Earth Almanac

Porcupine passion; an eight-legged lynx; more.

1 | Prickly Passion

Throughout most of North America, from the Arctic Ocean to northern Mexico—on forestlands, grasslands, tundra, and desert—porcupines are breeding or thinking about it. One might suppose that sex would be an extremely delicate affair for these squint-eyed, yellow-toothed pincushions. But it is not noteworthy in that regard. What is noteworthy is that it is frequently initiated by the female through high-pitched vocalizations, vaginal secretions, and urine markings. The male follows her, serenading with voluminous humming and grunting. One might also suppose that the birth of the single “porcupette” (about 210 days after copulation) would be an extremely painful affair. But during delivery its quills are soft, hardening a few hours later. The word porcupine derives from the French porc espin, meaning “thorny hog.” A porcupine carries some 30,000 barbed, easily detachable quills, but it is stingy with them, preferring to retreat before surrendering any to an attacker. If a porcupine bristles and chatters at you, it is wise not to advance. Pass the word to your dog.


2 | Missing Lynx

Lynxes are more abundant than you imagined. In fields, prairies, open woods, scrublands, yards, and gardens from Maryland to California and south to Florida and Mexico, they’re hunting down prey. The female needs a lot of it now because her eggs are forming. She’s slightly more than a half inch long, with spiny legs and a bright green body—North America’s largest lynx spider, so named because of the way the family stalks and pounces on insects and arachnids. Soon she’ll construct her egg sac—flattened on one side, rounded on the other, half an inch to slightly more than an inch in diameter, and filled with 50 to 600 eggs. Sitting on top of her egg sac or hanging from it on a strand of silk, she guards it aggressively. When the spiderlings hatch later in the fall she tears a hole in the sac for them. And she protects them for about 10 days until they unfurl silk parachutes and float away on the autumn breeze. If you listen carefully, you can hear their high, thin voices shouting “Goodbye” (at least according to E.B. White).


3 | Explosive Shorebird

It’s still summer but, framed by azure skies, chevron-shaped flights of shorebirds with long, down-curved bills hint at autumn. Whimbrels, the most widespread of all curlews, are pouring down from their breeding habitat on the North American and Eurasian tundra into tidal flats and inland wetlands on six continents. Your best chance of seeing them will be along Pacific and Atlantic coasts, where their diet changes from insects and berries to crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and fish. With its bill, a whimbrel will extract a fiddler crab from a burrow, tear it apart, and eat the pieces. Because of their extreme wariness, adult whimbrels suffer little predation, and their noisy, explosive departure from a tidal flat or other feeding area provides early warning for other shorebirds that migrate with them. This wariness helped save the species from 19th and early 20th century market hunting.


4 | Eat Your Peas

Now in the eastern two-thirds of our nation, partridge peas, slender wildflowers two or three feet high, are in spectacular yellow bloom. Touch one of the leaves and, when it curls, you’ll understand why the species is also called “sensitive plant.” In some locations the flowers are already being replaced by flat 1.5- to 2.5-inch seedpods. Later, they will spiral open and shoot out seeds relished by all manner of wildlife, especially such partridgelike birds as bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants, and prairie-chickens. The plant tissue itself is a food source for the caterpillars of butterflies like the gray hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, sleepy orange, little yellow, and ceraunus blue. And the nectar—produced by the leaves, not blooms—nourishes bees and adult butterflies. Partridge peas, rapid colonizers of disturbed land, are useful in combating erosion. What’s more, they fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby enriching it for other vegetation. Seeds can be collected in October and planted from late winter to late spring.


5 | On the Move

In the eastern United States, from New York south, aptly named long-tailed salamanders are moving from the margins of springs, pools, and dawdling streams to winter quarters in the woody debris of forested uplands or in caves and abandoned mines permeated by limestone-rich groundwater. The salamander’s long tail serves as a safety mechanism: When seized by a predator it breaks off, and a new one grows. Because long-tailed salamanders must keep their skin moist, they’re active mostly at night. Adults prey on worms, slugs, spiders, and such soft-bodied insects as aphids, spittlebugs, and leafhoppers. Larvae, which develop in water, feed on aquatic invertebrates, including mayfly nymphs, fly larvae, and small snails. As with other salamanders, breeding, which takes place from October through March depending on range, is a standoffish and dispassionate affair. Adult males leave spermatophores (sperm-filled capsules) on the substrate of streams and pools; then the females come along and pick them up in their cloacae.


6 | Super Stench

The aroma of Phallus ravenelii, now wafting from woods, lawns, and gardens of eastern North America, is one of early autumn’s more pleasing aspects—if you’re a fly. Flies glut themselves on the slimy, gray coating of this mushroom and then, thanks to its laxative properties, deposit the spores. Humans, less enthusiastic, have difficulty deciding if the scent resembles fresh feces or old carrion. For this reason they call the generally similar species of this wide-ranging genus “stinkhorn.” In both the New and Old World you can find stinkhorns merely with your nose. When you see one you will understand the reason for the generic name because, down to the last anatomically correct detail, it resembles a phallus. Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty sought to cleanse Victorian England of these allegedly obscene fungi, as Etty’s niece, Gwen Raverat, recalls in her book Period Piece: “Armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching . . . then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids.” Hovering around stinkhorns like the flies that spread them are superstitions. Stinkhorns were said to be attached to the sexually aroused zombie community reclining in the earth. Mature fruits were consumed as aphrodisiacs and rubbed on bulls to make them strong. Stinkhorns grow from white or pink, gelatin-covered “eggs” that are relished as delicacies in some parts of the world. Dig one up and, if you can resist eating it, keep it in a warm, moist place. In barely more than a day it will develop into a mushroom.