It all began with a fishing spider moving across the surface of a river. But there was more to the story, as in a meal being consumed. And so a few of us recently went in for a closer look.
It was then that we saw wings below the spider that reflected the sun’s light. And very long, spindly legs unlike the spider’s rather robust and hairy deck of eight.
And it suddenly occurred to us that the spider was dining on a crane fly. Crane flies intrigue me for a variety of reasons. They are true flies and go through complete metamorphosis from egg to larva that molts several times to pupa to adult, but like some other adult species (think mayfly), they don’t have true mouth parts and their sole purpose at this stage is to mate and procreate.
Some folks are afraid of crane flies, and it’s understandable. They look like giant mosquitoes. And are attracted to light so if you leave an outdoor lantern on by the front door, you might find them hovering and then sneaking into the house. But, only the larval form eats and they are decomposers of organic material.
In that same river, it soon became evident that there was a lot of crane fly activity taking place. Tipula caloptera larvae are aquatic and so it makes sense that they would choose some river cobbles to support them while they canoodled.
Click on the arrow to take a peek at their efforts.
And a few cobbles over another was depositing eggs by sticking her ovipositor into the river bed repeatedly. Some crane flies deposit eggs in water and others in moist soil near water.
Again, you may click on the arrow to watch her in action.
It wasn’t enough to enjoy them in their river setting, but here at home as well. So the river action was with a large group of students on Thursday. And on Friday, a couple of hours before a major thunderstorm (that thankfully transformed 97˚ to this morning’s 48˚ and I feel alive again), I looked out a kitchen window and spied this beauty.
Meet Tipula trivitata. It’s by wing venation that a crane fly can best be identified to species.
Since crane flies are true flies, they have only two wings. But do you see the little knob at the tip of what appears to be a filament that the arrow points to? And a second on the other behind the wing on the right-hand side? Those are considered reduced wings or halteres.
Spotting these this week made me think of crane flies I’ve met along this journey, including Tipula tricolor depositing eggs among mosses.
And another of the same species resting upon the fertile frond of a Cinnamon Fern. Adult crane flies rest most of the time, that is when they are not cannot engaged in the art of begetting offspring. As adults they don’t eat. So any energy they have must be saved up from their larval form. Within a few days of mating they die, so their adult life span is not long. Maybe a week or so.
Lest we think they are only spring and summer fliers, there is also a winter crane fly, and this one made the mistake of flying too close to the winter works of a Pileated Woodpecker’s hole that had flowed with sap.
As cool as all of these species are, my favorite crane fly is the Phantom Crane Fly, Bittacomorpha clavipes.
Their wings are much shorter, but those legs! And to watch one fly almost like a little square block carried by the wind–it’s a sight worth seeing and one which you won’t forget.
I do love dragonflies, but I’ll also be craning for these other fliers as spring heads toward summer and even into the fall.
It’s become a tradition for us to spend Memorial Day or at least a day during this weekend searching for one of My Guy’s favorite blooms. I don’t even remember how the count began, but now he cannot not count them.
What we’ve learned over the years is that they like a variety of habitats. from dark forests to bogs, and even mountain tops. And they like to hide. So we must really don our Lady’s Slipper eyes (just as I’ve been donning my dragonfly eyes lately) and look for them.
I mean . . . really hide.
It’s acidic soil that they are rather fond of, just like Yellow Clintonia, the beacons of many a forest trail. But while Clintonia seems to bloom anywhere and everywhere, Lady’s Slipper need Rhizoctonia fungi in order to grow and show off a blossom. According to Jack Sanders, author of The Secrets of Wildflowers, “Unlike most seeds, the minute and dustlike Lady’s Slipper seeds contain no food to allow them to grow. However, the outside of the seed is susceptible to attack by Rhizoctonia fungi, which digest the outer cells. If things balance out just right, the inner cells escape digestion and absorb some of the nutrients the fungus obtained from the soil. Not until this happens can the seed germinate and begin growing . . . The symbiosis with the fungus doesn’t end there. In order for the infant corm (or ‘proto-corm’) to obtain minerals and other soil foods, it must use the ‘go-between’ services of Rhizoctonia fungi. The fungi, in turn, take from the seedling Lady’s Slipper foods that are photosynthetically manufactured. These sensitive and complex relationships make native orchids of all kinds relatively uncommon . . . What’s more, in the wild, it takes from 10 to 17 years for a Lady’s Slipper seed to become a mature plant capable of blooming.“
So here’s the thing. Yellow Clintonia and Pink Lady’s Slipper flowers look nothing alike. But their leaves–that’s a different story and when there are no flowers to confirm, one like me, must slow down and notice the features. Do you see what I mean? Clintonias are members of the Lily Family, with six lily-like tepals (segment of the outer whorl in a flower that has no differentiation between petals and sepals). And their leaves can be folded in half with the inner vein forming the fold line.
Lady’s Slippers, on the other hand, are orchids. The flower is a moccasin-shaped, inflated pouch, but also two lateral petals that twist outward. And the leaves–take a look. Remember folding paper in an accordion-like manner to create fans, or tissue paper to create flowers? That’s what Lady’s Slipper leaves look like to me. Multiple pleats.
Lest you think nature didn’t distract us, there was a male swallowtail puddling in a wet seep that we had to pause and admire.
And we certainly didn’t want Indian Cucumber Root, in the same lily subfamily as Clintonia, to think we were ignoring it for it has just begun to offer its unique flower to the world.
But our real focus, of course, were the slippers, even those decorated in white, which is a form of the pink.
Until, that is, the Common Loons begged to be noticed and so we did.
A few miles into the hike, we reached one of My Guy’s favorite spots. Just the other day I heard him describe it as a field of Lady’s Slippers. I’m pretty sure he was thinking football field. I happen to think it’s closer to the size of my office. But, it does produce about fifty flowers each year.
While he was meticulously counting those fifty, a Bald-faced Aerial Yellowjacket flew in and started chewing some wood. My attention was indeed diverted.
Heading to the summit, we didn’t find as many, but still they were there and we paused to admire this grouping. I wonder if there was a nurselog below them that offered the right growing conditions and thus the line.
At the summit, after finishing dessert (we’d eaten our sandwiches below by the pond), someone had to survey his kingdom.
It’s always worth a look.
We found some more as we descended and then followed a different trail out, where another lady made herself known.
Meet a female Common Whitetail Skimmer dragonfly, who is hardly common with her tail markings, and spots on her wings.
We were almost finished when we spotted this Lady’s Slipper blowing in the breeze. Note the curve in the stem, and the closed moccasin.
I don’t know if removing the leaf will help the flower to fully develop, but it made me think of today, Memorial Day, and the fact that so many have in the past and do presently work so that we can enjoy the freedom of going for a hike in the woods–thank you to all who have served our country, past, present, and future, including our dads, uncles, cousins, and friends.
The question remains: How many Lady’s Slippers did we honor on this Mondate? 351. And those were only the ones we could spot from the trail. I’m sure we missed some. Can you imagine how many more might be out there.
Most people think there are four seasons in the northern hemisphere: spring, summer, autumn, winter. In Maine, many would argue that there’s a fifth: mud. And maybe even a sixth: road construction season.
I beg to differ on all accounts. In my wee world view we just came out of tracking season, which began at the beginning of December and lasted through the end of March.
And now, we have entered The Other Season. While tracking season doesn’t involve much color, it does offer an insider’s look at the animals with whom we share this space, and the habitat in which they live.
But now . . .
one’s eye needs to focus on what is different. The anomaly. Really focus. For there is a special snake making an appearance upon an old stump by the water’s edge. It looks rather like the saplings that have made this nurse log their home, but if you look closely, you might spy three light yellow stripes that contrast against a dark background and a bit of a curved tail.
Zooming in even closer, look at the snake’s head and the light colored spot in front of its eye. This is a key ID feature for an Eastern Ribbonsnake, an uncommon species in Maine, and one of special concern, which according to the maine.gov website means ” particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.”
Then there’s the Backswimmer who spends its life rowing about, belly up. Each set of legs is used for a different function – the front pair for catching prey because they are voracious predators, the middle pair for holding the prey tight, and the flattened, hairy third pair acts as oars, much like those used with a rowing shell.
As piercer-predators. they kill and suck the bodily fluids out of any prey they can subdue – invertebrate and vertebrate alike – including tiny tadpoles and fish fry. They remind me of terrestrial assassin bugs. But, Backswimmers also become fish food.
In this same habitat, one of the first butterflies to grace our airwaves is the Mourning Cloak because it overwinters as an adult. It’s an easy one to ID, perhaps the easiest for its rich brown wings are accented by vibrant blue dots and a bright yellow border along the trailing edge. Seeing mourning cloaks flutter out of the leaf litter is a sure sign of the other season.
In the same space, moving swiftly from one body of water across a cobbly road to another wetland was a Snapping Turtle. Though Snapping Turtles appear to pose a threat to humans, they are not as aggressive as we think. Instead of swimming, these turtles spend most of their time crawling along the bottom of shallow water.
On land, however, Snappers often act like the nastiest characters that you ever want to encounter. Have you ever tried to help one cross the road? With its long neck, that is almost as long as its shell, it’ll swing its head and lunge with open jaws.
I have read that even though they hiss and strike out with their formidable jaws, they will usually not bite. Supposedly, they’ll close their jaws just before they reach your hand. I don’t intend to verify this. Their act is enough to keep me at a safe distance. It’s best to leave a Snapping Turtle alone andtreat it with respect.
Because I was beside water, upon floating leaves, an insect flew in that could easily have been mistaken for a wasp, such as is its tendency to mimic such. The Masquerading Syrphid Fly, aka a hover fly, has longitudinal stripes on its thorax that resemble those on the back of a Paper Wasp, but a wasp it is not. For one thing, it has only one pair of wings, where bees and wasps have two pairs.
Away from the water but within the nearby leaf litter, and easy to find if you roll a log or move some downed tree bark, you might discover the high population density of Red-backed Salamanders who often maintain small territories that they guard and in which they exclusively forage.
The forest floor is a sophisticated, perennial cycling system of leaf litter, fungus, minerals and soil extending from tree trunks down into the earth. Scores of critters travel in between, eating, moving, and transforming the layers as they go, like Red-backed Salamanders who feed on a wide variety of invertebrates and to whom we give great thanks.
Among their meals, Red-backed Salamanders feed on of invertebrates including ants, but have you ever seen anything like this: an ant convention? And not one focused on a sweet treat you accidentally dropped?
According to Donald Stokes 1983 A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, “The other situation is where hundreds of ants seem to be crawling all over each other . . . These masses are probably involved in an aggressive encounter, possibly over the position of nest sites. They could be termed ‘territorial battles’ or even ‘wars.’ In contrast to our wars, they are conducted entirely by females. lf you look closely at the ants, you will see individual battles — ants using their pincers to dismember the bodies of other ants. On the battlefield may be cutoff legs or heads.”
We may be in a new season as witnessed by all the finds commented upon, but where there’s mud or wet sand, there will be tracks and so there’s some carry-over. Do you see the baby hand prints? At least two Raccoons had passed the way of some of the other critters in this post.
But the time has come to emerge from the depths of winter and shed a few weeds and head into the other season: Standing Beside the Water Season.
If you are looking for me in the next six months — I’ll be holding true to this next season.
It’s not even Valentine’s Day and already I’m thinking of love. Don’t tell My Guy, but this is love of a different sort. And the story all began while tracking with friends earlier this week.
Just as we were about to finish up the program, we spotted the signs of a resident rodent, including downed hemlock twigs and then a den. The den did not entirely make sense due to its placement in what seemed like a wet area, but we decided the critter must have found a dry place above the moisture, for indeed there was scat.
Once spotted, I knew I needed to return, for almost nothing makes me happier than to spot sign left behind by this mammal.
And so I did yesterday afternoon and while taking a different route to the den, I noticed the sashay of said critter as it had waddled through fluffy snow.
Next, I did what I do, and followed the tracks in a different direction than originally intended. And that’s when I saw these, the resident’s name carved on several wooden shingles. It’s an agile critter given that the shingles were posted all the way to the tip top of these pole trees.
Can you read it? Porcupine Lives Here is the inscription engraved on the tree. Actually, it’s a sign of winter feeding for porcupines, like beavers and deer, seek the cambium layer as one of their food sources. Each line shows where the porcupine’s incisors came together as it scraped away to obtain a meal.
And just beyond those pole trees, I spotted a hole that I suspected could only be one thing. A den with tracks leading in and out and the required pee, for such is this mammal’s habit.
A closer look at the dooryard and I spotted a barbed quill and hair. Actually, quills are a modified form of hair.
Did you know that porcupines have a variety of hair? For winter insulation, they have dark, wooly underfur. In addition, there are long guard hairs, short, soft bristles on the tail’s underside, stout whiskers, and then there are those pesky quills.
They aren’t pesky to the porcupine; just us and our pets and any animal that might choose to or accidentally encounter a porcupine.
The quills are 1 – 4 inches in length and lined with a foam-like material composed of many tiny air cells, thus their round, hollow look. There are no quills on the porcupine’s face, belly, or inside its legs.
But on the upper portion of its head, down its back and along the top of its tail, oh my. Within one square inch, there are approximately one hundred quills.
All told, there are over 30,000 quills. But who is counting. Not me. Though I did count these fancy toothpicks, 100 in all, to represent the quills in a square inch.
Despite the myth, porcupines cannot throw their quills. Because the quills are loosely attached, they dislodge easily on contact and stick into a victim’s flesh. And because they are barbed, they are difficult to remove. Talk about a formidable defense!
Returning to the den, which was located within a hollowed tree, I knew the porcupine had visited within the last twenty-four hours but wasn’t so sure it was home at the hour I stopped by.
As I often say, “Scat happens.” And in the case of a porcupine, it happens a LOT! One porcupine evacuates 75 – 200 scats a day. And though this happens as it dines, most of the scat is deposited in the den. Why? Warm insulation on a night as cold as tonight will be with temperatures already in the negatives and wind chills expected to reach -45˚? Or a detractor for predators–do they get a whiff and realize its one they don’t want to visit?
I’m not sure, but this is an example of a winter scat–fibrous from that woody diet of bark and twigs. It’s comma shaped. And often there is a groove down the inside curve.
By spring, it may come as linked pieces, much like a necklace, for grass fibers from a change in diet help create the connection.
Having discovered this den, I decided to follow the tracks, which indicated the mammal had traveled in two directions. Where would it lead me?
Within a tenth or two of a mile, I realized I’d snowshoed back to the spot my fellow trackers and I had discovered two days prior. You can see our snowshoe tracks. But since our visit, the porcupine had happened along, climbed over the downed log and peed.
Did you know that pee plays an important role in a porcupine’s courting ritual. These critters are solitary most of the year, but between September and November they seek a mate. The male, in a bid to woe a female, often approaches and sprays her with his urine. Are you feeling the love? She apparently does, for if she likes the scent of his urine, they might rub noses, or walk on their hind feet before canoodling begins.
Right above the peed-upon log was the entrance to the den and by the sight of the pigpen approach, browner even that it had been previously, I knew this really was active. The soiled snow is from the porcupine walking across its scat to exit the den.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the camera lighting right, but believe me that this one is full of scat as well. And I suspect, though I couldn’t see it, that a porcupine was sleeping somewhere in there, with its tail facing the entrance just in case a predator happened along.
Another indicator of a resident in the house–hoar frost created by breath on a cold winter day.
Right above the den I discovered the tracks of another–enemy number one in a porcupine’s world view. A fisher will kill a porcupine with repeated bites to the face and head.
Coyotes have also been known to work in pairs to maneuver a porcupine onto its back, thus going for the belly, where the hair is wooly.
So the curious story to me was that the fisher passed through after the porcupine was already back in the den, but it didn’t approach the den. Perhaps it had hoped to find the porcupine out in the open and didn’t want to face a tail lashing if it stuck its nose into the house.
Since the pervious visit, there were also more hemlock twigs on the ground and lots more evidence of scat-dirty feet and pee.
Because a porcupine is a rodent, and a large one at that, only exceeded by a beaver in size, it has prominent top and bottom incisors and twig nips are at a 45˚ angle. Can you also spot the scat and hair?
The winter diet consists of needles and bark–favorite trees being hemlock, birch, beech, aspen, elm, oak, willow, fir, and pine.
In spring and summer, a porcupine seeks out grasses and other green plants. And then in the fall, it looks for acorns, tearing into them in a rather messy manner.
In fact, a squirrel’s midden of opened acorns shows that it cuts the hard shell into much neater strips.
A porcupine’s cheek tooth pattern consists of one premolar and 3 molars on each side top and bottom. As you can see, the cheek teeth are modified for grinding since they are strict herbivores.
It’s those prominent incisors that are to be admired. A porcupine uses its large two front teeth for gnawing off bites of food. The incisors continue to grow throughout the porcupine’s life at a rate of twelve inches/year, and the constant gnawing keeps them worn down to the perfect size.
I did not actually see a porcupine yesterday, despite my best hopes, but sometimes it happens when I’m not looking intentionally so there may be a sequel to this story.
A porcupine has poor eyesight, so I’m not sure if it ever actually sees me when it’s up in a tree, especially if I’m standing sorta still, but it does have a good sense of hearing and smell, so I’m sure its aware of my presence. And the tail always faces the trunk in case I decide to climb up–it’s a great defense mechanism–having the tail at the ready to thwart a predator.
I will end this long story with a drawing by a dear friend and fellow naturalist, 8-year-old Aurora. She’s done her homework and I hope one day soon she’ll be able to answer the question: Quill You Be Mine? with a yes!
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve been following wondermyway for a few years, you know that each spring I make a bee-line for vernal pools, those shallow, short-lived ponds that fill with snowmelt or spring rain for at least several weeks most years, have no major inlet or outlet, and most importantly, no fish. Without fish, reproductive success is more likely for some amphibians, crustaceans, and insects who depend upon these ephemeral water bodies for breeding.
There are four indicator species in Maine that define a vernal pool as significant. Since 2007, significant vernal pool habitat has been protected by law under Maine’s Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA): “Significant Vernal Pool (SVP) habitat consists of a vernal pool depression and a portion of the critical terrestrial habitat within a 250-foot radius of the spring or fall high water mark of the depression. Any activity in, on, or over the SVP or the 250-foot critical terrestrial habitat zone must avoid unreasonable impacts to the significant vernal pool habitat and obtain approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, either through Permit by Rule (a streamlined permitting process) or full individual NRPA permit.”
Those four indicator species that define such significance: Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, Blue Spotted Salamanders, and Fairy Shrimp. The pool must contain 40 Wood Frog egg masses, or 20 Spotted Salamander Egg masses, or 10 Blue Spotted Salamander egg masses, or one Fairy Shrimp. I’ve yet to see a Blue Spotted Salamander or its eggs.
Some may see these ponds as oversized puddles, but let your eyes focus and suddenly you’ll realize that they are places teeming with life.
As you do, it might surprise you to spot lots of flying activity just above the pool’s surface. It’s actually Midges on the move, trying to get a date so that there will be even more Midges on the move. They look rather like mosquitoes, but don’t bite, so not to worry.
Male Midges have a longer, more slender body that the females, and they like to posture in attempts to interest one of the opposite gender. They’re actually fun to watch.
Of course, equally, ahem, fun to watch are the larval forms of Mosquitoes as they wriggle and wraggle through the water column, some even forming dense clusters.
If you do some container dipping at a vernal pool near you in order to take a closer look, I trust you won’t dump these onto the leaf litter rather than back into the water. As much as the females annoy us once they morph into that annoying flying insect that needs to suck mammal blood to gain proteins and nutrients for their eggs, they play an important part in the food web.
Especially for warblers such as this Yellow-rumped that was part of a flock that arrived in western Maine this week–just as it should have, being the end of April. It was spotted quite near one of the pools, so I suspect Mosquito Mash will soon be on the menu.
Back to those four indicator species for a significant vernal pool . . . it was this week that while looking close up at some Wood Frog eggs, I realized we had babies in the form of tadpoles.
I saw “we” because mom and dad Wood Frog do not hang around. Once they’ve canoodled and eggs have been fertilized and deposited, they exit the pool and return to their upland habitat, where they spend the next fifty weeks, so it’s up to us to watch over their young ones. Their metamorphosis, or change to adult form, will be completed by late June or earlier should temperatures rise and the pool begin to dry out.
I encourage you , dear readers, to do what I do and stare intently into the leaf litter to see if you can spot some tadpoles. And who knows what else you might discover.
While looking into another section of the pool, you might notice another type of egg mass, this one coated with a gelatinous mass that encompasses all of the eggs. Spotted Salamanders made their Big Night return to the pools about a week or so later than the Wood Frogs, so the embryos are still developing.
I find it fascinating to see the little forms take shape. It’s like looking into a mother’s womb without medical devices.
Okay, it’s time for you to peer into the pool again. This time you are looking for Fairy Shrimp, those tiny crustaceans that are about a half inch long, swim on their backs, and move eleven pairs of legs like a crew team in a rowing shell. Remember, I said one Fairy Shrimp makes a pool significant according to the State of Maine. How many do you see in this photo?
Those in the first Fairy Shrimp photo are males, but females are present as well. The way to identify a female is to look for her two brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.
So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch. One of the pools I’ve been frequenting lately I’d only discovered last year and it had no Fairy Shrimp. The other day when I approached with some volunteer docents from Greater Lovell Land Trust, one exclaimed within seconds of our arrival, “Fairy Shrimp.”
That got me thinking: how is it that we didn’t spot any last year, and this year we started seeing them everywhere. Also, in another pool where we’ve often spied a few, we’ve noticed they are in abundance. Previous to this week, I knew that the eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, but assumed that if the pool flooded each year, they all hatched. It didn’t make sense though that one pool suddenly has shrimp and the other has so many more than normal. It was time to do a little research, and what I learned from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies , is that only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching. So I thought about winter 2021 and how we didn’t have a lot of snow and the temperature was on the mild side. This past winter was much snowier (though not enough still in my book) and much chillier. My unscientific conclusion, based only on limited knowledge and observation, is that conditions weren’t conducive in 2021 at that one pool and so no shrimp hatched. I’m already looking forward to next year.
For your enjoyment I’ve included a video of a Fairy Shrimp moving through a pool this past week. Fairy Shrimp indicate unpolluted water, so finding one is significant. Finding so many . . . bliss.
When you are peering into the water for such a long time, other life forms make themselves known, such as Predacious Diving Beetle larvae, aka Water Tiger. Just like the adult this insect will morph into, it eats everything including tadpoles and insects, and even its siblings sometimes.
It wasn’t just the docents and I who had fun at the pools, but also a group of middle school students I have the immense honor to work with each Friday and yesterday they enjoyed documenting life at the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year. Quiz yourself on ID of the species one student scooped up in this bug box. And rest assured that these critters were released back into the pool after being studied for a few minutes.
As I said, I’ve done a lot of scanning this week, including on a couple of solo trips, and it was on one of these that I made one of my favorite discoveries: a Caddisfly larvae. In larval form, Caddisflies are resourceful architects who repurpose their surroundings to create their homes. Sometimes I find them constructed of hemlock needles topped with a maple flowers, and a friend sent a photo today of one she found who had built its house of grains of sand. My find . . . in the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year: a mobile home built of leaves. It was so well camouflaged that only the movement made me realize what was before my eyes.
Larval Caddisflies eat various types of detritus, including bits of leaves, algae, and miscellaneous organic matter so they, too, are important as they break down what is in the pool.
If it wasn’t that I need to eventually find my way home and make dinner, I’d probably still be out there. But yikes, it’s 7:00pm, and I haven’t even started dinner, and my guy will be home from work soon, so I’d better get going.
If you are looking for me in the next few weeks, however, I’ll be the one with hands on bent knees as I hunch over the pool. Join me and we can peer in together.
Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.
For those who are still with me, here’s the scoop. Last Wednesday during a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk on Groundhog Day, where shadows were the main focus, and yes, Lovell Lil, the beaver, did spy her’s and predicted six more weeks of winter, a group of us noticed a pile of feathers on the far side of a brook we snowshoed beside. (Notice how I used this photo as an intro so that those who didn’t want to deal with the aforementioned gore could exit with a beaver image in their minds?)
Here’s how it all began. First, a few of us glimpsed a large bird that we thought was an owl, fly off with something in its mouth. Though we were supposed to be looking for shadows, our nature distraction disorder (NDD being the best kind of disorder to possess) took over and we decided to walk quietly in hopes that we might spy the owl in a tree. Imagine a group of curious people on snowshoes attempting to walk quietly. But we did. Or so we thought. Until three ducks flew up out of the brook and headed in the same direction as the owl.
Shortly after, we spotted this scene and two of us decided that once the public hike ended, we’d find our way to the other side and try to decipher the story of the feathers and the blood and the slides. I was sure I knew the predator.
As we approached, we spotted wing marks at the base of a tree.
What we’d seen from the other side was the plucking station where the predator had pulled the feathers off to get to the meaty part of its avian meal.
Once the bird was plucked, then it dragged it up the hill and sat down to dine behind the tree. Do you see the circular area where the predator left an impression. I’m sure the prey was not at all impressed, though by this time it was . . . dead.
Here’s another look from the dining table down toward the plucking site and the brook below.
Of course, I need to give you a closer look–at the duck’s entrails. I often find these left behind at a kill site and wonder why. Do they not taste good? Is there some sort of bacteria that makes them indigestible? Or do they not offer any discernible nutrition?
Another body part not to be overlooked was the foot with its tendons still attached that sat on the dinner table beside the entrails. Can you see the webbing between the toes? That confirmed our ID that the prey was a duck. But who was the predator? We looked around for mammal prints and found none.
What we did find was a slide. Actually there were a couple of slides. And as I often do, I wanted to confidently say that an otter was the predator. But . . . rather than seeing otter tracks in any of the slides, there were wing marks beside them. From the duck? Or someone else?
We hunted around as we tried to decipher the story. It appeared that quite a struggle had taken place.
And no feather had gone unplucked.
The bright red blood was quite fresh and I could just imagine the pain the duck endured.
While most of the blood was at the plucking station, there was some on a small mound on the brook and again I wondered: was that where the initial attack occurred?
As I said, we found no signs of a mammal, but we did find large splatters or splays of bird feces. Birds don’t produce urine and instead excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, which emerges as a white paste for most.
Fellow tracker, Dawn, and I also found several long shots of excrement that I cannot explain, but perhaps the owl had spent some time up in the tree?
I guess by now you’ve figured out that our assumption was that the owl we saw fly off was the predator. That’s the story we’re telling anyway about how this particular duck lost its tail and its life.
But . . . think of it this way: Plants the duck fed on were primary producers who used energy from the sun to produce their own food in the form of glucose. The primary producers were eaten by the duck, a primary consumer. The duck was then eaten by the owl, a secondary consumer. Who knows how the duck’s tale will actually end because we don’t know who might eat the owl. In the midst of it all, however, energy flowed and in this case may continue to flow from one trophic level, or level of the food chain, to the next.
I know you expected a Mondate, and my guy and I did explore Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, today as I prepped for a Maine Master Naturalist field trip related to tree bark and buds, but the story of the duck and owl have been forming in my brain for a few days. And then this morning another tracker sent me this email:
Subject: Tracking Forensics:
Weird thoughts in the early morning…
I was thinking about the Tracking Tuesdays that you lead on the GLLT properties and about how similar they are to all those CSI shows – coming in a day or two after the events have occurred and trying to piece together who was there and what happened. From seemingly little information you figure out who was there, what they were doing, where the gang hangs out, and sometimes who killed whom.
Bring in the TV cameras!
That’s when I knew I should take a chance with the blood and guts story. Nature can seem brutal, but it’s all part of the system.
Dedication: This one is for Pam and Bob Katz for leading the Shadows Hike that led us to make this discovery; for Dawn Wood who helped me interpret the site; and for Joe Scott who sent the email. Bring on the TV cameras indeed!
As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.
Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.
My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.
And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.
Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:
Gap in the overstory
Trees over 30 feet tall
Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
Some age variety
Snags over 6 feet tall
Large downed wood
I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.
But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.
I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.
There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.
Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.
I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.
After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.
But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.
In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.
A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.
And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.
Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?
In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.
My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.
Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.
And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.
Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?
But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.
Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!
Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.
And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.
A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.
Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.
It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.
Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.
With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.
The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.
As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!
Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!
Perhaps it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time. Or, taking the time to look. Really look.
You might stay there’s nothing extraordinary about pine needles, right? As you probably know, the needles (aka leaves) of Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus grow in packets or bundles of five. W-H-I-T-E or M-A-I-N-E is a mnemonic we use to remember how many needles on the White Pine since they spell “white” for its name or “Maine” because it is the State tree.
A word of caution, however, in that department. If a White Pine has five needles, then a Red Pine, Pinus resinosa, must have three needles in a bundle, correct? False. They actually have two much longer and stiffer needles that break cleanly when bent in half.
Back to the White Pine of my attention. What I’ve been noticing is that suddenly there are clusters of needles bound together. This is the work of the larval form of a Pine Tube Moth, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. What typically happens is that the caterpillar uses between ten and twenty needles to form a tube or hollow tunnel.
This past week, for the sake of science and understanding, of course, a friend and I split a tube open to see if anyone was home. Indeed, we had our first view of the tiny caterpillar, which looked like it had an even tinier aphid atop it.
And then one day later in the week, I happened to spot some action at the tip of a tube. The caterpillars move up and down their silk-lined tunnels to feed on needles at the tip.
And once I spotted that, no pine has gone unnoticed. Much to my delight, I discovered a few more active caterpillars today.
One even honored me by demonstrating how it sews the needles to fasten them to the structure.
Back and forth it moved, excreting silk that formed a ladder-like web. When the time comes, the caterpillar will create another tube and do the same thing until it is ready to pupate overwinter.
The moth will emerge in April, when I’ll need to pay attention again. Two generations occur each year and those that overwinter are the second generation.
So now that you know, see if you can find a tube. Maybe you’ll be lucky as well and will get to see the caterpillar. It is only about one third of an inch long, so you’ll really have to look for a wee bit of movement at the tip of the tube. What I learned is that if I went in close with a loupe, it retreated.
This is certainly not just another tube left in the woods–now you know that these are the homes of the native Pine Tube Moths, who fortunately, are not considered a significant pest.
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.
iWhat I’ve discovered is that in sunshine and rain, the place is alive with action from Honeybees and Gnats . . .
to Paper Wasps,
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).
Bumblebees were also full of buzz and bluster and it was they who reminded me of one important fact.
The color of the storage baskets on their hind legs depends upon the color of the pollen grains in the plants they’ve visited.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some days I felt like she might just be Charlotte, writing a message only Wilbur could interpret.
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.
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.
Perhaps she was surveying the area as she waved her front legs, looking about her domain.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ah rain. We need rain. I love rain. Our weary land that was so parched in June is suddenly refreshed by rain. And our plans are changed by rain, but that’s okay because it provides opportunities for us to consider other trails than those intended.
And so it was that we headed onto a local community forest this morning between rain drops.
The trail, terrain, plants, and weather gave us the sense of wandering in Scotland. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking.
As we explored, our hopes lifted as hang clouds decorated the backdrop behind erratic boulders.
And birds like this handsome Field Sparrow sang and gathered food, presumably for nestlings.
In the mix, Catbirds meowed.
But what mattered most to me were the insects and I expected so many, but was disappointed by so few. I did spy this Band Net-Winged Beetle on a Spirea, its bright coloration shouting a footnote of its offensive taste to predators.
Similar in Halloween costume color choices was the Small Milkweed Beetle, its main plant source a week or two past, but note the heart on its back–a sign of forever love. Interestingly, Small Milkweed Beetles help gardeners enjoy the milkweed plant and the butterflies that are attracted to them without having to worry that milkweed may overtake the garden.
To keep the party going, a Blue and Red Checkered Beetle happened onto the scene. Checkered Beetles occur where there’s a large supply of nectar and pollen.
Of course, with all this goodness, there has to be at least one in hiding–in this case a Goldenrod Crab Spider on a Bristly Sarsaparilla.
We spied him as we walked out with a sandwich from Eaton Village Store on our minds, and then again as we hiked in for a second time and then finally out again.
Upon our return, though it had poured as we ate, the rain abated and Ossipee Lake made itself visible.
It was on that second visit that I finally noted a honeybee working frantically to fill its honey pots.
So did small skippers such as this Dun Skipper upon the early blossom of Joe Pye Weed, his proboscis probing the not yet opened flowers.
With the rain abating, the Pye Weed soon became a plant of choice. Among its guests was a Great Spangled Fritillary all decked out in stripes, dots, and commas.
Because the flower hadn’t fully opened, the Fritillary’s proboscis curled in true butterfly behavior.
Suddenly, or so it seemed as the temp slightly rose, pollinators came out of hiding, including a Silver Spotted Skipper, its spot shouting its name.
Toward the end of our adventure, my heart rejoiced with the spot of a Green Lacewing, one of the subtle offerings in the wooded landscape.
It was just such a landscape that appealed to us today and we tossed all other trail choices into the pot for future expeditions. If you know my guy, you know what is to come.
Little fruit morsels became the object of his attention.
You and I know them as Low-bush Blueberries.
He knows them as the source of his Blueberry Greed.
All in all, he filled a couple of bags (and I helped! a little bit, that is). I have to say that I was amazed by the sight of all the little blue fruits for so few seemed the pollinators of the day. What I’ve shared with you was it. Literally. In number.
Yesterday my friend Joe Scott, an avid birder, shared this information with me from a New Hampshire Bird Listserve:
“The absence of insects obviously impacts insectivorous bird species. In Knight Hill Nature Park in New London, [NH] for the last two weeks, there have been 27 fully blooming butterfly weed plants, hundreds of common milkweed plants and two pollinator apartment blocks, but no insects! Oh, on any given day, perhaps one or two butterflies and half a dozen bumble bees. Ten years ago, at this time of year, these plants would be covered with butterflies, bees and other insects, as many as 20 species of butterflies and 10 species of bees.”
Today’s Mondate Blues represents those who don’t like the rain, or my guy and his blueberry greed, or the lack of pollinators or my color of choice. I’m just happy that we got out there and found so many sources of goodness on this wet day.
Are you ready for some more in the dragonfly tales? I thought for this second edition, and actually the third and fourth to follow, I’d stick with the stocky Skimmer family.
We’ll begin with the Four-spotted Skimmer, (Libellula quadrimaculata. I shouldn’t have favorites, but this is one. It’s as if it was given the crown jewels to display.
The name comes from the black spots at the nodus (that point in the wing where it appears notched and some veins begin) about halfway across each wing, and stigma at the wing’s tip. If you count going across, you have four spots. If you count instead the fore and hind wings, you have four spots, making for an easy ID when one perches to consume a meal like this one did.
And then there is that incredible stained-glass black basal spot on the hind wing that is interwoven with amber venation. My heart be still.
Look for Four-spotted Skimmers near shallow water during the summer season. I saw this one in a meadow located between a brook and lake.
As you can see, the lighting wasn’t quite right on this lady, but notice how her coloration is sorta similar to the Four-Spotted, thus forcing the brain to work. I have to slow myself down when in the field and remember key characteristics. Both may share shades of brown and creamy yellow, but upon closer inspection, they aren’t the same at all. The clue to the identity of this skimmer is the white stigmas on the wings. To my knowledge, no other dragonfly shares this feature. (Till one does, of course.) And in the case of this female Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), the tips of her wings are dark.
Those white stigmas really stand out on her male counterpart. Spangled Skimmers fly in my neck of the woods. from June through August near lakes and ponds and fields and woodlands, so keep your eyes open for the white flags.
A bit smaller in size to the Four-spotted and Spangled, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is another handsome specimen. That white face. Those green eyes. Can you see that the eyes have a metallic blue hue on top? His female’s eyes are red over gray, though they also turn green as she matures.
In a combination of colors, the thorax is striped, abdomen bluish with a black tip, wings with an amber base patch, and then, of course the eyes and face.
Floating or emergent vegetation, such as this Spadderdock, are preferred as Blue Dashers are spotted throughout the summer season. I’ve read that some migrate along the Atlantic Coast.
Some dragonflies are easier to identify than others because of unique features and such is certainly the case with the Widow Skimmer ((Libellula luctuosa). It’s the large dark patch that stretches from the base of the wing to the nodus that gives away her identity. Where her abdomen has a dark stripe down the middle that widens toward the tip, and yellow stripes on each side, his abdomen is entirely gray blue above. And his wings feature the same black patch with an adjacent white patch reaching almost to the stigma. Do you see a. bit of the whitish patch on the wings?
Perhaps the white is a little more evident now? I think I’m correct in stating that this brown-eyed specimen is an immature male due to the hint of white as well as the dark face. While both male and females have brown eyes, his face is dark, where hers is tan. Does that make this a widower? Hmmm. Not sure how that works. The Latin luctuosa in its scientific name refers to feeling sorrowful and I suppose these dragonflies were considered to be wearing black in mourning.
While they are summer fliers beside water bodies, fields, and woodlands, I’ve only ever encountered this one . . . that I can remember.
And just when you thought you had it, another species with black patches on its wings flies into the scene. But, there are differences. First, there’s the dark, wide crossband stretching from top to bottom of each wing and from nodus to stigma. Then, there’s the basal patches: black on fore wings; black with a white patch below on hind wings.
This dragonfly is known as a Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Huh? Well, you are actually looking at an immature male. The female is similar in that she also has the yellow slashes along the sides of her abdomen, but she lacks white patches on her hind wings. So how does the “whitetail” fit into the name?
The abdomen being the tail, this male demonstrates how the name came to be. I may have used the term “pruinosity” before, but this mature male surely illustrates it–a frosted or powdery appearance caused by pigment on top of an insect’s cuticle that covers up the underlying coloration. It’s my understanding that for some dragonflies like Blue Dashers and Common Whitetails, displaying pruinescence on the abdomen to other males is a territorial threat.
Common Whitetails are also summer fliers who prefer to perch on or just above the ground.
Finally, the last species for today, which is hardly the least. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifaciata)because I only just made its acquaintance this summer. My first thought when we met was that it was a Calico Pennant Skimmer. I got the skimmer correct, but not the actual ID. Notice that cherry-colored face that is tan on the sides. That gave me the first inkling that I might be on the wrong track.
The wings provided the next clue. While the Calico has dark patches on its wings, the Painted features bands that extend from top to bottom toward the tip of each wing about halfway down beginning at the nodus. Likewise, the abdomen differs for each species, with the Calico’s featuring heart-shaped spots, while Painted’s is brown with yellow sides and black triangles and lines on segments 6 and 7, plus wide black stripes on segments 8 through 10.
This is a face I hope to remember for a long time as the Painted Skimmer and I got to know other during a few brief moments along a forest road near a river in June. Until we meet again . . .
One final note: if you are with me in the field, I may not remember every little detail or the common name. I definitely won’t know the scientific name. But the more time I spend with them and the more I study and write about them, the more I learn and I hope you are learning a wee bit as well.
I leave you with my latest creation: Indigo Skimmer (Libellula indigofera), formed from deconstructed blue jeans.
Somehow the words my high school Spanish and Latin teacher, Mr. Cretella, wrote in my yearbook have always stayed with me: “Never lose your desire to learn.” Indeed. That said, in Latin 1 during my senior year, if I couldn’t remember the answer, I substituted a Spanish term. I don’t remember how he reacted to that–probably with a groan on the outside and a smile within.
And so, my friends, please join me as I continue to learn about Odonatas, aka dragonflies and damselflies , those winged insects we all love to celebrate because they eat those that bug us the most, including blackflies and mosquitoes. Hmmmm, what about ticks?
Periodically, over the course of the summer my intention is to share some information and/or story with you about these predatory fliers. I may not always be correct, but hey, that’s how I learn, and I hope you’ll wondermyway for the journey.
One distinction I want to make is that mature dragonflies always have their wings spread out whether in flight or perching, while damselfly wings are together over their backs when perching (except for the Spreadwing family of damsels).
With 468 North American Species of Odonates at this time (new discoveries are always being made), Maine is home to 160 species.
One thing I want to point out about dragonflies is that the abdomen consists of ten segments. That will become important for identification purposes.
I thought we’d begin with the dragonflies known as Skimmers.
Skimmers, like the Four-Spotted Skimmer above, are the most ubiquitous dragonflies and range in size from small to large. They tend to have stocky bodies and spend much of their time perching on the ground and other flat substrates near muddy ponds and stream.
Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers are active May through July.
This chunky northern male skimmer has dark markings at the base of his otherwise clear wings. His hind wing patches are triangular, and the forewing patches are smaller or non-existent.
He has dark brown eyes and a black face. Notice the whitish/grayish/bluish stripes on his thorax–those are his “corporal” stripes.
The first half of abdomen is the same color and the rest of it is black.
Chalk-fronted Corporals tend to be in dense populations. Often, as I walk along a woodland path or beside a pond, these dragonflies lead the way, flying a few feet ahead, stopping on a rock or something else ahead of me and then as I approach, moving ahead again.
This baker’s dozen I spotted on a rock beside a small mountain pond.
The Female Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmer’s eyes are brown and face tan. But where his thorax was whitish gray, her’s is brown.
Her abdomen, however, is like his.
Would you have guess that this was an immature form of the same? Just when you thought you nailed the Chalk-fronted Corporals. The immature features a lovely orangey brown with a black strip down the middle. The immature stage last for about two weeks in any species.
Active June through August, Slaty Blue Skimmers are about two in length.
The mature male is entirely blue except for black face and brown eyes. I typically find them flying and perching beside lakes and ponds.
Notice how he doesn’t have the patches at the base of his wings like the Corporals did.
Like most species, the female Slaty Blue has a look all her own with a brown thorax highlighted with yellowish-tan stripes. Her abdomen has a dark brown to black stripe down the top with a yellowish-tan stripe along the sides.
She’ll darken with age to a uniform brown or gray color and her eyes will become red-brown. Immature of both sexes resemble a young female, just to confuse you more.
Much smaller in size at about 1.2 inches as compared to a two-inch Slaty Blue are the Calico Pennants, active May through August.
The male has red heart-shaped spots on abdomen segments 4 to 7 (remember, all dragonflies have 10 abdominal segments so you need to start at the base below the thorax and begin counting from there.)
All four wings have a small dark patch at the wing tips. And the hindwings have a large, mottled dark patch at the base which reminds me of stained glass.
The stigma, on the leading edge of each wing toward the wingtip, and the face are red.
His claspers at the end of the abdomen are also reddish.
The female is the same as her male counterpart, but her spots and stigma are yellow. Again, it’s that stained glass effect that captures my attention.
From May through September you might spot an Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer near a lake or pond.
The entire thorax and abdomen of a Male Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer are powder blue; and his claspers at the tip of the abdomen are white.
Often found perching on lily pads, his face is green and eyes blue.
The female Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer is bright green with black markings. Her green thorax is unstriped.
In flight from May through August, the Dot-tailed Whiteface male is an easy one to identify in the field. First, there’s that white face. But wait. Some other dragonflies also have white faces, so don’t stop there. While his eyes are brown, his body is black overall, but he has a conspicuous yellow spot on segment 7.
You might not recognize his mate as being a Dot-tailed because, well, she has lots of dots. Her abdomen is yellow at the base and then large dots on segments 3 through 6, with a smaller one on segment 7. She also has along the sides of her abdomen.
There are more to share just in the Skimmer family, but for the first edition of Odonata Chronicles, we’ll leave it at that. Five species with so much variation is a lot to digest.
Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all, about the circle of life.
A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool located in the woods behind our house.
Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days.
Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed. And what’s not to love about the unique tapestry, a pattern never repeated.
With keen eyes I’d gaze in, but at first my focus was only upon the reflection offered by the bare-limbed trees above.
And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool.
The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner.
A day or two later, her deposited eggs already swelled with water, presented themselves like a tapioca pudding popsicle.
Soon they were joined by so many other globular masses making a statement that living in community is safer than upon your own and might provide warmth when the temperature dips.
Inevitably it did dip, and one day snowflakes frosted the rocks and ground, sugar-coated the tree branches, and plopped like leaden raindrops, rippling the water’s surface.
But . . . the embryos still formed.
With each visit it became more and more apparent that a vernal pool isn’t just about Wood Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and midges and beetles and mites and water striders and squirrels and deer and raccoons and snakes and so many others benefited regularly from its nourishment. Even the resident Barred Owl liked to call occasionally. But perhaps the most prolific residents were the mosquito larvae who wriggled and tumbled through the water column.
Predacious Diving Beetles intent upon creating more of their own, lived there as well.
One of the curious wonders about those who use a vernal pool as a breeding ground is that they don’t stay around to parent their offspring. If fact, once canoodling is done, they either hop, climb, or fly out and spend the rest of their lives in the forest.
Despite the lack of nurturing, within two weeks tadpoles emerged. Hundreds at first. And then . . . thousands.
A month later, as the pool began to shrink significantly because it is vernal, and fed only by rain or snow melt, my tadpoles, so claimed since I’m about the only one who checks on them regularly, started to show off their more adult form in the making.
Suddenly . . . a few sweltering days later and all the water had evaporated.
Stepping toward the center with hope, I was instead greeted with the horrific odor of decaying bodies and a Flesh Fly confirmed my suspicions.
Also buzzing all about were Green Bottle Flies and the reason for so much frantic activity: carnage by my feet.
But I soon came to realize that while not all the frogs had transformed in time to leave the pool, many must have and it still teemed with life–of a different kind.
American Carrion Beetles also stalked this place of death.
Over and under leaves, the Carrion Beetles moved as they mated. The rotting tadpoles provided a place for them to lay their eggs and a food source for their future larvae. This was true for the flies and even little mites who live in a symbiotic relationship with the beetles and eat fly eggs so the beetle larvae have the carrion to themselves.
As I watched, one canoodling pair of beetles flipped over and if you look closely, you might see he was on top (or the bottom in this case) and biting one of her antennae as part of their mating ritual.
At last it was with great sadness that I said goodby to those who could not, but leaving the stench and frantic activity behind, I reminded myself that this happens each year and there’s a reason why frogs lay so many eggs. Without my witnessing it, some, possibly many, did hop away from the pool. And next year they’ll return to carry on the ritual. Until then, the flies and beetles and so many others will bring new life and by November the depression will fill again waiting for the saga of the vernal pool to continue.
In parting, here’s a quick video of the sights and sounds.
Someone recently commented that I am so fortunate to have a job that I thoroughly enjoy and she was right. I am extremely grateful and love that once again I can share the outdoor world with others who have the same sense of wonder . . . as well as questions. And eyes to see and brains to share.
And so it was that this week began with an attempt to watch dragonflies transform from aquatic swimmers to aerial fliers. I was so certain. Twice. Yes, twice I dragged people to a spot where a friend and I had had the honor of watching such an emergence exactly one year ago. And twice I was foiled. We all were. But . . . no one complained because there were other things to observe. And this young man is one fantastic observer. He has eagle eyes, for sure. As he peered into the water, he spied a winged ant walking along a stick.
Pulling the stick up, he took a closer look and though at first I thought it was an Alderfly, he was indeed correct in calling it an ant.
Notice the elbowed antennae? And those mandibles?
Unlike termites, Carpenter Ants don’t eat wood, but they do damage it as they excavate to make room for more ants. So what do they eat? Scavenged insects (sometimes you might see them dragging an insect home), and honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on vegetation.
Black Carpenters, such as this one, occur in forested areas like we were in, and nest in dead wood of standing trees, fallen longs, and stumps. Though no one wants them in a home, they do play an important role in the ecosystem as they help decompose wood back into soil. Plus they consume many forest pests.
Enough ant love, I suppose. Why this one was walking along a twig in the water we’ll never know. Unless one of us accidentally kicked it in as we looked for dragonfly nymphs. If that was the case, the ant was rescued thanks to the one with the eagle eyes.
Our attention then shifted right, where we’d spent a couple of days observing one or two small water snakes basking on logs. Each time, we were certain they were young snakes. Until they weren’t.
Suddenly, one larger snake came onto the land and as we watched it met the smaller snake.
And then the smaller climbed atop the larger and we thought perhaps it was a mother/child relationship. None of us had ever witnessed it before and so it was most definitely a learning.
Together, they twisted and turned as the smaller snake’s tail wrapped around the larger body.
Every once in a while their heads would twitch.
Upon doing some research at home, we all learned that indeed we’d been watching the canoodling behavior of Northern Water Snakes. She is the larger and would have reached maturity at three years of age; while smaller males do so by twenty-one months. It is his great hope that she’ll produce live young by the end of the summer. I suppose it’s her hope as well.
Another day and another shift in attention, again beside water where while still searching for emerging dragonflies, a spot of metallic green that moved quickly across the ground turned out to be two more canoodlers, this time in the form of Six-spotted Tiger Beetles. Typically, these beetles fly off as we approach, but their passion for each other slowed them down a wee bit. The white at the front of their faces–their mandibles. They’re beneficial because their diet consists of yummy delights like ants, aphids, fleas, other insects, caterpillars and spiders, which they consume with those formidable sickle-like jaws.
Shifting our attention to the left, we found what we sought. Or so we thought. Yes, an emerging dragonfly, this one in the skimmer family. You can imagine our excitement and we felt like expectant mothers. Or at least midwives as we offered encouraging words.
But all the while as we stood or sat and watched, we had questions. We knew that the conditions had been right for the larva to crawl out of the water and onto a piece of grass.
The adult form had begun to emerge through a split in the thorax.
But what stymied us: By the clearness of the wings and colors becoming more defined on the body, this insect had been trying to emerge for longer than the usual couple of hours it takes. The abdomen should have been completely out of the exuvia, and wings still cloudy. Why was the abdomen stuck?
Every time the dragonfly moved its legs, we were certain the moment was upon us when we would finally see it pull the rest of its abdomen out of the shed skin.
Sadly, two hours later, no progress had been made and we had to take our leave. I returned the next day to find the same dragonfly had given up the struggle. What went wrong? Oh, we knew it would become bird food, but still . . . it left us wondering and in a way we felt bad that we hadn’t intervened and tried to help it.
Shifting locations and attention once again, at the end of the week a bunch of us met at 6:30am and it took a while to get out of the parking lot (I can hear your guffaws!) because high up in hemlock a dash of brilliant red meant we were in the presence of a Scarlet Tanager. For the next three hours, we birded, and in the end saw or heard 34 species. All are recorded here: https://ebird.org/atlasme/checklist/S88671412
In the same place, but down by the brook, for eventually we did leave the parking lot, a Swamp Sparrow entertained us for quite a while. We felt honored, for often we might not see them as they like to forage among the aquatic plants, but given it is nesting season, we were treated to a song.
Though we tried not to shift our attention too much from the birds, occasionally our Nature Distraction Disorder bubbled up, and how could we resist the sight of a Stream Cruiser upon a tree oozing with sap. It wasn’t seeking the sap, but rather, we may have discovered the spot where it had spent the night, given that it was early morning, and damp at that.
One more shift, this last at the end of the day at the end of the work week. This time a co-worker and I were at a sandbar by the outlet of a river into a pond, and a Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper had great reason to stare with concern.
Not far above, atop a Silver Maple snag, one with intense focus watched.
Yeah, I love my job and the people I get to share it with and all that we learn along the way. This was only a brief smattering of this week’s wonders and all that we saw.
I do think in the end, however, that my young friend’s eagle eyes that spotted the Carpenter Ant in the water at the start of the week were the most focused of all.
Sometimes it happens. Well, more than sometimes. One steps out of a vehicle to go for a walk in the woods, and tada . . .
A diminutive butterfly rapidly and erratically skips from stone to stone in the parking lot, before it final settles down for a few moments. Meet a dustywing, a member of the spread-wing skippers who hold forewings and hindwings open when landed.
And then upon a pine sapling, another tiny offering, this one of the click beetles.
The day already feels complete when another winged insect suddenly flies up from where we are about to step and then lands a few feet ahead. We have to have look closely to spy it, but finally do–dragonfly that’s only just over an inch long. The sighting is special because just a couple of hours prior I’d taught a senior college course about Mayflies, Cicadas, and Dragonflies. But the test is on us. Who is this? In some ways it resembls a Calico Pennant Skimmer–the female of the pennant being black with yellow markings. But the shape of the pennant’s yellow on the abdomen is heart-shaped and these are more variable.
We take a few more steps when another wee one garners attention and by its membranous wings and abdomen broadly joined to the body, plus it’s chosen plant, it must be a member of the sawfly family.
A few more steps and we meet it’s cousin, another sawfly on another pine.
As we continue, so do our encounters with our little dragonfly friend and we begin to realize there are many and they are all the same species. But the question remains. What species is it? It can’t be the Calico Pennant because all four of her wings have dark patches at the tips and her hindwings are decorated with blotches of yellow and black at the base that remind me of stained glass. This dragonfly only has small dark patches, at the base, the hindwing’s more triangular shaped and larger than the forewing. And those hindwing patches feature light venation, not colored like a Calico’s.
At last, though it’s not all that far, but takes us at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, we reach a brook where an orbweaver does just that–weaves.
Farther out in the water, a Tree Swallow poses at the top of snag, intent upon its surroundings. We pose as well, though our intention is upon all the vegetation for we seek the exuviae left behind by the dragonflies when they transformed from their aquatic life to terrestrial. We find none, and determine that vegetation in the brook must have served as their life-changing substrate.
Finally leaving the water behind, we once again meet our dragonfly friends. What species is it? Well, the face adds another clue for where the face of a female Calico Pennant is yellow like the hearts along her abdomen, this dragonfly has a white face.
So be it. Continuing along, Striped Maple flowers dangling like a lantern with a string of shades, light the path in a place or two.
And then as we pause upon a bench for a moment, our eyes are drawn to movement upon the ground and we spy a grasshopper who is so well camouflaged that we’re grateful when it finally climbs onto a fallen branch and poses.
At last it is time to walk back to our parked vehicles, but again, along the way we are greeted over and over again by our new friend. Occasionally, we can see the sheen of the wings and realize that the molt had occurred within the last few hours as they hadn’t completely dried.
It’s not until we get home, however, and respectively pour through ID books and bounce ideas off of each other, that we realize the name of our new friend. Meet Hudsonian Whiteface, a member of the Skimmer family. For a bit, we consider Dot-tailed Whitface, but Hudson’s yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, whereas Dottie’s is more like a square.
So many stars align, and except for not finding the dragonfly exuviae, we will always celebrate this day (actually yesterday, May 13) as First Dragonfly of 2021 and give thanks that the real star was a new learning for us.
You must be logged in to post a comment.