Baby skinks

skink eggs

Last weekend, I finally got round to moving some of the last remaining limbs of the oak tree that fell across our lane last autumn (picture #6 here).  Under one of the branches, I discovered five small eggs, each about 1.4-1.5 cm long.  Since I had already disturbed them, I decided to collect them and see if they would hatch.  I placed them on a layer of leafmould in a small plastic terrarium (actually an empty animal cracker container from Costco).  After spraying water on the walls of the terrarium to keep humidity high without soaking the eggs, I put it in the shade on our screen porch.

All five eggs hatched yesterday, and they proved to be the eggs of a skink (Plestiodon species, formerly Eumeces).

Skink hatchling1

There are three very similar Plestiodon species in our part of North Carolina:  Plestiodon fasciatus (five-lined skink), Plestiodon inexpectatus (southeastern five-lined skink), and Plestiodon laticeps (broad-headed skink).  The hatchlings of all three species are virtually identical, distinguished mainly by scale counts.

Skink hatchling2

In the garden, I most frequently see Plestiodon skinks clinging to the foundation of our house, on the wooden deck, or at the edge of the driveway, where they patrol for insects even when the concrete is hot enough to burn bare feet .  The vivid blue tails and neat yellow stripes of the juveniles are always a welcome sight.

After admiring the little hatchlings, we released them into the garden with the hope that they will grow fat on insect pests and avoid hungry birds.

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Two tropical slipper orchids

Here are two spring/summer-blooming slipper orchid species–one with somewhat grotesque flowers and the other more attractive–that are part of a group of species and hybrids often recommended to novice orchid growers.  As understory plants from low to moderate altitude in southeast Asia, they grow well as houseplants on the windowsills of warm, centrally heated homes.

Paphiopedilum superbiens var. curtisii

Paph_curtisii

This species from Sumatra is noted for its large, dark pouch and relatively short petals liberally sprinkled with small warts.  Although the flower of P. superbiens is rather ungainly, the tessellated leaves are particularly striking, with rectangular dark sectors on a pale, almost white background.

Paph_curtisii-foliage

Paphiopedilum cf. callosum

Paph_callosum

I purchased this plant as Paphiopedilum sukhakulii, but when it bloomed it was clear that it had been mislabeled.  In a genus that has been as intensively hybridized as Paphiopedilum, it can be very difficult to identify mislabeled plants, but this flower bears all the hallmarks of P. callosum, a well-known species from Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  P. callosum is a parent of P. Maudiae (P. callosum x P. lawrenceanum), one of the best known and widely grown of all orchid hybrids.  The Maudiae-type hybrids, as the offspring of P. callosum and its close relatives are collectively known, were once exotic plants for orchid hobbyists to treasure but are now widely sold as disposable houseplants in garden centers and supermarkets.  They come in a variety of shapes and colors, but I think the original P. callosum, with its downswept petals and large dorsal sepal, has a grace and elegance that is often lacking in its mass-produced offspring.

Nest raider

nest-raider2
A somewhat disgruntled young black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch.  Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators.  Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.

phoebe nestlings1
A successful brood in 2016
phoebe nestlings2
“Hey! Move over!”

This year, they were not so lucky.  Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest.  It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch.  Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents.  They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.

nest-raider1

I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house.  I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake.  It seems that the snake was determined, though.  The next morning, the nest was empty.  The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared.  I wonder if they will be back next year.

Paphiopedilum lowii

Paph_lowii2
Paphiopedilum lowii

Paphiopedilum lowii is generally considered to be one of the easiest of the multifloral tropical slipper orchids to grow and bloom, and it is frequently used in breeding to add bright colors and ease of culture to the resulting hybrids.  Unlike some Paphiopedilum species which grow only on the slopes of a single mountain, P. lowii is native to penisular Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Sulawesi.  That wide range and the resulting genetic diversity may explain the color of my P. lowii plant.

Paph_lowii1
Photo taken on April 7

This particular plant result from a cross of parents that were both heterozygous for ‘alba’ flowers–that is, they carried a recessive mutation that results in unpigmented flowers.  The offspring of that cross have been widely distributed, and the expectation was that 75% would have normally colored flowers and 25% would have alba flowers.  Instead, it seems that the flowers exhibit a range of color, from dark to quite pale, but no alba flowers have resulted.  This is a fairly pale plant, and when I saw it on the nursery bench it almost glowed next to its darker siblings with chocolate pouches and lots of pigment in the dorsal sepal.

The lack of alba flowers in the cross suggests that the two parents carried mutations in two different genes.  This occurs frequently when alba specimens of two different species are hybridized, but to occur in a cross of the same species suggests that the parents were genetically distinct–perhaps a consequence of the species’ wide range.  The variation in depth of color might also be a consequence of crossing cultivated plants that originated from different wild populations.  A commenter in this discussion points out that the color of P. lowii varies among different populations, with paler flowers coming from Sarawak.

But that’s enough geekery.  Here’s one last photo to reinforce one of the best reasons to grow slipper orchids.  The flowers that I photographed in early April, several weeks after they opened, are just starting to fade at the end of May.

paph-lowii_old flwoer
Photo taken on May 19.

And the flowers of the Paphiopedilum hirsutissimum that I photographed in March are still going strong.