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. Tim says:

    We’ve just moved into a new house and (unfortunately) had to remove a large tree that was precariously leaning over the house. Consequently only moss would grow in our backyard. Removing this tree has significantly improved air circulation and light–we have marked out and are preparing a vegetable garden in this area. However we are seeing some sprouts shoot up including sassfrass and are now planning to test a few homemade root beer recipes.

  2. Veronica says:

    It was minus 15F when we were back country skiing last February and I stopped to look at a cocoon attached to a sapling beech tree. The outer cocoon looked like a varnished beech leaf
    and felt like wood! Perhaps a promethea moth cocoon?

  3. Joe Lamp'l says:

    Completely fascinating. Thank you for this wonderful little diversion on a busy workday afternoon. I had absolutely no time to find myself sucked into this blog post but I couldn’t tear myself away. I must be as “geeky” as my teenage daughters think. I’m OK with that.

  4. Deb Gelet says:

    My high altitude mountain valley was badly burned by wildfire this summer. As I clean up the remnants of my garden, I am noticing different insects and more wildlife wandering through in search of food and shelter. My instinct is that the newcomers will return to their normal habitats when the burn scars heal, but should I be somehow proactive between now and then? I’m torn between giving the critters a helping hand…and protecting my food crops! I’ve worked this out with the moose, but the deer (and strange insects) are not as cooperative.

  5. Christina says:

    My husband and I have noticed at different times a bee that attacks the honey bees in our garden. They hover around the plants the bees are on and then bonk them, usually causing them to fly away but sometimes knocking them to the ground. We have yet to catch one and have it identified.

  6. Kathy Hilmer says:

    The coolest thing I’ve seen in my garden this year are the preying mantis children that I found hatching on the bricks below my mailbox this spring. I carefully carried some of them and distributed them around my garden and along the creek behind the house. I have seen a number of them through the summer, and this fall I found one laying more eggs at the same location on the bricks. More fun for next year!

  7. Jules says:

    My son became fascinated with the hummingbird moths that visited the flowers in the evening and we’d love to know more about their life cycle. We are hoping they are not tomato horn worms as others have said or something else naughty because they are so cool and entertaining.

  8. Kelly M says:

    I have been lucky enough to see preying mantis in my garden this year. They are so interesting to watch. Scary, yet beautiful at the same time. Thanks for the offer.

  9. Beverly says:

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

    You bet! Stink bugs and more stink bugs. I live in piedmont North Carolina. We have been invaded by these creatures – stink bugs in the garden, on the porch AND in the house!

  10. Brenda Todd says:

    Interesting in my fall garden this year, and around the yard, are the woolly worms. My mother each year relates the colors of the woolly worms indicate the type of winter we will have if they are dark on the front – the beginning of winter will be bad. Likewise, if the end is dark – the end of winter will be bad. If they are dark at each end – winter will start out bad, calm down, and turn bad again at the end. This year I see orange woolly worms everywhere. Completely orange! Mom doesn’t have an answer for this one so I am curious about what to expect this winter. It could be an interesting season! Love your articles and finding answers to my many questions about the plants and creatures we find around. A copy of this guide would be a great addition to my ‘garden library’. Thanks for the opportunity!

  11. helenh says:

    I have two swallowtail butterfly chrysalis plural inside at the top of my kitchen window. I brought them in as caterpillars on a bouquet of rue and they escaped. I am not sure what I should do with them. There was a “fat” copperhead under some tomatoes I was picking last summer. I killed it because it didn’t belong under my tomatoes – in the field is OK. I cut it open and there were 11 babies.

  12. Deidre Betancourt says:

    Went out in the woods this week with a friend….she and I saw wild cucumbers…when thay are dried thye look like tiny loofahs…they is so much beauty if we just take the time to realy look!

  13. Fran says:

    Great blog, Margaret. Very informative. This is not an insect issue, but I just noticed little red berries on a shrub and wondered what it was. A day later I saw the “wings” on the twigs and ID’d the shrub as Euonymus alata. I felt like Sherlock Holmes.

  14. Patty Hinger says:

    We were visiting a friend who lives near the mountains. In her large, oak tree filled back yard we found many galls. So interesting!! I love investigating what are all these things !

  15. Diane M. says:

    My new raised square foot gardens were blessed this spring and summer with a variety of beneficial insect, spider, lizard, amphibian and bird predators that came to my much needed assistance in my attempt to remain organic and keep pests at bay. My allies included: wheel assassin bugs (medieval guardians of my beans and eggplants), young praying mantises that graced my tomato plants, ladybugs (favorite of my twin, two year old girls), iridescent dragonflies and damselflies, giant jumping spiders (one in particular claimed a green cabbage for his own), skinks (the only flash of blue among the gardens), toads (keepers of the cucumbers), cardinals, and mockingbirds to name a few. About midsummer, I noticed a spider’s cobweb under one of the red pepper plants while I was pruning low leaves and removing debris. I did not see the spider and I presumed it to be hiding from the likes of scary me – clad in neon lavender gloves, a hand rake, big sunglasses, a sun hat and a determined look on my face. I did not disturb the web because I noticed the insect pest carcasses discarded below it and I wanted the spider to carry on with it’s business. Earlier this month when I was removing the exhausted pepper plants, I had an early Halloween spook. I removed the pepper plant in the square foot with the web and with my shovel I gently teased away the web to encourage the spider to appear, flee and take up residence elsewhere since I needed to till up the soil and plant some fall veggies. Waiting…waiting…hmmm…no spider. So I scooped under and out below the grid lath with my shovel and much to my surprise a large BLACK WIDOW with her bright red bling and daunting, pointy, outstretched legs emerged. The heebie-jeebies knocked me back. I took a couple of deep breaths, restarted my heart, combed the hairs down on the back of my neck and regained my composure in an effort to not take my eyes off of her (Lord forbid I should lose sight of her!). My husband brought me a glass jar with a lid and I coaxed her into it. I carried her across the meadow behind our yard and into the woods. I thanked her for her service and set her free…and then ran like the dickens home. Happy Halloween!

  16. Terri says:

    I’ve just been thinking I need some field guides!
    Really, the coolest thing this fall (or the end of summer) was when I saw two different butterflies AND a hummingbird all in five minutes. One may have been a monarch, although I haven’t really learned to distinguish monarchs and the other orange-and-black species.

  17. Craig says:

    What a wonderful walk you had, Margaret. I am wistful that I wasn’t a member of your party. I am, however, thrilled that you’ve included the identity of the Sumac aphid, Melaphis rhois. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (yes, I really am that excited) A bonus was the “spotty “oak apple,” or Amphibolips cookii.” We found it on a walk but couldn’t discover the creature that inhabited it. Let me know if you ever get tired of Mr. Eiseman so I can “borrow” him some time.

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