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 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.   

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!

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.

Good Hair Mondate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

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

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

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

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

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

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

Do you see a bear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Knowing My Place

I planned to accomplish so many things since I had time off this past week. And I did check a couple of items off my list, but . . . most of my time was spent wandering and wondering in the woods behind our house.

Sometimes I followed trails known only by those who like to zoom through this space and never really see.

Other days I bushwhacked, eager to discover what might present itself.

Always I was reminded that this has long been my classroom and its taught me many a lesson, including that the bracts of the Witch Hazel flower persist in the winter and offer a dash of color in the landscape. Notice how each flower consisted of four bracts that curl back. The ribbony flowers fell off in the fall. And I have to admit that there was a time when I thought these were the flowers.

While bushwhacking, debris on the snow drew my attention and of course I had to investigate.

Much to my delight, I found a couple of Pileated Woodpecker scats filled with insect bodies. And notice all the chiseled wood–it’s a lot of work, but I’m always happy to note via the scat that the attempt was successful.

Equally successful was the digging of a Red Squirrel who had cached a pile of hemlock cones and returned within the last few days to dine and leave behind a midden of cone scales–its garbage pile.

This is a truly wild place that serves as home to so many mammals and birds and I give thanks to them for leaving behind prints and other signs of their presence. Of course, I was looking for the resident Moose, who has eluded me so far, but the White-tailed Deer are everywhere, including sucking seed from our bird feeders every night.

The Turkeys haven’t discovered our feeders yet, but by their prolific tracks I know they are nearby.

I’ve also been noting many, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, some in places I don’t recall seeing them previously and methinks there is plenty of prey available for predators. One of the learnings these woods have offered is that the hare’s prints can throw one off on ID, especially when the snow is soft and its hind feet (top of photo as they always land in front of where the front feet landed and lifted off) spread out and leave more toe impressions than one typically sees.

Of course, no visit to these woods is complete without a check-in at the vernal pool. And this week I discovered two other pools to check on in the spring. But those are for another day three months away.

For all my wandering, actually spying wildlife is rather rare, but from inside our kitchen door sometimes we see so much. Every few nights a porcupine pays us a visit. And every night four healthy looking deer stop by as I said earlier. But on these stormy days, the feeders see the most action and today’s visitors included Tufted Titmice,

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

Eventually, this male flew to the ground and dug in, much like the Red Squirrel in the woods.

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

And his Mrs. came by as well. One day we actually spotted two Cardinal couples in the yard.

One of the joys of the feeders is that those who visit add color to the scene and it soon became apparent that red was the color of the day, this time with the spots on the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head indicating it was a male.

Another male of another species also showed off his red coloration.

I was tickled to welcome a couple of House Finches. And do you see the deer hair on the snow to the upper right of his beak?

It’s that time of year when the Juncos also pay a visit and keep the red theme going with their pink beaks.

Not all birds are created equal or don’t tell the Gray Squirrel he’s not a bird because like the deer and porcupine, he’s sure that the seed and nuts are meant for his pleasure. Certainly.

This was my week, a week spent happily dilly-dallying in my place and giving thanks for past and present and future lessons. A week spent wondering and wandering alone. And it was topped off with this icy sculpture in the woods that reminded me of a bird’s head–it seemed apropos, but I did have to wonder how it formed. Ahhhh, not all is meant to be understood in this school of choice.

How well do you know your place?

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.

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.

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iWhat I’ve discovered is that in sunshine and rain, the place is alive with action from Honeybees and Gnats . . .

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to Paper Wasps,

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and even several Great Black Wasps, their smoky black wings shining with blue iridescence as they frantically seek nourishment and defend territories (including letting this particular human know that she’s not welcome at the party by aggressively flying at her).

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Bumblebees were also full of buzz and bluster and it was they who reminded me of one important fact.

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The color of the storage baskets on their hind legs depends upon the color of the pollen grains in the plants they’ve visited.

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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.

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And then, because I was looking, I discovered an insect in the process of being wrapped for a meal intended for later consumption. I’ve long been fascinated by Ambush Bugs and Assasin Bugs and this, the Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia. What’s not to love? She’s an orb weaver, meaning she spins a complex circular web, in this case among tall plants, that features spokes which are non-sticky that she uses to walk upon, and round wheels that are sticky to capture prey. The web is the size of a platter. A large platter. And . . . every night she consumes the entire thing and rebuilds a new one for the next day. In the process of consuming the threads, she can take advantage of any little insects like mosquitoes that get caught in the stickiness, but it’s the bigger insects that she prefers to eat.

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Do you see the rather conspicuous zigzaggy line down the middle of the web? That’s called the stabilimentum and may have several purposes: providing stability; attracting insects with the multiple threads like an ultraviolet runway such as the colorful lines and dots on plants; or perhaps announcing to birds that they shouldn’t fly through the web. Whatever the reason, it’s in the center of the stabilimentum that the spider hangs in suspension, waiting for the dinner bell to announce ring.

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Though she has eight eyes, her vision is poor. But . . . her hairy legs may also help in the detection that a meal has arrived, perhaps signaling sound and smell, plus she can sense the vibrations.

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Once captured, she injects a venom (that is harmless to us bipeds) to immobilize her subject and then begins to spin a sac around it.

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Remember, I’ve been watching her for four days, while she’s hanging upside down playing the waiting game and showing off her egg-shaped abdomen with its asymmetrical yellow markings on the carapace (much like a turtle’s shell) to her silver-haired head.

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Some days I felt like she might just be Charlotte, writing a message only Wilbur could interpret.

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And one day she surprised me by turning right-side up. It was then that I was offered a closer look at those little bumps on her head that serve as eyes. And the pedipalps, those two little hairy appendages sticking up on her head that work like sensory organs.

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An hour or so after finding her upright, when I checked again, I thought she’d gone missing. Instead, I discovered she’d climbed to the top of one of the plants upon which she’d spun her web.

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Perhaps she was surveying the area as she waved her front legs, looking about her domain.

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A day later, a new web, and another meal packaged, and slowly my buzzers were being consumed. But, she also likes grasshoppers and crickets and the garden is full of them.

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And then this morning dawned, with T.S. Henri in the offing and a few raindrops upon a broken web announcing the storm’s intended arrival. Wait. The web–it had holes but had not been entirely consumed. That wasn’t all, yesterday’s meal also hadn’t been consumed. And the spider was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and down and all around and couldn’t find her. Had she meant to save the meal, waiting for her venom to pre-digest it by liquifying the internal organs and in flew something larger than her and dinner went uneaten? Had our time together come to an end just like that?

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I wasn’t going to let the issue go, and so I continued to search, and guess who I found about three feet away upon a new web?

Even more exciting was the discovery that I can see her from the kitchen window AND, the view is of her underside so I can actually see her brown spinnerets at the end of her abdomen and maybe I’ll get to watch her capture a meal.

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Well, so I thought, but two hours later, when I next looked, I realized I’d missed the action and she’d already securely wrapped her latest victim–all that was still visible was a leg.

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Though the prey may be one, this is NOT just another insect in the midst of my quest. Actually, it’s not an insect at all for spiders are arachnids, with eight legs versus an insect’s six. She may be scary big, as well as carnivorous, but she is beneficial to the garden as she helps control insect populations, including some pests.

And how do I know she is a she? Her male counterpart I’ve yet to meet, but he’s much smaller and all brown, unlike her beautiful coloration.

There’s more to this story I’m sure and I look forward to learning more about her as I try to interpret the messages she leaves. If you have a chance, go out and stalk your gardens and be wowed by what you find.

Consumed by Cicadas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever so slowly . . .

the rest of the body . . .

comes to life.

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

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

How about now?

As the abdomen extends, four wings take shape.

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

and the insect wiggles its legs . . .

ready to get a grip.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A few headstones away, another for the red variety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

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

But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

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

Sharp Observation

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

And much to my delight a sign hanging from a tree announced what I’d hoped. Can you read it? The hemlock sprig dangling from the birch stating that So-and-So was in residence?

Suddenly I realized there were a million items shouting the obvious, scattered as they were upon the snow and rocks like neon signs on a city street: “So-and-So Slept Here;” “So-and-So’s Diner;” and “So-and-So’s Rest Rooms.”

Hemlock twigs with angled nips and singular scats spoke to So-and-So’s presence. Was So-and-So present? I could only hope so.

As I looked about, I noticed the signs dropped by one or two others, including one of whom I totally expected to surprise me as it has on several occasions in the recent past. While I didn’t startle the bird, I knew by its offering left on the rock that it continued to frequent the locale–do you see the “golden” cylinder among the brown scat? That would be a notice from the local grouse.

And then I stepped under the hemlock because there was more bird sign on the tree created by a Pileated Woodpecker and I hoped to find its scat. No such luck among the wood chips, but plenty more fresh pellets stating that the occupant was possibly in situ.

All the telltale signs were there. About one inch long. Comma shaped. Groove down the inside. Fresh. Did I say fresh?

From every angle the evidence was clear. I shouldn’t be standing below because just possibly that certain So-and-So might be resting above. And said being has been known to fall out of trees as I’ve told others while standing in this same spot on previous occasions. Did I say this is a creature of habit?

Whenever I visit I look up. But it’s not until winter that my sight is graced with that of such another. Can you see it? The anomaly in the canopy?

How about now? Do you see the dark blob sitting up there?

Porcupines are indeed creatures of habit and every winter I know certain places to locate a few locals, including this big guy. A guy? Yes, because it’s the males who tend to rest in trees during the day.

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

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

Winter Bug Safari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all a wonder to me.

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

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

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

A Layered Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insect Brigadoon

So, um, we hiked today.

Along a favorite trail.

It offers a variety of terrain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldenrod Gala

As many of you know, I’ve never been a party girl, much preferring to hide in the wings and be the wallflower at the edge of the crowd, but when the invite arrived today, how could I resist?

It didn’t give an actual location, but by the photo I suspected I knew where in the yard would I meet my friends.

Immediately upon entering, I wished I’d waited a bit for the Ambush Bugs had already discovered each other and chose the corner I preferred as their hide-away spot in which to mate. Really, shouldn’t they have gotten a room?

At last, however, I discovered others who like me were solo for the party, this being a Mason Wasp. His eye was on the bar and nectar was the drink of choice.

While I inquired about something to sip upon, into the middle of the space danced a pair of Thread-waisted Wasps. She seemed rather oblivious to his advances.

They maneuvered this way . . .

and that. No matter which way they swayed, he clung on.

At times I wondered if she really appreciated his clingy mannersim.

At best, she seemed to tolerate him. But never did she let him get any closer.

For over an hour, we all watched from the edges as they sashayed back and forth across the dance floor. Maybe he clung so close because he hoped to get lucky in the near future, or maybe they’d already finished canoodling and he wanted to make sure that it was eggs he’d fertilized that she laid, much the way male dragonflies hold on until the female of their intentions do the same.

Meanwhile, back in the corner, the Ambush Bugs began to separate as he climbed down off of her. And below them, another insect that might become their choice at the buffet table lingered.

Finding a stem all its own upon which to practice its own dance steps was a Locust Borer decked out in fancy dress clothes.

Also dressed to the nines was a Flesh Fly wearing gray pin stripes.

As the party continued, I soon realized that the Mason Wasp was a tease.

Or so it seemed as its antennae played with a shy Crab Spider waiting under the buffet for a morsel upon which to dine.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the spider–who was certain it was about to score, only to discover it had been outsmarted. But that’s the way it is in these social affairs as a variety of personalities come together to greet each other and yet satisfy their own needs.

At last the hour had chimed and it was time for all of us to depart. As I stepped through the doorway, a final greeting was bestowed . . . by an Assassin Bug Nymph completely camouflaged by the flower’s greenery.

With that, my visit to the two-hour Goldenrod Gala was completed and I gave thanks for the invite to such a pop-up event. A social gathering of my type, indeed.

Resurrection

I warned you that last week’s Cemetery Cicada Celebration would be revised. And so it was. Over and over again as is my custom.

But the thing is that last week I took part in a poetry workshop offered through Greater Lovell Land Trust by Poet Judith Steinbergh. The title of the workshop was “Caring for Our Earth and Waters.” Judy shared various poems with us through a remote gathering and asked us to read them aloud while thinking “about what we might visualize from the images, and how the sounds and form blend together with the image and feeling.”

She encouraged us to make notes and suggested some different approaches: speak to the subject; become the subject; instruct the reader; show feelings toward the subject. She even gave us some beginnings and endings that might inspire us to begin.

And then she concluded with “Poetry Revision Guidelines,” which included such practices as reading the poem aloud several times, questioning whether or not the opening was strong enough, maintaining focus, creating images the reader could visualize, using tight language, finding a rhythm, helping the reader gain insight, and providing appropriate breaks.

We had one week to write a poem, submit it to Judy for comments, and then the big night would come: The Reading.

Just as it’s scary to publish in this blog manner or via Lake Living magazine and other avenues I’ve used over the years, it’s equally terrifying to read aloud–especially when you can see yourself on the computer screen.

But that’s what some of us did the other night for the remote Poetry Reading and you can watch and listen in: GLLT Poetry Reading 2020

My original subject was a pine tree, but after watching the magical emergence of cicadas last week, I knew I had to write about that experience. Figuring out the angle was much more difficult and I tried a variety of avenues. In the end, I chose a style that works best for me, teaching through imagery.

It’s not a done deal, mind you, for it is my belief that there is no such thing as a final draft. OK, so that’s my default in case you don’t think this works or have suggestions to improve my attempt. All comments are welcome. It’s only a draft and I haven’t written 18 drafts yet as I often do with an article. I’m at 7 or 8.

Resurrection
By Leigh Macmillen Hayes, 7/19/2020

To walk into a cemetery on a summer day
And find an insect metamorphosing upon a stone
I begin to understand the process of resurrection.

A life well spent questing sap for sustenance
Prepares to crawl free of its past
And reach for heavenly aspirations.

Through a tiny slit, a spirit no longer contained
Emerges head first as a teneral shape develops
with bulging eyes to view a new world.

Gradually, a pale tourmaline-colored body extends outward
With stained-glass wings unfurling
That provide baby steps toward freedom beyond.

I mourn the loss of your former soul
But give thanks for a peek at your upcoming ascension
From this place to the next.

It is not for me to know when you will first use the gift of flight
As I didn’t know when you would shed your old skin,
And I quickly offer a final goodbye when I see your wings spread.

I rejoice that I’ll spend the rest of the summer
Listening to your raspy love songs
Playing nature’s lullabies upon violin strings from above.

On this day, I celebrate the secrets of a cicada’s life,
Dying to the old ways and rising to new,
While I wander among the graves of others who have done the same.

To all who joined the Poetry Workshop or the Poetry Reading or wished they could, and especially to Judy Steinbergh, I dedicate this post. Thank you for sharing.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape 
upon stones that memorialize the past. 
Hunchbacked in nymphal form,
light brown crawlers move skyward
then cling by toes at tips of stout legs,
and new life emerges as their backs split open.
Bodies colored like watermelon tourmaline
showcase segmented abdomens and three pairs of legs.
While translucent wings slowly unfurl,
First steps are taken into freedom beyond. 
Leaving behind sheds of its underground life,
wings grow longer minute by minute.
Exquisite beauty at this teneral stage
forces awe to reach a crescendo.
Venation demarks cloudy glass windows
gilded in emerald and bronze.
I stare in awe, and then gaze about,
for others have also crawled up from the ground. 
Young Elden's grave stone provides the next sighting
of a discarded exuvia with an adult form above.
For several hours this insect paused
as blood pumped and its body transformed.
Contrasted against the pastel colors it once donned,
vivid camouflage will serve it well in tree tops.
Golden veins upon the elder's wings
fill my soul with admiration.
I'm forced to stand guard and dote 
for at last the ascension begins.
I suddenly realize all who enter here
must rise toward the heavens or at least the tree tops.
One muscular foot in front, five others follow,
all part of instinct beyond my understanding.
No other is there to offer guidance or to mimic,
it's all pure instilled knowledge from beginning to end.
With the summit now a certainty, 
I take time to quickly note intricate patterns.
Upon the upper thorax I see
the face of an owl bedecked in bow tie.
It is not for me to know when tented wings
will spread into flight and off he'll go. 
Without notice, a quick flap,
and he disappears into tree tops thither.
A few more hours must pass
before the younger insect can fly off likewise. 
New adventures await filled with raspy love songs
meant to continue the cycle of life.
On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas. 

Default: This is a work in progress. I’ve written a bunch of drafts, but it’s not quite there yet, so dear reader, you may see a revision at a later date.

Wonder Wings of the West

When we first met I was certain I knew you from past encounters.

Moving about under a leaf as you did, it was your coloration of yellow and brown bands with a hint of rust that first caught my attention and I bent over to say hello.

Those veined wings of two tones added to my sense that we knew each other well.

On your body I saw no hair, another reason to believe we’d met previously.

And your short antennae added to my certainty.

The way your thorax connected to your abdomen also bespoke your name, or so I thought.

But there was something different about you that made me question our relationship.

That beak of a mouth . . . to whom did it belong?

And below your mouth . . . was that a bug you were trying to dine upon? If so, that didn’t fit the picture of you I’d assumed.

As you held the supposed bug close, I noted that it remained the same size for minute after minute.

The closer I looked, the more I came to realize that it wasn’t a bug you feasted on, but rather it was a part of your body.

In the midst of trying to figure out your identification another flew to the edge of the woodland who also had wings of two tones.

There was no question in my mind that this dragonfly and I had never met before. If only I felt so sure about my encounter with you.

I’d thought from the start that you were a Paper Wasp for everything matched up . . . including your placid behavior. But . . . that insect that I was so sure you held, which didn’t make sense for your kind isn’t predatory, told me you were different. Rather, the bug was actually thick forelegs like a Praying Mantis might have. It was a strange mix of features that you shared, and I can only hope I’ll forever remember your name dear Wasp Mantidfly. You are a strong mimic of the one I thought you might be, but more closely related to the Mantis family.

As for the dragonfly, a Widow Skimmer added to today’s finds of the wonder wings of the west–the west being western Maine, of course.

Cinderella’s Slipper Shop Overflows

Did you hear? Cinderella lost her slipper. And didn’t know where to find it. So . . . Pam M. and I turned into Fairy Godmothers over the course of the weekend in an attempt to help the folktale heroine of our youth.

We began by waving our magic wands . . .

formed in the shape of Indian Cucumber Root flowers suddenly in bloom.

And then we looked everywhere. Do you see the shoe?

No, that’s not it. Ah, but what is that? It’s the nest of an Ovenbird who ran across the forest floor away from the nest, which made us wonder why it was running and not flying–to distract our attention, of course.

We took quick photos and then moved out of momma’s way, continuing our quest.

Do you see the shoe?

No, it wasn’t underneath, but we did celebrate the fact that we’d found the ever common rattlesnake fern with its lacy triangular fronds . . .


and separate beaded fertile stalk. To us, it was hardly common for we rarely see it except in this place. Perhaps we’ll whip the fern into another dress for Cinderella.

Do you see the shoe? No, it isn’t here either, but the leaflets (pinnae) of a Christmas fern could certainly serve as Cinderella’s stockings, bejeweled as they are with the sori’s indusia (the round sheets partially covering each sorus) attached at their centers.

Do you see the shoe? No, it’s not here either, but the hobblebush showed that even in leaves that for some reason were dying, design and color should always be noticed because everything deserves consideration. As we consider Cinderella’s next gown, certainly we’ll remember this.

Do you see the shoe? Maybe we were getting closer. Indeed we were getting closer when we spied this bladder sedge.

Do you see the shoe? We hope one day soon you will for it was while admiring the sedge that we noticed the leafy forms beside it and realized we’d discovered the plant we sought. Perhaps it will flower soon and the golden yellow shoes of our quest will make themselves known.

In the meantime, yesterday morning Pam led a stroll for the Greater Lovell Land Trust.

And this afternoon I did the same for the wait-list crowd.

Each time, we led participants on a stroll through the slipper shop. Cinderella should be pleased with our finds for in every aisle the slippers were available in exactly her size.

And each offered its own variation of the color theme.

There were a few darker ones.

And even several in white.

We were all in awe and had to bow and curtsey (in Covid-19 fashion) for so many choices were there to honor.

Saturday’s group found 53, which became a challenge for today’s group. Their total: 71.

We know Cinderella is holding out for the golden one, but until then her personal slipper shop overflows with possibilities.