Tuesday, September 24, 2013

snail braille

Fall is in the air in South Carolina.  The weather has been amazing - 75 degrees, breezy, and sunny every day, with low humidity.  Since the humidity has dropped and the mosquitoes haven't been quite as bad, I've been able to spend a little more time outside.  One thing that I love to do is watch the local hummingbirds.  We have male and female ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris), but I mainly see females.  Like the males, they are incredibly territorial.

This pair of females battled at the feeder for over 20 minutes before they reached an uneasy truce.

We've got acorns now, still that lovely green color that they have for a while before they darken.

Our Canada Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is putting out - dare I say adorable? - little cones.  I like the 'big cones', but these smaller ones are so nice.

In Indiana, my summer garden would be going into dormancy now, but things are just gearing up here.  Our American Beautyberry bush (Callicarpa americana) is developing clumps of deep purple berries on each stem...

...and the camellia bushes are budding out for November's bloom.

These waxy-leafed 'mystery bushes' are putting out some kind of...fruit?!?

Our berry bushes have lost their yellow and white flowers, and the fruit is starting to darken.

They'll be a lovely red in about a month.

We've lost our shasta daisies, but the butterfly bushes and gigantic lantana patch are going strong.

Even though it's been quite dry, the moss is sending up stalks.

Lots of insect activity, of course.  A Xanthotype urticaria, or false crocus geometer, hung out by our front door for days before settling on a nearby bush.  The funny names that moths have! 

This brown moth that I was unable to identify, but that I think is in the geometridae family, stayed around for quite a while too.

I've been seeing a lot of snails, maybe because of the cooler weather.  This one has a braille-like shell and a grey body...

...while this one's body was tan, and the shell was smooth.

I really admired his leopard spots. 

Speaking of leopard, I also found a leopard slug (Limax maximus) among the leaves.

One really amazing thing about leopard slugs is the way they breathe.  They have a single "blow hole" on their right side that opens and closes as they take in and releases air.

Their mating habits are worth mentioning, too.  After a courtship that mainly consists of grooming, they seek out a high place, like a tree, and suspend themselves from it on a thick string of mucus.  Both the male and the female will lay eggs.  There's an interesting video here if you want to see it firsthand!

I've been seeing a lot of these pebbled-colored crickets, hiding in curled leaves.

You know that we have a lot of spiders here, but I was lucky enough to see a daring jumping spider (Phidippus audax) actual hunt down his prey:  an unlucky moth.  He was on it in an instant.  They're great hunters, you know, and don't use a web to catch prey.

This one has a beautiful orange abdomen.  He kept a close eye on me as he edged away with his meal.

I'll be out and about all week, so hopefully I'll see more.

Have a great week!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

a perfect fall meal

One of the pitfalls of bringing my camera outside is that I usually take close to (or more than) one hundred photos at a time, sometimes daily...leaves, insects, webs, a beautiful light pattern, birds, or anything else that catches my eye.  This is a danger when my goal is to have a relatively balanced blog, with equal parts knitting/crafting, cooking, and nature.  Nature usually wins out in a big way, and I guiltily store my recipe shots for another week, and then another...I have been knitting, and I have been cooking, although that isn't always reflected here. 

The weather has been beautiful.  Sunny, breezy, and mid-70s during the day, and mid-50s at night.  Fall is here, and I am spending more time in the kitchen.  I recently found a local farmers market and stocked up on good local produce.  I used it to make a tasty fall-inspired meal for Todd, and I thought I'd share it quickly before it gets pushed to the back burner indefinitely.  With end-of-the-season fruits and vegetables still readily available, this is the perfect time to experiment!

The main course is a buttery galette filled with seasonal vegetables.  I took the main recipe from the always-reliable Smitten Kitchen blog and tweaked it a bit to fit our tastes.  The good thing about it is that it's easily customizable!  This galette has a pie crust base.  I recently had an older friend tell me that she's always been afraid to make her own crust.  Don't be afraid!  It doesn't have to be pretty, and homemade is always better.  Smitten Kitchen has a great tutorial here.

Late Summer Galette
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For the pastry:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1/4 cup ice water

For the filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
1 onion, sliced
6 ounces mushrooms, sliced
8 - 10 basil leaves, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
handful of cheese
a pinch or two of red pepper flakes

Make dough: Whisk together your flour and salt.  Dice up your butter and quickly "cut" it into your mixture with a pastry cutter or fork.  The bits should be pea-sized.  In a separate bowl, stir together your ice water (minus the ice) and sour cream or yogurt.  Add this to your flour mixture and toss.  You may need to add a bit more liquid to obtain a mass that sticks together when you pat it.  Lay out plastic wrap, form a large ball, and secure it in the plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for about an hour.

Make filling:  Use a skillet with a lid for this one!  Take your tomatoes...I found an amazing heirloom variety.

Heat your olive oil and sprinkle in your red pepper flakes.  Add your tomatoes and cover.  Make sure your burner is on HIGH.  Roll them around until the skins split and some of the liquid cooks out.

Once they're cooked down a bit, put them in a bowl to cool off.  Using the same skillet, add more olive oil and saute your onions until they're translucent and softened, about 10 minutes.  Throw in your mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, until they release their liquid and cook down a bit.  Finally, add your diced garlic and sliced basil.  Cook for another minute and then pour this mixture on top of your tomatoes, letting it cool.

Now, take that cooled pie crust...

 ...and roll it into a rough circle.  It doesn't have to be fancy!  I spread a healthy amount of cheese in the center, and then mixed more cheese in with my vegetables.  Spoon it on top of your cheese and spread it out a bit, leaving an inch or so all around.  Then fold up the edges.

Place galette in your oven, preheated to 400 degrees.  Bake for 30 - 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.


It's healthy and bursting with seasonal flavor!

For dessert, I used some late-season peaches to make a simple cobbler.  This recipe comes from How Sweet It Is and incorporates browned butter, which adds a rich nutty flavor.  Again, don't be afraid to try this technique if it's new to you.  Practice makes perfect!

Browned Butter Peach Cobbler
Very slightly adapted from How Sweet It Is

1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats
3/4 cup flour (I used a mixture of white and whole wheat)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamon
1/2 cup butter (I used a tablespoon or so less to make it a bit healthier)
4 ripe peaches, peeled, de-pitted, and diced

Preheat your oven to 350 and blanch your peaches.  Blanching is a simple process that involves quickly boiling them, then putting them in cold water, so that the skin peels off easily.  Directions are here if you want to try it.  Or, you could peel them the old-fashioned way if you'd like.  Dice the peeled peaches and set aside.  In a bowl, mix your dry ingredients together.  Brown your butter (directions here if you've never done it) and let it cool a bit.  Add it to the flour/oatmeal mixture, along with the vanilla, and stir until all the liquid is absorbed.  Mix your peaches in, and pat the mixture into a greased 8 x 8  pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes and let cool completely.  Then you can dish it out!

Hey, it's not pretty, and certainly not fancy, but both dishes got rave reviews from Todd.  Although it may seem like a lot of steps, the cobbler only took about 15 minutes to throw together, and the galette (minus the pie dough waiting time) was just about 20 minutes.  Paired with a healthy side salad, this is the perfect fall meal...until those apples and pumpkins start coming in!  Stay tuned, and have a great week!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Spider Insider

When we heard that the former homeowners sprayed yearly for spiders (in addition to other things), we were dubious.  Spiders are beneficial, eating mosquitoes and other pests.  Their webs are pretty.  They usually have interesting markings.  However, now we understand...not that we would ever spray.  Since we're in the woods, we have a lot of spiders.  I used to brush the webs from our window frames and deck railings, but they reappear overnight.

I joked to Todd that we don't have to decorate the outside of the house for Halloween - the spiders have done the job for us.  We have to be careful, too, when walking around on the property.  Huge webs - the biggest I've ever seen - stretch between trees, across our driveway, and in bushes...webs that are multiple feet wide and sometimes difficult to see.

If you don't always see the big webs, sometimes you feel a feathery touch on your arm or face...that's the tripwire.  The vibration of the "wire" lets the spider know that an insect may be caught, or that danger might be nearby.  They also seem to anchor the web in places.  It's just an added precaution, since most spiders have incredible vision.

Sometimes I'll just see an insect leg, seemingly floating in midair.  It's usually caught on the remnant of an old web.

The most common spider around here is Lariniodides patagiaus, an orb weaver.  With leg span, they're about quarter-sized, and build beautiful, intricate webs.  The strands are sticky, easily trapping insects that bumble into the web.

We also have our fair share of funnel web spiders (family Agelenidae).

Unlike the orb weavers, their webs are horizontal, and the strands are slick, not sticky.  An insect landing there can't find purchase on the smooth surface, and their struggles alert the spider.  Even insects much larger than the spider are subdued by a few bites, as you can see by the photo above.

Of course, we have many spiny-backed orb weavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis), which I've talked about in recent weeks. 

They look like thorns, which is part of their camouflage.

Venusta orchard spiders (Leucauge venusta) have webs that are fairly close to the ground, typically spanning the distance between two low-growing bushes, or even our patio plants.

Not only are their abdomens beautifully colored, but their legs, too, are a lovely jade color.

They are orb weavers as well.

Another favorite is the crab spider (family Thomisidae).  They typically perch in flower blossoms, waiting for visiting insects.

They come in many different sizes and colors, but they always have that distinctive front leg stance.

Sometimes you don't see the spider at all...just the legs.

Despite his appearance, the Harvestman spider (Opiliones), while an arachnid, isn't a spider at all.  If you examine the body closely...

...you will see that they don't have a segmented abdomen/thorax.  They also do not build webs, and they don't produce venom (all spiders produce venom, although only a few are actually poisonous to humans).  That black dot is the single pair of eyes that Harvestman 'spiders' have, unlike 'real' spiders, which have multiple pairs. 

A true spider that I was delighted to find in our yard is Argiope aurantia, or the yellow and black garden spider.

Their legs are always oriented in a large "X" on the web, and they have a distinctive "Z" pattern woven beneath their perch.

 See how the spider is positioned behind a dense circle of webbing?  That is her camouflage.  There are many theories about why she weaves the zig zag design...to attract prey, to warn off low-flying birds, and it might be a stabilizing feature.

Argiope aurantia are rather large spiders with large abdomens, to to 1 1/8 inches.  Even so, they can subdue prey more than twice their size!

They're brightly colored and beautifully patterned.

I found three of them, on their respective webs, in an open bed at the front of the house, in one of the few sunny spots.  I've had my eye on this bed for several weeks.  It was full of tall, feathery plants that looked suspiciously like weeds, but I had avoided pulling them in case they were a type of fall-blooming plant.  Now I know that they're weeds, but I am going to leave them up this year, because I don't want to deprive Argiope aurantia of her habitat.  I greatly enjoy watching them on their webs.  Sometimes insects fly into the web but are able to escape, even though Argiope aurantia rushes to detain them.  She calmly eats the damaged part of the web to tidy it up...

...and goes back to waiting.  She'll spin a new web the next day, so no need to cry over spilled milk.  What a beauty!

When I'm grumbling to Todd about the messy look that the spiderwebs give our house and our deck, I'm going to try to remember the creatures that inhabit them...how interesting they are, and the good that they do. 

Have a great week!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Elementary, my dear Watson...

There are, I think, two keys to successfully observing wild creatures in their native habitats.  One is patience.  Many times I've taken my camera to a place with no visible activity and sat quietly.  Insects start bustling about within five minutes, then come the butterflies, and next the birds and squirrels.  Another important key, though, is being able to spot clues that creatures leave behind.

I saw this dessicated cricket caught up in the fern fronds on our front porch.

Instantly, my mind was racing.  What eats crickets?  Well, birds, snakes, reptiles, spiders, frogs, and fish.  But since this was on the front porch, it would have to be a spider...or a mantis.

Sure enough, a praying mantis was lurking nearby.  It seemed smaller and more delicate than the big mantises I'm used to in Indiana, with a stubbier abdomen and beautiful lacy wings.

Of course, it had the characteristic of all mantises, who are efficient killers:  those long, serrated forelegs.

They never stop watching you.  Insects are so unbelievably aware of our presence, all the time.

Here's another example.  We've had many fine sunny days lately, and I've been able to spend more time outside.  Last week, I saw some droppings on a canna leaf.

The size told me it was too big for an insect, and it wasn't runny enough for a bird (TMI?).  I suspected it might be a lizard, and I found him before too long, hiding on the same plant.

I haven't seen many anoles this summer.  I wonder if they're more prevalent in the fall here?

Despite the black aphids, those chives I'd feared lost earlier this month bloomed nicely.

They drew all sorts of attention.  Bees...


And even butterflies, although they mainly stayed with the butterfly bushes and lantana.  Black tiger swallowtails and eastern tiger swallowtails are the most common.

The air is filled with little red fluttering things, but they aren't ladybugs like I initially thought.  They're related to leaf hoppers and look very similar, but they're actually (two-lined) spittle bugs.

They can be disastrous to lawns, feeding on the turf grasses that are common here in the South.  We haven't had any trouble, but we'll have to keep a close watch!

Speaking of lined, a huge striped fly landed on one of our windows recently.  He had what I call "Halloween legs" and must've been a full two inches long.

I was never able to figure out what he was!  If anyone knows...

Anyway, I encourage you to grab your magnifying glass and put on your deerstalker (that's the type of hat that Sherlock Holmes wore!), and see what you can find in your own yard with a little deductive reasoning and patience.

Have a great week!