Natural Signs of Middle to Late Summer

It is possible to judge the approximate time of year at a certain location by looking at what is flowering and what the animals are doing. Here I show some typical signs of middle to late summer in SW VA at elevations of about 2000 feet .


The Turk's cap lily which has a spectacular flower is found predominantly along riparian zones of creeks in late July and early August. A much more common flower in our area is the beautiful ironweed, which flourishes in damp meadows and seems to be avoided by herbivores such as cows. It is a favorite nectar source of many butterflies and a tiger swallowtail is shown here. Another "weed" that graces our meadow edges is the green headed coneflower (Rudbeckia) that attracts many bumblebees and is quite striking when present in large groups. These species and others produce flowers of surpassing beauty completely without human intervention, except for us to leave them alone.

A flower that appears in late July through middle August, the virgin's bower, a type of Clematis, has white flowers that are extremely attractive to bees and wasps. But the apparent bee here is actually a Tachinid fly (Trichopoda) which mimics bees as a protection against predators. The "Field Guide to Insects of North America" by Eaton and Kaufman (pages 308-309) describes this remarkable fly which parasitizes leaf, squash and stink bugs. So despite the fact that this native vine is rather invasive, it provides some great opportunities to watch insects.

During summer I am always watching for dragonflies at our ponds and on Aug. 16 was fortunate to photograph a pair of common green darners in the "wheel" position. The male (blue abdomen) first places his sperm in the accessory genitalia on the second abdominal segment. He then grasps a female by her head with the tip of his abdomen, and she curls the tip of her abdomen up to the accessory genitalia of the male, resulting in this wheel configuration. The complexity of this and other aspects of reproduction in such primitive insects always impresses me.

Although most bird breeding is finished, there is still a great deal of avian activity. We are always excited to see a solitary sandpiper pass through on its annual migration from its breeding grounds in the wetlands of boreal forests in Canada to Central and South America. This bird was seen Aug. 3, 2016, and in one previous fall migration in 2014 a solitary was seen on Aug. 27. The value of even small "islands" in ponds is shown here as the sandpiper likes to perch on some rocks in our yard pond.

Although bald eagles may be seen any time of year, this bird seen July 29 along the New River in silhouette against a bright sky is apparently a juvenile, possibly about five months old. It is unclear whether it is a local eagle from a nest nearby or migrating from Florida. The young age (designated Basic 1) of the eagle is known since the ends of the secondary feathers on the back of the wings are pointed and all the same length. In the second year these feathers will be gradually molted, leading to a "saw toothed" edge, and eventually and show a smoother edge. So to identify the age of an eagle, take a photo of the extended wings from underneath.

Goldfinches eating thistle seeds are a clear sign of late summer. This time of year our willow flycatchers become quiet and are often seen feeding around the edges of pastures. Grasshopper sparrows prefer our neighbor's pastures and are one of the few bird species to benefit from the harsh effects of cattle grazing.

So enjoy the presence and actions of our late summer biota. Every season has its joys and it is amusing to match our predictions of seasonal changes with the actual observations.