Needed: Minds to Wonder

Along a paved trail seemingly flat that follows a track to a vanishing point did I walk today.

It’s a place some see as desolate, but nature always has something to present and today it was signs of the season to come that drew my attention.

Hints of autumn’s hues . . .

contrasted sharply with summer’s chlorophyll-induced greens.

Redder than red winterberries bespoke the presence of a nearby male–since as a dioecious species, female flowers and male flowers grow on separate shrubs. They also signaled bird food and seasonal decorations–depending on who arrives first: Avian species or human.

Disturbed though the land is, Asters such as this Calico, invited visitors like the Paper Wasp to stop by for a sip of nectar.

Goldenrods also sent out messages and Bumble Bees RSVPed . . .

for they had baskets to fill one pollen grain at a time.

In the mix along this route of disturbed soil and gravel, there were those whose seedheads, while reminiscent of a dandelion, proved more beautiful than the Pilewort’s actual nondescript flower.

Less obvious, but no less beautiful, Wood Sorrel quietly softened the edges of the rocks upon which it grew.

Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not for its seed’s habit of springing forward when touched, had a visitor all its own whose name I wasn’t allowed to catch.

Similar in color to the Jewelweed, a Monarch butterfly filled up . . .

perhaps a last series of sips before the long journey south.

All of this color and action was observed by a Chippy, who was busy adding to his collection of goods, while his kin added their clucks to the chamber music orchestrated by grasshoppers and crickets.

The Mountain Division Trail in Fryeburg, Maine (home to the Fryeburg Fair), is hardly flat and not at all desolate–it just needs people with eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to wonder as they wander. Okay, so maybe it was desolate in terms of being deserted of people, but I kinda like it that way. As for being dismal and bleakly empty–I beg to differ.

Completing the Collection

Collect: to gather an accumulation of (objects) especially as a hobby.

Over the years I’ve collected many things from turtles to tea cups and seaglass and heart-shaped stones and tree cookies and dragonflies and books (oh my, yes have I ever collected books) and even . . . the crème de la crème: scat!

But today’s collection is one that is fleeting as the days are getting cooler and shorter and even if you feel as if this is all I’ve written about lately, it’s because the days are getting cooler and shorter and this collection will soon disappear. And then it will be time for SCAT again!

Yes, today’s collection is about insects, this being a Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly. There was a time when I couldn’t be bothered with insects because I knew them as pesky things, except for the butterflies, of course. But it was when I finally decided to take a good look at them and get to know their idiosyncrasies that I realized there’s something to admire about each and every one. Well, maybe not Black Flies or Deer Flies, but then I remind myself that they are bird and dragonfly and damselfly food, and all is okay with the world once again.

One of things I’ve learned about the natural world and this butterfly speaks to it, is just how hairy many insects and plants and even tree leaves are. In the case of a butterfly, it makes sense because it begins life as a caterpillar, often a fuzzy caterpillar. And then there are those veins in the wings. And the pattern. How in the world does a caterpillar pupate and turn into soup as it digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues?And then reorganize its cells that transform rapidly to become legs, wings, eyes and other parts of an adult butterfly? How indeed!

The next insect in my collection: the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle. Though its name is for the flower it most often frequents, it can be found on any flower. There are at least 19 species of soldier beetles in North America, but this is the only one found in the Northeast: Chauliognathus pensylvanicus.

The name “soldier” apparently comes from the fact that the first species to be identified has a color pattern that reminded someone of the red coats of early British soldiers. That’s not the case with this being.

Paying attention to details is prime in learning to ID insects. Many are look-alikes and I was sure this butterfly was a Painted Lady. Instead, she’s an American Lady, due to the fact that she features a white spot on orange located on the forewing. The Painted Lady doesn’t have such a spot.

Another insect that tickles my fancy is the Sweat Bee. I’m a goner for that iridescent green head and thorax. While Sweat Bees are common on flowers, such as this tall sunflower, they also are attracted to our perspiration and this afternoon I had one that kept approaching my bare, sweaty feet.

Keeping with the bee theme, I’m always in awe when I happen upon a Tri-colored Bee, whose name speaks of its abdominal color pattern: one band of yellow, two intense orange, another yellow and then two bands of black.

Then there’s this insect. I’ve mentioned that I can stand still and not be bombarded by Bumble Bees, but this Flower Fly that chooses to mimic a bee adds a new chapter to the story. It makes the herb garden come alive with its insistent buzzing and it likes to charge at me as if it is ferocious. Intimidating? Yes. Will it sting me? No. And so I stand my ground.

One that could sting is the Honey Bee and I try to give each one I encounter the room it needs to carry out its duties of gathering pollen and nectar. Unlike Bumble Bees, Honey Bees are not native, but then again, neither am I.

That said, I have the joy of seeing many Bumbles and learned from them that while Honey Bees seem to devote their attention to one flowering species in my neck of the woods, I’ve watched the Bumbles move from one plant to another . . .

making me think that diversity is the key to their existence.

When bees visit a particular flower in the garden, I always know it before even looking for the plant that may jiggle a bit. If you click on the link above, and turn up the volume, I hope you’ll hear what I hear that signals a Bumble Bee is in a Turtlehead. When the bee squeezes into the flower and wiggles around to try to reach the nectar at the base, it causes the front “lips” to open and close as if the flower were trying to speak or the turtle snap. As you can see, the lower lip is lined with furry hairs that probably help keep out crawling insects who might steal the nectar without pollinating the flower. The bee has to push past sterile stamen to reach the nectar and I’m not sure if the sound I hear is its wings fluttering in super-fast time or the wings rubbing against the stamen and petals. It’s a tight squeeze, but as you can see from the video, the bee gets well dusted with pollen.

Of course, no insect post of mine would be complete, without a dragonfly in the midst. That said, dragonflies don’t make it in every time, but this Autumn Meadowhawk Skimmer kept landing on several bygone Daylily stalks. I thought I could get it to walk onto my hand, but though it would let me place a finger in front of it, walking onto the finger was not going to happen today. We’ll save that adventure for another day.

Since all things must come to an end, I suspect the same will soon be true for this tattered Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly. But I rejoiced that we could spend some time together and felt I should honor it to complete my collection.

ABCs of the Garden

My garden. It’s a classroom. I’ve long been a teacher, but in this particular classroom I am the student. And I give thanks for the daily lessons. In fact, this past week, I’ve given thanks for hours on end as I’ve done my usual stalking, I mean research.

It all began when I started to circle one garden, that is hardly a work of art because I welcome all who grow there, especially several species of goldenrods, their composite flowers offering rays of sunshine on any summer day.

I knew I was in luck when I spied this flower fly . . . that wasn’t flying. That could mean only one thing.

Ambush Bugs were in the area. And indeed they were. So . . . this pair of Jagged Ambush Bugs wasn’t canoodling as some of you probably think. One of the lessons I learned is that this is a prelude to the actual event, where their bodies face each other.

While the Ambush Bugs were busy getting to know each other better on the flowers above, closer to my knees a Bumble Bee buzzed in to gather some pollen and nectar from Giant Blue Lobelia flowers. Another lesson, that gets reinforced each year, is that If one stands still for a long period of time, the bees and wasps and other insects will fly in and out and leave you alone.

And when one looks up again, you’ll discover that the male Ambush Bug was still wooing the female. He’s the smaller, darker insect on top of her. Still another lesson is that when they are in this position, and, mind you, they don’t stay still, his antennae quiver with what I interpret as excitement. I’m sure it has some more scientific meaning or purpose, like maybe he was sending out a signal to her to stay with him or to other males to stay away, but still, how fast did those antennae move.

In the same garden does Turtlehead grow, and I knew it had a visitor when I heard a loud buzz as a Bumble Bee rustled about inside. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak, minus the eyes of course.

Some say Bumble Bees exit Turtlehead head first but my experience is that they back out of the tight flower. Since this was very near the Ambush Bugs, I thought for sure they’d take a break from their canoodling preparation and try to capture a large meal.

They did not. And then when another flower fly bumped into them, I thought this would be the moment of separation. It was not. Though Ambush Bugs will feed while in this position, or at least the female might, what I observed over the course of five days is that they never did. I also noted that other insects frequently nudged them or came close to doing so, but quickly flew off. Perhaps they sensed danger?

As for the wooers, at about 6:00 on the morning after I first started stalking the goldenrods, I saw that they were still in their pre-nuptial position. At least I assumed it was the same two for it was the same spot and I’d last spotted them at about 7:00 the night before.

While it seemed all they could think about was their progeny, I kept thinking that they needed energy. There were so many options for food, from the black Midas Fly to the green Sweat Fly, but in the moments that I watched, and they were many, none of these became food.

Watching so many different species visit the flowers, I wondered if an Ambush Bug, which I knew could fly, though they seldom did, would attack in flight. But I learned that is not how they operate.

Instead, they wait. And sometimes walk about upon the flowers, perhaps in search of the right spot from which to attack. This is the female with her light colored face.

Notice her front legs, shaped as they are to capture prey, with a pincer that snaps back toward the second larger segment when in action. They remind me a bit of lobster claws.

And this is a male with his much darker suit and head. With those beady little eyes, it’s amazing that they can see insects twice or more their size. Or maybe that’s why they go for larger victims.

The more time I spent watching, the more it was reinforced that an on-the-fly capture was not going to occur. Even still, I kept encouraging such an attempt because it seemed to me that they don’t eat often.

The offerings continued to be plentiful each time I took a spin around and through the garden, but still, since first finding that skeleton of a body that started my quest to watch for more action, I hadn’t seen any evidence of a meal consumed.

And then. And then. And then, no not a meal. Well, maybe not a meal in that moment, but in flew something that I saw out of the corner of my eye and then couldn’t locate.

The Katydid’s camouflage was perfect, even better than that of the Ambush Bugs. Growing up in southern New England, I used to fall asleep to their Katydid songs, but here in western Maine I seldom see or hear one.

Back to the Ambush Bugs, another lesson I’ve learned before but that was reinforced is the fact that they don’t hang out just on Goldenrods, though their camo is certainly better on that flowerhead than on the False Dragonhead. Actually, the Ambush Bug looks more like a dragonhead than the flower does. But I can’t take credit for naming any species. Yet.

Watching the male Ambush Bug proved to be humorous for me, for he always seemed to have his back to any incoming insects such as this hover fly.

Maybe he saw the Bumble Bee approach?

But again, he turned his back on a potential meal.

Even as it drew closer.

Once the bee took off, the Ambush Bug turned again and I had to wonder if it questioned its positioning. Probably not as I’m not sure such a critter can question anything, but if I were an Ambush Bug, I’d like to think I would have done so.

Finally, on day three of my observations, I discovered a successful female. With those claw-like front legs, she’d captured her prey and pierced its body with her beak-like proboscis.

First she injected saliva into the victim’s body and paralyzed it. The fluid also broke down the interior organs and muscles, thus extending the abdomen of her prey. Then she sucked out those succulent digested innards. Yum!

It’s a process that takes time. And given her overall length of about a half inch, it’s impressive that she can take down bigger insect.

Interestingly, once I found one meal being consumed, on the same plant I began to find several.

The other curious thing was that all the predators seemed to be females. That doesn’t mean the males don’t eat, and I’ll certainly keep looking, but it was interesting to note.

Today, on that same plant, I found two meals being consumed that gave a sense that Ambush Bugs really do hide within the flowers before making their ambush. If you look closely you should spy the legs of a fly in the center, and a moth dangling on the right.

Class isn’t over, for I’ll certainly continue to observe and learn and eventually I’ll have conquered my ABCs. Or at least my ABs, thanks to the Ambush Bugs.

The Pollinator Party

The invitation is simple: Meet in the garden. All are welcome. Any time. Any day. Just come.

Enjoy the celebration . . .

White Admiral Butterfly

of life,

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

and work.

Sweat Bee

Of color,

Plain Ringlet Butterfly

texture,

Common Green Bottle Fly

and design.

Little Copper Butterfly

But really, the celebration is all about the fact that pollinators are a critical piece of our food and flower supply.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

We depend on them for a large amount of food that we need for a healthy diet. 

Great Spangled Fritillary

And they help move pollen from the male structures of flowers to the female structures, which ensures new seeds, fruits, and plants will grow. 

Thread-waisted Wasp

Likewise, these insects benefit from the plants they visit.

Viceroy Butterfly

Nectar provides carbohydrates and pollen can be a source of proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Black-tipped Ichnuemon Wasp

But many pollinators are at risk. Declining populations are due to a loss of feeding and nesting habitat, overuse of chemicals and pesticides, and changes to weather patterns.

Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly has officially been designated as endangered by the International Union of Conservation for Nature.

Great Black Wasp

In short, pollinators need us . . . and we certainly need them.

Ambush Bugs

I invite you to accept the invitation and spend time observing and appreciating; in the process you might also get to witness a couple of canoodlers.

Clouded Sulphur Butterfly

By the same token, you could happen upon one whose life has come to an end, but give thanks that it chose a beautiful spot to fall asleep forever.

Please RSVP as soon as possible: The Pollinator Party is going on NOW and it won’t last forever.

The Otherworldly Buttons

Rooted in the spongy sphagnum moss of our western Maine wetlands, a certain shrub makes its home beside Highbush Blueberries and Maleberry and Speckled Alder. It’s a shrub of lax and loose form, its multiple stems sprawling this way and interlocking that way.

I was finishing up an exploration this morning when said shrub stopped me and for the next hour I walked back and forth covering a total of maybe twelve feet that equaled about a half mile all told while admiring the scene that played out before me.

First, there were the conspicuous flowers that never cease to amaze. Dense, spherical, one-inch globes offer nature’s fireworks display in the middle of a summer day. Comprised of many creamy-white tubular flowers so closely packed into a ball, and fringed with protruding pistils that extend beyond the four anthers, the flowers remind some of a pincushion. Set against a backdrop both glossy and dark, the leaves in pairs or threes serve to highlight the fringed beauty of the inflorescence.

As insect magnets, the flowers attract many pollinators including a pair of Flower Longhorn Beetles who couldn’t resist the opportunity to canoodle among the scent so sweet.

And then I spied another, a predator who had relied on its camouflage much like the flower’s color to keep from being seen in order to ambush its prey. Sit and wait. Sit and Wait. It apparently did so until success was achieved.

As I looked about, I spied a silken thread and wondered if it belonged to the Crab Spider. This species doesn’t build webs, but uses silk to attach drop lines to vegetation just in case in the midst of fervent action while attempting to capture a meal, it slips and needs to get back into position.

In the midst of my observation, in flew a pollinator that we all need to revere for its species is endangered and I felt blessed to have seen this one. It seems only yesterday, when our sons were mere tots, (think three decades ago) that we often spotted Monarchs all over flowering shrubs in August and September. But now, we celebrate each and every one and only this morning a friend sent a photo of a Monarch caterpillar feasting on her Milkweed and so we know we are among the fortunate few to share these special sightings.

Meanwhile, back at Lunch Leaf, I stalked. When its prey was close enough, the spider grabbed it with its two front legs, the longest of its four pairs, and bit into the victim.

Meanwhile, a Bumble Bee buzzed in, gathering its fill of nectar and pollen, nectar and pollen, until it needed to return to the hive before coming back to collect some more.

Back at Lunch Leaf, venom was injected to paralyze the meal.

Next, a Dun Skipper made an entrance. Actually about three of them flitted and fluttered from one globe to another.

As for the Crab Spider, it seemed to work on positioning the meal just right.

When the Dun Skipper was positioned just right, I could see its body more clearly and loved how the proboscis stuck down into the flower’s tubular structure. With its deep tube, this inflorescence was designed for butterflies and bees.

Back at the lunch counter, another twist was made.

And atop a different flower head, a Transverse Flower Fly made an appearance, its eyes much bigger than its stomach.

It soon became obvious that prepping a meal takes much work.

The visitors upon the flowers were many and I suppose the lunch choices were as well. While I’m thrilled to have seen so many pollinators, the Crab Spider could only imagine its next meal.

As our time came to an end just after a Painted Lady flew in, I looked down to make sure I hadn’t worn out the boardwalk and I thought about all the action I’d had the honor of witnessing. Though the flowers drew in smaller insects, they are designed to attract larger bees and butterflies. The Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flowers certainly provide copious amounts of nectar and pollen that make a visit worth the effort for all who stopped by . . . Including the Crab Spider.

I gave thanks to the latter for its diet is well diversified and they are known to contribute to biological controls, but . . . unfortunately, sometimes they feed on beneficial insects like bees.

But I especially gave thanks for all the bees and butterflies who shared their feeding frenzy with me.

Time spent pacing before the satellite-shaped Buttonbush flowers is time spent enjoying an otherworldly experience.   

Understanding the Blues

Our Sunday became our Mondate and rather than hike, we went for a paddle in the tandem kayak. It was a long but fruitful paddle, though that fruit differed depending on perspective.

My blues began with the sighting of many Slaty Blue Skimmers with their burgundy brown heads, gorgeous slate blue bodies and aggressive personality once a competitor appears on the scene. A male will perch for moments on end, but when another male enters his territory, he as owner of that particular line of shorefront, zips into action, circling the intruder before giving chase. And then, as if nothing has happened, he returns to the same perch. And sits for moments on end until the next intrusion occurs.

A smaller, but equally aggressive skimmer is the Blue Dasher, who will take off after any dragonfly featuring blue pruinosity. Pruinescence is the frosted or dusty-looking coating on top of a surface and in the case of the dragonflies, some feature this as they mature.

And then there was the Bumblebee and Silver-spotted Skipper to watch as they gathered pollen and nectar from Pickerelweed, which in my mind its lilac coloration counts in the blue category.

Because we were in shallow water, there was an abundance of Swamp Spreadwing Damselflies flying and perching, their wings spread as the name suggests, much like a dragonfly, but their slender bodies and dumbbell-style eyes proving they are Zygopteras (damselflies) rather than Anisopteras (dragonflies).

While its thorax and abdomen are metallic green, its those blue-green eyes that spoke to me.

The more I looked, the more I realized that I need to spend time getting to know the damselflies a wee bit better. I knew that these two in their typical canoodling wheel position were bluets, but it took some study at home to determine that they were Familiar Bluets. And upon reading about them, I learned that copulation lasts about twenty minutes and then they remain together in tandem as she tests sites to lay eggs. She actually goes underwater to lay her eggs upon stems while he releases her and waits, hoping to reattach before moving to a new egg-laying site, though she doesn’t always allow him to do such.

The Skimming Bluet was my next great find, but again, I didn’t know its name at the time. This is one of only two species of bluets where the abdomen terminates with black appendages below segments 8 and 9, which are blue. The other is the Turquoise Bluet, which prefers a stream habitat. Here’s hoping I remember that fact.

While the American Bluets, the largest and most numerous genus of damselflies, are named for their bright blue coloration, not all have this color pattern. Some bluets are actually orange, red, yellow, green or black.

The Orange Blue actually begins life as a pale blue damselfly, but gradually turns orange like this one that landed on the kayak. It stayed perfectly still for quite a while, so I thought I’d channel my inner damselfly whisperer self and offer it a finger. This works for some dragonflies, but I can’t recall a damsel ever taking a ride until this one climbed aboard much to my delight.

We spent a long time getting to know each other. I was quite taken with the orange occipital bar that connected its two eyespots and had a bit of a chevron shape.

I’m sure it found something about me to admire as well. As we looked at each other, in flew one of many Deerflies. I still have a few welts to attest to their abundance. My great hope was that the damselfly would decide to do me a favor and eat the Deerfly.

Granted, the Deerfly was quite robust. And eventually flew off without the Orange Bluet giving it any notice, which should have been a bit of foreshadowing I didn’t know how to read at the moment.

Twice I put O.B. back on the boat and the second time was as we started for home. He seemed a bit sluggish.

As we moved around a bend and the wind picked up he took cover and slipped down out of the breeze. Eventually, he dropped onto my leg, and I’m sad to say, died. Damselflies have a short lifespan–living between two and four weeks. I was sad to say goodbye, but trust that he had done his duty and I’ll meet future generations of the bluet that in adulthood isn’t blue. Given that, however, he is easy to ID in the field.

And as luck would have it, a few minutes later I spotted a newly-emerged damselfly waiting for its wings to dry and pumping its bug blood back into its body. Life circles about in the aquatic world.

As for my guy, he often departed the kayak ferry and went in search of his own favorite shade of blue. He found some favorite bushes missing due to the fact that the local beavers built a new home and needed construction materials. But still, he found plenty and left plenty for others, including the birds and other critters who eat blueberries.

We were together, but each understood blue in our own manner. It was a perfect Sunday Mondate.

Getting Inside a Dragonfly’s Head

First they transform from aquatic macro-invertebrates into flying insects. And then they perform flight rituals that include snagging a meal and mating. Dragonflies, as many of you know, absolutely amaze me.

And today, that amazement reached a new level.

For today, I took a closer look at the compound eyes of my favorite insects. I know from reading and listening to others, that large dragonfly eyes consist of 30,000 lenses . . .

each an individual light-sensing structure, but . . .

whenever I study them in situ, though I’m completely wowed by their colors . . .

and the arrangement of eyes that helps with identification . . .

always it seems, the eyes are splotchy with some areas glowing and others a slightly different hue.

Do you see what I mean? Dark blue-gray above and almost a streak of whiteness in this Ring-tailed Emerald, followed by another shade of blue-gray below?

And have you ever noticed that dragonfly eyes wrap around almost the entire head? The thing is, an insect can’t move its eyes like we can so it needs a different adaptation . . .

in the form of hexagon-shaped structures that sense light and are known as the ommatidium or those 30,000 lenses per eye. Can you see the hexagons? Each ommatidium is much longer than it is wide. The ommatidium narrows as it leads to the brain as I’ve learned from How Insects Work by Marianne Taylor. She states: “Each ommatidium is topped with a cornea and a crystalline pseudocone, which acts as a focusing lens, directing light into the rhabdom, a long, narrow, and transparent structure at the center of the ommatidium. It contains photosensitive pigments that respond to certain wavelengths of light. The rhabdom is formed by the combined inner parts of (usually) eight specialize nerve cells–photoreceptors. When the rhabdom’s pigments undergo chemical change in response to light, these cells send a nerve impulse to the brain. The ommatidium also contains six pigment cells, which absorb light that strikes the cornea at an indirect angle. This ensures that the photoreceptors only receive light that passes through the cornea directly . . . what the compound eye “sees” is, as far as we can tell, a scene formed by an array of colored specks (including, in some cases, ultraviolet “color”), each speck contributed by an individual ommatidium. In dragonflies, there are enough specks to form a detailed picture, but in insects with fewer ommatidia the compound image has little detail.”

Here’s a look inside the head of a dragonfly from a specimen I’d collected after it died two years ago. What I didn’t realize until today was that the head had fallen off the thorax because its such a delicate creature once dried. But . . . that was great news because it gave me an opportunity to see more. I thought you might like to do the same. Though we can’t really get inside a dragonfly’s head, we can certainly enjoy the view of the backside.

Worth a wonder!

Be Present in the Moment

Wandering,

as I so love to do,

found me beside a brook

in the late afternoon

as spring prepares

to give way to summer.

A burst of sudden movement

caught me by surprise,

enhanced especially

because something skittered

across the water

toward me

in a manner

unlike its shy parents.

We spent a few moments together,

the young Wood Duck and me,

as I whispered hello,

and it answered with a squeaky whistle,

before skittering

back across the water’s surface

toward the safety

of the opposite shore.

Because I was standing so still,

another who favors

this riparian habitat

flew in

and I was offered

a few pleasurable moments

to enjoy the beauty

of a male Yellow Warbler.

Finally finding motivation

to continue my journey,

I was stopped in my tracks

when by my feet

I discovered

a patch of sundews

growing in a place

I’ve visited many times

but before this moment

never spotted

them hiding quietly

below ferns

where they could carry out

their stealth carnivorous activities

in an inconspicuous manner.

Back on the path

embellished with the

flowering structures

of Maple-leaf Viburnum,

the fervent behavior

of Long-horned Flower Beetles

drew my attention

as two canoodled

in the midst

of so many others

conducting a pollinator dance.

A brief bushwhack

found me staring into

the remains of

an ephemeral vernal pool

that only a week ago

teemed with

thousands of tadpoles,

but now in

its puddle-size

bubbled with those

who hoped for

a quick metamorphoses,

or at least,

that was my hope

for them.

Beside the brook again,

my heart quickened

once more

as I suddenly realized

I was staring into

the richest of porcelain blue eyes.

That I could recall

we’ve met only

once before,

but in this very same spot,

which will forever

be known as

the Lilypad Clubtail Dragonfly

meeting spot.

Upon a different shrub

a few feet away,

another flew in

and asked to be recognized

by the color

of its face

and markings upon

its abdomen,

but it was

the glossy wings

that made me realize

I was greeting

a not-long emerged

Belted Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly.

Finally making my return

along the same path,

a sight that had

eluded me earlier

now asked to be acknowledged

and I couldn’t help

but think

how much a

Beaked Hazelnut

resembles the body

of a dragonfly.

As my wander

drew to a close

and evening set in,

I was honored

one last time

with the first view

this year

of a tiny skimmer

with big personality

as expressed

by its colors and patterns

including the red hearts

along the abdomen

of this, a male Calico Pennant.

To say I went forth

without expectation

would be wrong

for I fully expected

to spy some cranes

or a beaver at work,

and certainly the resident moose

who keeps tempting me

with its tracks,

but to encounter

the unexpected

reminds me to be

grateful and present

in each moment.

On this occasion I was.

Making Everything Count

On May 21, 2022, My Guy and I hiked Albany Mountain Trail in the White Mountain National Forest on a reconnaissance mission. Ours was to note the number of Lady’s Slippers either in bloom or prepping to do so because it was May 24, 2021 that we last counted blossoms. On the 21st of this year none were in bloom, and honestly, we only spotted 21 plants.

And so we returned this afternoon, which found us enjoying Raspberry Bars baked by Fly Away Farm while sitting upon dessert bench at the summit.

On the way up, however, we did keep track of the Pink Lady’s Slippers, including this one that featured last year’s seed capsule.

Occasionally there were spots such as this, where a bunch showed off their lovely moccasins.

But our perennial favorite is the bunch of ten. It’s such a favorite that when we encountered another making his descent, My Guy suggested he hike back up about a quarter mile with us to see this display. He was grateful that we’d shared this special find with him.

But it wasn’t just Lady’s Slippers to note for when we last climbed up two weeks ago, the mosquitoes and black flies were thicker than thick and we practically ran down to finish the route as quickly as possible. Today, there were a few, but it was hardly notable and we gave great thanks to dragonflies such as this male Common Whitetail Skimmer for patrolling the territory.

We found two others on patrol, these being Garter Snakes. I really wanted to stay and watch their movements, for I suspected that the one toward the top was the larger female and the lower one might be a male, but My Guy had Lady’s Slippers on his mind and standing to watch a couple of snakes didn’t tickle his fancy.

And so we moved on, leaving the slitherers to their own intentions without interruption.

But the real star of the show (don’t tell the Lady’s Slippers) was the beaver. You see, there is a dam about a half mile in that hikers must cross to access the rest of the trail and the last few years it has been a bit easier. But this year . . . things have been different and today we met the engineer who made it so.

He was hard at work making repairs when we first came to the dam and we had to time our crossing accordingly.

We watched him as he watched us, sure that he’d slap the surface with his tail in an effort to tell us to move on. Surprised were we when he did not.

Once on the other side, when we encountered the first group of hikers making their way down, we mentioned the beaver. They hadn’t seen it upon their ascent but their group of seven said they may have been the reason for its need to work for apparently they’d messed the dam up a bit as they crossed. It’s not an easy thing to do–the crossing that is.

Upon our own descent we looked about as we reached the dam and tada, there he was swimming away.

And then we got the message–a tail slap! A statement, indeed.

A bit muddier for the experience, we both made it back across as quickly as possible.

And gave great thanks for the opportunity to make everything count.

Lady’s Slippers: 2020: 150; 2021: 47; 2022: 266!!!!

Dragonflies: Never enough, but love how many we saw.

Garter Snakes: 2

Beaver: 1

And as My Guy noted: 266 Lady’s Slippers today + 286 Lady’s Slippers at Overset Mountain on Monday = 552 this week!

But who’s counting?

A Whisperer’s Mondate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Fly or Not to Fly?

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

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

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

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

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

In no time, it seemed, there were dragonflies everywhere. Well, not everywhere for I traveled several trails and realized that those who were emerging tended to be near stiller waters. The Common Baskettail, as this species is known, is a member of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds). Unlike other Emerald family members, baskettails lack the green eyes, though as they age the color does change. But they make up for it by being super hairy. As a naiad, the hair apparently traps tiny pieces of debris, thus hiding it from predators in the muck. In its adult form, the hair serves as a spring jacket, holding in heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Another Boring Mountain Mondate

No need to read on. You know it will be photos of today’s finds. Ho hum.

Our day began as it always does, with a shared piece of CraftonMain Lemon Meringue Pie topped with a raspberry, while we sat and watched this pair enjoy a meal of their own. Wait. We don’t always begin with the pie–but sure wish we could. Cardinals, however, have been blessing us with their appearance for years.

And then there was the sighting of the neighborhood fox in the field beyond our stonewall; it had its eyes on the neighbor’s dogs while we had our eyes on it. Don’t worry, the dogs didn’t become breakfast. In fact, as their mistress began to walk toward the fox (we don’t think she spied it, nor did the dogs or they would have given chase), the fox turned and dashed across the field, over another stonewall and into our woodlot.

At last, it was time to begin our hike along a trail we haven’t visited since August 2019. Our intention had been to climb it in 2020, but during the first year of the pandemic, it was closed and then we never considered it . . . until this morning. And as we started up, I remembered . . . this is the mountain where the Early Saxifrage grows.

 It’s also known as rockbreaker for its habit of cleaving to the rocks, and perhaps suggested the Latin name–Saxifraga virginiensis. Saxum-rock and frangere-to break.

A funny name for such a diminutive and delicate display.

Round-leaved Violet with its scalloped-rimmed leaves more heart shaped than its name suggests also grew along the trail. Spying these tiny offerings of yellow with those incredible magenta runways meant to attract pollinators always brings a smile as if they were meant to brighten the day of all who hike this way.

Our journey found us enjoying the sound of the water’s rhythm as we climbed higher . . .

and contemplating each step once we turned away from the brook.

At the summit, the view from lunch rock included a look to the southeast where the sky predicted the forecast of a front moving in.

Meanwhile, our hometown mountain stood out in the sun.

But the grand lady, Mount Washington, was starting to disappear into the clouds.

It was windy and a bit chilly at the summit, but that didn’t stop the Brown Elfin butterfly from flirting with a few others where the blueberries grow.

I also spotted one Spring Azure. Both are rather small butterflies and if you look closely, you might spot that their antennae are patterned white and black.

On the way down, we did what we often do–looked for bear claw trees because we know they exist here. And because I know such an activity will slow my guy down. 😉 Bingo. He spotted one that was new to us.

I went in for a closer look and couldn’t believe all the marks on display.

And so I began to circle around the trunk.

One can only imagine the crop of Beech Nuts this tree must have offered.

But enough is enough. It’s just another bear claw tree, after all. Nothing to write home about. Or is it? Think about the bear and the blueberries the Brown Elfin Butterfly will help pollinate and the Beech Nuts the trees will produce and all the connections that will be made, which will include the Cardinals and the Red Fox and the flowers and all that is part of the forest. And be wowed like us. It was hardly just another boring mountain mondate on Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine.

Peering Into The Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Signs

Make each mind-filled step count as it presents reminders of wonder . . .

whether beside rushing waters that nourish with sight and sound,

or along mountain ledges where one is reminded that gravity holds us down.

Admire first the Trailing Arbutus as you drop to a knee to take in the sweet scent of spring enclosed within its delicate petals.

Don’t overlook the tiny fly seeking nourishment from Coltsfoot, pollinator at work upon a flower whose modified leaves give it an otherworldly appearance.

Notice the wee fiddleheads rising up beside Polypody ferns,

their hairy crosiers so minute that if you don’t search under leaves and moss, you’ll surely miss them.

Let the Eastern Comma Butterfly entertain as it dances up and down a forest trail,

occasionally pausing to allow onlookers to spot the tiny white comma, for which it was given its name, on its hind wing.

Let the past also astound in the form of last year’s Ghost Pipe flower appearing now as an intricate woody capsule.

Consider the American Beech with its canopy a bit askew, especially when compared to its neighbors.

And then gaze down the trunk until claw marks left behind years ago by a very hungry Black Bear make themselves visible.

Look with awe at the granite so evenly and naturally sliced and delight in the hues once hidden within now on view.

Embrace the panorama from a windswept summit where turbines producing energy define a nearby ridge line.

See also the old mill town that continues to produce paper products from its location nestled among mountains.

Note also the bronze geological monument used by surveyors since 1879 for mapping purposes as our forebears laid stake to the land that we can never truly claim.

And on the way home, don’t forget to take a few steps toward the barn that features memories of the past.

Try to make time to be present in the moment and see the wonders of life that surround us. Be awakened by reading the signs and not just whizzing by, no matter how or where you travel across the Earth.

Recipe for Early Spring Pie

Preheat your outdoor oven to 55˚ Fahrenheit or so.

Prepare several mixing bowls that include wetland scenes.

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

A brook for another.

And maybe even a stream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top with the sky blue reflection of a local river.

Use a Painted Turtle shell to store your concoction.

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

and dive in quickly with forked tongue.

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

Bon Appétit!

Dear Mr. Pileated

Dear Mr. Pileated,

I’ve been meaning to thank you for serving as our morning rooster all these years. In a couple of months, as the days dawn earlier than on the cusp of this vernal equinox, I know my guy will curse your call, but I admire your tenacity to return morning after morning and practice your drum roll on a snag by the stone wall closest to our bedroom.

Your sounding board of choice resonates with each strike of your beak and I’m sure the volley of taps, sounding like someone is rapping on the back door, can be heard at least a half mile away.

What is amazing to me is that you have the ability to tap at all. But I’ve learned that your tongue actually wraps around your skull, thus dissipating and directing the energy around the brain. Plus, you have a sponge-like bone positioned in the fore and back of your skull to absorb much of the force from the repeated impact of constantly hammering against wood. 

After several rounds of repetition, you take a break and stretch your neck away from the snag . . .

and sway your head . . .

in a 45˚ arc, a movement known as a bill wave. It seems to serve two purposes: as an announcement of your territory to another of your kind; or a message to the one you are trying to woo with hopes she’ll accept a date.

Of course, in the mix of all this action, you also make time to preen. After all, should a mistress fly in, you need to look handsome–an easy task on your part.

I’ve read that your territory ranges from 150 – 200 acres and give thanks that we live in an area that satisfies your needs and those of your kin.

In winter, your feeding trees are easy to spot, either by the oblong holes chiseled into the tree trunks . . .

or piles of wood chips at the base of a tree, providing a contrast with the snow.

I love it when you even rework a hole you’d started when the tree was standing. So many don’t realize that it’s not unlike you to use your tail as a third leg like a stool and stand on the ground to seek the goodness within.

When the opportunity to watch you work presents itself, I take it and stand silently below while you chip away.

What I can’t see is your method of feeding, as you pursue the tunnels of carpenter ants and snag them with your long, barbed tongue covered as it is with a sticky solution that works rather like tacky glue.

BUT, one of my great joys, as some know, is searching among the chips you’ve excavated to discover if your feeding efforts were successful. Yes, Mr. Pileated, I actually feel well rewarded when I discover packets of scat you defecated. While we humans get rid of waste nitrogen as urea in our urine, which is diluted with water, I have come to realize that you cannot fly with a full bladder and therefore must dispose of uric acid, plus the indigestible parts of your meals in combination via the cloaca or vent located under your tail. Knowing this helps me locate your scat because I first look for the white coating, which is the uric acid, and then I spy the exoskeletons of the ants that you feed upon in winter located inside the cylinder.

Sometimes, your scat doesn’t make it all the way to the ground, but rather lands on a branch below your foraging site.

Of course, it’s great fun when others are present, to whip out my scat shovel and scoop some up so they may take a closer look.

I did that just yesterday with a group of students, some of whom fully embraced the experience, which also gladdened my heart.

Another thing I love to spot as a result of your foraging efforts, sir, is the winter coloration of sap that flows from Eastern White Pine trees you’ve excavated. In warmer weather, the sap is amber in color, but there must be some winter chemistry that I do not understand, which turns it shades of violet and blue.

Oh so many shades of blue. And once blue, it doesn’t seem to regain the amber hue, at least from what I’ve seen. But then again, somewhere in this world, there’s one that does. Or many more than one.

Noticing the droplets of fresh sap yesterday, I decided to take a closer look, and spied not only spring tails stuck to its sticky surface, but also a small winter crane fly that will be forever suspended . . . unless something comes along for a snack.

When I checked this morning, it was still stuck in place.

As I complete this letter to you, Mr. Pileated, I once again want to express my appreciation for your part in this world, for creating nesting sites that others, such as small songbirds, may use, and how you help the trees in the forest by contributing to their decomposition, for as much as some think that you and your kin are killing the trees, the trees are already dying due to insect infestations, and your work will eventually help them fall to the ground, add nutrients to replace what they had used, and provide a nursery upon which other trees may grown.

And I want my readers to know that your bill waving has paid off for this morning as I watched and listened to you, in a quick turn you flew off giving your Woody Woodpecker call as you sailed away and in flew your date. She landed on the same snag you always use, gave a few taps of her own, preened for a moment or two, and then she also turned and headed in the direction you had taken, and I can only hope that the two of you have been foraging together ever since.

Oh, and that if there are any offspring from this relationship, you’ll name your first born for me.

Sincerely yours,

wondermyway.com

P.S. BP, this post is dedicated to you. Hugs from your non-hugging friend.

Happy 7th Birthday to you, wondermyway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invitation Stands

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

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

But . . . this spring will be different.

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

Whispers Along The Trail

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

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

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

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

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine.

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

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

Our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond. I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak.

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

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

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

The Saga of a Vernal Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consumed by Cicadas

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

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

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

Not Just An Insect

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

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

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

A Collection of Mondates

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Maine

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

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

Pondering the Past at Pondicherry Park

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

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

Following the Circle of Life

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

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

Good Hair Mondate

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

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

The Duck’s Tale

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

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

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

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

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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

Ever A Sense Of Wonder

I thought I was losing it. Wonder, that is. I’ve hiked or walked many miles, taken thousands of photos, but haven’t been overly wowed by much lately.

This weekend, though, that all changed.

Maybe it was the fact that a friend and I spent a bluebird, yet brisk Saturday snowshoeing many miles as we tracked a couple of local mammals.

There were porcupine dens to explore. Well, not actually crawl into because we didn’t know who might decide to crawl out. We discovered two new ones that were obviously in use, but visited this older stump dump and found no one at home. Why? It had all the makings of a nice condo. Lots of room available, hemlocks growing right out the back door, beside a field with other offerings for a summer diet. Don’t you just want to move in?

We did discover other abodes that showed signs of life with tracks leading to the inner chambers.

How many inner chambers was the next question. Atop this much larger stump dump we counted at least seven holes coated with hoar frost around the edges–leading us to believe someone was breathing within. Did that mean there were seven porcupines living in this den? Do you know what a group of porcupines who share the same winter den, but sleep in their own bedrooms, is called? A prickle of porcupines. Don’t you love that?

By the amount of tracks, we couldn’t tell how many actually lived there, but in the fresh layer of snow we did note that at least one had gone outside to eat the previous night for we followed its tracks for a bit.

It also had visited another den, and by the amount of scat, it was obvious that this wasn’t the first day in a new house.

The porcupines weren’t the only ones we were interested in. For miles and hours, we also tracked a bobcat who’d paid a visit the previous night. Would we find evidence of what it had eaten? A kill site where a prey was attacked? Scat?

We knew by the fact that the bobcat track was atop the turkey prints that this bird lived to see another day.

The same was true for the squirrels that managed to avoid being consumed by the predator overnight as they huddled somewhere close by. But the bobcat apparently didn’t catch a whiff of their scent, though the former did check out holes by stumps and snags.

Sometimes we noticed that the cat picked up speed and we were sure we’d find the reason.

And then . . . and then it would pause and we did too. When the bobcat led us back out to the road we’d traveled on, and crossed to the other side, we knew our time with it had come to an end but enjoyed the journey, though still had questions. Did we miss a kill/feeding site?

We had noted an abundance of food available, much of it in the form of the squirrel or hare. This is my snow lobster, as I’ve mentioned in the past and love how the front feet, being the smaller two prints, land on a diagonal and form the lobster’s tail, while as they lift up to leap forward, the hind feet land in such a way that they appear in the front of the set to form the lobster’s claws. And I’m reminded that for ground dwellers like the hare, the front two feet tend to land on a diagonal, while for tree dwellers like the squirrels, whose front feet also appear smaller and at the back of the set of prints, are most often parallel.

That was yesterday. Today dawned with a sleet storm. When I ventured out the back door this afternoon, I noticed again an abundance of hare prints, these the larger set in the photo while the smaller ones belong to a red squirrel. When I said an abundance of food, these are two of the many choices and this year the hare is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I find it hopping through communities I’ve not seen it in the recent past. Certainly the bobcat of yesterday will or did find one–we just didn’t stumble upon it.

After spending so much time tracking, a favorite winter activity of mine, I finally turned my focus to trees, another passion. I was actually looking for insects, but fell for this solid droplet of balsam resin that looked rather like a bug. I would love to see the colors of the dribble repeated in yarn.

Then there was the ice that mimicked the shield lichen attached to a branch of the fir.

At last I did find an insect. Well, at least the left-behind structure of a sawfly–where it had pupated and then once ready to emerge, cut its perfect circular escape hatch. How to remember this insect: think of it as a circular saw-fly.

And attached atop the pupating case–what looked like another insect pupating. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to name its species, but I thrilled in spotting it.

Bark is cool, but especially when you begin to notice all the idiosyncrasies of life upon it, such as the fruiting disks of a couple of crustose lichens, but one of my favs is the braid-like formation of the liverwort Frullania. It has brown leaves divided into two lobes. Liverworts are cool because they are flowerless and lack roots and reproduce via spores. Frullania is abundant upon bark, but unless you slow down and look, you may not ever spy its spiderwebby structure.

Speaking of spying, yesterday’s brilliant sun shone upon the hairy twigs of paper birch, another sight easy to overlook.

Today’s natural community found me tramping through an area where gray birch, with their bumpy, hairless twigs, grow.

How did these two members of the same family develop such differences? I think about that and how it is true of all in the natural world. Maybe the hairs don’t appear in exactly the same line-up and the bumps are more or less bumpy on another twig, but they all are variations on the same theme. Mammals are like that as well. And flowers. And ferns . . . and well, everything. We can learn to ID them because generally they share the same characteristics from one dandelion to the next. But . . . what about us? As humans, there are familial similarities, but very few of us look exactly like another. Though perhaps somewhere in the world we all have a twin we’ve yet to meet. Alas, I’ve rambled on enough.

It all boils down to the bush clover–a species my friend Pam and I first met at Brownfield Bog a couple of falls ago and recognized almost immediately when we discovered it in a field in Stow, Maine, before encountering our first porcupine condo yesterday. Today, she informed me in a text message that a year ago we met it in the same field, and we shared a chuckle that neither of us had a memory of that moment. Uh oh.

But I was reminded this morning that it’s important to go forth with a child-like attitude, finding awe in all that we see and encounter and I realized then that I’ve been too busy lately to slow down and really look.

Here’s hoping I can ever renew and enjoy that sense of wonder and that you can as well.

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Thanks to Evan Miller at Lake Region Television, wondermyway is on TV once again. For this program, Evan added music by pianist Abbey Simon.

Settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII

Clicking on the photo won’t pull up the video, so be sure to click on the link above the photo.

May this bring you some moments of well being and peace.

Hardly Hard to Find

A few years after the Town of Bridgton, Maine, incorporated, William Peabody of Andover, Massachusetts, built a house for his bride, Sally Stevens. The large, two and a half story building with a center chimney, was surrounded by over 200 acres of fields and forest upon which they grew crops, raised livestock, and created maple syrup, butter, and cheese.

In 1823, William and Sally’s fourth daughter, Mary, married George Fitch of Sebago, Maine, and about 1828 the Fitches took over the workings of the hilltop farm, said to be the highest cultivated land in Cumberland County. Thus, within the house lived Mary’s parents, three of her younger siblings, plus the Fitches and their growing family. To accommodate all, George added an ell with a new kitchen, larder, pantry, and two bedrooms. He also built an attached shed and carriage house.

After George Fitch died in 1856, the property stayed in the family but over time declined significantly in value. By the mid-1930s, the farm had fallen into disrepair and the Town of Bridgton put a lien on it for back taxes.

A friend who owned property nearby informed the recently widowed Margaret M. Monroe of Providence, Rhode Island, about the South Bridgton house. Margaret saw through the deficiencies and fell in love with the entryway and carriage house. Really, she fell in love with the entire place and purchased it not only to preserve its original elements, but also to serve as a summer and holiday retreat for her family.

In 1987, upon Margaret’s death, the property she’d long ago named Narramissic, loosely translated to mean “Hard to Find,” because she and her late husband had long searched for a Maine property to purchase, was bequeathed to the Bridgton Historical Society (BHS). Over the years, through staff and volunteer hours, donations, and grant monies, BHS has worked to restore the farmhouse and outbuildings and host various events.

In the 1990s, for his Eagle Project, Boy Scout Adam Jones created a blue-blazed trail to a quarry on land beyond the upper field that remained in possession of Peg Monroe Normann, Margaret’s daughter. In 2020, Loon Echo Land Trust purchased and conserved the 250-acre Normann property that surrounds BHS’s Narramissic farmstead on three sides and appropriately named it Peabody-Fitch Woods. (Much of the above was copied from my article about the partnership between the two organizations that was published in Lake Living fall/winter 2020)

The two organizations, BHS and LELT, have worked diligently since then to create a new gravel pathway with manageable slopes built to universal standards that winds past the house and barn and through the woods. And so I began my afternoon walk there and was thrilled not only to spy some thistle in bloom beside the trail, but a bumblebee in frantic action upon it.

A little further along, while admiring the colors by my feet, I was equally wowed by the pattern of work an insect had created on a folded Witch Hazel leaf.

Inside, and forgive the blurry photo for I was trying to hold the leaf open with one hand and snap the photo with the other, was a minute leafhopper . . . an herbivore known to suck plant sap.

Having seen the thistle and insects, my heart was singing. I tried to go forth without expectation, but once I reached the grassy lane leading to the Quarry Loop, I knew to search and was again rewarded for there I found several Purple Milkworts still in bloom.

And then at a fence post that separates the hiking trails from the ATV/Snowmobile trail, I searched again for it’s a place I often find insects. Bingo. A firefly scrambled about. This is one of the diurnal species that doesn’t actually light up.

Across from the fence was a new sign post and much to my surprise: a new trail. Before LELT acquired the property, the blue trail followed the motorized vehicle trail for a ways and then an old road to a quarry.

At that time, this was the only known quarry on the property.

Spaced about six inches apart are the drill marks made by the Peabodys or Fitches and perhaps hired hands. Using the plug and feather method practiced in the 19th century, small holes were hand drilled every six or seven inches across the stone. Then two shims, called feathers, were placed in the hole and a wedge or plug was hammered between them. By drilling in the winter, ice forming in the holes would have helped complete the work of splitting the granite. The split stone would have been loaded onto a stone boat or sledge pulled by oxen.

Because he was exploring the land more closely, a couple of years ago LELT Stewardship Manager Jon Evans discovered more quarries on the hillside that the public can now explore by following the loop through the woods. It’s a place where I always make fun discoveries including the antennaed pine needle shield lichen–a rare species for sure.

All of the quarries have something to offer, but I must admit I’m rather partial to #2.

For starters, it’s the largest.

But what I find intriguing is that it features hand drilled holes . . .

and those that are much deeper and wider and must have been mechanically drilled. There’s also a long pile of stone slabs that flow down the hill below the quarry and toward the old Narrow Gauge Train route and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a relationship between the train and quarry. We know the train brought coal to mills along Stevens Brook, but did it perhaps bring split stone for some of the foundations?

Moving on toward the next quarry, I was startled by the next find: blueberry flowers. This just shouldn’t be and speaks to the warm temperatures we’ve been experiencing this October. The leaves have turned and are falling, but it hardly feels like autumn.

At quarry #3 a couple of red squirrels scolded me, but try as much as I did, I couldn’t locate them.

Here, the hand-drilled holes were about twelve inches apart, and I wondered why that was the case.

At #4, all was quiet.

But it was obvious that even acorns can be drilled . . . albeit by rodent teeth. I loved that this dinner table was between slabs.

The final quarry, #5, did make me wonder. Is this the last one? Or are there more on the hillside waiting to be recognized?

As I followed the trail back to the stick part of the lollipop loop, I was amused to spy an apple upon a rock, much like a trail cairn. A feast intentionally left for the critters? Not a habit one should get into, but I’m almost curious to return and see what remains.

Finally, I reached the grassy lane once again and followed it back toward the gravel path.

One of my favorite things about the gravel path created by Bruce and Kyle Warren of Warren Excavation, is that they cut out periodic openings where one can glimpse the farmstead from different angles.

Upon my return, I had to visit the foundation of the barn and wonder which quarry offered its stones. Perhaps some from here and others from there.

Back at the house, I gave thanks for those who had come before and those who are here now to share the storied past. This is a place where anyone can wander and wonder and even bring a picnic and sit a while.

My only sadness came in the form of the cut Witch Hazel that had graced the corner of the house–it was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and each fall offered a plethora of ribbony flowers. My hope is that it will spring forth once again and in time do the same.

At last it was time for me to take my leave, and though I had hoped to see the mountains, they were shrouded in clouds. But that was okay because the foliage lining the lower field was enhanced by the dark clouds.

If you have time, and it need not take the three hours that I spent there, do visit Narramissic and Peabody-Fitch Woods located on Narramissic Road in South Bridgton, and enjoy the grounds and trails. It’s a place that is now hardly Hard to Find. Each time I go I come away with something different to add to my memory bank of this special place.