Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where are the Monarchs?

Most years, in midsummer, I’m finding many Monarch Butterfly eggs on my milkweed.  I bring them inside to let them hatch, grow into fat caterpillars, form chrysalises and finally transform into butterflies.  I’m a piker in this endeavor. There are many Monarch nurturers more dedicated than I. But this summer is different. There are no monarchs!  They have not returned to New Jersey after wintering in Mexico.

I’ve checked with Trina, our local “Butterfly Lady.”  She says people are still waiting.  Last year the butterflies arrived early –in June. Now, at July’s end, I am the lucky one. Two weeks ago I found two monarch eggs.   Others have found none.  Now I have two chrysalises. Hopefully their metamorphosis into butterflies will be successful.

 Monarch Watch, http://www.monarchwatch.org, reports the late arrival of the butterflies to Kansas and they worry that there will be little time for the usual four generations before it’s time for them to return to their winter quarters. They say that fewer –acres fewer—arrived last fall in Mexico. They attribute the reduced numbers to wet weather. And a very wet and chilly June may have delayed their return to New Jersey. But we’ve had a warm (too warm) July. Where are they? 

Environmentalists have long worried that the numbers of pollinators are greatly reduced. That’s one reason for breeding monarchs; in the wild, 98% of them don’t make it. Some think pesticides are killing them off –as well as genetically engineers crops which have a pesticide incorporated into their DNA. Even the pollen of those plants contains the pesticide!

To quote Trina Paulus’ book , Hope for the Flowers, “Without butterflies the world will soon have few flowers.” There are many fewer bees too. Without them and the butterflies, there will also soon be no food crops. Isn’t it time to examine our use of pesticides and pay attention to the interactions within nature?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dragonfly Season

It’s dragonfly season again.. These gorgeous creatures flit around the dock and the shoreline of the lake. I’m disappointed that there are fewer this year but there is an obvious reason for that. There’s a scarcity of lake weed floating at our end of the lake. Dragon and damsel flies lay their eggs upon floating weeds.
I spy a small section, only about 12 square inches of weed floating near the cattails growing between our dock and the one next door. I suppose that explains why most of the dragonfly activity is centered there, with the insects often posing on the jewel-weed by our dock and the broad leaves of the cattails. When I take a canoe down the lake I am relieved to find larger patches of floating weed, a couple about a square yard in area. The weed is dotted with little bubbles. Good. The dragonflies have been laying their eggs. I would hate for them to leave our lake for lack of a breeding ground.
Dragonfly nymphs- the early stage that lives in the water—do us a great favor by eating mosquito larvae. They also eat other aquatic insects and worms. When they become beautiful airborne adults they continue to eat mosquitoes and also dine on ants, termites, gnats and other small flying insects.

But this time of year, I don’t see them eating. Rather they are chasing each other at great speed, rapidly changing direction like UFOs or the helicopters that must be styled after them. Occasionally they land on us. A pair of electric-blue damselflies land on my husband’s nose as he floats on a plastic noodle in the lake. I rush out of the water to retrieve the camera but, predictably they take off just as I line up the shot. Guess that’s the one that got away.

I remember reading, from when I was a Girl Scout leader, that dragonflies are one of the first insects to leave a place when it becomes polluted. Another reason I want to keep these indicators nearby. But even if they neither ate the nasty bugs nor told the quality of the water, I love to see them around. My favorites are the large ones whose dark brown wings sport a large patch of baby blue. When they fly, their wings look fluffy. I also love the electric-blue damselflies. But even the tiny amber dragons are fun to look at. They fearlessly land on my hand. The sun, filtered through their wings, shows as long orange ovals on my skin.  MY camera is totally misbehaving. I put in new batteries but it insists on telling me they are exhausted. So I have to use images from the Internet to show the gorgeous creatures flying about.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Heat Wave

               To escape the hazy, hot and humid wave in our New Jersey suburb we drove out to Sussex. Yes it is cooler out here –by about 5 degrees—outdoors. Indoors here is hotter since the cottage welcomes sunlight all morning. The only remedy is to jump in the lake. But today the lake, basking for an entire week in heat, feels like a warm tub; and there are no waves. No breeze to make any kind of wave but heat. I speculate that fish caught here today may already be half baked. At least the few cool spots I swim through are refreshing. Real cooling happens only when you get out of the water and sit in a wet bathing suit. Still, it’s much more tolerable than the 20 minutes I spent weeding and wilting in my garden this morning.  

                My garden! I am flattering it to call that plot of earth a garden this year. The zucchini borers finished off one plant before it produced a single squash. And each time my string bean plants recover from an attack, a groundhog finds his or her way past, under or through the fence to eat it down to the stalk. They ate the leaves off the other two zucchini plants too, making their production questionable. Most summers, we can count on our garden to supply lettuce and arugula for a nightly salad, this year other creatures have enjoyed it.

                At least the small garden by the lake is supplying salad greens and it gave us an abundance of snap peas before the heat wave finished off the plants. We are expecting tomatoes soon from both gardens. Groundhogs eschew tomatoes.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To Catch a Little Thief

We awakened to a “Wo – wo – wo –wo” call from the backyard. It sounded a bit like a mourning dove, but not quite.
                “That’s not a bird,” said my husband. “It’s a distressed animal. Did you set the trap last night?”
                I admitted to baiting the Hav-a-hart trap with a piece of broccoli and half a carrot. I had set it at the opening of the hole that tunneled under the black walnut stump at the far end of our property.
                We’d been plagued by a young groundhog lately. The clever fellow had dug three different holes from the driveway, recently paved with only stones, to get under our garden fence. The thief had cleaned us out, eating soy and bush bean plants as well as kale, lettuce and snap peas. We had retaliated by filling in the holes and placing a long metal ladder against the fence. That, and the fact that there was nothing left to eat, deterred him for a while. During that time, neighbors up the block reported his visits in their backyards.  
                “But he always heads back in your direction,” Sander told us.
                Two days ago the young groundhog reappeared in our garden. This time he dug his way under the garden gate.
                “That’s it!” I said. “I’m setting the trap.”
                I baited the trap and left it on the grass toward the back of the yard, intending to place it by the stump later that night.
                That stump has been a home to various wildlife—most often groundhog families—for at least six years. At different times I’ve discovered and blocked “back doors” and have caught and relocated groundhogs. I once caught a very frightened raccoon. He was allowed to remain. The only trouble raccoons have ever caused is to run off with entire stalks of corn. I don’t plant corn any more. It takes more room in my small garden than the yield is worth.
                I forgot to move the trap into place by the stump. It remained on the lawn for most of a cloudy day until I remembered and went to put it into place in the evening. To my surprise, I found in it a very dejected looking raccoon. She was curled up with her head on the ground to one side. I opened the trap and she quickly ran off. After re-baiting the trap, I put it by the stump opening.  What it caught that night – or more likely, early the next morning, was calling “Wo–wo-wo-wo,”
                My husband and I both went back to find we’d trapped a very young raccoon.
                “Poor baby,” I said and released him.
                “We’ll that’s official,” I told my husband. “Raccoons live under the stump; the groundhog does not. I don’t know where else to set the trap.”

                Later that day an idea struck me. Our garden fence is just a plastic mesh. I forced the trap under the fabric of the gate and placed rocks to guard all openings except the trap entrance --an open invitation, seemingly into our garden.  And it worked!  At 3:30 this afternoon I found the trap closed and inside was a small –cat-sized—groundhog. I would have said, “Poor baby” to him too, but I knew him to be a thief. We’ll give him his independence, out of our yard, on July Fourth.