A Room of One’s Own

Insects are all about population-level survival of the species. Life is hard for individuals, starting right out of the egg-gate. You won’t ever catch young preying mantises, stinkbugs, caterpillars whining to Mom about the over-crowded nursery… she’s long gone.  If Mom was around she’d likely say (in her buggy way), “If you don’t like it here, disperse!”

Dispersal is probably a good idea for reasons other than personal space. Non-social insects are serious about eating and if the meal that’s close at hand is a lover, or a sibling, or a child, well, let’s just say that bugs don’t need to be hangry to bite someone’s head off.

But I was reminded recently that there are some members of the six-legged set who appear to have an affinity for what Virginia Wolfe so memorably termed “a room of one’s own.” Dash had stopped to see if some smell was worth rolling in, and I took that opportunity to peruse my immediate surroundings. That’s when I noticed the tree in front of me had leaves with an interesting speckled pattern. I turned one of them over and saw those spots were the result of some insect squatters.

As terrier-boy and I continued on our way, I started watching for other signs of leafy residences with solo-occupants, and found several that demonstrate even larval life-forms like to decorate to suit their own aesthetic preferences.

It never fails to amaze me that there are a seemingly endless number of little universes, right here on the home planet. We don’t even have to build a spaceship and escape gravity to find them. For the most part, all these myriad Earthlings are completely unaware of each other’s existence, despite living side-by-side in the same three dimensions… at least until, for a brief moment when a dog catches a scent and stops to investigate, and his person takes that moment to do a little undercover work of her own.

We don’t have to look far to discover worlds within worlds within worlds.

What weird and wonderful lifeforms have you seen while traveling through the Great Outdoors? Share your thoughts, experiences, and photos in the comments section below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Vlad Proklov (lime nail gall mite), Martin Male (caterpillar tent), Katja Schulz (Ocellate gall midge), Jason Hollinger (maple leaf), and gbohne (cherry oak galls).]


red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Here is the instruction: Only connect. Wherever you are, right now, pay attention. Forever. ~ Sylvia Boorstein

In true terrier fashion, Dash is always excited and impatient to begin our walks. Once we set off out the door, I never see any indication that he’s disappointed to be traveling over the same route as last night or this morning.  He’s all in, 100% of his attention on here-and-now.

Which is not to say he holds a single focus through the entire outing… far from it. More than any other canine companion I’ve known, Dash is pulled through the world by his nose. In fact, I have to mindfully keep one eye on him at all times so I don’t trip and injure myself, or him, or both of us should he suddenly cross in front of me pursuing some siren-scent his sailor-self is incapable of resisting.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has a keen sense of smell, and perhaps for a human I do. If so, it’s a dubious honor; biologist and author Edward O. Wilson explains in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, that our physical senses are pretty sad compared to other Earthlings, giving us access to a “microscopic” subset of available stimuli.  Certainly, I’ve observed that aroma beckons to Dash in a way that makes me wonder — if I could experience the olfactory world as he does, for a single minute, would it be a mind-expanding adventure, or would it hit me like a tsunami, flooding my lungs until I could no longer breathe?

I’ll likely never know but it’s an interesting thought experiment.  In the meantime, I can attempt to pay closer attention to the sensory input I do receive, and today I tuned my ears to birdsong.  I decided to take note of each call I heard and identify its source, if I could. The section of trail we traverse is only about a mile long but, to my delight, the number and diversity of birds I heard required counting on all 10 of my fingers and both of my big toes.

I’ve provided a visual list, starting with a red-winged blackbird, shown above, and all the rest, in order of appearance, below.  Two quick caveats:  1) I’m sure I heard a warbler but I can’t guarantee it was a black-and-white; and 2) the downy woodpecker was pecking, not drumming or calling, but it was an audible avian-produced sound so I decided that counts.

p.s.  If you’d like to hear a typical song for each of the species below, and learn other interesting facts as well, I highly recommend The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.  Type the common name into the Search field and you’ll find an audio link beneath the photo of that species.

blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)

northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

house wren (Troglodytes aedon)

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia)

downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Jordan Walmsley, Dave Doe, C Watts, Dave Lundy, Patrick AshleyTCDavis, naathas, Rachid H, Ellen & Tony, Henry T. McLin, John Sutton, and John Sutton© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Pieris Pipette

Throughout the summer I’ve noticed small, pale butterflies along the sunnier sections of our trail. Knowing the days are getting shorter, and not wanting to wait until next year to get a closer look, I decided to come back on my own while Dash was having his post-walk breakfast at home. Sneaking up on anything is mission impossible when you have a resolutely curious and courageous terrier by your side.

I was pretty sure these fluttering insects were cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), not only because they fit the official description, but also because it’s an incredibly wide-spread species. Accidentally introduced to Quebec, Canada, in the mid 1800s, cabbage butterflies quickly expanded their range across North America, with the exception of unirrigated desert and semidesert regions. Research suggests all of the ubiquitous individuals currently calling this continent home can be traced back to a single female progenitor.

After a few unsuccessful attempts at stalking, I decided the more effective way to observe cabbage whites up close and personal would be to find an area where they were feeding, sit quietly near the flowers, and try to blend in while waiting for them to flutter back. It worked like a charm. They poked and probed their proboscis straw into wildflower wine coolers, slurping up nectar.

Ok, my hearing isn’t acute enough to actually hear the slurping sounds but they certainly appeared to enjoy their beverages, and I’m certain there was slurping. I spent a pleasant 20 minutes under a bright blue mid-summer sky, drinking in the sight of butterflies bobbling from one bloom to the next, like tipsy wedding guests at an open bar reception.


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: David Marquina Reyes, Ouwesok, Ken Slade, and Paul Ritchie© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Solar Shadows

Here in southwest Virginia, we were a few hours outside the Path of Totality. I saw some of the eclipse as generous strangers shared their cardboard glasses, but I had set my sights on a different kind of spectacle.  While everyone else turned their faces upward to the skies, I wanted to focus on the observable changes here on Earth. In particular, I was hoping to see a transition from daylight to the wildlife night shift. I set off for the Huckleberry Trail, sans terrier-boy Dash this time because I was planning to take some pictures.

It turns out, even at 91% coverage our local star is still very bright.  The mid-day temperature cooled slightly, and the light did dim somewhat, although that was helped along by some clouds competing with the moon for eclipse honors. I was expecting late evening light and instead it felt more like about 4p or 5p.  The only wildlife I observed taking notice of this change were katydids and maybe a couple of crickets.

What I did notice, however, and hadn’t expected at all, was the impact of the eclipse on shadows.  The patterns were mesmerizing, especially beneath leafy trees. I’ve shared some of my shots below, along with some by other photographers that are better representations of what I saw than my smartphone’s camera could achieve.

What was your most memorable observation during this week’s eclipse?  Share your thoughts and images in the comments section below.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license (all other photos by KJ Lindsey, CC BY 2.0): FolsomNatural, Cantavestrella, David Prasad, and Andrew Reding© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]