Monday, August 14, 2017

Boogie-woogie flu

There's a mature beech tree just outside my office window, and a few weeks ago I idly noticed that the branches seemed awfully pale.  This weekend, I was startled to see that many were pure white.

Beneath each white branch was an irregular black spot in the mulch.

I love a good mystery, and it didn't take long to discover that the branches weren't encased in fungus, as I originally thought.  They were covered in teeny tiny insects - beech blight aphids.

These tiny insects are constantly dropping honeydew, a sugar-rich secretion that becomes a sooty mold on the ground.  Despite their numbers, they don't pose too much trouble to an established tree and can be blasted off with a jet of water from the garden hose.  One fun fact - they are commonly referred to as "boogie-woogie aphids," because they shake their woolly tails in response to a threat.

If you jar their branch, it suddenly comes alive with thousands of "dancing" aphids.  I found a great video that shows them in action.

I also found a really interesting fungus called Fuglio septica on one of our front trees.  Fuglio septica has a couple of interesting aliases:  dog vomit or troll cat fungus.  The reason for the dog vomit moniker is pretty obvious to anyone who's owned a dog:

But what is a troll cat?  In Scandinavian folklore, a troll cat is created by a witch from hair and fingernails to do their bidding.  Troll cats typically sucked milk from goats and cows and spit them into a container provided by the witch for her use.  Their droppings apparently resembled this fungus, and so the name stuck.  Fuglio septica is a slime mold and sometimes draws insects, like this European hornet.

Another cool insect I found recently is this green June beetle, or Cotinis nitida.

He's a grizzled old fellow...check out those battle scars!

Like Japanese beetles, these are kind of a pain to have around.  They do terrible injury to fruit trees, and also take sap from oak and maple trees.  He's a beautiful guy, though, and I didn't kill him.

It's hummingbird season here.  They fight constantly over the feeder.

The females have white throats.  Here's a young male, with his colorful throat feathers just starting to come in:

They are incredibly territorial and don't like to share.

I love to watch them.

Our red-tailed hawk is finally outgrowing his juvenile squawk, but is still staying close to home.

Check out those talons!

He doesn't stay in one place for long, though.

I've been working a lot on craft things lately.  I put the borders on my Garden Snail quilt:

It's ready to be made into a sandwich and quilted, and so is my Wallflower quilt.  I've been dragging my feet, though.  The Wallflower quilt is so big, and this quilt has so much open space that will showcase the quilting method.  I'm afraid to tackle quilting them.  I've been trying to put in a few minutes a day of practicing free motion quilting designs - echoing teardrops, meandering flowers. But my efforts are all jagged and rough, and under the optimum condition of a small square of quilted fabric, not a gigantic quilt flopping everywhere and pulling to one side.  So I'm going to keep practicing until I finally bite the bullet and go for it.  Fingers crossed that it will happen within a week or so, because I'm a bit antsy to start my next quilt!  It's a total addiction!  I'll try to get those buttons sewn on my cardigan, and finish knitting my fair isle mittens.  There's always another project in the queue.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bites, Kites, and Insect Flights

Yard work couldn't be put off for another weekend, so I dutifully gathered my supplies on Saturday and headed outside.  Bags, gloves,  There's always something going on!

A green shield bug takes flight.

A yellow jacket, after a few unsuccessful attempts against the marauding ants, waits impatiently for an opening to steal some of this dead cicada's rich protein stores.

Since it's August (although not even remotely close to the end of hot weather, this being South Carolina), I found more insect carcasses than earlier in the season.  A beetle hangs suspended in a forgotten web:

A dragonfly retains its characteristic shape despite being completely hollow.

There's still life out there, though.  A new generation of anoles recently hatched out, and I saw frequent flashes of scurrying movement in my peripheral vision as I worked in the front beds.

Of course, we still have plenty of full-size anoles, like the one that lives in the fern by our front door.

Yes, there's still a lot of beauty out there.

Todd came outside for about an hour to do some yard work, too.  Once again, despite being incredibly careful, he was attacked by fire ants and had to go inside.

There are no tell-tale mounds and they are so tiny.  He got bites on his arms and legs too.  We're going to broadcast bait, but they seem unusually numerous this year.  Suffice it to say, we try to limit our yard time.

At least I'm getting a lot done inside!  Todd is off yeast right now and misses his breakfast toast, so I whipped up a surprisingly tasty Irish soda bread loaf.

I modified this recipe (does anyone seriously bake with margarine?!) to make it a little healthier and it was so a giant scone!  Perfect with a little butter and jam!

I've slowly been picking away at my craft projects.  First...I finished my sweater!  I couldn't understand why it was taking so long to finish, until I realized... a six inch super wide neck plus a double paneled front equal a LOT more fabric than a typical sweater!  It was almost a perfect rectangle when I stretched it out for blocking.

I ordered twenty small brushed brass buttons for the front panels and will sew them on next week, hopefully!  But until then:

I admit, it looks a little odd.  But per the pattern, the neck won't stand upright, but fall into deep folds on the shoulders.  I can't try it on because, in my usual self-flagellating way, I knitted it a size too small ("Motivation!!!").  So buttons will be sewn on and it will be put away for "later."  The positive aspect is that the entire sweater was knitted in the Portuguese style, and it saved me from sore wrists and fingers.  No problems whatsoever.  Ready to expend my repertoire, I attempted a fair isle project Portuguese-style (Kites pattern on Ravelry).  It's been quite a challenge.  Fair isle projects done in this method are knitted inside-out...or rather, purled.  Charts are read backwards.

Here's the working side:

And the inside, which is really the outside:

I don't think I'll ever try this method for fair isle again.  Tensioning one strand around my neck and one strand from a paperclip in my collar on the other side is a major pain.  Repetitions aren't as intuitive, since you can't really see the pattern developing.  I'll get into a rhythm, which is promptly interrupted every time I get to the end of one of my four needles, or every 30 seconds or so. I have to finish this mitten in the Portuguese style (whimper), but mitten #2 will be done the old-fashioned way, sore fingers or not!

I've also been working on my Garden Snails quilt.  It's also been a bit fiddly but all snails are done and all that remains is to sew the strips together.  Here's a small preview:

Because my width of fabric was shorter than the pattern called for, I am six inches short on each tan strip.  Last night, I increased the length of each by adding a little fabric, so I anticipate having the whole top sewn together with just a few hours of work!  Hopefully the extra seams aren't too distracting.

These projects + my job + everyday life have been keeping me pretty busy.  With several new quilts and a sudden ability to knit again, we'll be plenty warm when cold weather comes...whenever that will be!

Have a great week!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Caraway eyes and robber flies

It's anniversary time!  I believe this is our fourth anniversary in the South.  One year we went to the coast, and the other years to the mountains in North Carolina.  This year we'd originally planned to go to the coast, but had some unexpected expenses come up last minute that made it seem a little less than prudent.  We then thought we might head to the mountains to hike, but my still-healing ankle made me a little hesitant to try really steep inclines.  We finally settled on a simple day trip to Athens, Georgia, to see the state botanical gardens.

I love that water lilies are always in bloom on our anniversary.

We saw lots of beautiful dragonflies.  These are both in the Erythemis simplicicollis family, with the common name pondhawk.  Isn't that a great name for a dragonfly?

Another great find was this robber fly who'd captured a carpenter bee.

Also called "assassin flies," they can easily catch prey in flight and insert a neurotoxin to subdue it.

Here's a lovely grasshopper!  His striped eyes remind me of stubby caraway seeds.

Finally, we saw some aphids deliriously sucking the fluid from a lily, little legs kicking in pleasure. These guys know how to have a good time!

I was really delighted to spot a lizard that I've never seen in South Carolina:  a five-lined skink. Check out that tail!

Skinks are tiny...only about 8 inches long, and almost half of that is tail.  They can detach these tails if needed, to avoid a predator.  Scientists theorize that this is the reason for the brightly-colored hue of the tail, to direct predators to that end of the body.  The skink can lose the tail with no problem...the head, on the other hand, is indispensable.

I saw my first cotton flowers - so lovely!  I love the clasping leaves and the way the light shines through the petals.

Beautiful light all around.

Their hydrangeas aren't doing much better than ours at this time of year!

Star-shaped seed pods...

---more lovely spirals.

I spotted this bulbous fungus on a juniper fir.  It's apple cedar rust gall.

Left to its own devices, these will sprout pretty cool-looking orange fingers.  They'll dry and then send spores everywhere. It's best to remove these as soon as possible!

After our easy walk around the gardens, we gorged on steak tacos at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, then went to a local nature preserve to hike more.  A stomachful of steak and 95 degree temps do not a pleasant hike make.  We only made it a mile or two before I threw in the towel.  I truly felt like Michael Scott on his Cure For Rabies Fun Run. It was better to be at home - in air conditioning!  I did give Todd one of his anniversary cards a little early (he gets several!).  This was probably influenced by the fact that I've started watching Breaking Bad again.

I love making cards and don't do it nearly enough!

Otherwise, on the homefront, our goz are taking regular practice flights.

All except for - gulp! - a certain flipper-winged goose, who has been ominously absent from the group this week.  Maybe he's got a cozy nest at the other end of the pond...I'll continue to keep an eye out for him.

Have a great week!