Bugged by the Otherworldy

There was a time when insects bugged me. Apparently, I’m long beyond that for though I morn the loss of snow and tracking season, I can’t wait for insect season to begin. Ah yes, that is, except for the blackflies, aka Maine’s state bird, or so they should be. But even the blackflies I can endure because I know that they provide food for actual birds and for other insects such as dragonflies. By now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to present a series of dragonfly shots. Not today, but that day will be upon us very soon for in the natural world everything seems to be on time and there is no such thing as The Pause.

Pause, however, I did beside another wetland setting today in a spot where my boots slowly sunk down into the sphagnum moss for the longer I stood the deeper they went, and the stoneflies crawled, their veined wings showing off a stained-glassed window naturally.

If you look closely at the tip of the abdomen that curves out from under the wings, you may see the cerci or paired appendages. They are one of the clues to identification and sighting stoneflies is a great thing because they are intolerant of water pollution.

Of course, when one is looking one sees . . . caddisflies everywhere, though because I was in a different wetland habitat today as compared to yesterday’s vernal pool journey, the shelter of choice differed. Notice how this caddisfly’s home resembles the equisetum upon which it climbs.

But at the risk of boring you with too many caddisfly photos, I moved on (after taking too many caddisfly photos). About an inch to the left, that is. And that’s when I spied a mayfly larva with cerci of three. The thing with mayflies–they can have two or three tails. At this stage mayflies are called nymphs or naiads.

Eventually I made my way over to some false hellebores and what should I spy at the tip of one? A teenager! Well, not exactly, but the subimago or dun form of a newly emerged dragonfly. Notice the cloudiness of its wings–a clue that it isn’t an imago or adult. Mayflies are the only insects that I know of which also molt as adults. Once the final molt occurs, the clear-winged adult will live for a day or two, mate, lay eggs, and then become part of the detritus upon which they fed as nymphs.

Checking the next false hellebore was worth it not only to embrace the design of the ribbed leaves, but hiding within–yes, another subimago.

Again, the cloudy wings were the giveaway.

At a different spot along the water’s edge, a giant of sorts scanned the scene in hopes of snagging a meal. Yesterday I looked for giant water bugs. Today I found not one, but two. My next hope is that someday I’ll get to see a male carrying the nursery his mate deposits upon his back.

But then another sight forced me back into the world of the mayflies for I spotted the exuviae or cast skin of . . . a mayfly larva. Can you see where it split at the top (bottom actually) of the structure.

And just a few inches away, the one who had just emerged from aquatic life . . .

found its feet and began to march toward a new life . . .

as it tried out its balance in the terrestrial world.

Being bugged by insects is one of my favorite ways to be. Even if there are some who annoy or predate, they are all still worthy of our wonder for they each bring something to the natural world–otherworldly or otherwise.

Aqua World

It’s never the same, any visit to a wetland or vernal pool, and such was the case today when I got my feet wet in three different aquatic habitats.

The first was at the edge of a wetland that borders a local lake and it was there that the crazy little springtails taught me a lesson.

I’d gone to see what I might see and first it was a spider, mosquito larva and a few springtails that caught my eye.

But then, I began to notice white springtails floating across the watery surface. Oh, and a water bug of sorts climbing a submerged twig.

For a bit my focus turned to the latter as I noticed his antennae and legs.

And for a second, I considered him to be a small grasshopper, but that didn’t make sense for he was in the water, after all. For now, he’ll remain a mystery until I gain a further understanding.

But then I turned back to the springtails in pure white form. They didn’t move. How could that be? Was I missing something? Or were they actually the molted skins of some of the slate-colored ones that did jump about? My later learning: Some springtails can molt up to forty times, leaving behind white exuviae. After each molt, the springtails look the same.

While watching them, something else caught my eye–a small circle . . . with a thousand legs.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a millipede in the water before. Moist places like our basement, yes. But swimming? Perhaps I just haven’t paid attention.

Or perhaps all the rain that graced our world yesterday caught this one by surprise.

With that find, it was time for me to take my leave.

But my next stop brought pride to my heart.

And I found myself promising a hundred million tadpoles that I will keep an eye on them since their parents have left the nursery unattended. As their surrogate mother, I’m going to worry each day and pray the water doesn’t dry up, the garter snake doesn’t return, and that these little ones will be able to mature and hop out.

A little further on at another vernal pool I met more caddisfly larvae than I ever remember meeting before.

Each sported a log cabin built of shredded plant material and I got to thinking about how they carry their houses with such agility.

Each is a wee bit different and some are messier structures than others. As I watched, one actually flipped over a few times and I finally realized it was adding another layer to the building.

A few took it upon themselves to meet at a social closeness we’ve come to avoid of late, for this one long structure is actually three sharing the same space.

Even the mosquito wrigglers, such as the one in the upper-right-hand corner, captured my sense of awe today. And all of these species got me thinking about their good works. Most feed on algae, detritus and other organic material, so yes, even mosquito larva should be celebrated.

Aqua World–it’s a wonder how it works.

I’m in Frog Heaven

The ice went out on the vernal pool in our woods on April 5th and by the 6th the wood frogs were singing their love songs and egg masses had already been attached to fallen branches.

Once I spy such I become addicted to visiting the pool on a regular basis to keep an eye on the activity. As much as I’d love to bring some home, I know that that would interrupt the natural process and so I do the best I can by peering into the water.

One of my great finds early on turned out not to be as extraordinary as I first thought. What I thought were blue spotted salamander egg masses slowly morphed into wood frog masses. They were laid out like sheets on the floor of the pool rather than attached to sticks as is normally the case. But it didn’t all make sense as up to the point that I spotted those masses, I hadn’t seen any salamander spermatophores.

Daily visits to the pool garnered a better understanding and about two weeks later not only had the spotted salamanders left their deposits on the pool floor . . .

and the next day their eggs on sticks . . .

but the so-called blue-spotted suddenly began to look more like wood frog masses with tadpoles developing inside. Perhaps they were laid at the very edge of the pool by young wood frogs just getting the hang of the annual ritual.

With the help of my son who works for a film editing house in Manhattan, I’ve pulled all of this together into a video so even if you can’t get to a vernal pool, perhaps you can enjoy the magic of this place for a few minutes by clicking on the link and watching: Are You in Frog Heaven?

There’s so much more to come and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the action.

In the meantime, why not create a Frog and Toad Chorus as you stay at home.

In the amphibian world, males sing as a means of attracting a mate and defending a territory.

Here’s how to conduct your own chorus: Assign a species to various family members who will imitate the sound as best they can. Have fun leading your gang as you control who “sings.” And then head outdoors to see if you can identify the species based on your knowledge of the songs they create.

Wood Frog: quacking duck or wruck, wruck in early spring

Spring Peeper: high-pitched peep-peep in early spring

American Toad: sustained trill lasting up to 30 seconds (from your lips or throat), early to late spring

Green Frog: throaty gunk! like banjo strings, late spring – early summer

American Bullfrog: deep, resonant rr-uum, or jug-o-rum, late spring – early summer

Gray Tree Frog: slow, musical bird-like trill lasting 2 or 3 seconds (use your lips or tongue), late spring – early summer

Are you in Frog Heaven? I know I am.

Earth Day 2020

Rounding the corner from the stairway to the kitchen at 6am, dark forms in the field garnered my attention before I had a chance to start the coffee.

What to my wondering eyes should appear but three Tom Turkeys in full display and one deer.

Momma deer looked up from browsing, almost as if she was aware of my presence behind the windows and at a bit of a distance, but the turkeys didn’t care.

They had a much more pressing issue to deal with than the fact that I had just arisen and was gawking. The hen of their utmost attention needed to stop her nit (or was it tick?) picking and look up for a change.

Despite her elusive demeanor, the three continued to display, certain she’d notice one of them.

In turkey terms, to display means standing upright with tail feathers fanned out, wings dragging, and fleshy wattles on the neck, throat, and snood above the beak swollen and bright red. So, to the latter, watch their wattles and snoods as Jen the hen moved back and forth across the field like a tease.

The Toms tried lining up as if to say, “Pick me.”

She told them to take a number. And maybe she’d get back to them when she felt like it.

Two of them began to scuffle in the background, their sense of social distancing far outweighed by their desire for Jen. The third, much more mature Tom, took advantage of that moment to strut his stuff without any competition.

When the other two figured out what he was up to, they quickly scurried over and let their wattles and snoods speak for them. Like an officer checking on his brigade, she did do an inspection. It appeared mature Tom just wasn’t turned on.

And then her friend, Skipper, walked out from the edge of the woods and examined the Toms to see if he could offer any tips.

Again, Jen turned back and as she crossed before the trio once more, they again showed off their excitement.

Still she didn’t seem to care and instead moved over to ask Skipper his thoughts.

But all Skipper really wanted to do was play.

And eat. Meanwhile, the Toms turned as if in a huff.

Apparently Skipper then suggested two of the three as possibilities to Jen and they began to skirmish.

Necks locked together, they moved back and forth as mature Tom watched.

And their molting deer friends browsed nonchalantly behind them.

That is, until Skipper decided that what the Toms were doing looked like play and so he wanted to get into the act.

The scuffle continued across the field first to the left.

And then center stage.

And finally to the right. Meanwhile, Jen and the deer disappeared and mature Tom . . .

paced while the other two continued to fight.

Eventually he took it upon himself to try to separate them but the last I knew they were still at it as they scrambled over a stone wall and into the woods a half hour after beginning their show of dominance. Later, after sipping finally brewed coffee, I went up into the field and then through the woods looking for any evidence of their frenzied behavior but found none.

I did make two other great finds today, however. At the vernal pool behind us, life is beginning to take shape within the egg masses.

And at another vernal pool, this one on Greater Lovell Land Trust property, I scooped up a fairy shrimp.

Call it mere luck, I prefer to think of it as bestowed gifts that upon this day that we honor the Earth, the Earth gave back. She always does, thankfully.

Under the Bubbles

Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.

May it begin with an oval-shaped structure sitting atop a tree stump and filled, curiously, with a red maple samara, the latter’s own shape a decaying, many-veined wing.

Creating an oval by touching your thumb to your pointer finger, may you know the size of this leafy building created to protect a luna moth’s cocoon. Sadly, it seems, the pupal stage that had started life within had been predated. Still, the structure adds a lesson–to notice one that reminded me of an oak apple gall, but wasn’t because of its shape being more oval than round and much tougher than the gall’s papery construction. If you are like me, you’ll need to stick that in the back of your mind the next time you encounter such.

And then may you encounter one whom you know well, but still, each time you greet the Striped Maple twig and bud a sense of awe simply overwhelms you because of its striking beauty demonstrated in the pattern of leaf and bundle scars topped by growth rings over and over again.

As your eyes tune in, may you notice another who is easily overlooked for its diminutive size and may it remind you of work upon the ceilings of cathedrals that is oft under appreciated for so few can view. Each time you come to recognize the tiny, magenta blossoms of Beaked Hazelnut, may you celebrate their existence matched by your noticing.

With your awareness of the hazelnut’s flowers, may you be equally wowed by the occasional presentation of last year’s fruits, beaked as they are.

In the midst of your adventure may you meet a slab that poses a story featuring warriors of the past and may you have fun recreating the saga by letting your imagination flow. What happened here?

And just when you are thinking that there can’t be anything else to spy, may you suddenly spot the barrel-shaped egg cases of Wheel Bugs and wonder who lives within–Ambush Bug or Assassin? What you may know for sure is that the residents are Hemiptera or True Bugs.

Walking five more steps before stopping to wonder again, and then five more and so it goes, may you stumble upon a tussock moth cocoon with life formulating within and consider its possibilities–perhaps a White-marked Tussock Moth?

Next, may a long silky string with a cocoon swaying at the bottom capture your attention.

As you peer within, may you spy a Prometha Moth peering out.

May your viewing opportunities be enhanced by others who also look, including the Six-spotted Fishing Spider, who’s six spots are hidden below its upper abdomen that features twelve.

As you continue to develop an understanding may a forked tongue sniff you out as you sniff the snake out.

In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that to your bubble are attached so many others as you share a brain.

I speak for myself when I say that I appreciate those who answer my questions as Anthony Underwood did today with my many insect photos (and others have done as well on a variety of topics) and I equally welcome your questions about what you are seeing. We may all live under a bubble, but may our bubbles continue to be connected.

Grateful For Your Company

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. Today’s hike found me traveling solo, as is the norm in this current time, but I took each and every one of you along with me because so excited was I by all of our finds.

We began at parking lot #5 of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

As I showed you in the parking lot, our plan was to begin on the Roger’s Family Trail and then circle around on the orange Heritage Loop Trail with a side trip to the summit of Amos Mountain in the midst of the journey. You all agreed that it sounded like a great plan.

I had previously warned you that part of the route could be a bit wet and was pleased to see that some of you had remembered to don your rubber boots, but those who forgot managed to find a way around. I trust no one had wet feet by the time we finished. Was my assumption correct?

Of course, I love water and so before we crossed over the bridge, I insisted that we take a look and try to spy tracks in some mud or aquatic insects or plants springing forth.

Bingo on the latter and we all rejoiced at the sight of False Hellebore with its corrugated leaves so green.

Finally, after poking about for a bit, I suggested we move along. It seemed like we managed to walk about five steps and then something would catch our attention and all forward motion came to pause. But that’s the way we like it for we notice so much with such slow movement. Do you remember this spot? Where we paused to look for Trailing Arbutus buds and noticed Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain growing in a colony. And remember how I told you that the only way I can remember the common name of this latter species is because it doesn’t look “downy” to me.

As often happens, the trail enhanced the lesson for not too much further along we practically stepped on another family member, this one bearing the name Checkered. Really, had Mr. Linnaeus asked me, I would have switched it around for the dullness of these leaves seems more downy in my mind and the other more checkered. Alas . . . he didn’t ask.

By this point, we’d hit drier trail conditions, if you recall, as we started climbing uphill. Drier, but rockier, that is. And then upon one, we spied a little package that you knew would delight me. Fox scat, indeed. With a blunt end and even a twist. Classic fox scat.

It took us a while, but we managed to reach the intersection with the orange trail and turned to the left to proceed. It was there that we began to meet common polypody ferns. Some of you explained that you know it as rock cap fern or rock polypody fern. What we all know is that it’s most often found growing on rock surfaces in moist, shady woods.

I did hear the hushed groans when I turned it over, but what could I say? I can’t resist checking to look at the underside. Like little pompoms, the organs or sori that housed the dust-sized spores or sporangia are arranged so neatly in two rows upon each leaflet. In their old age, the sori of these common polypody are orange-brown.

You, however, were eager to move on and so we did. Until we didn’t. For we stopped once again at “El Pupito,” the pulpit rock.

And did what one should do at the pulpit–honor the view through nature’s stained-glass window.

Oh yeah, and on the back of the boulder, you knew the minute you saw it what was going to happen next.

Out came my water bottle as I sacrificed some H20. But really, you are also equally amazed each time the magic happens and the greenish color of algae on rock tripe lichen makes itself known.

I saw a few of you gawk.

With a snap of our fingers and twitch of our noses (no we didn’t touch our fingers to our faces), we soon made it to the summit of Amos.

It was there that while zooming in to note the glorious red maple buds we spied another in the form of a spider. And we all took a closer look, one at a time, of course, allowing for six feet of space.

Then we backtracked down to where the blue trail met the orange trail and continued on the orange. That is . . . until sweet bird songs stopped us in our steps.

The trills lasted a few seconds and began again.

Most of us couldn’t recall who it was and gave great thanks to have Peter and Joe along for a positive ID: Pine Warbler indeed.

At our next stop I was so sure that one of you would provide a definitive answer to the structure’s use and history, but you only asked more questions to which I didn’t have the answers and so it shall remain a mystery. Who built it? Why? What? When? We do know the where and have some ideas about the how, but can’t quite respond to the Five Ws and an H in a complete manner.

And so we left there and moved on to the spot where we chatted about all the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties that seemingly followed us through the woods.

Each time we heard a sound from one of the above, if it wasn’t a dried leaf blowing across the forest floor, it turned out to be a chipmunk. Why is it, we wondered together, that they can be so still one moment, but in the next insist upon calling attention to their presence?

Moving along, we eventually crossed over the wall and onto what was once the property of Amos Andrews.

Here, only a few years ago, one among us, yes Alice, that would be you, realized that in this spot grew white oak, a tree that we had previously believed no longer grew in these parts given its use in barrel making and other purposes. That is, until we recognized the chunky blocks of bark that helped to negate that assumption.

The leaves below also defined the new story, with red oak’s bristly pointed lobes on the left and white oak’s rounded lobes to the right.

As it would be, we realized we weren’t the only ones looking. And again, we had to take turns getting close to ohh and ahh at the alternating light and dark markings on the abdomen’s edge, legs and antennae of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. Okay, so we know these beasts inflect considerable damage to some fruits and crops, and can be a nuisance when it takes shelter in our homes, but still.

Around the corner from the oak tree we paused beside the homestead of Amos Andrews and wandered about his walled property for a bit, each of us trying to answer the question, “What was Amos thinking?” We haven’t answered it yet, but time will tell as perhaps more understandings will be revealed.

Down the former road we walked, grateful that being two rod wide, (a rod at 16.5 feet), we had plenty of room to spread out.

At the intersection with the Amos Mountain Trail, our route crossed over and we continued on to the lookout point where the Balds to the left, Mount Washington a wee white pyramid in the background, and Kezar Lake below held our focus.

And then we began to retrace our steps, back toward the parking lot where we’d first gathered. But there were two more things to notice, the first being a skeleton of a paper birch, its roots till seemingly intact.

And finally, water striders not doing a very good job of practicing social distancing.

We, on the other hand, had nailed that one, for while you all walked with me, I was alone. And ever so grateful for your company.

Easter Parade 2020

Back in the before, our Easter celebration included a simple breakfast, church service, and gathering with family for brunch or lunch before a short afternoon hike. But that was then. The now is controlled by forces beyond our understanding. And so . . . today’s celebration was much simpler, yet possibly more eloquent in nature. The morning’s highlight included decadent treats from Craft Patissiere scored yesterday at Lovell’s improvised farmers’ market. After that, time spent together listening to Bishop Thomas Brown’s remote homily brought tears to our eyes as we recognized the significance of the good works my guy, his employees, and so many others have been doing this past month, many quietly performed behind the scenes.

And then it was time to pack a picnic lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, the ham cut from last night’s dinner, and created upon sourdough bread from Fly Away Farm, also scored yesterday thanks to Justin and Jenn Ward of Stow, Maine. The sandwiches I placed first in bees wax wrap created by Sierra Sunshine, The Barefoot Gardner, and then in sandwich wraps that came from groundcover, a former shop in town that we already miss. Water bottles filled and lunch packed, including a couple of dark chocolate treats, and we were on our way.

Our destination was the seven mile parade route where babbling brooks struck up the marching band, joined at various points by song birds, beaver slaps, and drumming grouse.

Spring’s cheerleaders performed their routines with pompoms created by flowering red maples.

Teeny, tiny beaked hazelnut flowers topped their catkins like minute magenta threads were used to sew costumes for the performers along the route.

Floats were varied and included boulders with attempted splits,

springs long ago sprung,

and yields 24/7.

Decorations were varied with scales being a major part, including those that resembled rattlesnakes in appearance.

Some, such as leatherleaf, showed off shiny silvery scales above and rusty below–gems sparkling in the day’s light.

Others included scurfy witherod buds, exposed as they were between yellowish-brown scales.

In their presentation, the witherod proudly showered drupes of old fruits, raisin-like in appearance to the gathered crowd.

Providing more good cheer to the day were the marsh rose hips–offering a hint of yesterday with the bright hope of tomorrow encased within.

Giving a springy green appearance to the parade was the sight of false hellebore, its pleated leaves ready to add texture to the mix.

On this Easter Day when we all have found ourselves experiencing social and physical distancing, Trailing Arbutus, aka mayflower, offered one more sign of hope as its buds expanded.

We found lunch log overlooking the route,

somehow avoided the crowds as we traveled between stone walls,

viewed rocky floats from the parade stand,

and ended the day beside a brook where the beavers are quite active.

Every Easter celebration is different, but this one of 2020 will stand out among the best as we gave thanks along the parade route–thanks for being able to appreciate the offerings made more meaningful in the moment. We can only hope that “the after” is influenced by our decisions made in “the now” rather than a return to “the before.”