a walk in the woods with naturalist charley eiseman

Charley Eiseman crossing a log "bridge" in the woods nearbyI READ ABOUT a smartphone app the other day in the newspaper, one that’s meant to help ID things you happen upon while on a hike. Naturalist and author Charley Eiseman is far better company, and I suspect he’d also put apps to shame on other fronts. Charley doesn’t just ID a plant, but also the tiny insect that’s mined a microscopic home between the layers of its leaves, or the fungus making a telltale pattern of brilliant purple stains on their surface—or where it looks like somebody shot a hole clean through another. Amazing. Charley and I went walking together the other day in my garden and the surrounding woods (those are his “tracks” in the photo above), and look at what all we found by slowing down and looking closely:

Quick backstory: You may remember Charley, co-author of my most-used field guide “Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates,” from our recent interview about galls and leaf mines, two of his specialties.

"Tracks and Sign of Insects" book cover(I’m giving away two more copies; enter by commenting in the form way down at the bottom of this page, after reading the entry details in the tinted box just before that. The book can help you to know what you are seeing when you look closer, too—kind of like always having Charley by your side.)

When that story ran, Charley had noticed a photo I used to accompany it–of a squiggly “leaf mine” I’d observed in my Asian-native big-leaved perennial called Petasites. He’d wondered if it was caused by the insect that feeds in a few different genera in the tribe Senecioneae (including some native American botanical cousins of Petasites).  Why don’t you come try to find out, I’d suggested—and while you’re here, why don’t we have a wider look around? Hint, hint.

And so a couple of weeks hence, the walk began.

Leafcutter bee holes in redbud (Cercis).We didn’t even get out of the driveway before we’d seen not just the Petasites miners (Charley collected some leaves that look as if something might hatch from them), but also a redbud with leafcutter bee holes cut precisely into its foliage (above).  “I always get a kick out of seeing those,” said Charley—still in awe of nature’s little miracles despite so many hours of study and observation.

Not far up the front path, two more scores:

My Fothergilla apparently is providing a home to the so-called witch hazel leaf mine, Cameraria hamameliella.  “In the literature, that species is only recorded from the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana,” said Charley, happy to have scored an exception to that historical record. “But I have found the mines on Parrotia at the Coastal Maine Botanical gardens as well as on your Fothergilla.” (Both plants are in the witch hazel family. The Parrotia is native to Iran; Fothergilla to the Southeastern United States.)

Charley has tried to rear this species, in order to confirm its identity and photograph the insect that emerged—the way he hoped to do when he cut the mined leaves from my Petasites to take home–but so far has only had this parasitoid emerge. (Wonder about what parasitoids are, and how they are different from parasites? I did, so I read this.)

Winterberry tar spot, Rhytisma ilicicolaA little farther up into the garden, I asked about the black spots on some of my winterberry holly leaves, or Ilex verticillata (above). That’s winterberry tar spot, or Rhytisma ilicicola, my sidekick Mr. Know-It-All revealed.

Melaphis rhois gall on staghorn sumacOh, and those balloon- or pod-like structures (above) dangling from the cutleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’? It’s the gall Melaphis rhois, caused by an aphid, he reported. Cool.

Dogwood sawfly, Macremphytus testaceus, between 2d and 3d instar.In the upper part of my backyard, a big score: Dogwood sawfly larvae (on a stand of twig dogwood shrubs). (I know, can you believe I find this exciting—but I do! And yes, this native species will chew up some leaves, but who cares? It’s late in the season, and all part of the bigger picture of my little ecosystem. And I’m sure somebody else probably eats them, too.)

The dogwood sawflies (Macremphytus testaceus) are wasplike as adults, apparently, but these caterpillar-like youngsters were coated in a waxy white substance—or at least they were when we first saw them in the morning. By the time we circled back a few hours later, they’d shed that white coating and were the most extravagant pattern of yellow and black. I felt privileged, as if I’d witnessed an important unveiling.

IN BETWEEN, we took a short drive up the hill and a long walk in the woods.  As we crossed a field at the woodland edge, the “aha’s” began again:

Asteromyia carbonifera on SolidagoPurple spots on goldenrod leaves (above)! (They’re caused by Asteromyia carbonifera and have a symbiotic fungus inside, said Charley.  This post on his website shows the identical adult of A. modesta, and its gall–caused by a midge–which is inconspicuous because it lacks the fungus.)

goldenrod rosette gall caused by Asphondylia speciesAnd also a rosette-shaped structure (above) on another goldenrod (Solidago). The goldenrod rosette gall is caused by an Asphondylia species, likely specific to whatever species of goldenrod it is. Four stories on Charley’s Bug Tracks blog discuss goldenrod rosette galls.

spotty oak apple gall, Amphibolips cookiiOn the forest floor, I picked up a little spotted green balloon: the spotty “oak apple,” or Amphibolips cookii, caused by a wasp. Learn more about oak apples on Charley’s website (that’s the gall, above, in his hand).

blueberry gall, Hemadas nubilipennisWhat’s that formation on the lowbush blueberry shrub, I asked (above)? A blueberry gall, Hemadas nubilipennis—which rated three installments on Charley’s blog: part 1, and part 2, and part 3. It is also caused by a wasp.

scrub oak swelling, Callirhytis quercussimilisAnd what’s this swollen business on this oak twig (above)? The scrub oak swelling is Callirhytis quercussimilis, I learned–the work of a wasp. Like this.

oak shothole leafminer, Japanagromyza viridulaWhy does this oak foliage looks like it’s full of buckshot? The oviposition holes in oak (above–with oviposition meaning holes created by a female trying to place her eggs) are caused by the “oak shothole leafminer,” Japanagromyza viridula.

Russula emeticaThere were fungi everywhere: The little red mushrooms are commonly called Russula emetica in field guides, I learned (with the species name emetica hinting that these are not to be eaten!).

possible pigskin poison puffball, SclerodermaAnd the bumpy tan mushroom (above)? “I suspect that’s a ‘pigskin poison puffball,’” said Charley, referring to Scleroderma citrinum.

colony of tiny mushrooms, maybe Mycena inclinata?I’ve been using my various mushroom guides to ponder some of the others—like a dense stand (above photo) of tiny white mushrooms (perhaps some species of Mycena?) and some brown ones that developed a neat texture when they aged…and some warty-looking little white ones (perhaps some kind of Lycoperdon)…so many little details to observe, research, identify, and understand. Fodder for many cups of tea, surrounded by a pile of books. All from just one walk.

Phyllocnistis insignis from Petasites BUT MOST IMPORTANT, or at least most exciting, within a few days, I heard back from Charley by email, with photos attached:

“Two of the Petasites miners emerged yesterday!” he typed with great enthusiasm. “They are Phyllocnistis insignis, as I expected.  I just took some photos of them and sent them on their way–one photo shows a pupal skin projecting from one of the mines.” (Photo of that below; above, the insect itself, hatched from the leaf that used to grow here.)

Phyllocnistis insignis from Petasites 2

Mission—and much more—accomplished. So can we make “eyes wide open,” our new motto, fellow gardeners?  Yes!

how to win ‘tracks and sign of insects’

I’VE BOUGHT two more copies of “Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates” to share with you. All you have to do to enter is type your answer to this question into the comments box below:

Seen anything cool during your fall chores in the garden? Or have there been any oddities at other times in the season?

IIf you’re feeling shy or have no answer, no worry. Just say “Count me in” or something, and I will. I’ll pick two winners at random after entries close at midnight on Saturday, October 26. Good luck to all.

  1. jelli says:

    Love receiving the newsletters, this is my first comment!
    The book looks so interesting, I’ve been fascinated by insects for as long as I can remember, and don’t mind sharing my garden with them.
    On a sunny Autumn dog walk out in lightly wooded fields last week, I happened upon a crowd of fly agaric under a young oak – the quintessential toadstool! There must have been around 20 of them, beautiful… I admit I did take a quick glance for fairies : )

  2. Catherine Roberts says:

    I have two small shingles of Triassic shale that I found on the beach of the Connecticut River in Chicopee, Massachusetts near the Holyoke Range. They each have a trail of tiny tracks. I would love to figure out what might have made them. They look like perhaps tiny insect claws. Count me in! Fascinating little safari into the underbrush!

  3. Peggy says:

    I’ve been following Charley’s blog for about a month…He is a walking bug wikipedia and his photos are amazing. I’d love a copy of his field guide.

  4. Zana says:

    This book would be an immense help to this novice. I admit embarrassingly so, of trying to convince my daughter that the beautiful etchings on a dead and bark free large tree laying in the woods was the work of woodpeckers. I believe I called them “Woodpecker Art”. My science teacher daughter gently, and with a giggle in her eyes informed me that it was not “Woodpecker Art” but more likely the work of insects. Really? :-)

  5. Linda Marascio says:

    I am definitely a curious “bug person”. When I find an interesting looking bug while working outside, I immediately drop everything and run for the computer. Sometimes I am successful in identifying it and other times not so successful. I believe “Tracks & Sign of Insects & Other Invertebrates” would make it easier and faster. Count me in.

  6. Chris Babcock says:

    This made me think of walks I take with my mom. She pokes apart scat to see what various animals are eating in the area. She notices all sorts of galls and signs of insect life. My dad just stands by and rolls his eyes as we start pulling apart things to see what’s inside. In my urban garden we have leaf cutter bees and I love discovering where they have curled and stuffed their leaf cuttings.

  7. Rich says:

    Count me in. I’d like to know the good guys from the bad guys in my garden. I’d like to know a non toxic way of combating whatever is attacking my sickle pears. It makes them unsightly but they are still edible.

  8. Whitney Vose says:

    An unusually warm fall, and no rain. I am so worried about all the plants, trees, shrubs, perennials gathering enough energy to last through the winter months ahead. The bees cannot get enough sugar water, i have to check on them at least every other day!
    Would love a copy of this marvelous book.

    1. Chris Forbes says:

      Where are you that you are keeping bees? In Alexandria VA and environs, the bees are gulping syrup. But, half of my hives have about 30 lbs in the top box, so I am not too worried for overwintering. Feed every weekend, for sure. Saw a dying drone on the sill of one hive yesterday. Odd. The bees must have kicked him out, but then, why is the queen laying drone eggs at this late date? (No visible varroa)

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