Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Above the Caves

Although I still love birding and photographing birds, we have become interested in watching butterflies and other insects this summer. Diamond Caverns has a wonderful butterfly garden in front of their building. Dick just planted a butterfly garden in our yard, and it is encouraging to see all our plants growing in this established garden. His research will pay off in beauty. Not only are there butterflies of all sizes, but Clearwing Moths looking like a cross between a giant bee and small hummingbird. They dart so quickly that I cannot get a clear photo of one.

Like birds, butterflies can be large or small, brightly colored or drab in hue. Little Brown Butterflies are just as hard to identify as Little Brown Birds. The challenge is to notice the small distinctions in markings, habitat and behavior to find them in a field guide. They do tend to land a little closer to people though, when they land at all! The skills learned identifying birds are equally valuable with butterflies. Many of the Tiger Swallowtail butterflies seem injured. How can they fly with big chunks ripped out of their wings? A friend says many butterflies have "eyes" and bold patterns near their tails to fool predators into attacking the wrong end of the insect. A torn tail on a swallowtail is the mark of a survivor!

The Cicada Killer Wasp specializes in catching and killing cicadas. At 1 1/2," cicada killers are the largest wasps found in Kentucky. They are commonly seen in late summer as they hunt for cicadas which they use to provision their eggs in underground burrows. Isn't it amazing how plants and animals have developed such specializations? Their life cycle revolves around one prey - the cicada.

Our daughter's fiance earned a family reputation on his first hike in the woods with us. He is now the Deer Caller. Every time he wondered if there were deer, we saw more of them. The rangers came by all the picnic tables warning us about not feeding the animals. Surely not bears, we thought. We never expected to see any wildlife, but the deer at Mammoth Cave are not very afraid of people at all. We saw a buck just strolling down the trail, like a tourist without a camera. How do you describe the points on a mature male? This one has three points on each antler and still shows the soft velvet covering. Apparently even a yearling can support six points by the fall. Another male whose antlers were just beginning to grow wasn't quite so bold and hid among the trees. A little later, we ran across a doe and her twin fawns on a hillside. Finally, a single fawn grazed in the grass along the parking lot.

Small toads, no larger than the fingernail on your little finger hopped from the path into the plants, while Five Lined Skinks with blue tails left their sunning spots on a tree stump as we approached. "Shhh," we warned another family, pushing a stroller on the trail. "There are deer right off the path. If you are quiet you can see them." They thought we were crazy. Nature is endlessly fascinating if you stop to look, listen and appreciate it. If you only want to talk loudly, why not stay at the picnic tables?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cave Kisses

When our children were small we went to most of the caves within an easy driving distance in Indiana and Kentucky. The kids loved playing "Stump the Cave Guide", and since they were experienced cavers they sometimes knew more than a part-time summer guide. Today my grown daughter and soon to be son-in-law recaptured this Dennis tradition, and we went to Diamond Caverns, near Mammoth Cave. In addition to a terrific wet and growing cave system, Diamond Caverns has one of the best butterfly gardens I've ever seen, so I plan several posts from today's trip.

Caves can be wet or dry. A dry cave, such as Mammoth Cave, has no water flowing to make new formations. The water has changed course and flows at another level. Diamond Caverns, however, is a wet cave, and we got lots of "cave kisses" dropping from the ceiling on our heads! Cave formations are created by this dripping flowing water over thousands of years. First, slight acidity in the water eats away at the limestone to create a basic cave. Then the water leaves mineral deposits that can grow to be stalagmites reaching up from the floor, or stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Cave bacon hangs in slabs and looks translucent when a light shines behind it. This cave also had a honeycomb formation I had never seen before. Cave formations are fragile even though made of rock, and can easily be broken off. At one point, the cave owners cut through a stalactite and polished it to show the growth. Stalactites grow in rings like a tree, adding to the diameter as time passes.

Cave photography has a unique set of challenges. Unlike birds, the target doesn't move, but the light is really tricky. The caves have lights strategically placed for both dramatic effect and safety of the tourists. I set the ISO as high as it would go (only 400, unfortunately), but didn't have anything white to adjust the white balance, so everything looks really red. Due to the lack of light, I couldn't get good shots of the dripping water. They didn't mind flash photography, but it took much of the color from the scene.

Part of the fun in a cave is recognizing shapes and faces in the rock. Do you see T-Rex and Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean in these photos?
Our guide even found a few cave crickets, which we never saw in any of the other caves we visited in all those years. I guess he just knows where they hang out, like we would know where to look for a certain kind of bird. How nice to spend time with your grown children!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Sights

Summer is a time to be busy. We manage to get outside as often as possible, subject to overheating, of course. On Saturday, it's up to get to the Farmer's Market when they open at 8:00, then bring the fresh veggies home before heading to the Falls until the sun starts to broil anyone out on the deck or the fossil beds. Dick may spend his Saturday directing traffic at the Farmer's Market, then climb the fire tower at Bernheim in the 90 degree heat. I think they call it being "retired" because you are tired again after doing so much all day!

Summer should also be a time to relax, but that's harder to schedule in to a busy calendar. Sunday we decided to take a little time for ourselves. We have been re-landscaping the back yard with a new patio and butterfly garden. Sunday morning we took some time off to enjoy blueberry pancakes on the patio, and sipping coffee on the swing. It's nice to spend time in the shade just swinging, while the cicadas sing overhead, and the scent of pine rises from your feet. What else should we do with the yard next? What plans for our daughter's wedding in September? Where would you like to go for vacation some year? We spent the evening Friday with friends we haven't seen for years. Aren't you glad our life isn't like theirs? Have you noticed all the Goldfinches at the feeder lately? Tried to get some pictures of them at the Falls yesterday, but they were just too fast. You can always hear them coming though. You are never too old for summertime dreaming.

I've seen some mystery insects lately, of the butterfly and moth variety. I haven't found this brown butterfly with a white spot in the book anyplace, but Bob says it is a Silver-Spotted Skipper. Here is a moth that someone identified for me once, but I don't remember what it is. Looks like a cross between a giant bee and a moth. Bob "the Butterfly Man" Lenning identified it as a Snowberry Clearwing moth - a hummingbird moth. I can certainly see the resemblance. I am amazed that this Tiger Swallowtail can still fly with such a big chunk missing in his wing. Someone said that may be a sign of butterfly old age. The sky is so hazy, it's hard to watch the birds, so concentrating on butterflies is a nice change.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

After a Little Rain

After a little rain, the flowers are refreshed, the bugs come out, and the mushrooms sprout. I keep looking for gnomes and fairies in the garden.