A Nature Ramble in the Blue Ridge in Late June

The weather has been extremely warm both in this area and nationwide so we know for certain that we are in the throes of summer. Of course the seasonal appearance of some plants and animals would tell us that just as do the calendar and the thermometer. One of the most characteristic plants of this time of year is the chicory, a marvelous blue flower that appears along the sides of roads and in pastures. It is a European import which might be considered a weed, but its flowers are quite spectacular in groups. It is found almost entirely in disturbed, open habitats. A much rarer native flower that I search for this time of year is the Canada lily; this one blooming on our farm is thought to be a  hybrid with Gray's lily. The contrast between the reddish outside of the flower and the speckled inside is quite striking. What do you think would pollinate this flower? It would seem to be designed for attracting hummingbirds and large butterflies with color vision.



During the periodic but too infrequent rains I have noticed two types of land molluscs that are closely related but quite different in structure. The land snail has a shell but the slug does not. What a contrast in design; it is as if you encountered a turtle without a shell! The shell appears to be not only protection from some predators, but a refuge during dry conditions when the snail retreats into the shell and seals itself in. The sliminess of these relatives of the clam apparently discourages many predators but there are some snakes and birds that specialize in eating them. Slugs can be a huge pest in wet years when they eat plants, but having eaten escargot once, I think it unlikely that snails will catch on as a food for many humans.


It is interesting that closely related animals sometimes are obviously kin, but not always. This warm time of year is among the best to observe dragonflies which revel in the heat. If you spend time near a pond you will undoubtedly observe members of the skimmer family which are common and quite showy. Three close relatives in the same genus (Libellula) are easy to observe since they are very distinctive and often sit on twigs. Compare the males of the common whitetail, the widow skimmer and the twelve-spotted skimmer; see how they are variations on a theme- body shape and colors are similar, but the wing colors are different. The females are quite different- duller colors and more similar to one another. The “gaudy male syndrome” tells us that the males are likely competing for territories and females. I am always amazed at how these very primitive insects have such complex and interesting life histories.


As you begin to learn a few dragonflies you will notice some smaller damselflies that are related to the dragonflies. The spreadwings are larger than most damsels and are distinctive in that they hold their wings partially out to the side. This male amber winged spreadwing is colorful (blue is a common color in male damsels) and seems to be found only at a pond which lacks fish. I built this pond specifically to attract amphibians which also cannot live with fish. It is interesting that so many invertebrates and amphibians are unable to cope with fish predation and have sought refuge in ponds which dry up periodically and thus often lack fish. But why does a flying damselfly have to worry about fish in the water? Remember that odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) all have aquatic larvae.


Although I am not a big fan of feeding birds, when I do so I can become angry at grey squirrels which steal the food meant for birds. Thus I find it amusing that I enjoy seeing fox squirrels which are much larger and more colorful. In this area of Virginia, the locals also find fox squirrels an item on the menu and squirrel gravy is a favorite. I have tried to protect our fox squirrels and offer them refuge and food in the form of hickory and walnut trees. I have also tried feeding them nuts or corn but have been frustrated by the appearance of grackles, raccoons and possums to share in the bounty. The feeder shown in this photo is a way to avoid such uninvited guests- cracked corn or peanuts are placed in a box on a tree with a hinged lid. Fox squirrels quickly figure out how to open the lid with their noses and get a snack. Birds seem completely unable to figure this out.


So enjoy the bounty of summer and take a trip to the nearest pond and watch the amazing display of dragonflies and damselflies. Learn a few of the common species and you will find your experience as an observer of nature greatly enriched as you watch the intense activity of breeding and feeding.


Bill Dunson

Galax, VA & Englewood, FL