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 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.

It seemed the Hutchins family was watching over the first little specks of my attention, keeping them safe at a most tender moment in their life cycle.

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.

Who are these land lobsters, for such do their claws remind me. Dog-Day Cicadas. They complete their life cycle in 1 – 3 years. As nymphs or larvae, they remain underground feeding on plant juices from tree roots. In July, the nymphs tunnel up through the ground and crawl onto tree trunks or other surfaces like gravestones, which they latch onto with those over-sized claws.

Tickled to see two who looked like they were about to burst into new life, I watched with intensity, noticing that this, the second one, had green wings forming. And really, its head was already emerging, for if you look closely, you’ll note a small set of brown eyes closer to its claws and the new eyes much larger and darker in color protruding.

Winged cicadas emerge from a slit along the back of the nymph’s exoskeleton.

Back to the first, you’ll notice the same is true. And do you see where the second cicada had that hint of green, this one is more rosy red in color.

I could say that within minutes I noticed more of the body bulging, giving the nymph a hunchback look, but this is a transformation that takes time. Lots. Of. Time. They begin the process by arching and expanding the thorax until the larval cuticle fractures and the adult’s thorax appears, soon, or sorta soon, followed by its head.

Ever so slowly . . .

the rest of the body . . .

comes to life.

Both red and green complete this process simultaneously as I squat and watch.

Eventually, legs and wings are visible. Do you see the proboscis, that elongated sucking mouthpart or stylet that is tubular and flexible, extending from its nose?

How about now?

As the abdomen extends, four wings take shape.

In continued slow motion, they begin to unfurl . . .

and the insect wiggles its legs . . .

ready to get a grip.

Next, it pumps insect blood into its body and wings, which takes even longer, as in hours. After the cuticle hardens for a while and muscles grow stronger, the cicada pulls itself out of its former self.

Before it can fly, those wings need to dry, some resembling a rainbow.

Teneral to start, a breeze creates an angelic quality befitting the setting.

In time, the wings will fold over the cicada’s back, but until that happens, the rose-version offers a lesson that not all Dog-Day Cicadas look like camouflaged leaves among which they sing–the tree-top males producing the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structururs in their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females.

Today, I visited yesterday’s cemetery and found not much action, but a few miles north it seemed the summer chorus was preparing to take in new members.


First, however, they had to finish donning their choir robes.

And as I’d noticed for the first time yesterday, not all robes are the same color. Variation apparently is normal among cicadas, which provide me a wonder-filled lesson.

My question is this: what determines color? It can’t be temperature as from the many I saw today and few yesterday, all emerged at about the same time. And it can’t be location, for they were all in the same locale.

In fact, some even morphed upon the same family plot corner stone, this being the Evans family in Center Lovell, and their transformation occurred within minutes of each other.

Then there was another question–if they were so close to each other in emergence, would they get along? I watched these two for a long time, and though they got quite close occasionally, they seemed rather territorial, using. a foot or tarsus to push the other away. That, of course, is my human interpretation of what I was observing. The reality may be different.

A few headstones away, another for the red variety.

There are other lessons, such as this–like dragonflies, some nymphs transform atop the discarded exuviae of their relatives.

And while I expect that they only climb a few feet off the ground to morph, I’m proven wrong when I have to use my warbler neck to spy at least two on branches high above. Do you see them? Are there others that I missed?

I have so many more questions, but pull myself away once again.

I do often wonder if my presence bothers then, but have to hope that they realize I’m there to protect them from predators and learn from them during this time of transition.

Note that the proboscis is tucked under their bodies, as it won’t be needed until these cicadas reach the tree tops. Once up there, where I won’t be able to spy them, males will produce the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structures in  their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females. After mating, the female lays her eggs in slits she makes in twigs. The young nymphs hatch, fall to the ground, burrow underground and feed on sap from roots for a year or two or three. 

And then the day I wait for happens and I once again roam places where I know I can find them, cemeteries being my place of choice, and I spend hours stalking one stone and then another and back to first and then the second, over and over again, consumed as I am by cicadas.

Mondate Blues

Ah rain. We need rain. I love rain. Our weary land that was so parched in June is suddenly refreshed by rain. And our plans are changed by rain, but that’s okay because it provides opportunities for us to consider other trails than those intended.

And so it was that we headed onto a local community forest this morning between rain drops.

The trail, terrain, plants, and weather gave us the sense of wandering in Scotland. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking.

As we explored, our hopes lifted as hang clouds decorated the backdrop behind erratic boulders.

And birds like this handsome Field Sparrow sang and gathered food, presumably for nestlings.

In the mix, Catbirds meowed.

But what mattered most to me were the insects and I expected so many, but was disappointed by so few. I did spy this Band Net-Winged Beetle on a Spirea, its bright coloration shouting a footnote of its offensive taste to predators.

Similar in Halloween costume color choices was the Small Milkweed Beetle, its main plant source a week or two past, but note the heart on its back–a sign of forever love. Interestingly, Small Milkweed Beetles help gardeners enjoy the milkweed plant and the butterflies that are attracted to them without having to worry that milkweed may overtake the garden.

To keep the party going, a Blue and Red Checkered Beetle happened onto the scene. Checkered Beetles occur where there’s a large supply of nectar and pollen.

Of course, with all this goodness, there has to be at least one in hiding–in this case a Goldenrod Crab Spider on a Bristly Sarsaparilla.

We spied him as we walked out with a sandwich from Eaton Village Store on our minds, and then again as we hiked in for a second time and then finally out again.

Upon our return, though it had poured as we ate, the rain abated and Ossipee Lake made itself visible.

It was on that second visit that I finally noted a honeybee working frantically to fill its honey pots.

So did small skippers such as this Dun Skipper upon the early blossom of Joe Pye Weed, his proboscis probing the not yet opened flowers.

With the rain abating, the Pye Weed soon became a plant of choice. Among its guests was a Great Spangled Fritillary all decked out in stripes, dots, and commas.

Because the flower hadn’t fully opened, the Fritillary’s proboscis curled in true butterfly behavior.

Suddenly, or so it seemed as the temp slightly rose, pollinators came out of hiding, including a Silver Spotted Skipper, its spot shouting its name.

Toward the end of our adventure, my heart rejoiced with the spot of a Green Lacewing, one of the subtle offerings in the wooded landscape.

It was just such a landscape that appealed to us today and we tossed all other trail choices into the pot for future expeditions. If you know my guy, you know what is to come.

Little fruit morsels became the object of his attention.

You and I know them as Low-bush Blueberries.

He knows them as the source of his Blueberry Greed.

All in all, he filled a couple of bags (and I helped! a little bit, that is). I have to say that I was amazed by the sight of all the little blue fruits for so few seemed the pollinators of the day. What I’ve shared with you was it. Literally. In number.

Yesterday my friend Joe Scott, an avid birder, shared this information with me from a New Hampshire Bird Listserve:

“The absence of insects obviously impacts insectivorous bird species. In Knight Hill Nature Park in New London, [NH] for the last two weeks, there have been 27 fully blooming butterfly weed plants, hundreds of common milkweed plants and two pollinator apartment blocks, but no insects! Oh, on any given day, perhaps one or two butterflies and half a dozen bumble bees. Ten years ago, at this time of year, these plants would be covered with butterflies, bees and other insects, as many as 20 species of butterflies and 10 species of bees.”

Today’s Mondate Blues represents those who don’t like the rain, or my guy and his blueberry greed, or the lack of pollinators or my color of choice. I’m just happy that we got out there and found so many sources of goodness on this wet day.

Odonata Chronicles: Second Edition

Are you ready for some more in the dragonfly tales? I thought for this second edition, and actually the third and fourth to follow, I’d stick with the stocky Skimmer family.

We’ll begin with the Four-spotted Skimmer, (Libellula quadrimaculata. I shouldn’t have favorites, but this is one. It’s as if it was given the crown jewels to display.

The name comes from the black spots at the nodus (that point in the wing where it appears notched and some veins begin) about halfway across each wing, and stigma at the wing’s tip. If you count going across, you have four spots. If you count instead the fore and hind wings, you have four spots, making for an easy ID when one perches to consume a meal like this one did.

And then there is that incredible stained-glass black basal spot on the hind wing that is interwoven with amber venation. My heart be still.

Look for Four-spotted Skimmers near shallow water during the summer season. I saw this one in a meadow located between a brook and lake.

As you can see, the lighting wasn’t quite right on this lady, but notice how her coloration is sorta similar to the Four-Spotted, thus forcing the brain to work. I have to slow myself down when in the field and remember key characteristics. Both may share shades of brown and creamy yellow, but upon closer inspection, they aren’t the same at all. The clue to the identity of this skimmer is the white stigmas on the wings. To my knowledge, no other dragonfly shares this feature. (Till one does, of course.) And in the case of this female Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), the tips of her wings are dark.

Those white stigmas really stand out on her male counterpart. Spangled Skimmers fly in my neck of the woods. from June through August near lakes and ponds and fields and woodlands, so keep your eyes open for the white flags.

A bit smaller in size to the Four-spotted and Spangled, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is another handsome specimen. That white face. Those green eyes. Can you see that the eyes have a metallic blue hue on top? His female’s eyes are red over gray, though they also turn green as she matures.

In a combination of colors, the thorax is striped, abdomen bluish with a black tip, wings with an amber base patch, and then, of course the eyes and face.

Floating or emergent vegetation, such as this Spadderdock, are preferred as Blue Dashers are spotted throughout the summer season. I’ve read that some migrate along the Atlantic Coast.

Some dragonflies are easier to identify than others because of unique features and such is certainly the case with the Widow Skimmer ((Libellula luctuosa). It’s the large dark patch that stretches from the base of the wing to the nodus that gives away her identity. Where her abdomen has a dark stripe down the middle that widens toward the tip, and yellow stripes on each side, his abdomen is entirely gray blue above. And his wings feature the same black patch with an adjacent white patch reaching almost to the stigma. Do you see a. bit of the whitish patch on the wings?

Perhaps the white is a little more evident now? I think I’m correct in stating that this brown-eyed specimen is an immature male due to the hint of white as well as the dark face. While both male and females have brown eyes, his face is dark, where hers is tan. Does that make this a widower? Hmmm. Not sure how that works. The Latin luctuosa in its scientific name refers to feeling sorrowful and I suppose these dragonflies were considered to be wearing black in mourning.

While they are summer fliers beside water bodies, fields, and woodlands, I’ve only ever encountered this one . . . that I can remember.

And just when you thought you had it, another species with black patches on its wings flies into the scene. But, there are differences. First, there’s the dark, wide crossband stretching from top to bottom of each wing and from nodus to stigma. Then, there’s the basal patches: black on fore wings; black with a white patch below on hind wings.

This dragonfly is known as a Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Huh? Well, you are actually looking at an immature male. The female is similar in that she also has the yellow slashes along the sides of her abdomen, but she lacks white patches on her hind wings. So how does the “whitetail” fit into the name?

The abdomen being the tail, this male demonstrates how the name came to be. I may have used the term “pruinosity” before, but this mature male surely illustrates it–a frosted or powdery appearance caused by pigment on top of an insect’s cuticle that covers up the underlying coloration. It’s my understanding that for some dragonflies like Blue Dashers and Common Whitetails, displaying pruinescence on the abdomen to other males is a territorial threat.

Common Whitetails are also summer fliers who prefer to perch on or just above the ground.

Finally, the last species for today, which is hardly the least. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifaciata)because I only just made its acquaintance this summer. My first thought when we met was that it was a Calico Pennant Skimmer. I got the skimmer correct, but not the actual ID. Notice that cherry-colored face that is tan on the sides. That gave me the first inkling that I might be on the wrong track.

The wings provided the next clue. While the Calico has dark patches on its wings, the Painted features bands that extend from top to bottom toward the tip of each wing about halfway down beginning at the nodus. Likewise, the abdomen differs for each species, with the Calico’s featuring heart-shaped spots, while Painted’s is brown with yellow sides and black triangles and lines on segments 6 and 7, plus wide black stripes on segments 8 through 10.

This is a face I hope to remember for a long time as the Painted Skimmer and I got to know other during a few brief moments along a forest road near a river in June. Until we meet again . . .

One final note: if you are with me in the field, I may not remember every little detail or the common name. I definitely won’t know the scientific name. But the more time I spend with them and the more I study and write about them, the more I learn and I hope you are learning a wee bit as well.

I leave you with my latest creation: Indigo Skimmer (Libellula indigofera), formed from deconstructed blue jeans.

Odonata Chronicles: First Edition

Somehow the words my high school Spanish and Latin teacher, Mr. Cretella, wrote in my yearbook have always stayed with me: “Never lose your desire to learn.” Indeed. That said, in Latin 1 during my senior year, if I couldn’t remember the answer, I substituted a Spanish term. I don’t remember how he reacted to that–probably with a groan on the outside and a smile within.

And so, my friends, please join me as I continue to learn about Odonatas, aka dragonflies and damselflies , those winged insects we all love to celebrate because they eat those that bug us the most, including blackflies and mosquitoes. Hmmmm, what about ticks?

Periodically, over the course of the summer my intention is to share some information and/or story with you about these predatory fliers. I may not always be correct, but hey, that’s how I learn, and I hope you’ll wondermyway for the journey.

One distinction I want to make is that mature dragonflies always have their wings spread out whether in flight or perching, while damselfly wings are together over their backs when perching (except for the Spreadwing family of damsels).

With 468 North American Species of Odonates at this time (new discoveries are always being made), Maine is home to 160 species.

One thing I want to point out about dragonflies is that the abdomen consists of ten segments. That will become important for identification purposes.

I thought we’d begin with the dragonflies known as Skimmers.

Skimmers, like the Four-Spotted Skimmer above, are the most ubiquitous dragonflies and range in size from small to large. They tend to have stocky bodies and spend much of their time perching on the ground and other flat substrates near muddy ponds and stream.

Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers are active May through July.

This chunky northern male skimmer has dark markings at the base of his otherwise clear wings. His hind wing patches are triangular, and the forewing patches are smaller or non-existent.

He has dark brown eyes and a black face. Notice the whitish/grayish/bluish stripes on his thorax–those are his “corporal” stripes.

The first half of abdomen is the same color and the rest of it is black.

Chalk-fronted Corporals tend to be in dense populations. Often, as I walk along a woodland path or beside a pond, these dragonflies lead the way, flying a few feet ahead, stopping on a rock or something else ahead of me and then as I approach, moving ahead again.

This baker’s dozen I spotted on a rock beside a small mountain pond.

The Female Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmer’s eyes are brown and face tan. But where his thorax was whitish gray, her’s is brown. 

Her abdomen, however, is like his.

Would you have guess that this was an immature form of the same? Just when you thought you nailed the Chalk-fronted Corporals. The immature features a lovely orangey brown with a black strip down the middle. The immature stage last for about two weeks in any species.

Active June through August, Slaty Blue Skimmers are about two in length.

The mature male is entirely blue except for black face and brown eyes. I typically find them flying and perching beside lakes and ponds.

Notice how he doesn’t have the patches at the base of his wings like the Corporals did.

Like most species, the female Slaty Blue has a look all her own with a brown thorax highlighted with yellowish-tan stripes. Her abdomen has a dark brown to black stripe down the top with a yellowish-tan stripe along the sides. 

She’ll darken with age to a uniform brown or gray color and her eyes will become red-brown. Immature of both sexes resemble a young female, just to confuse you more.

Much smaller in size at about 1.2 inches as compared to a two-inch Slaty Blue are the Calico Pennants, active May through August.

The male has red heart-shaped spots on abdomen segments 4 to 7 (remember, all dragonflies have 10 abdominal segments so you need to start at the base below the thorax and begin counting from there.)

All four wings have a small dark patch at the wing tips. And the hindwings have a large, mottled dark patch at the base which reminds me of stained glass.

The stigma, on the leading edge of each wing toward the wingtip, and the face are red. 

His claspers at the end of the abdomen are also reddish.

The female is the same as her male counterpart, but her spots and stigma are yellow. Again, it’s that stained glass effect that captures my attention.

From May through September you might spot an Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer near a lake or pond.

The entire thorax and abdomen of a Male Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer are powder blue; and his claspers at the tip of the abdomen are white.

Often found perching on lily pads, his face is green and eyes blue.

The female Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer is bright green with black markings. Her green thorax is unstriped.

In flight from May through August, the Dot-tailed Whiteface male is an easy one to identify in the field. First, there’s that white face. But wait. Some other dragonflies also have white faces, so don’t stop there. While his eyes are brown, his body is black overall, but he has a conspicuous yellow spot on segment 7.

You might not recognize his mate as being a Dot-tailed because, well, she has lots of dots. Her abdomen is yellow at the base and then large dots on segments 3 through 6, with a smaller one on segment 7. She also has along the sides of her abdomen.

There are more to share just in the Skimmer family, but for the first edition of Odonata Chronicles, we’ll leave it at that. Five species with so much variation is a lot to digest.

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 located in the woods behind our house. 

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 what’s not to love about the unique tapestry, a pattern never repeated. 

With keen eyes I’d gaze in, but at first my focus was only upon the reflection offered by the bare-limbed trees above. 

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. 

A day or two later, her deposited eggs already swelled with water, presented themselves like a tapioca pudding popsicle. 

Soon they were joined by so many other globular masses making a statement that living in community is safer than upon your own and might provide warmth when the temperature dips. 

Inevitably it did dip, and one day snowflakes frosted the rocks and ground, sugar-coated the tree branches, and plopped like leaden raindrops, rippling the water’s surface. 

But . . . the embryos still formed.

With each visit it became more and more apparent that a vernal pool isn’t just about Wood Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and midges and beetles and mites and water striders and squirrels and deer and raccoons and snakes and so many others benefited regularly from its nourishment. Even the resident Barred Owl liked to call occasionally. But perhaps the most prolific residents were the mosquito larvae who wriggled and tumbled through the water column. 

Predacious Diving Beetles intent upon creating more of their own, lived there as well. 

One of the curious wonders about those who use a vernal pool as a breeding ground is that they don’t stay around to parent their offspring. If fact, once canoodling is done, they either hop, climb, or fly out and spend the rest of their lives in the forest.  

Despite the lack of nurturing, within two weeks tadpoles emerged. Hundreds at first. And then . . . thousands. 

A month later, as the pool began to shrink significantly because it is vernal, and fed only by rain or snow melt, my tadpoles, so claimed since I’m about the only one who checks on them regularly, started to show off their more adult form in the making.

Suddenly . . . a few sweltering days later and all the water had evaporated. 

Stepping toward the center with hope, I was instead greeted with the horrific odor of decaying bodies and a Flesh Fly confirmed my suspicions. 

Also buzzing all about were Green Bottle Flies and the reason for so much frantic activity: carnage by my feet. 

But I soon came to realize that while not all the frogs had transformed in time to leave the pool, many must have and it still teemed with life–of a different kind.

American Carrion Beetles also stalked this place of death. 

Over and under leaves, the Carrion Beetles moved as they mated. The rotting tadpoles provided a place for them to lay their eggs and a food source for their future larvae. This was true for the flies and even little mites who live in a symbiotic relationship with the beetles and eat fly eggs so the beetle larvae have the carrion to themselves. 

As I watched, one canoodling pair of beetles flipped over and if you look closely, you might see he was on top (or the bottom in this case) and biting one of her antennae as part of their mating ritual. 

At last it was with great sadness that I said goodby to those who could not, but leaving the stench and frantic activity behind, I reminded myself that this happens each year and there’s a reason why frogs lay so many eggs. Without my witnessing it, some, possibly many, did hop away from the pool. And next year they’ll return to carry on the ritual. Until then, the flies and beetles and so many others will bring new life and by November the depression will fill again waiting for the saga of the vernal pool to continue. 

In parting, here’s  a quick video of the sights and sounds. 

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.

Counting Orchids Mondate

We had a feeling we might be rushing things when we set out on one of our planned Lady’s Slipper hikes this morning. But this was one nature moment my guy was actually looking forward to–oh, he loves to hike, it’s just the stopping for hours on end to look at all the idiosyncrasies of a flower or insect that doesn’t appeal to him.

And so it was that not long after we left the trailhead, we met the first lady of our intentions. She was classic–her pink slipper-like pouch inflated and darkly veined (in a manner that reminded me of a pitcher plant’s veins), her sepals and upper petals purply-bronze, stem hairy, and the set of basal leaves well ribbed. With that, we got excited, announced her as number one, and couldn’t wait to continue the count.

As luck would have it, by the time we reached the beaver dam crossing, we’d seen only four.

But at the dam we did pause, at which point several large tadpoles disappeared and a frog jumped into the muck to hide from us. Do you see him? By his dark angular spots, rather than dark rounded spots surrounded by a light ring did I know his name to be Pickerel.

Once the trail began to actually ascend the mountain, we continued to search left and right–and in the process discovered Indian Cucumber-root suddenly in flower. This is one of my favorites, perhaps because of the unique and quite subtle flower that nods below the upper leaf whorl. Except for once that I know of, typically Indian Cucumber root needs a second tier of leaves to help supply more energy so it can flower and fruit. One might easily pass by these plants, but they’re worth a stop to notice the six recurved, yellowish-green tepals (petal-like parts), six stamens, and those three stunning dark red styles.

Still no more lady’s to delight us, but flower clusters of Clintonia added bright cheer beside the trail. And actually, when not in flower, it’s quite easy to confuse their leaves with that of Lady’s Slippers. While both are basal, green, and oval in shape, Clintonias have several smooth leaves featuring a central vein and you can easily fold them in half, while Lady’s Slipper leaves of two are deeply pleated.

As we climbed higher, we spotted more and more Painted Trillium, the flower appearing above its three leaves. The flower has three green sepals and six pink-tipped stamens. Two of the features I love about these flowers: its wavy-edged petals; and the inverted pink V at the base of each. And I’m proud of my guy because he can name a trillium and seems to find pleasure in pointing them out to me. Of course, then he moves on, while I stop to honor the plants with a photograph. Every time 😉

My heart cheered at the sight of this little one, a Bunchberry. While the plant seems to sport a single flower, it’s “flower” is a series of four large petal-like bracts, surrounding the actual flowers, which are tiny and greenish, with four minute petals. Like the Indian Cucumber-root, this plant needs more leaves when it’s ready to flower, so instead of the usual leaves of four, flowering Bunchberries have two extra large leaves to help the cause.

It wasn’t just flowers that were worth noticing for upon a tree leaf that was being consumed after only recently breaking bud, two May Beetles, quite possibly Dichelonyx elongatula, prepared to canoodle.

As we approached the top, where the naturally community transitioned, so did the insects. Here and there fluttered several Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. I’m never quite certain of my ID for these versus Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, but the latter has a solid yellow band on the trailing edge of the forewings and the yellow is broken by black for Eastern. Also, on the hind wings, if I’m correct, the blue on the Eastern is outlined in black arcs or curves, while the black line is straight for a Canadian Tiger.

And what to its dining delight should be offering nectar on this fine day–Rhodora.

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth was equally pleased with the menu.

So what about the ladies of our quest. It was in this new community that we found the most. And not all were completely opened, which made us wonder if we’d jumped the gun and headed off on our search a week too early.

We had to look under trees and shrubs, and though we didn’t find as many as we’d anticipated, we were still pleased.

Our favorite was this cluster, which my guy was proud to discover.

By the time we reached lunch rock where our PB&J sandwiches were consumed as we took in the view, the final orchid count totaled 47. We may just have to return for another Mondate in a few weeks because we suspect there will be more in bloom.

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.

Aligning the Stars

Sometimes it happens. Well, more than sometimes. One steps out of a vehicle to go for a walk in the woods, and tada . . .

A diminutive butterfly rapidly and erratically skips from stone to stone in the parking lot, before it final settles down for a few moments. Meet a dustywing, a member of the spread-wing skippers who hold forewings and hindwings open when landed.

And then upon a pine sapling, another tiny offering, this one of the click beetles.

The day already feels complete when another winged insect suddenly flies up from where we are about to step and then lands a few feet ahead. We have to have look closely to spy it, but finally do–dragonfly that’s only just over an inch long. The sighting is special because just a couple of hours prior I’d taught a senior college course about Mayflies, Cicadas, and Dragonflies. But the test is on us. Who is this? In some ways it resembls a Calico Pennant Skimmer–the female of the pennant being black with yellow markings. But the shape of the pennant’s yellow on the abdomen is heart-shaped and these are more variable.

We take a few more steps when another wee one garners attention and by its membranous wings and abdomen broadly joined to the body, plus it’s chosen plant, it must be a member of the sawfly family.

A few more steps and we meet it’s cousin, another sawfly on another pine.

As we continue, so do our encounters with our little dragonfly friend and we begin to realize there are many and they are all the same species. But the question remains. What species is it? It can’t be the Calico Pennant because all four of her wings have dark patches at the tips and her hindwings are decorated with blotches of yellow and black at the base that remind me of stained glass. This dragonfly only has small dark patches, at the base, the hindwing’s more triangular shaped and larger than the forewing. And those hindwing patches feature light venation, not colored like a Calico’s.

At last, though it’s not all that far, but takes us at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, we reach a brook where an orbweaver does just that–weaves.

Farther out in the water, a Tree Swallow poses at the top of snag, intent upon its surroundings. We pose as well, though our intention is upon all the vegetation for we seek the exuviae left behind by the dragonflies when they transformed from their aquatic life to terrestrial. We find none, and determine that vegetation in the brook must have served as their life-changing substrate.

Finally leaving the water behind, we once again meet our dragonfly friends. What species is it? Well, the face adds another clue for where the face of a female Calico Pennant is yellow like the hearts along her abdomen, this dragonfly has a white face.

So be it. Continuing along, Striped Maple flowers dangling like a lantern with a string of shades, light the path in a place or two.

And then as we pause upon a bench for a moment, our eyes are drawn to movement upon the ground and we spy a grasshopper who is so well camouflaged that we’re grateful when it finally climbs onto a fallen branch and poses.

At last it is time to walk back to our parked vehicles, but again, along the way we are greeted over and over again by our new friend. Occasionally, we can see the sheen of the wings and realize that the molt had occurred within the last few hours as they hadn’t completely dried.

It’s not until we get home, however, and respectively pour through ID books and bounce ideas off of each other, that we realize the name of our new friend. Meet Hudsonian Whiteface, a member of the Skimmer family. For a bit, we consider Dot-tailed Whitface, but Hudson’s yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, whereas Dottie’s is more like a square.

So many stars align, and except for not finding the dragonfly exuviae, we will always celebrate this day (actually yesterday, May 13) as First Dragonfly of 2021 and give thanks that the real star was a new learning for us.

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.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.

But still, 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. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.

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.

The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.

The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.

And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.

But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.

I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.

I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.

I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .

and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .

and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.

But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.

The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.

“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.

Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.

As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.

March Madness

I awoke early, filled with concern for Greater Lovell Land Trust’s March Madness hike planned for today. The wind was blowing and the temperature had dropped significantly after several days of “Fake Spring.” Would volunteer docents and staff be ok in parking lots and summits at GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve where we were encouraging people to climb one, two, or all three “peaks”?

We had it all planned–“snowman” passports available in the parking lots, along with trail maps, healthy snacks, magazines, and advice. Oh, and a donation jar 😉

At each summit, participants would have their passports stamped and choose one GLLT/nature-related swag item.

But that wind. A check of the weather report, thankfully, promised that the wind advisory suggesting gusts up to 45 mph, would end by 10am. Our event was planned to begin at 9:30. As I wrote in an email to volunteers and staff, “Let’s go for it.” No one balked. One replied, “We’ll be there.” And another wrote, “They don’t call in March Madness for nuthin’.”

After making sure everyone was set, at parking lot #4 on Route 5 in Lovell I opened the back of my truck to display the offerings. Our talented executive director had created a snowman out of the three summits, one of them actually being the snowball, and the buttoned breast serving as connector trails.

For the first two hours or so, my only companions were chipmunks, which despite, or maybe because of the cold, ran frantically from one side of the trail to the other, in and out of holes, and disappearing at one section of stone wall, while a short time later reappearing at another. Or was that a different chipmunk?

I counted four, but really, there could have been more for they entered and exited so frequently. Meanwhile, I was also on the move in an attempt to stay warm. The wind may not have been gusting per se, but it was rather breezy and certainly quite chilly.

And so I walked (and sometimes ran) around the parking lot and about a tenth of a mile up the trail, over and over again. In a way I wish I’d tracked my trail, because it would have looked as if I was indeed mad.

But . . . I made discoveries, including raccoon prints in the mud,

Yellow birch catkins flying like flags upon their twigs over my head,

and their associated trunk showing off its curly bark.

A Red Maple sported the perfect target fungus that I often mention to others, who can’t always see the bulls-eye pattern.

And somehow, though I’ve walked this trail many times over many years, I’ve never spotted the burnt potato-chip bark of a Black Cherry right beside the path before.

I also learned something about chipmunks. They scampered for several hours, but early afternoon must be siesta time and I never did see any of them again, though I checked frequently.

By 11:30, participants began to pull into the lot and I felt a certain sense of relief. Being without cell phone reception, I had no idea how things were going with anyone else, but gave thanks that people wanted to participate in the hike and had learned about it from several forms of media.

As they hiked, my parking lot meandering continued, though the space to move shrunk due to their parked vehicles.

With the chipmunks no longer offering entertainment, I decided to add an examination of the kiosk to my point of view.

Upon it I found a bunch of larval bagworm moths, their structure such that they remind me of the caddisflies I’ll soon be looking for as waterways open.

Another frequent observation at any kiosk is the cocoon structure of tussock moths. This one didn’t let me down.

Speaking of down, it was down that my eyes were next drawn and I spotted an old apple oak gall that curiously sported two exit holes–or had someone dined upon the goods once forming inside. How it survived two feet of snow and retained its global shape stymied me. Another thought though is that it may have remained attached the tree for a long time and only recently blew to the ground.

While I considered that, something hopped. Seriously.

The hopper turned out to be a . . . grasshopper instar. A what? An instar is a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate animal. Think of it as a nymph, if you will.

Spying one seemed an anomaly, but . . . I spied three more upon the snow.

They couldn’t yet fly, but they certainly could hop up to three feet despite their diminutive size of about 2 centimeters. Their direction wasn’t always forward, but sometimes more sideways.

In the end, thirteen folks hiked from my lot and the others had 12 and 9, so I’d call the first annual March Madness a success. All volunteers and staff stayed sorta warm–each finding their own way to do so.

As for me, I somehow managed to cover 7.8 miles in a small space and found myself smiling frequently as March Madness was really March Gladness.

Grasshoppers?!!!

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

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

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

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

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

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

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

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

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

Under the Bubbles

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

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

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

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

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

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

Marvels of the Meadow

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

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

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

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

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

Frog Alley

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

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

No way.

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

Crowning Glory

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

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

Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent, and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.

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

Making Sense of Scents

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

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

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

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

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

All In A Day’s Walk

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

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

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

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

My Heart Pines

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

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

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sharp Observation

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

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

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

Ghost of the North Woods

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

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

And transformed into you!

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

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

Tire’m Out Mondate

Recently someone whispered in my guy’s ear (from a moose-length away and fully masked, of course) an alternate trailhead to a small mountain we’d hoped to climb last week but avoided because there were too many vehicles. “Take a left, and then drive a mile or two down the road, and I don’t know if there is a plowed parking area,” is the way the message was relayed to me.

And so we did.

And much to our delight there was not only a small parking area that had been cleared, but also blazes painted on the trees and footsteps showing the way. We felt like we’d found the pot of gold, especially since there were a few cars at the other trailhead as we passed by.

The cool thing about the trail we followed today is that it reminded us of the walled path on our property; not wide enough to be a road, but two stonewalls indicating a previous use of the land. Maybe for cows. Maybe each farmer marking a boundary. Doesn’t matter; it made for a delightful beginning.

In a short time, we reached another wall that ran perpendicular to the two we’d walked between, though this one was intentionally made of flatter field stones. While it called to mind stonewalls in Connecticut more than Maine, given the ledge mountain upon which we hiked today, it made perfect sense that construction should be such. And gave me reason to consider a return on another day when there is no snow on the ground so I can further explore it.

For today, our focus was first on reaching the summit via this new-to-us trail that was like a walk in the park. After passing through the field stone wall, below which mixed hardwoods grew, we entered a hemlock grove and knew the summit wasn’t far off.

It was by the summit that we took a turn in order to visit the castle, a place our sons in their youth used to love to explore. We took them with us in spirit today as we played while they were in their respective cities and hard at work.

Long ago, the rocks were deposited upon this mountain top as the glaciers receded and over time weathering split them creating spaces for playmates like us to wave to each other from opposite sides.

And peek through . . .

before crawling out.

We finally moved on to the summit outlook, where our view embraced Keoka Lake to the east . . .

Bear Pond in front of lunch rock . . .

and our beloved Pleasant Mountain to the west with the ski trails at Shawnee Peak showing off their white paths.

Following lunch, we decided to hike down a different trail with hopes of eventually reaching the road and then climbing back up the main trail we’d passed by earlier. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s the way we are: crazy.

We thought we knew what we were doing as we followed a skidder trail down. After a bit, while my guy went ahead, I paused by a downed tree in search of what I might find.

The best find I made in a limited amount of scanning was a sweet, yet dried, capped mushroom.

My guy’s discovery: we’d reached an apple orchard and no trespassing signs and so much to his dismay we turned 180˚ and started back up, in hopes of finding another skidder trail to follow in a different direction.

Success greeted us eventually, though like the turkeys, we did a bit of postholing on the next route we traveled. Or perhaps we were the turkeys.

At last we reached the road as we crossed someone’s land, walked about fifty to one hundred feet down and then found the main trailhead to climb up once again.

And so up we went, though by now my guy had followed my example and donned his micro-spikes as the conditions warranted.

At the end of the day, he was tickled because he’d discovered not one . . .

but two geocaches.

When he opened the first, though the contents were in baggies, they were wet and frozen, but the second was in prime condition and we saw that our friend David Percival had signed the log this past summer.

I was happy to spend a couple of minutes searching for winter bug sites, and found the egg sac of a spider . . .

and pupating form of a bagworm moth caught in someone’s web, both discovered upon a shed as we trespassed on property that wasn’t posted.

A double red-belted mushroom also caught at least my eye.

Our best find of the day, however, was one we’ve seen before, but always brings a smile to our faces as it gives new meaning to bear tree.

It was back to the summit outlook for a Lindt candy before following the trail back to the cowpath.

Up and down, up and down with a little bit of a third up and down along way, turkey-style. No wonder they call it Mount Tire’m. To that end, my guy took a power nap on the way home. Good thing I was driving.

Special thanks to Bob Spencer for being the whisperer of trailhead information.

Funky Mondate

It seems like it’s been forever since my guy and I shared a Mondate, but truth be told we snuck away to Diana’s Bath and beyond in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a week ago and here’s a sneak peek.

We’d had snow two days prior and the lower falls of Lucy Brook showed off the force that the Lucy family had harnessed in the late 1800s to operate a saw mill.

Remnants of the mill’s foundations still exist.

Fortunately, the falls are watched over by fairy-sized snow people.

Stopping by the Upper Falls, we had memories of ice discs spinning counterclockwise, but they remained just that: memories from a Romancing the Stone Mondate two years ago. Last week, the temp was not quite as frigid so no discs formed.

Despite that, we hiked on for a couple of miles and eventually turned around to retrace our steps.

Fast forward to today and we headed off to explore two land trust properties in western Maine, the first of which we’d never traversed before. My extreme excitement upon arriving at the first was to learn that an outermost trail was named for G. Howard Dyer.

I had the pleasure of knowing Howard, who died at age 103 in 2009, when he lived at a local assisted living home where my mom also resided. He was an independent Mainer who drove a car into his late 90s and I remember his license plate: GHD. To me, it read: GOD. He’d turn into the home’s parking lot practically on two wheels, and though the old car had some dings, somehow Howard’s adventures weren’t thwarted by his age, maybe because he was GOD.

At the time that Mom lived in the same home, I volunteered to help the Activities Director one day a week and one of the things I did besides arts and crafts was create a monthly newsletter filled with recipes, poetry, songs and memories of yesteryear that the residents shared with me.

For one issue, I spent some time interviewing Howard about his life and experiences. He was a great storyteller and shared with me that over the years he’d lived in Otisfield on and off. Knowing that state law required perambulation of the town’s boundaries, in 1946 he conducted his first walk about town. Fifty-six years later, in 2002, he knew that no one had walked the boundaries in a long time. So, at 95 years of age, he decided to do it again. “Weren’t sure I could do it,” Howard told me as his eyes twinkled. “Didn’t say it to anybody.”

It took him months to complete because he’d walk here today, there tomorrow. When he finally finished the job, he told town officials. As Howard told it, they were surprised because they couldn’t get anyone to do it due to “swamps and all, you know.”

Howard’s accomplishments were included on the 2002-2004 House Appendix of the Legislative Record when he received Otisfield’s Boston Cane. “Town law required perambulation of the boundaries every ten years, and as a gift to the town, Mr. Dyer walked the 34-mile Town of Otisfield’s boundary line, once at the age of 39 and more recently at the age of 95.”

He was quite a guy and actually ten or more years ago my guy and I decided to follow his example and perambulated the boundary of our town, a section this Monday, another section the next Monday, taking a year to connect all the dots.

I was thrilled to see that Howard had been honored by having a trail named for him, and suggested to my guy that perhaps we need to consider repeating our perambulation. To which he readily agreed.

For today, however, we had other things to notice, and lately it seems no hike is complete unless a Winter Firefly can be found.

There were other insects burrowed in place and they shall remain nameless because I didn’t want to expose them any more than they already were.

My learning continued as we journeyed on and we were almost finished exploring Howard’s trail when I spied an oval shaped sawfly cocoon on a Northern Red Oak twig.

But it was the cluster of cocoons at the end of the twig that deserved even more attention. I’m 95% certain (until someone tells me otherwise) that this is the random formation of a parasitic bracinoid wasp cocoon. The question remains: who died so this structure could be created? Because that’s what these wasps do–parasitize other insects by laying their eggs upon them.

We soon left Howard’s Trail behind and moved on to tramp along another trail, where a White Oak pulled me in because the salmon color and rounded edge of the leaves always stops me in my tracks.

Because I stepped in for a closer look, the sapling honored me with the offering of what I think is an old Wooly Sower Gall, which I believe only has a relationship with this species. When first formed, it would have consisted of white wool highlighted with pink spots, but apparently it takes several years for the larvae to mature and the structure develops “horns” over time.

Lest you think I have been ignoring mammals to focus on insects, never fear–I delighted with the discovery of a large cache/midden created by a Red Squirrel.

Our journey took us beside a river that follows a crooked course through the landscape, but what always amazes me is the erosion along the edge. For how much longer will this tree stand?

As we stood on the edge ten to fifteen feet above the river, we had to wonder–how high does it get that the bank should be so eroded at this height? We never seem to visit in late winter, but maybe this year we should. Though given the current lack of precipitation, maybe this isn’t the year to gain a baseline understanding.

At last we reached the trail end, and knew it was time to turn toward home.

It had been a successful day, coming unexpectedly upon the trail named for Howard and my guy locating a winter geocache that wasn’t really a winter geocache for he had to dig through some snow to find it and the snow isn’t at all deep. Yet.

We also discovered an impressive hollowed out tree through which we just had to chat. If I were a bear in the woods . . . this would be my den. Note to self: if you ever need an out-of-the-way place to rest, remember this spot.

And we found a fun key hanging from a tree, adding icing to our funky Mondate.

Winter Bug Safari

I’m a winter gal and snow and tracks and scat and bark and buds all pull me out the door on a daily basis as I try to understand who has traveled where and why, and through what natural community the journey has been made.

But now . . . I have another reason to slip outside: Bugs. And how they overwinter. And where.

On one tramp through the woods this past week, with eyes peeled for the tiniest movement on the snow or twigs or tree trunks, I spotted the fresh work of a Pileated Woodpecker. Though I would have loved to see the bird, I was equally thrilled to see the pile of debris below the hemlock tree. (And that gorgeous magenta-colored inner bark, of course.)

The fresh wood chips on the snow invited a closer examination. And you thought this post would be about bugs. But indeed it is for it’s Carpenter Ants that the bird sought. By the two clumps of bird scat that I found, it was obvious the woodpecker had been successful.

For you see, within the cylindrical casing coated with uric acid were body parts.

Ant body parts. Now, here’s the thing that I need to learn more about. I’ve watched Pileated Woodpeckers land on trees and pause, sometimes deciding to excavate, but other times moving on. And I’ve been told that they test the tree out and listen for the ants. I’ve never been able to prove that. But here’s the thing: what I learned today is that Carpenter Ants not insulated by snow or the warmth of your home enter diapause, a low-energy state that allows them to survive the cold and go for long periods without eating. So the question remains, how does the woodpecker know which tree to pick on, or is it a lucky strike?

Further along that same trail, I came upon the prints of a horse that had stymied me a few weeks ago when I tried to mentally turn its track pattern into either a bear or a moose, knowing full well that what I was seeing didn’t quite fit what I knew to be true of those species. Horse manure would have helped, but there was none to be seen . . . until the other day when a fresh plop in the middle of the trail offered an invite to look for insects seeking minerals upon it. I saw one small fly that I couldn’t identify, but beside the manure was this Winter Cranefly. It was a brisk day and today I learned that this species is only active when the temperature is below freezing. My kind of bug, indeed.

On another day and another trail, it was a Winter Firefly that drew attention. First, fireflies are not flies; they are beetles.

Second, unlike many beetles, Winter Fireflies overwinter as adults.

Third, Winter Fireflies are diurnal and don’t have lanterns to light up the night sky.

And fourth, though I find most tucked into the bark of maple trees, the first one this week was on a hemlock. After that, it seemed to be maples upon which I found others.

As the temperatures rise bit in the next month, they’ll become more active and will be visible crawling up the tree trunks and eventually flying. By summer, you’ll see not a one but their nocturnal cousins will light up the night.

One day, it was Snow Fleas, aka Spring Tails upon lichenized bark that garned a look.

And another day, upon another crustose lichen on a maple tree, shed larval skins of possibly Twice-Stabbed Lady Beetles were visible. Kinda creepy, especially when you are looking up-close and personal with a hand lens, but oh, so cool.

And then there were the spiders, thus the reason this isn’t just an Insect Safari. This minute eight-legged creature that practically ran across the bark must have had antifreeze in its blood.

Behind another piece of bark was this slightly active crab spider . . .

and its more dormant relatives hunkered down who had probably supercooled through the process of accumulating glycols in their blood (antifreeze again). Apparently, despite the below freezing temps, their tissues remained unfrozen and they won’t become spidercicles. How in the world did spiders and other critters physiologically adapt via the antifreeze compounds so that they won’t turn to ice?

It’s all a wonder to me.

Before I finish, let me leave you with one last image. It’s some sort of beetle, I know not what. And I don’t know what is on its wings–perhaps some sort of mite or parasite? When class reconvenes again, I will ask the instructor.

I am so excited to be taking Bugs In Winter, taught by Charley Eiseman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: a Guide to North American Species. Thank you to Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood for suggesting it to me (perhaps so I’d stop sending him photos of mystery bugs and asking his advice).

The course has only just begun and a few naturalist friends are taking it with me. We have tons to learn and so I invite you to tag along cuze for the next two months I’m going to be on a Winter Bug Safari, which will then turn into Spring Bug Safari, and after that . . . you get the picture.

A Layered Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wandered today beside a muddy river,

through a Red Maple swamp,

and into a quaking bog.

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

Insect Brigadoon

So, um, we hiked today.

Along a favorite trail.

It offers a variety of terrain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prowling for Pollinators . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever so slowly . . .

it practiced . . .

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

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

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

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

I swear she smiled at me. I smiled back.

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