Spiders of autumn

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Argiope aurantia

A sign that we are definitely in late summer, inching inexorably towards autumn:  yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) have started to spin their webs among the flower beds.  Every year, they seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, but I suppose they have been present all spring and summer and have finally become large enough for me to notice.  They are still not full size and will grow noticeably bigger and fatter in the next month.

They seem to love to spin their webs in the lantana bushes, where they capture many butterflies.

Sometimes they catch bigger prey.

One morning last September, I noticed that the cats were intent on something squeaking pathetically in a large Lantana ‘Miss Huff’.  It was a hummingbird trapped in the web of a very large garden spider.   In this somewhat blurry photo, the spider is at the top of the frame, slowly descending her web towards the trapped bird.

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Where is Bilbo Baggins wielding Sting when you need him?

At first I thought that I was too late and the bird had already been bitten, because when I pulled it from the web, it just lay quivering in the palm of my hand.

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I was trying to decide if I needed to administer the coup de grâce, when I realized that the bird was immobilized by a few strands of almost invisible spider silk.  After I carefully removed the threads from its wings and tail, it sat up in my hand and then zoomed away into the trees.

If you have a strong stomach, a web search will turn up photos of less fortunate hummers, so if you have a hummingbird feeder or plants that attract them, it might be a good idea to relocate garden spiders that build their webs to close to the flight paths.

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Summer begins

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Male ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at one of our feeders

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer holiday season in the U.S.  In my garden, summer begins when the fireflies appear, and the baby hummingbirds fledge.  We spotted the first fireflies a couple of weeks ago, but this week the population increased dramatically.  When the sun goes down, the garden is filled with slowly flashing yellow lights as the little beetles fly up from the grass and flowerbeds.

During the day, the action is a lot more frenetic.  Since early April, a few adult hummingbirds have been visiting our two feeders, which I refilled once a week or so.  But suddenly there are dozens of hummers jockeying for position, and we go through a liter of sugar solution a day.  Their harsh chattering and the sound of buzzing wings fills the air as they dogfight over the lawn and chase each other away from the feeder or favorite flowers.  Occasionally several will settle down to drink peacefully at the same feeder (four on the small, six on the large), but it never lasts long.  Another soon shows up and starts a chain reaction fight in which the tiny birds orbit the feeder like fighter ships in a Star Wars movie.   I have counted ten or more at a single feeder, and the other is just as busy.

Ruby throated hummingbirds

On dry, sunny roadside banks and meadows, patches of bright orange show that the blooming season of native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has started, and as Spigelia marilandica finishes flowering, A. tuberosa takes over as my favorite flower in the garden.

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Asclepias tuberosa. The best specimen in the garden is a volunteer seedling that sprouted in the gravel path beside the mint patch.

This is one of the best insect plants that you can grow in North Carolina.  Like all milkweeds, it is a food plant for the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Monarchs are becoming very scarce, sadly, and in ten years gardening at this location, we have only had caterpillars one year.  But A. tuberosa flowers provide food for bees and other butterfly species, and those are not in short supply:

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Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting A. tuberosa flowers
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Pipevine swallowtail butterflies (Battus philenor) on A. tuberosa

When the plants are finished flowering, they attract beautifully colored milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that feed on the developing seeds.  But no matter; enough seed survives to float away on tufts of fluff, so that more plants appear every year.

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Oncopeltus fasciatus nymphs on A. tuberosa follicles.

Once planted, A. tuberosa can be tricky to transplant, because its tuberous roots grow deep and break easily.  If you plant a couple of potted seedlings, they’ll cross-pollinate and give you plenty of seed that you can spread around.  It seems to take about two years for seedlings to reach blooming size, and a couple more to grow a really nice clump.

Much less colorful but still elegantly beautiful, Yucca filamentosa is also blooming now.  I planted it on the dry mound around our wellhead, along with the prickly pears and a few other xerophytic plants.

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Yucca filamentosa

It was supposed to be the variegated clone, ‘Color Guard,’ but it seems to be some sort of unstable mutant.  New growths come out variegated, but over the course of the year, they darken until they are indistinguishable from a wild type plant.

On the other side of the house, Hydrangea quercifolia, oakleaf hydrangea is also blooming white.

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Hydrangea quercifolia

This is a southern species, with a native range centered on Alabama.  It is a much more reliable bloomer than the Japanese Hydrangea macrophylla, because the new growth is less susceptible to damage by late freezes.

Some cultivated clones have inflorescences made up entirely of large sterile flowers, equivalent to mophead forms of the more familiar H. macrophylla.  However, I prefer the look of wild type plants, equivalent to a lacecap H. macrophylla, with a few sterile flowers surrounding clusters of tiny fertile flowers that attract many bees.

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The H. quercifolia flowers are looking their best this week, and they’ll continue to look good until the Japanese beetles, the scourge of summer, arrive to devour them.  That could happen any day.  I saw a few beetles this week, munching on banana leaves, but most will emerge over the next couple of weeks.  If I can keep the beetles from doing too much damage to the hydrangea, its inflorescences will slowly turn pink and will be attractive until well into autumn.  Eventually they’ll dry out and turn brown, but they’ll remain on the plant and, together with the peeling bark, provide winter interest.

A white bluebird

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A leucistic bluebird (female?) with a normally colored male.

Today the garden had an unusal visitor who will, perhaps, be a temporary resident: a white eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis). Technically, I suppose she is leucistic, because she retains some faint, diluted color, and her eyes and beak are pigmented.  A true albino would have completely white feathers and pink eyes.

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I assume she is a female, because she was with a normally colored male who was busily stuffing pine needles into the nest box.  I’m a little surprised, not only by the white bluebird, but also that a new pair is moving in.  There was another pair nesting in that box earlier in the spring, and just before Easter, I saw a clutch of eggs when I quickly looked in.  I suppose the young might have left the nest in the last few days, but if so, this new pair have moved very quickly.  Actually, I suppose this could be the same male, with a new lady friend.  The previous female was normally colored, but I can’t tell the males apart.

If this pair produces a clutch, it will be interesting to see if any of the fledglings are leucistic.  Perhaps not, if the trait is recessive, unless the male is also a carrier.

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