Stocking My Wonders

My fingers reach in, wondering what marvel I might pull out of the wool sock, one I knitted when my guy and I first tied the knot so many moons ago.

Of course I shouldn’t be surprised that the first thing my fingers grasp is a dragonfly, this being a Common Whitetail male in the Skimmer Family, with those broad crossbands on the wings and black streaks at the base of each.

Calling it “common” strikes me as such an understatement and I’m thrilled when I next pull out an immature male of the same species. I mean, look at those wing markings. And the spots along the sides of the abdomen segments. And the difference in color from immature to mature. Surely, next it will be a female that falls into my hands.

It is quite a shock, however, to realize it is fur that tickles my hand, and voila, out of the sock comes a Red Fox. A Red Fox who settles for Black-oil Sunflower Seeds, not quite the next best thing to capturing a squirrel.

When I next reach in, I am sure I’ll pull out a female Common Whitetail, but . . . instead it is a much smaller, and even more extravagantly decorated female Calico Pennant Skimmer. The same family, but this is one of my favorite species (please don’t be offended Whitetails, I really do think you are more special than common), with those heart-shaped markings along its abdomen segments and basal wing coloration reminding me of a stained-glass window, which seemed apropos for today’s celebration.

And then there are two with similar colors and equally delicate, puddling as is their habit, these Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies sticking their proboscis seeking nutrients from the gravel road. The chemical make-up of the site is key, for the butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals

Most puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the source provides, especially after it has rained. They store these nutrients in their sperm so that when the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies as a nuptial gift along to the female. This gives the female an extra boost, which she then passes along to her eggs. It’s an important gift because eggs that receive the extra nutrients have a greater chance of success than those that do not.

Back into the sock do I dip, this time finding a Little Copper Butterfly seeking pollen and nectar upon Pearly Everlasting flowerheads. Little Coppers, tiny as the name suggests, thrive in areas disturbed by either human activity or natural events and it seems almost an oxymoron to think that as teeny and delicate as they are, they are right at home in waste places.

Once again, there is a significant change between the Little Copper and the next species that my hands discover. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” hoots the Barred Owl much to my delight. Only two nights ago I heard it calling out the back door, so to find it in the sock is a treasure indeed.

Almost immediately after, a Muskrat swims out of the sock, moving quickly toward me with its rat-like tail acting like a rudder in the rear. I love its questioning look as we meet each other for the first time.

Enough fluff about the Muskrat. It is a feathered friend. who next pops up out of the sock. One of the most amazing things to me about this gift is the color of its eyes and how they reflect the sky above and water below.

Still pulling from the leg of the sock, this Gray Seal floats forth, as if on the incoming tide. Sometimes called “horseheads,” because of their long snouts, Gray Seals scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, literally means “hooked-nose sea pig.”

Not the prettiest of names, not the prettiest of species, but I am still excited to realize this one is my own to keep.

Suddenly, there seems to be a theme to the gifts, and a life on or in the water makes sense. The next item in the sock is one we think of as nature’s engineer, and though not everyone is thrilled with their prowess at felling trees, building dams and lodges, and changing waterways for their own benefit, it’s good to realize that they also benefit other species in the process, including humans. This particular Beaver is active during the day because hikers like my guy and me keep ruining its dam as we cross over it to access a trail.

Still on the water theme, but much diminished in size, is a female Fairy Shrimp. Just sighting one such species is enough to make its vernal pool habitat significant. The way to identify a female is to look for her two dark brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.

So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch.

The eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, and only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching.

I’m beginning to realize how much I am enjoying the variety hidden within this sock, and the next gift turns out to be a Blinded Sphinx moth, a species one doesn’t ofter encounter during the day. Or at all, for it’s a night flyer. But those markings and folds, and the overall design. Oh my.

With the next item I choose, I am reminded that one must look for anomalies in the landscape. And so I do. It is the horizontal line of the back that gives away the fact that I am starring at a White-tail Deer. Otherwise, I might think that the legs are sapling trunks and the face maybe a few bleached beech leaves.

My next surprise–comes as a trio. And I might not even realize they are there if I hadn’t heard them first–chattering to each other as they swim and play and fish and sometimes sit on the ice before slipping quickly back into the water in what can only be known as River Otter delight.

Once again, I suspect I know what I’ll pull out next, only to be surprised to discover that it is not a prickly friend, but rather a feathered one who roosts high up in a tree–this being a Ruffed Grouse.

But the prickly one doesn’t disappoint, and makes its own appearance in a different tree and place.

That is to be followed by another I often spot basking in the sun with friends, but it is great fun to spot a Painted Turtle swimming below the water’s surface of a shallow pond.

The water theme begins to appear again, maybe because the one who filled the sock knows I spend a lot of time peering into the depths, and sometimes I’m rewarded with sightings such as this of tadpoles forming into their mature frog beings.

And then there is another that requires a stretch of my neck as it stretches its neck to feed its young high up in a nest.

Having regurgitated a meal, the mature Great Blue Heron stays with its young a wee bit longer before heading off to replenish the pantry.

No sock of mine would be complete without a couple of canoodlers, he atop her. Water striders can walk on the surface because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water, a technique called superhydrophobic. They move so quickly because what they are doing is more like rowing, vigorously rowing, creating little swirls in the surface that help propel them forward.

When I slip my hand down into what feels like the toe of the sock, I pull out the largest gift of all and a totally unexpected sighting–a buck. Actually, there are two, but this was the larger and definitely mightier. I feel blessed to have received such a gift. In fact, to have received all of these gifts. To have been present for these presents.

It’s actually toeless, this wonder-filled stocking of mine. And could go on forever. But I’ll pause here and rejoin my family. I do, however, wish you all warmth and peace and electrical power and good health this holiday season.

Cheers.

Hunting the Common

I knew when I headed out this morning that there was one member of the Odonata family that I wanted to meet. But . . . where oh where to find her.

Her habitat includes muddy-bottomed ponds, lakes, and streams, as well as disturbed areas. Hmmm. That should make the quest easy.

With that in mind, I first stopped beside a muddy-bottomed pond that flows into a brook, which at its start more resembles a stream. It is there that Slaty Blue Skimmer and I got reacquainted after so many months have passed since our last encounter.

He reminds me that dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which means “different wings” since their hindwing differ in size and shape from the forewings. Those differences may be subtle, but they are there.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I watched Slaty Blue come and go, defending his piece of the shoreline from his family members, I suddenly spied something under the Winterberry leaves: a newly emerged skimmer resting while its wings dried.

And then one shrub over a Racket-tailed Emerald, with neon green eyes paused longer than I expected. (This one is for you, Kate Mansfield Griffith–it doesn’t have the full green body of the Eastern Pondhawk that walked down your Connecticut driveway today, but the eyes were a good match of color, don’t you think?)

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Upon a Pickerel Weed in the water I notice a favorite of mine, this one also recently emerged and drying its wings before taking flight: a female Calico Pennant Skimmer. For some who have been watching, you’ll be happy to know that there were males about, but they were busy and didn’t wish to pose for a photo shoot.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Old friends, like Kate who was one of my first playmates and even if we can’t spend time together we can still share moments of wonder like we did as kids, make themselves known such as this male Chalk-fronted Corporal. I’ve described it before as being kid-like in behavior because its kind love to play leap frog and land three feet ahead of me with each step I take.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I soon leave the pond behind and find myself walking with intention along a woodland pathway and into an old log landing located near another brook. Guess who greets me? Yes, another Chalk-fronted Corporal, this one a female.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I continue to look, one with whom I struck up a conversation last summer flew in and snatched a moth before settleing on leaves to partake of the meal. Meet my friend: Black Shouldered Spinyleg, a clubtail so named for its black shoulders and spiny hind legs.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Next, a Spangled Skimmer with black and white stigma on its wings took me by surprise and I vowed to remember it for no other has the dual-colored stigmas.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

In the shadows I spotted another I’m getting to know this year, the Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly was stunning, but I found it amusing that its common name refers to tiny spots when so much more could have been honed in upon for a descriptor.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I was about ready to head for the hills when another dragonfly caught my attention. Okay, so that’s a bit of an understatement as so many more than I’ve shared made themselves known to me and I stood still and watched how they moved, where they rested, and how big their territory was.

How common are you? Very, and I AM the one you seek.

I wanted to find this female Common Whitetail Skimmer because she hardly seemed like an every-day dragonfly to me. Those zigzag stripes on her abdomen. The way each segment stood out more 3-D than most. And those three black patches upon each wing. Words fail to describe her beauty.

How common are you? Very and yet . . . not at all.

I set out to hunt for the common and along the way I met others equally common, but in the end the one I sought was hardly common at all . . . despite her common name.