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.

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.

Katydid, Didn’t She?

I have the extreme pleasure of being in touch with my first two playmates, the sisters who lived next door, on a somewhat regular basis. And even when we don’t see each other for a long time (Girls, we still owe ourselves a lunch in Newburyport), like any great friendship, we pick right up as if no time has passed.

While they both love the natural world, for that’s where we spent much of our childhood, one in particular frequently shares photos of her finds with me. And so I took her along, riding on my shoulder this morning when I headed out into the rain because I know that she, too, likes rainy days as much as, if not more than sunny days. So does her garden and she’s got a green thumb to envy.

Since my thumbs aren’t great at turning the soil, I support a local farmers’ market and had time to pass waiting for my turn to pick up the pre-ordered produce, bread, chicken, flowers, and treats. Thus, as we started to hike, a grasshopper known for its two stripes greeted us.

Not far along, at the base of a certain pine tree, I showed her the Pippsissewa now in bloom. Not only do I love to say this plant’s name, but the blossoms . . .

oh my. We both squatted for a closer look at the anthers within. And sniffed its sweet scent.

Our next great find was an oak apple gall and of course I had to tell her that a non-stinging and wingless female wasp injected an egg into the veins of the leaf as it was just beginning to grow. Chemicals released by the tiny larvae that developed within altered the growth and over a few weeks, the little orb formed.

By the circle hole on the underside, I explained that the wasp had pupated and chewed its way out and was probably now feeding on the very roots of the same tree . . . that is if it hadn’t been consumed by birds or small mammals.

We moved on, but a tiny spot of brown on a berry leaf was the next to beg for our attention. Check out those toes. Sticky toe pads on their webbed feet provide support for these plant and tree climbers known as spring peepers.

At last we reached a wetland and that’s when the rain really began to fall. And so my friend and I . . . we stood and looked about and enjoyed the raindrops on the grasses and sedges, the water’s surface, and us.

For a while, we left the path, and slipped into the woods, trying to follow a recently created trail, but mostly meandering about in the land where nurse logs provide a start for so many others as they decompose.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the only nursery in town. Once we returned to the trail, which by the way, she was impressed that I could find my way back . . . and so was I, I took her to a nearby meadow where we spotted a momma tending her young’uns.

I knew my friend would love this sighting because she not only saves salamanders and deer, but also spiders from any demise. This momma wasn’t so sure about us, however.

As large as she was, we were even bigger so she continued to work on her web to make sure her children stayed safe.

When she wasn’t looking, we did peek inside and saw a few of the babies.

We spotted another spider of a much more diminutive size upon one of the meadow flowers. You might see it, though it is a master of camouflage. Two insects also hung out as if they were trying to stay dry. Though the beetle is quite obvious, a discerning eye will spy the legs of the other.

We had actually gone to the meadow to see the Canada lilies that tickled our fancy for they looked like streetlights in the midst of the rain drops.

All of our finds had been great, but the best one of all . . . a Katydid. My friend’s name is Kate or as she was known when we were kids: Katy. And when quizzed by our moms about who was responsible for something, the rest of us always said, “Katy did it.”

While standing in the meadow today with Kate on my shoulders, my cell phone rang and suddenly I was looking at . . . my dear friend via FaceTime.

“Did I call you, or did you call me?” I asked as I looked at her beautiful and familiar grin while she stood aboard her cabin cruiser on Long Island Sound.

“You tried to Face Time me twice and so I called you back,” she said as she looked a me–soaking wet and rather bedraggled but happy (except maybe for the mosquitoes and deer flies).

I’d been using my phone to snap most of the photos but kept putting it in my pocket and I think I may have inadvertently contacted a few people.

So maybe this one time I did it and not Katy, but forever when I see a Katydid and many other things in the natural world, she’ll be right there with me as we were so many moons ago–Katy got me then and thankfully she still does.

Transformation of a Different Sort

Late afternoon found me heading to the vernal pool behind our home, mostly out of curiosity for we’ve had a week of dry, steamy days and I suspected the worst.

Not only by sight, but also stench did I know that my fears had come true.

There was merely a drop of water left, hidden below the leaves as it were.

I stood in the center for the first time all year, where the odor reminded me of New Haven Harbor at low tide, though the pool was perhaps more rank. The harbor has a mud-flat smell that entered my nostrils as a youth and has remained in my memory since, becoming that upon which I judge all other such scents.

Directly above, the sky veiled only by the canopy, offered a few clouds to occasionally shade the hot sun, but not a drop of rain was to be felt as has been the situation of late.

The source of the stench was my little friends who unfortunately didn’t get to hop out.

I could only hope that a few did leave the water of their own accord, but sadly most were fried.

All that realized, it didn’t mean the pool was a static place. There were Flesh Flies with brick red eyes who found this habitat of tadpole carcasses to be to their liking.

And Rove Beetles who surprised me with their presence, though they shouldn’t have for they also have a preference of feeding upon decaying matter.

Both the Flesh and Rove moved quickly through the neighborhood, but for a brief second each paused and posed, as if it was meant to be.

Others included the metallic Green Bottle Fly,

a cricket,

canoodling moths,

and a spider or two or many. There were also birds in the canopy and I suspected they were waiting for me to leave so they could bring food home to the nest.

In the midst, a splash of color was offered by the wee Northern Crescent butterfly whose presence perplexed me at first . . . until I realized that the pool still held moisture and other nutrients, and it offered just the right habitat for butterflies who need to puddle or suck the fluid and minerals to enhance their breeding relationships.

Right beside the pool I spied another of the order Lepidoptera in the pupal form of a Viceroy butterfly.

As has happened year after year, the vernal pool didn’t follow quite the path I had hoped since early April when the ice went out, but still, it’s a place where transformations of a different sort occur . . . and despite the demise of the tadpoles, life goes on.

As the VP Turns

This drama began in April when the ice started to go out. As always seems to be the case, it’s there one day and buddaboom, gone the next.

Official ice out is considered to be when you can navigate unimpeded from one end of a water body to the other. For this particular pool and its amphibian visitors that day was April 5 of this year.

Those who determined such were the wood frogs for on April 6, their “wruck, wruck” voices chorused . . .

until that is, I approached and then all went silent. This year, for the first in many, the W.F. Chorale had more voices than in the past for so many more had returned to the natal breeding ground than I can previously recall.

According to plan, dance cards were filled out and he, being much smaller than she, climbed atop to grasp her in what was known as amplexus.

By the next morning egg masses had been attached to vegetation and bubbled forth at the surface much like a bowl of tapioca. Slowly they began to absorb water, expanding in size day by day.

As is their custom, the egg masses created a hub about the size of an extra large truck tire for such is the frogs habit of laying and attaching these in the same area, colonial in nature.

Within each orb, life began to take form.

Their life was constantly at risk for other hungry beings knew of their location and paused pool side to consider the choicest treat.

Thrown into the mix were rainy days, which occurred with more frequency at the start of the season, thus providing hope that the water level would remain high for the duration of the story.

Almost two weeks after the adult wood frogs had finished calling and exited the pool to return to their upland habitat, where they spend fifty weeks each year, spotted salamanders paid a visit and the males deposited cauliflower-shaped spermatophores upon which they encouraged their lady friends to dance.

As is their custom, he led her to one of these sperm packets and she picked it up through her cloaca, the opening amphibians use for breeding, egg-laying and waste. She then fertilized the eggs internally.

Where the wood frog egg masses consist of a bunch of individual eggs all gathered together in a bumpy matrix numbering up to 1,500/group, salamander masses are enclosed in a gelatinous coating and consist of 50 to 250 individual eggs.

By the next week, tadpoles began to emerge and really it’s all about timing for a larval spotted salamander might feed on the larval frog, thus the latter are granted a brief reprieve in which to develop.

In the midst of it all, others also experience life in their larval form including mosquitoes who first wriggle through the water column and later tumble in their pupal form before hatching into their biting selves.

As the spotted salamander embryos grew . . .

so did the tadpoles.

Within two weeks, the salamanders bodies begin to take shape in their individual homes.

And then a week later, they began to emerge much like their frog counterparts.

Seven weeks after the ice officially went out, the pond teemed with life of those hoping to mature into the future.

Metamorphosis continued as young ones began to take on their adult forms.

But still, there were those with whom which to contend . . . including the larval form of predacious diving beetles.

It’s not just the predators, either, that need to be acknowledged for once the April rains ended, the dry season started and the water level drastically declined leaving stranded egg masses on the edge.

As a hope-filled human, I tried to intervene and moved some to deeper water.

Meanwhile, there were no signs of any salamanders, but the wood frogs did grow.

And fed voraciously upon the green alga that has a symbiotic relationship with developing eggs in one of those “I’ll feed your stomach if you’ll feed mine” manners.

With each new day, the tadpoles took on their adult features. But . . . where were the salamanders?

By today, June 12, despite yesterday’s downpour, the water had diminished significantly and still I hadn’t spotted any of the gilled beings.

And then, I did. They were more leaf-like in color and thus harder to see, but they were there, though hardly as abundant as the tadpoles.

It finally began to make sense, the number of eggs within a mass and the number of egg masses. Really, this pool could be considered significant by state standards for there were more than 40 wood frog masses and more than 20 spotted salamander egg masses, either of those a number to be considered in its own right, but . . . the pool isn’t natural. It was dug long ago to serve the purposes of the farm that once was.

To produce so many progeny makes sense for despite the fact that it seemed to be teeming with life, its own life is short lived. How many will actually hop or crawl out before the pool dries up?

I suppose to that end, it also made sense that some resorted to cannibalism.

What lightened the moment was when a Black and White Warbler stopped by to take a bath.

Drama plays out constantly and I’ve only covered a few snapshots of it . . . as the vernal pool turns.

Stumped by the Star

I knew from the get go where I wanted to spend some time because I suspected I’d meet up with old friends. And I did. 

Not all, however, had as much success and so it was for a Common Spreadwing damselfly wrapped in a spider web. Oops. 

The closer I got, however, the more others, such as a Four-spotted Skimmer, showed that for the moment they were still on the prowl, despite the fact that at least the tip of one wing had been compromised.

Who might have been responsible for that wing nip? Perhaps a female Red-winged Blackbird?

She certainly looked intent.

There were other hungry ones in the midst like the large Green Frog who sat so still and waited.

His realm was below the home of the fairies for some had seen fit in the not too distant past to create a roof that covered a space that provided a place for those who fly to live and launch.

In their nymph or naiad form, they preside as spirits over the water world.

But then they take on their terrestrial/aerial being.

One seemed to be hiding, perhaps waiting to fly, but I thought I’d offer a finger and an opportunity to get to know each other a wee bit better. Much to my glee and surprise, my finger was accepted.

The Common Baskettail, as it is known, is member of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds), and so it seemed apropos that with such a jewel-colored face it should choose the fairy home as its place to transition from one world to the next.

Unlike other Emerald family members, baskettails lack the kryptonite-green eyes, though as they age the color does change. But they make up for it by being super hairy. As a naiad, the hair serves to trap tiny pieces of debris, thus hiding it from predators in the muck. In its adult form, the hair serves as a spring jacket, holding in heat.

Though called “common,” it was hardly such with that furry coat, those dark wing spots, and the yellow stripes on its abdomen.

Nor was its behavior common for its species since typically they hover in swarms and are difficult to see clearly.

I gave thanks for the short time we shared and will be forever grateful that I was stumped by this star.

Before Spring Leaps Away

Spring. How can it be that she marches in as expected yet takes us by surprise every year? Oh, we expect the buds to burst, flowers to blossom, birds to sing, and all forms of life to give birth, but still . . .

It never grows old to worship her display that transforms our world of winter’s gray and whites to subtle reflections changing with each dawning day.

Life forms long spent hiding in the mud suddenly emerge to bask in the sun.

Some listen dubiously as their male counterparts sing the ok-a-lee songs.

Others tuck into their surroundings, seeking warmth among foliage both old and new.

There are those who weave.

And others who appear to dance upon webs woven.

While fall is most often revered, spring begs to be noticed as more than a novice for as often as autumn occurs does her vernal season come before.

In so doing, she seems to combine the colors of both fringe seasons as if it came naturally. Because . . . it does.

Within seconds of opening her fountains of the future, pollinators find a fine source of nectar.

And those who teach gather to announce a local cooking class.

Into the woods and beside the waters I travel on almost a daily basis and with each tramp, life begs a notice.

Sometimes it’s in the form of a green pretending to be a tree–frog that is.

Other times it’s a female fairy shrimp who doesn’t seek the attention of a male, much to his dismay, because the brood pouch at the base of her abdomen is already full of future life forms.

And there are other signs of the future as seen in spotted salamander embryos forming and mosquito pupa tumbling.

Predators such as the predaceous diving beetle make themselves known because when you stay in the same neighborhood for a period of time, bumps in the road, or pool as it may be, are bound to happen.

Despite such roadblocks, life happens . . . in abundance.

Over and over again, the sunshine above . . .

finds its form in the forest floor below.

Sadly, it’s all so fleeting. I want it to stop. To pause. We’re all in pause mode right now and though we miss so much of the past, the present is a beautiful thing . . . if only we could hold onto it . . . before the spring that marched in leaps away.

I’m in Frog Heaven

The ice went out on the vernal pool in our woods on April 5th and by the 6th the wood frogs were singing their love songs and egg masses had already been attached to fallen branches.

Once I spy such I become addicted to visiting the pool on a regular basis to keep an eye on the activity. As much as I’d love to bring some home, I know that that would interrupt the natural process and so I do the best I can by peering into the water.

One of my great finds early on turned out not to be as extraordinary as I first thought. What I thought were blue spotted salamander egg masses slowly morphed into wood frog masses. They were laid out like sheets on the floor of the pool rather than attached to sticks as is normally the case. But it didn’t all make sense as up to the point that I spotted those masses, I hadn’t seen any salamander spermatophores.

Daily visits to the pool garnered a better understanding and about two weeks later not only had the spotted salamanders left their deposits on the pool floor . . .

and the next day their eggs on sticks . . .

but the so-called blue-spotted suddenly began to look more like wood frog masses with tadpoles developing inside. Perhaps they were laid at the very edge of the pool by young wood frogs just getting the hang of the annual ritual.

With the help of my son who works for a film editing house in Manhattan, I’ve pulled all of this together into a video so even if you can’t get to a vernal pool, perhaps you can enjoy the magic of this place for a few minutes by clicking on the link and watching: Are You in Frog Heaven?

There’s so much more to come and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the action.

In the meantime, why not create a Frog and Toad Chorus as you stay at home.

In the amphibian world, males sing as a means of attracting a mate and defending a territory.

Here’s how to conduct your own chorus: Assign a species to various family members who will imitate the sound as best they can. Have fun leading your gang as you control who “sings.” And then head outdoors to see if you can identify the species based on your knowledge of the songs they create.

Wood Frog: quacking duck or wruck, wruck in early spring

Spring Peeper: high-pitched peep-peep in early spring

American Toad: sustained trill lasting up to 30 seconds (from your lips or throat), early to late spring

Green Frog: throaty gunk! like banjo strings, late spring – early summer

American Bullfrog: deep, resonant rr-uum, or jug-o-rum, late spring – early summer

Gray Tree Frog: slow, musical bird-like trill lasting 2 or 3 seconds (use your lips or tongue), late spring – early summer

Are you in Frog Heaven? I know I am.

The Old and New Friends of Mountain Pond

Friends Pam and Bob Katz, whom I haven’t known forever but feel like it’s been at least a lifetime, invited me to join them to circle Mountain Pond outside Jackson, New Hampshire today. The trailhead is located off Town Hall Road that follows Slippery Brook.

At the sign we turned in to the parking area and began our journey on foot.

Only a few steps in, we were stopped in our tracks by the wooly growths upon the Speckled Alders. The soft, fluffy fibers could have been cotton plants. But then they moved. In a creepy sort of way.

As we looked more closely we began to see that some were winged in form, a sight new to our eyes and understanding. Meet the Wooly Alder Aphids.

Much more to our liking were the tracks we found in mud, including Bobcat and . . .

a small Moose. The Bobcat had crossed perpendicular to the trail as one might expect for its preferred corridor is about forty feet wide and doesn’t necessarily follow a man-made path. The Moose wasn’t so particular and we followed its prints for a while before it disappeared into the wildness of this place.

While we loved seeing the mammal tracks, it was the insects and flowers that really pulled us in, including a Flower Longhorned Beetle.

And the ever delightful and dainty Wood Sorrel that makes me think of the Candy Strippers who worked as hospital aides in the books of my youth.

If the Candy Strippers needed slippers, they’d come to the right shop for there were moccasins available nearby in the form of white Lady’s Slippers surprising us since they still looked a wee bit fresh.

At last we began to catch glimpses of the pond for which the trail had been named. But really, a Loon sounding a distress call pulled us toward the water’s edge. We only saw one in an aggressive mode, it’s body extended across the surface as it moved forward, but still heard the wild call of the other and assumed they were protecting a nest.

Our wildlife sightings continued as we continued and took turns spotting the wonders of the path, including a Garter Snake slithering away from us.

Once we were close to the water, our dragonfly sightings increased significantly, as did the bug detail and insect bites decreased giving us reason to celebrate these winged warriors, such as the Chalk-fronted Corporals that made a point of being our guides as they often paused in front of us and then flew a few feet ahead at our slightest movement.

The fact that I can occasionally sneak up on one and capture a close-up photo is always amazing.

Our next source of wonder, a lodge built by beavers beside the bank. It was one that didn’t appear to be currently in use, but had been mudded last fall.

Eventually we found a second lodge with a huge hole on the back side of it. The hole wasn’t necessarily a vent, but it did provide us a glimpse into the inner workings of the pond-side inn. This one hadn’t been mudded and so we suspected it had been abandoned, maybe due to the presence of parasites. Perhaps in the near future it will again host guests.

It was near the lodge that we began to spy Bullfrogs, their Ga-dunk voices every once in a while rising in a chorus.

Notice the tympanic membrane or eardrum located behind the eye–it was bigger than his viewfinder, thus indicating his gender.

Not too far away a few ladies-in-waiting hung out on a log.

And in the water, two year old tadpoles, their bodies extra chunky, swam.

And morphed. Can you see the hind legs that had formed?

At last we pulled away from the water and continued on our way, when the Fly Honeysuckle gave us pause with its flowers of orange and yellow.

We weren’t the only ones in awe of it, for we spent some time watching this Canada Tiger Swallowtail flutter in a rather drunken way from one blossom to the next.

Because the flowers had been pollinated, some had already turned to their shiny red fruit form.

The butterflies were numerous and all the way around the pond we saw White Admirals either in flight or on the ground puddling, the latter a way of seeking nutrients from the damp soil.

An Atlantis Fritillary also graced us with its presence.

Another flyer insisted upon being noticed and I handed Pam a field guide to determine its name. A second or two later she announced it was a Powdered Dancer Damselfly, based on the coloration of its eyes, thorax, and abdomen.

My favorite flyer of the day, however, was the Crimson-ringed Whiteface Dragonfly with its thorax so red and abdomen a combination of green-black.

Even when we paused to gaze upon the lake and mountains in the distance, the Crimsons flew.

And landed–showing off their white faces for which they were named.

One couple even chose Pam’s arm and bracelet upon which to land and canoodle, appearing oblivious to our gawking eyes and awe-filled conversation.

I travelled around Mountain Pond today with “old” friends Pam and Bob and recognized others I’ve met numerous times before like the Bobcat, Moose, Garter Snake, and Wood Sorrel, but new relationships were also formed and I hope I’ll soon move from being a Crimson-ringed Whiteface’s acquaintance to a life-time friend.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

It rained. The sun came it. Rain drops continued to fall. Until they didn’t. Then the temperature rose to a degree we haven’t seen in over eight months here in western Maine. And we melted.

But, with the heat wave came some new visitors, including this male Baltimore Oriole, so named because his coloration resembled the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

The funny thing about Lord Oriole: he’d stopped by a few days ago when I had a sturdy chunk of suet in the feeder. After seeing him, I immediately added orange slices to the offering in hopes of enticing him to return.

And so when he did this morning, I marveled at the fact that he ignored the oranges and chose instead a small bite of the suet.

Adding more color to the yard was a male House Finch. He tarried not long for his gal paused in the lilac bush and then flew past and he followed in hot pursuit.

But I gave thanks to the finch for as I looked for him to return, I noticed movement on the outer edge of the garden below the back deck. Shuffling about the dried leaves looking to glean a meal was a Common Yellowthroat. My very own Common Yellowthroat. Certainly another reason to rejoice.

There was more rejoicing to be done for I eventually found my way to the vernal pool. I realized I’ve been avoiding it lately, ever fearful after discovering a few dead frogs that life had taken a turn for the worse within that small body of water.

But the surprise was all mine when I discovered recently hatched tadpoles resting atop an egg mass. The green color is an algae with which they share a symbiotic relationship. The algae colonize the egg mass and produces oxygen. Being symbiotic, it’s a two-way street and the algae benefits from the eggs by gaining carbon dioxide produced by the embryos. The carbon dioxide is needed for the photosynthetic process. For a few days after hatching, the tadpoles feed on the alga.

Salamander embryos within their own gelatinous also took on that greenish hue due to the same symbiotic alga. My heart was filled with joy for there were numerous masses within the pool, most of them spotted salamander. And now I can only hope that the pool stays wet enough for them to mature and crawl out as their parents did.

Leaving the pool behind, I wandered toward home, but a familiar call beckoned. It took a few minutes for me to locate the creator, but eventually I saw him.

On a sturdy branch parallel to the ground, the Broad-winged Hawk did dine. He also frequently announced his presence with his high-pitched voice.

As a true carnivore, he’s known to eat reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals and even large insects. From my stance, I thought I saw a long tail that didn’t seem right for a vole. Instead, I wondered if it was a snake. I kept expecting to be greeted by one beside the vernal pool and the hawk wasn’t all that far away. I suppose that means that if the salamanders and frogs are able to crawl and leap out of the water, they’d better find good hiding places because this guy and a possible mate have been soaring above for a couple of weeks and probably have a nest nearby.

In the end, it seemed that whatever his meal was, it was lip-licking good. Upon finishing it, he flew south while I trudged across the field to the east. But I suspect our paths will cross again going forward.

All of those finds were spectacular, but . . . one of the best parts of the day–watching Eastern Bluebirds in the yard. I first spied the male in this morning’s rain.

And then late this afternoon, I was surprised to discover that they were both here, the she and the he. For the most part, they stayed out by the stone wall, perched on branches above before flying down to catch a meal.

Then they flew closer to the house and landed atop the feeders where I don’t have any mealy worms that are much to their liking. I hadn’t even planned to still have the feeders out, but with each new day bringing new visitors, I’ve delayed taking them in for the season. That is, until a Black Bear arrives.

But no Black Bears yet. (Just wait, one will probably show up overnight or tomorrow.)

And so . . . Bluebird, Bluebird, through my focus. Thanks for taping me on the shoulder. 😉 And sharing this day with me.

Cinco de Mayo Maine-style

When Pam asked at the end of our slow tour today what my favorite finds were, I named at least five.

First, there was the Painted Turtle that I spotted on Kezar Lake Road as I drove toward the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook Reserve. After I pulled over and approached him, he did what turtles do and retreated into his shell. Though he wasn’t feeling it, I was in celebration mode, for he represented my first turtle of the season. And I helped him cross the road.

I felt safe calling him a he for males have long fingernails. Can you see him peeking out at me in a not too pleased manner? Can’t say I blame him, but our time together was brief and soon he wandered his way while I wandered mine.

And then, another reason for celebration–Coltsfoot in bloom. I know it’s invasive, but its sunny face and scaly purplish stem that predate its leaves offer a first hint of the season’s promises of colors to come.

Coltsfoot is known by some as Filius ante patrem (the son before the father), because the bright yellow star-like flowers appear and wither before its broad, green leaves are produced.

The next sight to be considered: a small spider that, like the painted turtle, continuously eluded our focus by quickly moving to the opposite side of the beech twig. Can you spy it?

And then there were those tree buds bursting forth with life ready to unfold from within. We were offered a few early glimpses of the future and rejoiced at each sample.

At last we reached Long Meadow Brook, for which the reserve is named. And stood and looked and listened and waited and absorbed. Oh, Pam absorbed some water in her boots thanks to a leak. But she didn’t let that stop her and we each enjoyed the opportunity to let this place soak through our pores for moments that turned into a string of minutes and suddenly an hour had passed.

At long last, we pulled away and began a bushwhack through the woods beside the brook.

In so doing, we found more to celebrate, like a red squirrel refectory upon a rock and we suspected a large hole below the tree trunk and boulder had served as the larder.

Continuing on, we saw mats of black upon moss by another tree and almost wrote it off as perhaps a fungi we hadn’t met before.

But. It. Moved. As we watched, we realized the constant motion was created by springtails writhing en masse. To say it wasn’t creepy would be lying. Likewise we were fascinated and leaned in closer to watch the swarm upon the moss.

Resting nearby, perhaps having just gorged on some of those tiny little morsels, was another reason for celebration–a spring peeper. We spotted two, but heard a hundred million more, each adding its song to the symphony that arose from the wetland. And suddenly, an interval of silence would interrupt the music, and then one male would peep, and the rest would join in again until they arrived at the next rest symbol upon their sheet music.

Others added their own notes to the orchestra, including a couple of White-throated Sparrows that trilled in our midst.

Near the end of our journey, we reached a point where we could see that there was still some snow on the the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch, but we spotted a dragonfly and honored Trailing Arbutus flowers and rejoiced. Though our celebration didn’t have a Mexican theme, we still had at least cinco reasons to give thanks from the Painted Turtle to Coltsfoot to Bud Bursts to Squirrel Larders to Creepy Collembola to Spring Peepers to White-throated Sparrows. Really, it was more a Siete de Mayo on this Cinco de Mayo–Maine-style.

Peeking with my Peeps

As has been our custom for the past six years, on a quarterly basis an email is sent out with a date and location and at the agreed upon time any number of grads, teachers, and mentors from the Maine Master Naturalist Lewiston 2013 class gather. Today was one of those days.

The plan was to explore a vernal pool or two at the Cornwall Nature Preserve on historic Paris Hill, but . . . it didn’t take us (Pam, Beth, Alan, Dorcas, and yours truly hiding behind the lens) long to get distracted when we saw green poking through the many shades of brown on the forest floor.

Together, we scrambled through our brains searching for the name. With the season finally feeling like it’s transitioning, we realized we have to dust off the floral flashcards in our minds and start reviewing them. And then it came to us. One year ago, on May 5, we had seen the same at Smithfield Plantation as we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Naturally. Then, however, we had keyed it out minus the flower. Today, the memory of last year’s ID slowly sifted to the forefront and by its leaves and colonial habit, we felt safe to call it Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily.

A few more steps and we started dipping containers into a potential vernal pool that was really too shallow and offered no apparent key characteristics. But . . . there was an owl pellet filled to the brim with hair and bones, the one sticking out by central vein of the leaf a hip bone. (Yeah, so I may sound like a smarty pants, but Dorcas pulled it out and quickly identified the bone by its structure.) Some little mammal, or two, or three, had provided a bird with a meal.

Stair-step Moss (Hylocomium splendens) was the next great find. I would have dismissed it as Big Red Stem or Pleurozium schreberi, and in so doing missed its finer points. Do you see how each year’s new growth rises from the previous, rather like ascending stair steps?

And then there was another new learning, for I’m always referring to this species of fungi as jelly ear or wood ear. But, with Alan the fungi fun guy in our midst, we learned that it’s really Brown Witch’s Butter or Exidia recisa. (Drats–it’s so much more fun to say Auricularia auricula.)

As we admired the Exidia recisa, we realized others were doing the same for we’d interrupted a slug fest. If you bump into Alan Seamans sometime, do ask him about the numbing qualities of slugs. 😉

A few more steps and we began to notice trilliums, especially the reds with their leaves of three so big and blossoms hiding. All of a sudden we know the flowers are going to burst open and we can’t wait to witness such glory.

At last we reached the pool of choice, located maybe a half mile from the parking area. Two years ago, MMNP students from the South Paris class discovered Fairy Shrimp in this pool.

Our best finds today were log cabin caddisflies! At this point in time, the caddisflies are in their larval stage and as such, they construct their temporary shelters from available materials. Think of them as the original recyclers.

Should a predator be about, like a hermit crab, the caddisfly can retreat into the house of needles or leaves or stones or whatever its preferred building material might be. Apparently, it didn’t mind us and we were honored to watch as the elongated body extended forth while it searched for food. In its larval form, these aquatic insects have a hardened head and first thoracic segment, while the abdomen remains pale and soft. Can you see the three pairs of legs?

The cool thing about caddisflies is that though they may use similar construction materials, no two are alike. Beth called them works of art.

I referred to this one as a she for the case included a Red Maple bouquet.

If you look closely, you might also note some filmy gills on the abdomen. And the grayish thing the Mrs. approached and a second later ignored. It seemed rather leech-like in its behavior, but I think it may have been a Planaria, which is a tiny unsegmented flat worm.

As we dipped for insects, we also noted plenty of Spotted Salamander spermatophores sticking up from leaves and twigs. But we could find none of their milky egg masses and wondered why.

We did, however, spy plenty of Wood Frog masses, some with their tapioca structures bubbling upon the surface, but most attached to the stems below.

And then a chiseled tree section across the pool called to us and so we made our way over to check the wood chips below. Of course, we searched for Pileated Woodpecker scat, but found none. Instead, we spotted a dead frog in the water. And just beyond it, a dead salamander.

It wasn’t pretty, but did make us question what had happened. Were the two amphibian deaths related? We don’t know, but we did note puncture marks on the Spotted Salamander’s underside, and even a nip of the end of its tail. Plus it had one slightly deformed front foot. And we learned that salamanders have poison glands in their skin, mostly on their backs and tails. Did the frog go after the salamander and both died from the experience? Or had another predator entered the pool? And then realized it had made the wrong decision?

We never did figure it out, but had fun asking questions. And as we stood there, our eyes keyed in on a bit of color at the end of a downed branch. Again, more questions and the use of our loupes as we tried to take a closer look. We debated: slime mold or insect eggs?

After looking closely and continuing to ask question, a quick poke with a twig provided the actual answer as we watched the spores puff out in a tiny cloud. Slime mold it was. Should we have poked it first? No, for that would have been too easy and we wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the possibilities.

On our way out, there was still one more discovery to make. I could have dismissed this one as a moss.

But, again Alan knew and he explained to us that it was a liverwort known as Porella platyphylloidea. And upon closer examination we could all see its three-dimensional structure as it curled out from the tree trunk.

Almost three hours later, our brains were full as we’d also examined trees, lichens, and other fungi, but our hearts were happy for the time spent in each others company sharing a collective brain.

I’m always grateful for an opportunity to peek with these peeps, even at something as common as a caddisfly because really . . . there’s nothing common about it.

Doubting Spring?

Finicky weather–rain one day and then another, sunshine the next, and then snow in the forecast as it is for Tuesday morning. But still, all the signs are there.

Take for instance the clumps of deer hair that have been shed and now decorate areas where the ungulates do bed.

And the masses of eggs attached to twigs and vegetation within vernal pools, the Spotted Salamander’s a milky white contrasting the Wood Frogs tapioca presentation.

Then there’s the winter firefly in one of his favorite habitats where the water stands still . . . until a breeze ripples across.

And within the water column, the wriggling Larval Mosquitoes continuously somersault, while the Phantom Midge floats as it waits for a meal to pass by.

Drone flies do just that–fly, their compound eyes announcing alarm as they take in every teensy bit of movement in the surrounds.

The sight of a wooly caterpillar might make one think the season is six months out, but a cryoprotectant in its tissues so it can literally freeze solid, has thawed and the fuzzy little bear crawls.

The Saco River with Mount Tom behind was another sign, for over its banks had it flowed.

And then, where previously I’d spotted only the vixen, not one or two, but five kits frolicked.

Mom was nowhere in sight, but I trusted she had sent them out to get some fresh air while she cleaned the den.

A move to another location, brought more sights and scents and sounds, but one of the most delightful was that of the sweet-fern–its spicy aroma suddenly filling the air.

And at a semipermanent pool, a few wrucks chorused by distant Wood Frogs.

But by my feet, Eastern Red-spotted Newts swam about camouflaged by last year’s foliage.

One climbed another, and then slide off, any mating waiting for another time. Curiously it also mounted a Bull Frog tadpole, but quickly moved on when it wasn’t well received.

The chunky Bull Frog larvae had overwintered as tadpoles, but their metamorphosis into adult form probably won’t be completed by the end of this season or the next.

In fact, it can take several years for them to completely develop. In the meantime, they sat motionless basking in the diluted sunlight offered.

There was so much to see on this day and only so much time, but from the Red Maple flowers falling to the ground to the Tamarack needles growing with new life, I knew that every moment was fleeting.

This is a time to not let life pass you by. Rather–be like the Bull Frog tadpoles and slow down.

Make time to watch. Every. Single. Subtle. Change. For even though the temperature may still feel raw at times and snow is in the forecast, it really is spring in western Maine. Don’t be a doubting Thomas or you’ll miss the transformation.

In the Middle of the Bubble

We were going to go. We weren’t going to go. In the end, we each took a break from work and met at Lakes Environmental Association’s Highland Lake Research Forest.

Alanna said we could get away with calling it work because we were, after all, conducting research–on where the vernal pools were located. And so we listened and followed our ears as we bushwhacked through the woods. Peeps and wrucks and trills filled the air and we beelined their way. Suddenly we emerged beside the Red Maple Swamp.

Of course, the symphony cut off upon our arrival, and so after sitting and standing still for a few minutes, we decided to step into the water and search for egg masses. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, though Alanna did find at least one Wood Frog mass after she crossed over a log.

While she was still on the other side, I headed back up onto the land, and a few feet from the water I was stopped in my tracks by a large snake.

Its mouth gaped in a fashion that could almost have been a smile. For a few minutes I watched and the mouth never closed. That’s when I realized that it was dead.

As Alanna made her way back to see it, she found a deep hole and one of her boots filled with water. Being the person she is, she got out of the muck, emptied it, and . . .

despite the fact that we were both intrigued and a wee bit freaked out about the snake, she picked it up. If you’ve never seen a Northern Water Snake, they are big. And what if it wasn’t really dead, though we were sure that it was. But what if it wasn’t?

It dangled from her hands as over and over again she said, “I can’t believe I’m holding a snake.” Her grinning grimace echoed those words.

Because she’s a collector of fine things like scat, she had brought along a bag and so into it went the snake. Still, she continued to repeat, “I can believe I’m holding a snake.”

Just a few feet away, we found another kill site. A woodpecker had met its demise.

And only feet from that–a deer vertebrae. It became clear that life happens by the swamp; and nearby was an owl pellet filled with bones. We doubted the owl had anything to do with the deer, but what about the snake and bird? Maybe it wasn’t the owl, but some other bird of prey. Why hadn’t the snake been consumed? Or the bird plucked? As usual, more questions than answers. At last we decide to move on because we heard a wetland chorus calling our names on the other side of the next hill.

I followed Alanna until she stopped abruptly. In her path about twenty or thirty feet from the water, another water snake. This one even bigger. And . . . alive. The sun’s rays weren’t strong, but we suspected it was trying to get warm. For a few minutes we stood and watched and then finally decided we could walk by without a problem. And we did. That being said, every step we took after that included a search just in case more snakes lurked about.

The amphibian calls drew us to the area where a river flows through the swamp.

It was there that we found more signs of life including Canada Geese,

Red-winged Blackbirds,

and rather recent beaver works. At that point, Alanna had to depart, but I stayed for about an hour longer and wandered along the edge of the wetland.

My finds continued for where I looked for frogs by a coppiced tree, instead I found a tussock moth caterpillar frozen in time. It had remained attached firmly to the twig all winter because I suspected it had been parasitized by a mummy wasp.

And then it was uphill toward a rocky ledge that I tromped because the ground was carpeted with hemlock twigs. I knew who had cut and dropped them, and wondered if I might spy a den.

Where I thought there was a den below, I was wrong. But . . . atop the downed tree was another kill site. This time it looked like a Junco had been the source of food.

And on a leaf, the bird’s blood stains.

Not far from the feathers and blood, I did find what I was looking for–a porcupine den and its telltale pile of scat flowing forth.

Murder and mayhem you might think. But death is part of the web of life, which also sustains us.

Today, Alanna and I went seeking egg masses and instead found ourselves surrounded by so many other things. It all made me realize I am only one tiny speck in the middle of the bubble.

This Wild Place

There’s no music quite like the Wood Frog’s defiant chorus, sung when the ice is barely off the vernal pool and the ground still covered with patches of snow. Singing together, they sound like dozens of quaking ducks. Wood Frogs are often the first Maine frogs to break winter’s quiet, beating Spring Peepers by a few days or even a week.

Their vocal prowess extends to silence. Once we approach a vernal pool and they sense danger (perhaps through vibrations), they cut off their song altogether, as though timed by some unseen conductor. The purpose of all this calling is finding a mate, of course. Male Wood Frogs, once they’ve called in some unwitting females, can be tenacious in the extreme–even if their suitor happens to be the wrong species.

This morning, as Greater Lovell Land Trust Docent Linda Wurm and I approached a pool on the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, the symphony was eerily still.

And so we began to circle around, our eyes scanning the watery surface for clumps of eggs. Our hope was to either see a male hug a female in an iron-lock grasp, forming the mating embrace called amplexus, or evidence of their date.

And we were rewarded. At least one female had laid eggs fertilized by a male. As is their habit, the female attached the mass to a twig and the tiny black embryo of each egg was surrounded by a perfectly round, clear envelope about one-third inch in diameter. These gelatinous blobs can consist of up to 1,500 individual eggs. Egg-mazing indeed.

The embryos will hatch into small brownish-black tadpoles in a week or two, or longer given how chilly the water was today. As they grow, their rounded tail fins will become translucent–almost mottled with gold and blackish flecks.

Wood Frog tadpoles grow at varying rates depending on water temperature, tadpole density, and available food resources, but tend to develop within about two months to become adults. Unfortunately for them, but in the web of life good for others, tadpoles often succumb to cannibalism, especially to their larger relatives. They are also eaten by predacious diving beetles, salamanders, turtles, and birds.

We only found one, maybe two egg masses, but this pool isn’t known for many. What it is known for is its Fairy Shrimp population and I’m sorry to report that we found not a one. But, we did spy a few handsome hemlock varnish shelf fungi.

And by them some red squirrel middens that made us happy for we saw few of these all winter.

Right behind the fungi and midden, something else in the water caught our attention and Linda focused with a keen eye.

My photo wasn’t the clearest, but upon some leaves and twigs we spotted spermatophores left behind by male Spotted Salamanders. They remind me of cauliflower, their structures consisting of pedestals topped with sperm. Though we couldn’t see any milky masses of salamander eggs, we hope that on future visits we will.

Spotting a Spotted Salamander is a rare treat. With their bright yellow spots on a sleek, shiny black back, they are even more nocturnal and elusive than the Wood Frogs. They are actually mole salamanders and spend most of their time burrowed underground.

As we circled back around the pool, a White-breasted Nuthatch mimicked our searching eyes and probed under some bark, its long narrow beak seeking beetles.

Every few seconds it took a break and surveyed the world that included us.

We, too, surveyed the world, and suddenly at our feet we discovered eggs we’d not seen previously. What were they doing about a foot out of the water?

And to whom did they belong? At first I considered Pickerel Frog, but on closer examination I thought they might be Wood Frog.

And then Linda shifted one clump a wee bit with a stick and we found what may have been the entrails. Life happens in vernal pools and this one was no different. Had a predator stopped by? Perhaps a raccoon or skunk or chipmunk or raccoon? But, why didn’t it eat the eggs? Again, so many questions.

With the field microscope, we looked at the eggs again and were almost one hundred percent certain that they were Wood Frog.* We did place some of them back in the water, but wondered if they were viable.

For all the eggs that are laid, it’s hard to believe that only 10% will survive. But the truth is that most die before transforming into adults and leaving their pools. The reasons are varied: the ponds dry up; or they are hunted down by predators: or they die of diseases.

After a few hours, we pull ourselves away, grateful for the time to explore this wild place–full of life . . . and death.

*I’ve reached out to Dr. Rick Van de Poll about the eggs out of water–if, by chance, he responds, I’ll update this post so stay tuned.

And now from Rick:

Hi Leigh!

Fascinating find! Having just seen a few predated egg masses today I can definitively say they are spotted salamander eggs. The blackish coloration is likely imparted by the stomach acids of a raccoon, who apparently gorged and threw them back up, along with a few frog parts. Again, while its not too common to see this kind of things around vernal pools, it does make for for a pretty good ‘who-dunnit’!

Rick

Lessons from the Earth

Dear Earth,

This year found me once again staying in my home territory to honor you and so while my guy did some yard chores, I chose to visit a few of your vernal pools.

Along the way, I stopped to smell the roses! Opps, I mean admire the flowers of the Red Maples, their pistils and stamen all aglow.

As I approached the first and nearest pool, I new love was in the air for I heard the deep wrucks of the Wood Frogs. That is, until I got to within about ten feet, and then the only sounds were small splashes that barely created ripples as the frogs sought cover under the leafy pool lining.

But, as you’ve taught me in the past, I stood as still as possible and waited patiently. It was then that my eyes began to focus on the pool’s tenants. And I realized that the usual population of larval mosquitoes, aka “wrigglers” already somersaulting their way through the water. That may be bad news for me, but it’s certainly good news for the birds and dragonflies of the neighborhood. While I try to practice mind over matter when I’m stung by a mosquito, I have to remember that your plan to offer “Meals on the Fly” sustains so many others.

And then, and then I spied something disturbing. Actually it was two somethings. Frog legs of two frogs. And even a head. Dinner? For whom? Typically, I rejoice at a kill site for I realize that one species feeds another, but this one disturbed me. Perhaps, dear Earth, it was because I think of this pool as mine even though it’s located on a neighbor’s land, and I want to protect it and all that live within, as well as all who venture to it for nourishment. Eventually, I realized that perhaps someone had been nourished by the frogs, but why didn’t they consume the entire beings? Could it be one of their own species who went into attack mode? I don’t have the answer–but once again you’ve given me more to question. And so in the end I realized I should be grateful for having the opportunity to wonder.

The good news–right behind the two dead frogs was a recently deposited egg mass. Its form made me think Spring Peepers, but I’ll need to watch them develop.

Death. Life. The cycle plays out as if a best seller in this dramatic genre.

I circled the pool looking for any other unusual sights or clues, but found none. Eventually I stood on my favorite rock and appreciated that you finally rewarded me, dear Earth. A Wood Frog appeared by my feet and we both remained as still as possible–that is until my feet began to fall asleep and I needed to move on.

As you know, dear Earth, I located several more pools, their wruck choruses giving them away. And within one, it was obvious by the egg masses that the lover frogs had found their mates.

Walking back toward home, I got a bit nosey, as you know, and turned over some bark that had fallen from dead trees. To my delight: millipedes, earth worms, bark beetles, slugs, and . . .

At least five Red-backed Salamanders. That reminded me, dear Earth, that though I wasn’t able to join Lakes Environmental Association for Big Night on Saturday, that rainy night when the temperature ranges about 40˚ and the amphibians decide to return to their vernal pools to mate and folks try to help them cross our roadways to do so, I trust that you made sure the Red-backed Sallies and worms made their presence known in the grass behind the Masonic Hall. Did you?

As for my walk today, I followed our trails and then an old logging road, where the deer and moose and coyotes and foxes and turkeys also roam.

And because part of my journey took me along the snowmobile trail, I picked up some empties and realized that not all turkeys are created equal.

But you don’t judge, do you dear Earth. Nor do you pretend that the world is perfect.

That being said, the sight of my first butterfly of the season, the pastel colored Clouded Sulphur, was rather perfect in my book.

Thanks for once again taking the time to teach me a few lessons . . . lessons from the Earth on this, your day, Earth Day 2019.

Wondermyway Celebrates Fourth Anniversary

My comings and goings are often a tramp through the woods, where I pause frequently to contemplate the world through which I wander. These provide me with glimpses at a small portion of the wonders of the universe. Please join me for a few minutes as I share the mysteries of the hills that have been revealed to me this past year.

The ice delighted our sense of sight, understanding, and artistic form. Like the water from which it was created, it flowed in much variety.

And then . . . as we looked, a motion captured our attention. We were blessed with the opportunity to spend a few moments with a mink as it bounded down the hill before realizing it had an audience.

Next a splash startled us. What caused it? There was no snow high up on the trees that might have fallen. At last we saw the creators. There were actually three–swimming about slowly. Suddenly splashing again, they disappeared into the depths below. And the chambers within. We were in awe and felt honored to have shared a few minutes with members of the beaver family.

Sometimes our stops were to contemplate our next steps–especially when it came to the water that covered the cobblestones. Spying a bird nest, we wondered about its creator. There were some acorn pieces inside, so we thought it had hosted more than one inhabitant. Because we were near water, though most of it still frozen, and the temp was high, we weren’t surprised to find a set of baby handprints created recently by a raccoon.

As I stood there looking for a million wild mammals, my eyes focused on the works of something much smaller. Insect egg tunnels on a dead snag read like a story book page. The overall design could have been a map leading to hidden treasures.

Within each soft snowflake I felt millions of wings brush against my face–reminding me of those I know who are at the moment downtrodden and have hurdles to conquer. Some tiny, others immense, all were angelic in nature. As the flakes gathered together, they enhanced the reflection of harmony with illumination. They brought Heaven down to Earth . . . and reminded me that even in the darkest hours I hope my friends remember that grace surrounds them.

Life, it seems, is always in transition. So it feels, when one season overlaps another.

The scene is never the same, nor is the light. What may have appeared monochromatic was hardly that. When the sun began to set, the water harbored reflective moments as it transformed the views from crisp representations into impressionistic paintings.

Right away, the trail’s tree spirit whispered a welcome. And another of my favorite trees begged to be noticed again. It’s an ancient yellow birch that has graced the granite for more than a century. The tree itself, wasn’t in good health, but the roots atop the rock splayed out in support of a life to be continued.

Beside it stood one that some know as white; I prefer to call it paper. The curled-back birch bark offered hues of a different color reminiscent of a sunrise in the midst of a graying day.

And not to go unnoticed, bark from another birch had fallen to the ground. It too, offered subtle pink hues, but it was the stitchery created by the tree’s pores that drew my eye. They reminded me of a million zippers waiting to reveal hidden secrets.

Near the stonewall along the cowpath stood tall an old pine that perhaps served as the mother and grandmother of all the pines in my forest. Today, bedecked in piles of flakes, her arms reached out as if to embrace all of her offspring.

I had only walked a wee distance when I heard a Barred Owl call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It was noon, after all, so it seemed totally appropriate. Suddenly, I heard a response somewhere ahead. For about five minutes they echoed each other. And then the world was silenced.

At last we reached the boardwalk, where we embraced stillness and listened to the green frogs strum their banjo voices and red-winged blackbirds sing their conk-la-ree songs. Our gaze became more focused when we realized we stood in the midst of a newly emerged dragonfly. We felt a sense of caretakers for suddenly it was our honorable duty to watch and protect this vulnerable being from becoming prey. With wonder, we observed it slowly change position and suddenly spread its wings. For at least an hour we stood sentry and noted the slightest movements while we delighted in how the breeze occasionally fluttered through the dragonfly’s wings. And then, in a flash, it flew off and we were proud parents who had sent our offspring into the world.

I have no idea how much time had passed, but suddenly we all stirred a bit and then someone who was noticing redirected our attention. We were encouraged to focus on another who was also paying attention. And narrowing in . . . on lunch. When the young bird flapped its wings, we were all sure the meal was meant “to go.” But thankfully, the bird stayed. And played with its food. Ever so slowly, the fish was maneuvered into its mouth. And gulped. Down the throat it slid, a slight bump in the long neck. And then the feathers were ruffled–rather like a chill passing through its body. Wing motion followed. But still, the Great Blue Heron stayed. And stalked some more.

A blanket of fog enveloped the view. It didn’t matter, for my focus zeroed in on what was before me rather than being swept up into the beyond. I began to look around and felt an aura. It was as if I stood in another place and time. The fog. The green. The gray. The world disappeared. And the scene before me opened. One yellow lichen inched across the granite face. Beside it, another stood out like tiles in a mosaic work of art. Meanwhile, the fog danced across the ridgeline, twirling and whirling in a ghostly quiet manner, its transparent gowns touching the ground ever so tenderly before lifting into the next move.

We watched him forage for seeds and wondered about his behavior. Typically, such birds are loners, except for mating season. But this one greeted visitors to its territory with somewhat regular frequency. When we moved, he did likewise–usually a few feet to either side of us. And when we stopped, the Ruffed Grouse did the same, seeming to share our curiosity.

One doesn’t necessarily step into the woods and expect transcendent events to occur, but then again by learning to live in the moment one never knows what to expect. 

These are my thin places, where I see the light more on this side of than the other. May the answers slowly reveal themselves by day and by night, while the questions and awe never end.

Thanks to all of you who continue to wonder and wander with me whether literally or figuratively. I truly appreciate our time spent together.

Otter Delight

Once upon a time in a land close, close at hand, there lived a family of Otters who were mothered by a Snowshoe Hare.

They spent most of their days and nights exploding through the ice and sliding up and down the mill pond’s edge.

But one day their momma rounded up some snowshoes large and small and strapped them on to all.

The family headed off through the woods where moments of wonder captured their attention.

It wasn’t long into their journey when a winter firefly upon the snowy surface stopped them in their tracks.

E. Otter took the firefly that overwinters as an adult and looked for a safe place to deposit it.

She found such in an old beetle hole upon a dead snag and wished it well before she hopped away.

W. Otter found another tree that he quickly identified as a yellow birch and then honored with a hug.

C. Otter looked upon the bark of a beech tree and was thrilled to spy a fungi.

On the tree’s back side he spied another and posed above the false tinder conk.

Soon, the little Otters convinced their momma that they didn’t want to try to be hares any more and so they shed their snowshoes.

Within moments, A. Otter decided to instead try his feet at being a frog.

Catching some air, he leapt up the trail.

By a vernal pool he revealed his true identity–a tree frog.

Soon, his siblings joined him as they channeled their inner tree frogs.

A short distance later, momma couldn’t help but smile when her young’uns displayed their angelic nature.

Those angelic Otters eventually found their way to the top of a huge boulder.

And then they began to do what Otters do.

They slid.

And climbed back up.

To slide some more.

Sometimes, it seemed as if they flew down the boulder’s face.

Other times they bounded.

In true Otter rhythm, one foot landed diagonally in front of the other.

After creating a series of troughs in the snow, they begged their momma to join them.

Being a Snowshoe Hare, she wasn’t sure she would be able to slide quite the way they did.

But she shed her inhibitions and climbed up to join her children.

After noting how scary it was, she smiled and slid down in one of the troughs the children had created.

Once was not enough and up and down she went again.

At last it was time to head for home. Being Otters, the children thought they might just den up below their favorite boulder. The youngest, of course, pouted for he wanted to slide some more.

But moments later, he showed his momma how much he loved her by presenting her with a snowheart.

What an otterly delightful family and equally otterly delightful way to spend the day!

Childhood Magic

Why did the Greater Lovell Land Trust co-host (or rather tri-host) a hike through Pondicherry Park in Bridgton this morning? Because it’s hunting season, and it didn’t make sense to invite the public on a property that isn’t posted. (Not that we don’t still tramp on GLLT properties in November, mind you, but not on a public walk necessarily.)

And when I asked Jon Evans of Loon Echo Land Trust and Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association to join me in leading the tramp, they both quickly and graciously agreed to do so. I couldn’t wait because not only would it be a chance to share the special place with GLLT members, but also to bounce off of Jon and Alanna as we shared our knowledge of the natural and historical aspects of the park.

1-Bob Dunning Bridge

But . . . this morning dawned rainy and snowy. Still, we didn’t cancel. And though we knew that not everyone who had planned to join us could because there was more snow in the Lovell area and no power, we were pleasantly surprised to have a small contingent of participants that represented all three of our groups. And really, I love leading smaller groups because it’s so much easier for everyone to participate.

2-Jon giving the bridge history

Our group, consisting of Pam, Jon, Bill, Connie and JoAnne, plus Alanna and me, stood for a bit on the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, the gateway into the park from behind Reny’s Department Store on Depot Street. As Jon explained, on September 11, 2010, the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge was constructed in true barn-raising fashion.

3-Stevens Brook

The bridge spans Stevens Brook, the source of power when Bridgton was first founded and for many years thereafter.

4-Bob Dunning Bridge

One of the unique things about the bridge is that each tie beam comes from a different tree species, with the bark left on. As I walk across the bridge, my eyes are always drawn to the beams.

Until I took the Maine Master Naturalist class, I recognized only a few species by their bark. But my eyes were opened to the fact that each species has its own presentation, which is true for everything in the natural world. I wanted to know all of them so I set out to teach myself, beginning with the species on the bridge. These became the focus of my capstone project for the class and from that I created a Barking Up A Bridge brochure that is available at the kiosk.

5-sugar and Norway maple leaves

Into the park we finally went, stopping periodically along the way to notice and learn, including the similarities and differences between a sugar maple leaf on the left and Norway maple leaf on the right. Both have the same number of lobes (5) and look so similar, but . . .  the Norway maple leaf, an invasive planted along the main streets as a shade tree after the loss of Elms, is much boxier and more rectangular in shape. Plus, as Jon pointed out, the stem seeps a milky substance, which is a quick way to identify it.

6-pine soap

Our finds included many as we moved along at our usual slow pace, but one thing kept showing its form on pine after pine. Froth. It’s not unusual and occurs following a rain event such as we’d had all night and morning. So what causes the tree to froth? During a heavy rain, water running down the trunk of a white pine picks up the tree’s oils on the way. Air in the bark furrows bubbles through the oily film and produces the froth.

7-pine soap

Conditions were just right for it to occur so we spied frequent examples.

8-tussock moth cocoon

And because we were looking so closely at the bark, we noticed other things like tussock moth cocoons. We also found tube caterpillar moth cocoons created with pine needles and even pulled one apart to take a closer look. And the tiny sawfly cocoons on various twigs.

10-Willet Brook

Eventually, we found our way beside Willet Brook, which flows into Stevens.

11a-JoAnne photographing script lichen

And again, our eyes were drawn to tree bark and crustose lichen in particular. JoAnne snapped a photo of a script lichen that decorated a red oak.

13-crossing onto LEA property

Our intention was to turn away from the brook and cross the boardwalk that leads onto the Lakes Environmental Association’s adjacent property. Before doing so, however, we began to channel our inner child and rolled some logs.

12-baby red-backed salamander

And we weren’t disappointed for we found young and mature red-backed salamanders as hoped. If you roll a log, always pull it toward you so any critters that want to escape can do so in the opposite direction; and always put the log back into place quickly (well, after a couple of photographs, that is.)

14-Maine Lake Science Center Lab

At LEA’s Maine Lake Science Center, Alanna gave us a quick tour of the premises,

15-MLSC Lab

including the lab where various water quality tests are conducted.

16-Connie on the low-impact challenge course

Back outside, we headed up to LEA’s Pinehaven Trail and tried our talent as birds on a wire along the newly installed  low-impact challenge course.

17-Pam and Bill manuevering the wire walk

We all succeeded as Nuthatches for none of us fell off. If we’d done it with one hand, we  would have been Barred Owls and if we hadn’t used any hands, we would have been Cooper’s Hawks. But we were happy to be Nuthatches. There are four sets of challenges, each with a variety of activities to complete. Challenge your inner child.

18-watching balsam sticks

Crossing back into Pondicherry Park, we said we’d bee-line back to the bridge, but several times we just had to stop . . . especially when we found Balsam Fir blisters inviting us to poke them with twigs and drop the resin-tipped sticks into calm water.

19-balsam rainbow

We watched with fascination as the essential oil propelled the twig and created a rainbow, again satisfying that child within.

22-crossing back over the bridge

At last, a half hour after our intended finish time of 12:30pm, we found our way back to our starting point, all delighted to have spent time exploring and playing on a rather raw morning.

Thank you again to Jon and Alanna for sharing your knowledge and sense of wonder. And thank you to Pam, Bill, Connie, and JoAnne for coming out to play with us.

23-Chili and Beer

Later in the day, my guy and I drove to Lovell for yet another special event at the VFW Hall: LOVELL’S 1st ANNUAL BOWLS & BREWS fundraiser for the Sunshine Backpack Food Program.

It was a chili cook-off and beer tasting event featuring locally crafted chili and locally crafted beer from Bear Bones and Saco River Breweries. Plus, National Distributors in Portland donated Harpoon and New Belgium beers.

24-Paula and Diane

Diane Caracciolo nailed it and won first place from the judges and as the people’s choice. Her take away was a coveted apron, actually two, designed by local students who benefit from the Sunshine Backpack Food Program. As Paula Hughes, one of the event’s organizers explained, the packs are sent home on Fridays and filled with nutritious, non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food to ensure the kids get enough food on weekends.

At the end of the day, it seemed an interesting juxtaposition to have spent the morning channeling our inner child and the afternoon thinking about children who are so hungry that they can’t enjoy such childhood magic.

If you’d wish to contribute, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Paula.

Put The Lawn Furniture Away Holiday

I don’t know the why of it, but it seems that each year when we plan to put the lawn furniture away, the forecast either includes wind gusts or snow. Well, yesterday it snowed. Not a lot of snow, mind you. But enough.

1-snow on the kayaks

It was, however,  melting quickly when we stopped by camp to begin our autumn chores.

3-porcupine tracks

Upon our return home, I diverted my attention for a bit and headed off into the woods, where much to my delight, tracking opportunities made themselves known. Though I didn’t see any of the creators, I smiled with the knowledge that I can share this land with them. Along the way I found a porcupine track pattern,

4-coyote--18 inch stride

plus a coyote with a stride of about nineteen inches (when you don’t take a tape measure it pays to improvise),

5-snowshoe lobster

and my favorite for this first tracking day of the season . . . a snowshoe lobster–I mean hare.

6-moose scat

Another favorite sighting, which I spied a few times–rather fresh moose scat the size of chocolate nuggets. (And no, I didn’t collect it to make jewelry. ;-))

7-my own track

As I moved, I left behind my own tracks and wondered if the mammals looked at those and knew I’d passed by. “Middle-aged female, the one who stalks us,” they might comment if they could talk. But really, it’s by my scent that they probably know me best. “Stinky middle-aged female . . .”

7a-leaves enhanced by snow

It wasn’t just tracks that caught my attention. The snow, spotted with tree drips, enhanced the color and borders of the foliage, making each leaf stand out.

7b-leaves under slush

In contrast, a more muted tapestry formed where foliage was trapped in slush-topped puddles.

8a-melted snow on sugar maple

And then there were those leaves turned upside down. I was fascinated by the variation of size in the water drops left behind as the snow melted. Every dot enhanced the pastel back-side colors . . .

8-melted snow on big tooth aspen leaf

and acted as a scope by showing off segments of venation.

9-snowdrops on grass

Patterns changed depending on the shape of the structure to which they clung.

10-goldenrod

And all were momentary for each drop eventually did what they do . . . dripped.

11-tachinid fly

While I admired the beauty, I wondered about the goldenrod that still bloomed and reminded me that though it had snowed and we’ve had some rather cold days, today was a bit warmer and it’s not winter yet. But those cold temps of a few days ago, I think they caught some by surprise, including this tachinid fly that dangled from another flower stalk.

12-hickory tussock moth caterpillar

And several times I found hickory tussock moth caterpillars frozen in place. While I admired the way the melted snow drops clung to the hair, I wondered about what I was seeing. Was it a shed skin? Or had this caterpillar been taken by surprise with weather conditions?

If you know, please enlighten me.

As it was, I needed to finish my wander for there was more furniture to put away on the homefront.

13-red-backed salamander

And when we opened the cellar hatch door to store the table and chair downstairs, another discovery was made . . . an Eastern red-backed salamander on top of the first step.

The day probably should have been named “Day After the First Snow Storm of the Season” but instead it was our “Put the Lawn Furniture Away Holiday.” Not everyone celebrates this day, but we do because as exciting as it is to bring the furniture out in the spring, it’s equally exciting to put it away and anticipate the coming season. Oh, and when we pull it again in the spring, you can trust that it will snow at least one more time.