July 2010


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Along the wooded buffer of Little Crum Creek, a variety of fireflies quietly rise and fall, their glows beckoning like distant buoys on waves of humid summer night.

Out in Lancaster, a journalist sees children toting a jiffy jar full of fireflies through the darkness “like a Lite-Brite set.”

“And on dark summer nights,” writes a reporter from the Inquirer in a New Jersey garden, “lightning bugs blink in the bamboo like electric confetti.”

Whatever associations we might import, these remarkable creatures quietly carry on in their very own way and place.

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Unidentified firefly along LCC.

Around here they include the Pennsylvania lightning bug (photuris pennsylvanica), our state insect.

These little beetles communicate with light, either signaling mates or warning predators, and therefore prefer dark places like the dimming woodland where males and females vie for one another’s attention.  Successful females plant eggs amid rotting ground debris where larvae hatch to feed on slugs, worms, and insects all summer long.  Come fall, the larvae burrow underground for a further transformation into pupae. Fully developed adults emerge the following summer, maybe sooner, to illuminate the night as their parents had the previous year.

One night this year in the middle of May, the first golden flecks of light appeared on the Little Crum floor.  A few weeks later, these lights filled the air. From tree tops down, they silently beckoned everywhere.  The nocturnal soundscape of rustling, mewing, and buzzing critters, ever-bathed in the gurgling blather of the creek’s rocky shallow, was suddenly suffused with the slowing, quieting flight of fireflies.

I know another place, far away, whose fireflies hatch only from the cleanest water.  The mountain night is dark.  The fireflies, large.  Their slowly glowing lights are trailing and bright. They are also brief, lasting as short as two weeks some summers.  At other times of the year, folks might mark a poignant moment together with sentimental songs about the firefly’s impermanence.  But during the brief window of time when these hotaru fly, many will set aside their evening hours to simply sit and witness these silent lights by the streamside.

This is the news.

This is a tradition we might keep all season long beside Little Crum Creek.

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Suddenly spilled from the upset neck of a discarded old spade rusting on the woodland floor, these worker ants scramble to secure the pupae of a colony’s future.

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There is no mistaking the call and tufted crest of a Belted Kingfisher angling

over Little Crum Creek in the morning sun.

100_5202cropVExpecting to uncover a spider seen there the day before, I curiously lifted a flat concrete slab and met instead the living portrait of a pointed, young, black-eyed woodchuck face. Inches from mine, its steady, blank, and unruffled stare filled the entire frame of a cinderblock hole.

Seen here, after about twenty minutes, the little marmot emerges.

Later, I was amused, but not surprised, when three young woodchucks surfaced like Stooges from the cinders, falling all over each other for daylight.

They clambered the entire way to follow mom along a thin creekside trail worn by generations of groundhogs, visiting her favorite spots and secret burrowing holes where they’ll deftly disappear of a coming day.

The mulberry was a popular tree this spring, hosting a bevy of birds and squirrels each day in its fruit-filled branches.  Gray catbirds were most numerous.  Flitting quickly from perch to perch, they’d pluck and swallow berries as big as their beaks got wide.  Robins fed here too.

If correctly identified, three of these trees seem like a good representation of how mulberries are distributed in the southern portion of Pennsylvania.

100_5873cropHNearest the creek, one tree’s leaves are primarily lobed, feeling finely-haired on the bottom and more like sandpaper on top.  Red and purple berries hang between them.  These traits characterize our native red mulberry tree whose edible fruit was valuable to both Native Americans and European settlers. Bark and roots were used medicinally, fibers were good for rope and weaving, and its wood made good fence and boating material.

100_4960cropHA little further from the creek, at the bottom of a slope, is a smoothly oval-leafed variety of mulberry.  Its white unripe berries were one of the catbird’s favorites. But these berries also ripened to pink, red, and purple this spring.  Unlike our native red, the white mulberry tree hails from China. Entrepreneurs brought it in the 18th and 19th centuries to feed the worms and ambitions of a silk industry that never spun a fortune. The white mulberry subsequently spread so extensively that it often outnumbers the red.  Many call it a weed.

multi-colored berries, click for close-up ... hybrid tree?The white and red trees have even hybridized, making identification particularly difficult.  That brings me to the top of the hill and a mulberry with variously shaped leaves. They are not as smooth on top as the white mulberry, and not nearly as gravelly as the red. Some feel a bit hairy on the bottom. Others, not so much.  Berries turn from white-pinkish to purplish-black.  I’m not sure which to call it–a hybrid perhaps.

Whatever variety, the mulberry perfectly hosted many in its branches this year.  Its fruit came plentifully and has now gone the way of spring. The robins, squirrels, and catbirds are finding new spots to feed.

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Small enough to hold in your arms, and barely strong enough to walk, this newborn fawn spent several hours a day recently resting on a bed of leaves … its solicitous mother occasionally emerging from the knotweed.

100_5034cropIntroduced to Canada from Europe sometime around 1860, the cabbage white butterfly’s erratic-looking flutter enlivens all of North America from early spring through fall.100_4749edcrop

Along our creek, the brilliant, yellow-streaked and green caterpillar emerges from its egg to feed. 

Soon, wrapped in protective casing called a chrysalis,  the caterpillar undergoes an extraordinary metamorphosis into a white butterfly. 

Fully-formed females emerge with two black wing spots, and males with just one. 

We’ll often see two cabbage whites engage atop a low plant, commencing a rising spiral chase through the air, perhaps a fast-fluttering courtship to renew this perennial metamorphosis.

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