A Whisper’s Mondate

Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning? Or better yet, half way through. And so that’s where today’s story starts.

My Guy and I had some errands to run, but then it was time to have fun. To that end, we chose the Weeks Brook Trail up the backside (or maybe it’s the front side depending on your perspective) of Mount Kearsarge North in New Hampshire. We last climbed Kearsarge in November, which I recorded in What’s To Come Mondate, via the Kearsarge Trail that starts on Hurricane Mountain Road. We knew we didn’t have time to go to the summit today, but Shingle Pond, halfway up the trail offered a fine lunch log date and turn-around point.

Along the way we had many to honor and so we did, beginning with a colony of Clintonia showing off bright yellow blossoms.

Each cheery bloom offered an explosion of sunshine radiating from its flaring bell shape and six long stamens with yellow tips and a long style.

Sharing the trail were Pink Lady’s Slippers offering a variation of hues sharing a color scheme.

Since My Guy loves to count slippers, an activity that forever surprises me, he noted only eight in bloom today, but this one was extra special because it featured not only today’s blossom, but also last year’s fruit in the shape of a capsule that once contained thousands of tiny seeds.

And then there was Wild Sarsapirilla with its whorl of three compound leaves at the tip of a long stem.

The globe-shaped flowers that grow upon a stem of their own below the umbrella teemed with pollinators of all shapes and sizes.

My joyous heart kept growing larger and larger with each wonder-filled find enhanced in a few cases by being the first of the species I’ve spotted this year. Indian Cucumber Root topped that list with several in flower. To some, the flowers are inconspicuous as they nod below the plant’s second tier, but to me they are among nature’s most amazing constructions as the petal-like segments turn backward and the stamens stand out in reddish purple offering a contrast to the yellow pistils.

By the time we reached the Swamp Beacon Fungi, my heart was full, but like any sweet treats, there’s always room for more. These little yellow mushrooms love a wet seep and there were a few along today’s trail. I was reminded of my first encounter with this species in 2015 when I posted Slugs, Bears and Caterpillar Clubs, Oh My! (RIP PV. I’ll miss you forever)

At last we reached the pond and immediately my focus changed from flowers to other structures all belonging to the Odonata family, this one in particular being the left-behind exuviae of a Skimmer Dragonfly. I found it at eye level–my eyes that is and not My Guy’s.

I really wanted to introduce him to a dragonfly eclosing and the best I could find today was one that had already split out of its aquatic form and was still pumping hemolymph (bug blood) from its wings back into its expanding body. “Isn’t that cool?” I asked. His response somehow turned a basketball move he expected to see on tonight’s Celtics game into a cooler situation. Hmmm. I’ll win him over yet.

Despite that, I did win another one over. It was an immature Skimmer Dragonfly who had recently emerged for a wee bit cloudy were its wings still.

I knew it to species as a Whiteface for such was the color of . . . its face.

Whether it was a Belted Whiteface Skimmer or a Crimson Whiteface Skimmer, the jury is still out and based upon wing venation. My gut leans toward the former, but I’m open to learning so if you think otherwise, please explain.

That said, it was the first dragonfly that easily climbed upon my offered hand this year and I rejoiced that the Dragonfly Whisperer had joined today’s Mondate. Even My Guy was impressed.

To Fly or Not to Fly?

Sigh. And sigh again. Happy sighs are these. Because . . . the dragonflies are transforming from their aquatic form to flyers. In either lifestyle, they are predators, but it’s the latter flyer that we appreciate the most. Especially during years like this when the Black Fly and Mosquito populations are prolific. We give thanks, of course, for such prevalence, because these little stinging fliers become odonata and amphibian and bird food, or so we like to pretend that we give thanks. Really, we’re grateful for the insistent buzzing and biting, but even more grateful for those who predate upon them.

The exciting thing about this week is that several of us had the great opportunity to spy some dragonflies eclosing, the act of emerging from their larval forms. So here’s the deal: fully developed aquatic larvae, aka nymphs, crawl out of the water onto emergent grasses, sedges, shrubs, and rocks, split the back of their skin and emerge as winged adults like the one in view here.

Newly eclosed dragonflies lack pigment so identifying them isn’t always easy. Of even more importance, they are extremely vulnerable to predation as they clutch their old skin while pumping air into their bodies and liquid into their expanding wings. One way to note an emergent adult is by the cloudiness of the wings as they set their internal systems in motion. The tough part is that they must wait in this position, unable to escape predators, until wings dry and they can fly. The process can take several hours.

And so it was with great glee that we noticed wee, yet mature Hudsonian Whiteface dragonflies, members of the Skimmer family, flying and posing, flying and posing.

The yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, aiding in the identification as I get my dragonfly eyes back on.

In no time, it seemed, there were dragonflies everywhere. Well, not everywhere for I traveled several trails and realized that those who were emerging tended to be near stiller waters. The Common Baskettail, as this species is known, is a member of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds). 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 apparently traps 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.

All that is fine and well and there will be many more odonata references during the next six months as I wonder my way. but today I happened upon one who added to my knowledge bank and I’ll forever celebrate this opportunity to learn more. Do you see the neon green appearing to drip off the wings?

Look closely at the left behind aquatic structure, aka exuvia or cast skin, and you can see the length of the former nymph that helps define this species to family based on its shape: Darner.

Though I first thought this specimen was dead, suddenly it walked along the underside of an old stump beside the water. Try as I could to separate its wings, I was unsuccessful. For some reason they were stuck together. And one was even folded still as it would have been upon first emerging, thus there was green at its tip, though it appeared at first glance to be in the middle of the wing.

Based on the fact that its thorax stripes were already taking on its adult colors, I knew this darner had been trying to reach flight stage for hours. What had gone wrong? What was the neon green? Something must have gone astray as this dragonfly tried to pump hemolymph (Insect fluid like blood) through to its wings to stiffen them for flight.

Hemolymph is made up of water and other characteristics like carbohydrates and amino acids, and also pigments, though the latter are typically clear but may be tinged with yellow or green. In the case of this darner, it seems that green is the color of choice. Had it been able to expand its wings, the fluid would have drained out of the wings and back into the body. Usually, it takes about an hour or more for the wings to reach full length and they have a cloudy appearance as the fluid is pumped into them. They are held together over the back, much like a damselfly, but once the fluid drains out of them, the dragonfly is able to extend the wings and there’s a shiny glint to them until they fully dry and stiffen. And then, in a split second, when one such as me is watching, flight happens.

For some reason, this darner will not know flight, but I gave thanks for the opportunity to see its blood and slow my brain down to think about the process.

To fly or not to fly?: it’s a complicated question.

Peering Into The Pool

If you’ve been following wondermyway for a few years, you know that each spring I make a bee-line for vernal pools, those shallow, short-lived ponds that fill with snowmelt or spring rain for at least several weeks most years, have no major inlet or outlet, and most importantly, no fish. Without fish, reproductive success is more likely for some amphibians, crustaceans, and insects who depend upon these ephemeral water bodies for breeding.

There are four indicator species in Maine that define a vernal pool as significant. Since 2007, significant vernal pool habitat has been protected by law under Maine’s Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA): “Significant Vernal Pool (SVP) habitat consists of a vernal pool depression and a portion of the critical terrestrial habitat within a 250-foot radius of the spring or fall high water mark of the depression. Any activity in, on, or over the SVP or the 250-foot critical terrestrial habitat zone must avoid unreasonable impacts to the significant vernal pool habitat and obtain approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, either through Permit by Rule (a streamlined permitting process) or full individual NRPA permit.”

Those four indicator species that define such significance: Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, Blue Spotted Salamanders, and Fairy Shrimp. The pool must contain 40 Wood Frog egg masses, or 20 Spotted Salamander Egg masses, or 10 Blue Spotted Salamander egg masses, or one Fairy Shrimp. I’ve yet to see a Blue Spotted Salamander or its eggs.

Some may see these ponds as oversized puddles, but let your eyes focus and suddenly you’ll realize that they are places teeming with life.

As you do, it might surprise you to spot lots of flying activity just above the pool’s surface. It’s actually Midges on the move, trying to get a date so that there will be even more Midges on the move. They look rather like mosquitoes, but don’t bite, so not to worry.

Male Midges have a longer, more slender body that the females, and they like to posture in attempts to interest one of the opposite gender. They’re actually fun to watch.

Of course, equally, ahem, fun to watch are the larval forms of Mosquitoes as they wriggle and wraggle through the water column, some even forming dense clusters.

If you do some container dipping at a vernal pool near you in order to take a closer look, I trust you won’t dump these onto the leaf litter rather than back into the water. As much as the females annoy us once they morph into that annoying flying insect that needs to suck mammal blood to gain proteins and nutrients for their eggs, they play an important part in the food web.

Especially for warblers such as this Yellow-rumped that was part of a flock that arrived in western Maine this week–just as it should have, being the end of April. It was spotted quite near one of the pools, so I suspect Mosquito Mash will soon be on the menu.

Back to those four indicator species for a significant vernal pool . . . it was this week that while looking close up at some Wood Frog eggs, I realized we had babies in the form of tadpoles.

I saw “we” because mom and dad Wood Frog do not hang around. Once they’ve canoodled and eggs have been fertilized and deposited, they exit the pool and return to their upland habitat, where they spend the next fifty weeks, so it’s up to us to watch over their young ones. Their metamorphosis, or change to adult form, will be completed by late June or earlier should temperatures rise and the pool begin to dry out.

I encourage you , dear readers, to do what I do and stare intently into the leaf litter to see if you can spot some tadpoles. And who knows what else you might discover.

While looking into another section of the pool, you might notice another type of egg mass, this one coated with a gelatinous mass that encompasses all of the eggs. Spotted Salamanders made their Big Night return to the pools about a week or so later than the Wood Frogs, so the embryos are still developing.

I find it fascinating to see the little forms take shape. It’s like looking into a mother’s womb without medical devices.

Okay, it’s time for you to peer into the pool again. This time you are looking for Fairy Shrimp, those tiny crustaceans that are about a half inch long, swim on their backs, and move eleven pairs of legs like a crew team in a rowing shell. Remember, I said one Fairy Shrimp makes a pool significant according to the State of Maine. How many do you see in this photo?

Those in the first Fairy Shrimp photo are males, but females are present as well. The way to identify a female is to look for her two brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.

So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch. One of the pools I’ve been frequenting lately I’d only discovered last year and it had no Fairy Shrimp. The other day when I approached with some volunteer docents from Greater Lovell Land Trust, one exclaimed within seconds of our arrival, “Fairy Shrimp.”

That got me thinking: how is it that we didn’t spot any last year, and this year we started seeing them everywhere. Also, in another pool where we’ve often spied a few, we’ve noticed they are in abundance. Previous to this week, I knew that the eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, but assumed that if the pool flooded each year, they all hatched. It didn’t make sense though that one pool suddenly has shrimp and the other has so many more than normal. It was time to do a little research, and what I learned from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies , is that only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching. So I thought about winter 2021 and how we didn’t have a lot of snow and the temperature was on the mild side. This past winter was much snowier (though not enough still in my book) and much chillier. My unscientific conclusion, based only on limited knowledge and observation, is that conditions weren’t conducive in 2021 at that one pool and so no shrimp hatched. I’m already looking forward to next year.

For your enjoyment I’ve included a video of a Fairy Shrimp moving through a pool this past week. Fairy Shrimp indicate unpolluted water, so finding one is significant. Finding so many . . . bliss.

When you are peering into the water for such a long time, other life forms make themselves known, such as Predacious Diving Beetle larvae, aka Water Tiger. Just like the adult this insect will morph into, it eats everything including tadpoles and insects, and even its siblings sometimes.

It wasn’t just the docents and I who had fun at the pools, but also a group of middle school students I have the immense honor to work with each Friday and yesterday they enjoyed documenting life at the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year. Quiz yourself on ID of the species one student scooped up in this bug box. And rest assured that these critters were released back into the pool after being studied for a few minutes.

As I said, I’ve done a lot of scanning this week, including on a couple of solo trips, and it was on one of these that I made one of my favorite discoveries: a Caddisfly larvae. In larval form, Caddisflies are resourceful architects who repurpose their surroundings to create their homes. Sometimes I find them constructed of hemlock needles topped with a maple flowers, and a friend sent a photo today of one she found who had built its house of grains of sand. My find . . . in the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year: a mobile home built of leaves. It was so well camouflaged that only the movement made me realize what was before my eyes.

Larval Caddisflies eat various types of detritus, including bits of leaves, algae, and miscellaneous organic matter so they, too, are important as they break down what is in the pool.

If it wasn’t that I need to eventually find my way home and make dinner, I’d probably still be out there. But yikes, it’s 7:00pm, and I haven’t even started dinner, and my guy will be home from work soon, so I’d better get going.

If you are looking for me in the next few weeks, however, I’ll be the one with hands on bent knees as I hunch over the pool. Join me and we can peer in together.

A Wonder-filled Easter Parade

While bonnets are on display each Easter in New York City, the parade takes a different form in the wilds of Maine. This year’s festivities began in the late afternoon of Good Friday.

It was then that this handsome Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapped an announcement inviting everyone to the avenue.

A River Otter was one of the first to arrive, pausing in the midst of playing with a relative.

From a branch above, a Grackle showed off its iridescent spring finery as it viewed the procession below.

Fluttery marchers moved along, pausing in their routines before flying high and then dancing toward the ground again.

Willows stood along the way, waving flowery flags to the tap of the music.

And Ring-necked Ducks wondered what all the frivolity was about.

The route changed over the course of the weekend, and Saturday night found it along a backroad where Wood Frogs showed off their float techniques and sang love songs as rain drops fell.

A female heard the band and hurried across the road to get to the other side. (She may have had some help)

Spring Peepers high-pitched notes filled the air and all felt a sense of excitement despite the weather.

As the night went on, the grand marshal, a Spotted Salamander, finally arrived.

Actually, there was more than one grand marshal and some needed a little help to get to the grand stand so they could watch and participate in the action.

And then Easter Day dawned and after a festive church service, the parade resumed, this time along a gated Forest Road where Beavers had created sculptures to decorate the way.

Those Beavers had completed other work and due to the footwear of some of the onlookers, the route had to be changed for crossing the beaver dam proved a challenge.

Instead, it followed miles and miles of Forest Roads, where brooks contributed happy babbling songs to compliment the local Wood Frog and Spring Peeper chorus.

It wasn’t just music, though. Balsam Fir natural essence rainbows reflected bird balloons for everyone to enjoy.

As the parade neared its end, an early spring flower known as a Coltsfoot, appeared along the way.

And suddenly there were three, a trinity. Faith, Hope, and Love. Sunshiny faces for all to see.

Then a Sapsucker tapped the final announcement. This may not be New York, but the weekend’s Easter Parade has drawn to a close and hope, and awe and wonder are in the air.

Recipe for Early Spring Pie

Preheat your outdoor oven to 55˚ Fahrenheit or so.

Prepare several mixing bowls that include wetland scenes.

It might be best to include a vernal pool for one.

A brook for another.

And maybe even a stream.

Locate a butterfly that overwinters as a mature adult, such as this Eastern Comma.

To be sure you’ve chosen this species and not its anglewing cousin, the Question Mark, look for the punctuation mark on its outer hind wing. Drizzle it with sunshine.

Toss in the most minute and earliest blooming flower you can find, probably that of a Beaked Hazelnut with its spray of magenta styles.

Pour in some water from the Pitcher (plant) and in the process, let the sugars that are currently moving into new leaves as evidenced by the red color from pigments called anthocyanins sweeten the recipe and add some energy.

Taste the mixture and decide if you need to add more sap the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker will gladly supply.

Season the mixture with the conk-la-ree of the male Red-winged Blackbird.

Top with the sky blue reflection of a local river.

Use a Painted Turtle shell to store your concoction.

When you are ready to taste, be like a Garter Snake . . .

and dive in quickly with forked tongue.

Enjoy every bit of the wonderful flavor and embrace the texture and scent for this early spring pie won’t last long.

Bon Appétit!

May the Best Wruck Win

Rainy days that turn into sunny days are the best days of spring. And today was one such. That meant, of course, that I needed to visit one of my favorite wet spots.

Along the way, because it was raining, I noticed the White Pines were foaming at the mouth! What really occurred: sap salts and acids that had accumulated on the bark’s surface mixed together in the rain and formed soapy suds. The rainbow colors and hexagonal forms–worth a natural engineering wonder.

And upon a moss covered tree stump . . . a million more tiny bubbles dangling from reproductive capsules creating a hint of the future.

At the pool, one might say raindrops distorted the reflections captured on the surface. Or perhaps they enhanced it with a design that was ever evolving.

Bubbles kept forming as the raindrops fell . . . and then they’d burst. Just prior to their disappearance, however, they mirrored the canopy above the pool.

Oh, and do you spy what I spied? Wood Frog eggs . . . tadpoles in the making. But all the while that I stood there, and it was a while as the rain fell, not a frog did I spot.

As the skies cleared late in the afternoon, again I headed to the pool. Click on the arrow above and you should hear what I heard. A chorus of wrucks.

Of course, once I stood beside the pool, the frogs had all disappeared. But, with a bit of sun shining, I suddenly could see that in the last week numerous egg masses had been laid in communal style, as is the Wood Frog manner.

Some even exhibited the green hue indicating that mutualistic symbiosis, or a relationship between algae and developing embryos, was already underway. Shallow, ephemeral ponds such as this one, experience severe oxygen depletion during periods of high sunlight and warmth. The algae provides oxygen for the tadpoles, allowing them to survive longer and grow larger before metamorphosis, while the algae receive carbon dioxide from the tadpoles, which aids algal growth.

And then, ever so slowly, frogs silently floated to the surface, and waited . . . for that special woman to happen along. The fact that I had happened along, didn’t turn out to be special enough and so most were silent rather than wrucking as they waited . . . for me to disappear.

And then . . . and then the water began to boil. It took me a moment to realize what I was witnessing.

That moment expanded into about ten minutes as several male frogs tried to outwit each other and grab one female in amplexus.

She occasionally chirped her discontent, but that didn’t stop the good old boys from trying to do their thing.

Around and around they went, this threesome or foursome or fivesome, for it seemed to be an ever evolving grouping.

Her swollen belly betold the fact that she had eggs that needed to be fertilized, but which of these Romeos would win the right to externally fertilize her bounty?

They tumbled and tussled. She chirped. They tumbled and tussled some more.

They calmed down for a moment, but still no decision had been made.

And then, if you click on the arrow above and listen, you’ll hear what the frogs and I heard . . . as a Barred Owl called its “Who Cooks For You?” phrase several times. The frogs split up and I’ll never know which of the best wrucks one, but I suspect one of them finally succeeded in its quest to sire the next generation.

Dedication: This post is for Patti and Kate and Billy and Rob (Howie) and Johnny, in honor of your mom, Bobbie, who passed from this world to the next today. At the sight of each bubble that the day offered, it seemed another memory popped up. And I’m pretty sure we are all living proof that eating her raw Congo Bar dough adds years to ones life. Virtual hugs to all of you. And Tommy too.

First Date 2022

I bet you think this is about my guy, but actually, he had no part in this story. Instead, it’s a date of another kind for another species. You see, the other night a friend and I went out for a mini-Big Night. Though it hadn’t been raining long, the temp was about 42˚, and my communication with her and another friend got kinda confusing because first I said, “Let’s go,” then I said “Let’s not go till next week, “then I was afraid one hadn’t received my message so I said to the other, “Let’s go.” And so we did.

Go out that is to a local amphibian road crossing and in an hour’s time we helped six Spring Peepers cross the road. And then on the way home, we saw more and she began to drive like one who is dodging pot holes. One does what one needs to to save the amphibians.

But this isn’t about that date either.

Knowing that the peepers had been on the move, I thought I should check the vernal pool in the woods behind our home. This is former farmland that is now forested with boundaries marked by stonewalls. On March 25th, the pool still had ice on it, but by yesterday, April 1. the ice had finally gone out.

I stood by the edge and peered in, but saw nary a critter as the raindrops fell.

Late this afternoon, April 2, I again returned to the pool and as I approached I didn’t hear any “Wruck, wrucks” of a Wood Frog chorus, but I did spot movement. And so I found a rock on the northern side and waited patiently, hoping against hope that I would be rewarded with a sighting if I stayed as still as possible. Though the sun was warm, there was a brisk breeze and so the marcescent beech leaves wiggled and waggled.

Methinks the breeze was to my benefit because within five minutes frogs began to appear. And among them, this lovely canoodling couple in true Wood Frog form called amplexus. It’s such a great word and means “embrace” for embrace her he does. Notice his foreleg positioned behind hers and her bulging belly. My own excitement increased as I watched these two.

She was in complete control, or so it seemed and he held tightly as she swam from one location to another.

About four feet below me, they found a fallen branch and I wondered if I’d see her lay the eggs contained in that swollen belly that he’d fertilize externally. I certainly had paid for the right seat to watch such action. And speaking of action, do you see the red arrow in the lower right of the photo? How do you spell M-O-S-Q-U-I-T-O larvae? Think of them as tadpole food. And later–dragonfly and damselfly and bird food!

The dating couple weren’t the only residents showing their faces and among all the others were two who had also decided to hang out in my corner, this lighter colored Wood Frog being one . . .

and this darker colored another. Wood Frogs range in color from light tan to dark brown. It’s difficult to differentiate the gender of this species, but I’ve read that the lighter colored ones tend to be females.

Maybe that is true. The darker colored frog certainly wanted to test such a hypothesis. And so he grasped the lighter colored one.

The lighter frog seemed to say this was not a marriage made in heaven.

But still the darker tried.

And tried some more.

But a couple of clucks from the lighter colored frog and at last it was released. Male Wood Frogs do not discriminate when breeding. Anything that moves near the surface of the water is grabbed in hopes that it will eventually lay eggs that the male can then fertilize, including other males and also uninterested females. Maybe he didn’t have the right vocal quality.

At last it was time for the lighter colored frog to relax, all the while hoping for the right mate to come along. Meanwhile, the canoodling couple had found an oak leaf under which to take its interaction. Do you see them?

How about now? I had to wonder if she was laying eggs–that action I so wanted to see, but perhaps she wanted it to be a private moment between the two of them. If so, I had to wonder about their choice of placement, for from my experience of visiting this pool for the last 30 years, this is the side that dries up first and egg masses often end up drying up upon suspended branches that may be in the water now, but won’t be in a month or so if we don’t get enough rain.

At last the dating couple came out from under the leaf and returned to the branch of their original intention. As they did so, I also thought about how this pool has been part of my classroom for so long and the lessons it has offered me. Today was no exception.

And then they took off again, she swimming as he clung on, insistent that he would be the one to fertilize her eggs.

For some reason they chose a rock to next spend time beside and I questioned their choice once more. But . . . they were brilliant to be mating so early for this is a pool that dries up super early and the sooner their eggs are fertilized and laid, the more success that their offspring will survive. That early drying of this pool always leaves me wondering how any frogs and salamanders can possibly return to this particular “natal” place to breed in years following, until I remember that when these species sense that the end draws near, they have the ability to develop more quickly. Pretty darn amazing.

Suddenly, the water boiled on the other side of the pool and I looked over to see what was going on. It appeared that one female was the focus of several males and a ruckus and some clucking ensued as they sorted out the winner.

Meanwhile, the canoodlers continued their tour in search of the right place to deposit an egg mass they’ll never see develop. Such is the life of an adult Wood Frog–no parenting responsibilities to consider. She’ll leave the pond tonight probably. He’ll hang out for another week or two in hopes of scoring again.

In the meantime, plenty of others bide their time with hope on the horizon. They, too, want to be part of the gene pool that permeates from this special place.

At last it was time for me to leave as the battery of my camera had lost its juice. The canoodlers, however, still had much more juice to share on this very first date of a new season.

If I can’t have an 18-inch snowstorm in the next six months, then give me a wetland. Look for me looking for other first dates in this place and other wetlands going forward. I can’t wait to see what awaits.

Worth the Wait Mondate

It took us a while to get out the door today, but perhaps that was because we knew we weren’t traveling far and we’d have plenty of daylight in which to explore.

Today’s destination: Sebago Lake State Park, a locale whose existence we take for granted and seldom make time to actually visit. But when we do . . . ah. We hiked over five miles today, with a few false starts, but never really getting lost.

It was a blustery but beautiful day and conditions switched from snow to ice to puddles to ice under water to bare ground. And somehow, at exactly noon we reached the summit of the Lookout Trail, where a picnic table painted brown from my guy’s hardware store awaited. Looks like maintenance will need to return to the store for some touchups this spring.

After lunch, we found our way down to the water, which in this neck of the woods looks like the ocean. That said, the Atlantic Ocean is only about thirty minutes away. Sebago Lake State Park, at 1,400 acres, opened in 1938. The lake itself, at 45-square miles, is Maine’s second largest. It’s a place with diverse natural communities, which makes it a jewel.

All of that is fine and well, but my favorite habitat of all we saved until the end. Horseshoe Bog on the park’s west side always has something to offer. It’s called Horseshoe Bog because of its shape. The question was: what would today’s offerings be?

It soon became evident when we began to notice lodges.

And chew sticks floating in a raft-like manner in a wee bit of open water. Because beavers don’t hibernate, they cache or stockpile sticks underwater so they can nibble on them once the pond freezes over in winter.

As pure herbivores, beavers subsist solely on woody and aquatic vegetation.

As we continued along the path, we paused frequently to admire their previous works, some of which hadn’t been successful in terms of felling the trees. Yet.

Others seemed like attempts to perhaps consider on some future date.

And still others made us feel as if we were walking through an art gallery for so unique were their forms.

Though a beaver will chew on any tree, its preferred species include alder, aspen, birch, maple, poplar and willow. 

I’m always in awe when I think about how beavers obtain their food by toppling large trees with no other tools than those specially adapted incisors and powerful lower jaw muscles. Even after years of chewing wood, their teeth don’t become too warn and never stop growing. The four incisors (two top; two bottom) are self-sharpening due to hard orange enamel on the front and a softer dentin on the back. That means the softer backside wears faster, creating a chisel-like cutting surface. And chisel they do.

Moving rather slowly, for I’d asked my guy to change his pace when we began to circle the bog, we counted five lodges, and figured that at least two of them were active. The two bookmarking this photo we weren’t sure about.

Suddenly we spotted some action in the water and my guy caught a glimpse of a critter that swam under the ice and out of our sight. All I saw were the ripples on the water. But . . . that meant that we stopped. For a while. And in flew a small flock of Pine Siskins.

And so they garnered my attention for a few moments.

When I wasn’t searching for more beaver action, that is.

At last we reached another lodge and both of us chose trees on either side of it to hide beside and remain quiet. I have to say that I’m so impressed with how still my guy can be . . . thank goodness for that earlier half-second sighting because he was as eager as I was to spy more activity.

Unfortunately, it was in that moment that my guy finally walked toward me that the beaver did show. He missed the sighting, but for me, it was well worth the wait on this first Mondate of spring.

Happy 7th Birthday to you, wondermyway!

Seven years ago today I gave birth–rather a record at my age. It was February 21, 2015, when I welcomed wondermyway into the world. It’s been quite an adventure that we’ve shared together and one of my favorite things to do each year to celebrate is to take a look back.

As I reviewed this past year, the reality hit home. I’ve written less than half the number of posts of any other year. That all boils down to one thing. Time. There’s never enough. Oh, I’ve taken the photos, and had the adventures, but I haven’t made the time to write about all of them. Sometimes, they sit off to the side in my brain and I think I’ll use some of them together in a cumulative post, and there they sit.

That all said, I’ve had more views and visitors this past year than any other. Views = 24,955; Visitors = 16,994. Followers = 701. And over the course of wondermyway’s lifespan, the blog has received 121,765 hits.

An enormous heart-felt thanks to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. I get excited to share with you and love hearing from you.

In case you are wondering, my guy and I did have a Mondate this afternoon–along Bemis River and then up to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.

It was here at the falls that we celebrated wondermyway.com with a couple of those Bavarian Haus chocolates we purchased last Monday.

And now for a look at a few excerpts from posts I made during the past year, beginning with March 2021. To read or re-read the entire post, click on the link below each photo.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons. Somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

But . . . this spring will be different.

How so? And what invitation still stands? Click on the link under the beetle’s photo to find the answers.

Whispers Along The Trail

“The way to be heard isn’t to shout,” said the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells of St. Martins in the Fields, London. “It’s to whisper.” But who are the whisperers?

Listen for the slightest murmur of Trailing Arbutus’s delicate blossoms beneath its leathery leaves.

Hear also the soft words of a rattlesnake-plantain explaining that its striking veins may suggest “checkered,” but it actually goes by “downy” in common speak.

You’ll have to click on the link under the photo of the Trailing Arbutus flowers to hear what other species had to say.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 . . . you’ll have to click on the link under the Bald Eagle photo to figure out what our best sighting was.

The Saga of a Vernal Pool

Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all,  about the circle of life. 

A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool. 

Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days. 

Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed.

And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool. 

The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner. 

Ah, but how does the story end? Click on the link under the photo to find out.

Consumed by Cicadas

I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.

Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.

Click on the link under the photo to see the story of the Cicadas unfold.

Not Just An Insect

Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.

There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.

But why the title, “Not Just An Insect”? Ahhh, you know what you’ll need to do to find the answer.

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.”

We did figure it out. Over and over again. This collection happens to include places that make us happy and many of our family members and just looking back puts a smile on my face. Oh, and the selfie–taken at the same place where we went today–only in September 2021.

Beautiful Maine

A vacation loomed in front of us. Where to go? What to do?

Click on the link, Beautiful Maine, to see what surprises awaited us as we got to know our state a wee bit better.

Pondering the Past at Pondicherry Park

Before today’s deluge began, I slipped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, Maine, to fill the innermost recesses of my lungs with November air, and at the same time my brain with memories of so many people who have traveled these trails with me from Ned Allen, former executive director of Bridgton Historical Society, to Loon Echo’s Jon Evans, and Lakes Environmental Association’s Alanna Yanelli and Mary Jewett, and friends and friends and friends, including the late JoAnne Diller, Sue Black, and Jinny Mae. But today’s journey also included memories of one I took two years ago with Becky Cook, who shared her remembrances of growing up along South High Street and romping through these trails as they were part of her backyard. If anyone ever had a sense of this place, it is Becky.

This post is full of information of an historic and natural nature. Go ahead, click on the link above to learn more.

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

Click on the link to find out more about the pattern.

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

But what could good hair possibly have to do with this Mondate? You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

So how is this stuffed beaver connected to a gory story?

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Finally, settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope you’ll continue to wonder along with me as I wander through the woods.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

For those who are still with me, here’s the scoop. Last Wednesday during a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk on Groundhog Day, where shadows were the main focus, and yes, Lovell Lil, the beaver, did spy her’s and predicted six more weeks of winter, a group of us noticed a pile of feathers on the far side of a brook we snowshoed beside. (Notice how I used this photo as an intro so that those who didn’t want to deal with the aforementioned gore could exit with a beaver image in their minds?)

Here’s how it all began. First, a few of us glimpsed a large bird that we thought was an owl, fly off with something in its mouth. Though we were supposed to be looking for shadows, our nature distraction disorder (NDD being the best kind of disorder to possess) took over and we decided to walk quietly in hopes that we might spy the owl in a tree. Imagine a group of curious people on snowshoes attempting to walk quietly. But we did. Or so we thought. Until three ducks flew up out of the brook and headed in the same direction as the owl.

Shortly after, we spotted this scene and two of us decided that once the public hike ended, we’d find our way to the other side and try to decipher the story of the feathers and the blood and the slides. I was sure I knew the predator.

As we approached, we spotted wing marks at the base of a tree.

What we’d seen from the other side was the plucking station where the predator had pulled the feathers off to get to the meaty part of its avian meal.

Once the bird was plucked, then it dragged it up the hill and sat down to dine behind the tree. Do you see the circular area where the predator left an impression. I’m sure the prey was not at all impressed, though by this time it was . . . dead.

Here’s another look from the dining table down toward the plucking site and the brook below.

Of course, I need to give you a closer look–at the duck’s entrails. I often find these left behind at a kill site and wonder why. Do they not taste good? Is there some sort of bacteria that makes them indigestible? Or do they not offer any discernible nutrition?

Another body part not to be overlooked was the foot with its tendons still attached that sat on the dinner table beside the entrails. Can you see the webbing between the toes? That confirmed our ID that the prey was a duck. But who was the predator? We looked around for mammal prints and found none.

What we did find was a slide. Actually there were a couple of slides. And as I often do, I wanted to confidently say that an otter was the predator. But . . . rather than seeing otter tracks in any of the slides, there were wing marks beside them. From the duck? Or someone else?

We hunted around as we tried to decipher the story. It appeared that quite a struggle had taken place.

And no feather had gone unplucked.

The bright red blood was quite fresh and I could just imagine the pain the duck endured.

While most of the blood was at the plucking station, there was some on a small mound on the brook and again I wondered: was that where the initial attack occurred?

As I said, we found no signs of a mammal, but we did find large splatters or splays of bird feces. Birds don’t produce urine and instead excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, which emerges as a white paste for most.

Fellow tracker, Dawn, and I also found several long shots of excrement that I cannot explain, but perhaps the owl had spent some time up in the tree?

I guess by now you’ve figured out that our assumption was that the owl we saw fly off was the predator. That’s the story we’re telling anyway about how this particular duck lost its tail and its life.

But . . . think of it this way: Plants the duck fed on were primary producers who used energy from the sun to produce their own food in the form of glucose. The primary producers were eaten by the duck, a primary consumer. The duck was then eaten by the owl, a secondary consumer. Who knows how the duck’s tale will actually end because we don’t know who might eat the owl. In the midst of it all, however, energy flowed and in this case may continue to flow from one trophic level, or level of the food chain, to the next.

I know you expected a Mondate, and my guy and I did explore Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, today as I prepped for a Maine Master Naturalist field trip related to tree bark and buds, but the story of the duck and owl have been forming in my brain for a few days. And then this morning another tracker sent me this email:

Subject: Tracking Forensics:

Weird thoughts in the early morning…

I was thinking about the Tracking Tuesdays that you lead on the GLLT properties and about how similar they are to all those CSI shows – coming in a day or two after the events have occurred and trying to piece together who was there and what happened. From seemingly little information you figure out who was there, what they were doing, where the gang hangs out, and sometimes who killed whom. 

Bring in the TV cameras!

That’s when I knew I should take a chance with the blood and guts story. Nature can seem brutal, but it’s all part of the system.

Dedication: This one is for Pam and Bob Katz for leading the Shadows Hike that led us to make this discovery; for Dawn Wood who helped me interpret the site; and for Joe Scott who sent the email. Bring on the TV cameras indeed!

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.

As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.

We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.

Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.

In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.

And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.

And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.

I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.

Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.

And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.

The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.

We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.

Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.

Do you see a bear?

Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.

And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.

In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.

Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.

Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.

Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.

As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.

Making Tracks into 2022 Mondate

On this coldest day of the new year, with winds gusting from the north, my guy and I chose to go for a walk on a beach and peer into the future. What did we see?

A clean slate to start.

What did we learn? Rather than clam up, be happy and express your true colors.

Break free from the crowd occasionally and make sure your pop is the loudest.

Know that some layers will erode, but still, strong roots will persist.

Find works of nature’s art in the midst.

Recognize the value of local plants just like your Dad always did.

Liken bursts of sunshine upon rocks that add color to gray days.

Take a brief second to pause, as you skitter along.

If you feel trapped, find a way out.

Spew when you need to, but do make it colorful and dramatic.

Despite the cold temperature, paddle like heck.

When the moment is right, ride the waves.

Let life’s lines intersect and go with the pattern presented.

And most of all, together make tracks as you step into 2022.

Happy New Year to all and to all a good night.

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.