Journal archives for February 2017

February 01, 2017


A very warm winter day. Unfortunately I was confined to being indoors for the day and limited to just a few minutes in the backyard looking at a several kinds of buds, just as Thoreau did on this date, the last day in January, 1854:

"In the winter, when there are no flowers and leaves are rare, even large buds are interesting and somewhat exciting. I go a-budding like a partridge. I am always attracted at this season by the buds of the swamp-pink, the poplars, and the sweet-gale."
– Henry David Thoreau, from The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau
Posted on February 01, 2017 04:59 AM by scottking scottking | 4 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 02, 2017

Our Street Elm

For the longest time I assumed this was an American Elm, one of the lucky ones to have survived Dutch Elm Disease. But a few years back two people suggested it was a Red Elm. One of the tells between these two species is how near the ground the trunk splits into branches: American Elms, the once stately avenue trees, branched high up, the trunks forming simple and elegant columns; Red Elms, like the tree in our front yard, branch earlier.

Shortly after moving to Northfield, I bought a pamphlet at a local garage sale entitled The Trees of Northfield self-published by Harvey E. Stork of Carleton College in 1948. This pamphlet contains a survey of the trees found along Northfield streets. Since this was thirteen years before the first reported case of Dutch Elm Disease in Minnesota, American Elms were the most numerous tree.

Posted on February 02, 2017 03:22 AM by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 03, 2017

Der Wasserpapillon

Groundhog Day. At the risk of starting a new tradition, I removed this overwintering dragonfly nymph from the refrigerator, set it on the counter under the window, let it see its shadow in the bright sunshine of this clear winter day.

By odd happenstance, I picked up an old book, A Study of Goethe by Brian Fairly, and in the first few pages came across this dragonfly poem which contains the surprising metaphor of a dragonfly being a water-butterfly. So I looked up the entire poems and translated it.

Die Freuden

Da flattert um die Quelle
Die wechselnde Libelle,
Der Wasserpapillon,
Bald dunkel und bald helle,
Wie ein Chamäleon;
Bald rot und blau, bald blau und grün.
O daß ich in der Nähe
Doch seine Farben sähe!

Da fliegt der Kleine vor mir hin
Und setzt sich auf die stillen Weiden.
Da hab’ ich ihn, da hab’ ich ihn!
Und nun betracht’ ich ihn genau,
Und seh’ ein traurig dunkles Blau.

So geht es dir, Zergliedrer deiner Freuden!
(written 1767-69)


Fluttering over the pool
the ever-changeful dragonfly,
a water-butterfly,
sometimes dark, sometimes bright,
like a chameleon.
If only I might have a closer look
and view its true colors.

The little thing flies past
and lands on the quiet grass.
There, I have him in my net. I've got him!
But examining the dragonfly closely I find
its color to be a sorrowful dark blue.

So it is, for all you dissectors of joy!

Goethe was, without doubt, one of the great observers of the natural world. An early poem by Goethe and an adaption of a French poem about the damage done to the beauty of butterflies when handled, the choice of changing the subject from a butterfly to a dragonfly suggests he’s observed dragonflies closely, even perhaps having held them in hand. The problem with this switch is that a dragonfly’s appearance isn’t harmed by being handled, it doesn’t have powdery scales on its wings that can be rubbed off. Instead Goethe isolates the difference in observing a living dragonfly in flight against the static up-close observation of a captive insect. There’s some truth to his perspective, but most often I’m astonished by the colors, the patterns, the detail in the eyes, abdomen, and wing venation that is only visible when the dragonfly is caught in a photograph or held up close to the eye.

Posted on February 03, 2017 04:58 AM by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 1 comment | Leave a comment

February 04, 2017

Green Ash

The centerpiece of our backyard, this large Green Ash has likely stood here as long as the house which is closing in on seventy years. One of the last trees to leaf out in the spring and one of the first to let go of its yellow leaves in the fall, it still hosts a diversity of animal and insect life in its canopy, including the caterpillars of the large and showy swallowtails.

In the aftermath of Dutch Elm Disease, Green Ash became the most commonly planted tree, along with maples and hackberry, along the city streets of Northfield. Unfortunately, with the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer, these trees may become scarce as well.

The bark on the main trunk is uniform and shows the diamond pattern characteristic of this species. In contrast to the clean, columnar trunk, the upper branches and twigs are a mess, scraggly and swollen at the joints like arthritic fingers.

Posted on February 04, 2017 04:51 AM by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 05, 2017


A winter illness—whether the flu, the common cold, or some other ailment—compounds the season’s difficulties. Short as the daylight hours are, sleeping off a fever shortens them further. Scratchy eyes, runny nose, and hacking cough disturb the day’s routine, interrupt any long night’s sleep.

As we rest and recover, an old instinct grips us; we long like hedgehog or chipmunk to curl up and wait out the remainder of winter snug in a safe den. The Japanese have the word fuyugomori which translates roughly as the seclusion of winter or winter isolation, but I suppose the terms hibernation, winter blues, and snowbound would come close as well. No matter how we translate the word, it needs to include the sense of being cut-off from neighbors and friends and from the natural world.

“The dog pressed to the door
rattles it as he turns in sleep—
the seclusion of winter.”
– Buson, from Haiku Master Buson

Luckily, the recent go round with the flu is over. And today, for the first time in nearly a week, I broke free of the seclusion of winter for a short while, doing a couple of errands and going for a short but satisfying walk at a nearby nature area. It felt great to be let outdoors. Un-snowbound.

Posted on February 05, 2017 04:41 AM by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 06, 2017

February's Deceptive Smile

A cold sunny day, like a smile without warmth.

Posted on February 06, 2017 04:22 AM by scottking scottking | 5 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 07, 2017

Turning Stones

For as long as I can remember, I've been turning over stones to see what lived underneath them. As a child, hundreds of summer hours were spent snorkeling in the shallows of Lake Lida where my family owned some lakeshore. I gave most of my attention to the bigger creatures, crayfish and mudpuppies, but I was equally captivated by darter minnows and large leeches that moved like magic carpets through the water. That strangely quiet and often bizarre world took hold of my imagination and has been a source of enjoyment and mystery ever since.

Even today, decades later, curiosity still beckons and I find myself at the edge of the small creek reaching down to flip over a flat rock. A damselfly nymph clings to the underside of the rock. From the stout body shape and wide caudal fins, I'm fairly certain it is a dancer nymph (genus Argia). In the summer, at this location, Blue-fronted Dancers (Argia apicalis) outnumber the Blue-tipped and Powdered Dancers at least one hundred to one. So judging solely on odds, this nymph is likely to be a Blue-fronted Dancer as well. It would need to be reared to know for sure.

Argia is a species rich genus, especially in the tropics where well over a hundred species are known, with many more yet to be described and discovered. In Minnesota things are a little simpler; only five species have been recorded here: Argia apicalis, Argia tibialis, Argia moesta, Argia fumipennis, and Argia plana, the latter known from a single site in the southwest corner of the state.

Posted on February 07, 2017 04:26 AM by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 4 comments | Leave a comment

February 08, 2017

Benthic Invertebrate Photo Booth

Months ago I purchased a box of microscope slides with the idea of using them to construct an inexpensive, micro-aquarium for use as a benthic invertebrate photo booth. And last night I finally got around to assembling a prototype. Using silicone sealant a stack of three slides were stuck one by one on top of each other to a plastic base to make the bottom. Then another slide was added, on edge instead of flat, to create the sides. From above the micro-aquarium looked like a fat capital "I" with really long serifs. Silicone sealant was added to all the corners and around the base and then allowed to set overnight.

So today I returned to the creek to find new subjects. Unfortunately today was not nearly as pleasant a day as yesterday; a freezing drizzle and a raw wind made it very cold to be playing in the creek without gloves. I stayed just long enough to find a couple creatures to photograph.

Posted on February 08, 2017 05:17 AM by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 7 comments | Leave a comment

February 09, 2017

Indoor Wildlife

It's not surprising that other animals take advantage of our habitations, especially here in the temperate northlands where long winters require the fauna to have good strategies for surviving the cold. One strategy, common among a number of non-native species, is to take up residence inside our heated houses. On frigid days like today with the high temperature in the single digits it's not too likely to encounter an insect or spider outside, so it makes sense to go looking for indoor wildlife—just one of the many benefits of having spiders and other insects inside the house. Besides, there's more than enough heat to go around, and I certainly can't begrudge them the space.

Of all the arthropod residents in our house, Cellar Spiders must be the most numerous. Since they prefer out of the way ceiling corners, they go about their business unnoticed and undisturbed for the most part. The exception is when they venture into my daughter's room; she has a zero tolerance policy against spiders (despite all my best efforts to sway her opinion). Today's photo is of a spider found hanging out above our kitchen table.

These spiders, if fallen or knocked down from their webs, look quite ungainly when forced to use their filamentous legs to walk upon the ground. Most of the time, however, they dangle upside down from their loosely woven webs. If disturbed while hanging on their webs they shake back-and-forth so frenetically that they appear to blur or seem to spin, a wild and unforgettable behavior once observed.

Posted on February 09, 2017 03:50 AM by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 10, 2017

Entomological Housekeeping

Winter affords time for straightening the office, cleaning off the desk, and tidying up some stray specimens. Today's observation is a photograph of a Keyhole Wasp (genus Trypoxylon) that was reared from a cocoon found in a trap nest. Unfortunately I didn't notice the wasp when it emerged and was unable to get live photos and release the adult. So it will be pinned and labelled and added to the entomology collection.

Keyhole Wasps provision their nests with spiders, lots and lots of spiderlings are stuffed into each nest cell. While most male Hymenoptera take no part in provisioning, constructing, or tending the nests, male Keyhole Wasps help out the female, mostly by guarding the entrance to the nest while the female is away hunting. This protects the nest from parasitic wasps, such as cuckoo wasps, that would otherwise sneak into an unguarded nest.

The wasp in the photo emerged from the cocoon in the innermost nest cell. The wasps in the other two cocoons never emerged. The spiders photographed are from the third cell from the entrance. The cells with the spiders are failed cells; either an egg wasn't laid in these cells or the egg or the larva didn't survive to eat the spiders.

Posted on February 10, 2017 03:55 AM by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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