We drove forty minutes north at midday on Sunday with the intention of hiking a trail we’d enjoyed only once previously. Our memories of it had petered a bit, but we did look forward to bear trees and cascading falls.
And we were not disappointed. Within minutes of beginning the ascent, a look up at the gnarled top of a Beech gave me reason to scan the bark below and by the number of claw marks left behind it was obvious that this had been a well-used source of nuts in the past.
We could just imagine the bear scrambling up, sitting upon the branches and pulling them in to form a “nest,” or so it looks when they’ve been broken and folded inward, foraging for beech nuts, and then, once all were consumed, scrambling back down and on to the next tree.
Bears weren’t the only animals that have known this land and beside a stone wall we paused for a second. Our first ponder was whether it was a boundary fence or meant to keep animals in or out. Until . . . we spotted a piece of barbed wire growing out of a tree. No wait, barbed wire doesn’t grow out of trees. Trees grow around it. And our question was answered: the wire would have been added to keep the animals in the pasture.
That said, it had been a while since the wire was installed and even longer than a while since the stone wall had been built, for the trees had had time to grow and mature and incorporate the wire into their souls and while one still knew the flow of xylem and phloem, this other was a source of new life for insects and birds.
Our next pause was at picnic knoll where two tables and two Adirondack chair invite hikers to take a respite and enjoy the view. We tarried not given that we had a football game to get home to and pizza dough to prepare. Well, one of us had a football game to get home to and the other the dough.
Onward and upward we hiked, keeping an eye on ankle biters (saplings not cut to the ground that caused us to stumble repeatedly if we weren’t paying attention) at our feet, while searching for more bear trees, not an easy task during leaf season. But our best reward was the sight of this oft-climbed tree and the realization that the two behind it had also been visited.
We know there are more like those in this forest thus giving us a reason to return in late autumn and search off trail to see how many we can count. If memory serves us right, from the trail we once counted over twenty such bear trees.
Oh, there were other things to see along the way, like the Hobblebush’s ripening berries . . .
and Bald-faced Hornets gathering nectar.
But the second object of our intention was eventually reached for we’d found the cascades, beginning with one named for the family that farmed this area: Chapman.
It was a bit of a scramble but we were well rewarded for our efforts.
Again and again. After viewing this final flow, Library Cascades, we practically ran back down the trail. Just in time to catch the start of the game on the radio. Pizza was a wee bit late, but we didn’t mind.
The story should have ended there, but while hiking on Sunday we came up with a plan for Monday. So . . . back into the truck for that forty-minute drive we did go. This time, in the same forest, we hiked up an esker, which I saw as the stick of a lollipop.
At a junction, we chose the Red Pine Trail, a tree with bark so rich in color and design, it creates an art gallery in the forest.
Along the way, we paused at openings to enjoy the views, but . . .
a ridge off-trail, and really off-property (Shhhh, don’t tell. The boundary was marked but not posted.) invited us and we couldn’t refuse. What view might there be that we would miss if we didn’t accept the summons?
We were rewarded with the sight of the surrounding mountains showing off their summits in crisp contrast to the sky above.
I’m pretty sure the invitation included lunch and so we sat down and dined.
Our off-trail pursuit offered one final gift as we headed back to the trail–galls created by a wasp upon a Northern Red Oak twig.
A few steps later and we startled a Garter Snake who flicked its tongue to get a better scent of us before deciding we weren’t worth the effort and slithering away.
Again, there was water to cross, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the cascades of Sunday.
And some porcupine work to acknowledge, though we had hoped to see a den, but determined it was probably in the ledges below.
One final view at the land beyond and then we completed the loop that formed the sucker at the top of the lollipop stick and began our descent. Again, this should have been the end of the story. But . . .
There was plenty of daylight left and this day’s football game wasn’t until much later and so we sought a third trail in the same forest. The natural community differed, which made us grateful because each trail had its own unique flavor, this one including Striped Maple dripping with seeds of the future.
Once again, we climbed toward the view.
One sight that caught our attention for it was the only one of its kind that we saw along any of the trails was a Lady’s Slipper, and we gave thanks that it had been pollinated for perhaps its future will spill forth in multitudes we can enjoy next spring.
A flock of nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees entertained us occasionally, but it was the silent Hermit Thrush who paused that caused us to do the same.
At last we reached the end and stood for a moment to take in the range beyond, before turning around and retracing our steps for this last trail wasn’t a loop.
Nailed to a tree, was this sign: To Be Continued. As so it was on this Sundate/Mondate. We trust we’ll return to see where the trail may lead next.
Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”
The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”
The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”
Some have found us paddling in our favorite body of water, where we love to explore the edges and islands and float among the lily pads.
It’s a place where we always look below the surface and sometimes are rewarded, this being a Bryozoan mass, a most definite gift for the tiny colonial aquatic creatures that connect their tubes together and form the jelly-like blob, effectively filter particles from the water. The animals live in the tubes and extend their tentacles that capture even smaller microscopic organisms for food. The gelatinous species, also known as moss animals, is native to North America.
We’ve wandered beside ponds where gentle breezes provided relief from mosquitoes and views of distant mountains doubled our joy.
Being my guy, he’s spotted lady’s slippers in bloom and more than once observed clusters bouquets worth noting.
Likewise he’s occasionally rewarded with pendants, this being an immature Chalk-fronted Skimmer dragonfly.
I’ve been equally rewarded with the sighting of a perching Dragonhunter, one of the largest clubtail species in our neck of the woods.
One hot summer Monday found us taking a shower under a waterfall.
And contemplating in front another.
We’ve searched for our favorite shades of blue, mine being that offered by Clintonia borealis, aka Blue-bead lily, it’s fruits reminding me of porcelain.
While mine is inedible, his favorite shade of blue invites his greed.
And so several Mondays were spent picking blueberries from the water . . .
and atop our hometown mountain.
Upon several occasions we summited said mountain and always paid homage to the fire tower that still stands tall and recalls an early era when wardens spent hours in the cab scanning the horizon for smoke.
We’ve posed at the ski area on the same mountain, where the pond below sometimes serves as our backyard.
Some of our best Mondates of this summer have been spent with family, this being our youngest and his gal.
And our oldest and his gal and their friends.
One we even shared with a tyke we finally got to meet, a grandnephew from Virginia . . .
who travelled north with my niece, his mom, and his daddy and grandmother.
It’s been a summer of catching up on so many fronts, and now I’ve arrived at our most recent Mondate. The morning began with a delightful surprise for when we uncovered a pie we’d purchased at one of our favorite roadside stands, and discovered it was decorated with a dragonfly. I swear we purchased it for the strawberry/rhubarb flavor and not the design. Really.
After dining on the pie for breakfast, we started our journey by searching for a trail someone had told me about. But . . . did she say park at the shed before the pond or after? We couldn’t find a shed in either location, but did find lots of NO TRESPASSING signs. Finally, we located what might be a trail and it wasn’t posted. For about a quarter mile we walked, until we found ourselves facing a field with a farmhouse at the far side. Backtrack we did, with Plan B in mind, but at least we were rewarded with the spot of Actaea pachypoda, White Baneberry, aka Doll’s-eyes. It does look like the eyes of a china doll, its creepiness accentuated by the thick red stalks and the fact that the fruits are poisonous.
The trail we chose instead let us know from the start that we’d made the right decision when we spotted a bumblebee upon a thistle.
It was a place beside two small specks of ponds, where the beavers have docked a boat conveniently beside their lodge.
Though we didn’t see any beavers in action, my guy demonstrated their gnawing technique.
It’s also a place where Autumn Meadowhawk Skimmer dragonflies danced and paused, danced and paused.
But the best moments of the day where spent crossing under a powerline where goldenrod grows abundantly. If you look closely, you might spot the subjects of my guy’s attention.
Monarch Butterflies. The most Monarchs we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ten butterflies? A dozen? Perhaps two dozen? Maybe more.
Watching them flutter and sip, flutter and sip, gladdened our hearts and made a perfect ending for this particular collection of Mondates.
Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.
iWhat I’ve discovered is that in sunshine and rain, the place is alive with action from Honeybees and Gnats . . .
to Paper Wasps,
and even several Great Black Wasps, their smoky black wings shining with blue iridescence as they frantically seek nourishment and defend territories (including letting this particular human know that she’s not welcome at the party by aggressively flying at her).
Bumblebees were also full of buzz and bluster and it was they who reminded me of one important fact.
The color of the storage baskets on their hind legs depends upon the color of the pollen grains in the plants they’ve visited.
There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.
And then, because I was looking, I discovered an insect in the process of being wrapped for a meal intended for later consumption. I’ve long been fascinated by Ambush Bugs and Assasin Bugs and this, the Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia. What’s not to love? She’s an orb weaver, meaning she spins a complex circular web, in this case among tall plants, that features spokes which are non-sticky that she uses to walk upon, and round wheels that are sticky to capture prey. The web is the size of a platter. A large platter. And . . . every night she consumes the entire thing and rebuilds a new one for the next day. In the process of consuming the threads, she can take advantage of any little insects like mosquitoes that get caught in the stickiness, but it’s the bigger insects that she prefers to eat.
Do you see the rather conspicuous zigzaggy line down the middle of the web? That’s called the stabilimentum and may have several purposes: providing stability; attracting insects with the multiple threads like an ultraviolet runway such as the colorful lines and dots on plants; or perhaps announcing to birds that they shouldn’t fly through the web. Whatever the reason, it’s in the center of the stabilimentum that the spider hangs in suspension, waiting for the dinner bell to announce ring.
Though she has eight eyes, her vision is poor. But . . . her hairy legs may also help in the detection that a meal has arrived, perhaps signaling sound and smell, plus she can sense the vibrations.
Once captured, she injects a venom (that is harmless to us bipeds) to immobilize her subject and then begins to spin a sac around it.
Remember, I’ve been watching her for four days, while she’s hanging upside down playing the waiting game and showing off her egg-shaped abdomen with its asymmetrical yellow markings on the carapace (much like a turtle’s shell) to her silver-haired head.
Some days I felt like she might just be Charlotte, writing a message only Wilbur could interpret.
And one day she surprised me by turning right-side up. It was then that I was offered a closer look at those little bumps on her head that serve as eyes. And the pedipalps, those two little hairy appendages sticking up on her head that work like sensory organs.
An hour or so after finding her upright, when I checked again, I thought she’d gone missing. Instead, I discovered she’d climbed to the top of one of the plants upon which she’d spun her web.
Perhaps she was surveying the area as she waved her front legs, looking about her domain.
A day later, a new web, and another meal packaged, and slowly my buzzers were being consumed. But, she also likes grasshoppers and crickets and the garden is full of them.
And then this morning dawned, with T.S. Henri in the offing and a few raindrops upon a broken web announcing the storm’s intended arrival. Wait. The web–it had holes but had not been entirely consumed. That wasn’t all, yesterday’s meal also hadn’t been consumed. And the spider was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and down and all around and couldn’t find her. Had she meant to save the meal, waiting for her venom to pre-digest it by liquifying the internal organs and in flew something larger than her and dinner went uneaten? Had our time together come to an end just like that?
I wasn’t going to let the issue go, and so I continued to search, and guess who I found about three feet away upon a new web?
Even more exciting was the discovery that I can see her from the kitchen window AND, the view is of her underside so I can actually see her brown spinnerets at the end of her abdomen and maybe I’ll get to watch her capture a meal.
Well, so I thought, but two hours later, when I next looked, I realized I’d missed the action and she’d already securely wrapped her latest victim–all that was still visible was a leg.
Though the prey may be one, this is NOT just another insect in the midst of my quest. Actually, it’s not an insect at all for spiders are arachnids, with eight legs versus an insect’s six. She may be scary big, as well as carnivorous, but she is beneficial to the garden as she helps control insect populations, including some pests.
And how do I know she is a she? Her male counterpart I’ve yet to meet, but he’s much smaller and all brown, unlike her beautiful coloration.
There’s more to this story I’m sure and I look forward to learning more about her as I try to interpret the messages she leaves. If you have a chance, go out and stalk your gardens and be wowed by what you find.
I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.
It seemed the Hutchins family was watching over the first little specks of my attention, keeping them safe at a most tender moment in their life cycle.
Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.
Who are these land lobsters, for such do their claws remind me. Dog-Day Cicadas. They complete their life cycle in 1 – 3 years. As nymphs or larvae, they remain underground feeding on plant juices from tree roots. In July, the nymphs tunnel up through the ground and crawl onto tree trunks or other surfaces like gravestones, which they latch onto with those over-sized claws.
Tickled to see two who looked like they were about to burst into new life, I watched with intensity, noticing that this, the second one, had green wings forming. And really, its head was already emerging, for if you look closely, you’ll note a small set of brown eyes closer to its claws and the new eyes much larger and darker in color protruding.
Winged cicadas emerge from a slit along the back of the nymph’s exoskeleton.
Back to the first, you’ll notice the same is true. And do you see where the second cicada had that hint of green, this one is more rosy red in color.
I could say that within minutes I noticed more of the body bulging, giving the nymph a hunchback look, but this is a transformation that takes time. Lots. Of. Time. They begin the process by arching and expanding the thorax until the larval cuticle fractures and the adult’s thorax appears, soon, or sorta soon, followed by its head.
Ever so slowly . . .
the rest of the body . . .
comes to life.
Both red and green complete this process simultaneously as I squat and watch.
Eventually, legs and wings are visible. Do you see the proboscis, that elongated sucking mouthpart or stylet that is tubular and flexible, extending from its nose?
How about now?
As the abdomen extends, four wings take shape.
In continued slow motion, they begin to unfurl . . .
and the insect wiggles its legs . . .
ready to get a grip.
Next, it pumps insect blood into its body and wings, which takes even longer, as in hours. After the cuticle hardens for a while and muscles grow stronger, the cicada pulls itself out of its former self.
Before it can fly, those wings need to dry, some resembling a rainbow.
Teneral to start, a breeze creates an angelic quality befitting the setting.
In time, the wings will fold over the cicada’s back, but until that happens, the rose-version offers a lesson that not all Dog-Day Cicadas look like camouflaged leaves among which they sing–the tree-top males producing the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structururs in their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females.
Today, I visited yesterday’s cemetery and found not much action, but a few miles north it seemed the summer chorus was preparing to take in new members.
First, however, they had to finish donning their choir robes.
And as I’d noticed for the first time yesterday, not all robes are the same color. Variation apparently is normal among cicadas, which provide me a wonder-filled lesson.
My question is this: what determines color? It can’t be temperature as from the many I saw today and few yesterday, all emerged at about the same time. And it can’t be location, for they were all in the same locale.
In fact, some even morphed upon the same family plot corner stone, this being the Evans family in Center Lovell, and their transformation occurred within minutes of each other.
Then there was another question–if they were so close to each other in emergence, would they get along? I watched these two for a long time, and though they got quite close occasionally, they seemed rather territorial, using. a foot or tarsus to push the other away. That, of course, is my human interpretation of what I was observing. The reality may be different.
A few headstones away, another for the red variety.
There are other lessons, such as this–like dragonflies, some nymphs transform atop the discarded exuviae of their relatives.
And while I expect that they only climb a few feet off the ground to morph, I’m proven wrong when I have to use my warbler neck to spy at least two on branches high above. Do you see them? Are there others that I missed?
I have so many more questions, but pull myself away once again.
I do often wonder if my presence bothers then, but have to hope that they realize I’m there to protect them from predators and learn from them during this time of transition.
Note that the proboscis is tucked under their bodies, as it won’t be needed until these cicadas reach the tree tops. Once up there, where I won’t be able to spy them, males will produce the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structures in their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females. After mating, the female lays her eggs in slits she makes in twigs. The young nymphs hatch, fall to the ground, burrow underground and feed on sap from roots for a year or two or three.
And then the day I wait for happens and I once again roam places where I know I can find them, cemeteries being my place of choice, and I spend hours stalking one stone and then another and back to first and then the second, over and over again, consumed as I am by cicadas.
Ah rain. We need rain. I love rain. Our weary land that was so parched in June is suddenly refreshed by rain. And our plans are changed by rain, but that’s okay because it provides opportunities for us to consider other trails than those intended.
And so it was that we headed onto a local community forest this morning between rain drops.
The trail, terrain, plants, and weather gave us the sense of wandering in Scotland. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking.
As we explored, our hopes lifted as hang clouds decorated the backdrop behind erratic boulders.
And birds like this handsome Field Sparrow sang and gathered food, presumably for nestlings.
In the mix, Catbirds meowed.
But what mattered most to me were the insects and I expected so many, but was disappointed by so few. I did spy this Band Net-Winged Beetle on a Spirea, its bright coloration shouting a footnote of its offensive taste to predators.
Similar in Halloween costume color choices was the Small Milkweed Beetle, its main plant source a week or two past, but note the heart on its back–a sign of forever love. Interestingly, Small Milkweed Beetles help gardeners enjoy the milkweed plant and the butterflies that are attracted to them without having to worry that milkweed may overtake the garden.
To keep the party going, a Blue and Red Checkered Beetle happened onto the scene. Checkered Beetles occur where there’s a large supply of nectar and pollen.
Of course, with all this goodness, there has to be at least one in hiding–in this case a Goldenrod Crab Spider on a Bristly Sarsaparilla.
We spied him as we walked out with a sandwich from Eaton Village Store on our minds, and then again as we hiked in for a second time and then finally out again.
Upon our return, though it had poured as we ate, the rain abated and Ossipee Lake made itself visible.
It was on that second visit that I finally noted a honeybee working frantically to fill its honey pots.
So did small skippers such as this Dun Skipper upon the early blossom of Joe Pye Weed, his proboscis probing the not yet opened flowers.
With the rain abating, the Pye Weed soon became a plant of choice. Among its guests was a Great Spangled Fritillary all decked out in stripes, dots, and commas.
Because the flower hadn’t fully opened, the Fritillary’s proboscis curled in true butterfly behavior.
Suddenly, or so it seemed as the temp slightly rose, pollinators came out of hiding, including a Silver Spotted Skipper, its spot shouting its name.
Toward the end of our adventure, my heart rejoiced with the spot of a Green Lacewing, one of the subtle offerings in the wooded landscape.
It was just such a landscape that appealed to us today and we tossed all other trail choices into the pot for future expeditions. If you know my guy, you know what is to come.
Little fruit morsels became the object of his attention.
You and I know them as Low-bush Blueberries.
He knows them as the source of his Blueberry Greed.
All in all, he filled a couple of bags (and I helped! a little bit, that is). I have to say that I was amazed by the sight of all the little blue fruits for so few seemed the pollinators of the day. What I’ve shared with you was it. Literally. In number.
Yesterday my friend Joe Scott, an avid birder, shared this information with me from a New Hampshire Bird Listserve:
“The absence of insects obviously impacts insectivorous bird species. In Knight Hill Nature Park in New London, [NH] for the last two weeks, there have been 27 fully blooming butterfly weed plants, hundreds of common milkweed plants and two pollinator apartment blocks, but no insects! Oh, on any given day, perhaps one or two butterflies and half a dozen bumble bees. Ten years ago, at this time of year, these plants would be covered with butterflies, bees and other insects, as many as 20 species of butterflies and 10 species of bees.”
Today’s Mondate Blues represents those who don’t like the rain, or my guy and his blueberry greed, or the lack of pollinators or my color of choice. I’m just happy that we got out there and found so many sources of goodness on this wet day.
Erika Rowland, executive director of Greater Lovell Land Trust, asked me a year ago to consider finding someone who could give a talk about leeches. And so the search was on. Back in February I found just the right person. At first he declined the invitation, but I enticed him with a place to stay thanks to GLLT members Linda and Heinrich Wurm (she asked that he not bring any live leeches with him) and through a couple of email exchanges we set up a date and time and accommodations. And so it was that we had the absolute pleasure of learning from Dr. Nat Wheelwright and his delightful wife Genie.
Nat is well known for the book he co-authored with Bernd Heinrich: The Naturalist’s Notebook. He’s also known for Nature Moments, including the one that cinched the deal for me: Swimming with Leeches.
Certain that not everyone would be fascinated by leeches, he suggested that he talk about other nature moments and so it began with a look at Bracken, a sometimes waist high fern with triangular fronds that provides a great place for children to hide, or when placed atop ones head, an insect distractor as they’ll go to the highest point, being the stem, and leave you alone. As Nat explained, it’s a prolific fern that mainly reproduces by rhizomes rather than spores. I can think of only a few occasions when I’ve spied the spores on the undersides of the leaflets . . . and believe me, I’ve turned many over in hopes of spying such.
We had about a mile-long walk along a woods road to our destination beside a pond, and were overjoyed that Nat showed off our favorite syndrome: Nature Distraction Disorder as any little thing captured his attention and he couldn’t wait to share it with us. Each time, we thought we knew exactly what he’d share, and then he’d add some tidbit we’d not realized or considered before.
Really, what more could one learn about an American Toad? Until we did. How to tell its gender! Grasp it by its underarms. If it makes a noise, it’s a male! Huh? Yup, because that’s where a male would clasp a female in amplexus and if he thinks another male is grasping him he needs to let it know it has made the wrong choice. We have a frog and toad safari coming up with a bunch of youngsters and this will certainly be on the agenda.
The closer we got to our destination, the more we began to spy Ebony Jewelwing damselflies. As Nat explained, living by the coast, this is a rare species for him, but in our region of western Maine, with so many lakes, ponds, rivers, brooks, and streams, we see them frequently.
What would we learn from him about this species?
Again, how to tell the gender. Male or female? What do you think?
See the second segment of the abdomen where the arrow points? That bulge under segment two is where the secondary genitalia are located. This is clearly absent in females. Therefore–this specimen was a male.
We gave him another way to identify the gender of Ebony Jewelwings: the male’s wings are solid black, while the female has a white psuedostigma toward the tip of each wing.
And notice the white at the tip of the abdomen? That’s pruinosity, which like dragonflies, occurs in mature damsels. Not a gender idiosyncrasy, but rather one of age.
It took us a wonder-filled while, but eventually we made it to the pond of our destination and several of us took off our hiking boots and splashed our feet in the water. To cool off on a hot summer day? Certainly a benefit. To attract a leech or two? Well, we tried, but there were no takers.
Interns Emily and Anna had been there the day before and suggested another spot that might lead us to the leeches we desired and so we walked back along the road and headed down another path to the water. But . . . there was another story to share first of Genie’s experience swimming with tadpoles one day and the demise of said tadpoles a couple of days later and a discovery of ranavirus, which kills frogs in a short time period. Nat did tell us that the pond where the discovery was made seemed to be recovering; maybe some frogs exhibiting a resistance to the virus.
One of the take-aways from this is to always clean your equipment, including trays and D-nets, between pond explorations so if one pond is affected you don’t accidentally spread the virus to another.
That said, we reached a shallow area of the water’s edge, and Moira, Nat, and I took off our hiking boots and socks and stepped into the water. So . . . what did it feel like? Mucky. And rooty. And did I say mucky. BUT . . . it was only a matter of minutes and a blood-sucking leech found my leg. We tried to capture it, however, it wasn’t ready to be the star of the show and quickly released itself. That’s not how it usually goes with such, and a shake of salt would have been necessary to get it to release. I should have been thankful.
Then we spied a much larger leech swimming about and I got out so others could get closer to the pond’s edge and see it. Moira stood still as it circled her leg over and over again.
At last, either she or Nat captured it and placed it in a tray for all to observe. At its longest stretch, it was about five inches, though sometimes it appeared to be only about an inch in length.
In awe, we watched it move gracefully as its body contracted and protracted around the edge of the tray. And then the moment of anticipation came. Time for an up-close-and-personal look.
By the line of spots on its back . . .
and orange belly, Nat identified it as the common and colorful Macrobdella decora—North American medicinal leech, apparently used for bloodletting, but not one that would harm us as we continued to witness.
The more time we spent with Della . . .
the more comfortable we became in its presence, and soon learned that it moves rather like a slinky and we needed to place one hand below the next to keep its rhythm going.
That said, it was rather disconcerting. I mean: leeches are to be feared. We’ve spent a lifetime honing that attitude.
But . . . after spending a little time with them, I realized I truly don’t understand their ecology, but I’ve certainly gained a new respect, including the understanding that they have a brain and a sucker at each end. There’s a whole lot more to them than meets our eyes–including the fact that they have ten . . . eyes, that is, if I’ve got my facts correct.
First, we thought standing in the water was enough of a challenge. And then holding the leech. But . . . Nat had one more challenge–let the leech crawl on your face. Have you ever? Genie was willing to give it a try, but it fell off.
Moira gladly also gave it a try, but it fell to the ground.
Nat, however, was the most successful . . . until we were all certain it was headed into his ear.
Did you know this about leeches?
some families are jawless, some toothless, and some feed through a tube
leeches swallow their prey whole, extract the bodily fluids, and spit out the crunchy-bits, rather like a carnivorous plant
they prey on invertebrates, turtles, frogs, ducks, or fish
they are eaten by crayfish, salamanders, birds, turtles, carnivorous aquatic insect larvae, and fish
There is so much more for me to comprehend, but what a great beginning. Today we were be-leeched at Greater Lovell Land Trust with many, many thanks to Nat and Genie Wheelwright for traveling to western Maine to share their nature moments with us, Linda and Heinrich Wurm for hosting the Wheelwrights overnight, and Moira Yip and Vanny Nelson for being today’s lead docents. (Vanny, a former intern, nailed the intro–Nat was impressed, as we all were. And they have a Bowdoin College allegiance.)
Are you ready for some more in the dragonfly tales? I thought for this second edition, and actually the third and fourth to follow, I’d stick with the stocky Skimmer family.
We’ll begin with the Four-spotted Skimmer, (Libellula quadrimaculata. I shouldn’t have favorites, but this is one. It’s as if it was given the crown jewels to display.
The name comes from the black spots at the nodus (that point in the wing where it appears notched and some veins begin) about halfway across each wing, and stigma at the wing’s tip. If you count going across, you have four spots. If you count instead the fore and hind wings, you have four spots, making for an easy ID when one perches to consume a meal like this one did.
And then there is that incredible stained-glass black basal spot on the hind wing that is interwoven with amber venation. My heart be still.
Look for Four-spotted Skimmers near shallow water during the summer season. I saw this one in a meadow located between a brook and lake.
As you can see, the lighting wasn’t quite right on this lady, but notice how her coloration is sorta similar to the Four-Spotted, thus forcing the brain to work. I have to slow myself down when in the field and remember key characteristics. Both may share shades of brown and creamy yellow, but upon closer inspection, they aren’t the same at all. The clue to the identity of this skimmer is the white stigmas on the wings. To my knowledge, no other dragonfly shares this feature. (Till one does, of course.) And in the case of this female Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), the tips of her wings are dark.
Those white stigmas really stand out on her male counterpart. Spangled Skimmers fly in my neck of the woods. from June through August near lakes and ponds and fields and woodlands, so keep your eyes open for the white flags.
A bit smaller in size to the Four-spotted and Spangled, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is another handsome specimen. That white face. Those green eyes. Can you see that the eyes have a metallic blue hue on top? His female’s eyes are red over gray, though they also turn green as she matures.
In a combination of colors, the thorax is striped, abdomen bluish with a black tip, wings with an amber base patch, and then, of course the eyes and face.
Floating or emergent vegetation, such as this Spadderdock, are preferred as Blue Dashers are spotted throughout the summer season. I’ve read that some migrate along the Atlantic Coast.
Some dragonflies are easier to identify than others because of unique features and such is certainly the case with the Widow Skimmer ((Libellula luctuosa). It’s the large dark patch that stretches from the base of the wing to the nodus that gives away her identity. Where her abdomen has a dark stripe down the middle that widens toward the tip, and yellow stripes on each side, his abdomen is entirely gray blue above. And his wings feature the same black patch with an adjacent white patch reaching almost to the stigma. Do you see a. bit of the whitish patch on the wings?
Perhaps the white is a little more evident now? I think I’m correct in stating that this brown-eyed specimen is an immature male due to the hint of white as well as the dark face. While both male and females have brown eyes, his face is dark, where hers is tan. Does that make this a widower? Hmmm. Not sure how that works. The Latin luctuosa in its scientific name refers to feeling sorrowful and I suppose these dragonflies were considered to be wearing black in mourning.
While they are summer fliers beside water bodies, fields, and woodlands, I’ve only ever encountered this one . . . that I can remember.
And just when you thought you had it, another species with black patches on its wings flies into the scene. But, there are differences. First, there’s the dark, wide crossband stretching from top to bottom of each wing and from nodus to stigma. Then, there’s the basal patches: black on fore wings; black with a white patch below on hind wings.
This dragonfly is known as a Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Huh? Well, you are actually looking at an immature male. The female is similar in that she also has the yellow slashes along the sides of her abdomen, but she lacks white patches on her hind wings. So how does the “whitetail” fit into the name?
The abdomen being the tail, this male demonstrates how the name came to be. I may have used the term “pruinosity” before, but this mature male surely illustrates it–a frosted or powdery appearance caused by pigment on top of an insect’s cuticle that covers up the underlying coloration. It’s my understanding that for some dragonflies like Blue Dashers and Common Whitetails, displaying pruinescence on the abdomen to other males is a territorial threat.
Common Whitetails are also summer fliers who prefer to perch on or just above the ground.
Finally, the last species for today, which is hardly the least. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifaciata)because I only just made its acquaintance this summer. My first thought when we met was that it was a Calico Pennant Skimmer. I got the skimmer correct, but not the actual ID. Notice that cherry-colored face that is tan on the sides. That gave me the first inkling that I might be on the wrong track.
The wings provided the next clue. While the Calico has dark patches on its wings, the Painted features bands that extend from top to bottom toward the tip of each wing about halfway down beginning at the nodus. Likewise, the abdomen differs for each species, with the Calico’s featuring heart-shaped spots, while Painted’s is brown with yellow sides and black triangles and lines on segments 6 and 7, plus wide black stripes on segments 8 through 10.
This is a face I hope to remember for a long time as the Painted Skimmer and I got to know other during a few brief moments along a forest road near a river in June. Until we meet again . . .
One final note: if you are with me in the field, I may not remember every little detail or the common name. I definitely won’t know the scientific name. But the more time I spend with them and the more I study and write about them, the more I learn and I hope you are learning a wee bit as well.
I leave you with my latest creation: Indigo Skimmer (Libellula indigofera), formed from deconstructed blue jeans.
As we drove to North Conway, New Hampshire for an errand today, we had no idea where we might hike. And then in the midst of said errand, my guy suggested Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch. It had been a while since our last visit so we decided it was a great idea.
It’s funny how the trail seems flat in my mind’s eye, but it’s hardly that as roots and rocks or boulders keep all eyes looking down while we climbed up. While it’s long been this way, the impact of hikers seeking solace during the past fifteen months means it’s been trodden even more than in the past.
The hike to the falls is rather generic and I soon decided I wouldn’t need to write about it until . . . we reached the Devlin’s staircase. And then it dawned on me that summer began late last night and we were in the right place, only having missed the celebration by half a day. My only hope was that we might glimpse our friend who had built them.
When we arrived at the falls, I could see that he had indeed turned on the shower and others were standing below taking advantage of the cool water on such a hot day. Do you see the heart created by leaves and trees at the top of the waterfall? That was another sign.
When in Rome–and so yes, we did the same.
After hanging out there for a bit, we hiked down and decided to detour via the trail to Bemis Falls, where even more roots slowed us down a bit, but the water spilling into the tiered basins made the trip well worth the effort. Notice how rather than a shower, the basins offered a place to bathe. It was another sign and again we knew Devlin was responsible.
Farther down the trail, we walked into Colesium Falls and again sat for bit while White Admiral butterlies fluttered around us.
One even paused long enough for us to admire its handsome features. We suspected their presence in this particular area was to serve as decoys.
For without realizing it until we returned to the Bemis Trail, we’d entered Falda’s home range. My heart be still. It was all coming together as planned.
The icing on the cake was a single Pink Lady’s Slipper, which we’re convinced Devlin had planted for Falda.
So . . . who are these two: Devlin and Falda? Why a giant and a fairy, of course. And perhaps you’ve read my fairy tale before, but even if you did, I’d love for you to read it again. And share it. And if you haven’t then, sit back and enjoy. And one more and, if anyone cares to illustrate it for fun, give it a whirl, but please share your works with me and maybe when I post this again in a year or two (It seems I’m on an every-two-years plan for sharing this story) I’ll include your works, with attribution, of course.
Once upon a Midsummer’s Eve, on Sabattus Mountain, a group of fairies gathered in a circle for a night of magic and merriment. All wore crowns of wood sorrel and ferns about their heads. Their sparkly skirts matched the color of their hair, purple and green and yellow and orange and blue. Together they danced and sang this tune:
We whirl and twirl and dance around, Our feet, they barely touch the ground. We wish and wish and wish tonight, For a Midsummer’s Eve that is fun and bright.
Aisling stopped suddenly and stared at the delicate pink lady’s slipper they circled around.
“What is it, Aisling?” asked Carys. “Why did you pause?”
“I had a vision,” Aisling said. Her wings fluttered as fast as a hummingbird’s, which they always did whenever she had a vision.
“Tell us,” insisted Imma.
“It’s about Falda,” said Aisling.
“Oh, will my wings work again?” pleaded Falda, for her wings were folded and though she could dance and jump, she could no longer fly.
“No, Falda. It’s not that, but something even better, I think. And there’s a nice ogre too,” explained Aisling.
“Tsk. Tsk. A nice ogre. Whoever heard of such a thing?” demanded Biddie. “The only ogre we ever knew was a devil. Remember his sign in Crawford Notch: ‘Devl Hom.’ That ogre was so mean, he couldn’t even spell.”
The fairies continued dancing and forgot about Aisling’s vision for a few hours. When the merriment was over, Falda and Biddie, the older fairies, returned to their homes beneath the thick foliage and moss-covered tree stumps. Imma, Carys and Aisling used pine needles to sweep the area so no hikers would discover them.
“Tell us more about your vision, Aisling,” said Carys. “Who is the ogre? And what does he have to do with Falda?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Aisling.
“Biddie always says that there was a giant who lived near our old home in Crawford Notch. He was cursed and not to be trusted,” said Imma.
“Let’s go back there and check him out,” suggested Carys.
“Yes, let’s,” said Aisling. “Remember, we can always avoid contact with him by reciting the backward chant: Ogres bad big with contact eye avoid always.”
“OK,” agreed Imma. “Let’s go.”
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies left their home in Lovell, Maine, and reached Crawford Notch. The rising moon glowed on the giant’s staircase made of carefully placed tree trunks.
Aisling was the first to smell something awful. “What stinks?” she asked.
“I think it’s him,” said Imma, pointing to where the giant stood building a two-hundred-foot high granite wall. “Biddie said his smell is why we left.”
“Shhh,” whispered Carys from her hiding place high up in a beech tree. “Listen to him.” This is what they heard: “Humph. I sure hope I can find water to flow over this fall. Then I can finally take a shower. And who knows, maybe Sweet Falda will hear that I’m clean and she’ll finally return.”
The three fairies held their noses and giggled.
“That’s your vision, Aisling,” squealed Imma.
“Humph. What was that sound?” the giant demanded. In the gruffest voice he could muster, he said, “Who goes there?”
Imma quickly waved her magic wand and a breeze moved the leaves. The giant could no longer hear them. He returned to his work of stacking granite boulders on top of one another.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get Falda and the giant together,” said Carys.
“Don’t you think he’s a mean, old ogre?” asked Imma.
“Not at all,” said Carys.
“Me either,” said Aisling.
“OK then. I have a plan, but I’ll need to ask my cousin to help,” Imma said.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the fairies returned to Sabattus Mountain and their village under the moss-covered tree stumps in the old pine grove.
“Falda, Biddie, wake up,” they called.
“What is it?” Falda asked as she walked out of her wee house, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“We just came from Crawford Notch and we saw the most amazing thing,” said Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. There’s nothing amazing left in Crawford Notch,” said Biddie.
“Oh, but you are wrong, Biddie. We saw a giant staircase, a giant waterfall . . . well, almost waterfall, and a certain giant himself,” said Imma.
“Almost waterfall?” asked Falda.
“Yes, it just needs water,” said Imma.
“Tsk. Tsk. Did you say ‘a certain giant’?” asked Biddie.
Carys fluttered up and down. “Yes, Aisling’s vision is coming true. We saw a certain giant building the almost waterfall and . . .” She was so overcome with excitement that she choked up and cried happy tears.
Aisling continued, “ . . . and he mentioned you, Falda.”
Falda’s cheeks turned as pink as the lady’s slippers that bloomed around them.
“Tsk. Tsk. You talked to that devil? Didn’t I always teach you that he is a cursed ogre and not to be trusted? Did you use the backward chant?” demanded Biddie.
“Oh, Biddie, don’t worry. We didn’t talk to him,” Imma said. The she whispered, “Yet.”
“No, we didn’t talk to him. We just listened to him,” said Aisling.
“I never even knew his name,” said Falda. She twisted her wee hands together. “He used to leave me beautiful gifts though, like a pinecone wreath and an oak picture frame.”
Biddie said, “Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil, I tell you. And he stinks.”
“Yes, he did have a certain odor,” said Falda. “That was one reason we moved to Maine.”
“Maybe he smelled bad because he was always busy building something and couldn’t take a shower,” suggested Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil and we’ll not return to Crawford Notch. It’s obvious that he put a curse on Falda and her wings got caught on a branch when we landed here. Now they are folded and she cannot fly,” insisted Biddie. “Enough of this nonsense. Go back to bed all of you.”
Aisling, Imma and Carys returned to their homes . . . momentarily. A few minutes later, when they were sure they could hear Biddie snoring, they met under an oak leaf behind Aisling’s house.
“I’ll ask Cousin Arethusa to provide a spring so water will flow over the boulders,” said Imma.
“Oh goody,” Carys said as she clapped her hands.
“Shhh,” Aisling whispered. “Quiet or they’ll hear us. We must act quickly before the sun rises on a new day.”
Silently, the three fairies formed a circle. Imma held her magic wand high and swung it in a sweeping arch above their heads. Fairy dust sprinkled upon them. Out of the dust, Cousin Arethusa appeared. In a whisper, Imma explained the need for a spring in Crawford Notch to which Arethusa agreed as long as the waterfall would be named for her.
“Thank you, Cousin Arethusa. Now we must go,” said Imma.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies returned to the Notch. They found the giant placing the last granite boulder on top of the wall.
He blinked when they landed on it. “Humph,” he growled, again using his gruffest voice, which wasn’t really gruff at all. “Who might you be?”
Immediately the three fairies covered their noses and gasped for air.
“Oh my. Do I smell that bad?” the giant asked. His cheeks turned red as the wintergreen berries that grew on the forest floor.
“Yes,” Carys squeaked.
“But if you turn around three times . . .” gasped Aisling.
“ . . . And say ‘water, water, everywhere’ five times fast,” added Carys.
“ . . . Water will flow over the falls and you can finally shower,” finished Imma.
“Really?” asked the giant.
“Try it,” said Carys.
“And hurry,” added Aisling.
“Do it for Falda,” finished Imma.
“Fal . . . da? You know Sweet Falda?” asked the giant.
“Yes, but hurry . . . you need to shower,” said Imma.
“Oh, yes.” So the giant turned around three times, said, “Water, water, everywhere,” five times and water flowed over the falls.
“Look, Arethusa Falls,” exclaimed Imma.
“I can’t believe it. I’m not very good at being mean and scary, but I can make wonderful things with my hands. Only I did wonder how I’d make this shower work,” said the giant.
“Well, you must thank Arethusa for that. And by the way, Biddie thinks you ARE mean and scary,” said Imma.
“Biddie. As I recall, she’s just an old biddie,” said the giant.
The fairies giggled.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“Because that is exactly what Falda always says about Biddie,” explained Aisling.
“Oh, Sweet Falda. I must shower now so I can see her again.”
The fairies told him that Sabattus Mountain was only a few giant steps east of Arethusa Falls. Then in a twinkle and a flitter they returned to their village.
A few winks later, the Earth rumbled. All five fairies quickly gathered at Falda’s house.
“What was that?” they wondered together.
“Sounds like thunder,” said Falda. “A storm must be approaching.”
“But I thought I saw the sun rising as I rushed over here,” said Carys.
Suddenly, the sky darkened. The fairies fluttered closer together. Falda lit a candle. Then they heard a tapping sound near the entrance. She peeked out, but saw no one. Curious, the fairies cautiously walked outside. Standing atop the mountain was a certain giant.
“Oh,” said Falda and her face brightened with a smile.
“Tsk. Tsk. If it isn’t the devil himself. And he’s flattened the trees,” exclaimed Biddie.
“The devil? Why on Earth do you say that, Biddie? And sorry about the trees. I tried my best to tiptoe,” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk. That’s what your sign said, ‘Devl Hom,’” said Biddie.
“Oh, that sign. It broke in an ice storm. I just never got around to fixing it. I was too busy building other things. My name is Devlin. That sign should read, ‘Devlin’s Home,’” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk . . . you stink too,” stammered Biddie.
“Not anymore. Now I can shower whenever I want. You must come see all the changes in the Notch.” Devlin leaned down, picked Falda up and placed her in the palm of his oversized hand. “What happened to your wings, Sweet Falda?”
“Nothing really. Just a wee accident,” she said.
So Devlin carried Falda over to Crawford Notch for a visit. In a twinkle and a flitter, Carys, Imma and Aisling followed behind him. Biddie tagged along, tsk-tsking all the way.
And they all lived happily ever after. All but Biddie were happy, of course.
Arethusa Falls and Sabattus Mountain Hikes
Guess what! You can hike to both locations mentioned in The Giant’s Shower. First, climb the giant’s staircase to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. Be sure to pack a snack or lunch to enjoy beside the falls. Who knows, you might even see Devlin working nearby. If he smells, remind him to take a shower.
The trailhead to Arethusa Falls is located on Route 302 at the southern end of Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. The hike is easy, but it does take about 45-60 minutes to reach the over 200-foot high falls. Several trail options are available so be sure to check local guides, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide and bring a map.
And only a few giant steps east of the falls is Sabattus Mountain in Lovell, Maine. If you are traveling via car rather than giant steps, Sabattus Mountain is about an hour and a half from Arethusa Falls. Follow Route 302 East to Route 5 North in Fryeburg, Maine. Stay on Route 5 through the villages of Lovell and Center Lovell. Just after the Center Lovell Inn, turn right onto Sabattus Road. Drive about 1 1/2 miles, then turn right onto Sabattus Trail Road.
The trailhead and parking area are a half mile up the road and clearly marked. The round-trip hike takes about 1 hour and is fairly easy, with one moderate spot. From the top, you will see Kezar Lake and Pleasant Mountain to the south. The White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire are to the west.
Hike up the right-hand trail. You’ll reach the top in about 45 minutes. Take time to enjoy the view left behind when the giant flattened trees with his footsteps. Some trees still stand tall, because he was only tiptoeing. Continue along the ridge until the trail turns left to descend.
In an old pine grove along this trail, you might suddenly feel the presence of fairies. Their homes are among the moss-covered tree stumps. They enjoy visiting Crawford Notch, but Sabattus is now their forever home. Pause a bit and let the magic of this place overtake you.
Do be sure not to add to or take away from the fairies’ homes. These are natural homes and you shouldn’t disturb them.
Happy hiking! And say hello to Carys, Imma, Aisling, Falda and Biddie for me.
Meanings of names used in the story: Aisling–vision, dream Carys–love Imma–water bearer Falda–folded wings Biddie–strength Arethusa (Ara-Thuse-A)–spring Devlin–brave, one of fierce valor Pink lady’s slipper–moccasin flower, large, showy orchid found in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire
How to make your own fairy dust: Combine dried flower petals, leaves and birdseed in a small bowl. Crush together. Sprinkle outdoors wherever magic is needed.
Fairy houses: Best if made from natural materials, e.g. bark, sticks, leaves, pinecones, rocks, grass, moss, berries, wood chips and flowers. Fairies particularly like the thick foliage of moss and old tree stumps. Remember, they hope that humans won’t discover them, so be cautious and don’t upset nature.
It feels like forever, but has only been since last fall that we produced an issue of Lake Living. Our hiatus was due to the pandemic and the fact that we didn’t have the usual amount of advertisers (the mag is free to you, so please support the advertisers who make it happen–and tell them where you saw their ads. Thank you.), and stores and other businesses didn’t necessarily want to put a magazine on the shelf. That was all before we understood this devastating disease better.
But . . . we’re back! And with some timely articles I think you will enjoy.
The first article, “Conservation Collaboration,” by yours truly is about Sebago Clean Waters, an initiative that includes Loon Echo Land Trust, Western Foothills Land Trust, Portland Water District, Lakes Environmental Association, Mahoosuc Land Trust, and some bigger entities. I won’t give away how it works because I want you to read the article, but it’s all about clean water and the Sebago Lake watershed and what these organizations are doing to benefit all of us.
In “A Sense of Space,” Laurie LaMountain describes how architect John Cole recreated a lakeside house in a creative way given shoreland zoning laws in Maine. Not only is this an enjoyable read to learn more about how John and the homeowner problem solved to turn small living quarters into airy living quarters, but Laurie also provided valuable information about the laws that govern building beside our lakes and ponds.
Laurie is also the writer of this extremely important topic: protecting our most precious resource. A must read for everyone, both here in Maine and afar.
Up next is another article by me, “From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond,” about the world-class Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel, Maine, where I had the opportunity to hold this moon rock. You can too! But again, be sure to tell them you read about it in lake living.
That’s followed by the Summer Living calendar of events that comes with the warning that all items are subject to change because one of the take-aways from the last 15 months is that we all need to be flexible. So . . . check websites before heading out the door. I know this to be so true because at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve already made some changes since publishing our summer calendar.
“Eat What You Sow,” about three local gardeners including lake living‘s graphic designer, Dianne Lewis, is an informative article by my friend and emerging writer, Marguerite Wiser, Farm Lead at The Ecology School in Saco, Maine.
Possibly one of the most visually colorful articles I wrote, entitled “The Bag Lady,” features Designs by Diana Bags, a Lovell, Maine, business Diana Davis created and her story of how it came to be that’s she’s selling hand-made bags and other consigned items from her boutique and workshop on Main Street. Another one where you need to stop in and let Diana know you read her story here.
And no copy of the summer issue would be complete without book reviews from the folks at Bridgton Books, including owners Justin and Pam Ward, and employees Sue and Perri. There’s something in these pages for everyone, and once again I beg you to shop local. By now you know what to tell them when you step up to the counter to make your purchase. 😉
Finally, Laurie brings us recipes as she always does, this time in the form of “l’apéritif.” If you don’t know what that means, you’ll have to check it out. Well, of course, you need to check it out because ’tis the season.
To say we’re excited to be back would be an understatement. I hope you’ll pour a cup of coffee or glass of lemonade and enjoy the read. Here’s the link: Lake Living Summer 2021
Somehow the words my high school Spanish and Latin teacher, Mr. Cretella, wrote in my yearbook have always stayed with me: “Never lose your desire to learn.” Indeed. That said, in Latin 1 during my senior year, if I couldn’t remember the answer, I substituted a Spanish term. I don’t remember how he reacted to that–probably with a groan on the outside and a smile within.
And so, my friends, please join me as I continue to learn about Odonatas, aka dragonflies and damselflies , those winged insects we all love to celebrate because they eat those that bug us the most, including blackflies and mosquitoes. Hmmmm, what about ticks?
Periodically, over the course of the summer my intention is to share some information and/or story with you about these predatory fliers. I may not always be correct, but hey, that’s how I learn, and I hope you’ll wondermyway for the journey.
One distinction I want to make is that mature dragonflies always have their wings spread out whether in flight or perching, while damselfly wings are together over their backs when perching (except for the Spreadwing family of damsels).
With 468 North American Species of Odonates at this time (new discoveries are always being made), Maine is home to 160 species.
One thing I want to point out about dragonflies is that the abdomen consists of ten segments. That will become important for identification purposes.
I thought we’d begin with the dragonflies known as Skimmers.
Skimmers, like the Four-Spotted Skimmer above, are the most ubiquitous dragonflies and range in size from small to large. They tend to have stocky bodies and spend much of their time perching on the ground and other flat substrates near muddy ponds and stream.
Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers are active May through July.
This chunky northern male skimmer has dark markings at the base of his otherwise clear wings. His hind wing patches are triangular, and the forewing patches are smaller or non-existent.
He has dark brown eyes and a black face. Notice the whitish/grayish/bluish stripes on his thorax–those are his “corporal” stripes.
The first half of abdomen is the same color and the rest of it is black.
Chalk-fronted Corporals tend to be in dense populations. Often, as I walk along a woodland path or beside a pond, these dragonflies lead the way, flying a few feet ahead, stopping on a rock or something else ahead of me and then as I approach, moving ahead again.
This baker’s dozen I spotted on a rock beside a small mountain pond.
The Female Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmer’s eyes are brown and face tan. But where his thorax was whitish gray, her’s is brown.
Her abdomen, however, is like his.
Would you have guess that this was an immature form of the same? Just when you thought you nailed the Chalk-fronted Corporals. The immature features a lovely orangey brown with a black strip down the middle. The immature stage last for about two weeks in any species.
Active June through August, Slaty Blue Skimmers are about two in length.
The mature male is entirely blue except for black face and brown eyes. I typically find them flying and perching beside lakes and ponds.
Notice how he doesn’t have the patches at the base of his wings like the Corporals did.
Like most species, the female Slaty Blue has a look all her own with a brown thorax highlighted with yellowish-tan stripes. Her abdomen has a dark brown to black stripe down the top with a yellowish-tan stripe along the sides.
She’ll darken with age to a uniform brown or gray color and her eyes will become red-brown. Immature of both sexes resemble a young female, just to confuse you more.
Much smaller in size at about 1.2 inches as compared to a two-inch Slaty Blue are the Calico Pennants, active May through August.
The male has red heart-shaped spots on abdomen segments 4 to 7 (remember, all dragonflies have 10 abdominal segments so you need to start at the base below the thorax and begin counting from there.)
All four wings have a small dark patch at the wing tips. And the hindwings have a large, mottled dark patch at the base which reminds me of stained glass.
The stigma, on the leading edge of each wing toward the wingtip, and the face are red.
His claspers at the end of the abdomen are also reddish.
The female is the same as her male counterpart, but her spots and stigma are yellow. Again, it’s that stained glass effect that captures my attention.
From May through September you might spot an Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer near a lake or pond.
The entire thorax and abdomen of a Male Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer are powder blue; and his claspers at the tip of the abdomen are white.
Often found perching on lily pads, his face is green and eyes blue.
The female Eastern Pondhawk Skimmer is bright green with black markings. Her green thorax is unstriped.
In flight from May through August, the Dot-tailed Whiteface male is an easy one to identify in the field. First, there’s that white face. But wait. Some other dragonflies also have white faces, so don’t stop there. While his eyes are brown, his body is black overall, but he has a conspicuous yellow spot on segment 7.
You might not recognize his mate as being a Dot-tailed because, well, she has lots of dots. Her abdomen is yellow at the base and then large dots on segments 3 through 6, with a smaller one on segment 7. She also has along the sides of her abdomen.
There are more to share just in the Skimmer family, but for the first edition of Odonata Chronicles, we’ll leave it at that. Five species with so much variation is a lot to digest.
Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all, about the circle of life.
A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool located in the woods behind our house.
Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days.
Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed. And what’s not to love about the unique tapestry, a pattern never repeated.
With keen eyes I’d gaze in, but at first my focus was only upon the reflection offered by the bare-limbed trees above.
And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool.
The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner.
A day or two later, her deposited eggs already swelled with water, presented themselves like a tapioca pudding popsicle.
Soon they were joined by so many other globular masses making a statement that living in community is safer than upon your own and might provide warmth when the temperature dips.
Inevitably it did dip, and one day snowflakes frosted the rocks and ground, sugar-coated the tree branches, and plopped like leaden raindrops, rippling the water’s surface.
But . . . the embryos still formed.
With each visit it became more and more apparent that a vernal pool isn’t just about Wood Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and midges and beetles and mites and water striders and squirrels and deer and raccoons and snakes and so many others benefited regularly from its nourishment. Even the resident Barred Owl liked to call occasionally. But perhaps the most prolific residents were the mosquito larvae who wriggled and tumbled through the water column.
Predacious Diving Beetles intent upon creating more of their own, lived there as well.
One of the curious wonders about those who use a vernal pool as a breeding ground is that they don’t stay around to parent their offspring. If fact, once canoodling is done, they either hop, climb, or fly out and spend the rest of their lives in the forest.
Despite the lack of nurturing, within two weeks tadpoles emerged. Hundreds at first. And then . . . thousands.
A month later, as the pool began to shrink significantly because it is vernal, and fed only by rain or snow melt, my tadpoles, so claimed since I’m about the only one who checks on them regularly, started to show off their more adult form in the making.
Suddenly . . . a few sweltering days later and all the water had evaporated.
Stepping toward the center with hope, I was instead greeted with the horrific odor of decaying bodies and a Flesh Fly confirmed my suspicions.
Also buzzing all about were Green Bottle Flies and the reason for so much frantic activity: carnage by my feet.
But I soon came to realize that while not all the frogs had transformed in time to leave the pool, many must have and it still teemed with life–of a different kind.
American Carrion Beetles also stalked this place of death.
Over and under leaves, the Carrion Beetles moved as they mated. The rotting tadpoles provided a place for them to lay their eggs and a food source for their future larvae. This was true for the flies and even little mites who live in a symbiotic relationship with the beetles and eat fly eggs so the beetle larvae have the carrion to themselves.
As I watched, one canoodling pair of beetles flipped over and if you look closely, you might see he was on top (or the bottom in this case) and biting one of her antennae as part of their mating ritual.
At last it was with great sadness that I said goodby to those who could not, but leaving the stench and frantic activity behind, I reminded myself that this happens each year and there’s a reason why frogs lay so many eggs. Without my witnessing it, some, possibly many, did hop away from the pool. And next year they’ll return to carry on the ritual. Until then, the flies and beetles and so many others will bring new life and by November the depression will fill again waiting for the saga of the vernal pool to continue.
In parting, here’s a quick video of the sights and sounds.
For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine. Our hats are off to Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) for her willingness to be the lead on this project and work in collaboration with us. Alanna, you see, has conducted previous surveys for Maine Inland Wildlife & Fisheries (MDIFW) at LEA properties, and was trained by wildlife biologist Derek Yorks to set these up.
MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.
The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.
Each trap was given a number to identify on subsequent days, and all were marked with waypoints on a GPS map of the area. The traps were designed so critters could get in from either end without harm, but could not escape . . . until we recorded them and set them free, that is. An empty water bottle helped each trap stay partially afloat, thus allowing any captured turtle an opportunity to surface for air since unlike fish, they don’t have gills. And each trap was baited with a can of sardines in soybean oil, opened just a tad to release the oil, but not enough for the critters to eat the fish. That was the messy . . . and stinky part of the task. But I swear my hands and wrists currently are less wrinkled than the rest of my arms.
As Alanna on the right, showed GLLT’s Executive Director Erika Rowland, on the left, and me on day 2, the information we needed to collect included air temp at the beginning of each set of five traps, water temp at every trap, plus we had to document turtle species and any bycatch. And if we moved traps, which we ended up doing a day or two later, we needed to note that as well, and remember to change the location on GLLT’s iPad.
We felt skunked at first, because a bunch of our traps were empty, but soon learned that every day would be different. Our first painted turtle, however, was a reason to celebrate.
In no time, it became routine, and GLLT’s Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau, Erika, and I took turns sharing the tasks of the daily trips. If it sounds like a hardship, it was not.
Even GLLT’s Office Manager, Alice Bragg, had an opportunity to spend time checking traps with us and taking the water temperature.
With confidence that we knew what we were doing, well, sorta knew, we invited all volunteer docents and board members to get in on the fun. Of course, my email to them mentioned the stinky soybean oil and feisty mosquitoes, but that did not deter. Often, if something was in the trap it would wiggle upon our approach, but sometimes, as Pam Marshall learned, it wasn’t until you picked it up to check, that the real action began.
A hornpout, aka brown bullhead, started flipping around and there was a moment of surprise.
I knew nothing about freshwater fish at the beginning of the survey, and still don’t know a lot, but am learning. Hornpouts are native catfish who come out at night to feed, vacuuming up worms, fish and fish eggs, insects, leeches, plants, crustaceans, frogs–you name it.
They have a thick rounded body, and a broad, somewhat flattened head with a distinctive set of “whiskers” around the mouth called barbels, which they use to find prey. Their fins have sharp saw tooth spines that can be locked in an erect position as we soon learned and wearing gloves was the best way to try to pull one out if the release zipper on the net wasn’t working. With no scales on their skin, they were a bit slippery, but we managed.
On another day, when volunteers Pippi and Peter Ellison and I had to wait out a fast-moving rain storm that initally left us soaked and chilled, the first catch of the day was a water scorpion. At the time, I kept calling it a walking stick, because it does resemble one. But this is an aquatic insect. It’s not a true scorpion, despite its looks. It uses its front pincer-like legs to catch its prey. And its tail actually acts as a kind of snorkel, rather than a sting, allowing it to breathe in the water.
Once the rain stopped, the Ellisons and I carried on and they were well rewarded. All told, they released the biggest variety of species from this small snapping turtle, to several painted turtles, a crayfish, and several fish species.
In the very last trap, Pippi also pulled out a giant water beetle.
On another day, one of Bob Katz’s finds was a freshwater snail. Thankfully, it was not the large, invasive Chinese Mystery Snail, but rather one of the 34 natives.
As was often the case, teamwork played a huge role in the process of removal of not only the species, but also the stinky sardine cans that were replaced with fresh ones every other day. That didn’t stop Joan Lundin from smiling about the chores to be completed on a super hot day when the air temp hit 90˚.
While some days were downright cold or windy, and whitecaps made crossing the pond a real challenge, others offered calm waters and Basil Dixon and Bruce Taylor joined Rhyan and me for one of the latter.
Up Cold River, much to our surprise, Basil hoisted out a trap filled with four hornpouts.
They waited impatiently for a photo call and release and in moments were on their way.
At the very next trap, Bruce discovered four as well, this time all being painted turtles.
They looked as grumpy as the hornpouts, but who could blame them. Painted turtles are common throughout Maine and in fact, the most wide-spread native turtle of North America. This colorful turtle’s skin ranges from olive to black with red, orange, or yellow stripes on its extremities.
Each time we went out, I prayed we wouldn’t find a large snapping turtle in the trap and that if we did, Rhyan would be with me. Several times, we had to replace traps because big snappers had torn the mesh, and twice we released small snappers, one feistier than the other. On the very last day when we were pulling the traps out because the study was drawing to a close, as luck would have it, Rhyan was with me and we caught not the biggest snapper we’ve ever seen, but still one of decent size.
Notice the plastron, or bottom shell, and you can actually see the bridges that connect it to the much larger top shell or carapace. The zipper on this particular trap had been sewn shut because apparently in a previous study another snapper had torn it, but Rhyan carefully unstitched it to let the turtle swim free.
So, the thing about visiting the same place on a regular basis, is that you get to know so many of the community members, such as the six-spotted tiger beetles who chose that very moment to move rapidly across leaves and rocks by the pond’s edge as they mated. Their large eyes, long legs and sickle-shaped mandibles are characteristic of these metallic green beetles. Usually, however, I can’t get close for a photo because like some dragonflies, as soon as I take a step, they fly ahead a few feet and land until my next step. I was grateful that canoodling slowed them down at least a tad.
Did I mention dragonflies? Each day more exuviae were added to the stems and leaves of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Though fragile, the casts of exoskeletons retain the exact shape of the full grown nymph. You might think of it as a kind of death mask for that previous aquatic stage of life. In each exuvia there’s a hole located behind the head and between the wing pads where the adult dragonfly emerged, literally crawling out of itself. The white threads that dangle from this exit hole are the tracheal tubes.
For a couple of hours after we’d finished the survey on the day Pam was with me, we watched this dragonfly that for some reason could not completely escape its larval form. It was obvious by its coloration and body/wing formation that it had been trying for quite a while to free itself–there was still life in it as we watched it move its legs and wings, but we didn’t interfere (though a part of us regretted that) and the next day I discovered it in the same position, but lifeless. Two days later, it was gone and I had to hope a bird had a good meal.
Speaking of birds, we saw them and delighted in listening to them, like this yellow warbler, and herons, osprey, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one lonely loon, and even a hummingbird.
But our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond.
I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak. As you can see by the context of this photo, Rhyan and I weren’t far from him at all.
He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.
On the sandbar below, stood a sandpiper.
At last, however, the eagle flew, the sandpiper didn’t become a meal, and we watched as the bigger bird landed in a pine where we’ve spotted it before. We still had two more traps to attend to that day, and both were located below the eagle’s perch, but it left us alone.
The smallest birds that delighted us we heard first for they were constantly begging for a meal. All of the first week, we knew they were there by their sweet peeps, but it wasn’t until the second week that we began to spy them. And their demands for food began to sound louder and more adult-like. Unfortunately, the excavated hole used as a nest, was located in a spot where the afternoon sun made it difficult to see, but again on that last day the Kodak moment arrived.
Turtles, too, entertained us not only from the traps, but from their much happier places, basking on rocks or fallen logs. Typically, they slid off the substrate as soon as we approached, but this one actually let us pass by as it remained in place.
Because the water was shallow and clear, occasionally we spied one swimming below. Erika and Rhyan also paddled over one large snapper on a day I wasn’t out for the survey, but our snapping turtle finds tended to be on the smaller side–thankfully.
This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space. But . . .
as we paddled the canoe across the pond, Rhyan spied the young bull moose first. We’d seen moose tracks on the road way and every day hoped today might be the day. At last it was.
For a few minutes we sat and watched as he dined upon vegetation.
He seemed not bothered by our presence; mind you we were farther away than appears.
For a while, he browsed in one area, and then began to walk along the edge. And we gave thanks that the stars were aligned, but felt bad that one more volunteer, Moira Yip, who was supposed to be with us, hadn’t been able to make it.
Finally, the moose stepped out of the water and we knew our time together was coming to a close.
He gave one sideways glance and we said our goodbyes.
And then he disappeared from Charles Pond for the moment, and so did we.
What an incredible two weeks it was as we surveyed the wildlife of Charles Pond. Many thanks to Erika and Rhyan, to all of the volunteers who joined us (including Nancy and Brian Hammond who went on a day that I wasn’t present) and especially to LEA’s Alanna, and MDIFW’s Derek Yorks for letting us complete this assessment.
It was an honor and a privilege to be part of this project.
We had a feeling we might be rushing things when we set out on one of our planned Lady’s Slipper hikes this morning. But this was one nature moment my guy was actually looking forward to–oh, he loves to hike, it’s just the stopping for hours on end to look at all the idiosyncrasies of a flower or insect that doesn’t appeal to him.
And so it was that not long after we left the trailhead, we met the first lady of our intentions. She was classic–her pink slipper-like pouch inflated and darkly veined (in a manner that reminded me of a pitcher plant’s veins), her sepals and upper petals purply-bronze, stem hairy, and the set of basal leaves well ribbed. With that, we got excited, announced her as number one, and couldn’t wait to continue the count.
As luck would have it, by the time we reached the beaver dam crossing, we’d seen only four.
But at the dam we did pause, at which point several large tadpoles disappeared and a frog jumped into the muck to hide from us. Do you see him? By his dark angular spots, rather than dark rounded spots surrounded by a light ring did I know his name to be Pickerel.
Once the trail began to actually ascend the mountain, we continued to search left and right–and in the process discovered Indian Cucumber-root suddenly in flower. This is one of my favorites, perhaps because of the unique and quite subtle flower that nods below the upper leaf whorl. Except for once that I know of, typically Indian Cucumber root needs a second tier of leaves to help supply more energy so it can flower and fruit. One might easily pass by these plants, but they’re worth a stop to notice the six recurved, yellowish-green tepals (petal-like parts), six stamens, and those three stunning dark red styles.
Still no more lady’s to delight us, but flower clusters of Clintonia added bright cheer beside the trail. And actually, when not in flower, it’s quite easy to confuse their leaves with that of Lady’s Slippers. While both are basal, green, and oval in shape, Clintonias have several smooth leaves featuring a central vein and you can easily fold them in half, while Lady’s Slipper leaves of two are deeply pleated.
As we climbed higher, we spotted more and more Painted Trillium, the flower appearing above its three leaves. The flower has three green sepals and six pink-tipped stamens. Two of the features I love about these flowers: its wavy-edged petals; and the inverted pink V at the base of each. And I’m proud of my guy because he can name a trillium and seems to find pleasure in pointing them out to me. Of course, then he moves on, while I stop to honor the plants with a photograph. Every time 😉
My heart cheered at the sight of this little one, a Bunchberry. While the plant seems to sport a single flower, it’s “flower” is a series of four large petal-like bracts, surrounding the actual flowers, which are tiny and greenish, with four minute petals. Like the Indian Cucumber-root, this plant needs more leaves when it’s ready to flower, so instead of the usual leaves of four, flowering Bunchberries have two extra large leaves to help the cause.
It wasn’t just flowers that were worth noticing for upon a tree leaf that was being consumed after only recently breaking bud, two May Beetles, quite possibly Dichelonyx elongatula, prepared to canoodle.
As we approached the top, where the naturally community transitioned, so did the insects. Here and there fluttered several Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. I’m never quite certain of my ID for these versus Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, but the latter has a solid yellow band on the trailing edge of the forewings and the yellow is broken by black for Eastern. Also, on the hind wings, if I’m correct, the blue on the Eastern is outlined in black arcs or curves, while the black line is straight for a Canadian Tiger.
And what to its dining delight should be offering nectar on this fine day–Rhodora.
A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth was equally pleased with the menu.
So what about the ladies of our quest. It was in this new community that we found the most. And not all were completely opened, which made us wonder if we’d jumped the gun and headed off on our search a week too early.
We had to look under trees and shrubs, and though we didn’t find as many as we’d anticipated, we were still pleased.
Our favorite was this cluster, which my guy was proud to discover.
By the time we reached lunch rock where our PB&J sandwiches were consumed as we took in the view, the final orchid count totaled 47. We may just have to return for another Mondate in a few weeks because we suspect there will be more in bloom.
Someone recently commented that I am so fortunate to have a job that I thoroughly enjoy and she was right. I am extremely grateful and love that once again I can share the outdoor world with others who have the same sense of wonder . . . as well as questions. And eyes to see and brains to share.
And so it was that this week began with an attempt to watch dragonflies transform from aquatic swimmers to aerial fliers. I was so certain. Twice. Yes, twice I dragged people to a spot where a friend and I had had the honor of watching such an emergence exactly one year ago. And twice I was foiled. We all were. But . . . no one complained because there were other things to observe. And this young man is one fantastic observer. He has eagle eyes, for sure. As he peered into the water, he spied a winged ant walking along a stick.
Pulling the stick up, he took a closer look and though at first I thought it was an Alderfly, he was indeed correct in calling it an ant.
Notice the elbowed antennae? And those mandibles?
Unlike termites, Carpenter Ants don’t eat wood, but they do damage it as they excavate to make room for more ants. So what do they eat? Scavenged insects (sometimes you might see them dragging an insect home), and honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on vegetation.
Black Carpenters, such as this one, occur in forested areas like we were in, and nest in dead wood of standing trees, fallen longs, and stumps. Though no one wants them in a home, they do play an important role in the ecosystem as they help decompose wood back into soil. Plus they consume many forest pests.
Enough ant love, I suppose. Why this one was walking along a twig in the water we’ll never know. Unless one of us accidentally kicked it in as we looked for dragonfly nymphs. If that was the case, the ant was rescued thanks to the one with the eagle eyes.
Our attention then shifted right, where we’d spent a couple of days observing one or two small water snakes basking on logs. Each time, we were certain they were young snakes. Until they weren’t.
Suddenly, one larger snake came onto the land and as we watched it met the smaller snake.
And then the smaller climbed atop the larger and we thought perhaps it was a mother/child relationship. None of us had ever witnessed it before and so it was most definitely a learning.
Together, they twisted and turned as the smaller snake’s tail wrapped around the larger body.
Every once in a while their heads would twitch.
Upon doing some research at home, we all learned that indeed we’d been watching the canoodling behavior of Northern Water Snakes. She is the larger and would have reached maturity at three years of age; while smaller males do so by twenty-one months. It is his great hope that she’ll produce live young by the end of the summer. I suppose it’s her hope as well.
Another day and another shift in attention, again beside water where while still searching for emerging dragonflies, a spot of metallic green that moved quickly across the ground turned out to be two more canoodlers, this time in the form of Six-spotted Tiger Beetles. Typically, these beetles fly off as we approach, but their passion for each other slowed them down a wee bit. The white at the front of their faces–their mandibles. They’re beneficial because their diet consists of yummy delights like ants, aphids, fleas, other insects, caterpillars and spiders, which they consume with those formidable sickle-like jaws.
Shifting our attention to the left, we found what we sought. Or so we thought. Yes, an emerging dragonfly, this one in the skimmer family. You can imagine our excitement and we felt like expectant mothers. Or at least midwives as we offered encouraging words.
But all the while as we stood or sat and watched, we had questions. We knew that the conditions had been right for the larva to crawl out of the water and onto a piece of grass.
The adult form had begun to emerge through a split in the thorax.
But what stymied us: By the clearness of the wings and colors becoming more defined on the body, this insect had been trying to emerge for longer than the usual couple of hours it takes. The abdomen should have been completely out of the exuvia, and wings still cloudy. Why was the abdomen stuck?
Every time the dragonfly moved its legs, we were certain the moment was upon us when we would finally see it pull the rest of its abdomen out of the shed skin.
Sadly, two hours later, no progress had been made and we had to take our leave. I returned the next day to find the same dragonfly had given up the struggle. What went wrong? Oh, we knew it would become bird food, but still . . . it left us wondering and in a way we felt bad that we hadn’t intervened and tried to help it.
Shifting locations and attention once again, at the end of the week a bunch of us met at 6:30am and it took a while to get out of the parking lot (I can hear your guffaws!) because high up in hemlock a dash of brilliant red meant we were in the presence of a Scarlet Tanager. For the next three hours, we birded, and in the end saw or heard 34 species. All are recorded here: https://ebird.org/atlasme/checklist/S88671412
In the same place, but down by the brook, for eventually we did leave the parking lot, a Swamp Sparrow entertained us for quite a while. We felt honored, for often we might not see them as they like to forage among the aquatic plants, but given it is nesting season, we were treated to a song.
Though we tried not to shift our attention too much from the birds, occasionally our Nature Distraction Disorder bubbled up, and how could we resist the sight of a Stream Cruiser upon a tree oozing with sap. It wasn’t seeking the sap, but rather, we may have discovered the spot where it had spent the night, given that it was early morning, and damp at that.
One more shift, this last at the end of the day at the end of the work week. This time a co-worker and I were at a sandbar by the outlet of a river into a pond, and a Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper had great reason to stare with concern.
Not far above, atop a Silver Maple snag, one with intense focus watched.
Yeah, I love my job and the people I get to share it with and all that we learn along the way. This was only a brief smattering of this week’s wonders and all that we saw.
I do think in the end, however, that my young friend’s eagle eyes that spotted the Carpenter Ant in the water at the start of the week were the most focused of all.
Sometimes it happens. Well, more than sometimes. One steps out of a vehicle to go for a walk in the woods, and tada . . .
A diminutive butterfly rapidly and erratically skips from stone to stone in the parking lot, before it final settles down for a few moments. Meet a dustywing, a member of the spread-wing skippers who hold forewings and hindwings open when landed.
And then upon a pine sapling, another tiny offering, this one of the click beetles.
The day already feels complete when another winged insect suddenly flies up from where we are about to step and then lands a few feet ahead. We have to have look closely to spy it, but finally do–dragonfly that’s only just over an inch long. The sighting is special because just a couple of hours prior I’d taught a senior college course about Mayflies, Cicadas, and Dragonflies. But the test is on us. Who is this? In some ways it resembls a Calico Pennant Skimmer–the female of the pennant being black with yellow markings. But the shape of the pennant’s yellow on the abdomen is heart-shaped and these are more variable.
We take a few more steps when another wee one garners attention and by its membranous wings and abdomen broadly joined to the body, plus it’s chosen plant, it must be a member of the sawfly family.
A few more steps and we meet it’s cousin, another sawfly on another pine.
As we continue, so do our encounters with our little dragonfly friend and we begin to realize there are many and they are all the same species. But the question remains. What species is it? It can’t be the Calico Pennant because all four of her wings have dark patches at the tips and her hindwings are decorated with blotches of yellow and black at the base that remind me of stained glass. This dragonfly only has small dark patches, at the base, the hindwing’s more triangular shaped and larger than the forewing. And those hindwing patches feature light venation, not colored like a Calico’s.
At last, though it’s not all that far, but takes us at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, we reach a brook where an orbweaver does just that–weaves.
Farther out in the water, a Tree Swallow poses at the top of snag, intent upon its surroundings. We pose as well, though our intention is upon all the vegetation for we seek the exuviae left behind by the dragonflies when they transformed from their aquatic life to terrestrial. We find none, and determine that vegetation in the brook must have served as their life-changing substrate.
Finally leaving the water behind, we once again meet our dragonfly friends. What species is it? Well, the face adds another clue for where the face of a female Calico Pennant is yellow like the hearts along her abdomen, this dragonfly has a white face.
So be it. Continuing along, Striped Maple flowers dangling like a lantern with a string of shades, light the path in a place or two.
And then as we pause upon a bench for a moment, our eyes are drawn to movement upon the ground and we spy a grasshopper who is so well camouflaged that we’re grateful when it finally climbs onto a fallen branch and poses.
At last it is time to walk back to our parked vehicles, but again, along the way we are greeted over and over again by our new friend. Occasionally, we can see the sheen of the wings and realize that the molt had occurred within the last few hours as they hadn’t completely dried.
It’s not until we get home, however, and respectively pour through ID books and bounce ideas off of each other, that we realize the name of our new friend. Meet Hudsonian Whiteface, a member of the Skimmer family. For a bit, we consider Dot-tailed Whitface, but Hudson’s yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, whereas Dottie’s is more like a square.
So many stars align, and except for not finding the dragonfly exuviae, we will always celebrate this day (actually yesterday, May 13) as First Dragonfly of 2021 and give thanks that the real star was a new learning for us.
We’d hiked at least a mile and passed a few Trout Lily leaves but no flowers when I asked my guy to hunt for the little yellow beauties that delight me. And so he did.
And felt quite pleased when he pointed one out to me. Well, um, how should I tell him it’s a False Hellebore and not the lily I sought. But, it is a member of the lily family, so it was a win, and I can’t resist photographing the hellebore’s spiral stalks of pleated leaves so it was actually a win/win for both of us. We never did find a flowering Trout Lily.
That was okay, because there were so many other flowers to honor and today marked the first day of this year that I spotted a Painted Trillium. Leaves of three (actually bracts), sepals of three, petals of three, but the best is the pinkish-reddish-purplish splotch at the base of the petals that acts as a pollinator guide.
Another pleasant surprise a few minutes later: American Fly Honeysuckle, its funnel-shaped yellow flowers tinged with a hint of purple dangling like a set of twins.
Also pale yellow in hue, but with petals that curve out slightly at the tip: Sessile-leaf Bellwort (aka Wild Oat). While most bell-shaped flowers are fused, these are not. And they are most subtle in appearance so you really have to focus to locate one. But chances are that once you find the first, your eyes will cue in on others.
No gathering of flowers is complete without a touch of red, and though we found only one Red Trillium (aka Stinking Benjamin), it was enough for its rose-colored flower was well accented with egg-yolk yellow anthers.
Of course, we continued to find more Painted Trillium and no hike at this time of year is finished without my guy commenting on the trillion Trillium that I insist upon photographing. I assured him that I wouldn’t take pictures of each one today, but I surely would honor all of them and so as we continued and he somehow managed to walk by without noticing, I obnoxiously drew his attention to all.
The one flower whose name he did learn today was Hobblebush. I swear I’ve introduced them before, and surely I have, but today the name and the floral display clicked–perhaps because they decorated so much of the trail we traveled, and truly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen so many in flower in one place.
The flat-topped clusters of flowers have a lacy effect and contrast well with the accordian-veined leaves. The outer ring of sterile flowers are said to attract pollinators who will then focus on the tiny fertile watermelon tourmaline flowers in the center. My wonder is this: do the sterile flowers have a second use–perhaps to keep others away because they find no nectar or pollen and think the plant isn’t worth a further exploration?
As I explained to my guy, the reason for the common name is its straggly branches that often bend and take root, tripping or “hobbling” passers-by.
To not include Trailing Arbutus would be remiss on my part, for so many were still blooming along the trail. And after I paused to photograph this one and then caught up with my guy and explained my focus moment, he was quick to quip that I was the one trailing! Always . . . in his hiking book.
By water’s edge, where we sat upon an overturned canoe to dine on our sandwiches, I found a few examples of Leather-leaf in flower, its tiny nodding, urn-shaped, pearly white bells with crisp rolled upper lips, on a short stalk hanging all in a row rather like a line of laundry on the clothesline.
At the summit, it was Serviceberry, aka Shadbush, that announced its presence. Notice how the flowers have emerged before the leaves. Right now, mini-leaves are bronze-tinged, folded and half or less their mature size; eventually the leaves will become green and flat, with the upper surface smooth and the lower hairy just along the midrib but retaining a few hairs on the surface. Nothing like a bit of variation.
If you look closely, you’ll find at least one pollinator taking a pause as it was raining by this point in our hike, but another close gander may reveal a few others.
Again at the summit, and therefore closer to the sunlight that didn’t shine today, several urn-shaped white flowers with pinkish stripes, the petals fused and tips turned back, shouting that blueberry season is in the offing.
All of these we gathered in photographs as a bouquet to mark this Mondate.
There were a few other finds worth noting–like last year’s Lady’s Slipper capsule, the source of thousands of tiny seeds.
And the discovery of a few Morel mushrooms at the base of Northern Red Oak trees. That was another first find for me. I’m sure for my guy as well, though he hardly saw them 😉
Our journey today found us hiking beside Sanborn River . . .
lunching on top of one of many overturned canoes beside Overset Pond . . .
enjoying the mirror image of the pond from a false summit on the mountain . . .
and taking in the entire scenario from the granite we stood upon to pond below, mountains beyond, and sky that reflected the ledge under our feet.
The flowers, the landscape, it was all worth the journey and we made plans to return in the near future. But the icing on the cake or pollen on the flowers was the pair of loons who entertained us from time to time in water so clear that we could see them swim underwater. Their re-emergence, however, was best and we enjoyed our time spent with them.
Overset Mountain and Sanborn River. A perennial favorite. A place to gather a bouquet without picking any flowers. A place to enjoy a variety of natural communities. A place to be native with the natives.
Thanks to Larry Stifler and Mary McFadden for allowing all of us to create an Overset Bouquet any day of the year.
What season is it exactly? That was today’s puzzlement as we headed up a trail in Newry, Maine.
The temperature was in the 20˚s at best and wind gusted to at least 25 miles per hour as we hiked along the forest trail, but my heart sang with the sight of a field of Trout Lilies, a plant that I sadly seldom encounter. We’ve hiked this trail a bunch of times and never could I recall seeing these delightful spring ephemerals so named because the maroon markings on the leaves resemble a brown or brook trout. And then it occurred to me: being ephemerals, they bloom early when the canopy isn’t yet closed in with leaves and then disappear into the landscape as so many other flowers and ferns fill the space. Though the yellow nodding flowers hadn’t yet opened completely, it was enough to see into the future.
Similar in color were the Forest Yellow Violets, their tiny flowers offering teeny rays of sunshine beside the trail like runway lights at an airport. Their purple veins served as runways all their own and despite today’s brisk weather, the translucent coloring of the flower’s tips indicated that insects had done their duty and pollenated the plants.
And then, my heart be still, a Red Trillium waiting to blossom. That, of course, brought out a comment from my guy about a trillion trilliums because he knows well that I find it difficult not to honor each one.
Through a deciduous wood we climbed for two miles and then decided to find lunch rock. It happened to be beside a stream and so we sat, ate our PB&J sandwiches, topped off with cookies from Fly Away Farm, all the while enjoying the water’s babble and view beyond with Sunday River Ski Area in the offing.
If I had to say exactly where lunch rock was located it would be this: where X marks the spot.
Ah, but notice the icicles. Can you feel the chill of the day?
And then it was onward and upward, with a brief stop at the infamous trail sign where many have carved their names in a proclamation of love or at least acknowledged ascent of the trail.
Eventually we emerged onto the start of the ledges where we met the wind head on and it grabbed our bodies in an attempt to whip us off the mountain. Did I mention that for the first mile we wondered about our choice of trail given the day’s conditions and considered other possibilities for today’s hike, but neither wanted to give in and so the wind was ours and likewise we belonged to it.
That said, rosy-cheeked as we were, we posed for a selfie and wondered it might be the highest height we’d reach. And then upward we continued to hike, uncertain about the future.
Over and over again, Sunday River Ski Area became our focal point as we viewed it from a variety of vantage points.
With a half mile to go before reaching the 3000+ foot summit, we peered into boulder caves and wondered if anyone was home.
Our best finds: more icicles.
And so onward and upward we continued, our hoods helping to keep the wind at bay.
Suddenly, only a few boulders stood between us and the summit. Tackle them and we’d arrive.
Which we did, the cairn at the top the first recipient of our honor.
One of three survey markers our second focus.
And a quick pause to mark the fact that we were actually there, and then we found the trail down the backside that led toward a spur that circles below the summit.
It was there that we climbed down into winter.
Or perhaps it was late, late fall that met us along the trail.
As we followed the spur, snowflakes flew sideways in front of us and started to blur Sunday River’s face.
My guy, the naturalist 🙂 in his own right, did what he often does and pointed out things of interest to me, like the #4 tree. So, what created the 4? I had ideas; he’d already moved on.
We eventually found our way back to the main trail and continued the descent. It was rather quick as is my guys’ custom, but I know a few tricks to slow him down and one is to mention the potential for bear paw trees.
Bingo! He found one we’ve missed on previous journeys.
Eventually we left late fall/winter behind and upon the descent met spring again, this time in the form of Canada Mayflower making preparations to bloom.
And then . . . a first bloom of one of the trillion Trillium.
With that the puzzle was solved. Even if it feels like a cooler season on Puzzle Mountain in Newry, Maine, blossoms like that of a Stinking Benjamin (Red Trillium) tell the truth. It is spring after all.