Robber Fly, 2017

Without the attainment of familiarity, the significant remains invisible.
— Bernd Heinrich, The Geese of Beaver Bog

What if I didn’t have my camera? What if I had to depend on my own observations to tell about what I have seen today? This is what I am going to try to do over the next few months - look closely, think about all I’ve seen…and then, write about it.

I have invested in a 5-year calendar journal. The Naturalist’s Notebook is stunning. It is hardbound, filled with Bernd Heinrich’s beautiful nature illustrations, includes a ribbon bookmark and…allows space to record brief details of daily observations which (when stitched together) over time may be compared effortlessly across the pages of a grid comprising a five-year period.

Much of what I see is now becoming repetitious and familiar to me. This is something to strive for because without the attainment of familiarity, the significant remains invisible. Immersion in the familiar also brings me a feeling of tranquility and comfort, a sense that all is right with the world.

My family has lived in this home and on this property we call Two Gates for fifteen years. Many of those years we have been struggling to find contentment. Our property is flanked by multi-family, commercial dwellings and asphalt. The single-family private dwellings to the rear of us are inhabited by young families who have no interest in landscaping their properties and so, their backyards are desolate. No trees, no shrubs, no perennial flowers…only lifeless lawns.

Our suburban property - by contrast - hosts many species of insects, birds and even, mammals. Through the years I’ve tried to record my observations in a number of ways - as photographs, blog posts, a calendar, a gardening notebook and of course, on Instagram.

As a supplement to my Naturalist’s Notebook, I’m going to detail observations here - month-by-month - separate from my Magic Things blog posts. My goal is to hone my observations + note-taking over the next few months and by January 1, 2020, begin my notebook with a fresh perspective. No images, only words…only casual observations & thought-provoking questions.

08.02.19 - Robber Flies

The backyard is full of insects. Swallowtails, skippers, fritillaries, bumblebees, beetles, cicadas…and robber flies. I hadn’t noticed (until I consulted my previous years’ photographs) that robber flies appear to arrive in late-July. I guess I hadn’t thought about them ‘arriving’ at all?!

Since the final week in July I’ve spotted 3-5 gliding in and around the stems of flowers in the meadow garden and the pollinator garden (the circle). A few weeks ago we observed one dragging a damselfly across the patio - unable to lift off under its weight.

What is the life cycle of the robber fly?

A: Eggs are deposited on low-lying plants & grasses or in crevices in the soil. The eggs are usually in masses, which are then covered with a chalky protective coating. The larvae overwinter in the soil and prey on grasshopper eggs, grubs & beetle pupae.

When do they actually ‘arrive’ and when do they ‘leave’ (or, we stop seeing them) in our backyard?

A: They pupate and emerge as adults between June - September; live only 4-6 weeks. Their pupal coverings are those wire worm-shaped casings we find in the soil when we are planting in the springtime!

I’ve yet to photograph a robber fly with its prey this summer, but I’m seeing plenty of them. I’d like to learn more about their life cycle. After learning more about their reproduction and larval growth, I can pay better attention next year and possibly observe their behavior before late-July/early-August.

08.04.19 - Ants

“Did those ants build a square grass scaffolding around that cicada?” This was the question posed by Benjamin as he walked back to the patio from the shed. In fact, I believe it was a square grass scaffolding. We stood for a long time and watched the pavement ants scurrying around the hollowed-out rear-end of a cicada, tugging and heaving, pulling and pushing…blades of grass!

Were they attempting to build a scaffold or was it a fulcrum & lever…to get beneath the cicada carcass?

Did they plan to carry him away like a watermelon in an episode of the Looney Toons?

Unfortunately we made this discovery when it was near dark and so, we do not know what happened. This morning (8/5) a grass ‘platform’ remains, neatly arranged with an indentation in its center where the cicada rear-end once rested.

Note: Michael witnessed ants building a grass ‘platform’ around another insect at work one day…

08.06.19 - Ambush Bugs

Last evening I discovered a small, pale green ambush bug hiding beneath the head of a sneezeweed bloom. I didn’t recognize it at first because it didn’t look like the ambush bugs with which I am familiar…but after doing some research I believe the wee beastie was in its nymphal stage. It was the common Pennsylvania jagged ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica). I’d like to learn more…

Read more about ambush bug eggs…

Look back at the photographs taken in late spring (didn’t I see some teeny tiny ambush bug-like insects in the meadow garden)? Were they the initial ‘hatchlings?"‘ — (Update: No - I think those may have been lace bugs - Corythucha morrilli)

Another note…I am re-considering my identification of another ambush bug (the Pacific ambush bug) because the more I think about it…I’m thinking I may have mis-identified my first sighting of an ambush bug and believed I’d found Phymata pacifica; it seems unlikely…in Pennsylvania. I may have to go back into my photo archive and correct my Fauna inventory if I made an error!

08.08.19 - Hummingbird

Each summer a female ruby-throated hummingbird arrives in our backyard. She has been visiting our nectar feeder for as long as I can remember. As we’ve added more nectar-bearing flowers she has traded in the feeder for those (trumpet vine, salvia, cardinal flower, bee balm) blossoms and she has become very comfortable around us, contentedly perching high on the electric wires, the thin stems of the Japanese maple, as well as within the loosely arranged branches of other trees and shrubs.

Two weeks ago a second female hummingbird arrived - on the feathery tail of our resident female. Over the course of a 2-3 day period the two were fiercely competitive. They would zoom through the yard at top speed, zipping among the plants and shrubs, stabbing at one another when one would attempt to nectar. They would chase one another, often swirling upwards into a funnel and out of the backyard altogether.

I noticed this week…the strange female is gone. Only our little resident female remains. She is as peaceful and content as any other summer…hovering next to the pond sipping bee balm nectar, resting in the beautyberry, zipping within a foot of me as I stand and watch her…she must have earned her right to our backyard. 💕

08.12.19 - Mydas Fly (?) —> Black Horse Fly!

There is nothing more frustrating than finding an insect I cannot identify - and by cannot identify, I mean…not even Google has the answer for me. A few days ago we were in the backyard and Benjamin cried out, “What is that?” There, moving about on the surface of a grapevine leaf was a large, winged insect. It was 2” long and black (with no particularly discernible features).

It had what appeared to be not two, but one large single eye - it’s head was a large eye - or, maybe its eyes were so closely arranged it was an illusion?! It also had a large labella (like a housefly), the spongy black pad of which it tapped methodically across the surface of the grapevine leaf.

Before I could snap a good photograph it flew a bit awkwardly from the grapevine toward the rose of Sharon and then, off to unknown parts. It made a buzzing sound much like a housefly. I tried lightening the shadows on my single image in Lr but didn’t get much more detail - closest ID I can feel confident about is possibly a type of mydas fly.

Mydas chrysostomus is the species which most resembles the insect we observed. If, in fact, we did see a mydas fly…that’s good. They are beneficial insects whose larvae eat the grubs of less desirable species like Japanese beetles and June bugs.

UPDATE: It wasn’t a mydas fly…it was a black horse fly (Tabanus atratus)! I joined iNaturalist and discovered when uploading an observation the platform will perform a preliminary visual ID - I uploaded my photograph and immediately it was identified as a black horse fly!

08.13.19 - Grass-Carrying Wasp

Over the weekend a curious thing happened…a large wasp-like insect flew toward our house, slipped into the flashing beneath our kitchen window and remained there (despite my tapping on the flashing). She seemed harmless and honestly, I forgot about the incident.

The following day - Monday - we were leaving to go to the grocery store…outside our back door, beneath where our resident orb weaver has his web there is another web. The second web belongs to a smaller orb weaver and it appeared only a few days ago. The web - to our surprise - was blanketed by a loose confetti-like display of dried grasses. Dried grass? In a spider’s web? It was then that we noticed the opening to our window flashing had been plugged by…dried grasses.

I started wondering if the wasp-like insect we’d seen on Sunday could be the culprit…and if we should be concerned about her presence in our window flashing. I learned the following on the Penn State Entomology website:

  • Around homes, grass-carrying wasps commonly nest in the tracking for aluminum storm windows.

  • In Pennsylvania, Isodontia mexicana typically produce two generations per year.

  • The female locates a suitable nest site. She collects blades of grass and grass and hay stems to line the nest cavity.

  • The wasp can be seen flying through the air with the blades trailing beneath her. She lands at the hole and enters, pulling the blade in behind her.

  • The nest entrance is typically plugged with blades of grass, which may extend out of the opening for up to 2 inches.

  • After the nest is prepared, she hunts for tree crickets & katydids, captures and paralyses them with her sting, and transports them to the nest.

  • She deposits eggs in the nest and the emerging larvae will feed on the living, but immobile crickets. When the larvae reach the appropriate size (in 4–6 days at 70–75° F.), they spin a cocoon and pupate.

  • The adult wasps emerge in 2–3 weeks.

All of the nesting behavior above closely relates to what we witnessed; blades of grass were slightly protruding from the end of the hole and from beneath the flashing. We haven’t noticed any additional activity in or around the nest…we’ll have to keep an eye on it and see if adults emerge in 2-3 weeks (August 25 - September 1).

Note: According to PSU the grass-carrying wasp poses no danger and does not aggressively defend its nest.

08.14.19 - Milkweed Leaf Beetle

To avoid disturbing our large bullfrog (who was out on a rock), we explored the front yard last night. The hawthorn is finally standing on its own - so, we untied its supports. The redbud is growing well after being relocated last year…and a volunteer sapling (about three-feet-tall) is growing beneath the blue spruce.

Our butterfly weed is not particularly robust this summer and we don’t know why? BUT, last night I noticed a visitor in the Joe-Pye next to our butterfly weed - an orange and black beetle similar in shape and size to the Colorado potato beetle. After spotting the beetle on the Joe-Pye we noticed a second one…on the butterfly weed.

After a quick “google,” I learned they were milkweed leaf beetles. And…the milkweed leaf beetle, like most milkweed feeders, uses the orange and black of the Monarch as a deterrent to would-be predators. These adults are most likely the last of the season…and will overwinter somewhere in our garden.

08.16.19 - Chipmunk

Every year, in the spring, we spot a chipmunk! A single chipmunk. And he/she usually appears in mid-May, but disappears by the end of June. The first year she disappeared we assumed she became the victim of a feral cat. But when a new chipmunk arrived the following spring, we had questions:

Was it the same chipmunk from the previous year?

Are there multiple chipmunks?

Are the chipmunks nesting and breeding somewhere on our property?

Well…a single, springtime chipmunk sighting has become commonplace here…and I haven’t done a very good job of learning more about our little visitor; by the time she disappears summer is in full swing and her absence goes unnoticed.

Imagine our surprise this morning when Michael spotted a chipmunk sitting on our rear fence…munching on the clematis’ seeds! Now…I have more questions:

Is she our springtime chipmunk?

A: It’s possible! Chipmunks also live as solitary adults…so I suppose she could be a solitary adult as I’ve never seen any young foraging alongside her. I have a vague recollection of having seen two chipmunks at one time - back in 2015 or 2016 - one, around our shed and the other in the hedgerow.

What time of year are chipmunks active/what time of year are they dormant?

A: Chipmunks (in our area) do not fully hibernate in winter.

In hot weather they remain in their cool underground burrows (estivation).

What is their life cycle and how does it coincide with the seasons?

A: Breeding begins in late February/early March, with young being born in April/May. There may be two litters in a season - with the second litter being in late July/early August.

Young leave the nest after 30 days and forage with their mom.

Where do chipmunks live (holes in trees, underground burrows?)

A: Underground burrows - with a straight forward path that then curves.

This little chipmunk today was very content eating clematis seeds until she scurried along the fence and into the pokeweed which grows at the compost bins. I’m eager to see if she visits Benjamin’s sunflowers for seeds!

08.18.19 - Mourning Doves

This afternoon I observed our mourning dove pair moving around in the woodland garden. They seem to leave the backyard in early summer and return in late summer.

Where do they go - do they leave the area or are they nesting with young?

I am guessing…because they may have 1-6 broods per year with an incubation period of 14 days and nestlings 12-15 days…is it possible they are simply breeding all summer-long and that is why we rarely observe them?

We witness a courtship display in springtime every year - I wonder where they eventually build their nests? Perhaps…the neighbor on the corner’s arborvitae hedge?

According to Wikipedia: Pairs typically reconvene in the same area the following breeding season, and sometimes may remain together throughout the winter. But…according to Cornell, adult life span is on average only one year.

Where do they nest?

Mourning doves nest among dense foliage (evergreens, orchard trees, vines); sometimes nest in man-made structures (gutters, window boxes, eaves).

We’ve always hosted a pair of mourning doves in our backyard; although I know they cannot be necessarily be the same pair (as we saw one killed by a Cooper’s hawk a few years ago). I wonder if the mate from that original pair re-coupled or if this is a new pair altogether? I’ve read that lone doves find new partners, maybe one of the doves is from our original pair. Yet…if the Cornell information is correct (which of course, it most likely is), it doesn’t seem possible the same birds return each year.

08.19.19 - Lightning

Breathtaking thunderstorms moved through on Monday night bringing some beautiful (and dangerous) lightning. I watched out the back door as the immediate lightning strikes appeared to manifest in all manner of directions - vertically from sky to ground, horizontally across the horizon and in wild, erratic sparkling flashes that moved almost in spirals around clouds.

After the storm moved through and the rain stopped, lightning could be seen over the Valley for hours, illuminating the entire sky. Thunder rumbled in the distance and every so often strikes of bright white electricity could be seen arcing from the veil of moody pink-white clouds…toward the dark landscape. While it was very pretty, it seemed more like a harbinger of changes in our weather patterns…we’re seeing more lightning than ever before (and, hearing reports of strikes more often).

08.21.19 - Goldfinches & Coneflowers

Our coneflowers have been in-bloom for many weeks. All variety of coneflower continuously bloom while elsewhere, in some corners, straggly stems with spent blooms stand erect. Male goldfinches have been collecting coneflower seeds (and also, the seeds from the anise hyssop).

I know goldfinches breed late in the season…am I seeing only males because the females are nest-sitting?

A: Probably! According to, goldfinches, “don’t begin breeding until late June with peak nesting occurring in late July and early August.”

Last year I prematurely cut back too many coneflowers. This year - despite their appearance - I’m going to retain as many of the coneflower and hyssop stalks as possible (to provide food for wildlife & create winter interest in the garden).

08.22.19 - Late-Summer

Many local public schools re-open on Monday. And, comparing the light and colors from my photos made at the beginning of August to those I am making now, I can tell that autumn is right around the corner. Our plants and shrubs hint toward fall; now hues of yellow (pond iris, Joe-pye, garden phlox) and burgundy (creeper). The Virginia creeper has rebounded from attacks by Japanese beetles and is now putting out groundcover-vines throughout the garden beds.

Fewer blooms grace the tops of our flowers’ stems, replaced by seedheads of all shapes and sizes. Orbweavers and micrathenas string their webs between arborvitaes and among remaining flower stalks. Fewer orchard spiders are noticeable.

The ladie’s mantle is blooming (a favorite of the bumblebees) under the Japanese maple. The windflowers - in the hedgerow - are blooming en masse. And, of course…the asters. Dainty crooked stem asters bloom at the entrance to our ‘woods’ and aromatic aster has formed its an unruly mass in its current location - flanking our back sidewalk. Where the aromatic aster had once been, the bright and beautiful blue wood aster is mounded at the entrance to the circle garden.

08.24.19 - Common Buckeye

Until this summer I don’t recollect photographing buckeyes on our property; if any, maybe one or two may have occasionally visited the butterfly bushes in the front yard. That changed this year…

Our backyard is bustling with buckeyes…on sunny, warm days we count five or six of them moving about in a single corner of our yard. Curious about our new visitors, we looked into what may have attracted them to our backyard…

Caterpillar host plants we grow include plantain - which grows all over our property - and ivy-leaved toadflax (Linaria cymbalaria) - the pretty little ground cover that grows at the base of the Japanese maple tree.

I looked closely at both the plantain and the toadflax to see if I found single eggs laid on the uppersides of any of those plants...or, evidence of current/recent caterpillar activity or chrysalises...I found nothing!

I will have to make time to observe the adult behavior of the buckeyes in our yard and see if they are a.) simply nectaring of b.) engaging in mating behavior…according to BAMONA they have 2-3 broods from May through October.

08.28.19 - Fledglings

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a number of awkward, clumsy birds in our backyard. Benjamin spotted a red bird that looked wholly unfamiliar to us at first…until we watched him for a few moments and realized he was a young male cardinal!

Other birds, like the prolific (and invasive) house sparrows, produce fledglings all summer-long…they line the patio, fluffed up, peeping loudly and awaiting their parents’ attentions. They also hop in and out of the pond, sometimes even standing on the water hyacinth! Currently there are 5-6 fledglings visiting us each day….no wonder, our hedge is a popular nesting area.

Yesterday Benjamin and I were working in the dining room and the incessant, repetitive trilling outside our windows finally became so maddening I peeked through the blinds so I might identify to whom it belonged - why, it was a wee goldfinch! A female goldfinch stood among the branches of our forsythia…feeding her young one.

I now know why Mr. & Mrs. Goldfinch have been so diligent gathering coneflower seeds. 💛

Jessica Allen explores the fields and forests of Pennsylvania with her artist-husband, Michael Allen, and their son, Benjamin. She shares her observations through words and pictures of everyday magic and beauty she sees in her world.