Making Sense of Scents

Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement on the ground caught my attention.

My heart sang because I suspected I knew who I was looking at, but just the same, there were a few key characteristics that had to be acknowledged before I was one hundred percent confident.

You see, the first clues were the three buff-colored lines down its back. Between the lines, the keeled scales were quite dark. And this snake is known for its thin body and narrow, mahogany head.

But one of the most defining features, at least for me, is the whitish spot in front of each eye.

Do you see it? And the fact that there’s a line below separating it from the labial scales? Oh, and its lips are pure white.

These are examples of Ribbon Snakes, Thamnophis sauritus. In Maine, they are listed as a Species of Special Concern, which means this: “Any species of fish or wildlife that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.” ~maine.gov.

I’ve had the good fortune of spying three or four this year, but always, I have to stop and think about the characteristics before feeling comfortable that I’ve made the correct identification.

I really wanted the kids in the Greater Lovell Land Trust/Lovell Rec afterschool program to see this snake when they arrived. We searched. But the best I could offer was the photos I had taken.

A much more frequent sighting is of one of the largest snakes in Maine–at least of the snakes that I have met. There are nine species of snakes in Maine, but in my encounters, I’ve only met five of them (and only have photos of four to share).

This species is happy on land or in the water and before you let the hair raise up on the back of your neck and think you may never swim in a Maine lake or pond again, in the 35 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen plenty, but never encountered one while swimming. Oh, I’m sure people have other stories to share, but that has been my experience.

That said, this is one LARGE snake and can measure up to 42 inches in length.

Coloration can vary from a base color of pale gray to dark brown.

Notice how the pattern looks like bands wrapped around the body as presented from behind the head, but then becomes more blotchy in appearance.

Meet Maine’s Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, featuring a face only a mother could love.

I know some favorite haunts of Water Snakes and always look carefully because it can be well camouflaged.

One not camouflaged at all that my guy and I saw a few weeks ago on a Mondate, struck us as being out of its realm as it paused briefly on a granite ledge near the summit of a mountain upon which we hiked.

Its coloration gives away its common name: Smooth Green Snake. Smooth because unlike the first two snakes and the one I’m about to share, Green Snakes’ scales are not keeled. And its scientific name: Liochlorophis vernalis.

In my book of observations, I’ve only seen two Green Snakes ever–because they do look like their preferred grassier habitat.

The final snake of this series is the one I see most often. It might be sunning on a granite rock or searching for a meal in the kitchen garden.

Sometimes more than one crosses my path simultaneously.

And though it would be easy to mistake for a Ribbon Snake because of the buff-colored lines on its back, it isn’t. This snake has a stockier body and wider, olive-green head. Two other differences include dark marks along the edges of each labial (lip) scale, and of equal importance, no defined white spot in front of each eye. Oh, it’s pale yes, But scroll back up to the photo of the Ribbon Snake and see how they differ.

Also note how its coloration differs from one snake to another. Blotches between the stripes are common on this species but not a part of a Ribbon Snake’s appearance.

This is a Common Garter Snake: Thamnophis sirtalis.

So here’s the most exciting news of the day. Yesterday, before meeting with the same afterschool group as last week, I pre-hiked the trail. Suddenly, I walked into web as thick and sturdy as a fish net and bounced back with surprise. When I looked for the creators, I found three small spiders, who immediately went into action to fix what I had just ruined. I spent a few minutes watching them, then turned my attention back to the trail and just off to the left I spied this Garter Snake at eye level in an Eastern Hemlock sapling.

Snakes spend the fall basking in the sun because they are ecothermic, meaning they are cold-blooded and their body temperature varies with the environment. Mary Holland, in her Naturally Curious blog post today, described their fall/winter habits of Basking and Brumating.

When the kids arrived, I told them about my sighting–and we talked a bit about the differences between last week’s Ribbon Snake sighting and this week’s Garter Snake. And then we began our hike, stopping along the way to examine leaves, dig into the leaf litter as Forest Floor Archaeologists, and play with sticks cuze kids just love to play with sticks.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.

Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.

For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.

For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.

Real McCoy Mondate

We had no idea when we set out what today’s hike might involve. Oh, we’d read the trail description and studied the map, but still, other than it being six miles long and of moderate ability and owned by a land trust and located in western Maine, we knew nothing. Yikes, that sounds like a lot, but follow along and you’ll see what I mean.

Our goal these past months has been to hike less traveled trails. That said, we’ve done some old favs that are everyone’s favs, but we’ve also made some discoveries along the way and gotten to know our neck of the woods just a wee bit better. This was such a trail. It began much like a walk in a park.

Within moments it led us to a swimming hole that we might have enjoyed had the temperature been a wee bit warmer. But still . . . it was delightful and as the trail continued we soon realized the brook would accompany us for our entire journey, murmuring and gurgling with each step we took.

Periodically we crossed it via bridges new and old . . .

and listened as it sang–hearing it rejoice for the recent rain.

Along the path from the trailhead to the summit, Pearly Everlasting looked ready to enhance a winter bouquet.

Meanwhile, a Red Clover pretended it was still summer.

A little further on, many willows unwittingly played host to a gall gnat midge with plans to overwinter in a structure created by the reaction to a chemical released by the larva.

What would have been leaves were forced to harden into a pinecone-look-alike.

Those weren’t the only galls along the way. A small aphid, Melaphis rhois, laid an egg on the underside of a Staghorn Sumac leaf, causing it to secrete material that created a sac over the egg where a number of generations of aphids formed inside. For such small aphids, it’s a rather large gall.

And speaking of aphids–we actually saw some as we approached the summit.

Theirs was an assemblage bigger than any I’d ever encountered–each speck of Wooly Alder Aphid made up of a waxy, curly, white wool, excreted from the insect’s abdomen. While it always strikes me that the filaments keep them warm in the winter, actually they help keep the little creatures from being eaten.

Birds also enhanced the seen, though not so many today as might have been there a month or three ago. But still we heard a few and saw a nest perhaps created by a cardinal or catbird or another who built a cup-shaped structure about three feet off the ground.

And in the midst of the trail, one scat–left behind by a bobcat, segmented and tarry as it was.

An hour and a half and two miles after beginning, we reached the final lookout point where the view embraced the White Mountains to the west.

It was behind us that we met Mother Maple standing tall over all her offspring.

And back below, we followed the same brook as we crossed the road and watched it journey south toward its outlet. The brook that is.

It was there that we met Father Maple and wondered about all that he had seen and heard, the stories he knew and history he’d observed.

Upon an esker we did finally journey, our trail in constant change the entire way. That was part of what made it such a joy to hike.

For a few moments before our journey ended, we sat upon a bench and expressed our gratitude to the woman who wanted 400+ acres of her land conserved after her death, the land trust that did so and now manages the trails and built bridge crossings and even a few steps, and what we assumed were members of a local Congregational Church for providing a place of contemplation beside a river that the brook we’d followed emptied into.

Amazingly, we encountered only two people on the trail.

Ours was a real McCoy Mondate.

Stymied by Nature

To the vernal pool I wandered on this overcast, drizzly, rainy day.

I thought for sure I’d later expound upon the deciduous trees that surround it and their leaf colors for such was the carpet at my feet as it reflected the sky above, despite the lack of water in the pool.

But . . . it was the conifer trees that shouted quietly for my attention, their offerings much more subtle than their broad-leafed cousins. First, there was a firefly that made me wonder how he could move so quickly and gingerly in an upside down manner.

Take half a minute and watch his progress.

From the pine sapling I moved over to a hemlock on the far side of the pool. Something dark dangling below its branches begged to be inspected.

It was (is) about two inches long and felt almost leafy when I touched it. Protruding from it were several spikes that weren’t really sharp.

I looked at it from as many angles as I could. And found it curious that it appeared to be performing a split at its upside down base (meaning the top portion in the photo).

Some serious webbing held it in place and what appeared to be sap decorated it.

What could it be? I wondered if we’d ever been introduced before and like so many I’d forgotten its name. Perhaps a moth cocoon inside a spider web? Or a gall that dropped from a tree and got caught in the web? Or a spider egg sac? I looked for a spider and found one. Do you see it in the lower left-hand corner? Rather tiny compared to the alien object. Was the object an alien? Something from outer space? I suppose I could have split it open to see what it contained, but I decided to look around for others like it. And found absolutely none. Knowing that, I could hardly destroy it and so it’s still dangling from the hemlock and I’ll visit from time to time to see if the mystery solves itself. (Please don’t tell me if you know because that will ruin the fun of making a discovery.)

Oh, I did have one other thought, that it might be related to a hemlock cone gone awry, but when I stopped to look at cones on another tree, that theory didn’t make sense. It was there, however, that I spotted a flying insect that wasn’t flying. It, too, was a dangler.

Though my identification wasn’t definite, I suspected it was a member of the flower fly family. Curious enough, just moments before spotting the fly, I’d noticed a couple of blueberry flowers blooming. These are strange times, indeed.

A few more steps and I began to notice one I am familiar with: the tube created by a Pine-Tube moth. The larva ties needles together with silk as a form of protection in which to pupate. The tubes then get lined with more silk and are usually half as long as the needles because the larva eat the ends off. Though the larva may eat their way through several tubes over the course of a winter, I suspected this one was currently active because one needle stuck loosely out of the end. Inside, someone must have been dining.

And then . . . and then . . . I spied a small inch-worm type caterpillar. A Pine-Tube Moth larva?

Again, I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to display the right behavior.

I didn’t have all the answers today, but I know right where I met my acquaintances and hope that the next time we meet I’ll recognize them and perhaps will greet them by name. Chances are, though, that when I head out the back door to look for them, something else will shout quietly for attention and I’ll meet new things in the forest that will also leave me stymied by nature.

A Labyrinth: Four Syllables

Cir-cu-i-tous
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Sacred journey.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Expanded view.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
See more clearly.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Know more deeply.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Stretch out the soul. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Trans-for-ma-tion. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Walk to wholeness. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Meant to be here. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Shape life's story. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Life's metaphor. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
A labyrinth.
Cir-cu-i-tous.
Keep on breathing.

Lake Living: Fall/Winter 2020

Since 2006 I’ve had the extreme pleasure of working with editor and publisher Laurie LaMountain and graphic designer Dianne Lewis to produce Lake Living, Southern Maine’s Lifestyle Magazine.

As any issue is, this one is chock full of information about interesting people and places that make western Maine so special. Before I plug my own articles, I highly encourage you to read Laurie’s “Marking Time”–about a Veterinarian turned Clock Doc. Yup. And then there’s Perri’s “Full of Beans,” which is full of recipes, but also her inheritance. You have to read it to understand what I mean. There are also three articles about local interior designers, though I’m still biased and stand by Melissa, whom we used for our kitchen redo. And then there are the book reviews from Pam and Justin, Perri, and Sue at Bridgton Books. All worth a read.

I kinda think my articles are also worth a read. The first, “Before Suitcases,” is about a local woman named Connie, a former national sales manager at a footwear company who gives old trunks a new life.

“Every trunk is my baby,” says Connie.

“I take pride in what I do, and I love the end result.”

She treats each one as if it is going into her own home, which of course it can’t because there’s not enough room.

Have an old trunk hanging around that you’d like Connie to refurbish so you may use it as a decorative piece of furniture? You’ll have to read the article to get her contact info. Oh, and she ships around the globe so distance isn’t a hardship. 😉

And then there’s “A Partnered Project,” about Bridgton Historical Society and Loon Echo Land Trust and the newly created graded gravel walking trail that the two non-profit organizations have built.

The trail crosses by BHS’s Narramissic homestead and winds its way through LELT’s Peabody-Fitch woods. It’s a delight to walk and I hope a delight to read about because it also includes a wee bit of history.

For the wee bit more adventurous, there’s another trail that heads up to and circles through five old quarries.

The impetus behind the collaborative effort was this man who spends his free time mowing the fields at Narramissic: Jon Evans, LELT’s Stewardship Manager, and BHS’s vice president.

And the two guys who pushed forward through grants and other fundraising efforts to make it all happen, Ned of BHS and Matt of LELT, each organization’s executive director.

The overlap between the cultural and natural history brought these two organizations together in this partnered project and the end result is something everyone can benefit from whether young or old, agile or frail.

Please know that though the trails are open, this is a work in progress for both organizations and your financial support is needed.

But for me the crème de la crème of my articles is “Ready for Business,” about a local family who found a way around a babysitting issue during the current pandemic. Just as the Peabody-Fitch families operated a farm that included the children’s help at Narramissic in the late 1700s – early 1900s, the Warrens are currently doing the same. Bruce and Kyle Warren, the father/son team of Warren Excavation, were hired by BHS/LELT to build the gravel trail, and Kyle’s kids helped. Six-year-old Tillie and her younger sister quickly adapted to driving small trucks filled with dirt and gravel.

The pedals were adjusted so Hazel and Tillie could reach them. While at work they were all business. Though there were plenty of moments to play in the dirt and even a few special treats thrown into the mix.

Their two-year-old brother, Archer, was part of the management team, not saying much, but keeping an eye on all the action.

I had the pleasure of seeing the girls in action and walking beside them on the trail they’d help build. This place will always be a part of them, and that’s mighty special.

Lake Living Fall/Winter 2020

In my (un)biased opinion, the entire issue is mighty special. I do hope you’ll take time to savor it. And then support the local businesses that support the magazine (even if you are “from away,” you can still access some of them online) so we can continue to bring it to you for free. Remember to tell the business owners where you saw their ads.

Happy Reading.

Black, White, And Red Mondate

During our Staycation, my guy and I hiked a trail new to us that connects one mountain to another. Our intention had been to summit both that day, but because it took us some time to locate the actual trail head once we’d climbed two miles up a ski trail, we ran out of time to complete the route before turning around. At our turn-around point, we waypointed that spot on GPS knowing we’d return and actually looked forward to approaching from the opposite direction.

Today was that day. And so we signed in at the kiosk, and headed up the orange-blazed trail where many beech leaves had already fallen and enhanced our hike with the crunch they provided upon each step we took.

And where there are beech leaves, there are American Beech trees. And where there are beech trees, there might very well be bear claw marks. Though this has been a mast year for acorns and pinecones, it’s not been so for beech nuts, but by the pattern we spied, we knew that in the past this tree provided a few fine meals.

As the trail began to transition from beech and oak to spruce and fir, we found signs of another–perhaps a contemplator who got so lost in thought that he or she left behind a pair of fine specs. A few times in the past I’ve included finds such as this and the owners have been reacquainted with their losses. Perhaps these sunglasses will find their way home soon.

Though we didn’t wish away the hike as we ascended, we were eager to reach the point where the Black and White trail would depart to the right and knew when the substrate changed from packed trail, roots, and rocks to all granite, that it wouldn’t be long.

Indeed it wasn’t. Nor was the turn-around point. Ten minutes in, I looked at the GPS to see how much further we needed to go, and discovered we’d walked about 30 feet beyond the landmark we’d noted. We chuckled to think that a week ago we’d been soooo close.

A week ago, however, the Hobblebush did not look like this. That, in itself, was reason to give thanks that we’d ventured forth today.

Ten minutes later and we were back on the trail where more shades of red greeted us.

Some of it was pinkish in hue and I don’t think we’ve ever hiked past this perfectly split granite boulder without honoring its offerings.

Still, there was more trail to cover, so upward and onward we climbed.

At last we reached the summit and had another good chuckle. Along the way, we met one woman descending who rejoiced in the fact that today was her first day on this mountain. By the split rock, we watched as a younger man ran down the trail and shared with each other that that wasn’t a mode we would have chosen. But we both know those who like to run up and down. A wee bit further on, a man was taking a break as he sat on the granite and he, too, was amazed by the trail runner. It was also his first time to do this climb, and he asked my guy to take his photo. And then, as we stood at the summit and got our bearings with the mountains and man-made objects beyond, a woman approached and said, “I just need to touch that thing.” “Huh?” we thought. “What thing?” She pointed to the Geological Survey marker and we quickly moved out of her way. With one pole she touched it, said, “Now I can add it to the list,” and then pivoted and quickly began her descent. Her behavior drove home the fact that we all come to the mountains for different reasons and even if yours doesn’t make sense to us, it’s still yours.

One of our reasons for being there was to stand in the opposite position than we stood the first time we attempted the Black and White trail. Last week, we posed for a selfie below the radio tower viewed in the distance.

From the other summit, there wasn’t much of a view, but from today’s stance, the expanse was 360˚.

And so around . . .

and around . . .

I turned.

As we began the descent moments later, my guy took in his royal kingdom.

My kingdom was at a much smaller scale, and it was the scales of a Tamarack cone that stopped me in my tracks. Tamarack. Hackmatack. Larch. Call it what you want, but do give it a shout out–at least in our area because it’s always a treat to find such. This conifer (cone-bearer) had begun to show off its deciduous nature as its the only one of its type in which its leaves (needles) change colors as sugars are shut down and photosynthesis ceases, just like the broad-leaf trees.

Eventually, we turned right onto the yellow trail down, and it wasn’t far along when we encountered the last of our human counterparts–two women who had just spotted a Green Snake. A Green Snake near the summit. Another treat of the trail. One woman thought she could catch it, but as she moved in it quickly slithered away for its nature is on the shy side and due to its color you may have been near one more frequently than you know, but it would have been well camouflaged within the foliage it prefers.

Before we left the bald ledges behind, we reveled in the rich shades of red that will become candy in our minds’ eyes for months to come.

The foliage is different this year as a result of the drought and then an early frost, both of which should have enhanced it, but for some reason didn’t. That said, there is still spectacular color to be found, all of it seemly encapsulated in a Bigtooth Aspen leaf.

Nearing the end of our journey, we paused upon a bridge for a snack break: a Kind Bar for him and apple for me.

And it was there that we met the trail ambassador: Prince Charming. By the size of the Green Frog’s large external eardrums (tympanums) we knew it was a male. If the tympanum is larger than the eye, it’s a male. Smaller equals female.

The prince was the icing on the cake for this Black and White Mondate filled in with various shades of red . . . and topped off with a bear tree, a Tamarack, and a couple of shades of green, including one who let me massage his back. And I’m not talking about my guy!

A Layered Life

Perhaps some can walk in a straight line, but I’m not one of them. Even in our home, I find myself darting here and then there as one thought or another enters my mind and I need to check on this or look into that. So it was when I entered a wetland today.

My journey began with a destination toward a certain coppiced (many trunked) Red Maple but I knew ahead of time that I’d divert from the path that didn’t exist and scramble through the Buttonbush shrubs to visit a kettle hole that is groundwater dependent. Only two weeks ago, it was filled with much more water and I was surprised to find it so low today. And thrilled.

Behind the first “hole” or kettle is a second and between the two: tracks galore. The baby-hand look gave away the ID of the most frequent travelers: Raccoons.

But . . . where two weeks ago some friends and I spied Black Bear prints, today I noted the track of a large moose that had headed in the opposite direction of my foot. If you look carefully from the bottom of the photograph to the top left-hand corner, you’ll see three dark indentations, giving a sense of size: Mighty big.

After enjoying the first kettles for a while, I decided to bushwhack toward another. Again, my path was a zigzag and again the ground water was significantly lower. Why? Given that we finally had rain this week, I expected it to be higher, but by the state of the leaves on the trees, and the color of the plant life, it’s obvious that the drought has truly affected the landscape. Because of all the undergrowth and downed trees and branches that snap as one walks, I was hardly quiet in my approach, thus several Wood Ducks sang their “oo-eek, oo-eek” song as they took flight.

That was ok, for still I stood in silent reverence and thought about the soils under the water and how it must differ from that under the American Bur-reed, and how that soil must differ from that under the Buttonbush and Winterberry shrubs, and how that soil must differ from that under the Red and Silver Maples.

Pulling away at last, I journeyed forth in a continued erratic fashion, made even more erratic by the shrubs that acted like Hobblebush and persisted in trying to daunt my procession. Each foot had to find placement among branches only to then be confronted by fallen trees that don’t decompose so readily in this acidic neighborhood.

The obstacles were unsuccessful in pulling me to a complete stop and at last I arrived. Well, I’m not sure I’ll ever really arrive . . . anywhere. But I reached a point on my quest and zigzagged through the grasses and Leatherleaf and Swamp Candles. Once again, it was obvious by the plant life that the soil composition differed from one zone to the next.

Meandering about, occasionally I heard a slight “pop” at my feet.

You see, growing upon the Sphagnum Moss are thousands of Cranberry plants and I spent some time picking from the offerings, though I did note many soft ones–the result of last week’s frost. Still, they’ll make a good relish or sauce.

And in the same community, though a bit closer to the water and therefore finding a home on a soil that probably differed a bit from that which the cranberries preferred, a few robust Pitcher Plants showed off their always intriguing leaves and flowers gone by.

The now woody structure of this carnivorous plant is as interesting as the plant’s way of seeking nutrients in hydric (low-oxygen) soils. Though the petals had long since fallen, the round, five-celled fruit remained intact. The rusty-brown seed capsule, about ¾ inch in diameter, had begun to split open and exposed within were numerous seeds. Upon a closer look, I realized I wasn’t the only one observing this unique structure.

Do you see the teeny, tiny black and white insect? It wasn’t there for pollen, and so I began to wonder.

Would the insect eventually find its way down to the pitcher-shaped leaves and be enticed by the terminal red-lipstick lips, nectar glands, and brightly colored veins?

Would it follow the downward-pointing hairs into the trap below and not be able to crawl back out?

Would it become a snack, much as the insect in the water of the leaf on the left? You see, once the prey slides down through the hairs, it reaches a smooth zone where it encounters some sticky goo, thus making it even more difficult to climb out. And then, there’s the water, rainwater. It is there that the insect drowns, and is digested by bacteria and enzymes in the water. The resulting nutrients are then absorbed by the plant that grows in a habitat low in essential nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Actually, the tiny insect might not become a meal because it just might be a Pitcher-plant Midge, who has anti-enzymes to counteract the digestive enzymes in the fluid, and feeds on the plant’s decomposed insects. There’s also a type of mosquito and flesh fly that survive in the same manner.

Mostly hidden by other plant forms, another Pitcher Plant grows a few feet away, but its leaves are much greener due to its shadier habitat.

As I looked at the plants at my feet, suddenly I heard the bugling, rattle-like sound of Sandhill Cranes. Take a listen.

Rather than return via the “path” I’d created into the bog, I had to go in search, certain that I might be disappointed.

I was so certain I’d be disappointed because my approach was rather loud.

At last I reached the edge of the largest kettle of all. And scanned the scene.

Suddenly to my right three large birds emerged from behind the Buttonbush. I’d found the cranes. But as I fumbled switching cameras, they flew off, rattling all the way.

Still, there was more movement where they had been and for a few seconds I watched three Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers until they also flew off.

And so I began to wander back, at times totally uncertain of my whereabouts, though by the sky and trees ahead I thought I was headed in the correct direction. Still, it felt rather jungle-like among so many Winterberries. The curious thing: two weeks ago there had been many other berries including Witherod or Wild Raisin. Apparently the birds that I heard all around me had been feasting.

A flock of Northern Flickers darted here and there. I know they are seed eaters, but they’ll also eat fruits. Perhaps it was they? And so many others in the midst of migration.

I know it wasn’t the Great Blue Heron who suddenly flew up into a tree and preened. His intention would have been on the aquatic life in the kettles.

Adding my stomach growls to the scene, I knew it was time for me to depart. Still I stood, taking it all in.

A layered life. Where hours pass like moments. And life transpires while fruits form.

I am grateful to wander and wonder and wonder and wander some more.

Finding Balance

When I suggested to my guy a couple of months ago that we might take a vacation in September, he gave me that dubious look I know so well. “It’ll be a staycation,” I said. “And what will we do?” he asked.

We’ll sit on the patio and drink beer crafted just for such occasions.

We’ll work on house projects including rebuilding the water feature.

And share some trails with our youngest who will travel north with his gal.

Along the way we’ll notice bobcat scat.

And lowbush blueberries turned red.

At the summit we’ll spy cotton grass growing where we least expect it.

And from the summit we’ll spy our hometown mountain on the horizon.

Descending via a different trail, we’ll help our young guy develop his bear claw tree eyes.

And we’ll take a few minutes to explore a pool emerald green.

In our own woodlot, we’ll reclaim the trails we made so long ago.

And build mammal condominiums for the little brown things that live in these woods.

At the end of one day after she’s finished working from “home,” aka camp, we’ll watch as our young guy and his gal prepare a delicious meal for us.

And I’ll be thrilled that both of you will know to take off your hats before we begin dining.

Early one morning we’ll climb that hometown favorite, which we’ve avoided for the past seven months.

And at the summit we’ll take turns posing.

Another day the two of us will climb up a ski trail where X may mark the spot but we still won’t be sure if we’re in the right place for the hiking trail we seek.

Still, we’ll poke around at the summit where lots of cell towers stand and locate a view of our intended destination in the background.

Finally, rather by accident, or will it be serendipity, we’ll discover a sign that will lead us into the woods we sought.

We’ll follow the trail for several miles but give ourselves a turn-around time and not worry about reaching the other end and finish up late in the day with eleven miles behind us.

On the way back via the same trail, we’ll discover one of the best bear claw trees ever.

At some point we’ll watch our youngest hop back onto his unicycle and ride again.

While doing more yard/house work, we’ll watch a Pileated Woodpecker . . .

excavate an old tree in search of food.

And then I’ll add pink polka-dots to the house because I always wanted to live in a pink polka-dotted house.

And you’ll pull out all the power tools you can, while I repaint the barn door green.

You’ll also straighten out the barn, creating piles for the dump store and burn pile, and then creating sections much like your hardware store.

Among your projects, you’ll rebuild a couple of shutters to give the house a completed look.

Simultaneously, I’ll spend hours reading, knitting, and creating something that didn’t occur to me until mid-week: a labyrinth in our woods.

In the end, you’ll continue to know that I’ll follow you anywhere.

And by the same token, I’ll always be proud and happy to stand beside you.

As our staycation comes to a close, we’ll again sit on the patio and sip beers while reminiscing about the week that you doubted and you’ll share how much you loved it and I’ll do the same as we each name three things that we found most meaningful as is our tradition at the end of a vacation and we’ll add more to the discussion and give thanks for the time that we shared together, with our youngest son and his gal, and doing our own thing. We won’t want the time to end, but will give thanks that we both love our jobs, which will help ease the transition back to reality.

We won’t know when the week starts that it’s balance we sought, but by the end we’ll find it . . . or maybe it will find us.

Summer Falls

Today dawned the chilliest in a while with 29˚ registering on the thermometer at 6am. But as these September days do, it warmed up a bit and I didn’t need my gauntlet mittens, aka hand-made wrist warmers, for long.

As I ventured forth, I noticed, however, that the fairies had worked like crazy and prepared for the temperature and their beds were well covered.

Further along, Cinnamon fern fronds curled into themselves as is their manner at this time of year, but really, it looked like they had donned caterpillar coats in an attempt to stay cozy. So named cinnamon for the color of their separate fertile frond in the spring, the late season hue also sings their common name.

Upon another stalk that also appeared cinnamon in color, paused a Swamp Spreadwing Damselfly, its days diminishing as its a summer flyer.

For a while, I stood in an area where Bog Rosemary and Cotton Grass grow among a variety of others. One of those others blooms late in the season and added a tad bit of color to the display.

As I wandered, I wondered. Where are the pollinators? For the early hours I suspected they were tucked under the flowers, but eventually the day warmed enough and the action began and no one was busier than this Bumblebee.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, for Hover Flies did what they do: hovered. And occasionally landed.

Notice the hairy fringe? Hover or Drone Flies as they are also known, mimic bees in an attempt to keep predators at bay. Perhaps the hair also keeps the cold temp from tamping down their efforts?

Crossing streams more than several times, Water Striders skated while the tension between feet and water created reflections of the still green canopy and blue sky. And do you notice the tiny red water mites that had hitched a ride on the strider?

Meandering along, the natural community kept changing and so did the plant life. One of my favorites, Hobblebush, spoke of three seasons to come: autumn’s colorful foliage, winter’s naked buds a bit hairy in presentation, and spring’s global promise of a floral display forming between the buds.

One might think this was a serene hike in the woods and through the wetlands. One would be slightly wrong. Ah, there were not man-made sounds interrupting the peace, but the grasshoppers and cicadas did sing, birds did forage and scatter and forage some more, and red squirrels did cackle. A. Lot.

Perhaps their dirty faces indicated the source of their current food source: white pine seeds. It certainly looked like sap dripped from facial hairs.

And I’m pretty sure I heard a request for sunflower seeds and peanuts to be on the menu soon.

I wandered today beside a muddy river,

through a Red Maple swamp,

and into a quaking bog.

In each instance it was obvious: Summer falls . . . into autumn. It’s on the horizon.

May the Wonder Never Cease

I’m pretty sure everything others and I see are ordinary, but we manage to make them extraordinary because we feel like we’ve been honored with gifts when we notice them. And so it has happened that in the last three days I’ve had the opportunity to notice some rather mundane sights.

First, there was the Solitary Sandpiper foraging for insects in a kettle bog. I was with six others and we weren’t exactly silent as we stood by the muddy margin of the water, and yet the bird never acknowledged our presence, but we were certainly in awe of its company.

In that same space a Catbird crying its meow calls also foraged and our eyes flickered from one to the other as we tried to keep track of their movements.

It wasn’t just “our” feathered friends who garnered our attention for we love mud and happened to be standing in some and what’s mud without mammal prints? As in . . . Black Bear prints.

Indeed. We even took time to measure the straddle or distance from the outside of the hind print on the left-hand side of Ursus Americanus’ body to the far side of its front foot print–about 20 centimeters in total. Also in the corridor, prints of raccoons a many, and a fox.

Though bears and raccoons and foxes may all be omnivores, taking advantage of whatever meal might be available in the moment, there were a few carnivores in the mix–including the most beautiful of all: Pitcher Plants with their tree of life decorated pitcher-style leaves.

One more carnivore who had somehow survived being consumed by a bird or another member of the Odonata family also honored us–in its last moments of life: a Sedge Darner Dragonfly.

We studied its markings on both abdomen and face, which helped in identification, and then watched as it cocked its head and let forth one last sigh. We were there for it in the moment and now it rests upon my desk.

If that wasn’t enough, the next day three of us walked another large swath of land in the same vicinity and one among us with a keen eye spotted this little gem upon a Bracken Fern. (Thanks M.Y.) The baby Gray Tree Frog was not larger than a Spring Peeper and it struck us that it was a wee bit cold as the morning had dawned and indeed when we passed by again an hour and a half later, it was still in the same position, though as we approached we did notice it move, so we knew it had more life in it than the Sedge Darner.

In the same woodland, we spied a Hermit Thrush, who made itself know not by its melodic song that we enjoyed for much of the summer, but rather by its behavior as it stood upon the stump and then darted to the ground as it foraged before hopping back on the stump. These swaths of land–how important they are to support all of this wildlife that needs each other to survive. And us to notice so that we don’t go crazy and alter the land so much that they lose their habitat.

Today, the offerings continued. And in the midst of some important information being shared about a conserved property, a wee Painted Turtle was spotted. The acorns offered a certain sense of size.

You know how puppies seem to need to grow into their paws? That’s how I felt about this turtle. Not only did it have to grow into its feet and claws, but also its head. And then there was the attitude as exhibited on its face, though that may have had something to do with the fact that a bunch of us were in its space and we tried once or twice to reroute it, but it had its own idea of a mission and really, who are we to tell it where to go?

One might think that all of that was enough. But . . . was it? Well, in another space that is a private property under conservation easement, a metallic Oil Blister Bug made itself known.

It’s not one known to fly and if you take a closer look, you’ll note that its wings are rather limited given its overall size. But that color. Oh my!

The crème de la crème, however, may not be the clearest photo, but it was the coolest find of all: a black Eastern Chipmunk. One other and I had been listening to a Barred Owl call when we heard the sound of scampering nearby.

I’ve been receiving reports of the black chipmunk’s existence in the area the past few weeks, but was still totally surprised to make its acquaintance at least a half mile or more away from where others had seen one. Is there more than one?

As I understand it, the black color is caused by too much of the pigment melanin, which with elevated amounts results in dark skin, feathers, scales, or in this case, fur.

From the ordinary to the extraordinary, may the wonders never cease.

A Spider’s Feast

In the changing light of the early afternoon, I began chasing male Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies. That’s no surprise, I’m sure.

But what did surprise me was that I didn’t notice any females. And that reminded me of the Calico Pennants, for in the early summer it was the males of that species that I spotted most often. Where were the females?

Perhaps mating was no longer on the minds of the meadowhawks and given the cooler temp of the day, I could convince one to climb upon my finger to gain some warmth.

And so it did . . . until in a flash, it flew off. In pursuit of what? I didn’t know.

And so I turned my attention to a Mottled Grasshopper, also known as a Pine Tree Spur-throated Grasshopper, or more scientifically Melanoplus punctulatus. Had it been on a tree, I might have missed spying it, but upon the rock it posed thus allowing me to spend some time in admiration. Ah, the eyes. Two segmented antennae. Those teeny, tiny feet that support such a large body. And that body suited in armor. Its colors and patterns reflecting an artistic creator. Lest I get carried away, I moved on in search of more dragonflies.

And suddenly I spotted a canoodling pair that flew past me and landed on an oak tree, where their bodies formed the mating circle. But again, just as they’d flown in, off they went in tandem, toward the pond so he could make sure it was his sperm that fertilized the eggs she deposited along the shoreline.

What was I to do? Why, look around, of course. And that’s when I spotted a huge orbweaver in action as it dangled from the camp shed.

I was immediately mesmerized as I realized it was a grasshopper that must have climbed the building and become ensnared. The red squirrel above me was not as enchanted with my presence and so he scolded.

Looking up into the white pine, I searched for the branch upon which he sat.

It took a moment for he was rather high up in the tree, but at last I spied the chatterbox.

But my main focus was on the feast waiting to happen. First it had to be wrapped.

I’ve seen wrapped insects in webs before, but I what I found most fascinating about this one was the size of the predator and its prey. The spider was hardly daunted.

From different angles, I tried to gain a better understanding. Not only was the wrap so intriguing, but have you ever wondered how such a large spider can dangle upside down, held only by thin threads of silk? Then again, have you ever broken through a spider web? Some are mighty strong and sticky.

While that action continued on the front of the shed, I looked to the side to see if there was any evidence of an old feast. None was evident, but I did see another grasshopper heading toward the roof line.

And then it turned . . . toward the front of the building. A wrong turn?

Indeed. Slowly it advanced . . . until it encountered an entanglement and realized its poor choice of direction.

With care, it retreated.

And so I returned to the front of the shed to check on the action where the well wrapped meal could have been mistaken for a small fish.

Orbweavers typically bite their prey to kill them, then wrap their meals in silk for later consumption. Really wrap. I watched for well over an hour and then headed off for a hike with my guy.

Just before leaving I glimpsed at the side where the live grasshopper had tried to escape. In the moment, it was a success story for I didn’t see it anywhere.

Upon returning three hours later, I immediately checked upon my friend. Wait. Did I just call this incredibly huge, hairy/spiny arachnid “my friend”? I do suffer like many from arachnophobia, but at the same time, their structures and behaviors garner my awe.

As for the wrapped grasshopper, I guess you could say it was “toast.” The spider had turned and it appeared that meal was being consumed.

I looked for crumbs this morning, but found nary a morsel. Somewhere there may be a small ball of indigestible parts on the ground that I overlooked. Even the web had been destroyed, which is typical spider behavior–consume the silk as morning approaches, thus reabsorbing any moisture used in its construction, as well as the dew. Perhaps it’s like a sip of juice to help with digestion.

A meal of toast and juice–a spider’s feast.

In-DEED Day

Down by the brook,

in a place I’ve determined is the Secret Garden,

Daddy Longlegs, aka Harvestmen, do roam.

Those who are diurnal in nature, dehydrate easily.

Detecting light intensity with two eyes, they don’t see images, but rather rely upon other senses to locate prey.

Distinguished by black antennae banded with white, an ichnuemon wasp hunted below a Royal Fern that offered contrasting colors.

Flying and landing, flying and landing, was a tiny dragonfly known locally as an Autumn Meadowhawk, so denoted by its legs of brown.

And dangling below a goldenrod, an assassin bug searching for a meal.

Another dangler was the discarded exuviae of a Dog-day Cicada, who’s buzzy love song filled the daylight hours.

Before I left the garden, I noted one more harvestman on the downward side of Pearly Everlasting.

Filled with insects and spiders as any garden should be, the secret one was brought to us by the letter D as defined by a curled fern frond.

In–DEED. To-DAY.

Insect Brigadoon

So, um, we hiked today.

Along a favorite trail.

It offers a variety of terrain.

And opens to a wonderful view of the mountains to the west. This isn’t actually the summit of the mountain, but it’s close to the boundary line of land open to the public. The trail continues for another half mile and as we did in the spring, we followed it–hoping against hope and because someone told us it was true, that a loop around the top had been completed. Take it from us: that is false information. But still, we hiked six miles in three hours. And . . . those were the only photos I took. My guy was in as much disbelief as I was. To say we practically ran down the trail would be an understatement.

By contrast, and my guy laughs at this, yesterday a friend and I traveled a different route and covered three miles in five hours.

We were in the land of the Green Frogs . . . and wildflowers and birds and chipmunks and shrubs and trees, but our best finds of all were a couple of insects.

It all began with a seedhead we couldn’t recall meeting before. Who was this Cousin Itt? Turns out–a Roundhead Bushclover.

It also turns out that Western Conifer Seed Bugs (WCSB) had already made its acquaintance. We were certainly late to the party. But really, it was a clover species that was new to us. Apparently it’s high in protein and a preferred treat for wildlife–from mammals to insects.

As we looked, two other insects thought (can insects think?) they were hiding from our inquisitive eyes, but . . . we found them on the backside and quickly realized their backsides were connected.

In canoodle fashion they mated. Once we established that, we tried to determine their names. As I said to my companion, names don’t matter as much as the characteristics, but still, we agreed, we like to know upon whom we’ve focused our attention. And so our study began. Initially, the insect in the foreground reminded us of the WCSB, but there were subtle differences in color and structure. Their main food is seeds, which they pierce with their proboscis to drink the nutritious fluids contained within.

These bugs mainly inhabit fairly arid and sandy habitat and we were certainly in such at a place known as Goose Pasture. It also seemed to be the preferred habitat of the Round-Headed Bushclover.

Upon another clover we were intrigued by a creature that made us first think this: Ant. But . . . if we’ve learned nothing else in this darn pandemic, it’s to question the information presented. What looks like an ant but isn’t an ant? Why, an ant mimic, of course. Our takeaways: long horns or antennae; modified wings; and a butt that looks like a face, perhaps warning others to stay away?

If you look back at the canoodlers, you’ll notice this critter and the smaller mating insect are rather similar . ,. . because they are indeed one in the same in terms of species.

I was confounded as I often am with intriguing insects and so I reached out to my entemologist friend, Anthony. And . . . he confirmed my guesses. A Broad-headed Bug: Alydus eurinus.

In the same area, a teeny butterfly flew in to tap check the asters.

Her markings and coloration pointed toward the ID of a Northern Crescent. My wow moments included the black and white pattern of her antennae as well as her grayish green eyes that seemed almost as big as the Green Frogs–speaking relatively due to size, of course.

With her proboscis did she probe and I’m sure lots of nectar was sought. I am making a gender assumption for I don’t know for sure–the female is supposed to be larger and darker than the male. Without seeing two together, I couldn’t make a size reference but this one certainly had darker colors.

And I’d be remiss to dismiss the female White-faced Meadowhawk who followed us most of the way and has reached its peak flying season. There were other species to note, but they eluded my camera’s focus, so they’ll have to remain but a memory.

Today, my guy and I hiked up a mountain and reveled in the fact that the trail is so well constructed that one hardly feels like one is climbing higher and higher.

But yesterday offered a taste of Brigadoon and for the Broad-headed Bugs perhaps it was just that. It often feels that way to me.

Crowning Glory

The theme of the week didn’t dawn on me immediately, but a few days into it and I knew how blessed I am.

It all began when this young man and I went on a treasure hunt Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t actually take this photo Tuesday because our focus was so much on the leaf litter at our feet that I forgot to pay attention to anything else. We were hunting for a rare plant and had been given a circle on a map to consider. We knew we were in the right place. But still it evaded us.

There were others to admire, however, such as the upturned form of the fertilized Indian Pipes. and Rhyan Paquereau, Greater Lovell Land Trust’s new Land Steward, and I didn’t really mind that we couldn’t spot the plant of our attention because we enjoyed the quest. As well as the opportunity to explore off trail together. I gave thanks that I get to work with this young man and learn from and bounce off of him about the wonders of the natural world.

A day or two later I headed out to the same property with docent Parker Veitch, who also happens to own White Mountain Mushrooms. He was the one who’d noticed the plant and drawn the circle on the map. Again, it was into a beech/oak/hemlock forest that we hiked and focused upon leaf-filled depressions.

Exactly where Rhyan and I had tramped previously, Parker showed me the plant of intention and I realized the mistake we’d made previously. I hadn’t paid complete attention to Parker’s note and the wee structure was no longer in flower, but had gone to seed. It was a lesson learned. As often happens, once my eyes and mind understood the location and features, it was everywhere. But wait, Three Birds Orchid, Triphora trianthophora, is listed as S2 in Maine: Imperiled in Maine because of rarity (6-20 occurrences or few remaining individuals or acres) or because of other factors making it vulnerable to further decline.

FMI: https://www.maine.gov/dacf/mnap/features/tritri.htm

As good as the find was, however, and we found more Three Birds than we could count, was a chance to spend time hiking and talking with this young man. Not only did we catch up for we hadn’t had an opportunity to share the trail in a while, but also to ponder questions such as what are the characteristics of an old growth forest. We looked at the canopy, saplings, and ground. The land hadn’t been cut as far as we could tell for there were no stumps. But when we tried our best to age the trees, we realized there is so much more for us to understand.

And then there were glacial erratics thrown into the mix and we knew we were in over our heads.

That didn’t stop us from appreciating their place in the forest. Or . . . the forest’s place upon the rock island.

One of our final discoveries before departing was a Beech Drop that had twisted and turned and grown into a downed branch. I gave thanks that I got to hike with this young man and learn from and bounce off of him about the wonders of the natural world.

Later that same day I met with this group, Dan, Jon, and Mary, all members of Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park Stewardship Committee. We walked the trails, made a few tweaks, considered some issues, and once again I gave thanks for these were three more young people in my world who care about and for the natural world.

And then today dawned. Like icing on the cake, or Witherod fruits upon the leaf, it was one I looked forward to for I’d been honored to receive an invite to help a young naturalist celebrate her birthday. She asked two of us to join her this morning and we were both tickled for the opportunity.

Her eyes, like those of Rhyan and Parker and Dan and Jon and Mary, are big and constantly seeking.

Like them, she knows that her wings may get tattered, but . . .

that will never stop her need to gain more knowledge, much like the Silver-bordered Fritillary sought nectar.

Other times, she’ll take on the attitude of a Katydid and just do it, whatever “it” might be–as it relates to the natural world.

She knows that sometimes there will be hangups just when she thought she had life figured out.

But always I suspect she’ll seek creative and colorful solutions.

At the end of the day, she may feel like she’s dangling by a spider’s thread because sometimes that happens.

But always, there should be Bullfrog and Green Frogs in her mind’s eye and memories of them running across lily pads to view like reruns any time life drags her down. Oh, and a Ruffed Grouse that refused to be photographed.

Today was the day that Alanna and I were invited to join another and so we joined together and wove a head wreath and a talking stick as memories.

And celebrated this young woman, Hadley.

Before we departed, the three Musketeers posed for a photograph in honor of Hadley’s birthday. But really, as I know she’ll appreciate, this week was more than celebrating Hadley.

It was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life mean, from our sons whom I can chat with on the phone to those who have chosen to make this area of western Maine their home and to get to know their place in it. And then to go beyond and share it in a way that benefits the wider community.

Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent (whom I didn’t get to photograph), and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.

Likewise, I don’t mean to snub Erika, Pam and Bob K, David P, Basil D, and Susan W, with whom I’ve also shared the natural world this week, but I know that you all also appreciate all these young people.

We are all blessed. Today we crowed Hadley, and in so doing, gloried so many others.

Prowling for Pollinators . . .

So maybe this morning wasn’t the best choice to go searching for pollinators since the temp was in the 50˚s and delightfully so. Crisp air. Blue sky. Autumn Teaser. What’s not to love?

But search I did. I suspected most of those I sought were sleeping within the flower petals or had found some other warm spot to spend the night and early hours of the day.

One well wrapped and ready for the next season was a native young Hickory Tussock Caterpillar. Do you see the detached hairs above it on the yet unmunched half of the Sweet-fern leaf? In a way, tussocks remind me of porcupines for their hairs are barbed like a porky’s quills and can easily detach.

Though most that I’ve been seeing are about one inch long, I discovered one that was at least three inches and perhaps considering using the hairs to spin a cocoon.

Recently friends and I commented that we hadn’t seen many of these caterpillars this year and then we recalled that last year’s prolific sightings occurred late summer/early fall. The good news is this: though they defoliate many tree species including but not limited to hickories, they do so at a time when the trees are preparing to shut down and so no overall harm seems to be done. And being native, they are subject to natural enemies so we can only hope that this year’s prevalence is much lower.

Mind you, as the morning progressed, there were a few pollinators on the move including this tiny hoverfly upon an aster. Though they don’t have pollen baskets and can’t carry as much pollen as a bee might, hoverflies visit so many flowers that they are seen as pollinator champions.

As my search continued, I stumbled upon a female Katydid walking along a wooden fence. Katydids’ antennae are long (as in at least the length of the body) and thin, thus differentiating them from their grasshopper cousins.

Another way to identify one is the camouflaged leafy structure of their wings, much resembling the veined foliage upon which they spend their time dining. And this one–a female, so proclaimed because of its thick, upwardly curved ovipositor (egg-laying structure).

Under the same fence post, a grasshopper did rest, its antennae much shorter.

What surprised me most as I explored one place and then another and another: the variety of dragonflies that still did fly. I’m rather partial to a few, including this male Pondhawk Darner with its greenish face and white claspers. If only his gal had been around, they would have made a handsome couple.

In another spot a Paper Wasp paused. Watch its hind legs.

Ever so slowly . . .

it practiced . . .

Edward Scissorhands moves. Paper Wasps are pollinators and I had to wonder if it was transferring some pollen on its legs in wasp-ballet style.

Finding a few pollinators and other insects was fun, but the creme de la creme of this morning’s expedition was time spent with so many Autumn Meadowhawks who shared every trail I walked.

Not only do Autumn Meadowhawks have yellowish legs, but their coloration matches the newly formed American Beech buds, making their timing seem serendipitous.

Being a coolish morning, I thought I might entice at least one upon my hand for they seek heat. These are wee dragons as you can see by the size of this female.

I swear she smiled at me. I smiled back.

While prowling for pollinators . . . I made some great finds and my morning search was well rewarded.

Goldenrod Gala

As many of you know, I’ve never been a party girl, much preferring to hide in the wings and be the wallflower at the edge of the crowd, but when the invite arrived today, how could I resist?

It didn’t give an actual location, but by the photo I suspected I knew where in the yard would I meet my friends.

Immediately upon entering, I wished I’d waited a bit for the Ambush Bugs had already discovered each other and chose the corner I preferred as their hide-away spot in which to mate. Really, shouldn’t they have gotten a room?

At last, however, I discovered others who like me were solo for the party, this being a Mason Wasp. His eye was on the bar and nectar was the drink of choice.

While I inquired about something to sip upon, into the middle of the space danced a pair of Thread-waisted Wasps. She seemed rather oblivious to his advances.

They maneuvered this way . . .

and that. No matter which way they swayed, he clung on.

At times I wondered if she really appreciated his clingy mannersim.

At best, she seemed to tolerate him. But never did she let him get any closer.

For over an hour, we all watched from the edges as they sashayed back and forth across the dance floor. Maybe he clung so close because he hoped to get lucky in the near future, or maybe they’d already finished canoodling and he wanted to make sure that it was eggs he’d fertilized that she laid, much the way male dragonflies hold on until the female of their intentions do the same.

Meanwhile, back in the corner, the Ambush Bugs began to separate as he climbed down off of her. And below them, another insect that might become their choice at the buffet table lingered.

Finding a stem all its own upon which to practice its own dance steps was a Locust Borer decked out in fancy dress clothes.

Also dressed to the nines was a Flesh Fly wearing gray pin stripes.

As the party continued, I soon realized that the Mason Wasp was a tease.

Or so it seemed as its antennae played with a shy Crab Spider waiting under the buffet for a morsel upon which to dine.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the spider–who was certain it was about to score, only to discover it had been outsmarted. But that’s the way it is in these social affairs as a variety of personalities come together to greet each other and yet satisfy their own needs.

At last the hour had chimed and it was time for all of us to depart. As I stepped through the doorway, a final greeting was bestowed . . . by an Assassin Bug Nymph completely camouflaged by the flower’s greenery.

With that, my visit to the two-hour Goldenrod Gala was completed and I gave thanks for the invite to such a pop-up event. A social gathering of my type, indeed.

What the House Wren Pronounced

They’re said to be uncommon in our area, but in the past few weeks I’ve twice had the opportunity to spot a House Wren. And truly, that word “uncommon” strikes me the same way as “common.” My guy sometimes refers to me as “uncommon,” but really . . . I’m just plain common.

Still, the wren foretold the insects to come because so many are part of its diet.

And its habitat, one full of fields and forest beyond.

Such a forest includes Purple Milkwort, a teeny, tiny flower with a structure that reminds me of Origami folds, yet so easy to overlook for its location so close to the ground.

Equally small in relationship to the landscape, the suddenly prolific juvenile Autumn Meadowhawks, their yellow legs a sure giveaway to their “common” name.

Short-horned grasshoppers were also among the mix, which included so many grasshoppers with every step. Curiously, some found a new split-rail fence to be much to their liking.

Today’s path led to a spur trail into an old quarry that possibly supported mill sites built downstream, including a former woolen mill. It was a place where the past begged an honor.

And the present offered new learnings. On the left: the underside of Bear or Scrub Oak; and the right: Northern Red Oak. Notice how the former is not only whiter, but smaller in structure. Both, however, feature bristled lobes.

The cones of the Bear Oak were much smaller than the Red, and in their present form still bespoke the flowers from which they’d formed.

Added into the mixed forest were a couple of saplings of White Oak, another species not so “common” to the setting.

One spot combined two more common sightings–a White Pine cone having been consumed by a Red Squirrel who probably sat upon a branch of the pine tree above to devour the seeds tucked within each scale and discarded said scales below while turning the cone much the way we eat an ear of corn and finally dropping the leftover cob which landed upon a Red Oak.

In this same forest setting, Striped Maples showed off their dangling lanterns of samaras, dimpled on one side and robust on the other.

Upon the trunk of another Striped Maple a grasshopper practiced its best camouflage, but . . . it was seen.

At another section of trail where the wildflowers grew, the Ambush Bugs waited for prey upon which to dine.

Activity upon the wildflowers was abundant and include this stink bug: Stiretrus anchorago.

Ants were very much a part of the scene, giving rise to the sweet factor the Meadowsweet flowers offered.

And when one is looking, one discovers others who try to secretly travel through the landscape, such as the Western Conifer Seed Bug Nymph.

Curiously, a “common” Harvestman Daddy Long Legs showed off a display of Red Mites.

But, one of the coolest dudes in the neighborhood was a Tachnid Fly, its dark oval eyes and bristly oversized body a giveaway. Tachnid flies are considered beneficial because they dine on lots of other insects including sawflies, borers, and green stink bugs, plus tent caterpillars, cabbage loopers, and gypsy moth larvae.

As had been the manner at the beginning of the hike, so it was at the end with band-winged grasshoppers displaying their armored forms upon the split-fence posts.

Hidden among the pine needles, molts of grasshopper species showed off their exoskeletons.

In the midst of all who followed the trail, Sedge Darners flew and landed and dined and flew some more.

The question remained: How much did the House Wren pronounce? A lot for as it knew, there was much to see and understand. But really, it probably pronounced so much more to be considered in the future.

Glee on Zle Mondate

I suggested this mountain to my guy the night before last. But yesterday morning I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive to it and so I offered two other possibilities much closer to home, including the one in our backyard. The original choice, however, still resonated with him because . . . there might be a pie involved. We could only hope.

We certainly found berries, though most weren’t meant for our pie, unless, of course, we were of the avian or mammal sort. This one the fruit of a Stinking Benjamin.

Along some parts of the trail Mountain Holly’s raspberry red berries mixed with the smell of the surrounding fir trees made us feel as if we’d stepped into the Christmas aisle.

The reds were delightful, but my favorite of all, the porcelain blue of Bluebead Lily, aka Clintonia. To think that its yellow spring flower transforms into this brilliant blue fruit astonishes me each time I have a chance encounter with it. Chance because as was the case along most of the trail, the berries had been consumed. Not edible to us, but obviously there are those who can enjoy the feast.

We could have eaten a Creeping Snowberry or two, but again, it’s always such a surprise to see these fruits that we left them for the animals to bake into their own dessert of choice.

For a long way, the trail passes through mixed woods but as we climbed higher the natural community gradually changed and soon we were among the evergreens, where a break offered a sampling of the view to come.

Staying out of view was a shy garter snake.

Until we reached the bald ledges, much of our vision was consumed by the forest floor for we had to pay attention to the exposed roots and rocks that thousands of others had trodden, knowing that somewhere in the midst we’d left our prints previously.

At times boulders bordered the trail in the form of enormous outcrops and I kept expecting to see a bobcat hiding within, but no such luck.

At last we reached the summit and took in the panoramic view. And rejoiced in the day, the opportunity to hike and encounter few others, and especially the temperature for it was really quite comfortable.

Beside the cairn we found lunch rock and . . . lunched. (Is that a verb?)

And then I began to poke around. I really wanted to get a photo of the dragonflies that kept zooming past and the butterflies who fluttered nearby but never paused. Instead, a White-spotted Sawyer flew in and took up a few minutes of my time.

That is until a hawk’s shadow drew our attention to the sky.

It suddenly turned and flew straight at us. I thought I was taking the most spectacular photograph just before I dove for cover. Apparently I missed that photo op but it will remain forever in our minds’ eyes . . . and we think it was a Goshawk based on its colors and behavior. That said, it was time for us to skedaddle.

And so we began our descent, choosing to make the loop that tried to allude us the first time we ever climbed this mountain. Now we know where to look for it, but if you go, know to keep searching for the cairns at the summit because otherwise there are a lot of false paths. Well, they aren’t actually false for they do exist, but they won’t lead you down the “easy” way.

Knowing that I was bummed not to snap a shot of the dragonflies at the top, my guy stopped when we encountered them again in sunny spots along the trail. No, he wasn’t saying “Peace be with you,” but rather he hoped to be a dragonfly whisperer. They’d have none of it, though they flew at us and over us and we repeatedly thanked them because we’ve been in this place when the biting bugs think we’re meant to be the feast.

At long last, my guy spotted this guy dangling as the darner family does. You might also find one resting upon a tree trunk. The lighting wasn’t right for me to make a precise identification because I couldn’t see the markings on its face and thorax, but still . . . I got my dragonfly and was happy.

Further along he pointed to scat and I said, “Weasel.” It was right beside a small critter hole and I suspected it had feasted upon the residents within.

To follow the loop takes a lot longer than had we chosen to descend the way we’d climbed up; but eventually we were back on the main trail where we’d completely missed this sign-in rock. We chose not to sign in or out and tried our best to leave no trace.

We took only photos, including a selfie as we ascended.

And though there were blueberries here and there along the trail and I suspect some of you expected us to pick and me to bake (LOL), we only sampled a few because on our way we’d stopped at the roadside bakery and made a selection, not wanting to take a chance that upon our return the shelves would be empty.

Our choice de resistance and reward for completing an over nine-mile hike: Blueberry Cherry Pie.

Indeed Glee upon Zle Mountain Mondate.

P.S. All along we talked about this pie and fully expected to dig in last night, but ended up eating too late because we had chores to do at home and it’s on the counter right now and I hope the grand moment will follow lunch today. That or we’ll just savor the sight of it for a while and remember that we love hiking that mountain because it offers such variety . . . and pie.

Frog Alley

I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.

But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”

No way.

After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three . . .

But first, we had to explore the structure that has spanned the river for 163 years: Hemlock Covered Bridge. My friend is a history buff and I’m a wanna-be so it was apropos that we should take our time as we walked across–pausing to look and wonder as frequently as when we’re on a path.

I first saw this relic of the past years ago when I canoed up the Old Course of the Saco River with a group of tweens whom I took on weekly adventures when my summer job was as Laconia YMCA’s Summer Camp Director. In those days, one could get permission to camp by the bridge. Things have changed and that land is now posted with No Trespassing signs.

The bridge is a woodworking masterpiece and a symbol of the pioneering spirit of the 19th Century. In this 21st Century, there are others who also have a pioneering spirit and create their own masterpieces within.

Built of Paddleford truss construction with supporting laminated wooden arches, Hemlock Bridge is one of the few remaining covered bridges still in its original position. Peter Paddleford of Littleton, New Hampshire, created this design by replacing the counter braces of the Long-style truss bridge, creating an unusually strong and rigid structure.

Though reinforced in 1988 so you can still drive across, it’s more fun to walk. As we did we took time to admire the work of our forefathers,

peer at the river,

and read the carved messages on Maine’s oldest remaining covered bridge.

It was designated as a Maine Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers on January 17, 2002. I’m not sure what happened in 1922, but obviously it was another date to note.

Originally there were 120 covered bridges which spanned rivers throughout Maine. Covers or houses were constructed to protect the wooden span from the weather.

They were also places where travelers and animals could seek refuge from a storm, or lovers could sneak a kiss. Six of the remaining nine in Maine are located in the Lakes and Mountains Region.

We admired every facet of the bridge for moments on end, and then made our way to the river’s edge, where Slaty Blue Skimmers continued to dance. But as is their habit, this one kept landing on the same broken branch. Eventually, I coaxed it onto my finger, but then a sweetheart zipped by and he was off, hoping to sneak a kiss of his own making.

Next, our attention focused on a bullfrog. A huge bullfrog.

Two little Green Frogs were focused on the same and remained as still as possible in hopes of not attracting Mrs. Bully’s attention.

She at last began to move and her forward motion was slower than either of us have ever witnessed. We watched as she slithered forth one frog leg length at a time.

At last she reached a destination and paused. Was she hiding from us? Had she slithered like a snake in hopes we wouldn’t see her? Or did she have her eyes on a meal?

We’ll never know for a rare treat suddenly flew onto the branch where Slaty Blue had posed time and again. Meet a Dragonhunter. This huge clubtail dragonfly is known to eat butterflies and even other dragonflies. Thank goodness Slaty Blue had moved on.

Suddenly it was time for us to move on as well, but not before spying one more frog–this one a small Pickerel with sets of dark rectangles decorating its coppery-colored body.

With that, before my friend and I bid adieu, I had to eat my words that there are no frogs on Frog Alley. But technically, we weren’t on Frog Alley, but rather Hemlock Bridge Road. Still, the two are connected and we gave thanks for the chance to honor the past and wonder about the present in this locale.

P.M. Gathering

A friend and I met this afternoon and ventured forth upon a path that was quite different from those we usually travel. Our finds began as soon as we stepped out of our vehicles.

First there was the White Admiral Butterfly, preparing to puddle with its straw-like proboscis, at the moment curled but ready to extend into the gravely parking area to search for nutrients he might share with a gal.

And after only a few minutes into the woodland habitat, as is its preference, a Northern Pearly-eyed Butterfly fluttered into the scene, and posed–also with its proboscis curled.

Keen eyes of my friend spotted the next mention of wildlife–that of a very young garter snake who slithered across our path and then found a stick upon which to blend into the scene.

There was so much to see, such as a giant burl upon a White Cedar, its growth a consequence of an injury, virus, or fungus, creating a vase-like base enhanced by the tree’s shaggy-lined bark.

The tree’s leaves were as interesting as the bark with scaly leaves offering another texture to the forest.

Occasionally, as we continued, we stumbled upon Indian Pipes in their clustered colonies. Though some were just emerging and had their single flowers dangling low, many had been fertilized and showed off a dash of maturity with upright flowers. Eventually a woody structure filled with dust-like seeds will be produced, though it is doubtful many will germinate and grow into these most interesting plants that lack chlorophyll and depend upon a fungus and tree root to survive. And yet they will.

In the midst of it all, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, Raven, and Bluejays considered our attention and as we practiced using the Merlin App for bird identification, two little brown things flitted here and there. Turns out they were House Wrens with their upright tail feathers and barbed wings, an exciting find for us.

That was, until we met a fungus we couldn’t identify, but could certainly appreciate for its formation upon a couple of Balsam Firs.

It poured forth out of the tree like pancake batter on a Sunday morning.

Further along, where the red and gray squirrels made sure to announce their presence, a lone chipmunk posed for moments on end and so we all stood still, thinking at first its cheeks were full, but then realizing it had elbows reminiscent of favorite aunts’ flabby arms. OK, so maybe we’ve reached that age when such flabbiness gathers despite our efforts to exercise and we’re now trying to find ways to laugh about such features. .

There was so much more to see, including a Purple-fringed Orchid,

Arrowhead flower,

and Joe Pye-weed topped with a green iridescent sweat bee.

Our journey was almost over when we spotted a bluet damselfly dining upon a crab spider,

and a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly with its straw-colored face pausing upon a boardwalk.

Said boardwalk offered the most abundant selection of species, but there was still more to accumulate on this long weekend. And my friend knew that though our time together had been special, there was still more to rejoice in.

You see, our youngest son and his gal had ventured north from New York City because they could.

And their smiles filled our souls as they took in the sights and sounds and smells of our most delightful western Maine locale.

Eventually, they honored us by preparing a meal, and chuckled as they worked for she slaved over a large pan while he managed the smallest of the collection.

Several times we sat around our new kitchen table, grateful to those who had created it, the dishes and food upon it, and those who at last could gather round it as we’d intended.

Thank you P and M, for heading north from the Big Apple, enjoying the fresh air, sharing talents and gifts and laughter, and just being YOU. And thank you, P.M. for sharing the trail and appreciating the gathering that was happening in our midst.