A Collection of Mondates

Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”

The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”

The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”

Some have found us paddling in our favorite body of water, where we love to explore the edges and islands and float among the lily pads.

It’s a place where we always look below the surface and sometimes are rewarded, this being a Bryozoan mass, a most definite gift for the tiny colonial aquatic creatures that connect their tubes together and form the jelly-like blob, effectively filter particles from the water. The animals live in the tubes and extend their tentacles that capture even smaller microscopic organisms for food. The gelatinous species, also known as moss animals, is native to North America.

We’ve wandered beside ponds where gentle breezes provided relief from mosquitoes and views of distant mountains doubled our joy.

Being my guy, he’s spotted lady’s slippers in bloom and more than once observed clusters bouquets worth noting.

Likewise he’s occasionally rewarded with pendants, this being an immature Chalk-fronted Skimmer dragonfly.

I’ve been equally rewarded with the sighting of a perching Dragonhunter, one of the largest clubtail species in our neck of the woods.

One hot summer Monday found us taking a shower under a waterfall.

And contemplating in front another.

We’ve searched for our favorite shades of blue, mine being that offered by Clintonia borealis, aka Blue-bead lily, it’s fruits reminding me of porcelain.

While mine is inedible, his favorite shade of blue invites his greed.

And so several Mondays were spent picking blueberries from the water . . .

and atop our hometown mountain.

Upon several occasions we summited said mountain and always paid homage to the fire tower that still stands tall and recalls an early era when wardens spent hours in the cab scanning the horizon for smoke.

We’ve posed at the ski area on the same mountain, where the pond below sometimes serves as our backyard.

Some of our best Mondates of this summer have been spent with family, this being our youngest and his gal.

And our oldest and his gal and their friends.

One we even shared with a tyke we finally got to meet, a grandnephew from Virginia . . .

who travelled north with my niece, his mom, and his daddy and grandmother.

It’s been a summer of catching up on so many fronts, and now I’ve arrived at our most recent Mondate. The morning began with a delightful surprise for when we uncovered a pie we’d purchased at one of our favorite roadside stands, and discovered it was decorated with a dragonfly. I swear we purchased it for the strawberry/rhubarb flavor and not the design. Really.

After dining on the pie for breakfast, we started our journey by searching for a trail someone had told me about. But . . . did she say park at the shed before the pond or after? We couldn’t find a shed in either location, but did find lots of NO TRESPASSING signs. Finally, we located what might be a trail and it wasn’t posted. For about a quarter mile we walked, until we found ourselves facing a field with a farmhouse at the far side. Backtrack we did, with Plan B in mind, but at least we were rewarded with the spot of Actaea pachypoda, White Baneberry, aka Doll’s-eyes. It does look like the eyes of a china doll, its creepiness accentuated by the thick red stalks and the fact that the fruits are poisonous.

The trail we chose instead let us know from the start that we’d made the right decision when we spotted a bumblebee upon a thistle.

It was a place beside two small specks of ponds, where the beavers have docked a boat conveniently beside their lodge.

Though we didn’t see any beavers in action, my guy demonstrated their gnawing technique.

It’s also a place where Autumn Meadowhawk Skimmer dragonflies danced and paused, danced and paused.

But the best moments of the day where spent crossing under a powerline where goldenrod grows abundantly. If you look closely, you might spot the subjects of my guy’s attention.

Monarch Butterflies. The most Monarchs we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ten butterflies? A dozen? Perhaps two dozen? Maybe more.

Watching them flutter and sip, flutter and sip, gladdened our hearts and made a perfect ending for this particular collection of Mondates.

Ode to a young Great Blue Heron

Oh youthful one, 

Life began with your parents 

Taking great care 

To build a nest 

Stick by stick. 

Constructed upon a tree snag

They located it

Close to homes of their kin

In a colonial manner

Known as a rookery.

Once incubated eggs hatched, 

You and your siblings, 

Necks outstretched, 

Vied for attention

With a chorus of primordial croaks.

Just as fast as 

you could turn 

the soundtrack on

You turned it off, 

And silence ensued.

Until, that is,

Your parents flew in, 

Each taking a turn,

With a meal ready

To be regurgitated. 

And then it was a case 

Of who 

Could outsquawk whom 

For a chance to dine

On food so fine.

I watched 

From the wetland’s edge

Where Painted Turtles basked,

Four-spotted Dragonflies paused,

Wood Ducks paraded and Watershield bloomed.

With the passage of time

You outgrew your soft bed,

And stood to show off

A body slaty gray,

accentuated in chestnut and black.

Eventually,

The meals changed

To large fish or other delights,  

While tug-of-wars ensued,

But you held tight. 

Growing stronger by weeks,

You soon practiced

Balance beam moves

On branches beside 

Your high-rise home. 

Flaps of wings

Anticipated flight.

Until the moment arrived, 

When stronger beats

Led to lift off.

As you flew,

A wise parent, 

Its head white

Topped with a long, black plume,

Stood sentry in protection mode.

Two months after

Entering this world,

You fledge, that bird moment 

Of solo flights

And food forages.

It’s in another wetland setting

I next found you, 

Silently stalking,

In search of frogs and fish

Passing by.

With practice 

You’ll strike a meal 

As you quickly 

Grab or impale prey 

Trying to pass by. 

My hope for you,

Young Ardea herodias, is this:

May you live long, 

Building, canoodling, 

Foraging, parenting.

May you

Demonstrate strategies 

Of making one’s own way

In the world

Rather than relying upon others. 

To best observe you, 

May I take a page from your book,

And stand or sit still

In meditative contemplation

As I try to not cause commotion.

As colonial as you’ll become when breeding, 

Which serves as a survival strategy, 

May you develop into a truly solitary creature,

Reminding us to occasionally spend time alone

And always be present in the moment.

Be-leeched!

Erika Rowland, executive director of Greater Lovell Land Trust, asked me a year ago to consider finding someone who could give a talk about leeches. And so the search was on. Back in February I found just the right person. At first he declined the invitation, but I enticed him with a place to stay thanks to GLLT members Linda and Heinrich Wurm (she asked that he not bring any live leeches with him) and through a couple of email exchanges we set up a date and time and accommodations. And so it was that we had the absolute pleasure of learning from Dr. Nat Wheelwright and his delightful wife Genie.

Nat is well known for the book he co-authored with Bernd Heinrich: The Naturalist’s Notebook. He’s also known for Nature Moments, including the one that cinched the deal for me: Swimming with Leeches.

Certain that not everyone would be fascinated by leeches, he suggested that he talk about other nature moments and so it began with a look at Bracken, a sometimes waist high fern with triangular fronds that provides a great place for children to hide, or when placed atop ones head, an insect distractor as they’ll go to the highest point, being the stem, and leave you alone. As Nat explained, it’s a prolific fern that mainly reproduces by rhizomes rather than spores. I can think of only a few occasions when I’ve spied the spores on the undersides of the leaflets . . . and believe me, I’ve turned many over in hopes of spying such.

We had about a mile-long walk along a woods road to our destination beside a pond, and were overjoyed that Nat showed off our favorite syndrome: Nature Distraction Disorder as any little thing captured his attention and he couldn’t wait to share it with us. Each time, we thought we knew exactly what he’d share, and then he’d add some tidbit we’d not realized or considered before.

Really, what more could one learn about an American Toad? Until we did. How to tell its gender! Grasp it by its underarms. If it makes a noise, it’s a male! Huh? Yup, because that’s where a male would clasp a female in amplexus and if he thinks another male is grasping him he needs to let it know it has made the wrong choice. We have a frog and toad safari coming up with a bunch of youngsters and this will certainly be on the agenda.

The closer we got to our destination, the more we began to spy Ebony Jewelwing damselflies. As Nat explained, living by the coast, this is a rare species for him, but in our region of western Maine, with so many lakes, ponds, rivers, brooks, and streams, we see them frequently.

What would we learn from him about this species?

Again, how to tell the gender. Male or female? What do you think?

See the second segment of the abdomen where the arrow points? That bulge under segment two is where the secondary genitalia are located. This is clearly absent in females. Therefore–this specimen was a male.

We gave him another way to identify the gender of Ebony Jewelwings: the male’s wings are solid black, while the female has a white psuedostigma toward the tip of each wing.

And notice the white at the tip of the abdomen? That’s pruinosity, which like dragonflies, occurs in mature damsels. Not a gender idiosyncrasy, but rather one of age.

It took us a wonder-filled while, but eventually we made it to the pond of our destination and several of us took off our hiking boots and splashed our feet in the water. To cool off on a hot summer day? Certainly a benefit. To attract a leech or two? Well, we tried, but there were no takers.

Interns Emily and Anna had been there the day before and suggested another spot that might lead us to the leeches we desired and so we walked back along the road and headed down another path to the water. But . . . there was another story to share first of Genie’s experience swimming with tadpoles one day and the demise of said tadpoles a couple of days later and a discovery of ranavirus, which kills frogs in a short time period. Nat did tell us that the pond where the discovery was made seemed to be recovering; maybe some frogs exhibiting a resistance to the virus.

One of the take-aways from this is to always clean your equipment, including trays and D-nets, between pond explorations so if one pond is affected you don’t accidentally spread the virus to another.

That said, we reached a shallow area of the water’s edge, and Moira, Nat, and I took off our hiking boots and socks and stepped into the water. So . . . what did it feel like? Mucky. And rooty. And did I say mucky. BUT . . . it was only a matter of minutes and a blood-sucking leech found my leg. We tried to capture it, however, it wasn’t ready to be the star of the show and quickly released itself. That’s not how it usually goes with such, and a shake of salt would have been necessary to get it to release. I should have been thankful.

Then we spied a much larger leech swimming about and I got out so others could get closer to the pond’s edge and see it. Moira stood still as it circled her leg over and over again.

At last, either she or Nat captured it and placed it in a tray for all to observe. At its longest stretch, it was about five inches, though sometimes it appeared to be only about an inch in length.

In awe, we watched it move gracefully as its body contracted and protracted around the edge of the tray. And then the moment of anticipation came. Time for an up-close-and-personal look.

By the line of spots on its back . . .

and orange belly, Nat identified it as the common and colorful Macrobdella decora—North American medicinal leech, apparently used for bloodletting, but not one that would harm us as we continued to witness.

The more time we spent with Della . . .

the more comfortable we became in its presence, and soon learned that it moves rather like a slinky and we needed to place one hand below the next to keep its rhythm going.

That said, it was rather disconcerting. I mean: leeches are to be feared. We’ve spent a lifetime honing that attitude.

But . . . after spending a little time with them, I realized I truly don’t understand their ecology, but I’ve certainly gained a new respect, including the understanding that they have a brain and a sucker at each end. There’s a whole lot more to them than meets our eyes–including the fact that they have ten . . . eyes, that is, if I’ve got my facts correct.

First, we thought standing in the water was enough of a challenge. And then holding the leech. But . . . Nat had one more challenge–let the leech crawl on your face. Have you ever? Genie was willing to give it a try, but it fell off.

Moira gladly also gave it a try, but it fell to the ground.

Nat, however, was the most successful . . . until we were all certain it was headed into his ear.

Did you know this about leeches?

  • some families are jawless, some toothless, and some feed through a tube
  • leeches swallow their prey whole, extract the bodily fluids, and spit out the crunchy-bits, rather like a carnivorous plant
  • they prey on invertebrates, turtles, frogs, ducks, or fish
  • they are eaten by crayfish, salamanders, birds, turtles, carnivorous aquatic insect larvae, and fish

There is so much more for me to comprehend, but what a great beginning. Today we were be-leeched at Greater Lovell Land Trust with many, many thanks to Nat and Genie Wheelwright for traveling to western Maine to share their nature moments with us, Linda and Heinrich Wurm for hosting the Wheelwrights overnight, and Moira Yip and Vanny Nelson for being today’s lead docents. (Vanny, a former intern, nailed the intro–Nat was impressed, as we all were. And they have a Bowdoin College allegiance.)

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine. Our hats are off to Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) for her willingness to be the lead on this project and work in collaboration with us. Alanna, you see, has conducted previous surveys for Maine Inland Wildlife & Fisheries (MDIFW) at LEA properties, and was trained by wildlife biologist Derek Yorks to set these up.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Each trap was given a number to identify on subsequent days, and all were marked with waypoints on a GPS map of the area. The traps were designed so critters could get in from either end without harm, but could not escape . . . until we recorded them and set them free, that is. An empty water bottle helped each trap stay partially afloat, thus allowing any captured turtle an opportunity to surface for air since unlike fish, they don’t have gills. And each trap was baited with a can of sardines in soybean oil, opened just a tad to release the oil, but not enough for the critters to eat the fish. That was the messy . . . and stinky part of the task. But I swear my hands and wrists currently are less wrinkled than the rest of my arms.

As Alanna on the right, showed GLLT’s Executive Director Erika Rowland, on the left, and me on day 2, the information we needed to collect included air temp at the beginning of each set of five traps, water temp at every trap, plus we had to document turtle species and any bycatch. And if we moved traps, which we ended up doing a day or two later, we needed to note that as well, and remember to change the location on GLLT’s iPad.

We felt skunked at first, because a bunch of our traps were empty, but soon learned that every day would be different. Our first painted turtle, however, was a reason to celebrate.

In no time, it became routine, and GLLT’s Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau, Erika, and I took turns sharing the tasks of the daily trips. If it sounds like a hardship, it was not.

Even GLLT’s Office Manager, Alice Bragg, had an opportunity to spend time checking traps with us and taking the water temperature.

With confidence that we knew what we were doing, well, sorta knew, we invited all volunteer docents and board members to get in on the fun. Of course, my email to them mentioned the stinky soybean oil and feisty mosquitoes, but that did not deter. Often, if something was in the trap it would wiggle upon our approach, but sometimes, as Pam Marshall learned, it wasn’t until you picked it up to check, that the real action began.

A hornpout, aka brown bullhead, started flipping around and there was a moment of surprise.

I knew nothing about freshwater fish at the beginning of the survey, and still don’t know a lot, but am learning. Hornpouts are native catfish who come out at night to feed, vacuuming up worms, fish and fish eggs, insects, leeches, plants, crustaceans, frogs–you name it.

They have a thick rounded body, and a broad, somewhat flattened head with a distinctive set of “whiskers” around the mouth called barbels, which they use to find prey. Their fins have sharp saw tooth spines that can be locked in an erect position as we soon learned and wearing gloves was the best way to try to pull one out if the release zipper on the net wasn’t working. With no scales on their skin, they were a bit slippery, but we managed.

On another day, when volunteers Pippi and Peter Ellison and I had to wait out a fast-moving rain storm that initally left us soaked and chilled, the first catch of the day was a water scorpion. At the time, I kept calling it a walking stick, because it does resemble one. But this is an aquatic insect. It’s not a true scorpion, despite its looks. It uses its front pincer-like legs to catch its prey. And its tail actually acts as a kind of snorkel, rather than a sting, allowing it to breathe in the water.

Once the rain stopped, the Ellisons and I carried on and they were well rewarded. All told, they released the biggest variety of species from this small snapping turtle, to several painted turtles, a crayfish, and several fish species.

In the very last trap, Pippi also pulled out a giant water beetle.

On another day, one of Bob Katz’s finds was a freshwater snail. Thankfully, it was not the large, invasive Chinese Mystery Snail, but rather one of the 34 natives.

As was often the case, teamwork played a huge role in the process of removal of not only the species, but also the stinky sardine cans that were replaced with fresh ones every other day. That didn’t stop Joan Lundin from smiling about the chores to be completed on a super hot day when the air temp hit 90˚.

While some days were downright cold or windy, and whitecaps made crossing the pond a real challenge, others offered calm waters and Basil Dixon and Bruce Taylor joined Rhyan and me for one of the latter.

Up Cold River, much to our surprise, Basil hoisted out a trap filled with four hornpouts.

They waited impatiently for a photo call and release and in moments were on their way.

At the very next trap, Bruce discovered four as well, this time all being painted turtles.

They looked as grumpy as the hornpouts, but who could blame them. Painted turtles are common throughout Maine and in fact, the most wide-spread native turtle of North America. This colorful turtle’s skin ranges from olive to black with red, orange, or yellow stripes on its extremities.

Each time we went out, I prayed we wouldn’t find a large snapping turtle in the trap and that if we did, Rhyan would be with me. Several times, we had to replace traps because big snappers had torn the mesh, and twice we released small snappers, one feistier than the other. On the very last day when we were pulling the traps out because the study was drawing to a close, as luck would have it, Rhyan was with me and we caught not the biggest snapper we’ve ever seen, but still one of decent size.

Notice the plastron, or bottom shell, and you can actually see the bridges that connect it to the much larger top shell or carapace. The zipper on this particular trap had been sewn shut because apparently in a previous study another snapper had torn it, but Rhyan carefully unstitched it to let the turtle swim free.

So, the thing about visiting the same place on a regular basis, is that you get to know so many of the community members, such as the six-spotted tiger beetles who chose that very moment to move rapidly across leaves and rocks by the pond’s edge as they mated. Their large eyes, long legs and sickle-shaped mandibles are characteristic of these metallic green beetles. Usually, however, I can’t get close for a photo because like some dragonflies, as soon as I take a step, they fly ahead a few feet and land until my next step. I was grateful that canoodling slowed them down at least a tad.

Did I mention dragonflies? Each day more exuviae were added to the stems and leaves of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Though fragile, the casts of exoskeletons retain the exact shape of the full grown nymph. You might think of it as a kind of death mask for that previous aquatic stage of life. In each exuvia there’s a hole located behind the head and between the wing pads where the adult dragonfly emerged, literally crawling out of itself. The white threads that dangle from this exit hole are the tracheal tubes.

For a couple of hours after we’d finished the survey on the day Pam was with me, we watched this dragonfly that for some reason could not completely escape its larval form. It was obvious by its coloration and body/wing formation that it had been trying for quite a while to free itself–there was still life in it as we watched it move its legs and wings, but we didn’t interfere (though a part of us regretted that) and the next day I discovered it in the same position, but lifeless. Two days later, it was gone and I had to hope a bird had a good meal.

Speaking of birds, we saw them and delighted in listening to them, like this yellow warbler, and herons, osprey, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one lonely loon, and even a hummingbird.

But our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond.

I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak. As you can see by the context of this photo, Rhyan and I weren’t far from him at all.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

On the sandbar below, stood a sandpiper.

At last, however, the eagle flew, the sandpiper didn’t become a meal, and we watched as the bigger bird landed in a pine where we’ve spotted it before. We still had two more traps to attend to that day, and both were located below the eagle’s perch, but it left us alone.

The smallest birds that delighted us we heard first for they were constantly begging for a meal. All of the first week, we knew they were there by their sweet peeps, but it wasn’t until the second week that we began to spy them. And their demands for food began to sound louder and more adult-like. Unfortunately, the excavated hole used as a nest, was located in a spot where the afternoon sun made it difficult to see, but again on that last day the Kodak moment arrived.

Turtles, too, entertained us not only from the traps, but from their much happier places, basking on rocks or fallen logs. Typically, they slid off the substrate as soon as we approached, but this one actually let us pass by as it remained in place.

Because the water was shallow and clear, occasionally we spied one swimming below. Erika and Rhyan also paddled over one large snapper on a day I wasn’t out for the survey, but our snapping turtle finds tended to be on the smaller side–thankfully.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space. But . . .

as we paddled the canoe across the pond, Rhyan spied the young bull moose first. We’d seen moose tracks on the road way and every day hoped today might be the day. At last it was.

For a few minutes we sat and watched as he dined upon vegetation.

He seemed not bothered by our presence; mind you we were farther away than appears.

For a while, he browsed in one area, and then began to walk along the edge. And we gave thanks that the stars were aligned, but felt bad that one more volunteer, Moira Yip, who was supposed to be with us, hadn’t been able to make it.

Finally, the moose stepped out of the water and we knew our time together was coming to a close.

He gave one sideways glance and we said our goodbyes.

And then he disappeared from Charles Pond for the moment, and so did we.

What an incredible two weeks it was as we surveyed the wildlife of Charles Pond. Many thanks to Erika and Rhyan, to all of the volunteers who joined us (including Nancy and Brian Hammond who went on a day that I wasn’t present) and especially to LEA’s Alanna, and MDIFW’s Derek Yorks for letting us complete this assessment.

It was an honor and a privilege to be part of this project.

With Focused Attention

Someone recently commented that I am so fortunate to have a job that I thoroughly enjoy and she was right. I am extremely grateful and love that once again I can share the outdoor world with others who have the same sense of wonder . . . as well as questions. And eyes to see and brains to share.

And so it was that this week began with an attempt to watch dragonflies transform from aquatic swimmers to aerial fliers. I was so certain. Twice. Yes, twice I dragged people to a spot where a friend and I had had the honor of watching such an emergence exactly one year ago. And twice I was foiled. We all were. But . . . no one complained because there were other things to observe. And this young man is one fantastic observer. He has eagle eyes, for sure. As he peered into the water, he spied a winged ant walking along a stick.

Pulling the stick up, he took a closer look and though at first I thought it was an Alderfly, he was indeed correct in calling it an ant.

Notice the elbowed antennae? And those mandibles?

Unlike termites, Carpenter Ants don’t eat wood, but they do damage it as they excavate to make room for more ants. So what do they eat? Scavenged insects (sometimes you might see them dragging an insect home), and honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on vegetation.

Black Carpenters, such as this one, occur in forested areas like we were in, and nest in dead wood of standing trees, fallen longs, and stumps. Though no one wants them in a home, they do play an important role in the ecosystem as they help decompose wood back into soil. Plus they consume many forest pests.

Enough ant love, I suppose. Why this one was walking along a twig in the water we’ll never know. Unless one of us accidentally kicked it in as we looked for dragonfly nymphs. If that was the case, the ant was rescued thanks to the one with the eagle eyes.

Our attention then shifted right, where we’d spent a couple of days observing one or two small water snakes basking on logs. Each time, we were certain they were young snakes. Until they weren’t.

Suddenly, one larger snake came onto the land and as we watched it met the smaller snake.

And then the smaller climbed atop the larger and we thought perhaps it was a mother/child relationship. None of us had ever witnessed it before and so it was most definitely a learning.

Together, they twisted and turned as the smaller snake’s tail wrapped around the larger body.

Every once in a while their heads would twitch.

Upon doing some research at home, we all learned that indeed we’d been watching the canoodling behavior of Northern Water Snakes. She is the larger and would have reached maturity at three years of age; while smaller males do so by twenty-one months. It is his great hope that she’ll produce live young by the end of the summer. I suppose it’s her hope as well.

Another day and another shift in attention, again beside water where while still searching for emerging dragonflies, a spot of metallic green that moved quickly across the ground turned out to be two more canoodlers, this time in the form of Six-spotted Tiger Beetles. Typically, these beetles fly off as we approach, but their passion for each other slowed them down a wee bit. The white at the front of their faces–their mandibles. They’re beneficial because their diet consists of yummy delights like ants, aphids, fleas, other insects, caterpillars and spiders, which they consume with those formidable sickle-like jaws.

Shifting our attention to the left, we found what we sought. Or so we thought. Yes, an emerging dragonfly, this one in the skimmer family. You can imagine our excitement and we felt like expectant mothers. Or at least midwives as we offered encouraging words.

But all the while as we stood or sat and watched, we had questions. We knew that the conditions had been right for the larva to crawl out of the water and onto a piece of grass.

The adult form had begun to emerge through a split in the thorax.

But what stymied us: By the clearness of the wings and colors becoming more defined on the body, this insect had been trying to emerge for longer than the usual couple of hours it takes. The abdomen should have been completely out of the exuvia, and wings still cloudy. Why was the abdomen stuck?

Every time the dragonfly moved its legs, we were certain the moment was upon us when we would finally see it pull the rest of its abdomen out of the shed skin.

Sadly, two hours later, no progress had been made and we had to take our leave. I returned the next day to find the same dragonfly had given up the struggle. What went wrong? Oh, we knew it would become bird food, but still . . . it left us wondering and in a way we felt bad that we hadn’t intervened and tried to help it.

Shifting locations and attention once again, at the end of the week a bunch of us met at 6:30am and it took a while to get out of the parking lot (I can hear your guffaws!) because high up in hemlock a dash of brilliant red meant we were in the presence of a Scarlet Tanager. For the next three hours, we birded, and in the end saw or heard 34 species. All are recorded here: https://ebird.org/atlasme/checklist/S88671412

In the same place, but down by the brook, for eventually we did leave the parking lot, a Swamp Sparrow entertained us for quite a while. We felt honored, for often we might not see them as they like to forage among the aquatic plants, but given it is nesting season, we were treated to a song.

Though we tried not to shift our attention too much from the birds, occasionally our Nature Distraction Disorder bubbled up, and how could we resist the sight of a Stream Cruiser upon a tree oozing with sap. It wasn’t seeking the sap, but rather, we may have discovered the spot where it had spent the night, given that it was early morning, and damp at that.

One more shift, this last at the end of the day at the end of the work week. This time a co-worker and I were at a sandbar by the outlet of a river into a pond, and a Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper had great reason to stare with concern.

Not far above, atop a Silver Maple snag, one with intense focus watched.

Yeah, I love my job and the people I get to share it with and all that we learn along the way. This was only a brief smattering of this week’s wonders and all that we saw.

I do think in the end, however, that my young friend’s eagle eyes that spotted the Carpenter Ant in the water at the start of the week were the most focused of all.

Spring In Our Steps

Early spring, that time of transition when it feels as if the world has slowed down, is one of my favorite times of the year. Oh, besides all my other favorite times that is–like tracking time and dragonfly time and stalking insect time and . . . and . . . and.

These days it seems my day often begins with a certain male visitor.

No, it’s not my guy, but another handsome fellow named Jake. At least I think that’s his name, based on the length of his beard, short conical spurs on the backs of his legs, and light red and blue head, which would be much brighter for his elder named Tom. It doesn’t matter for in the morning sunlight he gleams and makes me realize that he embodies every color of the rainbow.

We typically spend a few minutes together before he departs and I know that means it’s time for me to do the same.

To ensure there will be more of these little water tigers, I discover two adults canoodling.

In its adult form, the beetle backs up to the water’s surface and captures air under the elytra, or firm front pair of wings where the spiracles or respiratory openings are located. (Think external pores) The challenge is to carry enough air to breath, but not too much that might cause them to sink. That said, I frequently watch them surface and then swim off after an oxygen grab, but storing that air for at least ten minutes serves them well while mating for they certainly don’t have a plan to rise for a refill.

If you’ve never watched a pair of Predacious Diving Beetles mate, this is worth the eleven-second clip. It was a first for me, and what a frenzied time it was.

Ah, but there are other things to look at in a pool and so I pull myself away from the canoodlers and begin to focus on the result of some other interaction, this being egg masses of Spotted Salamanders. One evening in the past week, a male Spotted Salamander deposited spermatophores that look like tiny pieces of cauliflower on the pool floor. A few nights later a female picked up sperm from the small structures and internally fertilized her eggs, which she later attached to the small branch in the water. If you look closely, you might see the gelatinous matrix that surrounds the mass.

Likewise, Wood Frog egg masses have also been deposited and their overall structure reminds me of tapioca. In no time at all, the embryos began to develop, but it will still be about three weeks before the larval tadpoles hatch.

Because I was looking, I had the good fortune this week of spying another tiny, but significant critter swimming upside down as is its manner–a fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp don’t feed on the embryos but rather filter algae and plankton with eleven pairs of appendages, which they also use for swimming and breathing.

Similar to the Predacious Diving Beetle, in order to digest food, a Fairy Shrimp produces a thick, glue-like substance to mix with a meal. My awe with Fairy Shrimp remains in the fact that after a female produces broods of hardy eggs called cysts, they lay dormant once the pool dries up and don’t hatch until it rains again the following spring or even years later.

I could spend hours searching for Fairy Shrimp and other insects and in fact, do even marvel at the Mosquito wrigglers as they flip and flop their way around.

You, too, may watch them by clicking on this short video. And remember–they eventually become great bird and insect food.

By now, I suppose it’s time to honor other more beautiful sights of spring, including my favorite first flower of the season, the tiny spray of magenta styles at the tip of Beaked Hazelnut flowers waiting for some action from the male catkins.

And yesterday’s most delightful surprise, the first blooms of Trailing Arbutus on the forest floor. Known as Mayflowers, they usually open in April. Just to confuse us.

Standing for a while beside a river rather than a pool, another of my favorite sites was an abundance of Painted Turtles basking. No, they aren’t sunbathing to get a tan, but rather to raise their internal body temperature. Being cold-blooded, their body temperature is determined solely by the temperature of the surrounding environment.

In the same neighborhood a pair of Belted Kingfishers could be heard rattling as they do in flight and then seen preening and it seems that love is not only in the water, but in the air as well.

Likewise, a Song Sparrow or two or three trilled their lovely notes to announce their intentions to any who would listen.

And then today dawned–and with it a spring snowstorm graced this part of the world and all who live here, like this Sheep Laurel with buds still tiny.

Back to the pool went I, where the only action seemed to be snow striking its surface and creating rippled patterns in constant flux.

Some of the snow drops were so large that bubbles reflecting the canopy above formed. Under water, I couldn’t see any action and finally turned toward home, trusting all the swimming critters were tucked under the leaves in an attempt to avoid the rawness of the day.

There was one more stop to make, however, before I headed in. On December 1st, 2020, upon this very same tree, I watched slugs for the last time last year as documented in a post entitled “My Heart Pines.” It was a squirrel midden that had attracted me to the tree, but so much more did it have to offer on that day.

Today, as I searched for slugs, I was equally surprised for just as I found last year, once again the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Even in snow, I learned, it can occur. Plus there was a subtle rainbow of colors.

Ah, but it certainly didn’t match the colors Jake displayed.

Today’s snowfall will melt by tomorrow and only be a memory of that year it snowed on April 16. We’ve had much bigger April storms than this one turned out to be and henceforth Jake and I will walk with a spring in our steps.

One Act Play: The Bog and Just Beyond

Act One, Scene One.

Setting: The forest road, a two-mile walk beyond closed gates.

Sound effects: Woodpeckers drilling; Chickadees singing cheeseburger songs; Spring Peepers peeping; Wood Frogs croaking.

Props: dirt road, birch, aspen, and maple trees.

Cast: Tiny skipper butterflies flitting from one spot to another as they seek minerals from the road.

Star of the act: Mourning Cloak Butterfly: Clothed as it is like one who is in mourning.

Scene Two.

Setting: A bog.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; ducks in the distance.

Cast: A shy Painted Turtle basking in the sun.

A second Painted Turtle stretching its neck in reflection.

Two looking south in reverence of the day’s warm temperature.

Three turtles in a . . . bog.

And one smug female.

Scene Three.

Setting: An underwater rock.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; an American Bittern in the distance

Cast: An Eastern Newt (adult form of a Red Eft salamander).

A bullfrog tadpole entering its second year of growth.

And lots of leeches that change shape constantly as they swim by the rock.

Scene Four.

Setting: varies between bird blind with Eastern Phoebe nest, tree branches, ground.

Sound effects: Fee-bee; a guttural readle-eak or rusty gate; low-pitched peek; plumbing sound.

And singing the fee-bee song.

A Common Grackle appearing aloof while consistently rasping that rusty gate sound . . .

and appearing to look upward, while really looking down.

And a Hairy Woodpecker representing many.

Some aren’t quite ready to sing yet having just arrived, like the White-throated Sparrow.

Scene Five.

Setting: On the water.

Sounds: Canada Geese honking; Spring Peepers peeping; American Bittern plumbing; Barred Owls in a duet.

Cast: Male Hooded Merganser–an actor who loves to transform his shape for the occasion.

The action requires focus on the male’s head as he becomes the star of the show.

All eyes focus on the white patch on his head.

She goes into shock as he starts to raise his hooded crest.

She takes his show into consideration.

Scene Six: Grand Finale.

Setting: The road home.

Sounds: Silence.

Action: A bear cub crosses the road and pauses in bramble.

This is the first of one act plays featuring the bog and beyond. Stay tuned as life plays out in the water, on the ground and among the tree limbs.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on.

The ice went out only a few days ago in western Maine, but as is their tradition, the frogs took no time in making their presence known. Have you heard them? The wruck wruck wruck of the wood frogs?

Over the years wood frogs have taught me so many lessons, the major one being patience–to stand still beside the pond and wait because eventually they will resurface. What strikes me is that there is more action this year than last year and last year there was more action that the previous five years. Why is that given that the pool seems to dry up so soon and I always worry that the tadpoles don’t have time to finish morphing into adults and hopping toward upland habitats. Do some mature before I realize it? That would be great news.

Otherwise I have to wonder how so many return each year and within a day or two of the ice melting, lay masses of eggs in colonial form.

Of course, as I watch, mistakes are made and males so eager grab others of the same sex only to realize moments later that it’s not worth the effort.

And then there’s that ear-shattering harmonic symphony produced by the spring peepers, one which typically comes to a complete rest when I approach. But late this afternoon there was just enough breeze to disguise my footsteps and sing on they did.

I couldn’t believe my good luck in spying the peeper on the stalk, but to notice the one below added icing to the cake.

As I watched, the second tiny frog began to climb onto the first.

Theirs was one of frog versus frog as they volleyed for the highest spot on the stem.

Occasionally for a mere second they paused.

But really, there was no break in their behavior as they sang on and on in a manner more aggressive and vied for superior achievement.

One must remember that spring peepers are much tinier that their wood frog cousins and measure about the size of a quarter all told.

The X on their backs provides for their scientific name: Pseudacris crucifer, or cross bearer.

And bear a cross did they as they competed for that best spot.

Like brothers they tangled, each in hopes of gaining the upper frog leg.

Really though, it’s the male peeper’s ability to generate his seductive and ear-splitting peep by closing his nostrils, and pushing air over his vocal chords into that amazing throat sac, that acts as a resonator at vernal pools each spring and gains him an upper position in the pool heirarchy.

The frogs that chirp the fastest are the ones with the greatest stamina and so chirp quickly they do in hopes of achieving a mate.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on. The season has begun. There’s such competition and what I don’t understand is how a vernal pool that dries up so soon these past few years continues to produce but it does. The mystery of life continues.

Bound and Determined

For his birthday in the fall, as you may recall, I gave my guy a baker’s dozen list of geocaches to locate in the wilds of Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to this past weekend, he’d located twelve with one left–burning a bit of a hole in his pocket because we thought we’d get there on Thanksgiving, but rain changed that plan. And then winter happened and we knew the journey would require more time because gates on the Forest Road would be closed and we’d have to trek a longer distance. With the dawn of spring, however, he thought we should take our chances. Oh, we’d still have a ways to hike, but thankfully it’s light later and so we had that on our side.

That was Saturday. But . . . that journey wasn’t enough, and so despite high winds on Monday, I created a mini-list for him and off we went in search of five more geocaches.

Our Saturday adventure found us practicing our balance beam skills, for if we fell off, which we did from time to time, we’d sink into snow that was at least knee deep.

That said, not only were we gymnasts, but we also had to pull some ballet leaps out of the daypack; sometimes the stream crossings like this one, were obvious, but other times we had to guess where the softest spot might be and try to jump to the other side without crashing through the snow bridge. Success wasn’t always on our side.

On a different trail, we outbested the conditions by walking in the stream that was actually a woods road, having chosen different footwear.

And yet again, there was a narrow balance beam to climb across. Thank goodness we had such great training in junior high and knew how to stay on top, otherwise we would have gotten soaked. Haha! I don’t know about him, but I’m pretty sure I failed the gymnastics unit all those years ago.

At one point in our journey, we spotted a gate ahead and thought for sure it would be our turn-around spot, but upon reaching it we found this kind note, which inspired us to pick up downed branches along the private drive since the owners were kind enough to let us venture forth.

And beyond said destination (read: geocache), we continued on to a summit we’d never reached before.

We also spent a few moments on the property of the Parsonsfield Seminary, founded by the Free Will Baptists as a seminary, aka high school in 1832. The eight-acre campus includes four buildings and once served as part of the Underground Railroad. Though the buildings are no longer used for education per se, special events are hosted by the Friends of Par-Sem, and it’s available for private functions.

Over the course of the two days, we crossed the state line between Maine and New Hampshire multiple times, both via truck and foot. Our favorite crossings came in the form of stumbling upon standing split granite stones in the woods.

Maine must have been the poor cousin for we could almost not see the M.

The marker on top, however, clearly established who owned what portion of the land.

and a sign in Taylor City, where Earl Taylor served as mayor until his death at the age of 95 in 2018. Earl was a graduate of Par-Sem it seems. He ran the general store and was quite active in town affairs–on both sides of the border.

Mind you, hiking and history weren’t the entire focus of our time together. Nature also was on display like the underside of lungwort showing off its ridges and lobes that reminded someone long ago of lung tissue. In reality, Lobaria pulmonaria is an indicator of a rich, healthy ecosystem.

There was also a bear nest high up in a beech tree–where last summer a black bear sat for a bit, pulled the branches inward till some of them broke, and dined on the beech nuts.

Multiple times we spotted moose tracks in deep snow . . .

and mud.

One of the creme de la creme sightings for me, was the first Beaked Hazelnut flower of the year. Gusty wind prevented a better photo, but still, it was worth capturing the moment.

And upon the ground, an old bee structure, each papery cell precise and reflective of all that surrounded it.

others medium in size . . .

and a couple on the larger side.

Water always seemed to be part of the scene. We hiked for at least a mile beside a racing brook.

And stood for a few minutes enjoying the sun at Mountain Pond.

There was a wetland that we explored from all sides (actually, there was more than one wetland that we explored and got to know rather personally–from the soles of our feet), full of future life and opportunity.

Spanning it all, we hiked thirteen miles through snow, ice, mud, and water, and found five of six geocaches, including completing the birthday baker’s dozen list.

The fact that we didn’t find one is driving my guy a bit buggy and we actually returned to the location, but to no avail. He’s bound and determined, so I have a feeling we’ll look in that spot again. But overall, we felt successful and appreciated that our quest led us to a mountain lake we’ve enjoyed in other seasons, but not this one, and new vistas/locations where nature provided moments of wonder.

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

It’s hard to believe that six years ago I gave birth to wondermyway as a means to record the natural world and all I met along the way.

There’s no need in reminding everyone that since last February it has been quite a year, but I have to say that I’m especially grateful to live where I do, in a place where I CAN wander and wonder on a regular basis.

As I look back through posts of these expeditions, I realize how often nature presents itself in such a way that moments of awe make everything else going on in the world seem so foreign. If only everyone could whisper to a dragonfly upon his or her hand; watch a cicada emerge from its larval form; and even appreciate a snake or two or three.

Join me for a look back at some of my favorite natural encounters of the past year. If you want to remember a particular adventure, click the titled link below each photo.

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

We’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Under the Bubbles

Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.

In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that your bubble is attached to so many others as you share a brain.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun. And birds. And dragonflies.

I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he? He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose. The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

Marvels of the Meadow

“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.

Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by mid-afternoon. But our bug eyes were wide open. In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape 
upon stones that memorialize the past...

On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas. 

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.

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 was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life are 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, 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.

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

Making Sense of Scents

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

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.

All In A Day’s Walk

My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.

First there was the porcupine den, then a beaver tree, and along the way a fungi.

My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?

Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.

My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine. Because of the temp, the day offered some incredible wonders.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sharp Observation

I was early–a rare occasion as usually I’m the one who arrives at least ten minutes after the agreed upon time. It wasn’t always that way, but has become a bad habit. That said, it was a creature of habit that I went in search of because I had some time to spare.

He was up there enjoying the cambium layer of the bark as witnessed by the goldeny color of the branch by his feet. All those downed twigs–apparently they were in his way so he nipped them off and dropped them to the ground in order to get to the nutrients he sought for his winter diet.

Check out his eye. We were both sharp observers as we eyed each other from a distance.

Ghost of the North Woods

For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.

After finding so many signs year after year, today . . . today I spied an uprooted tree at the very spot I thought might be a good place to stop and spend a few hours in silence. As I made plans to do such in the near future, the tree moved.

And transformed into you!

When at last you and your youngster departed, despite your sizes, it was as if you walked through the forest in silence. My every move comes with a sound like a bull in a china shop, but you . . . Alces alces, you weigh over one thousand pounds, stand six feet at your shoulder, and move through the forest like a ghost. For that reason and because you let me spend some time with you today, February 11 will henceforth mark the day that I celebrate the Ghost of the North Woods.

Thank you to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. With each learning or sighting, I get excited and can’t wait to share it with you. I’m not only grateful to be able to wander and wonder, but I’m also thankful for all of you who take the time to read these posts.

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.

Our Happy Place Mondate

Imagine our joy. Imagine our smiles that showed our joy.

We’d considered a hike for this Mondate, but awaking to another humid day put the damper on that.

How should we spend the day? What would make us both happy?

A paddle seemed the perfect solution.

And so off we headed into the deep blue sea. Or rather, deep blue pond. My guy sought another hue of deep blue. In the form of certain berries so named for their color.

I, on the other hand, sought others, such as this Lancet Clubtail dragonfly who returned to my dirty kayak over and over again–a sibling chasing him off in between.

As we explored the edges of islands, my guy searching for fulfillment of the containers he’d brought along, Swamp Spreadwing damselflies, their form so dainty, posed frequently to my liking.

Among the branches of my guy’s desire, webs had been created . . . and unfortunately for some spreadwings, canoodling acts were ended by the sticky structure created by others.

Despite that, those known as Familiar Bluets found a way to continue the circle of life through their heart-shaped wheel.

Slaty Blue dragonflies were not to be outdone and she clung to him from her lower position.

As all things go in the natural world, not every dragonfly nymph completed the transformation to adulthood and thus a few were left in suspended animation. This one, in particular, reflected the bent form of the Pickerel Weed upon which it wished to emerge. So what happened? Why was the plant stem bent? Why didn’t the dragonfly complete the cycle of life? I’ll never know, but it’s worth wondering about.

Every once in a while upon our journey, I remembered to let the entire scene fill my scope and summer fill my soul. Did my guy do the same? I kinda think so, but can’t say for sure.

After all, his focus was on little berries of blue, while I took in a few other things, like the teeny flowers of Spatulate-leaved Sundew. Such a dainty flower for a carnivorous plant.

And the there was the Tachnid fly on the Swamp Milkweed.

The flies weren’t the only ones pollinating the flowers.

With eyes so big, and waist so thin, it could only be one: a wasp. But not all wasps are to be feared and this Great Golden Digger proved it has much to offer the world.

Into the mix flew a female Red-winged Blackbird, her focus not at all upon her reflection, but rather food to feed her young.

Fortunately for her, the mister also searched and provided.

As my guy foraged, I continued to hunt. My form of hunting, however, embraced only photographs, such as a small Blue Dasher Skimmer upon a Yellow Pond Lily.

Who ever determined such wee ones with white faces, metallic eyes, bright thorax stripes, and a blue abdomen with black tip as common? For me, the Blue Dasher will always be worth a wonder.

That’s exactly what I did on this Mondate as a Lancet Clubtail whirled upon my hat much like a beanie copter. I wondered while I wandered.

My guy foraged and foraged some more.

And in the midst of it all, I met a dragonfly new to me this summer who is supposed to be common: a male Widow Skimmer.

What a day. What a Mondate. What a dragonfly. What a wonder. Our Happy Place. Indeed.

Pond Friends

My day began with an exploration of the edge. The edge of a favorite place I hadn’t explored much lately. And so it was to old pals that I had a chance to say hello.

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The first was so old that it almost wasn’t. Okay, so that makes no sense, but it was no longer the Fishing Spider it had once been . . . and since become. Rather, it was the exuviae of the spider–a shed skin dangling by the water’s edge.

Much tinier by comparison was a Jumping Spider, its spotted patterned-body contrasted in size upon the Bracken Fern leaflet upon which it quickly moved.

In the same space Northern Bluet damselflies graced the landscape and I realized I need to give them more notice for they are as important as their dragon cousins I spend much of my summertime focusing upon.

And so . . . I present to you another old friend, a male Eastern Forktail. This is one of my favorites for I love the contrasting coloration with bright greens and blues offset by black.

Among the Brackens another did fly . . . and land. This Flesh Fly is known not only for its red eyes, but also its red “tail” or butt.

Speaking of red, by mid-afternoon, my guy and I headed off in the tandem kayak as the sky darkened.

After making the acquaintance of a daughter and son-in-law of an old friend and recalling the tornado we all survived three years ago and sharing favorite spots on the pond, we paused ever so briefly by an active beaver lodge. Do you see the fresh mud? Don’t let that and the ripples in the water lead you to believe that the beavers came out to greet us.

I was with my guy, remember, and he has a need to be as active as the rodents within. Oh, the mud wasn’t his doing, but the ripples were.

The beavers present activity was, however, noted by the Spadderdock roots floating upon the surface of the pond. That’s a carbon-loading beaver treat.

A treat for my eyes is always a turtle sighting and though this painted one seemed to be surfing, as I explained in my ever-knowledgeable way to my guy, it was basking in the sun as a means to absorb the UV rays of the sun. He was sure it was just preparing to slip back into the water and as we approached it of course did so, thus proving him right. Um, but I was as well.

All the friends I’ve mentioned till now we’ve met before. And actually, I’ve had the privilege of meeting this last one once before, but sometimes it’s the second meeting that drives the characteristics home.

I mean, seriously, how many times have you met someone for the first time and forgotten their name? But upon that second meeting you focus on how their nose sticks out further and they have such a dark shell and a line of yellow dots under their double chin and they hang out in the shade more than the sun and you realize you do remember them: Common Musk Turtle.

I love my pond friends who are my best friends, whether we met for the first time or again and again and again.

Hunting the Common

I knew when I headed out this morning that there was one member of the Odonata family that I wanted to meet. But . . . where oh where to find her.

Her habitat includes muddy-bottomed ponds, lakes, and streams, as well as disturbed areas. Hmmm. That should make the quest easy.

With that in mind, I first stopped beside a muddy-bottomed pond that flows into a brook, which at its start more resembles a stream. It is there that Slaty Blue Skimmer and I got reacquainted after so many months have passed since our last encounter.

He reminds me that dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which means “different wings” since their hindwing differ in size and shape from the forewings. Those differences may be subtle, but they are there.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I watched Slaty Blue come and go, defending his piece of the shoreline from his family members, I suddenly spied something under the Winterberry leaves: a newly emerged skimmer resting while its wings dried.

And then one shrub over a Racket-tailed Emerald, with neon green eyes paused longer than I expected. (This one is for you, Kate Mansfield Griffith–it doesn’t have the full green body of the Eastern Pondhawk that walked down your Connecticut driveway today, but the eyes were a good match of color, don’t you think?)

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Upon a Pickerel Weed in the water I notice a favorite of mine, this one also recently emerged and drying its wings before taking flight: a female Calico Pennant Skimmer. For some who have been watching, you’ll be happy to know that there were males about, but they were busy and didn’t wish to pose for a photo shoot.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Old friends, like Kate who was one of my first playmates and even if we can’t spend time together we can still share moments of wonder like we did as kids, make themselves known such as this male Chalk-fronted Corporal. I’ve described it before as being kid-like in behavior because its kind love to play leap frog and land three feet ahead of me with each step I take.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I soon leave the pond behind and find myself walking with intention along a woodland pathway and into an old log landing located near another brook. Guess who greets me? Yes, another Chalk-fronted Corporal, this one a female.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I continue to look, one with whom I struck up a conversation last summer flew in and snatched a moth before settleing on leaves to partake of the meal. Meet my friend: Black Shouldered Spinyleg, a clubtail so named for its black shoulders and spiny hind legs.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Next, a Spangled Skimmer with black and white stigma on its wings took me by surprise and I vowed to remember it for no other has the dual-colored stigmas.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

In the shadows I spotted another I’m getting to know this year, the Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly was stunning, but I found it amusing that its common name refers to tiny spots when so much more could have been honed in upon for a descriptor.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I was about ready to head for the hills when another dragonfly caught my attention. Okay, so that’s a bit of an understatement as so many more than I’ve shared made themselves known to me and I stood still and watched how they moved, where they rested, and how big their territory was.

How common are you? Very, and I AM the one you seek.

I wanted to find this female Common Whitetail Skimmer because she hardly seemed like an every-day dragonfly to me. Those zigzag stripes on her abdomen. The way each segment stood out more 3-D than most. And those three black patches upon each wing. Words fail to describe her beauty.

How common are you? Very and yet . . . not at all.

I set out to hunt for the common and along the way I met others equally common, but in the end the one I sought was hardly common at all . . . despite her common name.

Secret Brook Mondate

After a delightful morning following friends in New Hampshire as we traversed their trail adjacent to the White Mountain National Forest, they told us of a different route to try before we headed off for our afternoon adventure. From the parking area at the trailhead, they said, begin hiking in a certain clock-face orientation and you’ll reach the falls that only the locals know about.

Bingo. We did as they further suggested and listened for the water, crossed a dry stream bed, and then made our way carefully down a steep embankment to the very spot they’d described. After pausing and enjoying the sight and sound for a little bit, we both came to the same conclusion. Rather than head back up to the trail, why not follow the stream to its source.

That meant walking beside moss-covered rocks as the water flowed forth.

At first it was on the easy side as we followed its course.

Our route became more challenging when we crossed slash at various times. (Can you see my guy?)

And ducked under and crawled backwards to get past some downed trees.

Hobblebush and Witch Hazel slowed us down. Well, maybe it only slowed me down. Again, can you spy him?

And then there were boulder fields to work our way around and through. Despite the sometimes challenging terrain . . .

as we continued to follow the water flowing south to its northern source . . .

the bushwhack provided us with delightful moments, such as the sight of a few Wood-sorrel flowers still in bloom.

The same was true of a Mountain Maple, its flowers splashing forth like a display of fireworks.

Occasionally damselflies known as Emerald Jewelwings landed nearby, he of the darker colors and she with a white dot at the tip of each wing.

At last we arrived at the pond that is the source of the brook. Whenever we are there we scan the landscape in hopes of spying a moose. A few tracks along the brook reminded us of their presence, but no actual sighting on this day.

We did spy more than a dozen Chalk-fronted Corporal dragonflies sunning on a rock.

And what I think was a Frosted Whiteface stuck in a spider web. Of course I had to free it.

Before setting it upon a Steeplebush, I did try to unfold its wing for the mosquitoes were thicker than thick and we’d been the source of their lunch. We only hoped this female could fly again and gobble up the pesky insects.

We could only imagine that the man in the buff we encountered as we hiked beside the brook must have provided the mosquitoes with an appetizer and dessert. We don’t know for sure because as he walked toward us, we quickly diverted for a short distance before returning to the brook, all in the name of social distancing, of course.

For our return trip, we stuck to the public trail, but gave great thanks to our morning hosts for telling us about the secret brook.

P.S. Happy Birthday Dr. Bubby! Thanks for letting us be a part of your birthday celebration.

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.

Myrtle’s Morning

Meet Myrtle. Yes, she’s a turtle.

A Snapping Turtle to be exact. Chelydra serpentina is her scientific name: Chelydra meaning “tortoise” and serpentina deriving from the Latin word serpentis, which means “snake,” in reference to her long tail.

Myrtle’s neighborhood is one where carnivorous plants grow in abundance and right now show off their parasol-like flowers.

I spend some time with the old girl who certainly deserves a parasol to shield her from the sun. Turtles of her type don’t reach sexual maturity until their carapace, or upper shell, measures about eight inches in length and that doesn’t typically happen until they are at least seven. Myrtle’s is at least eight inches, maybe even longer, but I didn’t dare get too close and risk disturbing her. Nor do I ask her her age, cuze after all, we women stand together on such issues.

Below her Pitcher Plant bouquet grow its leaves shaped like . . . pitchers and filled with water and digestive juices. Downward facing hairs attract insects into the trap, and once within the pitfall, there is no escape. The prey drowns in the nectar and body gradually dissolves, providing the plant with nutrition it can’t possibly get from the acidic soil in the community.

Myrtle doesn’t really care. Her back legs are busy digging in the sand and it isn’t to plant a garden full of Pitcher Plants.

Also at home in Myrtle’s neighborhood are Crimson-ringed Whiteface dragonflies, the male showing off a brilliant red thorax.

While the dragonfly poses, waiting for a moment before taking flight to defend its territory or find a gal, Myrtle begins to press her front toes down while simultaneously lowering the back end of her carapace.

Within minutes, the male Crimson finds a date and the two become one, so engrossed in each other as such that they don’t really notice what Myrtle might be up to today.

In a form all her species’ own, Myrtle stands up on her tippy toes and moves that carapace up like the bed of a dump truck ready to make a deposit.

All the while, songs birds ring forth their joyous sounds accompanied by the strums of Green Frogs.

Sometimes Myrtle winks or perhaps its a grimace and other times she smiles with absolute glee. That or she captures a fly or a breath.

Another neighbor also uses its mouth for more than just its usual chitter. Despite the acorn in its mouth, Red Squirrel speaks around the edges and greets Myrtle without dropping its great find.

Meanwhile, Myrtle’s back end dips lower and lower.

I offer her a word of warning for I notice that there’s evidence of some neighbors she may not appreciate–raccoons to be exact based on their tracks.

In that moment, however, Myrtle doesn’t give a hoot about who might be lurking in the shadows waiting to dig up the contents of her hole during the dark of night that will fall hours and hours later.

She’s spent over an hour digging a hole with her hind feet and depositing eggs as evidenced by the plop, plop that I hear. Even though I cannot see them, I trust that more than 40 have filled the hole as she continues to dig and tamp, dig and tamp. It will be several months before they hatch and then, even another week at least before the wee ones slip into the water, and the fact that she lays so many is important because truly predators such as raccoons and skunks and foxes and coyotes may help themselves to Eggs Myrtle.

But for today, Myrtle’s morning was the most important thing on her mind and I delighted in being able to share it with her and her neighbors.

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.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun.

And then a Grackle flew in with a meal in beak.

I didn’t realize what that meal was until . . .

while expounding on one topic or another of which I’m sure I thought I was the authority, I stopped mid-sentence with a mouth open wide in surprise for upon a tree trunk a newly emerged dragonfly showed off its slowy unfolding wings as it moved back toward the exuviae from which it had just emerged. Why did it move back? I don’t know, but they often cling on nearby as they let their wings dry before flying. It was at that point that my lecture changed focus and suddenly I knew that our being there was important for we were saving this vulnerable being from becoming the Grackle’s dessert.

As for our lunch, my guy found a spot and . . . dined alone. I was beside myself with joy and knew there were more discoveries to make. Thankfully, he has the patience of Job in many situations, and this was one of them.

A brisk breeze blew, which kept the Black Flies at bay, a good thing for us, and perhaps it was also a welcome treat for the dragonflies as they dried their wings in preparation for first flight.

Some managed to keep wings closed over their abdomens, but again, that was another sign of new emergence for as adults, wings are spread while resting.

In the sunshine of the early afternoon, those cloudy, moist wings glistened and offered a rainbow of subtle colors.

Upon a variety of vegetation different species clung in manners of their ancestors until ready for takeoff.

At one point I turned and was surprised to find this friend upon a sapling beside my knees.

And so we began to chat . . . until he’d heard enough and flew off.

But in that same second another flew in even closer, and I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he?

He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose.

The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.