Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Backyard gold

All that glitters may not be gold, but if you run across Metriona bicolor, you wouldn’t mind at all. At least, not if it’s an adult.

Like a drop of molten gold, the Golden Tortoise Beetle clings to and munches on the leaves of morning glories – or, on the wild side, the closely related bindweeds. The golden shell glows with iridescence. Put one in your hand, however, and watch the color change to mother of pearl, and then dull orange as the insect manipulates the moisture content in its shell.

Seen on a leaf, the lustrous beetle is hard to believe. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that the beautiful adult sprang from a “filthy” kid. The black, fork-tailed larvae of the tortoise beetle camouflage themselves by collecting excrement, attaching it to their backs, and walking around under a load of, well, crap.

This tiny Jekyll and Hyde is yet another example of the wonders of nature right outside your back door.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Season’s greetings

Summer arrived Wednesday at 8:26 a.m. That was the solstice – “sun stop” in Latin – when Old Sol halts its northern movement and starts heading south again.

For those who love light and believe night is good only for sleeping, it is a joyful time, with 16 hours of sunlight. The dreary days of seasonal affective disorder are long gone, and the world is bright – and warm.

For lovers of the outdoors, June 21 is a lot more significant and worthy of holiday status than Jan. 1, a dismal and silly celebration, signifying little more than taking down one calendar and hanging another, or watching Windows do it for you. It’s not a new school year, it’s not a new fiscal year, it’s not even an astronomical event – it’s just the changing of numbers, arranged by long-forgotten Roman emperors.

The longest day, on the other hand, is a real event, a more than symbolic day on which we welcome the most enjoyable time of the year, when we can relax more, play more, and generally recharge our lives.

So, a day late, we wish you a Happy New Solstice.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Two twitchers

It’s the season of the twitchers, the fledgling birds that seem to get so excited at the prospect of food that their bodies shimmy and shake with excitement.

Most of our songbirds are altricial – like humans, they are born helpless and need to be waited on, break and foot, by their parents. To be fed, the youngest simply hold open mouths so wide, they seem to dwarf their bodies. As they grow older, they add voices to their food demands. And by the time they leave the nest, they twitch for attention – standing on a branch, wildly wiggling their bodies and their slightly open wings as a parent approaches with dinner.

This behavior may have inspired the British word, twitcher, which means a fanatic bird-watcher: It is said that true twitchers go into uncontrollable spasms of excitement at the sighting of a new species. So the next time you see a young sparrow or robin twitching for its lunch, think of an otherwise staid Englishman in his tweeds, binoculars raised, posterior all a-wiggle at the joy of spotting a Long-tailed Tit.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

June snow

The air in parts of town has been full of fluff, white fuzzies drifting in the breezes like impossible June snowflakes. It’s the season for the cottonwood to cast its future to the wind and, like the lowly dandelion, to set countless cotton-covered seeds adrift to find new home sites, often covering the ground with white.

The Eastern Cottonwood is a wetland-loving poplar, a group of trees with more than usual ties to the wind. The leaves and their stems are shaped in a way that makes them move in even the slightest breeze. They shake – or quake, as in the Quaking Aspen, another poplar.

No one is quite sure why they wiggle, but the creative minds of the past devised reasons. Legend has it, for instance, that Christ’s cross was hewn from a poplar and that ever after, the tree has trembled with fear at the awful deed to which it was a party. Perhaps that explains why today, its lumber is considered so poor that it is used mostly for packing crates and pallets.