Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Late Spring Nature Ramble in the Blue Ridge‏

Fire pink
We arrived back at our VA Blue Ridge Mountain farm a bit later this year in early May.  I thought that spring might be mostly over, but I should not have worried since there was a virtual explosion of bird singing/breeding and wildflowers in bloom.  However the insects (butterflies and dragonflies) were far from their peaks of activity.  

To get an idea of the diversity of flowers just consider three flowers that I came across yesterday.  Fire pink is an astonishingly beautiful and common flower in this area that blooms for a very long period.  The long corolla tube and bright red color are designed to attract hummingbirds which are recently migrated from Central and South America; the name fire pink refers to the "Pink" family of which it is a member. 
Bleeding Hearts
The bleeding heart is a bizarre looking flower whose shape seems to defy reason; it is primarily pollinated by bees.  The showy orchis also is a very atypically shaped orchid flower, which is designed to attract bumblebees as pollinators; the bluish color is very attractive to bees and there is a landing pad from which the bee can insert its tongue into a spur containing nectar.  In the process two pollinia are glued to its head. The process is nicely illustrated at the website AbundantNature.com.

Showy orchis
This time of year is primarily a flower and bird show, but there are some butterflies out and about.  One of the most difficult to identify is the azure which occurs in a variety of species that are virtually impossible for the amateur to identify.  The scientific name for such closely related forms is "sibling species," and they provide compelling evidence for the inexorable march of evolution in the  present time.  The co-occurrence of very similar but genetically different "species" illustrates how forms are diverging from one another and becoming distinct species.   
Azure butterfly
The almost overwhelming amount of bird song in spring is very impressive and thrilling.  I enjoy identifying birds by their songs, so it is a challenge to separate the many species when they are singing all at once.  I especially enjoy seeing and hearing birds that have recently passed through our Florida yard.  
Indigo bunting, male
Two examples are the orchard oriole and indigo bunting, whose males are beautifully colored to woo their females.  The indigo male loses its brilliant blue color during winter; this is not surprising since bright blue must be easy for predatory birds to spot. Of course the purpose of all this song and color in male birds is to breed.  I found an enchanting phoebe nest in the same location as usual under my cabin, built of moss, and filled with six white eggs.  
Orchard oriole, male
The white eggs would seem to be easily visible to predators since they are not camouflaged, but the nest is typically located up under some cover and the eggs are not easily visible.

Spring is such a wonderful time of year that "heaven on earth" for the naturalist might be considered a place of perpetual springtime.  Of course I find natural wonder and beauty at all times of the year and in all habitats, but May is certainly one of the easiest months in which to find enjoyment in nature.

Phoebe nest with six eggs under cabin
Bill Dunson 

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