Needed: Minds to Wonder

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

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

Hints of autumn’s hues . . .

contrasted sharply with summer’s chlorophyll-induced greens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Completing the Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pollinator Party

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

Enjoy the celebration . . .

White Admiral Butterfly

of life,

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

and work.

Sweat Bee

Of color,

Plain Ringlet Butterfly

texture,

Common Green Bottle Fly

and design.

Little Copper Butterfly

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

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

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

Great Spangled Fritillary

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

Thread-waisted Wasp

Likewise, these insects benefit from the plants they visit.

Viceroy Butterfly

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

Black-tipped Ichnuemon Wasp

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

Monarch Butterfly

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

Great Black Wasp

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

Ambush Bugs

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

Clouded Sulphur Butterfly

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

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

Understanding the Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Inside a Dragonfly’s Head

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

And today, that amazement reached a new level.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth a wonder!

The Happy Fox Trot

I know. I know. I should have taken the bird feeders down two months ago. But I blame it on My Guy because he keeps bringing damaged bags of bird seed home. And because of that, we’ve actually had a delightful time watching all the action at the feeders and below where I scatter plenty of seed on the ground so others can partake.

A pair of Northern Cardinals are the most frequent visitors, and lately he’s taken to making sure she’s well fed. Often she sits and waits rather than helping herself, taking notes on the kind of parent he will be to their offspring.

Chipping Sparrows have also participated in courtship feeding, and just maybe this behavior also strengthens the bond between the two genders.

He did look at me as if to say, “Hey, this is between the two of us. Skedaddle.” And I eventually did disappear.

But when I looked again, I spotted an Eastern Chipmunk filling its cheeks. While this is common behavior, what wasn’t quite so common is that fact that most of its tail was missing. Had a fight occurred or did it narrowly escape becoming a meal?

I’ll never know. Among the most frequent mammal visitors are the Gray Squirrels. And they, along with the Red Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks have learned where we store the seed in the barn and no matter how many times we think we’ve outfoxed them, we soon discover that they’ve been chewing again. We’re now using small metal trash cans, but knowing the prowess of these critters, I doubt we’ve won this battle. And keeping them out of the barn is impossible because it’s an old barn with lots of secret passageways, some that I’m sure we’re not aware of . . . yet.

Some days there are five or six Gray Squirrels foraging for seeds and looking as if they own the place. I suppose they do. We’re merely itinerate tenants and we give thanks that they let us live here.

Oh, and then there’s the neighborhood fox. We haven’t discovered the den yet, but every morning we can expect two or three visits. If it isn’t successful at sneaking up on one of the other critters, and squirrels and chipmunks can outrun a fox, it, too, dines on some seeds.

And then pauses to lick its chops.

But what the fox really wants is a more substantial meal and I suspect it has kits nearby that need feeding.

Unfortunately for the fox, sometimes the American Crows announce its presence and all the little critters run up trees or fly away.

Soon, however, they return. And begin to forage again.

And from high positions, they’ll take a break, and actually pull seeds out of those puffed-up cheeks in order to dine.

And so this morning dawned with a light rain, and just as our Red Fox walked in front of the stones by the garden, I saw a flash of brown run across the flatter rock. R.F. jumped up, looked around, jumped down and gave chase. The fox was unsuccessful.

But that didn’t stop it from returning and though the crows didn’t alert us, the squeal of a Gray Squirrel made us raise our heads and look out the back door.

Breakfast had been secured and the last we saw of the fox, it was trotting away with a meal in its mouth.

The Happy Fox Trot indeed.

Be Present in the Moment

Wandering,

as I so love to do,

found me beside a brook

in the late afternoon

as spring prepares

to give way to summer.

A burst of sudden movement

caught me by surprise,

enhanced especially

because something skittered

across the water

toward me

in a manner

unlike its shy parents.

We spent a few moments together,

the young Wood Duck and me,

as I whispered hello,

and it answered with a squeaky whistle,

before skittering

back across the water’s surface

toward the safety

of the opposite shore.

Because I was standing so still,

another who favors

this riparian habitat

flew in

and I was offered

a few pleasurable moments

to enjoy the beauty

of a male Yellow Warbler.

Finally finding motivation

to continue my journey,

I was stopped in my tracks

when by my feet

I discovered

a patch of sundews

growing in a place

I’ve visited many times

but before this moment

never spotted

them hiding quietly

below ferns

where they could carry out

their stealth carnivorous activities

in an inconspicuous manner.

Back on the path

embellished with the

flowering structures

of Maple-leaf Viburnum,

the fervent behavior

of Long-horned Flower Beetles

drew my attention

as two canoodled

in the midst

of so many others

conducting a pollinator dance.

A brief bushwhack

found me staring into

the remains of

an ephemeral vernal pool

that only a week ago

teemed with

thousands of tadpoles,

but now in

its puddle-size

bubbled with those

who hoped for

a quick metamorphoses,

or at least,

that was my hope

for them.

Beside the brook again,

my heart quickened

once more

as I suddenly realized

I was staring into

the richest of porcelain blue eyes.

That I could recall

we’ve met only

once before,

but in this very same spot,

which will forever

be known as

the Lilypad Clubtail Dragonfly

meeting spot.

Upon a different shrub

a few feet away,

another flew in

and asked to be recognized

by the color

of its face

and markings upon

its abdomen,

but it was

the glossy wings

that made me realize

I was greeting

a not-long emerged

Belted Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly.

Finally making my return

along the same path,

a sight that had

eluded me earlier

now asked to be acknowledged

and I couldn’t help

but think

how much a

Beaked Hazelnut

resembles the body

of a dragonfly.

As my wander

drew to a close

and evening set in,

I was honored

one last time

with the first view

this year

of a tiny skimmer

with big personality

as expressed

by its colors and patterns

including the red hearts

along the abdomen

of this, a male Calico Pennant.

To say I went forth

without expectation

would be wrong

for I fully expected

to spy some cranes

or a beaver at work,

and certainly the resident moose

who keeps tempting me

with its tracks,

but to encounter

the unexpected

reminds me to be

grateful and present

in each moment.

On this occasion I was.

A Whisperer’s Mondate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Fly or Not to Fly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Another Boring Mountain Mondate

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

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

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

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

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

A funny name for such a diminutive and delicate display.

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, our hometown mountain stood out in the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

And so I began to circle around the trunk.

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

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

Peering Into The Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Signs

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

whether beside rushing waters that nourish with sight and sound,

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

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

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

Notice the wee fiddleheads rising up beside Polypody ferns,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wonder-filled Easter Parade

While bonnets are on display each Easter in New York City, the parade takes a different form in the wilds of Maine. This year’s festivities began in the late afternoon of Good Friday.

It was then that this handsome Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapped an announcement inviting everyone to the avenue.

A River Otter was one of the first to arrive, pausing in the midst of playing with a relative.

From a branch above, a Grackle showed off its iridescent spring finery as it viewed the procession below.

Fluttery marchers moved along, pausing in their routines before flying high and then dancing toward the ground again.

Willows stood along the way, waving flowery flags to the tap of the music.

And Ring-necked Ducks wondered what all the frivolity was about.

The route changed over the course of the weekend, and Saturday night found it along a backroad where Wood Frogs showed off their float techniques and sang love songs as rain drops fell.

A female heard the band and hurried across the road to get to the other side. (She may have had some help)

Spring Peepers high-pitched notes filled the air and all felt a sense of excitement despite the weather.

As the night went on, the grand marshal, a Spotted Salamander, finally arrived.

Actually, there was more than one grand marshal and some needed a little help to get to the grand stand so they could watch and participate in the action.

And then Easter Day dawned and after a festive church service, the parade resumed, this time along a gated Forest Road where Beavers had created sculptures to decorate the way.

Those Beavers had completed other work and due to the footwear of some of the onlookers, the route had to be changed for crossing the beaver dam proved a challenge.

Instead, it followed miles and miles of Forest Roads, where brooks contributed happy babbling songs to compliment the local Wood Frog and Spring Peeper chorus.

It wasn’t just music, though. Balsam Fir natural essence rainbows reflected bird balloons for everyone to enjoy.

As the parade neared its end, an early spring flower known as a Coltsfoot, appeared along the way.

And suddenly there were three, a trinity. Faith, Hope, and Love. Sunshiny faces for all to see.

Then a Sapsucker tapped the final announcement. This may not be New York, but the weekend’s Easter Parade has drawn to a close and hope, and awe and wonder are in the air.

Recipe for Early Spring Pie

Preheat your outdoor oven to 55˚ Fahrenheit or so.

Prepare several mixing bowls that include wetland scenes.

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

A brook for another.

And maybe even a stream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top with the sky blue reflection of a local river.

Use a Painted Turtle shell to store your concoction.

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

and dive in quickly with forked tongue.

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

Bon Appétit!

May the Best Wruck Win

Rainy days that turn into sunny days are the best days of spring. And today was one such. That meant, of course, that I needed to visit one of my favorite wet spots.

Along the way, because it was raining, I noticed the White Pines were foaming at the mouth! What really occurred: sap salts and acids that had accumulated on the bark’s surface mixed together in the rain and formed soapy suds. The rainbow colors and hexagonal forms–worth a natural engineering wonder.

And upon a moss covered tree stump . . . a million more tiny bubbles dangling from reproductive capsules creating a hint of the future.

At the pool, one might say raindrops distorted the reflections captured on the surface. Or perhaps they enhanced it with a design that was ever evolving.

Bubbles kept forming as the raindrops fell . . . and then they’d burst. Just prior to their disappearance, however, they mirrored the canopy above the pool.

Oh, and do you spy what I spied? Wood Frog eggs . . . tadpoles in the making. But all the while that I stood there, and it was a while as the rain fell, not a frog did I spot.

As the skies cleared late in the afternoon, again I headed to the pool. Click on the arrow above and you should hear what I heard. A chorus of wrucks.

Of course, once I stood beside the pool, the frogs had all disappeared. But, with a bit of sun shining, I suddenly could see that in the last week numerous egg masses had been laid in communal style, as is the Wood Frog manner.

Some even exhibited the green hue indicating that mutualistic symbiosis, or a relationship between algae and developing embryos, was already underway. Shallow, ephemeral ponds such as this one, experience severe oxygen depletion during periods of high sunlight and warmth. The algae provides oxygen for the tadpoles, allowing them to survive longer and grow larger before metamorphosis, while the algae receive carbon dioxide from the tadpoles, which aids algal growth.

And then, ever so slowly, frogs silently floated to the surface, and waited . . . for that special woman to happen along. The fact that I had happened along, didn’t turn out to be special enough and so most were silent rather than wrucking as they waited . . . for me to disappear.

And then . . . and then the water began to boil. It took me a moment to realize what I was witnessing.

That moment expanded into about ten minutes as several male frogs tried to outwit each other and grab one female in amplexus.

She occasionally chirped her discontent, but that didn’t stop the good old boys from trying to do their thing.

Around and around they went, this threesome or foursome or fivesome, for it seemed to be an ever evolving grouping.

Her swollen belly betold the fact that she had eggs that needed to be fertilized, but which of these Romeos would win the right to externally fertilize her bounty?

They tumbled and tussled. She chirped. They tumbled and tussled some more.

They calmed down for a moment, but still no decision had been made.

And then, if you click on the arrow above and listen, you’ll hear what the frogs and I heard . . . as a Barred Owl called its “Who Cooks For You?” phrase several times. The frogs split up and I’ll never know which of the best wrucks one, but I suspect one of them finally succeeded in its quest to sire the next generation.

Dedication: This post is for Patti and Kate and Billy and Rob (Howie) and Johnny, in honor of your mom, Bobbie, who passed from this world to the next today. At the sight of each bubble that the day offered, it seemed another memory popped up. And I’m pretty sure we are all living proof that eating her raw Congo Bar dough adds years to ones life. Virtual hugs to all of you. And Tommy too.

Hug An ASH Mondate

My guy and I began this day with a list . . . of things to do and places to go, all within about 15 miles from home. Our starting point was our camp, where I wanted to do a few things inside, while he picked up branches that had fallen over the winter.

Once our chores were completed, we paused for a moment and enjoyed the view of Shawnee Peak Ski Area at Pleasant Mountain and the almost iced-out northern basin of Moose Pond.

Maybe the ice finally went out this afternoon, but the longer it stays, the better in my opinion. Not all that long ago we could predict the event to occur in mid-April, but sadly everything is happening earlier than it should.

From there we hiked up a hill on some land we own behind his store because he’d recently spotted a site he knew I’d appreciate: a carpet of Eastern Hemlock twigs. We looked up, but no porcupine was in sight.

Following a quick lunch at home, we headed off for a quick hike up Mount Tir’em where another porky tree greeted us beside the trail.

From the summit, we spied first Keoka Lake to the east, its ice still in.

And Bear Pond to the south, also still covered in ice. And yes, toward the west, that is Pleasant Mountain and the ski area of the earlier photo.

No trip up this mountain is complete without a visit to the glacial erratics that our sons, back in their youth, called The Castle. I’ve always thought of it as offering a great bear cave and so we went in search.

We did find the neighborhood bear who has been keeping an eye on this spot for a number of years now. My, what long, sharp claws you have.

In the best cave though, only this momma bear emerged and she seemed kinda friendly ;-).

Our final adventure of the day found us following several Yetis into the woods.

They led us to this tree, which bespoke a long and gnarled history.

On one side it sported a burl, that strange-looking collection of tree cells. Known as callus tissue, the burl forms in response to an environmental injury such as pruning, disease or insect damage.

On the other side, a tree spirit smiled. They often do if you take the time to look.

Its bark was so stretched that though it remained a bit corky, its diamond pattern had stretched into sinewy yet chunky snakes of furrows and ridges.

Upon the ground a shed limb ready to give nutrients back to the earth that will continue to aid the tree sat in its shadow.

Holes in the tree offered further intrigue . . .

and so my guy climbed up and looked in first.

I followed and couldn’t believe the site within. This tree is still producing leaves, thus the xylem and phloem still function, but almost entirely hollow and I fully expected to see a bear or two or a slew of raccoons in residence. Certainly, it would have created a delightful hideaway to sit and read and sketch, and watch . . . life inside and out.

By now you’ve possibly figured this is one mighty big tree . . . and I found this information about it: On October 30, 1969, the Maine Forest Service stated that it was the largest of its species in the state. And in 1976, the bicentennial year, it still held that honor. The dimensions in 1969 were these: circumference 17′ 81/4″, height 70′ and crown spread 77′. I’m not sure if any of those measurements have changed, but I learned last week that is still the biggest of its kind.

So this blog post is entitled “Hug an ASH Mondate.” I actually hugged two ASHes today–this White Ash that deserves to be honored for who knows how much longer it will be around and I was so excited to meet it, but my own ASH as well for if you look at the watermark on the two photos of me you’ll see © ASH. You may have thought that my guy’s initials were M.G., but really they are A.S.H. Hug an ASH. In any form, what an honor.

First Date 2022

I bet you think this is about my guy, but actually, he had no part in this story. Instead, it’s a date of another kind for another species. You see, the other night a friend and I went out for a mini-Big Night. Though it hadn’t been raining long, the temp was about 42˚, and my communication with her and another friend got kinda confusing because first I said, “Let’s go,” then I said “Let’s not go till next week, “then I was afraid one hadn’t received my message so I said to the other, “Let’s go.” And so we did.

Go out that is to a local amphibian road crossing and in an hour’s time we helped six Spring Peepers cross the road. And then on the way home, we saw more and she began to drive like one who is dodging pot holes. One does what one needs to to save the amphibians.

But this isn’t about that date either.

Knowing that the peepers had been on the move, I thought I should check the vernal pool in the woods behind our home. This is former farmland that is now forested with boundaries marked by stonewalls. On March 25th, the pool still had ice on it, but by yesterday, April 1. the ice had finally gone out.

I stood by the edge and peered in, but saw nary a critter as the raindrops fell.

Late this afternoon, April 2, I again returned to the pool and as I approached I didn’t hear any “Wruck, wrucks” of a Wood Frog chorus, but I did spot movement. And so I found a rock on the northern side and waited patiently, hoping against hope that I would be rewarded with a sighting if I stayed as still as possible. Though the sun was warm, there was a brisk breeze and so the marcescent beech leaves wiggled and waggled.

Methinks the breeze was to my benefit because within five minutes frogs began to appear. And among them, this lovely canoodling couple in true Wood Frog form called amplexus. It’s such a great word and means “embrace” for embrace her he does. Notice his foreleg positioned behind hers and her bulging belly. My own excitement increased as I watched these two.

She was in complete control, or so it seemed and he held tightly as she swam from one location to another.

About four feet below me, they found a fallen branch and I wondered if I’d see her lay the eggs contained in that swollen belly that he’d fertilize externally. I certainly had paid for the right seat to watch such action. And speaking of action, do you see the red arrow in the lower right of the photo? How do you spell M-O-S-Q-U-I-T-O larvae? Think of them as tadpole food. And later–dragonfly and damselfly and bird food!

The dating couple weren’t the only residents showing their faces and among all the others were two who had also decided to hang out in my corner, this lighter colored Wood Frog being one . . .

and this darker colored another. Wood Frogs range in color from light tan to dark brown. It’s difficult to differentiate the gender of this species, but I’ve read that the lighter colored ones tend to be females.

Maybe that is true. The darker colored frog certainly wanted to test such a hypothesis. And so he grasped the lighter colored one.

The lighter frog seemed to say this was not a marriage made in heaven.

But still the darker tried.

And tried some more.

But a couple of clucks from the lighter colored frog and at last it was released. Male Wood Frogs do not discriminate when breeding. Anything that moves near the surface of the water is grabbed in hopes that it will eventually lay eggs that the male can then fertilize, including other males and also uninterested females. Maybe he didn’t have the right vocal quality.

At last it was time for the lighter colored frog to relax, all the while hoping for the right mate to come along. Meanwhile, the canoodling couple had found an oak leaf under which to take its interaction. Do you see them?

How about now? I had to wonder if she was laying eggs–that action I so wanted to see, but perhaps she wanted it to be a private moment between the two of them. If so, I had to wonder about their choice of placement, for from my experience of visiting this pool for the last 30 years, this is the side that dries up first and egg masses often end up drying up upon suspended branches that may be in the water now, but won’t be in a month or so if we don’t get enough rain.

At last the dating couple came out from under the leaf and returned to the branch of their original intention. As they did so, I also thought about how this pool has been part of my classroom for so long and the lessons it has offered me. Today was no exception.

And then they took off again, she swimming as he clung on, insistent that he would be the one to fertilize her eggs.

For some reason they chose a rock to next spend time beside and I questioned their choice once more. But . . . they were brilliant to be mating so early for this is a pool that dries up super early and the sooner their eggs are fertilized and laid, the more success that their offspring will survive. That early drying of this pool always leaves me wondering how any frogs and salamanders can possibly return to this particular “natal” place to breed in years following, until I remember that when these species sense that the end draws near, they have the ability to develop more quickly. Pretty darn amazing.

Suddenly, the water boiled on the other side of the pool and I looked over to see what was going on. It appeared that one female was the focus of several males and a ruckus and some clucking ensued as they sorted out the winner.

Meanwhile, the canoodlers continued their tour in search of the right place to deposit an egg mass they’ll never see develop. Such is the life of an adult Wood Frog–no parenting responsibilities to consider. She’ll leave the pond tonight probably. He’ll hang out for another week or two in hopes of scoring again.

In the meantime, plenty of others bide their time with hope on the horizon. They, too, want to be part of the gene pool that permeates from this special place.

At last it was time for me to leave as the battery of my camera had lost its juice. The canoodlers, however, still had much more juice to share on this very first date of a new season.

If I can’t have an 18-inch snowstorm in the next six months, then give me a wetland. Look for me looking for other first dates in this place and other wetlands going forward. I can’t wait to see what awaits.

Patience as the Season Unfolds Mondate

We do LOVE winter, my guy and I, but really, we appreciate all of our seasons and can’t imagine living in a place where we can’t experience each in its own right and the change from one to the next.

And so today, with the temp in the low 20˚s and wind chill making it feel even colder, we donned our micro-spikes and headed up a snowmobile trail to begin our search for the current season.

Icicles that we were sure had formed overnight, since the weekend temps had been much warmer, formed along a stream that flowed toward Slippery Brook, for our trail of choice was in the White Mountain National Forest.

In other seasons, one can either drive to our destination, or go via snowmobile, but for the time being the gates to Forest Road 17 in Chatham, New Hampshire are closed to vehicular traffic. That was fine with us.

At about 2.5 miles, we took a slight detour to take in the sounds and views of Slippery Brook.

It was there on a crossbeam of the bridge where my guy was about to sit that I noticed British Soldier, a common lichen with bright red caps that remain so year-round, but have been hidden from view by snow all winter. It was like meeting a cheery old friend for the first time . . . this sighting.

Along the road also grew many a Hobblebush, another old friend, their naked leaf and flower buds swelling in anticipation of what is to come.

And then we spotted these prints, made by the largest mammal around and though we saw more in other places, this set of four made us wonder if the moose had come in for a landing and then flown off again.

At last we reached the trailhead, and as we approached the pond we noted an immediate dip in temperature, plus an increase in wind. Thankfully, we’d expected such and had dressed for the occasion. That said, it’s hard to search for spring when your cheeks sting with the wind.

A rocky and rooty trail that circles the pond, though fairly flat, requires hikers’ attention at all times of the year and today was no exception. That said, the trail itself offered a snippet of spring.

We reached Mountain Pond at last and by the outlet found some open water, but other than a few chickadees and nuthatches, there were no birds or other forms of wildlife to spy upon as we’d hoped.

Even so, our focus was rewarded in other forms, such as other buds growing larger, like upon this Speckled Alder. And notice that lateral leaf scar–a happy face indeed.

The longer male and shorter female catkins, which are the flowers of the alder, swayed in the breeze, waiting for a future date when they could do just that . . . date.

A few actually seemed ready to mate, though not with each other. While the pendulous male flowers open and extend when their pollen is ready to be dispersed, just above them the tiny, maroon female flowers “bloom” at the same time on the same shrub. In this case position counts and so with the female flowers above the males, self-pollination is discouraged and cross-pollination occurs instead thanks to wind.

Also beside the pond’s shore, the woody structures of last year’s Rhodora flowers, but also its buds enlarging by the day, with promises of exquisite displays making us suddenly want the time to push the clock ahead.

The same was true for the Sheep Laurel, that plump pinkish bud ready to burst open when the time is just right.

As we headed back toward the Forest Road at last, we began to notice exposed trails of Red Squirrels that led from one spruce cone cache to another. Those feisty ones were quiet today, but we suspected they are happy to have more food offerings on the horizon.

Nine miles later as we once again passed by the stream with the icicles and noticed that more had formed, we realized we’d found spring on this Mondate . . . she’s just taking her time and we should follow her example and be patient as this next season unfolds.

Worth the Wait Mondate

It took us a while to get out the door today, but perhaps that was because we knew we weren’t traveling far and we’d have plenty of daylight in which to explore.

Today’s destination: Sebago Lake State Park, a locale whose existence we take for granted and seldom make time to actually visit. But when we do . . . ah. We hiked over five miles today, with a few false starts, but never really getting lost.

It was a blustery but beautiful day and conditions switched from snow to ice to puddles to ice under water to bare ground. And somehow, at exactly noon we reached the summit of the Lookout Trail, where a picnic table painted brown from my guy’s hardware store awaited. Looks like maintenance will need to return to the store for some touchups this spring.

After lunch, we found our way down to the water, which in this neck of the woods looks like the ocean. That said, the Atlantic Ocean is only about thirty minutes away. Sebago Lake State Park, at 1,400 acres, opened in 1938. The lake itself, at 45-square miles, is Maine’s second largest. It’s a place with diverse natural communities, which makes it a jewel.

All of that is fine and well, but my favorite habitat of all we saved until the end. Horseshoe Bog on the park’s west side always has something to offer. It’s called Horseshoe Bog because of its shape. The question was: what would today’s offerings be?

It soon became evident when we began to notice lodges.

And chew sticks floating in a raft-like manner in a wee bit of open water. Because beavers don’t hibernate, they cache or stockpile sticks underwater so they can nibble on them once the pond freezes over in winter.

As pure herbivores, beavers subsist solely on woody and aquatic vegetation.

As we continued along the path, we paused frequently to admire their previous works, some of which hadn’t been successful in terms of felling the trees. Yet.

Others seemed like attempts to perhaps consider on some future date.

And still others made us feel as if we were walking through an art gallery for so unique were their forms.

Though a beaver will chew on any tree, its preferred species include alder, aspen, birch, maple, poplar and willow. 

I’m always in awe when I think about how beavers obtain their food by toppling large trees with no other tools than those specially adapted incisors and powerful lower jaw muscles. Even after years of chewing wood, their teeth don’t become too warn and never stop growing. The four incisors (two top; two bottom) are self-sharpening due to hard orange enamel on the front and a softer dentin on the back. That means the softer backside wears faster, creating a chisel-like cutting surface. And chisel they do.

Moving rather slowly, for I’d asked my guy to change his pace when we began to circle the bog, we counted five lodges, and figured that at least two of them were active. The two bookmarking this photo we weren’t sure about.

Suddenly we spotted some action in the water and my guy caught a glimpse of a critter that swam under the ice and out of our sight. All I saw were the ripples on the water. But . . . that meant that we stopped. For a while. And in flew a small flock of Pine Siskins.

And so they garnered my attention for a few moments.

When I wasn’t searching for more beaver action, that is.

At last we reached another lodge and both of us chose trees on either side of it to hide beside and remain quiet. I have to say that I’m so impressed with how still my guy can be . . . thank goodness for that earlier half-second sighting because he was as eager as I was to spy more activity.

Unfortunately, it was in that moment that my guy finally walked toward me that the beaver did show. He missed the sighting, but for me, it was well worth the wait on this first Mondate of spring.

Dear Mr. Pileated

Dear Mr. Pileated,

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

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

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

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

and sway your head . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

wondermyway.com

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