Praying Mantis, September 2013

Last night I found a praying mantis on the kitchen window. As I watched it groom its antennae and feet, I imagined it was using the window as a mirror.

Mantis Sept 26

I have no doubt that clean antennae and feet matter on a functional level, but does some portion of a praying mantis’s experience reflect a sentiment I would call vanity?

Mantis Sept 26

I thought about the mantis off and on all night. Does fall make it anxious? Are these last few weeks of summer, its last few weeks of life, more urgent than all of its previous weeks?

I decided to look for the mantis again today, starting with the flower beds closest to the kitchen window. When I found it (or a similarly sized mantis) the situation was decidedly urgent.

Mantis Sept 27

At first I thought a mantis had caught one of the yard’s few remaining dragonflies. Then I realized it had caught another praying mantis. Or rather, the two insects had caught each other.

When I approached with my camera, they retreated to the underside of the ginger lily’s leaf.

Mantis Sept 27

The battle took place in slow motion, a strained embrace of stamina, strength, and will. Both sustained significant injuries:  the larger mantis mauled its opponent’s bent and broken wing, while the smaller mantis locked one barbed foreleg over a vulnerable eye.

Mantis Sept 27

Gradually, the smaller mantis extracted its damaged wing, and it seemed on the verge of gaining an advantage.

Mantis Sept 27

But the larger mantis broke its opponent’s grip and disabled the smaller mantis by biting through the major joints of both forelegs.

Mantis Sept 27

It was a brutal way to end the battle, precursor to an even more brutal death for the defeated. I didn’t stay to watch the victor dine, but when I returned a half-hour later, little remained of the smaller mantis.

Mantis Sept 27

I’m fond of praying mantises. They are among my favorite subjects to photograph. But this encounter? This is not why I love praying mantises, and I didn’t enjoy taking these photos. I don’t know why I watched so long.

In particular, I regret that my presence changed the course of their struggle. Except, it’s possible my presence in the yard changes the course of every struggle. Perhaps my camera affects everything I photograph, and my eyes affect everything I see.

Mantis Sept 27

First Landing State Park, October 10

First Landing State Park is beginning to feel the onset of fall. The osprey are migrating, leaving egrets and herons in charge. Grasshoppers carry on as if winter will never come, but the butterflies know better. They’ve disappeared, along with most of the bees. (I did see something that might have been a bee, but it also might have been a fly that wanted me to think it was a bee.)

Despite these changes, summer hasn’t abandoned the park entirely. Mosquitoes still bite and squirrels still play. Crabs forage while frogs sing a frantic final chorus. Turtles patrol the shallow ponds, their backs mounded with mud so that they look like curiously mobile islands.

And the sun is still strong enough to burn if you stay out too long. Like I did today. But I have a good excuse for my over-long walk and uncomfortable sunburn. I was chasing a kingfisher…

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The Wax Myrtle and Yellow-rumped Warblers

Much of the yard’s fall and winter activity takes place in the wax myrtles. (I believe ours are southern wax myrtle. Other names include Southern bayberry or candleberry.) I’ve never bothered to count, so I don’t know how many individual plants make up the barrier between our fence and the sidewalk. Enough to create a unique habitat in the yard.

More tree than shrub, the wax myrtles are distinctly male and female. Only the females produce berries. (Technically, their fruit is considered a drupe.)

The berries aren’t in high demand. Few of the yard’s visitors bother with them, which leaves more than enough for the yellow-rumped warblers that come each fall and stay until spring.

According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, yellow-rumped warblers are the only warbler species able to digest the berries.

The warblers stay through pear-blooming time, when they spend a few weeks feasting on nectar and soaking up sunshine. Then they disappear.

Today I saw fall’s first flock of warblers flitting through the wax myrtle. For me, their arrival is as certain a sign as the Harvest Moon.