Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More stinging things

After getting all mushy about my (previously) sworn enemies, Yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsylvanica), I happened upon a large hanging nest near where the Yellow-jacket nest was destroyed. I'd actually been looking to see if a Hericium erinaceus, or Lion's Mane fungus had begun to fruit yet in an oak a bit off of one of the trails at Howarth Park. Instead, I found a huge wasp nest hanging in the Madrone in front of the oak. The nest was about the size of a basketball with two openings at the bottom. I watched it with binoculars for a while and was surprised to see a few stocky, black insects with white on their hind ends flying in and out. I recognized the nest structure as that of a wasp but had never seen a black and white wasp before and found myself looking forward to getting home to see if I could discover the identity of this new critter.

Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are in the same family as my new friends, the Yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsylvanica) but are black and white with mostly white faces, hence the common name. While Yellow-jackets are very aggressive, the Bald-faced hornet is a mellower insect and will only go after those who mess with it's nest of, oh, only about 400 to 700 hornets!

To create their amazing nests, the hornets chew up wood and mix it with starch in their saliva to make a lovely paper-like substance. The nest is incorporated into the tree branches for additional strength and substance. The same predators that search out Yellow-jacket larvae, raccoons, foxes and skunks, will raid Bald-faced hornets nests, especially when they're hung low in the tree, looking for the tasty larvae.

After doing this rather quick sketch one afternoon, I planned to return to do a more detailed sketch but, after our first winter storm, this weekend, the nest was crumpled on the ground underneath the tree. Hopefully, it was the storm and not a predator.

To learn more about Bald-faced hornets check out these web sites:

North American Insects and Spiders
Good ol' Wikipedia
Fairfax County Public Schools

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sympathy for the devil?

It's because of Western yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsyvanica) that I no longer go outside without a hat. A couple of autumns ago, I was repeatedly dive-bombed by speeding yellow-jackets who proceeded to get tangled in my (very short) hair. The first time I thought it was a fly and tried to pick it out, only to get my fingers stung. The second time I beat the wasp and my head with a stick until it's mangled body fell to the ground. The third time I was able to prod it out with a stick. The fourth time I finally used my brains and wore a hat, which the yellow-jacket bounced off of and went on it's demented way.

These are the same merry insects that crash outdoor parties in the summer. It's quite amazing to watch one carve a small orb out of your meat dish and chow down or carry it away. However, they're not very good at sharing so we've learned to set a place for the yellow-jackets far away from our food. This actually seems to work most of the time, leading me to believe that they're chowing down and thinking, " How nice it is not to be bothered by the giant mammals for a change and, by the way, isn't this chicken just divine?"

Yellow-jackets only live one season and their time ends as the autumn winds down, so perhaps I can forgive them their wild attacks at this time of year. With my hat in place I can afford some magnanimity toward them.

This summer I've kept my eye on a nest of yellow jackets, in the ground, near one of the trails at Howarth Park that I frequently walk. I tried to observe the goings on but whenever I stopped, at a healthy distance, to look with my binoculars a few would head my way and start buzzing me in a way that just didn't seem friendly. About two weeks ago small rocks began appearing in the opening to the nest. The yellow-jackets dodged them the best they could and continued to come and go. Sometimes the rocks were removed and other times more were added. It seemed very odd and I tried to imagine the courage or stupidity it would take to stand close enough to put the rock in the opening. As the mornings grew chillier, I noticed that the wasps weren't very active so maybe it was someone roaming at night or earlier in the morning than I.

It remained a small mystery in the back of my head but one that I mostly forgot about until near the end of September, when  I found that the opening had been dug wider and there was honeycomb scattered everywhere with what I discovered were larvae within. Several of the larvae were being carried off by ants and a few adult yellow-jackets walked about the ground looking dazed. I was able to get quite close without any attacks. I really couldn't imagine why any human would want to risk life and limb and dig out a yellow-jacket nest. I made some sketches and notes and looked forward to trying to untangle the mystery.

Continuing my trek, I noticed some raccoon scat in the trail, not an unusual sight, but I began to wonder if, for some crazy reason, a raccoon or other mammal had been the digger. As it turns out, it may have been. Apparently, yellow-jacket larvae are mighty fine eating in some circles. Raccoons, skunks and possums are known to dig up these nests and feast on the larvae. So, that mystery....solved.

I still had one other mystery to solve, though. If yellow jackets die at the end of summer why was this nest full of larvae? As it happens, each spring, a single female queen that has overwintered begins to build a nest and lay eggs that become the workers who, in turn, take over nest building and provisioning as the queen lays more eggs, creating more wasps to populate the colony. At the end of summer she lays another set of eggs that will become fertile females who, in turn, go off and find a safe place to spend the winter before beginning their own new nests. I find myself feeling sympathetic toward this group of Yellow-jackets. They worked all summer, took care of their young, only to lose them in a moment. Hmm.

For more information and pictures visit:
The adventurous gardener
The Yellow Jacket Wasp
Bug Guide

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reminded of Woody the Woodpecker

One day, many years ago, I walked through some woods and heard, to my great surprise, the call of a cartoon character from my childhood, Woody Woodpecker. I followed the ear-shattering sound and beheld two enormous birds flying from tree to tree and calling loudly to one another. At home I found it was easy to identify them as Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), which are described at All About Birds as being nearly as large as a crow. They seem bigger to me but I've never had the opportunity to compare the two species side by side or to measure. There seems to be some question as to whether Woody, the cartoon woodpecker, was modeled after Pileated or Acorn woodpeckers. Julie Zickefoose, an naturalist and artist discusses this further at NPR.

More recently I came upon a male Pileated excavating in a small oak along a busy trail at Howarth Park. He worked silently and diligently, hacking away at a small black oak tree. I pulled off to the side of the trail and sketched for about 20 minutes before he took off. Soon after, I packed up and walked on toward some California ground squirrels and excitement for my canine companion.

More about the actual woodpecker:
National Geographic
Wild Bird WatchingPileated Woodpecker Central
All About Birds

...and the animated woodpecker:
Don Markenstein's Toonopedia
Universal Studios

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Quiet time

If you seek solitude at Howarth Park in the summer, it's best to arrive soon after the sun rises. It's a busy place the rest of the day. Now that children are back in school and families have gotten back to their school-year schedules, I've found that mid to late morning is the perfect time to walk. The sun brings warmth after cooler nights. It's lower in the sky, even this late in the morning, and throws deep, dramatic shadows. Depending on the way the wind blows, the sound of nearby traffic is a faint whisper, allowing me to enjoy the sound of the breeze rustling the dry grasses and leaves as I draw.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A quiet afternoon in the cemetery

Leaves have been falling around here like crazy, revealing the architecture of the trees that have released them, renewing my interest in drawing trees. A bubble of leaves atop a trunk just isn't as exciting as twisting, gnarly limbs reaching up and out and over. Last weekend I headed over to the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery which is populated with some beautiful old oaks, mostly Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and Interior live oak (Quercus wislizeni). Because much of the cemetery is on a rise, it's easy to get dramatic lighting in the early morning or late afternoon.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Still alive

Earlier this summer I more or less stumbled upon a pair of Skilton's skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) living under a rock that I like to sit on at Howarth park. I visited every day for a few days. They seemed curious, if not a bit put out,  about Chloe and I, and would lurk about for a while before heading off to hunt up some breakfast. Then I suddenly stopped seeing them. The ground around their rock had been dug into and I feared that they were no longer of this world. A week ago, though, I stopped by just to sit a while and, lo and behold, one of the skinks glided out from under the rock and sat a spell with us before heading out for some hunting. I've been back a few times since and there's been no sign of skinks.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Summer's end

At the very beginning of my walk at Howarth Park today, after I'd walked up a little hill to Camp WaTam, I found nine California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) gathered in the sun just outside of their den underneath a giant metal storage container. Amazingly, nobody walked by until I had most of the sketch done, a miracle because these intrepid rodents live at a busy crossroads.

The first year squirrels had a hard time staying still and would periodically pop violently out of the crowd as they rough-housed with each other, raising clouds of dust, while the more mature squirrels continued to bask serenely, undisturbed by the youthful eruptions of exuberance.