A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.

Magical Moments in the Mundane

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Even what starts out as the most mundane neighborhood walk can turn into something more interesting. I am always checking out the trees, shrubs and flowers that I pass, and always watching for birds. Lately I’ve been taking a new route just a few blocks from my house, down the big hill to a redeveloped community known as High Point. Incidentally, it is located near the official highest point in Seattle.

pondI’ve been drawn to my particular route because it passes the large community garden, and one block beyond that lies a nice little pond.

On the way, I pass such flowers as hollyhocks, sunflowers and lupines that ring the vegetable garden. Lining the street are notable trees that are dropping large seed pods.

filbert-podI recognized the somewhat floppy-looking leaf as being in the filbert family. filbertI have never seen the seeds before, which I assume become nuts like the familiar little round filberts that I recall from mixed nut tins we sometimes had in the house in my childhood. Those nuts that seemed like cheap fillers; they were not my first choice.

Invasion of the Tribbles?

tribblesI think perhaps these trees are not the same as the commercially raised American hazelnut trees, but very similar. The large rather frilly bright green seed pods contain several chambers for nuts, and when you touch them they leave a sticky substance on your fingers! Several seed pods were strewn on the sidewalk, looking like the tribbles from Star Trek. Most were empty of their nuts. I assume the squirrels are enjoying them.

Bird Life

duck-linesLife around the pond is somewhat unpredictable. The mallards that stay there are predictable, but some days there are Canada geese.

geese2-2The number of mallards varies from day to day. I think some are this year’s young. The ducks are unknowingly artistic, making lovely patterns on the water as they paddle around. I observed them creating perfect horizontal lines, circles and Vs.

duck-veesduck-circleA couple times I’ve a seen a kingfisher, which is pretty cool. I’ve even heard a kingfisher rattling by from my bedroom window a couple times. Now I know I wasn’t imagining things, and I now know where it was going or coming from.

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Belted Kingfisher on railing
Whale fins sculpture
Whale fins sculpture

I have discovered fish in the pond! No wonder the kingfisher was fishing around there. They appear to be goldfish. There are little orange ones and a blackish one. I wondered if they had been officially stocked in the pond, or whether some neighbor had dumped them there. I decided it didn’t really matter. They probably weren’t hurting any particular ecology.

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Nightshade
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Poisonous nightshade fruits; no mystery that they’re related to tomaotes!

In fact, the pond seems to be getting choked by whatever the green plant is that grows in ponds and chokes them. The same thing is happening in the pond at the park next door, and door, and I wonder if the right thing to do is dredge some of it out.

Ornamental river birches near the pond
River birches, with lovely peeling bark, near the pond

One day I was surprised by two white-crowned sparrows in some shrubs by the pond. They’re around Seattle, but uncommon. I almost never see them in my yard.

There is a nice variety of habitat circling the pond. There are trees, shrubs for covers, grassy areas, and a rushing brook and waterfall that empties into the pond. Queen Anne’s lace, clovers and thistles grow in small clumps.

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Queen Anne’s Lace
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Later stage
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Even as it fades, it’s lovely

I’ve watched dragonflies patrol the air over the pond and I’ve seen goldfinches gliding overhead.

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A decorative carved rock, circles representing raindrops

When the sun shines, a walk around the pond is warming and happy. When there are clouds, there are magical reflections across the surface of the pond.

img_20160904_115036429img_20160904_115137703It’s a small thing, likely taken for granted, overlooked and little used by nearby residents, but for me, the pond is a fresh destination.

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The Spotless Ladybug and Other Garden Insects

ladybug2I’d been wearing my ladybug earrings recently, in honor of spring, and it seems it was a prescient act. Recently I saw a bazillion ladybugs in my yard! OK, not a bazillion, but I saw one, then another, and another, and finally realized there were a lot on my rose bushes! Not that there were any aphids or other pests that I could see, but I was glad to have the little red ladies.

From what I could see, these ladybugs were all small, spotless girls.

ladybug3I grew up with the image of a deep red ladybug, usually sporting two black spots. But my visitors were much smaller and had no spots.

Some people call them ladybirds.

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn.

ladybug4Despite their gentle name and lovable reputation among children and gardeners, ladybugs are feisty little beetles. Their scientific family of Coccinellidae includes ladies of various shades of red, orange or even yellow, and many variations of spots.

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They are found worldwide. From my research on the web, I’m thinking my species is Harmonia axyridis, which varies greatly from red and orange to black, with no spots, a few spots, or lots of spots! This is the one that came from Asia and is now widely established in North America, South America, Europe and South Africa.

Lady beetles are ladybug7valued as predators of garden pests, including aphids and scale, but scientists have learned that they also eat such plant materials as fungi, pollen, and nectar. They’ve even been known to become cannibalistic, eating eggs and larvae of other ladybugs when food is scarce.

Ladybugs to the rescue

ladybug roseLast year an invasion of aphids attacked my honeysuckle, leaving it looking pretty sad, with its deformed, unopened flowers. Once I realized the shrub was not dying for water and that there were aphids all over, I went to work.

I discovered that aphids cause the flowers to look like “witches brooms,” aptly named as the flower buds look like curved broom heads.

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They just stay that way and never fully open, so my honeysuckle looked like all the flowers had died.

 

DSC_0123I have learned that this is an issue with certain honeysuckle species, so I’ll have to live with it. Advice on the web is to cut off much of the plant during winter, before the larvae can hatch. Also, spraying with a solution of dish soap and water can get rid of some.

DSC_0119So far, my plant is looking OK, though there is a lot of evidence of aphids again. I got out my spray bottle again. I then saw a few ladybugs on the plant. “Do your thing, do your thing,” I told them.

DSC_0113 Several states have named the ladybug as the state insect, including Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee and New York. New York went further by specifically designating the native North American species, Coccinella novemnotata, the nine-spotted ladybug. This species has declined as the European seven-spotted ladybeetle and the Asian species I mentioned above have spread.

Ornate Hoppers

While I was scouting out ladybugs on my plants, I noticed a bunch of leaf hoppers. Hoppers are tiny, narrow insects, generally regarded as pests because they suck juices from vegetation. But I always recall macro photos of them in field guides that spotlight their beautiful colors. My leaf hoppers were a blue-green, with dark blue or black stripes on its wings.

leafhoppersIt might be a “sharpshooter” leaf hopper. As with the beetle family, leaf hoppers can come in psychedelic colors. Some have red and turquoise stripes, or bright orange with green and blue; even a most artistic pattern of blue and yellow streaks.

leafhoppers3What is the function of such color in the insect world? It certainly isn’t camouflage.

Blending In

But an insect that blends right in with its environment is the lacewing, another beneficial garden bug. I happened to see a few around my house. Only about an inch long, they have bodies of delicate green, and as the name implies, wings that are translucent and lacy looking. They are common to North America and Europe, and similar to ladybugs in lifestyle. They eat aphids, caterpillars, mites and other insect larvae and eggs. Garden plants that are said to attract lacewings include coreopsis, cosmos, dandelions, sunflowers and dill. In that case, lacewings should be pretty common! I’ve got enough dandelions to support a town of lacewings! And I’ve planted cosmos and sunflowers.

Apple Blossom Country

apple1Gala, Pink Lady, Jonagold, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn, Cripps Pink. Can you taste the sweetness and feel the crunch?

Washington state is the apple-growing leader nationwide. You’ll see proof of this if you drive around Yakima Valley or Wenatchee, where the orchards are concentrated. The other top regions are the Columbia Basin, Lake Chelan and Okanogan.

I wanted to photograph orchards in bloom for a while. I thought, rightly so, that huge stands of trees covered in white blossoms must be a sight to see. Not just apple trees bloom in the spring, but also pear and cherry. I had written off finding cherry orchards and focused on apples. Pears, if I found some, would be the ice cream on the apple pie, so to speak.

I had driven around Wenatchee once, soDSC_0993 I knew there were many orchards there. In fact, the town has an apple visitor center, where you can learn all about the state’s sweet crop. But Wentachee was a longer drive from Seattle than Yakima, so I scouted out some areas near Yakima last fall, and found an ideal spot in Zillah.

My gut told me this could be the time, but in order not to miss the blossoms, I needed to go have a look. To Zillah I headed. It’s about a two-hour drive through shrub-steppe country. There‘s a nice rest area near Selah with a view of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams where I usually stop for lunch. There was a clear view of both peaks.

After my break I headed on to Zillah. But before I got there, I began to see orchards in bloom, and whitish blobs covering the hillsides in the distance. It took a minute to realize I was seeing apple orchards in peak bloom!

apple17I made a quick decision to take the next exit and find the road that was closest to the orchards. I was just ahead of Zillah, but I knew I didn’t need to continue on. I wouldn’t find anything better.

Past Remains

It turned out I had arrived in the little town of Buena, and buena it was! This is not a ritzy area and the homes are very modest, but it seemed that even the smallest papple9lot of land had a mini orchard on it. Apples are lifeblood here, or at least, a sideline.

I found a main road that stretched north to south, with orchards in view. I turned off to a side road to get closer to the trees. Along the way I found a big old abandoned house and just had to stop to photograph it. Large trees cast soft shadows on the grass in the bright sun. A hundred years ago it was a grand house, surrounded by farm land. Now its windows were gone and the inside all graffitied up. I wondered how such a once-grand house could get to this state.

house1house2house3house4house5That the house was left to stand was evidence of someone’s respect for the past, or a simple lack of money either to fix it up or tear it down. What happened? Who now owns the property? Perhaps the last owner died without family who could take over. Perhaps someone tried to sell it and gave up. Why had no one rescued it before it fell to vandals? The locals must have a name for it, maybe “the haunted house,” or “the Smith house,” or “the big house.”

Peak Bloom

But I had to move on and find my orchards! I scanned the landscape as I drove, and spied an orchard up a side road that looked promising. I turned around and headed up the hill. Beautiful orchards on either side of the road came into view. I pulled onto a dirt drive and got out of the car.

apple6apple10apple2As I was admiring the landscape, I could hear what sounded like a hawk nearby. I looked around and finally looked up. Overhead were four red-tailed hawks, perhaps two pairs, wheeling around and squawking. What a treat!DSC_1347DSC_1346

 

 

 

 

Across the road and along the irrigation canal was another orchard. Mt. Adams loomed to the west.

apple12apple3apple31apple15Upon close inspection of some blossoms, I noted that bees were happily buzzing from flower to flower. I wondered if the orchard owner had rented bees. I didn’t notice any hives, but I guessed that bees must be rented every year to apple18polliapple25nate all the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

Harvesting

When apples are harvested, they’re loaded into traditional wooden boxes, which hold 40 lbs. of fruit each. You can see these in big stacks here and there.apple11 On average, the state harvests 125 million boxes every year. Washington grows 6 out of every 10 apples eaten in the United States, and its apples are enjoyed in some 60 different countries.

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Though the varieties that we export are a paltry drop in the apple crate when you learn there are 7,500 varieties of apples grown around the world. Apples arrived in the new North American world with the colonists.

Apple History and Lore

Archeologists have determined that apples have been eaten as long ago as 8,500 years, according to the Washington Apple Commission. Apples are said to have originated in Central Asia millions of years ago. So Adam and Eve might not have been the first to indulge.

Various notions and legends about apples have been passed down through generations. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We also say, “as American as apple pie.” Putting apples in a pie may be American, but now we know apples themselves are hardly American.

DSC_0986 - CopyWe have our folk hero, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, whom we imagine lived humbly, dressed shabbily and went barefoot, casting apple seeds everywhere he went. In fact, he was a nurseryman who collected seeds and raised trees.

apple30Crunchy, sweet and juicy.  Red, pink or yellow. The next time you bite into one of nature’s wonders, think of the growers who nurture their trees and the countless laborers who hand pick the fruit every year so you can enjoy it!