Friday, September 18, 2009

Purple and White Elephant Feet and cool critters!

No, I had not been imbibing before going to teach my class today, but I really did see White Elephant Feet (and purple ones too)! :) Elephant Foot is an unusual summer wildflower that normally has pale lavender flowers. As I was surveying the field at Freels Bend, the area where the American Museum of Science and Energy's outdoor classes are taught, I was surprised to see a plant with white flowers. An albino perhaps?! That was a first for me.

I taught a Butterfly class this morning. We actually caught a lot more moths than butterflies, but the kids didn't care! When I went back to my car to get my camera, something fluttered past me and landed on the porch of the cabin. It was a large, dark brown moth. I thought it might be a Black Witch Moth, but tonight I looked it up in my Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects and found out it was a Lunate Zale (pronounced "zah-lay", not like the jewelry store of the same name). Later, I tried to put the moth on a tree so I could get a better photograph, but it had other ideas. It flew off to the ground and onto some dead leaves. It was a good thing that I watched it land, it was so well camouflaged I would have never been able to find it again.
Another insect we saw in the field was the Virginia Ctenucha moth. It had an orange head and an irridescent gunmetal blue abdomen. At first glance, it could be mistaken for a wasp.

An insect that really is a wasp, but is often mistaken for an ant, is the Velvet Ant, a.k.a "Cow Killer". These beautiful red and black insects are actually wingless female wasps. They lay their eggs in bumblebee nests. I presume this one was hunting a nest as she frantically ran around on the grass in the field. The name "Cow Killer" comes from their painful sting.

In my afternoon class I taught about different habitats. One group of kids found a Dagger Moth caterpillar. I got a
photo of the legs taken through the plastic jar. It was fun to watch the way the 4 pairs of prolegs would scrunch together when the caterpillar walked on the jar. I wish I could have taken a video of it.

While we were on our habitat hunt in the field, we found an orb web spider with a white triangle on its abdomen. The intricate pattern is interesting. You know me, I had to get a spider photo in here!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Roan Mtn. Fall Naturalist Rally, mushrooms and moths

There are 4 words that strike terror into the heart of every computer user... "Eminent Hard Drive Failure"! Unfortunately, I saw those words flash across a black screen on the monitor on Sunday night! So, I've been unable to download my photos from my camera, update this blog, or anything else that relates to this computer until tonight. You don't realize how much you use your computer until you can't!

For several years I have heard about the Roan Mountain Naturalist's Rally at Roan Mtn. State Park in upper east Tennessee. So, finally this year Kenny and I decided to go. We went up last Friday. The keynote speaker that evening was Dr. Lincoln Brower, a world-famous Monarch butterfly researcher. I had read about him for many years since I got involved in raising Monarch caterpillars. He was very interesting, down-to-earth and personable. Much of his talk was about his research on the Monarchs' overwintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. That area is on my "bucket list", I really want to go there some day and see the millions of Monarchs that cover the trees and explode into the air in the warmth of the morning sun. The next day he gave a talk and walk up at the Miller Homestead high on a mountain in the park. Since the fields in the area are full of nectar-source flowers, they are natural stopping areas for butterflies of all kinds. I spotted this beautiful male Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from a thistle after his talk. The park has been designated a Monarch Wayside, and they now have the sign to prove it! Dr. Brower placed the sign on the kiosk post. He was kind enough to pose for photos with his "Monarch groupies", me included! :) The T-shirt I was wearing has a Monarch caterpillar and chrysalis "question mark" on the front and on the back is the answer, a Monarch butterfly.
The old Miller Homestead was an interesting home with a barn and other outbuildings. The home has been kept the way it looked when the family lived there. I was surprised that the rooms weren't roped off like they are in most old homes. I liked looking at the old sheets of newspapers and Life magazine covers that were used as wallpaper in the upper bedrooms.

Later that day we went on a Geology of Roan Mountain hike that was given by a geologist, also the president of the Friends of Roan Mtn. group. We learned about the different rocks that make up the landscape of the park including white quartz, Beech Granite, Strawberry Gneiss and the crumbly, ever-present schist (my students love that word!). Ha! Not only were there rocks of all kinds and sizes, but it didn't take much to get me distracted by the beautiful mushrooms. We saw red, yellow, orange, brown, and even purple ones. The winner of the "weird mushroom of the day award" would definitely have to go to the Stalked Puffball-in-Aspic. As that mouthfull of a name implies, these puffballs are on a long stalk and they emerge from the ground surrounded by a thick coat of slime (the "aspic").

Later that evening Larry McDaniel gave a presentation on the insects he has photographed on his porch by using a white sheet, a blacklight and a shop light. It was amazing how many different and beautiful insects he had seen. At the end of the program he had a light and sheet set up outside so the participants could try it out. We saw mostly caddisflies and moths, like this striking Tulip Tree Beauty.

We spent two nights at a motel in Elizabethton. On Sunday morning before we packed up the car I noticed some beautiful blue Morning Glory flowers blooming outside our window. I grabbed my camera and got some beautiful shots. It is amazing how those flowers look like they are glowing in the center.
On Sunday we passed on the other activities and went to Kingsport to visit Kenny's brother. His neighbor had flowers in his yard that I went to look at. What a nice surprise it was to see a couple of Praying Mantises! The first one was chomping on a butterfly on a rose bush, I'll spare you the gory details! The second one was hunting for an unlucky insect on a marigold plant. I had to laugh when she turned around and looked at me. They are one of the few insects that can move their head independently from their body. I got a good close-up of their powerful, spiked front legs. No wonder they can capture insect prey so easily!

One more "pretty" picture and I'm going to quit tonight. This is the inside of a mandevilla vine flower. I liked the effect!