Nearing the End of a Hot Summer

Lizard Sept 7

Our hot, humid summer is turning brittle around the edges

Mantis July 27

Rabbit July 29

It’s reassuring, really, how fall arrives

Dragonfly July 28

Mockingbirds August 6

Even after the hottest of summers

Mantis July 31

I will miss the months of extravagance

Lantana July 6

Monarch July 21

But not for long

Bee July 17

Because spring is assured, even after the coldest of winters

Bee July 27

Four Birds

Last fall we stopped buying bird seed when we took down the bird houses, and for the same reason. Just as the houses were no longer housing birds, the seed was no longer feeding birds.

Rats Sept 21

Rat May 17

I haven’t seen rats in the yard this winter, but I also haven’t seen many birds. Hopefully our winter flocks are finding plenty of alternate food sources.

Warbler Feb 3

Yesterday I watched through the kitchen window for nearly an hour and saw a total of four birds. The little yellow-rumped warbler in the above photo was foraging for insects along the fence, while a robin and a mockingbird basked in the pear tree, sleepily soaking up sunshine.

Robin Feb 3

Mockingbird Feb 3

The most interesting activity took place in the wax myrtles, where a young yellow-bellied sapsucker was tending its sap wells.

Woodpecker Feb 3

(I decided this was a juvenile sapsucker after consulting Cornell’s All About Birds website. Please comment if you can confirm or correct my identification!)

Woodpecker Feb 3

I couldn’t help wondering about the origin of the sapsucker’s behavior, which strikes me as fairly advanced problem solving. This young bird likely learned to make sap wells by observing its parents, but how did its earliest ancestors learn their craft? Did the behavior surface gradually, a slow convergence of experience and appetite? Or was the shift a more sudden spark? Is there a sap well gene?

Woodpecker Feb 3

Some part of me wants to argue against a purely genetic origin for the sapsucker’s wells. My objections are all based on wistful incredulity, on a deep-seated longing for connection beyond mere knowledge. My objections are, in other words, illogical. But they are also persistent. No matter how many books I read, no matter how much science I embrace, some part of me still wants life to mean more.

Ice at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay Jan 26

During a lull between snowstorms, we took a walk at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

The beach was clear, but large sections of the bay were frozen, as were all of the ponds. Winter normally brings a few frosty nights to our area, but prolonged bouts of sub-freezing temperatures are rare.

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Most of the over-wintering birds had deserted the refuge, and the few that remained seemed confused.

Ducks Jan 26

Mallards were out, walking on the ice. Something about the way they moved — one careful step at a time, watching their feet, pausing here and there to probe the ice — reminded me of television detectives inspecting a crime scene.

Other flocks had given up and opted to sleep until the ice thawed.

Ducks Jan 26

With the refuge so quiet and still, every sound and movement drew my attention. On a normal day I would have missed the mockingbird on the parking lot fence and the small heron huddled near the road.

Mockingbird Jan 26

Heron Jan 26

I doubt I would have missed the deer, though. Three of them edged nervously out of cover near the Visitor’s Station, crossed an open patch of lawn, and disappeared down one of the trails.

Deer Jan 26

I wondered if the lingering snow had forced the deer to change their grazing pattern. Or maybe they wander through every day? Maybe snow, even rare twice-in-a-month snow, doesn’t affect deer the way it affects me. Maybe they don’t spend hours admiring the fresh fall, then more hours fretting over the slippery deck, half-frozen pipes, and cancelled appointments. Maybe they simply carry on, day after day, searching for nothing more complicated than grasses to eat, water to drink, and a warm, dry place to sleep.

Thread-Waisted Wasp

Some years ago, the tree beside our mailbox became infested with yellownecked caterpillars. (I believe the following moth is the adult form of these caterpillars. Please comment if you can confirm or correct my identifications!)

That first summer, the tree’s lower branches were stripped of leaves by fall. The next summer, thread-waisted wasps arrived in the yard.

Dozens of these wasps dug burrows in the loose soil under the tree. The following year, we saw very few caterpillars and even fewer wasps. The tree kept most of its leaves. Another year later, the caterpillars surged again. More wasps, as well.

They continue on in this pattern. Every other summer, we have caterpillars and wasps, with the between years bringing decreased populations of both.

The wasps are very efficient. A burrow takes only fifteen or twenty minutes to complete. They dig with their front legs and jaws, vibrating their wings as if to loosen the soil faster, and carry the excavated dirt several feet away. Each trip clears a pea-sized lump.

When the burrow is deep enough, they fly into the tree, sting a caterpillar, and let the stunned victim fall. They find the caterpillar on the ground, grasp it in their impressive jaws, and drag it into the burrow. A few minutes for egg laying, and the job is done. (I missed this part of today’s activity because my camera batteries died. 😦  Maybe I’ll get another chance tomorrow.) When finished, the female stuffs clumps of dirt and small stones into the burrow’s entrance. Then she moves to a different part of the yard and starts all over again.

The sandy parts of our yard, where grass grows poorly, are peppered with burrows right now. Next year, I expect the tree will keep its leaves all summer.

As a final note today, this might be the same mockingbird that I photographed yesterday. It certainly had the same sneeze…


Growing up, katydids were my summer lullaby. On hot, still nights, I would move my pillow to the foot of the bed and sleep with my face inches from the open window. I remember the night air’s damp smell and the moonlit silhouette of silver maples. I remember the hollow calls of barred owls in the swamp across the road. And I remember the rhythmic, echoing chorus of katydids. Mother told us they were saying katydid katydid katydid… katydidn’t… katydid katydid…

I never imagined that I was leaving katydids behind, when I moved to Virginia. The closest thing I’ve seen, since moving, is the greater angle-wing pictured above. (Photos taken in 2011).

The yard does have a thriving population of small katydid cousins, meadow katydids, but they sound nothing at all like my childhood.

Check out this web page for recordings. Click on the common true katydid, to hear the call I grew up with, then compare it to the common meadow katydid. You might also listen to the greater angle-wing, which solves one of my ongoing yard mysteries. I’ve spent many a night creeping around the yard with a flashlight, trying to figure out who makes that repetitive click…

While I was hunting katydids today, trying unsuccessfully for a video clip, I kept hearing what sounded like a sneeze. A tiny, high-pitched bird sneeze. This mockingbird seemed embarrassed, when I traced the sound to it. I wonder if birds suffer from allergies, too?