We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.
But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun.
And then a Grackle flew in with a meal in beak.
I didn’t realize what that meal was until . . .
while expounding on one topic or another of which I’m sure I thought I was the authority, I stopped mid-sentence with a mouth open wide in surprise for upon a tree trunk a newly emerged dragonfly showed off its slowy unfolding wings as it moved back toward the exuviae from which it had just emerged. Why did it move back? I don’t know, but they often cling on nearby as they let their wings dry before flying. It was at that point that my lecture changed focus and suddenly I knew that our being there was important for we were saving this vulnerable being from becoming the Grackle’s dessert.
As for our lunch, my guy found a spot and . . . dined alone. I was beside myself with joy and knew there were more discoveries to make. Thankfully, he has the patience of Job in many situations, and this was one of them.
A brisk breeze blew, which kept the Black Flies at bay, a good thing for us, and perhaps it was also a welcome treat for the dragonflies as they dried their wings in preparation for first flight.
Some managed to keep wings closed over their abdomens, but again, that was another sign of new emergence for as adults, wings are spread while resting.
In the sunshine of the early afternoon, those cloudy, moist wings glistened and offered a rainbow of subtle colors.
Upon a variety of vegetation different species clung in manners of their ancestors until ready for takeoff.
At one point I turned and was surprised to find this friend upon a sapling beside my knees.
And so we began to chat . . . until he’d heard enough and flew off.
But in that same second another flew in even closer, and I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he?
He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose.
I never expected it to be so, but stalking insects has become a favorite pastime. And this beautiful fall day, with temps in the upper 60˚s, provided plenty to admire if one took the time to look. The best way to spy the insects, for often so camouflaged are they, is to stand still for minutes on end and try to cue in on your surroundings.
Grasshoppers, their armored bodies so intricately designed, drew my attention first and I spent an hour on and off watching a male and female in hopes that they might set a date. On my clock, they never did, though I suspect when I wasn’t looking, they snuggled under a leaf.
Another was a Robber Fly that flew from boat to boat and root to root as is its habit in this habitat. So named for its ferocious manner of pouncing from the air onto its prey, I didn’t have the good fortune to observe that behavior. But do check out that bristly body.
And then I wandered over to the hammock and a Stink Bug made its presence known. I surprised myself with the find for it was almost camouflaged as it moved upon the ropes.
And somehow, cueing in on the Stink Bug provided the opportunity to see another dangling below the ropes. I thought I’d been in insect heaven up to this point, but the position was cinched when I spotted the dragonfly.
It didn’t move and so I was sure it was dead, and gave thanks for the opportunity to snap photos of it.
Really, it was a perfect specimen, its body and wings in immaculate shape. I had visions of my insect collection growing by one.
To that end, I took the dragonfly from the hammock and placed it on the cover of the well. Giddy as could be at my good luck in locating such a fine specimen on a mid-October day, I began snapping photo after photo as I took the opportunity to get to know this guy better.
It wasn’t until I placed him on the palm of my hand, however, that I began to notice more than its mosaic thorax.
Suddenly, his wings began to beat, ever so slowly and methodically. And yet, he remained in the same spot on my hand.
I gave constant thanks for I couldn’t believe the opportunity I’d been gifted to examine this magnificent being at such a close perspective. My typical encounter with a darner dragonfly is that they cruise over water in almost constant motion and rarely land. And yet . . . here one sat upon my hand with no intention to move on any time soon.
Have you ever looked at a dragonfly in such close proximity? And taken time to notice all the hair on its thorax?
Even its underside is covered in hair. And those folded legs. Remember when I found it dangling below the hammock? Its legs were extended back then.
My handling of the dragonfly was gentle for I wanted it to fly off, but at the same time, my fascination got the better of me. The face provided part of its identification for it had a thick black crossline stripe in the middle of the face that looked rather like a mustache.
I assumed it had been caught in a spider web under the hammock, and really, it did seem a few pieces of silk were stuck to one wing. With extreme caution I tried to brush them away, but feared I’d tear a wing in the process.
Back in my hand, I noted another facial idiosyncrasy–a T-spot with a robust upright and a top cross-piece–almost like a cat face upon its “nose.”
But what was really noticeable was the fact that suddenly my friend arched his body as he might when meeting his love. Was he as in love with me as I with him?
Just as suddenly as he arched, he began to relax.
And then, another movement . . . his bent legs that had been folded close to his thorax moved and he stood upon his knees.
What I couldn’t understand was why he didn’t extend those legs.
Rather, he started to do something else. Keep an eye on his head.
He cocked it as if to say, “Hey lady, it’s getting late. What are you going to do about me?”
I did what I hope was the right thing even if it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I placed him on a leaf upon the well cover. Yes, I so wanted to take him inside, but he wasn’t meant to be inside and whatever happens to him, happens. I can’t control his world, despite that questioning face that tugged at my heartstrings.
What was our encounter all about? And why didn’t he behave in typical darner fashion? I’ll never understand, but I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy today’s afternoon dragon delight. Indeed.
I don’t always find it easy to get to know someone upon our first greeting, especially if our time together is brief. And sometimes it takes me a year or even longer to feel comfortable in the presence of another. But there was something a wee bit different about today’s encounter that encouraged me to break down any false barriers.
Maybe it was because at first glance I thought an old friend had stopped by for the clothing it wore on its back looked familiar.
But my old friend, Ashy, wears a cloak with a yellow triangular spot on segment eight on the coat tails and segments nine and ten have no coloration above.
If you look back at my new acquaintance, you’ll realize that the pattern is quite different all the way to the hem line.
That’s when I began to realize I was in the presence of someone I hadn’t had the pleasure to meet before. Or, if I had, perhaps I hadn’t taken the time to notice the idiosyncrasies that earned it a name. To really get to know him.
Notice, for instance, the wide black shoulder stripe on the side of his thorax.
And the spines along the thigh of his hind leg.
Those two features were key, but there was more to see: look at the thorax again. Can you see two long, thin bluish-green ovals and the “I” that separates them?
Because he looked similar in some ways to Ashy and another friend I know as Sir Lancelot, I wondered if he’d be comfortable with an up close and personal meeting.
It appeared he didn’t mind as my steel-gray-blue eyes peered into his of vivid green.
He didn’t stay on my finger long and despite the fact that he was at least a half inch longer than his cousins, he felt like a lightweight.
I, of course, could not let the chance encounter pass without another opportunity to gain a closer perspective.
He seemed to feel the same . . .
and ever so slowly climbed aboard again. Three times we stared at each other, but each time it was only for a brief period.
At last he flew off and I could only hope that he felt as excited about our meeting as I did.
My only other hope is that the next time we meet, I remember his name: Black-shouldered Spinyleg Clubtail Dragonfly or Dromogomphus spinosus.
Today, I made a new friend, naturally. And it wasn’t so hard after all.
Oh dragonfly, oh dragonfly In your infancy, you laboriously climbed upon a slender stem. Ever so slowly seams split. Soft and squishy, you spilled forth into this sunlit world. Perched upon your former self, wispy strings recalled aquatic breaths. Moments slipped into an hour. Your body of velvet pulsed as blood pumped into cloudy wings. Standing guard watching you, I noted preparations for first flight. Eyes bulging you chose a spot of viewpoint vantage. Colors changing, you gained the markings of generations past. Wings drying you offered a reflection of stained glass. Beyond understanding you flew a dance of darting restlessness.
Odonata, Odonata, You have known both worlds. First playing beneath the surface. Then in a manner so brave, climbing skyward to ride summer’s breeze on gossamer wings. Forever in awe of your transformation from aquatic nymph to winged adult, I can only imagine the wonder of emergence.
I never intended to like insects. They weren’t really my thing. At all. And if I encountered one in the house, I’d either ask someone to smoosh it or do the dirty work myself, though sometimes that meant my hands clenched together until I got up the nerve.
But one day I began to look. I’m not even sure when that day was, but for quite a while now, it has become a daily habit.
What I am about to share with you are some finds from this past week. Some were new acquaintances while others were old friends I was meeting all over again.
For starters, I discovered this tiny, cylindrical structure on an oak leaf. Notice how it was right beside the main vein. I had to wonder, was the top rim also a vein, for so thick it appeared.
It’s my understanding that after creating the third role of the leaf, a single egg is laid. What triggers the insect to lay the egg then? Why not on the second role? And how many roles are there before the nest is completed?
What is this? A Leaf Roller Weevil nest, which is called a nidus.
In another place I spotted the first of what I suspect I’ll see repeatedly as spring gives way to summer. The wasp who built this global structure also used an oak leaf.
I’d love to see one of these being created and I am humbled not only by the perfectly round orb, but also the interior. This one happened to be split open so I could peek inside. The wasp used the leaf tissue to surround a single larva located at the center. Fibers radiating from that central larval capsule supported the exterior. How could it be that an insect could create such?
What is this? An Oak Apple Wasp Gall.
Standing with others beside water as we listened for and spotted birds, I noticed the largest insect remaining in one place for minutes on end as if suspended midair.
It’s rather scary looking, but that’s all an act for this impersonator likes to look like a wasp or bee in order to avoid becoming prey (think Batesian mimicry where something looks dangerous but is actually good).
In reality, despite its “fierce” presentation, it’s actually harmless. And beneficial. While it consumes nectar, honeydew and pollen, but doesn’t actually collect the latter like a bee, in the process of visiting a flower may get some pollen on its body and transfer the goods from that plant to the next.
But that controlled flying? You can see by the photo that the wings were moving, but with the naked eye it appeared motionless.
What is this? A Hover Fly.
I was standing about ten feet above a pond when I spied and first thought that these two insects were one. In fact, I was sure I was looking at the largest example of this species. And then I saw all the legs and realized something more was going on.
Indeed, a lot more was going on. She was on the bottom and as you can see, he had a tight clasp. Theirs is a mating habit that’s quite unique and if she doesn’t give in, it can go on for a couple of days. And might mean doom for her.
You see, she has a genital shield to guard against him if she doesn’t think he’s the man she wants. But, he has a counter behavior–he taps the water in a pattern that might lure predators such as fish. And since she’s beneath and closest to the fish’s mouth, it behooves her to submit quickly to his endearment.
What are these? Water Striders.
This next one was discovered when some young naturalists I was hanging out with lifted a rock upon a rock beside a brook. Burrowed in to the humus was a segmented insect.
In its larval form it would have had protective filaments, as well as gills to help it absorb dissolved oxygen. And a set of mean-looking mandibles. Ten to twelve times it would have molted before leaving the water and finding this moist environment under the rock upon a rock where it dug a cell within which it spent up to fourteen days before pupating. Under the same rock was the exoskeleton it had shed. In this next stage of life, it develops wings, legs, antennae and mouth parts. We covered it back up and I suspect that by now or very soon it will dig its way out of the cell and emerge as a winged adult.
What is it? A Dobsonfly Pupa.
One of my favorite finds was beside a river–and though I didn’t get to see it emerge from its exoskeleton, I did watch it pump some blood into its body and grow bigger and longer over the course of an hour or more.
Its cloudy wings needed time to dry out and lengthen, as did its abdomen. And eventually, its colors would help in a determination of its specific name, though I wasn’t there that long.
Just across a small inlet, another had also emerged and while it had almost reached maturity, it was still waiting for its wings to dry. Notice how in the previous photo, the wings are held upright over its back, but as demonstrated here, when they dry they extend outward. That’s actually a great way to differentiate these from their Odonata cousins who wear their wings straight over their abdomens.
Meet the cousin–the damselflies.
And now back to the others, who also begin life as aquatic insects that molt a bunch of times before becoming adults. When the time is right, they climb up vegetation and undergo an incredible metamorphosis as you saw above. Left behind as skeletons of their earlier life are the delicate structures that remain on the vegetation for quite a long time.
I’m always amazed when I discover one atop another, and as far as I know it’s all just a matter of this being a good spot to go through the change of life.
What are these? Cruiser Dragonfly Exuvia above a Darner.
Also recently emerged as indicated by the still cloudy wings (and fact that I saw the exoskeleton a few inches away) was another that wasn’t a damsel or a dragon. Instead, it has the longest and thinnest legs that look like they can hardly support the abdomen, but they do. In flight, people often mistake them for Mosquitoes, but if such, they’d have to be considered giant Mosquitoes.
As it turns out, however, they are not, nor do they bite. In fact, in their adult stage, which only lasts for ten to fifteen days, they do not eat. Anything. Their sole purpose at this stage of life is to mate.
What is this? A Crane Fly.
I have saved my favorite for last. Oh, I think they are all fascinating, but this one . . . oh my. Notice that needle-thin abdomen and the zebra-like appearance of those long, skinny legs. I think they have at least three joints which give each leg a zigzaggy appearance.
The legs become important as it flies through the air–or rather drifts. Or maybe swims would be a better verb to describe its movement. You see, each leg is hollow. And each foot (a teeny, tiny tarsomere) is filled with air. Crazy? Yes. As it lifts off, it spreads its legs, but barely moves its wings, and disappears into the vegetation beside the brook in a ghostly fashion.
I’m really not sure how I spotted it, but I’d never seen one before and then this past week twice it made its presence known and I felt honored for the meeting.
What is this? A Phantom Crane Fly. (And if you hear me say Phantom Midge while we’re walking together–feel free to correct me. It’s like birch and beech, and so many others–my mouth jumps before my brain kicks into gear.)
Insect Awe. Who knew I would ever experience such. I can only hope our paths cross again soon.
I love those days when I have a few moments and can pay attention to the world around me. It never ceases to fill me with awe and wonder. And today was such as I had a free hour that I chose to spend on the dock.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a fishing spider the size of my palm resting there, but I was for it was my first sighting of one this year. True confession, indoors I’m not a huge spider fan and as a kid I used to holler for someone to come kill any arachnid I spied. But . . . with age comes appreciation. And perhaps understanding.
And so I appreciated this spider’s pattern and understood the need for its hairy body that gave it such a scary look. Fishing spiders hunt by sensing vibrations. The hair is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water. It also allows the spider to actually walk on water to get its prey. Those bristly hairs also trap air bubbles that the spider uses to breathe when it waits underwater to ambush a meal, be it insects, tadpoles, or other invertebrates.
When I heard wing beats behind me, I turned my focus away from Charlotte and toward a Lancet Clubtail dragonfly that had landed on a seat of My Guy’s boat. An ant marched right over to check it out.
And I fully expected the Lance to eat the ant. But . . . he didn’t. Drats. I like watching them consume their prey.
The more I looked at this guy, and it was a guy based on its cercus, the more I noticed, including the fact that it was missing the tarsi or claw-like foot of one leg.
It was his face though, that I really wanted to study. I found this simplified picture at arizonadragonfly.org, and though it’s not complete, it provided enough information for my purposes.
There’s so much to learn, that to add more detail would be more than overwhelming. Look at the mouth parts. And those eyes–each is composed of 30,000 lenses. Apparently, they can see ultraviolet and polarized light. And then there’s the ocelli, or visual organs, that probably work along with the antennae. Prey don’t have a chance.
When the Lance flew away, I checked on Charlotte again. Still she sat, one leg dangling below the dock board and touching a web. I figured she was waiting for movement to announce that a meal had arrived.
And then I noticed that it wasn’t a meal, but perhaps a mate she’d been expecting.
Suddenly, he darted under the dock and she started across the gap–toward me!
Then she stopped, seemed to make an adjustment, and quickly disappeared.
I moved in for a closer look and made a discovery.
Her nursery! Fishing spiders are nursery web spiders. She must have wrapped her eggs in a silken sac and carried it to the gap between the outer two boards of the dock, where she constructed the web. And she was standing guard waiting for her spiderlings to emerge–until I came along. Now the question remains, will I be around when they do hatch and disperse on their own silken threads?
I don’t know. But today, I was there to notice so much in such a short time–as the world passed by.
and Pleasant Mountain’s reflection marked a new day.
New life was also in the making as the Variable Dancer Damselflies practiced the fine art of canoodling. I’d never noticed an oviposition aggregation before, but it made sense if it minimized the threats a couple receives from unattached males. Plus, if the spot was good enough for one pair to lay their eggs, then it must be fine for another. And so I learned something new today.
Perhaps it also cut down on predation, though I couldn’t stay long enough to note if the Slaty Skimmer that hung out above turned either pair into breakfast. If so, I hope they at least had a chance to leave their deposits.
That was my morning view, but I changed it up a bit this afternoon and darted across the Hemlock Covered Bridge that spans the Old Course of the Saco River in Fryeburg. Built in 1857 of Paddleford truss construction with supporting laminated wooden arches, the bridge is a quaint and charming reminder of days gone by.
Though reinforced in 1988 so you can drive across, it’s even more fun to glide while admiring the work of our forefathers and . . .
peer out a window at the river from Maine’s oldest remaining covered bridge.
The handiwork of more recent travelers . . .
was also clearly visible.
Down by the Old Course, I spotted a female River Jewelwing, the white dots on its four wings showing off in the day’s light. Just prior, a few sprinkles had fallen and one teeny droplet rolled down her thorax. A few even teenier ones clung to her legs.
With one more look back to reflect upon the bridge, I was then ready to set sail again.
Heading toward Frog Alley, the view across the fields included Mount Kearsarge amid the summer haze that had developed.
Mount Tom was more clearly visible for it was so much closer.
But what I really stopped to look at where those things closer to the ground, like the brilliant pink Dianthus with their petals all spotted and toothed at the tips.
Offering a lighter hue of pink, a bindweed twined its way through the roadside wildflowers.
Also with shades of pink and the yellow complexion of those flowers already pollinated, milkweed was in full bloom and the ants and some flies were making the rounds, but I only saw one honeybee taking advantage of the sweet nectar. It reminded me that the same was true on the milkweed growing in my garden where, at most, I’ve seen four honeybees rather than the usual swarms.
And then there was the subtle yellow of the Sulphur Cinquefoil showing off its cheery face despite a few tear drops. Actually, it may have cried for only a few drops had fallen from the sky and we really do need a soaking rain.
As if taking a cue from the cinquefoil, Clouded Sulphur butterflies flitted and danced along the road.
And then I realized that they kept gathering in groups. It’s a form I’d read about but never observed before–puddling. This was a male habit and apparently their intention was to suck nutrients from the wet ground. I guess even a few raindrops served the purpose.
Before I moved on again, my heart was still as more yellow entered the scene in the form of a striped thorax and I realized I was watching a Dragonhunter Dragonfly. Though it wasn’t so easy to see the tip of tail once it landed, as it flew about in my vicinity it kept its abdomen curved down–a habit of these big guys.
The Fryeburg Bog was my next landing and though I didn’t head out to the water that was more like an over-sized puddle, I found plenty to focus on.
For starters, the Buttonbush had begun to bloom and I loved its otherworldly presentation.
It was there that I saw the smallest of dragons, in the form of the Frosted Whiteface.
At most, he was about 1.5 inches long–quite probably the smallest of the species that I know.
It was there that I also spotted my first Ruby Meadowhawk of this year.
And then there were two! And in the future, obviously, there will be more.
And finally, it was there that I noticed a Song Sparrow had nabbed a butterfly snack–all part of the circle of life.
My final stop on today’s journey was at Popple Hill Brook along Smarts Hill Road in Sweden.
And like the Variable Dancers I’d seen this morning, I found many more beside the brook. Not only was the male’s purple coloring stunning, but notice those silvery legs.
Of course, where there is more than one dragonfly or damselfly, there is love.
As my tour began, it ended–with the Variables dancing to their heart song.
And with that, I flew back to camp, where the mountain’s reflection was conducting its own dance routine as the sun began to slip toward the horizon.
And a few more raindrops produced a rainbow in the eastern sky.
Thanks for taking flight with me on this wonder-filled wander and soaring above some of the areas that are so unique and yet we tend to overlook them.