Diggers

Scolia dubiaScolia dubiaDigger wasps (Scolia dubia) hide their lights under their dark blue-black wings. Scolia dubia“Blue-winged Wasp” is another common name for them.IMG_3774A bunch of these were looping over a strip of dirt on the edge of First Avenue at 41st, rather industrial ground for natural history, except for the feral cats and Paulownia and Ailanthus trees. But as is so often the case, the barrenness of the urban setting is deceiving. The wasps were hunting for grubs — of Japanese beetles, May and June bugs, etc. — beneath the surface, which they burrow after to sting and lay their eggs on. When not on the hunt for fresh grub meat for the next generation, they gather nectar for themselves, as this example (pics 2 & 3) in Green-Wood.

Morning’s Heronry

Nycticorax nycticoraxJust before Bush Terminal Park opened yesterday morning, we had a trifecta of herons. There were three Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) the adult above, and two juveniles.Nycticorax nycticoraxOne of the youngsters stuck around as parent and sibling (?) flew off “kwoking” to this Cottonwood:Populus deltoidesThis tree also hosted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) — barely seen at center left — and, presently, this Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea):Nyctanassa violacea.

Ant Farm

antsAnts herding a flock of aphids. The ants protect the aphids from other predators and harvest the aphids’ sweet honeydew for themselves. The aphids go about their business sucking plant juices. Just another day in Brooklyn.

Monarchweed

Danaus plexippusThis Monarch was doing pretty well, considering the chunk taken out of its wings.

(Backyard and Beyond is not on summer vacation: B & B has lately moved from the Back 40 after ten years residence and is the process of unpacking in Sunset Park, in the midst of a home-made renovation and this enervating heat. Stay tuned for more frequent posts as August melts into September.)

White’s Selborne

Have you read Richard Mabey’s rousing defense of nature writing? You should. I’ll wait here until you return.

Mabey quite rightly marks the beginnings of nature writing in English with Gilbert White (1720-1793), the British country parson whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne I’ve finally come around to reading. Mostly: I picked up a Folio Society edition of 1963 which eschews the Antiquities section. This copy was only a little musty — that perfume of bibliophiles — and I found it with my nose in Barter Books, in Alnwick, UK, earlier this year.

It’s said that White’s book has never been out of print. I can report that it is entirely readable, which you can’t say about every 18th C. classic. It is epistolary, a series of letters to two correspondents. One evidently pillaged White’s work for a tome of his own. He has some felicitous phrases that I can’t get out of my head: “a gentleman, curious in birds”; “the generation of eels is very dark and mysterious”; worms are “much addicted to venery”; “happening to make a visit to my neighbor’s peacocks”. I, too, after all, go about “in pursuit of natural knowledge.” And his “annus historico-naturalis” is what my blog has been about for five years now.

White was of course a product of his time and place. A lot of birds and other animals get killed in these pages by White or his neighbors. Before the availability of good optics, this was often the only way to see a wild animal up close. But even the rarities are blown out of the sky, and, boy, does this gets wearisome for the soul, particularly now that so many bird populations are at historic lows.

White was curiously obsessed with the question of where the local swallows and martins went in the winter. He knew that some bird species migrated, down through Spain at least, but he was pretty sure the local swallows took cover underground nearby, hibernating through the cold months. This was an old idea; I think it was Aristotle who bottled it orgininally. This line of thinking wasn’t completely wrong: at least one species has been found to hibernate in this world, but it isn’t a swallow, nor found in Europe (it’s the the Common Poorwill, a North American species). Young Swifts can go into a state of torpor during short cold spells, powering down body temperature and metabolism, but Aristotle and White were way off on the swallow hibernation thing.

But then, that’s the glory of science: it can change as new evidence is discovered. This is why it’s different from belief. White of course came before the banding (or ringing, as they say in the UK) of birds. He reported what he saw, and he makes a good case within the limits of his observations.

Bombus

BombusBombusThis large, handsome bumble bee was thoroughly probing the Hostas in Green-Wood. BombusNow, I find bumblebee identification difficult. There are four or five species that have yellow abdomen, and none of them are commonly seen here. I narrowed it down to Bombus pensylvanicus or B. borealis (but we are a bit south of its range) or B. fervidus.

The Xerces Society’s pdf “Bumble Bees of the Eastern U.S.“, for instance, assumes you have a specimen under a microscope. “Midleg basitarus with distal posterior corner sharply pointed” runs a typical line. I have a field guide… uh, somewhere, so that’s no help. Finally, I submitted one of these pictures to Bugguide.net: and the verdict was Bombus fervidus, Great Northern Bumble Bee.

Webworm Parent

Atteva aureaThe Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea) is distinctive. For one thing, it was working in daylight and most moths are nocturnal. Also, with its small wings tightly rolled, it doesn’t look like your typical moth; it’s one of the ermine moths. Its nominal host plant, Ailanthus (The Tree that Grows on Roofs), is originally from Asia, but this species is native to southern Florida and the Caribbean. There it originally fed (in its caterpillar stage) on Paradise Trees (Simarouba glauca). Somewhere along the way, it jumped to Ailanthus and spread north.


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