Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 1, 2013

The Ground is Willing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:44 am

I was trying to think of some suitable phrases that would sum up the spring of 2013, but was having a difficult time without using some bad words. This is not a terribly cold example of the season, but when compared to last year it seems as if we are in the throws of an Ice Age.  We Michiganders are blissfully equipped with selective memories, however, and this keeps us going from year to year. Most of you will recall – if you really try – many years when the first week of April saw snow and hard frost. So, it is what it is and this is nothing more than a horribly average Spring. Let’s just take the artistic route and simply state that “the ground is willing but the season is weak.”  A few sunny days will snap everything into back into alignment just like a seasonal chiropractor.

A late winter/early spring nature walk in this style of year can be a challenging experience. Nature reserves her dramatic feats for the later season but the signs are there none-the-less. One must look at the details in order to appreciate that things are a-changing.

Aching to bust out of the house I embarked on a short local walk just to see what could be found. The day was chilly but the sun burst forth with bouts of tolerable warmth on several occasions. The landscape was still basically a winter one at first glance. One small Gray Dogwood shrub – part of a cluster of small trees in a prairie planting – sported multiple Praying Mantis egg cases. I never tire of looking at these amazing structures and this sight was unusual in that there were multiple egg clusters in one small area (perhaps the product of a single, and very fertile, mantis). A bit further down the trail there were a dozen ball galls in a small grouping of Goldenrods. Again, the presence of multiple galls on a single stem is unusual and given that at least two of the plants had double structures, it was worth a pause and a picture. Inside each of these balls a tiny gall wasp grub awaits their seasonal signal to emerge.

The wood edge revealed a small Hazelnut bush in a location I had passed many times before. Once the place is leafed out, this small nut-bearing shrub will be all but invisible (see beginning picture). On this day it advertised with dangling male catkins (flowers) suspended from select branches. They were not “open” yet but certainly on the cusp of doing so. The female flowers – tiny ruby red tufts – were not yet out, although these flowers are difficult to see even when they are out. No doubt I will forget the Hazelnut’s location when I’m seeking the rich-flavored nuts this autumn. That short-term Michigan memory will allow me to re-discover this plant next spring and for many springs to come.

A mat of spaghetti draped over a Dogwood bush was another “winter” scene highlighted on this spring day. The explosion of pasta, contrasting with the red twigs, looked like the wiring inside of a phone junction box. This spaghetti matte was actually a cluster of Creeping, or Swamp, Dodder vines– a leafless parasitic plant that derives all its needs from a host plant. Dodders are rooted in the wood of their hosts. In this case the red branches of the dogwood were the unwilling hosts to the pale yellow vines of the Dodder. It is not hard to imagine why “Witches hair” is the common name for this plant (assuming, of course, all witches are blond…).

The reluctant day finally yielded some true spring animal life in the form of some obscure low-flying insects. They were on the sunny side of the path and appeared to be of two different makes. Most were completely, non-iridescent, black and these were the most active of the bunch. The other was also black but had a bright orange-red thorax with a pumpkin face on it. The true meaning of the difference became apparent when one of the all-black individuals made a move on the pumpkin-thoraxed one. The two tussled for a short while before the colorful one kicked the other one off. In other words we had a male/female pair – or, as in this case, a non-pair in which the non-blond one rejected the small dark stranger.

I didn’t know it at the time, but later research showed these animated creatures to be Sawflies. Prior to my seeing them they would have been “I will see” flies, but after the fact they could be declared as “saw flies”. I will not declare them as such because the name comes from the saw-like egg-laying structure found on the female – a device which she uses to cut a slit into leaves for depositing her eggs – and not from any grammatical reference (as in “I was trying to be funny”).

This particular species is without a good common name. It is technically called Dolerus unicolor. I am not smart enough to tell you what Dolerus means but unicolor refers to the single (uni), all black, color of the males. Unfortunately this makes no sense in reference to the female since she is definitely bi-colored. Before we get all tied up into a feminist knot let’s remember that the males were described as a species long before it was realized that the females were so different. She was required to take on the family name, so to speak.

Uni-colored Sawflies are among the earliest of the sawflies to emerge in the spring – having spent the winter underground as a pupa. It is only at this early stage of the season that I would have found it necessary to spend so much time with a tiny, poorly-named creature as the all-black-but-not-always- seen-saw-fly. Soon there will be lots to talk about after spring has become sprung.

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