Most people think there are four seasons in the northern hemisphere: spring, summer, autumn, winter. In Maine, many would argue that there’s a fifth: mud. And maybe even a sixth: road construction season.
I beg to differ on all accounts. In my wee world view we just came out of tracking season, which began at the beginning of December and lasted through the end of March.
And now, we have entered The Other Season. While tracking season doesn’t involve much color, it does offer an insider’s look at the animals with whom we share this space, and the habitat in which they live.
But now . . .
one’s eye needs to focus on what is different. The anomaly. Really focus. For there is a special snake making an appearance upon an old stump by the water’s edge. It looks rather like the saplings that have made this nurse log their home, but if you look closely, you might spy three light yellow stripes that contrast against a dark background and a bit of a curved tail.
Zooming in even closer, look at the snake’s head and the light colored spot in front of its eye. This is a key ID feature for an Eastern Ribbonsnake, an uncommon species in Maine, and one of special concern, which according to the maine.gov website means ” particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.”
Then there’s the Backswimmer who spends its life rowing about, belly up. Each set of legs is used for a different function – the front pair for catching prey because they are voracious predators, the middle pair for holding the prey tight, and the flattened, hairy third pair acts as oars, much like those used with a rowing shell.
As piercer-predators. they kill and suck the bodily fluids out of any prey they can subdue – invertebrate and vertebrate alike – including tiny tadpoles and fish fry. They remind me of terrestrial assassin bugs. But, Backswimmers also become fish food.
In this same habitat, one of the first butterflies to grace our airwaves is the Mourning Cloak because it overwinters as an adult. It’s an easy one to ID, perhaps the easiest for its rich brown wings are accented by vibrant blue dots and a bright yellow border along the trailing edge. Seeing mourning cloaks flutter out of the leaf litter is a sure sign of the other season.
In the same space, moving swiftly from one body of water across a cobbly road to another wetland was a Snapping Turtle. Though Snapping Turtles appear to pose a threat to humans, they are not as aggressive as we think. Instead of swimming, these turtles spend most of their time crawling along the bottom of shallow water.
On land, however, Snappers often act like the nastiest characters that you ever want to encounter. Have you ever tried to help one cross the road? With its long neck, that is almost as long as its shell, it’ll swing its head and lunge with open jaws.
I have read that even though they hiss and strike out with their formidable jaws, they will usually not bite. Supposedly, they’ll close their jaws just before they reach your hand. I don’t intend to verify this. Their act is enough to keep me at a safe distance. It’s best to leave a Snapping Turtle alone and treat it with respect.
Because I was beside water, upon floating leaves, an insect flew in that could easily have been mistaken for a wasp, such as is its tendency to mimic such. The Masquerading Syrphid Fly, aka a hover fly, has longitudinal stripes on its thorax that resemble those on the back of a Paper Wasp, but a wasp it is not. For one thing, it has only one pair of wings, where bees and wasps have two pairs.
Away from the water but within the nearby leaf litter, and easy to find if you roll a log or move some downed tree bark, you might discover the high population density of Red-backed Salamanders who often maintain small territories that they guard and in which they exclusively forage.
The forest floor is a sophisticated, perennial cycling system of leaf litter, fungus, minerals and soil extending from tree trunks down into the earth. Scores of critters travel in between, eating, moving, and transforming the layers as they go, like Red-backed Salamanders who feed on a wide variety of invertebrates and to whom we give great thanks.
Among their meals, Red-backed Salamanders feed on of invertebrates including ants, but have you ever seen anything like this: an ant convention? And not one focused on a sweet treat you accidentally dropped?
According to Donald Stokes 1983 A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, “The other situation is where hundreds of ants seem to be crawling all over each other . . . These masses are probably involved in an aggressive encounter, possibly over the position of nest sites. They could be termed ‘territorial battles’ or even ‘wars.’ In contrast to our wars, they are conducted entirely by females. lf you look closely at the ants, you will see individual battles — ants using their pincers to dismember the bodies of other ants. On the battlefield may be cutoff legs or heads.”
We may be in a new season as witnessed by all the finds commented upon, but where there’s mud or wet sand, there will be tracks and so there’s some carry-over. Do you see the baby hand prints? At least two Raccoons had passed the way of some of the other critters in this post.
But the time has come to emerge from the depths of winter and shed a few weeds and head into the other season: Standing Beside the Water Season.
If you are looking for me in the next six months — I’ll be holding true to this next season.
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