The Secrets of Life Found Among the Dead

Dear Mr. Charles,

In 1882 you passed
from this life to the next,

but it appears
that your story
didn’t end there.

Today was the day
that in your nymph stage,
you chose
to emerge
from your underground burrow
where the sap
of plant roots
had sustained you
for several years.

While I walked about
and noticed
other forms of life
taking place within
the fenced land,

such as Robberflies
canoodling in their
tail-to-tail fashion,

and a Chipmunk
who made me think
the dead were walking
until I saw it
checking on me,

I also spotted
the larval skins
left behind by
many of your kin

who had chosen
a nearby tree trunk
and surrounding ground
for such a transformation.

Their thickened legs
spoke of the digging
your species endures
while in that
subterranean habitat.

You, however,
preferred your stone
for metamorphosis.

Ever so slowly
through a split
along your back,

your body,
pale-colored at first,
extended outward.

Large and chunky
with bulbous,
yet beady eyes,

and long,
thick-veined
and translucent wings,

you looked like
something out
of a sci-fi movie.

Hues of salmon.
pale green.
and aquamarine.

At first
your coloration
reminded me
of a pastel painting,

but over time
it became apparent
that your palette
changed with maturity

and eventually
looked more like
a camouflaged adult
who will spend time
in the nearby tree.

Left behind
was an empty shell
of your former self.

Our time together
came to an end
after periodic checks
over the course
of three hours.
I suspect by now
you’ve flown
to a tree
in search
of a mate.
The resulting eggs
will be laid
on a branch,
and your story
will come
to an end
once again,
Mr. Charles.
But never fear,
for the next generation
will carry on
the circle of life
as the larvae hatch
and fall to the ground,
where they’ll burrow
into the earth beneath
or somewhere very near
your resting place
before resurfacing
as young nymphs
ready as you were
to burst forth from
their exoskeletons
three years from now.

Thank you
for allowing me
to watch
on this day
as you shared
the secrets of
a Cicada’s life
while I wandered
among the dead

.

Blame it on the Monarchs

Some days I head out the door with eyes as big as those of a fly and then I try to stand in one place and watch what might pass by.

Unfortunately, I’m not always as patient as a robberfly and soon find myself pacing in search of the next great sight.

Even when it turns out to be a Japanese Beetle munching on a leaf, I’m not totally disappointed. After all, it does have such an incredible sense of color and fashion.

But what I really hoped to see I suddenly became aware of as first one, then two, three, four and even more Monarchs fluttered in their butterfly way, seeming to glide for a bit and then make an almost apparent decision to land before a change of mind until at last . . . upon the Milkweed it did pause.

Curious thing. So did another Japanese Beetle. That led me to wonder: how will these two get along and negotiate the territory?

The Monarch poked its straw-like proboscis into the heavenly-scented flowers as it sought sweetness while the beetle continued to move toward it.

But the beetle was on a mission of its own and the two seemed to co-exist side by side.

In fact, they were practically oblivious of each other. Unlike when a Common Yellowthroat tried to land and the Monarch chased it away.

Finally the butterfly crossed over to another flower on the tall stem and left the beetle behind.

I moved on as well, in search of others to focus on like the female Ruby Meadowhawk Dragonfly. How can it be that it’s already Meadowhawk season, the late bloomers in my book of dragonflies?

And yet, the colors of summer today included not only the pinks of Steeplebush, but also the yellows of goldenrods beginning to blossom.

Mixed into those colors and because of their movement and then moments of pausing, the Monarchs kept tugging at the strings of my heart and pulling me back into the moment.

And in that real time moment, I had the pleasure of spying couples in their canoodling fashion, though they tended to be much more elusive than some insects. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought the female was dead as the male flew along with her dangling below until he landed on a stem of choice. From what I’ve read, their mating can take up to sixteen hours. Oh my.

As it turned out, I soon discovered that at least one mating had resulted in at least one caterpillar. I suspect there will be more soon, but this one will have a head start on munching its way through the Milkweed kingdom.

All the while that I stalked the Monarchs, a Common Yellowthroat did its own stalking, constantly announcing its location with chirps. And then I realized it had a caterpillar in its mouth as it moved among the stems of the Spreading Dogbane. Oh dear. Fortunately it wasn’t a Monarch caterpillar, but will it be only a matter of time?

A few more steps and I noticed a Katydid on a Milkweed leaf. Oh yikes. So many visitors who like to munch.

For the moment all bets are placed on only one Monarch caterpillar to continue the life cycle.

Blame it on the Monarchs for calling me back to the same spot I’ve been stalking for a few weeks and giving me the opportunity to notice them mating and the results of such actions and other insects as well.

Want to learn more? The Greater Lovell Land Trust will offer these two programs:

July 31, 7:00 pm, Monarchs at Risk with Don Bennett 

Recent censuses show the smallest Monarch butterfly populations in Mexico and the west coast hibernacula in recorded history. Why is this happening? Is there anything we can do?  Are drastic declines in the Monarch populations a sign of something more insidious? Come listen to Naturalist Don Bennett, PhD, and discover why this is such an important message for all of us. 

Location: Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, Route 5, Lovell

August 1, 9:30 am – noon: Monarchs in the field: Monarch butterflies need milkweed plants to survive — as caterpillars they only eat milkweed and Monarch moms lay their eggs on the milkweed plant. We’ll take a walk along a dirt road that abuts a farm field and river, where milkweed grows in abundance and search for Monarchs and other butterflies. 

Location: Meet behind the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library to carpool.

Degree of Difficulty: Easy

The Old and New Friends of Mountain Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Atlantis Fritillary also graced us with its presence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the Hare

I should have known it would be this kind of a day when I spotted a Snowshoe Hare on the road. It’s a rare spot for me, though all winter long I see their tracks and scat. Only occasionally do I get to glimpse one and even then, it’s just that . . . a glimpse.

But today was different. As I drove to a Greater Lovell Land Trust property, movement on the pavement slowed me down. To. A. Stop. Not wanting to scare it, I took a photo from behind the windshield and then watched as it hopped on the road for a couple of minutes and then off into the grass.

My destination was just around the corner where the Sundews grow. Carnivorous Round-leaved Sundews. Check out the glistening droplets at the ends of the hair-like tendrils that extend from each round leaf. The droplets are actually quite sticky. Just like a spider sensing a bug on its web, the tendrils detect the presence of prey and then curl inward, thus trapping the victim.

The whole leaf will eventually wrap around an insect and in the process of digesting it, the plant will absorb the bug’s nutrients. Can you see the action in process of the lower leaf on the left?

Sundews tend to grow in areas that lack sufficient nutrients, so this is the plant’s way of supplementing its diet. And if that isn’t enough–it’s just plain beautiful.

When I first ventured onto this wildlife refuge with others for a morning of trail clearing, the sky was overcast and mosquitoes plentiful. But . . . the sun eventually burned through the clouds and with that, some of my favorite over-sized, prehistoric looking insects did fly. Thankfully, they also paused so I could admire their structures, colors, and habits. This member of the Odonata family loves to skim across the land at low level and pause on rocks or leaves. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking with them for such is their behavior to lift off from one rock as I approach and settle on the next just a few feet ahead. That is, until I approach that one and then they move on to the next. Over and over again. Of course, all the time they’re hunting for a meal.

The two photographs above are of the same species and same gender. Both are females of the Chalk-fronted Corporal sort. But notice the cloudier abdomen of the second. There’s just a bit of the grayness in the first photo. So here’s a word to stick under your hat and remember: Pruinescence–meaning a “frosted or dusty looking coating on top of a surface.” The female’s abdomen turns chalky gray with pruinosity. In my under-educated brain, I’d say the second is older than the first for her pruinose markings are more obvious.

I was standing in the middle of a former log landing when I began to notice the insects. It’s an area where forest succession is slowly occurring and may need to be addressed. But for now, the wildflowers include Yellow Hawkweeds. And because their resting position is different from the Corporals, upon the flowers perched Calico Pennants. The first I saw was a male, so identified by the red markings on its abdomen.

In many male/female contrasts, be it dragonflies, damselflies, or even birds, the female is in no way as attractive as the male. But for the Calicos, both are worth celebrating. Check out those wings–their basal patches like stained glass windows.

It wasn’t just dragonflies that visited the field, for as I said it’s a land once stripped of vegetation that now plays hosts to flowers and shrubs and saplings all competing for space. And Syrphid flies also competed, their focus not on other insects, but rather pollen and nectar.

Equally stained-glass like are the wings. And notice the hair on its body. The natural world is incredibly hairy. Looks rather like a bee, doesn’t it? I was fooled, but my entomologist friend Anthony corrected me–thankfully.

Notice the lack of pollen baskets on those big funky hind legs, lack of antenna with “elbows,” and the shape of the eyes. Similar to a bumblebee, yes, but with subtle differences.

Other visitors who sampled the goods in a much faster manner included Hummingbird Clearwing Moths. The wings of this one pumped so quickly that it appeared wingless. If you look closely, you may see the comb-like structure of its antennae, which helps to differentiate moths from butterflies with their club-like antennae.

I had been feeling rather blessed for all I’d seen to this point and then an old friend made itself known. This dragonfly is one that I know I’ll eventually photograph on my hand or leg this summer and it honors me with those landings for I feel like a Dragonfly Whisperer in those moments. Today we were merely getting reacquainted. And instead of landing on me, it let me photograph its face. Take a look and wonder.

And then look at the abdomen of the same dragonfly: a Lancet Clubtail. By its bluish gray eyes that remind me of my own, and narrow yellow daggers on each segment of its abdomen, I hope you’ll recognize it going forward should you have the opportunity to meet.

Butterflies were also among the visitors of the field, including a Tiger Swallowtail with a tale to tell of how it lost a part of its tail.

And then I spotted a skipper or two moving just a wee bit slower than the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. My what big eyes you have.

As I slowly made my way back up the trail, it was the Kennedy’s Emerald, named for Dr. Clarence Kennedy, a renowned Ohio State University professor and odonatologist that asked to be noticed. I knew we’d met before when I realized it had two downward-arched yellow spots on the first two segments of its otherwise dark abdomen. The yellow coloration indicated it was a female.

Then I watched a most curious thing as I stood by a fence that stands beside a short portion of the trail. Do you see the dragonfly crawling along the fence?

It seemed to be on a mission that I couldn’t understand.

Perhaps it had its sight on an insect I couldn’t spy.

For a few minutes it posed and gave me time to at least decide it was a darner, though I keep changing my mind about which one. But notice its markings. The venation of its wings was rather fine compared to so many, yet the markings on its abdomen were well defined. Oh, and do you see the paddle-like claspers–used to hold the female’s head during mating? And then it flew off.

My heart was filled by all that I’d been seeing. And then . . . in flew another that seemed to top the rest. A Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Count each one on all four wings–twelve dark spots. Crazy beautiful. And to think that I always used to think dragonflies were dragonflies and they were wonderful because they consume mosquitoes and make our woodland hikes so much more bearable. But like ferns that I always thought were all the same, they are not. Slowly I’m learning them by their names and give thanks for every moment I get to spend in their presence.

What’s not to wonder about and love–notice the yellow hearts on the female Calico Pennants abdomen. And her reflection on the leaf below.

I knew that hare brought me good tidings. And will be forever grateful.

Nothing False About This Celebration

With a mission
to check upon
a heron rookery,
I invited
a friend
to join me.

The young’uns
sat upon their
nests of sticks
waiting for
the next meal
to arrive.

With the flap
of wings
slowed in rhythm,
landing gear
was extended
in the form
of long legs
and feet.
Within minutes,
a meal of fish
was regurgitated
and
passed
from
parent
to
child.
Because of 
our location
beside
a slow-flowing river,
many other sights
caught our
attention.
But it was one
with a
penchant for moisture
who stood
as tall
as my chin
that garnered
the most attention.
I've oft 
relished its
pleated leaves
of green,
their manner
that of the
lily family.
In a 
clasping formation,
they attach
to the main stem,
spirally arranged
from bottom
to top.
I've seen 
the plant often
in its leafy rendition,
but today
was the first time
its star-shaped flowers
atop the plant
revealed themselves.
With
petals and sepals
combined
as tepals,
my friend noted
their resemblance
to the leaves below.
The more we looked, 
the more we realized
there were others
who also
revered
such a unique structure,
in particular
the nectar-producing glands
at each flower's base.
The plant
took advantage,
or so it seemed,
of allowing those
who ventured
into its sweetness
with a dash,
or perhaps
a dollop,
of pollen
to pass on
for future reference.
Because of its location
in the moist habitat,
insects formerly aquatic,
such as
the Alderfly,
did walk
with sluggish movements.
Up its stout stalk
one rose,
the fuzzy structure
perhaps providing
it texture
upon which to climb.
Did it seek
the bright yellow anthers?
Or the nectar below?
With wings
delicately veined
and folded over
like a tent,
the Alderfly
paused
and hardly pondered
its next move.
The flower
mattered not
for this
weak flyer.
At last
it reached
the tip
of the
long, upright
inflorescence,
conical in form,
and I wondered:
would it pierce
the unopened flowers
for a bit
of nutrition?
Perhaps not,
for adults
of this species
have a need
more important
than eating.
Theirs is to
mate,
particularly at night.
Maybe it was
a he,
looking for a sight
to meet
a she.
As it 
turned out,
not all
who had
canoodling
on their minds
could wait
until the day
darkened
to
night.
Meanwhile,
there were others
who sought
the sweet satisfaction
of nectar
for their needs.
And in 
the process
of seeking,
tads of pollen
decorated
their backs,
in this case
where X
marks the spot.
It was 
a place
for many
to gather
and garner
including
Lady Beetles
of many colors.
And upon 
those pleated leaves,
were Mayflies
who had
lived out
their short lives,
and Craneflies
taking a break,
while showing off
their wings
reminiscent
of stained glass.
After such 
an up-close greeting
of the delicate flowers,
and recognizing
for the first time
their immense splendor,
June 15
will forevermore be
the day
to celebrate
False Hellebore.

Walking with Dragons

As I drove down the dirt road into Brownfield Bog today, I began to notice ruts on the side where previous vehicles had gotten stuck in the mud. And then I came to a puddle the looked rather deep and to its right were several rocks that I didn’t feel like scraping the truck against to avoid the water. That’s when I decided I’d be much better off backing up and parking at the beginning of the road. Besides, I knew if I walked I’d have more chance to see what the road and bog had to offer. But . . . back up on that curvy narrow road–for a quarter mile or more? Yup. Thankfully, no one drove in or out and somehow I managed to get myself out of that predicament.

I knew I’d made the right choice when I was greeted by an immature Chalk-fronted Corporal. First it was one, then two, and then so many more. And the mosquitoes and black flies? Oh, they were there, but not in abundance.

Also helping patrol the roadway was a Spring Peeper, the X on its back giving reference to its scientific name: Pseudacris crucifer–the latter meaning cross-bearer. Notice his size–about as big as a maple samara.

A more mature female Chalk-fronted Corporal perched upon an emerging Bracken Fern was my next point of focus. She’s larger and darker than her young counterparts, her corporal stripes on the thorax marked in gray.

And then there was a June Beetle, also maple samara in length with its thorax and abdomen robust.

My own eyes kept getting larger and larger for every step I took I felt like there was someone new to meet. Practicing ID was helped a bit as I’ve begun to recognize certain traits of the different species. Of course, each year I need a refresher course. By the green eyes, I knew this one was in the Emerald family, and with its green and brown thorax, black abdomen with a narrow pale ring between segments 2 and 3, and the fact that the abdomen is narrow to start and finish with a widening in between, I decided it was an American Emerald.

Reaching the bog at last, I was glad I’d worn my Muck boots, for the water flowed across the cobbled road and in several places it was at least five inches deep.

Within one puddle floated a dragonfly exuvia, its structure no longer necessary. I will forever be in awe about how these insects begin life in an aquatic nymph form, climb up vegetation or rocks or trees and emerge as winged insects.

As I continued to admire them, there were others to note as well, like the metallic green Orchid Sweat Bee pollinating the Black Chokeberry flowers.

The next flyer to greet me had a white face that you can’t quite see. By the yellow markings on her abdomen, I think I’ve identified her correctly as a Frosted Whiteface.

Birds were also abundant by their song and calls, though actually seeing them was more difficult since the trees have leafed out. But . . . a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker did pause and pose.

Again, shadows blocked the face of this species, but the wings and abdomen were far more worthy of attention as it clung to a Royal Fern. In fact, with so much gold, I felt like I was greeting a noble one. The Four-spotted Skimmer is actually quite small, yet stocky. The four spots refer to the black nodus and stigma (Huh? nodus: located midway between the leading edge of each wing where there is a shallow notch; stigma: located toward the wingtips). But notice also that the amber bar at the base of its wings and black basal patch on the hind wings–giving it an almost stained glass look.

By now, you must be wondering if I was really at the bog for I’ve hardly shown any pictures of it. Yes, I was. And alone was I. When I first arrived by the water’s edge, I noted two vehicles that had braved the road and as I stood looking out at the old course of the Saco River, I heard a couple of voices which confirmed my suspicion that they’d gone kayaking. But other than that, I had the place to myself. Well, sorta.

Me and all the friends I was getting reacquainted with as I walked along. The name for this one will seem quite obvious: White-faced Meadowhawk, its eyes green and brown.

Nearby a pair of Eastern Kingbirds, perched, then flew, enjoying such a veritable feast of insects spread out before them.

I worried for my other winged friends, including the female Bluet damselfly.

And the Common Baskettail. How long will they survive?

I also wondered about reproduction for I saw so many, many female Chalk-fronted Corporals, but not a male in sight. Until, at last, before I left the bog, I spied one.

And for a long time we studied each other. Have you ever realized how hairy dragonflies are?

The Brownfield Bog (Major Gregory Sanborn Wildlife Management Area) can put the brain on nature overload as all senses are called into action. But today, because with every step I took at least fifty dragonflies flew, they drew my focus and I gave thanks to them for reteaching me about their idiosyncrasies, as well as eating the smaller insects so I came away with only a few love bites behind my ears.

Walking with dragons. As life should be. In western Maine.