Spring In Our Steps

Early spring, that time of transition when it feels as if the world has slowed down, is one of my favorite times of the year. Oh, besides all my other favorite times that is–like tracking time and dragonfly time and stalking insect time and . . . and . . . and.

These days it seems my day often begins with a certain male visitor.

No, it’s not my guy, but another handsome fellow named Jake. At least I think that’s his name, based on the length of his beard, short conical spurs on the backs of his legs, and light red and blue head, which would be much brighter for his elder named Tom. It doesn’t matter for in the morning sunlight he gleams and makes me realize that he embodies every color of the rainbow.

We typically spend a few minutes together before he departs and I know that means it’s time for me to do the same.

To ensure there will be more of these little water tigers, I discover two adults canoodling.

In its adult form, the beetle backs up to the water’s surface and captures air under the elytra, or firm front pair of wings where the spiracles or respiratory openings are located. (Think external pores) The challenge is to carry enough air to breath, but not too much that might cause them to sink. That said, I frequently watch them surface and then swim off after an oxygen grab, but storing that air for at least ten minutes serves them well while mating for they certainly don’t have a plan to rise for a refill.

If you’ve never watched a pair of Predacious Diving Beetles mate, this is worth the eleven-second clip. It was a first for me, and what a frenzied time it was.

Ah, but there are other things to look at in a pool and so I pull myself away from the canoodlers and begin to focus on the result of some other interaction, this being egg masses of Spotted Salamanders. One evening in the past week, a male Spotted Salamander deposited spermatophores that look like tiny pieces of cauliflower on the pool floor. A few nights later a female picked up sperm from the small structures and internally fertilized her eggs, which she later attached to the small branch in the water. If you look closely, you might see the gelatinous matrix that surrounds the mass.

Likewise, Wood Frog egg masses have also been deposited and their overall structure reminds me of tapioca. In no time at all, the embryos began to develop, but it will still be about three weeks before the larval tadpoles hatch.

Because I was looking, I had the good fortune this week of spying another tiny, but significant critter swimming upside down as is its manner–a fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp don’t feed on the embryos but rather filter algae and plankton with eleven pairs of appendages, which they also use for swimming and breathing.

Similar to the Predacious Diving Beetle, in order to digest food, a Fairy Shrimp produces a thick, glue-like substance to mix with a meal. My awe with Fairy Shrimp remains in the fact that after a female produces broods of hardy eggs called cysts, they lay dormant once the pool dries up and don’t hatch until it rains again the following spring or even years later.

I could spend hours searching for Fairy Shrimp and other insects and in fact, do even marvel at the Mosquito wrigglers as they flip and flop their way around.

You, too, may watch them by clicking on this short video. And remember–they eventually become great bird and insect food.

By now, I suppose it’s time to honor other more beautiful sights of spring, including my favorite first flower of the season, the tiny spray of magenta styles at the tip of Beaked Hazelnut flowers waiting for some action from the male catkins.

And yesterday’s most delightful surprise, the first blooms of Trailing Arbutus on the forest floor. Known as Mayflowers, they usually open in April. Just to confuse us.

Standing for a while beside a river rather than a pool, another of my favorite sites was an abundance of Painted Turtles basking. No, they aren’t sunbathing to get a tan, but rather to raise their internal body temperature. Being cold-blooded, their body temperature is determined solely by the temperature of the surrounding environment.

In the same neighborhood a pair of Belted Kingfishers could be heard rattling as they do in flight and then seen preening and it seems that love is not only in the water, but in the air as well.

Likewise, a Song Sparrow or two or three trilled their lovely notes to announce their intentions to any who would listen.

And then today dawned–and with it a spring snowstorm graced this part of the world and all who live here, like this Sheep Laurel with buds still tiny.

Back to the pool went I, where the only action seemed to be snow striking its surface and creating rippled patterns in constant flux.

Some of the snow drops were so large that bubbles reflecting the canopy above formed. Under water, I couldn’t see any action and finally turned toward home, trusting all the swimming critters were tucked under the leaves in an attempt to avoid the rawness of the day.

There was one more stop to make, however, before I headed in. On December 1st, 2020, upon this very same tree, I watched slugs for the last time last year as documented in a post entitled “My Heart Pines.” It was a squirrel midden that had attracted me to the tree, but so much more did it have to offer on that day.

Today, as I searched for slugs, I was equally surprised for just as I found last year, once again the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Even in snow, I learned, it can occur. Plus there was a subtle rainbow of colors.

Ah, but it certainly didn’t match the colors Jake displayed.

Today’s snowfall will melt by tomorrow and only be a memory of that year it snowed on April 16. We’ve had much bigger April storms than this one turned out to be and henceforth Jake and I will walk with a spring in our steps.

Earth Day 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all Skipper really wanted to do was play.

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

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

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

And their molting deer friends browsed nonchalantly behind them.

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

The scuffle continued across the field first to the left.

And then center stage.

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

paced while the other two continued to fight.

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

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

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

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

Significant Fairies

We’d made promises in the recent past that fell flat. With that in mind, when the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Nature Explorers, a homeschool group led by Docent Juli, gathered this morning, she was smart and stuck to the life cycles of potential sightings like frogs rather than possibilities.

The group that gathered was large–24 in all with a mix of moms and their children.

Of course, being kids, they were immediately attracted to the water below the mill site at Heald Pond. But after letting them explore for a few minutes, a light whistle pulled them all together again.

At the nearby vernal pool, everyone quickly learned what larval mosquitoes looked like as they watched them somersault through the water column. A few complaints were expressed about future bites, but that was redirected to the fact that mosquitoes feed birds and dragonflies, and in their larval form, other aquatic insects.

Pond dipping became the morning habit and at first, it was only the mosquito larvae that made it into the containers.

But, that led to a quick lesson on the biting insects’ life cycle–one of many teachable moments that snuck into the morning fun.

Oh yes, those larval mosquitoes also feed amphibians and thanks to Juli’s son Aidan for finding a large Green Frog. Notice the ear disc, aka tympanum, that is located behind its eye. Given its size as being bigger than the eye, this was a male. And notice the dorsal lateral ridge or fold that extends from behind the eye down the side of its back (there’s one on either side)–that’s a clue that this is a Green Frog and not a Bull Frog, for the latter’s ridge circles around the tympanum.

As the morning went on, it turned out that today was Aidan’s day to shine for he was also the first to find a Fairy Shrimp.

A what? Yes, a Fairy Shrimp. Do you see that delicate orangish body in the middle of the tray? It’s a mini crustacean that lives only in vernal pools.

The kids all got caught up in the thrill of such a find and within minutes became pros at recognizing them.

And so the dipping continued.

Moms also got caught up in the dipping experience.

And they also found cool stuff, like Kim’s Fishfly. We kept expecting it to eat the mosquito larvae, but it seemed that they preferred to nudge it in a way we didn’t understand.

While Kim focused on her new friend, the kids were also making new friends, testing their balance, getting rather wet and muddy, and having a blast as they sought more Fairy Shrimp.

Their pan began to fill up with one, two, three, four, five and even a few more.

And then other species were discovered, including aquatic beetles and a Phantom Midge.

We’d come in hopes of at least finding Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander egg masses, which the kids quickly recognized. By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later, some of the boys had discovered the best way to spot the masses was from the crow’s nest.

But in the end, our most significant find was the Fairy Shrimp. You see, on a public walk a couple of weeks ago, when we’d promised folks such a sighting, we came up short. But today . . . they made their presence known. And with the find of just one Fairy Shrimp, the vernal pool became a significant one as recognized by the State of Maine.

A hearty thanks to Juli for leading and the moms and their kids for attending. It was such a joy to watch everyone interacting and engaging. I only wish I could have been a Fishfly on the wall at suppertime as they shared their finds of the day with other family members.

Cinco de Mayo, Naturally

The hour and a half drive to Litchfield, Maine, was worth every second on this fifth day of May. The spring tapestry that spread before my eyes had me oohing and aahing around each bend in the road for such were the colors–so many shades of greens, mixed in with reds and magentas and pinks and yellows. It was almost intoxicating.

But . . . a photograph will have to wait for another day for I needed to reach my destination and catch up with my peeps–fellow classmates from our 2012-13 Maine Master Naturalist class. For the last five years we’ve tried to get together quarterly. It doesn’t always work out, but this year we’re making a concerted effort.

s1-Smithfield map

Today’s destination was the vernal pool at Smithfield Plantation, a 103-acre property the town of Litchfield conserved. If you look carefully, you might see a reflection of Sharon, who has lead many a school group along the trails and knows the property intimately.

s1a-Sharon T

Before we headed to the pool, she oriented us to the site.

s2-moose wood

One of the things Sharon explained was that a Boy Scout had created an interpretive tree trail and so we paused at one of his stops to admire the craftsmanship.

s2b-moose wood maple leaf

Indeed, right behind the sign, a striped maple, aka moose maple, shared its newly emerged pastel buds and leaves.

s2a-moose maple

And then we lifted the lid to reveal the information. OK, so there were a few typos for the grammar police, but on each of his cards, he included a joke. What a great idea as that would certainly appeal to the younger set. It definitely appealed to those of us who are still ten years old in our minds.

s4-hobblebush

And on the opposite side of the trail, we spotted another type of moose wood–hobblebush just beginning to flower. Both striped maple and hobblebush are favorite foods of moose, thus their nicknames.

s3a-clintonia

Onward we walked until a patch of leaves stopped us. And our brain-sharing began. We thought we knew what the plant was, but then questioned ourselves as it wasn’t in flower yet. Each season, we need to relearn some. Despite the lack of flowers, we decided to key it out in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide using two other descriptors–leaves both basal and entire.

s3-clintonia 1

For those familiar with Newcomb’s that meant of the three numbers in the locator key, we didn’t know the first, but went with 22 for the second and third representing basal leaves and entire leaves. Then we tried, 122, 222, etc.

s3b-clintonia buds

And landed on our first suspicion: 622–Yellow Clintonia or Bluebead (Clintonia borealis).

s6-vernal pool

The trail wasn’t long, but as one might expect, it took us a while to reach the vernal pool. And then we were stopped in our tracks and didn’t approach it right away.

s7-solitary sandpiper

Instead, we stood back and spent a while watching a solitary sandpiper on a downed tree.

s7a-solitary sandpiper

As we watched, it bobbed its tail. And at one point we were sure it took a mid-morning nap. Eventually, the bird flew to another part of the pool and a few minutes later departed.

s10-setting up camp

And so we set up camp, dropping some of our gear on the bench.

s10a-setting up camp

And more of it on and beside a log. We had macro-invertebrate charts and vernal pool pamphlets and books, plus all kinds of containers for pond dipping.

s9-Pam's journal

Pam was the smart one and she’d packed her sketch book and colored pencils. That’s one skill we all appreciate for it slows us down and makes us really notice. I, for one, haven’t done enough sketching in the past year and so this was the perfect incentive for the future.

s8-mosquito larvae

As we looked into the pool and Sharon told us what we might find, we immediately noticed the most abundant residents–mosquito larvae doing their whirligig dances.

s11-first fairy shrimp

But on her first dip, Sharon pulled up the crème de la crème–a fairy shrimp. Bingo–a significant pool it was as she knew, though not so documented with the state.

s12-examining the fairy shrimp

With her loupe, Jen took a closer look.

s13-five fairy shrimp

On Sharon’s next dip she pulled up not uno, not dos, not tres, not quatro, but cinco fairy shrimp.

s13-Pam sketches the fairy shrimp

And so Pam settled in to sketch them in all their glory.

s13-Pam's sketches

And added a caddisfly larva for we’d also captured one of those.

s14-female fairy shrimp

One of the cool things that Sharon pointed out, the brood pouch at the end of the abdomen, so indicating a female. How cool is that?

s15-caddisfly larvae

And here is our caddisfly, his casing created out of fallen hemlock needles. Caddisfly larvae that create their bodies from woody material are the log-cabin variety. We watched it move about in the tray, sometimes extending its soft body out of the case.

s17-spotted salamander egg mass

The dipping continued and a spotted salamander egg mass was pulled out, but only for us to take a closer look. And then it was returned from whence it came. Notice the individual eggs within the greater gelatinous matrix.

s18-egg mass

After that, Sharon found another reason to celebrate. She’d worn her waders and so was able to go deeper into the water than the rest of us.

s18-tadpoles

A quick dip and she’d pulled up an egg mass that almost melted as life burst forth–tadpoles. The first of the season for all of us.

s20-predacious diving beetle larvae

One last dip revealed one not so kind to all the other species we’d located. Known as a water tiger or toe biter, you can tell that it’s one mean little thing. This was the larval stage of a predacious diving beetle and the tadpoles had everything to fear for like its adult form it was a predator.

s23-Cinco Amigas

After that last find, it was time for us to pack up our gear and leave the pool behind. But, we took with us memories of a delightful spring morning spent exploring together. And . . . we had a chance to catch up, show each other field guides we thought might be of interest, share experiences of our volunteer opportunities, provide suggestions for ways to make a nature program work be it for kids or adults, and realize that we were not alone in any obstacles that may cause an issue during those programs.

What a naturally wonderful way to spend this Cinco de Mayo . .  . con cinco amigas. Thanks Gaby, Beth, Jen, Sharon and Pam.

 

 

So Many Unknowns

On this historic election day, a few friends and I took to the woods with the intention of absorbing not only the sun’s heat, but the warmth of each others company. Yes, occasionally our conversation turned to politics and wonder about the future, but for the most part, we just wanted to wander together.

h-vp-1

Our first spot for consideration–a vernal pool tucked away in the woods.

h-vp-2

In true v.p. behavior, it dried up during the summer drought, though as we moved about we experienced a sinking feeling–muck obscured by grasses and leaves. This particular pool is home to fairy shrimp and their eggs cases are protected under the leaf litter until water returns. The amazing thing about fairy shrimp–those eggs can survive long periods of drying and freezing. We trust we’ll have the opportunity to meet the next generation.

h-wintergreen-1

Sometimes our eyes were tricked by what we viewed and we questioned how things could be so.

h-wintergreen-with-candelabra

But upon a closer examination of the facts, we realized that a club moss was merely growing near the wintergreen and the wintergreen hadn’t taken on a strange candelabra form.

h-clearing

Our questions continued, however. Why was the ground completely cleared in the middle of the trail? Mammal behavior? We noted boot prints and wondered about human interaction. Finally, we moved on, unable to understand the reasoning, but knew that there are some things we’ll never fully comprehend.

h-green-oak-leaf

In another place, we noticed a green red-oak leaf. A holdout perhaps that preferred the way things had been and didn’t want to follow the rest of the group?

h-hawkweed-1

Occasionally, we calmly debated the structures before us as we considered shape and hairiness and growth pattern and location before we determined species–in this case, hawkweed.

h-wood-art-1

And other times, no need for questions, no need for answers. Pure admiration for the presentation was enough.

h-ladybird-beetle

When we were again drawn in for a closer look, in this case at the white fuzzy beech scale insect, we suddenly realized there was so much more to observe, such as the black ladybird beetle.

h-spiny-leaf-beetleladybird-hatching-from-pupa-stage

And then, something we didn’t understand at all. What was this spiny creature? And what was emerging from it? We left with that question floating among us. It wasn’t until doing some research later that I came to what may be the answer. Was it a ladybird beetle emerging from the pupa stage? How I wish we could go back and find it again and look at it with a different mindset.

h-alt-dog-lichen-1

Drawing close to the finish of our journey together, we spied something we’ve passed many times before, but never noticed.

h-alt-dog-lichen-2

Again, we’ll need to revisit the mossy boulder, but we determined it was a dog lichen. Why dog? Was it so named for the white “fang” like rhizines on its lower surface?  Or did the lobes remind someone of dog ears? Based on the large, fan-like shape, my leaning is toward Peltigera membranacea or Membrane Dog Lichen. But, I could be easily swayed on its ID.

h-milkweed

A short walk and hours later, we finally passed a field of milkweed, their seeds blowing in the slight breeze like flags on a pole.

It was time to say goodbye to friends who will head south this weekend before I headed back to “reality” and colored in those little ovals.

I think we all came away thankful for the questions raised and knowledge shared, but still . . . so many unknowns.