garden pests sometimes mention that the species achieved local overpopulation and became a pest in the North, apparently when insect species were rebounding, and predator species had been depleted, after enthusiastic use of insecticides. However, even as pests, they'd be unlikely to kill oak trees since the trees have already absorbed energy from the leaves and are about to shed their leaves anyway. They may taste, but don't actually eat, other plants.

The Orange-Striped Oakworm is more likely to attract attention as a curiosity. Its size (about two inches long) and dark color make it fairly conspicuous on the ground. The body structure and habits of the Anisotas are similar to those of the giant silk moths, so scientists place them in the same family, but neither the moths nor the caterpillars are giants. Female moths are bigger and sometimes brighter-colored than males; the female can have a two-inch wingspan and may be bright orange shading to vivid pink or yellow, while the male has a one-and-a-half-inch wingspan (sometimes less) and is light brown. The wings are peppered all over with small black spots, and each upper wing has a small white "eye" spot, but these moths aren't nearly as gaudy as the bigger kinds of giant silk moths. Anisota moths are more likely to rest with their wings folded rather than spread out like butterflies' and the bigger silk moths' wings, too.

Even their name suggests an eighteenth-century joke. The real giants in the family were given names like Atlas, Prometheus (and Promethea), Cecropia, and Polyphemus. After the names of legendary giants were taken, big silk moths documented later got names identifying them with the titles of "great men" like Regalis, Imperialis, and their smaller "relative," Senatoria. The other species or sub-species of Anisota were later given color names like A. rubicunda or human-derived names like A. peigleri.