What a difference a couple of months have made! The leaves have fallen off the trees and I can once again see the road from my house. The fall warblers have migrated through and my winter suite of birds are arriving. The flowers have stopped blooming and beautiful seed heads have replaced the blossoms. Below are a few of the interesting nature-related discoveries that I made or which were shared with me during October and November.
The fall rains always create a flush of mushrooms in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Mom found this beautiful red and white mushroom while gathering persimmons. It’s a fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). While eating the fly agaric is NOT recommended, I’m looking forward to turning some of the persimmons Mom gathered into persimmon pudding for Thanksgiving.
While hiking in a friend’s woods, I found this coral fungus. As its name implies, it looks like a piece of coral that you might find in the ocean, except it is found on the forest floor. There are many different species of coral fungi – some of them are even blue or purple! However, even though there are lots of different types of coral fungi, genetics research has shown that they many of them aren’t closely related at all. In some cases, the biggest thing they have in common is their resemblance to coral. I just think they look really cool and love finding them for that reason.
I found this amazing caterpillar on a hike near my home. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the black “horn” sticking off its rear told me that it was likely a hornworm, a.k.a. sphinx moth caterpillar. It also had the right general size and shape for a hornworm. However, it obviously wasn’t the familiar tomato hornworm.
This caterpillar was chowing down on an ash tree, before trying to fool us by impersonating a crumpled leaf or bare stem. (When trying to identify caterpillars, knowing the plant it is eating can often help point you in the right direction.)
After coming home and digging through my caterpillar field guides, I’ve identified it as the caterpillar of a laurel sphinx moth (Sphinx kalmiae), which despite its common name is not a specialist on laurel plants. Instead, it eats a wide variety of trees including ashes.
This year produced an abundant crop of spicebush berries on our property. Fall berries and fruits from native plants, like spicebush (Lindera benzoin), are important natural food sources for many of our migrating songbirds. Spicebush berries that aren’t eaten by migrating birds will remain on the tree throughout much of the winter and provide food for many of our birds that spend the winter here. Some invasive bushes, like the exotic bush honeysuckles, also have lots of berries right now, but those berries are higher in sugar and lower in fats, so don’t have the nutritional composition that our birds need to migrate or get through the winter.
A family friend sent us this picture with the obvious question of, “What is this?” I was intrigued because I had never seen anything like it and quickly went to work trying to identify it. I am so glad I did!
This is a railroad worm. There are several species of railroad worm. All are in the genus Phengodes and share the same common name. This specific one is Phengodes laticollis.
Railroad worms are a distant relative of fireflies. The males look like a weird beetle and produce little to no glow. They also only live for a few weeks and are rarely seen. The females and larvae look like a large, brightly colored grub and glow at night. (You have to get pretty up close and personal with a railroad worm to determine if it is a mature female or a larva.) Railroad worms get their common name because the glowing pattern supposedly looks like the lights coming from inside a passenger train as it zooms by.
In her book, Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs *, Lynn Faust says that railroad worms are widespread, but not common. The females and larvae spend most of their time under the leaf litter or buried in burrows of rotting logs, which makes them that much harder to find. Oh! And the females and larvae actively hunt and eat millipedes – they can sometimes be found inside the hollowed out exoskeleton of a millipede that they are in the process of finishing off.
Now that I’ve been introduced to railroad worms, I’m fascinated and want to see one in real life!
So, what interesting nature-related discoveries have you made in your yard and community over the last few weeks? I always enjoy hearing what others are finding too.
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Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.