Sunday, Sweet Sunday

sun through fogSunday is my favorite day of the week.  That’s because traffic is light on Interstate 99 at the base of our mountain on the Logan Valley side and the industrial-sized limestone quarry on the Sinking Valley side is closed for the day.  Other businesses are also quiet, and I revel in the peace of “Sunday, Sweet Sunday” as the song goes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.”

Of course, the trains still whistle at every valley crossing, including our own, a sound that dates back to 1850 when the main line from New York City to Chicago was built through the gap at the bottom of our mountain. Once folks lived in a small, iron forge village next to the rail line where we have built a parking lot for our hunters.

When we moved here back in 1971, the cellar holes of four dwellings were popular bottle-collecting areas.  Even today, a few of the people who lived in those homes as children, nostalgic for the sights and sounds of their youth, sometimes visit and set up lawn chairs to watch and listen to the trains.  It’s a sound they have adapted to and enjoy.

Despite my 37 years here, I have not adapted to the clamor from the valleys.  Increasing noise pollution, especially in midsummer when all our windows are open, has forced me to wear ear plugs at night.  I wonder, along with nature writer Joseph Wood Krutch, who wrote in the mid-twentieth century, “How long will it be before… there is no quietness anywhere, no escape from the rumble and the crash, the clank and the screech which seem to be the inevitable accompaniment of technology?”

But this sweet Sunday in late July is almost silent as we sit on our elevated front porch among the trees, warmed by the rising sun, and enjoy my husband Bruce’s cornmeal/whole wheat waffles.  Serenaded by song sparrows and a tufted titmouse, we are entertained by the antics of a family of red-bellied woodpeckers that recently fledged from a nearby black locust tree.

On this day, I choose to walk beneath the filtered, green light of Black Gum Trail.  Already the spined micrathena spiders are spinning their orb webs across the trail, and I stop frequently to carefully pull aside a couple anchoring strands of silk so I can avoid their entangling webs.  Fresh coyote scat and not so fresh bear scat provide ample evidence that I am not the sole user of this deep woods’ trail.  The only persistent singers this late in the summer are the low-keyed, monotonous red-eyed vireos and eastern wood pewees.

gypsy moth cocoonsScarlet tanagers have replaced their hoarse, robin-like songs with their “chit-bang” warning call, and I hear several during my walk.  Once I sit and watch a male scarlet tanager foraging for caterpillars on the top of black gum leaves, flying from tree to tree and flashing his black and red colors like some exotic tropical bird.  Insect damage riddles many of late spring’s perfect leaves and a handful of black gum leaves have turned red and pink, which reminds me that autumn isn’t far off.

I see a few gypsy moth egg masses on chestnut oaks and am also reminded of a new term I learned the other day — throughfall — which is defined as all the stuff that rain washes down on the forest floor from the foliage above such as insect frass, bodies, and leaves.  Although the term was applied to the rainforest, such a concept is also important in our forest.

At the end of Black Gum Trail, I pick up Rhododendron Trail where white-breasted nuthatches “yank” and chipmunks “chip” and “cuck.”  In the distance a black-throated green warblers sings while a slow, propeller plane drones noisily overhead, momentarily disturbing Sunday’s peace. Unfortunately, even deep in our hollow, I cannot escape the technological sounds from above, such as frequent helicopters, jet fighter planes, and private airplanes that fly over or along our mountaintop.

As I wend my way past the many tall rhododendron shrubs for which the trail is named, black-capped chickadees scold.  I notice that most of the shrubs’ flower heads have set seed.  Because of our vacation in Newfoundland, I missed their blossoming, but it must have been glorious.  The trail edges its way past a steep, mossy hill covered with three-year-old rhododendrons.  They are shooting up fast–a result of our deer management program that encourages our hunters to harvest more deer to improve the health of our forest.

I descend Laurel Ridge on Rhododendron Trail and near the stream, Acadian flycatchers call “pit-see.” On our gravel road, five deer snort and bound up Sapsucker Ridge.  Beds of wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) bloom beside the stream, a species that has only recently appeared on our property and one that botanists claim is a favorite of deer despite its numerous stinging hairs.

longhorn on wild hydrangeaOn the other hand, the deer I disturbed have been dining on wild hydrangea, especially the young shrubs growing on the road bank.  They have also been snacking on jewelweed and Virginia creeper.

But other wildflowers are untouched such as the clump of Indian pipes and sprays of black cohosh.  Common enchanter’s-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) has sent up racemes of tiny white flowers that have already turned into green stick tights at their bases.  Named for the enchantress Circe, I assume the name honors the delicate flowers and not the bur-like, bristly fruit that clings to animal fur and pant legs.

The road is a highway of deep woods’ butterflies this cool, clear, summer morning.  Red-spotted purples flutter past.  These blue-black butterflies flash an iridescent blue on their hind wings and are named for red-orange spots on their undersides.

spicebush swallowtail shadowSpicebush swallowtails bask on the road.  They are the same blue-black with iridescent blue on their hind wings as red-spotted purples, but they sport elegant tails and the edge of their wings has a line of large white dots.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, as their name implies, feed on spicebush leaves and also on sassafras tree leaves, whereas red-spotted purple caterpillars prefer the leaves of black oak, black cherry, poplar and aspen. Both have caterpillars that resemble bird droppings.  Those of the red-spotted purples are grotesquely horned; those of the spicebush swallowtail only look like bird droppings in their first three instars.  Then they turn bright green with large yellow and black eyespots that mimic snakes.

I am surprised to see a great-spangled fritillary basking on a sunlit leaf because usually I see these showy, orange and brown butterflies in the fields.  On the other hand, their larvae dine on violets.  Sometimes the female butterflies, which lay as many as 2000 eggs per butterfly in the fall, manage to lay at least a few of those eggs on violet leaves.  Their orange-spotted black caterpillars, bristling with black spines, hatch two or three weeks later, drink water, but don’t eat until the following spring when violet leaves appear.

royal walnut moth 2

My best winged discovery of the day, though, is a regal or royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis) lying on the road.  It is alive but unable to fly.  This large, spectacular moth has a fat, orange body horizontally striped in yellow, yellow-spotted, orange-veined gray front wings and orange hind wings patched in yellow. But it is better known in its caterpillar form as a hickory horned devil, armed with outsized, orange and black horns on a knobby, brown body that turns lime-green shortly before it pupates.

Once common as far north as Massachusetts, it is now primarily a southern species ranging from New Jersey to Missouri and south to Florida and eastern Texas.  Its caterpillar consumes a wide range of food plants such as ash, butternut, cherry, cotton, hickory, lilac, pecan, persimmon, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore, and walnut leaves.  Because this is a new species for our mountain, I carefully pick it up, place it on a leaf, and carry it home so our son Dave can photograph it.

royal walnut moth 1My sweet Sunday ends as peacefully as it began.  As we sit on the veranda in the evening, I watch the mulch heap near the barn through my binoculars.  Bruce has trampled down the field grasses in front of it to give us a ringside view of our pugilist woodchuck and its chief rival.  The evening before I had heard growling and squealing and had gone down to the mulch heap to see what was making the commotion.  A woodchuck emerged from the weeds with a pawful of something and sat on its rear end to eat it, giving me what could only be described as a baleful, defiant look.  That woodchuck was a fighter even though it was smaller than its portly opponent who feeds every afternoon on the barn bank grass.

This evening the small pugilist appears first, sitting on its bottom and beginning with a moldy, whole wheat tortilla that it holds in its front paws as a child would.  But soon the corn cobs are too much for it to resist even though we thought we had cleaned them thoroughly.  Picking the first cob up, it holds it horizontally in its front paws and systematically gleans what bits of kernels are left.  All the while, it is on high alert.

As it starts on its second cob, the fat woodchuck emerges from its den under the barn to eat grass on the barn bank.  Then it lifts its head, sniffs in the direction of the mulch heap, and barrels toward the tasty leftovers.  The pugilist, still gripping its second cob, disappears in the opposite direction.  Its protagonist hunkers down on all fours to chow down, unlike its rival.

But unlike the previous night, the woodchucks preserve the Sunday peace.
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All photos were taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta (move cursor over them to read the titles, and click on them to see at larger sizes). The last two show the very moth described here.