Category Archives: Your Local Environment

Everyone Should Practice Environmental Libertarianism

This stream ran red into the Moormans River of western Albemarle following logging upon the adjacent mountain. The dirt-laden water pouring into the river was unfortunate not only for aquatic wildlife, but also for the future growth of trees on the mountain. Photo: Marlene Condon.

Flowering plants (angiosperms that make up more than 80 percent of green plants in the world) depend upon wildlife for their continued existence. Conversely, wildlife depends upon plants for its existence. It is a form of quid pro quo, in which both entities benefit from each other’s activities.

Humans, just like plants, also depend upon wildlife for their continued existence.  When people provide habitat for pollinators and numerous other kinds of critters, the animals provide people with the perpetuation of plants that provide oxygen and food, as well as great beauty in the form of flowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and oh, so very many creatures!

Yet it can be very difficult to get folks to do what is proper for the environment, which in the end, is also going to benefit neighbors near and far as well as wildlife nearby and down the road. The situation with the Chesapeake Bay is a prime example.

Although people are aware of the causes of the bay’s problems, many refuse to change their ways to help the Chesapeake Bay to recover. Their inaction has brought great harm to the people whose livelihoods were dependent upon a healthy bay chock full of sea life. Environmental libertarianism would never have allowed this to happen.

A right-to-the-point summation of the political philosophy of libertarianism is that it advocates allowing folks to do pretty much whatever they wish, especially on their own property, so long as they do not bring harm to others. The idea is that state intervention in the lives of citizens should be minimal. Therefore, so long as people are not causing difficulties for other people, there should be a minimum number of government regulations for citizens to abide by.

Indeed, if everyone practiced libertarian ideals with respect to the environment, we certainly would not need so much government interference in our lives. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency came into being only because people refused to take proper care of the environment that all of us depend upon for our own health and wellbeing.

When too many people will not act of their own accord to do what is right for the natural world—and thus their fellow citizens—there is absolutely no choice but to rein in their behavior with threats of fines, or jail, or whatever it takes. More recently, government had to step in to demand that companies manufacture more-energy-efficient light bulbs because people would rather leave lights unnecessarily burning than to flick a switch to turn them off.

And while some farmers have put up fencing to keep their cows and cow waste out of our waterways, others continue to allow their animals to enter streams at will, the Chesapeake Bay and the people dependent upon it for jobs be damned (please excuse the language). I have heard straight from farmers’ mouths that they do not believe waste from their cows is a major contributing factor of bay pollution that harms sea life, but chemistry proves these farmers to be in denial of the truth.

Of course, home and business owners, as well as government, are equally guilty, if not more so, of polluting the bay. On many of their properties, laborers mow and weed-whack every last plant to such an extent that the soil often becomes exposed and then dries out. If you come by as they are working, you can see soil dust-clouds created by their machines. The dirt settles out on roads, eventually washing into drains and streams that feed the Bay.

In our forests, loggers may not feel obliged to take adequate precautionary measures to limit erosion if the logging takes place high up on a mountain hidden from view.  However, a steady rain alerts those of us paying attention to the error of their ways.

I have seen more than one local stream run red with local clay during logging operations well out of eyesight, but not out of earshot. All that dirt ends up settling out eventually to smother aquatic habitat and wildlife.

Some folks leave trashcans out 24/7, creating a hazard for our wildlife. When people neglect to secure their trashcans so that animals cannot get into them, critters may eat plastic wrap because it smells like food, and die a horrible death due to intestinal obstruction. Bottles that were not cleaned up can lure and trap small animals.

The world would be a much nicer place in which to live if folks would just consider whether the things they do on their own land impact not only wildlife, but other people as well. On many a lovely day I have had to close my windows to keep the house from filling with smoke from neighbors burning yard debris (and sometimes plastic-laden trash, the fumes of which can cause cancer).

On those occasions, it is very upsetting that I am not able to bring fresh air inside, but it is also troubling to know that these folks are not letting their yard debris decay naturally. They would not be polluting the air, and they would be recycling organic matter while creating habitat for many different kinds of animals, such as lizards, salamanders, insects, and spiders.

We have so many environmental regulations because far too many people do not take proper care of the environment. Yet it is our moral duty to nurture it, and if everyone behaved morally in the first place, we would not need laws to make us behave appropriately.

I am not particularly political by nature, but I think it would be extremely worthwhile for people to start practicing environmental libertarianism, no matter what their political stripes may be. After all, a better world always begins at home.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Everyone Should Practice Environmental Libertarianism

Little frogs, sure signs of spring, need attention

By Marlene A. Condon

From the Bay Journal, March 4, 2014.

A Wood Frog blending in with dead leaves. Photo by Marlene A. Condon.

One late-February day as I was jogging early in the morning, I heard what sounded like distant Canada geese off to my left. I searched the sky but saw nothing.

Then I realized that the “honking” was actually coming from beside the road. I put my exercise regimen on hold and walked to the edge of the road to look down the embankment where the sounds were coming from. I had finally found my first wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus).

I had seen photos of these amphibians in field guides and knew that they should exist where I live.

As you might guess from the name, wood frogs inhabit woods, and woods make up most of my area.

I had wanted very much to see these frogs because they looked so attractive in field guides. A wood frog has a dark facial mask with a light stripe along its upper jaw, both of which contrast with its brown body. But wood frogs are not easy to find.

The easiest time to catch a glimpse of these animals is late winter to early spring, when they migrate from their overwintering sites to shallow pools or ponds where they will breed. They often begin to move during the last few days of February, especially if it is rainy and somewhat warm. The rest of the year they are silent and difficult to see against the background of dried leaves on the forest floor that they call home.

If you really want to confirm that spring is on the way, look for the earliest-appearing cold-tolerant amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders) of late winter. These hardy little creatures offer the first clue that warm weather is coming, long before American robins that so often —and erroneously, as some robins may be in the area all winter — get credit for this prediction.

One does not need to rise as early in the morning as I do to notice the emergence of amphibians from winter hibernation. Any relatively warm wet evening from now until well into spring should reward those who look with the sight of these diminutive animals.

They emerge in great numbers during the hours of darkness and all of them head to ponds or short-lived (“ephemeral”) pools of water to breed.

Unfortunately, many amphibian species are losing ground in our modern world, both figuratively and literally.

Hundreds of amphibians need to cross roads to get to their breeding grounds. Sad to say, many, many of them get run over by cars and trucks as folks drive quickly along the roads, usually completely unaware that they are squishing animals underneath their tires.

(Anyone who gets up early and walks the roads before crows and other scavengers have a chance to clean up the carcasses will be astonished, and perhaps saddened, by the numbers of mashed amphibians.)

Those that do survive the road crossings often find it difficult to successfully reproduce because wetlands are disappearing.

Humans frequently find wet areas to be a nuisance, even if pieces of property are only wet in the spring and dry the rest of the year. They drain and fill in such areas, not realizing that they are wiping out the breeding grounds for many wildlife species.

And, perhaps, that is the problem.

Birds and mammals are much more noticeable because they are bigger and they visit open spaces where humans see them. Amphibians, on the other hand, are usually out of sight, hiding under decaying logs and branches or resting underneath stones or leaves. For humans, out of sight usually means out of mind.

Therefore, I hope you will take a late-winter or early-spring walk and become familiar with these inhabitants of the natural world that are somewhat hidden from our view most of the time.

I also hope you will drive more slowly on rainy nights and be alert for the presence of frogs, toads, and salamanders making their way to a very important appointment—a date with a female of the same species so they can reproduce.

The male frogs and toads (salamanders tend to be silent) that one can hear calling at this time of year are advertising from suitable breeding grounds for mates. The females arrive, eggs are laid, and within days, the adults have left. Soon the eggs hatch and frog and toad tadpoles and salamander larvae emerge.

Although it may seem surprising that any animal would want to attempt to reproduce while ice may still be on the ground and in areas that are sometimes only temporarily suitable, this early mating frenzy allows the amphibians a measure of protection from predation—most aquatic predators will still be hibernating.

Pay attention, and you may get to witness an amphibian migration!

Marlene A. Condon, author of The Nature-friendly Garden, believes saving the natural world begins in one’s own back yard. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Robins & blossoms & snakes, oh my! A natural garden has room for all

By Marlene A. Condon. Text from article that appeared in the Bay Journal, July 19, 2016

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A Yellow-collard Scape Moth (left) and a Pennsylvania Leatherwing Soldier Beetle (right) feeding at a goldenrod. Photo by Marlene A. Condon

Providing habitat for numerous species of wildlife is a critically important to keep the environment functioning properly. And, it’s absolutely crucial to our well-being. Without the variety of services provided by wildlife, the environment simply cannot work as it should.

For example, without recyclers — such as slugs, snails, earwigs, flies, opossums — organic matter, which includes leaves, dried plant stems, animal droppings or dead animals, wouldn’t be broken down and returned to the soil for the benefit of plants.

If plants can’t access the nutrients locked up in organic matter, they run out of food and won’t be able to grow. Then animals, including humans, that depend on plant life won’t have food or survive.

It should be every person’s responsibility to help maintain the health of our environment by creating a nature wonderland that can provide homes for a great variety of species.

Unfortunately, many people prefer to garden only for particular species, such as birds or butterflies. But you can’t pick and choose without harming the very animals you want to help.

Let’s say that you put up shelves and/or boxes in the yard to make housing available for the kinds of birds that will make use of these structures to reproduce. But then a Black Rat Snake climbs into the structure and eats the eggs or chicks.

If you’re like many folks, you’d get angry and kill the snake (although this is illegal in some states). You’d think that the serpent was “bad.”

But the snake isn’t bad. If it didn’t help to limit bird populations, the birds would crowd and eat themselves out of house and home, bringing disease and starvation upon themselves.

For example, a pair of Carolina wrens can nest three times from spring to fall, averaging four chicks per brood. If the two adults, along with all 12 of their chicks, were to survive the season, your yard population would go from two Carolina Wrens to 14, which is an increase in population by a factor of seven. If year after year, all of the adult wrens mated and they and all of their chicks were to survive, each year your yard population of wrens would increase by a factor of seven.

In just 10 years, you would have produced — on your property alone — 565 million Carolina wrens. And don’t forget all of the other bird species that are nesting on your property and elsewhere!

There’s simply not enough space and food available for all organisms to survive to adulthood, which is why predators are so vital to the proper functioning of the environment. We must recognize that even those animals that we have a special fondness for do need to be kept limited in number. This truism applies to every kind of animal — including humans —because the Earth is limited in space and resources.

But this doesn’t mean you turn your birds into sitting ducks. If a snake gets into a structure much too often (I’ve found that, on average, you should expect this to occur only about once every three years) it tells you there’s something wrong with that location and you need to move the structure.

You needn’t feel stupid for having placed the structure in that location. After all, the birds didn’t recognize there would be a problem, either.

The guidelines for creating a nature-friendly garden are simple.

Minimize the lawn because it doesn’t provide much food, shelter or nesting sites for animals. Instead, grow a variety of plants of differing heights: herbaceous flowers and grasses, vines, shrubs and trees to create vertical structure.

To decide what kinds of plants to grow, walk around your neighborhood and local parks. Bring a small notepad and pen and watch for animal activity among plants.

Write down the kinds of plants being visited by any kind of wildlife, especially insects. Insects provide an important clue to how valuable a plant is. If they are visiting blooms, the flowers must be providing nectar and/or pollen, a necessary food source for numerous kinds of creatures, from bees to hummingbirds. The insects themselves are a valuable food source for spiders, lizards and birds.

Bring a camera to photograph plants you’re not familiar with so you can try to identify them later.

Note whether each plant is located in sun or shade and whether it’s growing in dry or damp soil. The plants you choose to grow must be those for which you can provide the proper environment.

Gardening in the Midst of White-tailed Deer

© Marlene A. Condon

January, 2014

Deer aren’t supposed to kill plants. The problem nowadays is that we have one deer after another coming by and taking some bites and pretty soon, there are no bites left to take! Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Deer aren’t supposed to kill plants. The problem nowadays is that we have one deer after another coming by and taking some bites and pretty soon, there are no bites left to take! Photo: Marlene A. Condon

One summer day I delightedly watched a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) laying her eggs upon a shrubby Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) by my driveway.

(When trees come up where I don’t want full-sized trees, I prune them so they grow into shrub form instead of getting rid of them. Keeping them shrub-sized allows me to maintain native-plant habitat for wildlife in areas where I can’t accommodate large trees.)

Unfortunately, the very next morning my heart broke when I went to check on the butterfly eggs. I had planned to get into the habit of examining the plant daily so I wouldn’t miss the hatching of the eggs. But overnight, one or more deer had completely defoliated the small plant, taking every young succulent leaf upon which I had fervently hoped I would get to see Red-spotted Purple caterpillars.

I’ve never heard anyone mention that deer impact the reproductive capabilities of insects and spiders when they consume (albeit inadvertently) their eggs. Of course, this occurrence was not “bad” in and of itself, as the populations of all kinds of organisms need to be kept in check by various means.

But the reality is that deer predation of innumerable kinds of insect and spider eggs located upon plants is undoubtedly happening far too often nowadays in Virginia.  The deer population is out of balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

By the beginning of the 20th century, White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were almost extinct in Virginia, thanks to 300 years of overhunting by European settlers, their descendants, and new immigrants. But before the white man arrived, these mammals had been an integral part of the environment, providing food and clothing for American Indians for more than 12,000 years.

(NOTE:  Over the past few decades, some folks have tried to claim that Native Americans were just as disrespectful of the environment as Europeans. This contention is disproven by a simple fact: people living in hunter-gatherer societies cannot survive long if they don’t respect and value the wildlife and plant communities they are dependent upon for their own existence.)

Because of protective game laws and restocking efforts by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF), deer populations have rebounded over the past century. Unfortunately, however, for most citizens of the state, deer have been allowed to overpopulate much of Virginia, as is obvious by how often you see these large animals. They should not be so numerous as to be visible to humans almost daily.

Yet according to the introduction to the DGIF 2006-2015 Deer Management Plan, “Virginia currently does not have many widespread ‘overpopulated’ deer herds.  Although Virginia’s deer herds are often portrayed as being overpopulated, most can best be characterized as being at low or moderate population densities, below the BCC.”

BCC means the Biological Carrying Capacity, which refers to the ability of the landscape to support a species at a level that does not result in harm to either the animals themselves or to the environment. Thus as far as the DGIF is concerned, as long as deer appear healthy and are not obviously starving, the agency feels that these animals have not reached their BCC in most areas of Virginia.

But the only reason that deer are healthy and seem—to the DGIF—not to be overpopulated is that these hoofed mammals truly have an almost endless supply of food in the form of the average home landscape. However, lawns and gardens should not be taken into account when deciding how many deer comprise a “natural” population density because these areas artificially inflate the BCC.

What should count for management purposes is only how much natural landscape exists for deer, which would substantially lower the density of deer per acre of land in Virginia. Obviously deer would still find their way to suburban gardens, but there would be far fewer problems for gardeners (and drivers, farmers, orchardists, etc.) if there were far fewer deer around in the first place.

As long as the DGIF Board of Directors is composed solely of hunters or relatives of hunters, and as long as a majority of hunters feel that more deer are better than fewer, you are unlikely to see a decrease in the numbers of deer per acre anytime soon.

So how does the gardener coexist with an unending stream of deer coming by for a bite? There are steps you can take.

Because deer can jump as high as eight feet from a standstill and perhaps a bit higher from a running start, you would need a nine-foot-tall fence around your entire yard or food garden to totally exclude them.

Another option, depending upon the size of your wallet, is to build a six-foot-tall brick wall, which is more aesthetically pleasing. Deer will not jump over an obstacle if they can’t see what’s on the other side.

You can also use electric fencing which will give deer a shock, but it is high-maintenance and, in my opinion, a bit mean-spirited.  After all, deer are simply trying to survive; they aren’t trying to be troublesome.

If your garden is quite small, perhaps consisting of just a few tomato and pepper plants, for example, you may find that a wire cage around each plant will be sufficient.  Deer will be able to feed upon the parts of the plant that grow beyond the cage, but you might get enough tomatoes and peppers from inside the cage to be satisfied.

For vining food plants (such as cucumbers), you can grow them upon a trellis and can quite often keep deer at bay by using row covers. Simply cover the entire trellis with the cloth until the plants start to bloom. At that point, you will need to uncover the trellis each morning so that pollinators can reach the blossoms.

You must remember to cover up the trellis again before nightfall.  Of course, any deer active during daylight hours will be able to feed upon the exposed vines, so this method works best if your yard tends to be populated by people or a confined dog during the day.

When growing plants for beauty, rather than a source of food, I recommend using cages for woody plants until they have “hardened” and (with luck) have become less palatable for deer. However, you must be willing to make sure that each plant never leans upon its cage. Such support will cause the trunk and stems to be weak and the plant will be unable to support itself after you’ve “freed” it.

You should consider buying plants from catalogs or local nurseries that label the plants that deer are not particularly interested in. Keep in mind, however, that buying only plants that deer are not supposed to want to eat is not a guarantee of success. The tastes of deer sometimes change over time due to a change in what kinds of food are available for them.

Lastly, the best way to be a happy and contented gardener is to simply accept that you may not be able to grow particular plants in the presence of deer. For example, I love the fragrance of old-timey roses, but when I tried to grow them, the deer literally ate them to death.

Rather than fencing the plants, which would have detracted from their beauty and my enjoyment of them, I changed what I could—how I felt about the situation.  I accepted that roses were not something that I could grow, at least not as long as there are so many deer to contend with.

More details on gardening in the presence of deer and other kinds of wildlife can be found in Marlene’s book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books).  Autographed and inscribed copies can be purchased from the author.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Gardening in the Midst of White-tailed Deer


Baffling Mammals

by Marlene Condon

January, 2012

The “Raccoon Guard” baffle is excellent for keeping mammals from getting into bird feeders. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)
The “Raccoon Guard” baffle is excellent for keeping mammals from getting into bird feeders. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

Many folks are putting out seeds for birds at this time of year.  However, birds may not be the only wildlife wanting to partake of your offerings.

Gray squirrels, southern flying squirrels, white-footed and deer mice, eastern chipmunks, common raccoons, gray and red foxes, Virginia opossums, and even white-tailed deer enjoy eating birdseed too, especially sunflower seeds.  Although there’s no problem with these mammals scavenging seeds that the birds have dropped (someone has to eat them!), you would go broke if you allowed all of these larger critters to get food directly from your feeders.

The most sensible way to keep mammals from raiding your seed supply is to place your feeders on poles.  Poles must be placed away from plants and buildings so that agile animals, such as squirrels, will not be able to jump directly onto the feeder.

Gray squirrels, the most common birdfeeder visitors, can jump almost eight feet horizontally.  Therefore you should not place your pole within eight feet of trees, bushes, or any structures from which a squirrel can launch itself.

When you employ a pole to hold your feeder, you need to place a baffle on it to keep mammals from just climbing right up the pole to the feeder.  The baffle should be placed at least five feet above the ground on the pole; otherwise a squirrel may be able to jump over it.

Occasionally you may get a squirrel that can jump higher and farther than most, or a raccoon that is bigger than most and can access the feeder.  If this happens, you may have to make adjustments in the width of the baffle you’re using or in how far away you place the pole from other objects.

Baffles are usually round or hemispherical and made of plastic.  I’ve found that the minimum size that works is one with an eighteen-inch diameter.  A gray squirrel is usually able to get around one smaller than that.

Baffles that are constructed of thicker plastic are more durable and less easily broken than those made of thin plastic, so it’s worth the extra cost to buy the better baffle.  Or you may want to construct your own cylindrical stove-pipe baffle out of thin sheet metal that can work well.

My plastic baffles worked well for a decade.  But then a raccoon started visiting that was able to get around them.  Luckily, I found a “Raccoon Guard” for sale in a catalog.

It was expensive, but it worked so well that I eventually ended up buying a few more.  It not only keeps raccoons from the feeders but also squirrels and even bears!  (My poles are extra tall to keep American Black Bears—which can reach 6 feet tall on their hind legs—from just reaching up to grab the feeders.)  Thus this type of baffle is the most effective one that I have found.

The Raccoon Guard is a tube 28 inches long and 7½ inches wide.  It’s made of galvanized steel with a weather resistant finish so it lasts much longer than plastic baffles.  I’ve had mine for over 15 years now and they are still in great shape.

I’ve only seen these baffles in two bird catalogs: Duncraft (1-888-879-5095 or and Audubon Workshop (

Some people try to deter squirrels by using seeds that are less attractive to them, such as safflower.  However, that stategy will also limit the number of bird species that visit.  Animals have food preferences just as humans do!

Other folks attempt to repel squirrels by adding red pepper to the seeds in the feeder.  Birds do not seem to be sensitive to capsaicin, the ingredient in hot peppers that causes us mammals to suffer intense burning in our mouths when our tissues come into contact with it.  Red pepper is actually packaged for this use, but I would ask that you not buy it.

Some folks think that causing squirrels or other animals to suffer is humorous and justified.  It isn’t.  It’s never kind to deliberately inflict pain upon our wildlife, especially as it’s not necessary.

Additionally, if the pepper gets into the eyes of birds or squirrels, it would cause quite an irritation.  As they struggle to relieve the burning in their eyes, they could be killed by predators.

Lastly, do not EVER use sticky substances on the poles.   If mammals get it on their paws, they will have trouble functioning which means they will have trouble surviving.  Grease or other such gooey substances also kills numerous kinds of wildlife, such as insects that can’t possibly free themselves from it.

Insects play extremely important roles in the environment as pollinators, recyclers, aerators of the soil, and as food for numerous other species.    So please be conscious of the unintended consequences of your actions.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Baffling Mammals

Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates

© Marlene A. Condon

September, 2012

Potter wasp nests often resemble familiar structures such as vases or, in this case, a little oven. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)


Several years ago, as I was removing plant debris from one of my small, artificial ponds, I discovered gelatinous blobs adhering to the undersides of some of the leaves that had fallen into the water. Up to that point in time, I had never seen these blobs when maintaining my ponds. Thus I was mystified and hugely curious as to what they were.

Although I couldn’t make out anything inside the clear jelly-like substance to suggest there was something within it, I surmised that the blobs were egg masses of some animal, probably freshwater snails. The appearance of the blobs coincided with the arrival of the snails in my ponds.

I returned the leaves with the blobs to the pond because you should never destroy something in the natural world when you don’t know what it is. After all, every organism has a function, so you don’t want to get rid of anything unless you have a good reason to do so. Otherwise, you could interfere with the proper functioning of the environment, which, in this case, meant the proper functioning of my pond.

The mystery of the unidentified blobs eluded me until just a few months ago when I was absolutely thrilled to come across Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney.

As I thumbed through the pages and pages of photographs, I noticed a picture of my blobs! And yes, they were indeed the egg masses of my freshwater snails. I had to own this book!

If you love learning about the natural world and you’ve often wondered about a mysterious “sign” left behind by some critter, then you may want to own this book, too. You might want a copy of this book just to see and read about the many kinds of tracks, eggs or egg cases, cocoons, scat or droppings, or sheltering structures that are out there for all who pay close attention to their surroundings to see.

Insects may be the most numerous and ubiquitous of the creatures that you might find in your immediate environment, but this volumn also covers worms, snails, spiders, crayfish, and numerous other invertebrates (animals without a backbone).

Additionally, if you love visiting the beach, sea creatures are included, such as squid, crabs, periwinkles (I’ve always loved this name), and even octopuses!

One type of insect sign that I am always thrilled to find is the nest of a potter wasp. There are numerous species of these wasps, but they are miniscule so you rarely get to see the insects themselves (don’t worry; they don’t sting people).

But if you keep a sharp eye out, you may notice their tiny—and I think cute—mud nests that let you know they are around. My favorite potter wasp nest is one that really looks just like a teeny-tiny vase that has been thrown by a potter; hence the name for this kind of wasp. Other kinds of potter wasp nests look like tiny ovens where bread was baked in previous centuries and perhaps even now in some countries.

Although in a natural setting these nests would be attached to twigs, I have found them attached to plant cages around my tomatoes or to an outdoor lounge chair that hadn’t been used for a while (your author doesn’t have time for lying around relaxing!).

After a potter wasp female builds her nest, she provisions it with tiny caterpillars or grubs (the larvae of beetles) that she has stung and paralyzed with venom. She then lays a single egg upon the inside wall of the nest and seals it.

When the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds upon the immobilized critters inside the nest until it’s ready to pupate. Following pupation, the newly developed adult wasp chews its way out of the nest to fulfill its own role of helping to limit the numbers of caterpillars and grubs to sustainable levels.

The natural world is chock full of absolutely amazing life forms, some of which you may never get to actually see, but which will leave behind clues to their existence. Happily, if you pick up a copy of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, you are likely to be able to figure out which organisms have passed through your vicinity or are living there now.

For years I’ve photographed tracks, scat, pupae, nests, and eggs that I couldn’t identify if I didn’t spot the critter leaving them behind because I couldn’t locate such things illustrated anywhere. Tracks and Sign is an immense repository of such hard-to-find information gathered together into one fine book.

If you find learning about the natural world as fascinating as I do, this book is a must for your library.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates

Winter Temps and Insect Numbers

© Marlene A. Condon

October, 2012

The author has two small artificial ponds on her property that teem with numerous kinds of critters (such as this Green Frog), many of which feed upon mosquito eggs and larvae. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

People have the mistaken idea that cold winter weather kills insects and other invertebrates, thus limiting the numbers of these animals by the time spring arrives. But if it were true that harsh winter temperatures kill these critters, there wouldn’t be any of them at all in areas north of Virginia, where it typically gets much colder every year than it does here.

These animals need to make it through freezing conditions to perpetuate their kind. If they hadn’t figured out how to survive such conditions, they would have gone extinct by now. Therefore it’s actually adverse spring and summer conditions, such as drought, that are more likely to negatively impact the number of invertebrates each year.

Conversely, folks tend to think that mild winter temperatures will increase invertebrate numbers, but, in fact, this situation can be deadly. Many kinds of hibernators, such as insects, may die if they become active during the winter in response to warm temperatures because there simply isn’t going to be much food available for them. The lack of food at this time of year is one of the reasons they need to hibernate.

In 2012 the Centers for Disease Control blamed mild winter temperatures for the faster spread of West Nile Virus by mosquitoes. However, in a naturally functioning environment, such a scenario would be highly unlikely to happen.

If it’s warm enough for mosquito eggs to hatch or mosquito larvae to become active in ponds or still areas of streams, it’s also warm enough for their aquatic predators to be actively feeding upon them.

The result is that few mosquito larvae would be able to survive to adulthood, only enough of them to maintain the proper functioning of the environment. And, of course, adult mosquitoes would also be taken by predators, reducing the numbers of mosquitoes available to reproduce. The same holds true for artificial ponds in your landscape, as long as you allow them to work naturally.

If, however, you instead treat a pond as an aquarium that gets cleaned out every year and perhaps has chemicals added to it, wildlife will have difficulty surviving within it—and that means you won’t have your natural system of checks and balances to keep the pond (and yard) functioning properly. Under these circumstances, of course, you may indeed help mosquitoes to proliferate.

Other common ways in which people create breeding habitats for mosquitoes is by leaving standing rain water within gutters that need maintenance, kiddy pools, toys left outside, and tarps over outdoor furniture. Water features that function as gardens only (i.e., they are used only for growing plants instead of functioning as genuine ponds full of life) are problematic as well. These areas will usually be devoid of animals that feed upon mosquito eggs and larvae.

As for bird baths, they should be emptied every day and fresh water put in. It should be obvious that you need to replace the water daily because birds leave behind visible waste and debris. Yet retailers advertise mosquito dunks to use in birdbaths, even though this pesticide is totally unnecessary. It’s also not as harmless as many folks believe.

Mosquito dunks are composed of Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis, a bacterium that specifically kills mosquitoes (and their close relatives). Although this pesticide is touted as nontoxic to humans, if bacterial spores are inhaled or rubbed onto the skin, they act as foreign proteins and can cause allergic reactions. Thus Bti should be handled with care.

Additionally, studies have shown that Bti, which is used in spray programs, could be more persistent in the environment than previously believed, with the potential for bacterial proliferation and thus an increased accumulation of these bacteria in mosquito habitats. Such Bti persistence would lengthen the amount of time that organisms are exposed to the insecticide, increasing the risk that target insects could acquire resistance to it.

Bti spores have also been found in untreated areas, raising the concern that microbial insecticides can spread, causing ecological harm.

If homeowners were better about correcting the conditions on their properties that allow mosquitoes to increase in number, localities could do away with large-scale pesticide-spray programs that many citizens and all health departments demand, but which pose threats to the environment.

Additionally, if most folks weren’t constantly trying to banish practically all wildlife (except perhaps birds and butterflies) from their yards, they would not be faced with the need for pesticide usage in the first place. This is exactly the wrong course of action. Without a variety of organisms in your environment to keep populations balanced, you end up with overpopulations that can’t help but be pestiferous—to themselves as well as to people!

The reality is that we cannot change the way the natural world works. Instead we must change the way we live.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Winter Temps and Insect Numbers

Eastern Red Bat

© Marlene A. Condon

November, 2012

This female Eastern Red Bat was clinging to the wall right outside the entrance to a grocery store in Crozet. You never know where you’ll spot wildlife so keep your eyes open, no matter where you are! (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

The Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) is perhaps the easiest of the 16 recorded species of bats in Virginia for people to get to see well. This beautifully colored flying mammal often migrates in fall during daylight hours when its red coloring is quite noticeable. Male red bats have bright orangey-red fur while females sport a dull brick-red or chestnut pelage (the technical term for a mammal’s fur coat).

Watch for red bats flying near woods and water as these animals move from northern states to southern ones. Historical accounts from the late 1800s tell of large migratory flocks of red bats flying during the day along the Atlantic seaboard, using the same routes as migratory birds. Sadly, there were no such reports during the 20th century, indicating a decline in their populations.

In Virginia, it’s not uncommon to see one or more red bats flying as late as December, usually on sunny days with temperatures in the 50s when there can be midge and stonefly hatches.

Midges are tiny insects related to mosquitoes, but only some species bite. The larva, or immature form, develops in water. When the adult stage is reached, the midges emerge in large numbers that can be seen as clouds of insects in the vicinity of streams. Stoneflies also spend the immature stage of their lives in water, emerging as adults in large numbers. Red bats can easily feed on these hatches by flying through them and catching the little critters directly in their open mouths.

If you are lucky enough to see red bats feeding, you will have the opportunity to watch them for several minutes as they swoop around in a limited area, providing you with great views. I’ve watched Eastern Red Bats feeding over my yard. I’ve also seen them flying in Douthat State Park in Bath County as I was birding.

On December 19, 2002, my husband reported seeing two of these animals flying along route 664 near Sherando Lake in Augusta County. This road runs by a stream so there could have been a hatch to feed the bats as they flew at, or just below, tree level.

This female Eastern Red Bat was clinging to the wall right outside the entrance to a grocery store in Crozet. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

The red bat feeds exclusively upon insects. Moths, beetles, plant and leaf hoppers comprise much of its diet in summer. In colder weather, flies and moths are its main sources of food because these particular insects are more active in cooler temperatures than most kinds of arthropods (invertebrate animals with jointed legs, a segmented body, and an external skeleton, known as an exoskeleton).

Stomach biopsies have shown that the red bat doesn’t just feed upon flying insects.  It may glean cicadas from leaves as well as take crickets and grasshoppers from the ground.

It’s not unusual for red bats to rest on buildings during migration.  If you notice one resting, keep your distance so you won’t scare it. You can get a good look by using binoculars.

And, of course, never handle a bat. Although the incidence of rabies is low in our wild animals (otherwise it would wipe them all out, as it is a deadly disease), you should never chance getting bitten by trying to pick up an animal with your bare hands.  Remember this general rule of thumb for all wild animals, and you are highly unlikely to ever be bitten by one unless you sit or roll over or step on one or otherwise somehow threaten the animal’s well-being.

Although Eastern Red Bats inhabit Virginia, I’ve only ever seen these bats during their migration. One spring day in May I spotted one clinging upside down under the overhang of my carport. I feel confident this animal was on its way north because otherwise these bats typically hang by one foot in trees. They are thought to resemble dead leaves, a form of camouflage which protects them from predators.

The environmental role of the Eastern Red Bat is to help prevent overpopulations of a variety of insects so the environment can function properly. The bat is itself a food source for such animals as hawks, owls, and opossums.

You can help all of our species of bats by allowing caterpillars to survive on your plants during the growing season. Those caterpillars that transform into moths become a prime food source for these flying mammals. (And caterpillars of all types provide a critically important food source for adult birds to feed their nestlings.)

You needn’t worry about caterpillars seriously harming your plants if you create a nature-friendly garden that supports numerous kinds of predators. Predators keep caterpillar numbers limited to a level that will only impact your plants aesthetically—and only for a few weeks at that. Both herbaceous and woody plants will re-grow leaves, unless it’s late in the season when it’s time for plants to go dormant.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Eastern Red Bat

A Spectacle of Nature: Periodical Cicadas

© Marlene A. Condon

May, 2013

This mating pair of periodical cicadas will leave behind fertilized eggs in the tips of small branches and twigs of trees, but that is not harmful to these woody plants. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
This mating pair of periodical cicadas will leave behind fertilized eggs in the tips of small branches and twigs of trees, but that is not harmful to these woody plants. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Because a large emergence of periodical cicadas is expected in May, you’ve probably heard a lot about it. Unfortunately, much of the publicity is negative when, in reality, the emergence of these insects is a spectacle of nature.

Periodical cicadas spend, depending upon the species, between 13 and 17 years in the nymph (immature) stage of development in Virginia. Going about their lives unseen beneath our feet, nymphs exist underground where they feed upon plant juices that they suck from roots.

Once the nymphs have reached maturity, they exit the soil to mate. These adults die soon afterwards, but the females will have left behind fertilized eggs. More than a decade later, the next generation of periodical cicadas will again enter our sphere of existence.

Most of a particular population will come out in one particular year, as has been predicted for 2013 in the Eastern United States. While these insects can be very loud when many thousands of males emerge and sing simultaneously, I disagree that their en masse singing constitutes a “substantial noise problem” that is “annoying.” Rather, it’s truly an other-worldly experience that should be considered quite marvelous!

The singing insects are not deafening. If you are in an area where you can clearly hear the chorus of cicadas without the interference of other sounds, you will feel as if you are in an outer-space movie. It’s amazing!

It’s sad that people don’t allow themselves to enjoy such a unique and uncommon phenomenon. On the other hand, I can see where it could be unpleasant to find thousands of these insects underfoot once they die. However, all you need to do is to move the dead insects away from the house to a less-trafficked area of the yard.

You can accomplish this chore by sweeping the bodies into a dust pan from patios or decks and delivering them to their final destination. If you need to remove them from the yard right around your house, you can use a rake to get the carcasses to where you want them.

By doing this, you allow Mother Nature to dispose of the remains by recycling them, as is supposed to happen. Numerous kinds of critters will come to feed on the bounty of dead animals and the bodies will be gone in no time.

Virtually every article tells us that cicadas will cause damage to trees, both large and small. The “damage” refers to brown twig tips and brown leaves that appear some time later.

The tips of tree branches die after female periodical cicadas make slits in them to hold their eggs. But the dead twig tips, even on small trees, are simply not a health problem.

People have become obsessed with the idea that the natural world basically needs to be made safe from itself! Goodness, how could trees have survived throughout the eons of time if this impact were as detrimental to them as entomologists and others would have you believe?

Yes, the brown tips may be aesthetically displeasing to human eyes, but the cosmetic manicuring of the natural world is nonsense that is truly disastrous for our environment. We need to get away from it.

The reality is that many of the tips will break off naturally on windy days. You may consider them to be “littering” your lawn. But they will not harm your grass and you can certainly rake them off to the side of the yard if you are so inclined.

But please, don’t remove them from the yard by sending them to a landfill or burning them. These twigs are important to many kinds of critters as well as to the proper functioning of your yard.

The twigs will provide food for animals, such as some kinds of grubs (immature beetles) and termites, whose job is to recycle wood. By keeping dead wood within your immediate environment, you don’t force these animals to look to your home as a food source.

When the wood-eating organisms defecate, they return to the soil some of the nutrients they obtained by eating the twigs. In other words, they fertilize your growing plants so you don’t need to do it.

These recyclers will themselves provide nutrients for the many species of birds (such as Pileated Woodpeckers), skunks, lizards, salamanders, and numerous other kinds of wildlife that will search for them.

The twigs that don’t fall off the trees thanks to the wind will be broken off by the kinds of birds and squirrels that need such small dead twigs to make their nests. They cannot reproduce without them.

Extension agents, landscapers, and pesticide applicators often cite problems where none really exists because they don’t see the big picture. My hope is that by way of this column, you now do.

Adults and children alike should take advantage of this somewhat rare opportunity to enjoy what is truly an impressive show put on by Mother Nature. Periodical cicadas are big insects that are easy to observe; they don’t bite or sting; they won’t come after you (although they may buzz right by you!); and they are remarkably colored with their black bodies, orange wing veins, and bright-red eyes.

We should appreciate the free entertainment provided by these creatures as well as their role in helping so many other organisms to survive.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Spectacle of Nature: Periodical Cicadas

The Natural World Is an Open Book That Anyone Can Read

© Marlene A. Condon 

November, 2013

Although American Goldfinches can be seen almost the year-around in Virginia, the birds you see in summer are not the same individuals you see in winter, despite what you may read to the contrary. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Although American Goldfinches can be seen almost the year-around in Virginia, the birds you see in summer are not the same individuals you see in winter, despite what you may read to the contrary. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

About the middle of April, just after the azaleas have begun to bloom in our area, you can expect to spot a male ruby-throated hummingbird. The males leave Central America before the females to head into the United States and Canada, where they seem to follow the northward progression of azalea bloom.

Many folks immediately put up sugar-water feeders once they know that these tiny birds have arrived, but then are puzzled and disappointed when the hummers disappear by May. Most people then assume that the first hummingbirds of spring are migrants with no intention of staying in Virginia and so they have left to continue their journey northward.

But that assumption is incorrect. Although the ruby-throats appear to be gone, I can assure you that they do not leave the area.

Every spring when the tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) start to bloom, hummers desert feeders to obtain their nourishment from tulip poplar blossoms.  I’ve been taking notes about the natural world for many years and the hummer “disappearance” each year correlates exactly with the blooming of the tulip poplar trees in my area.

And thanks to a microphone on my porch where the feeder is located, I know these birds are still in the vicinity because I continue to hear a hummingbird around the porch. The hum of its wings is quite audible. It doesn’t make use of the feeder, but it comes by once a day as if it just wants to make sure that the feeder is still there!

Tulip poplars produce huge flowers that provide an abundance of nectar to many kinds of insects as well as our hummingbirds. Consequently, the hummers do not need to depend upon human handouts because they can just spend each day up high in the tree canopy, visiting the tulip poplar blossoms that dwarf them.

By looking up at the tall tulip poplar trees with binoculars, anyone can ascertain that is, indeed, where the hummingbirds are “hanging out.” You might not always spy one up there (the trees are fully leafed out at this time), but with due diligence, you’ll get an opportunity to see that the hummingbirds are definitely still around.  And once those trees have stopped blooming, the hummers will immediately be back at the feeder!

Sometimes people have expressed doubts when I’ve put forth this information.  But what’s wonderful about the natural world is that it’s truly an open book that anyone can read and from which anyone can discern the truth.

All you need to do is to observe what takes place when there is no manipulation of nature by man. Of course, you must also have an open mind that harbors no prejudices as a result of what you’ve previously heard or read. It also helps to document your observations.

Having a microphone outside and keeping detailed notes helped me to discover the truth not only about hummingbird behavior in spring, but also about goldfinch behavior in fall in Virginia.

The American Goldfinch is a gregarious bird, so if you keep a feeder of sunflower seeds and/or a water pan filled with fresh, clean water in your yard, numerous goldfinches will visit for food and drink every day without fail.

But by the end of September, just a few weeks after the young-of-the-year goldfinches have left the nest (these finches are our latest-nesting birds), the goldfinch chatter and the “crying” of the juvenile goldfinches begging to be fed will be absent.

The feeder and the water pan will be far less busy because the goldfinches—young and all—have left.

The word from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is that goldfinches migrate, but only a short distance south and only from the coldest areas of the United States and southern Canada where they nest in summer. They move to more southerly regions where the minimum January temperature is no colder than zero degrees Fahrenheit on average.

Therefore experts consider our Virginia goldfinches to be “permanent residents,” which suggests that all of them will hatch, live out their lives, and die here in our state. Look in any guidebook or bird checklist and that is the description that you will see.  Look up the definition of “resident bird” and you’ll find that it’s synonymous with “non-migratory.”

But the experts are wrong. Although the disappearance of goldfinches goes unnoticed by most bird watchers (and, apparently, scientists) who don’t have an expectation that these birds will leave, I have been paying such close attention to what’s going on in the natural world for such a long time that I know for a fact that our goldfinches disappear for about a month or so every autumn.

One fall morning in 2011, I was outside well before the sun was due to come up when I suddenly heard goldfinches chattering from high above me in the pitch-black sky. I could tell they were going over from north to south in the darkness, as many of our migratory songbirds do. I couldn’t see the birds, but their abundant chattering for a minute or so suggested that there were quite a few of them on the move.

Birds don’t move northwards as the weather gets colder so our summer goldfinches have undoubtedly moved a bit farther south come fall when they disappear.  When goldfinches again appear, then, they must be migrants flying into the area from farther north.

The fact is that each and every one of us can freely take note of the natural world that surrounds us and we can often do this without special equipment and often without needing to leave home. Yet an incredible amount of misinformation is put out to the public, some by “experts.”

For example, entomologist Doug Tallamy writes in his well-known book, Bringing Nature Home, that the tulip poplar “is one of the least productive forest species in terms of its ability to support wildlife—insects and vertebrates alike.”

Yet nothing could be further from the truth, as you should expect for a native plant!  This stately tree provides nectar for an array of insects as well as obviously being an important food source for hummingbirds.

The numerous seeds that result from the fertilization of the blooms by the great variety of nectar-feeders provide a crucial supply of food for birds (such as titmice and cardinals) as well as mammals (such as squirrels and mice) from late fall into winter.

The leaves are fed upon by many kinds of caterpillars (such as those of the tiger swallowtail butterfly and the tuliptree silkmoth) and when the tree is young, deer feed upon the leaves that they can reach.

I can’t explain why so much information published about our natural world is incorrect. I suspect a lot of it has to do with people writing about subject matter that they have little, if any, personal experience with. And then this misinformation gets perpetuated by others who repeat it as if it must be true and soon no one questions it.

But if you pay close attention to the natural world, you can’t help but find out for yourself what information is correct and what isn’t. You might even discover something that no one else has noticed before.

According to a poster in my office given to me by my husband, “Discovery” results from “venturing beyond the obvious to see what others don’t see!”

Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Natural World Is an Open Book That Anyone Can Read