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).

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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.

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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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Nest raider

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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.

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A successful brood in 2016
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“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.

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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.

Six on Saturday #45 (May 18, 2019)

The forecast for today is 91 F (32.8 C), and if we reach that temperature it will be the first time we have broken 90 F this year. May 15 is the average date of the first 90 degree day, so we are right on schedule.

1. Herbertia lahue subsp. lahue

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Herbertia lahue has three subspecies–H. lahue lahue, H. lahue amoena, and H. lahue caerulea–and a really odd distribution pattern. The first two subspecies are native to Argentina and Chile, while H. lahue caerulea (prairie nymph) grows along the gulf coast of the United States. This odd disjunct range is shared by several other bulbs and may indicate very early introduction of South American plants to Spanish colonies in North America.

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The flowers of H. lahue, like those of many irids, are very short lived, and the small stature of the plant makes them easy to overlook. Last year, I found a few seed capsules but didn’t see any flowers. This year, I missed the first flush of flowers, as indicated by the green capsule in the foreground, but I happened to walk past the plant just in time for the second flush.

Similar to its larger relatives Cypella herbertii and Cypella coelestis, H. lahue is remarkably cold hardy for a South American plant. It produces its tiny iris-like leaves in winter and goes dormant in early summer.

2. Penstemon murrayanus (scarlet beardtongue)

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This fantastic Penstemon grows naturally in scattered localities in east Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. I like the bizarre perfoliate leaves almost as much as the bright orange-red flowers. It’s not difficult to guess the pollinator–hummingbirds, of course.

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I planted a seedling last May, so this is the first time it has flowered in my garden. Hopefully it will produce seed after self-pollination. Penstemon digitalis (photo 5 of SoS #29) is blooming on the other side to the house, so I suppose hybridization is possible. It’s probably unlikely, though. The white flowers of P. digitalis are pollinated by bees, not hummingbirds.

3. Borago officinalis (borage)

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I don’t usually grow annuals, but I’ll make an exception for borage with its fuzzy buds and beautiful blue flowers. It’s one of the traditional garnishes for a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup…and now I’m getting thirsty.

4. Ocimum kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum (African blue basil)

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I picked this up at the Durham farmer’s market simply because we like to try different types of basil in the kitchen. I had no idea that it was such an interesting plant. African blue basil is a sterile hybrid of culinary basil (O. basilicum) and camphor basil (O. kilimandscharicum), If the second species epithet reminds you of “Kilimanjaro,” you’re not wrong. O. kilimandscharicum is native to east Africa. Unlike the the usual culinary basil varieties, which is easy to grow from seed, African blue basil must be propagated from cuttings. Apparently, it roots easily, flowers almost constantly, and is reliably perennial, though not frost hardy.

My wife thinks the African blue basil smells like regular sweet (Genovese) basil, but I detect a definite camphor fragrance that is presumably inherited from O.  kilimandscharicum.

5. Lonicera sempervirens forma sulphurea ‘John Clayton’

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‘John Clayton’ is, as you can see, a yellow clone of our usually red-flowered native coral honeysuckle (see photo 2 of SoS #26). It was originally planted on this pergola together with red L. sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’, but the voles ate ‘Major Wheeler.’ Hummingbirds and this gardener agree that red clones of L. sempervirens are better, but ‘John Clayton’ is growing and blooming so vigorously that I haven’t the heart to remove it and start over..

6. Teucrium marum (cat thyme) and Felis catus (moggie)

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Bly the cat and his sister Neem both really enjoy visiting the Teucrium marum that is growing in dry sandy soil beside the gravel path leading to my greenhouse. These pictures also illustrate how we let Bly go out in the garden without endangering the local lizards and birds (and without Bly becoming a snack for the coyotes). He tolerates the harness well, as long as the human trails along behind him rather than trying to lead him.

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The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Eyed elater

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This evening, as I was walking around the garden to see what I could see, I found one of my favorite North Carolina beetles.  This is Alaus oculatus, the eyed elater or eastern eyed click beetle.

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Click beetles are named for their defense mechanism:  a hinge in the thorax can be flexed rapidly,  propelling the insect high into the air with a loud click.  The smaller species are often quick to click, and it is always amusing to watch one jump and spin across the floor away from a bemused cat.

A. oculatus is the largest North American click beetle, and in my experience they rarely click unless seriously harassed.  When prodded, they seem to prefer folding in their legs and antennae to present a would-be predator with a hard carapace topped with those two threatening eye spots.  Perhaps the elongated body with disproportionately large “eyes” resembles the head of snake.

I sometimes stumble across the larvae of A. oculatus when investigating rotten logs for interesting fauna.  They are predators of other beetle grubs and look a bit like large flattened mealworms with menacing pincers.

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