Monday, August 5, 2013

17-year cicada wrapup

Cue: "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye
Observations on the 17-year emergence of the Brood 2 cicadas earlier this summer:

  • The holes:  In the weeks prior to their surfacing, 1 cm holes start appearing everywhere.  The impression I'm left with is one of a drunk groundskeeper who decided to pass out while running the core aerator around the bases of trees.
  • The emergence:  The first few days are characterized by "Cool!" reactions as the small (3-4 cm) red-eyed bugs start climbing trees, having shed their amber skins
  • The SWARM: And then one day you wake up, open the front door, and you're staring at 30-50 red-eyed invaders, all patiently waiting for their wings to dry and harden so they can fly away.  Sound creepy?  It is.
  • The noise:  I really wish I could describe the dawn-to-dusk humming of the cicadas as the brood builds up to peak numbers.  It starts out as a "gee, what is that", followed by a realization of the source, followed by some quick internet searching that reveals the noise will persist for 2-3 more weeks.
  • The humor:  Brood 2 cicadas will never be lauded for their flight precision.  I never lost interest in seeing the initial flight trajectory as they take off from some grand height, headed towards a remote branch, and imagining a tiny voice saying "oh crap oh crap Oh Crap Oh Crap OH CRAP OH" as it crash-landed in the grass.
  • The horror: Little known fact - cicadas suffer from a fungal attacker that literally eats them from the inside out.  If you saw cicadas covered with a white dusting, chances are they were busy infecting their brood-mates prior to dropping their crunchy remains on your driveway.
  • The aftermath: And months later, we're still finding larval and adult shells everywhere.  They're on the house, in trees, in the grass, in the engine-hood gaps of your car, in your potted plants.  Did I mention that we're still finding them EVERYWHERE?
TLDR: 17 year cicadas?  Could we possibly try for 20, maybe 25-years next time?

Saturday, March 19, 2011


A welcome sign of spring.


The snakes were definitely cool. The umpteen types of multicolored mushrooms that sprang up overnight were very noteworthy. The salamanders, red efts, fence lizards - - all amazing. Even the copperhead and the black widow spiders were eye-opening from a "stand well away" perspective. But they all paled when compared with Rocky.

Rocky made his presence known one day when the bluebirds were trying to get into the bluebird houses in the side yard. As they flitted around the opening to one of the houses, something that was definitely not a bluebird stuck its head out the window. Trying to get a closer look, I went outside and (with the mechanical advantage of a hockey stick), opened the side flap on the bluebird house. All of a sudden, Rocky comes scurrying out of the front hole and climbs another 4 feet up the tree, out of my reach.

Now, having seen plenty of squirrels around here, this one looked pretty sorry and malnourished. It appeared to have immature/stunted growth, huge black eyes, and rather baggy/sagging skin. My mind landed on "undersized, underfed baby squirrel", and carefully closing the bluebird house door, I went back inside.

My Chief Everything Officer went out over the next few days and put grapes and cranberries out for our baby squirrel, all of which would habitually disappear. But for a few days, we didn't see our friend. So the CEO heads outside, determined to empty the nest and/or carcass of our underfed/malnourished baby squirrel and give it a proper burial.

Propping open the door, CEO gave a small shriek as - surprise! - Rocky made his appearance again, scrambling up the tree to safety. CEO then fished into the bluebird house and retrieved the nest material.

And then it got fun.

The nest - surprise! - was NOT empty; instead it housed a number of tiny furry gray squirrels with baggy skin and big eyes. Backing off immediately, CEO stepped back so Rocky...or rather, Rocqui, could tend to her babies.

Once we'd given her some space and quiet, Rocqui went straight to work, retrieving the first of her babies (1), putting it in her mouth, and scampering quickly some 40 feet up the tree.(2)

And then she jumped.

And then she soared.

And then she flew.

This was no ordinary grey squirrel, this was a flying squirrel, and she'd just jumped from a height of 40 feet, soaring for 30 feet of distance and then pulling up at the end to make a nice soft landing on the tree that held our other bluebird house (3). Scampering up the tree, she stashed the first of her children in the empty (safe) house, and then climbed up 40 feet on that tree(4), jumped, soared, and flew back to the original tree to retrieve another baby(1).

We watched, slack-jawed, as Rocqui repeated that process an additional four times. And while she did, we came to recognize that this was no 'dumb animal'. Rocqui immediately sprang into action, taking care to not waste a single trip, but grabbing her babies and heading for the nearest and safest house alternative. Also, the reason we hadn't seen much of Rocqui before was that she is, like most flying squirrels, a noctural creature, which explains the oversized bulging black eyes.

For a little bit of what we saw, check this out:

We're still on the lookout for Rocqui, but since we're on different shifts, we're not expecting that we'll see a lot of her. Still, it's definitely cool to think of swooping, flying squirrels, soaring through the darkness, just outside the window.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Playing with Fire

Since joining the work-from-home labor force last year, I've discovered the delights of working in various places around the house: Bedroom, kitchen, living room, family room, back patio, etc. A good wireless connection and a pretty slick laptop make for a pretty productive combination, and the landscape outside makes a pretty nice window view in all directions.

By far, there's no delight like settling in on the couch, feet up on the ottoman, with a good fire going in the Buck Stove as the temperatures dip outside. We were told the house's prior owners had a heck of a time getting the stove to not belch wood smoke inside, and generally left it unused. We have had no such problems (well, maybe once or twice), and can regularly keep the house at 78-82 degrees using only the stove and the interior circulating fan. (Happiness is a silent and inactive heat pump.)

By far, the biggest challenge has been the finding the right types and quantities of firewood. The first winter, we ran out around Christmas and were saved only by a neighbor who donated some unused cords of well-seasoned pine. Year two found us running out as well, though we resorted to cutting down deadwood in our yard. Still, we found ourselves buying a half truckload of pretty unseasoned oak that the seller swore he'd burned with great results (though I suspect he used napalm as an accelerant).
This year, we've been blessed with good friends who donated dead trees from their yards. But not just any tree - - some well-seasoned Hickory, about two cord's worth. Cutting, splitting and stacking it back in late August was a herculean task, but has proved well worth the effort. A chart from The Log Rack blog shows the BTU potential of several types of firewood (along with ease of splitting, burning, sparks, smoke, etc.) and Hickory regularly comes out on top.
We've finally dialed in our stove damper/vent combinations, and have found that we can easily get two hours of unattended burn time out of just three pieces of wood. This is a vast improvement over prior years when we've burned maple or poplar (which seems to burn to ash in minutes).

I can't deny, I look at those with propane fireplaces and sometimes feel a touch of envy at those who enjoy the warmth of a fire without the backache of tree felling, log splitting and stacking, ash scooping, chimney cleaning and more. But then I look at a woods full of potential fuel and it all seems worth it (especially when the electric co-op bill comes). And besides, if I close my eyes, it almost feels as warm as a summer afternoon on the beach.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Just in time for Halloween: Snakes and Spiders!

It's been a while since we encountered snakes - - having cleared out 12"+ of leaves from around the house when we moved in two years ago, we've long since seen large ring neck or black snakes around. And it's been a little over a year since I nearly stepped on a smallish copperhead that was lounging just off our patio.

I was surprised to come across this little fellow out front near the front steps, lounging near a hole that went under the cement foundation. Because the snake is juvenile, I can't identify this one properly. I think it's a ribbon snake or an eastern garter snake. Regardless, I know enough to tell that the head isn't triangular and the pupils are round, not vertical slits.

Great resource, just discovered: The Virginia Snake Identification Guide, courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Also making an appearance in the front flowerbed was this fine lady, the Yellow Garden Spider. We're used to seeing these when we travel to South Carolina - - we often see these in the palmettos, with massive webs framing the large females.

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