Questions concerning wildlife are not always easy to answer, but I always learn something in the process. This week a question came to me about “sunny, small orange things on a milkweed stalk.” After a bit of searching, I found that what I was looking for were aphids. The milkweed plants had been attacked by what are sometimes called “little orange vampires.” The trouble with these aphids is that the monarch mothers will avoid laying eggs on aphid-infested milkweed leaves. Gardeners have to check their milkweed plants regularly. The aphids can be removed by rubbing them off with your fingers if you don’t have too many plants. A steady stream of water also can displace them. Just hold the milkweed plant with one hand to avoid stem breakage and use sprayed water on the aphids. Do not use alcohol on the plants, for it can kill the monarchs and their eggs.
You might also use soap and water on the aphids and find a toothbrush helpful. For more information and lots of pictures of aphids and monarchs, go online. The pesky aphids are interesting to see. As I did some research on this topic, I suddenly remembered taking a photo in Florida of an aphid infestation and at that time had no idea what it was. They are very colorful.
The great blue heron is a familiar large heron we see much of the year except in the winter. Once in a while, a heron will try to winter here, but it is not usually successful. These birds do much better where the weather is warmer and living is easier for them. Anyone visiting our southern states and Florida in particular recognizes this large wader. Great blue herons stand about four feet tall and easily can be seen fishing along our shores, both saltwater and fresh. A column reader this week had a special sight, for she saw one catch an eel. Eels are fast and squirmy, but the heron is faster and can catch them with much success. Gulls also like to eat eels. I saw a gull and a heron fighting over an eel one day, and the heron won.
Eels are snakelike fishes. There are about 140 North American species. Both American and European eels spawn in the waters near Bermuda. Female eels lay about 10,000,000 eggs. Their life history is quite amazing. Birds and mammals for the most part like to eat them. I am not one of them. If you have ever prepared and cooked them in a frying pan, you’ll probably understand why. Some humans do like them, and wildlife of various forms eats them happily.
Walking in the woods now is a great time to see interesting mushrooms and lichens in great profusion. On many of the trees that I saw on my weekend walks, I found lush growths of lichens. There are three kinds of lichens to think about: cructose (crusty), foliose (leaf-like) and fruticose (shrubby). The patches of bright orange found on rocks along the seashore are formed of Xanthoria.
On the trees along island trails in deep woods, a very large foliose lichen called spotted lungwort can be seen. Its leaf-like feathery lobes are papery and brownish when dry, but after a rain or in dampness of a foggy day, they become green and lush as if growing in a tropical rain forest. Large bluish-gray lichens forming rosettes on boulders and granite ledges are boulder lichens.
Rock tripe is another lichen to look for on large woodland boulders. This leafy, brown lichen looks like smooth and black or ash-brown when damp and moist. When dry, it resembles brittle bits of leather. I have always heard that rock tripe would make a good survival food, however, a sample bite makes me describe it as a delicate combination of mushrooms and dirt. Survival only best describes it.
Stumps or rotting logs in inland woods often host colorful colonies of small fruticose lichen with bright scarlet caps commonly called “British soldiers.”
Gray glob lichens found growing on rotted logs and stumps and on the ground in shaded forests are called the fanciful name “pixie cups.” Most common and most noticeable in many places in our woods and on local mountains is what commonly is called “reindeer moss” or “reindeer lichen.” It took on special meaning for me this past summer when I was in Newfoundland and watched real wild reindeer or caribou munching on it. If you come upon such mats of dry and brittle reindeer moss, take time to kneel down and enjoy the lichen’s sweet fragrance.
Hanging like Spanish moss from many trees is usnea lichen. Not only is this quite lovely to look at in the Maine woods, it also is used regularly by the parula warbler as a place in which to build its nest. The bird returns to the same nest year after year, making only slight repairs.
Thank you for your questions and observation reports.