Needed: Minds to Wonder

Along a paved trail seemingly flat that follows a track to a vanishing point did I walk today.

It’s a place some see as desolate, but nature always has something to present and today it was signs of the season to come that drew my attention.

Hints of autumn’s hues . . .

contrasted sharply with summer’s chlorophyll-induced greens.

Redder than red winterberries bespoke the presence of a nearby male–since as a dioecious species, female flowers and male flowers grow on separate shrubs. They also signaled bird food and seasonal decorations–depending on who arrives first: Avian species or human.

Disturbed though the land is, Asters such as this Calico, invited visitors like the Paper Wasp to stop by for a sip of nectar.

Goldenrods also sent out messages and Bumble Bees RSVPed . . .

for they had baskets to fill one pollen grain at a time.

In the mix along this route of disturbed soil and gravel, there were those whose seedheads, while reminiscent of a dandelion, proved more beautiful than the Pilewort’s actual nondescript flower.

Less obvious, but no less beautiful, Wood Sorrel quietly softened the edges of the rocks upon which it grew.

Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not for its seed’s habit of springing forward when touched, had a visitor all its own whose name I wasn’t allowed to catch.

Similar in color to the Jewelweed, a Monarch butterfly filled up . . .

perhaps a last series of sips before the long journey south.

All of this color and action was observed by a Chippy, who was busy adding to his collection of goods, while his kin added their clucks to the chamber music orchestrated by grasshoppers and crickets.

The Mountain Division Trail in Fryeburg, Maine (home to the Fryeburg Fair), is hardly flat and not at all desolate–it just needs people with eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to wonder as they wander. Okay, so maybe it was desolate in terms of being deserted of people, but I kinda like it that way. As for being dismal and bleakly empty–I beg to differ.

ABCs of the Garden

My garden. It’s a classroom. I’ve long been a teacher, but in this particular classroom I am the student. And I give thanks for the daily lessons. In fact, this past week, I’ve given thanks for hours on end as I’ve done my usual stalking, I mean research.

It all began when I started to circle one garden, that is hardly a work of art because I welcome all who grow there, especially several species of goldenrods, their composite flowers offering rays of sunshine on any summer day.

I knew I was in luck when I spied this flower fly . . . that wasn’t flying. That could mean only one thing.

Ambush Bugs were in the area. And indeed they were. So . . . this pair of Jagged Ambush Bugs wasn’t canoodling as some of you probably think. One of the lessons I learned is that this is a prelude to the actual event, where their bodies face each other.

While the Ambush Bugs were busy getting to know each other better on the flowers above, closer to my knees a Bumble Bee buzzed in to gather some pollen and nectar from Giant Blue Lobelia flowers. Another lesson, that gets reinforced each year, is that If one stands still for a long period of time, the bees and wasps and other insects will fly in and out and leave you alone.

And when one looks up again, you’ll discover that the male Ambush Bug was still wooing the female. He’s the smaller, darker insect on top of her. Still another lesson is that when they are in this position, and, mind you, they don’t stay still, his antennae quiver with what I interpret as excitement. I’m sure it has some more scientific meaning or purpose, like maybe he was sending out a signal to her to stay with him or to other males to stay away, but still, how fast did those antennae move.

In the same garden does Turtlehead grow, and I knew it had a visitor when I heard a loud buzz as a Bumble Bee rustled about inside. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak, minus the eyes of course.

Some say Bumble Bees exit Turtlehead head first but my experience is that they back out of the tight flower. Since this was very near the Ambush Bugs, I thought for sure they’d take a break from their canoodling preparation and try to capture a large meal.

They did not. And then when another flower fly bumped into them, I thought this would be the moment of separation. It was not. Though Ambush Bugs will feed while in this position, or at least the female might, what I observed over the course of five days is that they never did. I also noted that other insects frequently nudged them or came close to doing so, but quickly flew off. Perhaps they sensed danger?

As for the wooers, at about 6:00 on the morning after I first started stalking the goldenrods, I saw that they were still in their pre-nuptial position. At least I assumed it was the same two for it was the same spot and I’d last spotted them at about 7:00 the night before.

While it seemed all they could think about was their progeny, I kept thinking that they needed energy. There were so many options for food, from the black Midas Fly to the green Sweat Fly, but in the moments that I watched, and they were many, none of these became food.

Watching so many different species visit the flowers, I wondered if an Ambush Bug, which I knew could fly, though they seldom did, would attack in flight. But I learned that is not how they operate.

Instead, they wait. And sometimes walk about upon the flowers, perhaps in search of the right spot from which to attack. This is the female with her light colored face.

Notice her front legs, shaped as they are to capture prey, with a pincer that snaps back toward the second larger segment when in action. They remind me a bit of lobster claws.

And this is a male with his much darker suit and head. With those beady little eyes, it’s amazing that they can see insects twice or more their size. Or maybe that’s why they go for larger victims.

The more time I spent watching, the more it was reinforced that an on-the-fly capture was not going to occur. Even still, I kept encouraging such an attempt because it seemed to me that they don’t eat often.

The offerings continued to be plentiful each time I took a spin around and through the garden, but still, since first finding that skeleton of a body that started my quest to watch for more action, I hadn’t seen any evidence of a meal consumed.

And then. And then. And then, no not a meal. Well, maybe not a meal in that moment, but in flew something that I saw out of the corner of my eye and then couldn’t locate.

The Katydid’s camouflage was perfect, even better than that of the Ambush Bugs. Growing up in southern New England, I used to fall asleep to their Katydid songs, but here in western Maine I seldom see or hear one.

Back to the Ambush Bugs, another lesson I’ve learned before but that was reinforced is the fact that they don’t hang out just on Goldenrods, though their camo is certainly better on that flowerhead than on the False Dragonhead. Actually, the Ambush Bug looks more like a dragonhead than the flower does. But I can’t take credit for naming any species. Yet.

Watching the male Ambush Bug proved to be humorous for me, for he always seemed to have his back to any incoming insects such as this hover fly.

Maybe he saw the Bumble Bee approach?

But again, he turned his back on a potential meal.

Even as it drew closer.

Once the bee took off, the Ambush Bug turned again and I had to wonder if it questioned its positioning. Probably not as I’m not sure such a critter can question anything, but if I were an Ambush Bug, I’d like to think I would have done so.

Finally, on day three of my observations, I discovered a successful female. With those claw-like front legs, she’d captured her prey and pierced its body with her beak-like proboscis.

First she injected saliva into the victim’s body and paralyzed it. The fluid also broke down the interior organs and muscles, thus extending the abdomen of her prey. Then she sucked out those succulent digested innards. Yum!

It’s a process that takes time. And given her overall length of about a half inch, it’s impressive that she can take down bigger insect.

Interestingly, once I found one meal being consumed, on the same plant I began to find several.

The other curious thing was that all the predators seemed to be females. That doesn’t mean the males don’t eat, and I’ll certainly keep looking, but it was interesting to note.

Today, on that same plant, I found two meals being consumed that gave a sense that Ambush Bugs really do hide within the flowers before making their ambush. If you look closely you should spy the legs of a fly in the center, and a moth dangling on the right.

Class isn’t over, for I’ll certainly continue to observe and learn and eventually I’ll have conquered my ABCs. Or at least my ABs, thanks to the Ambush Bugs.

The Pollinator Party

The invitation is simple: Meet in the garden. All are welcome. Any time. Any day. Just come.

Enjoy the celebration . . .

White Admiral Butterfly

of life,

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

and work.

Sweat Bee

Of color,

Plain Ringlet Butterfly

texture,

Common Green Bottle Fly

and design.

Little Copper Butterfly

But really, the celebration is all about the fact that pollinators are a critical piece of our food and flower supply.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

We depend on them for a large amount of food that we need for a healthy diet. 

Great Spangled Fritillary

And they help move pollen from the male structures of flowers to the female structures, which ensures new seeds, fruits, and plants will grow. 

Thread-waisted Wasp

Likewise, these insects benefit from the plants they visit.

Viceroy Butterfly

Nectar provides carbohydrates and pollen can be a source of proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Black-tipped Ichnuemon Wasp

But many pollinators are at risk. Declining populations are due to a loss of feeding and nesting habitat, overuse of chemicals and pesticides, and changes to weather patterns.

Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly has officially been designated as endangered by the International Union of Conservation for Nature.

Great Black Wasp

In short, pollinators need us . . . and we certainly need them.

Ambush Bugs

I invite you to accept the invitation and spend time observing and appreciating; in the process you might also get to witness a couple of canoodlers.

Clouded Sulphur Butterfly

By the same token, you could happen upon one whose life has come to an end, but give thanks that it chose a beautiful spot to fall asleep forever.

Please RSVP as soon as possible: The Pollinator Party is going on NOW and it won’t last forever.

Understanding the Blues

Our Sunday became our Mondate and rather than hike, we went for a paddle in the tandem kayak. It was a long but fruitful paddle, though that fruit differed depending on perspective.

My blues began with the sighting of many Slaty Blue Skimmers with their burgundy brown heads, gorgeous slate blue bodies and aggressive personality once a competitor appears on the scene. A male will perch for moments on end, but when another male enters his territory, he as owner of that particular line of shorefront, zips into action, circling the intruder before giving chase. And then, as if nothing has happened, he returns to the same perch. And sits for moments on end until the next intrusion occurs.

A smaller, but equally aggressive skimmer is the Blue Dasher, who will take off after any dragonfly featuring blue pruinosity. Pruinescence is the frosted or dusty-looking coating on top of a surface and in the case of the dragonflies, some feature this as they mature.

And then there was the Bumblebee and Silver-spotted Skipper to watch as they gathered pollen and nectar from Pickerelweed, which in my mind its lilac coloration counts in the blue category.

Because we were in shallow water, there was an abundance of Swamp Spreadwing Damselflies flying and perching, their wings spread as the name suggests, much like a dragonfly, but their slender bodies and dumbbell-style eyes proving they are Zygopteras (damselflies) rather than Anisopteras (dragonflies).

While its thorax and abdomen are metallic green, its those blue-green eyes that spoke to me.

The more I looked, the more I realized that I need to spend time getting to know the damselflies a wee bit better. I knew that these two in their typical canoodling wheel position were bluets, but it took some study at home to determine that they were Familiar Bluets. And upon reading about them, I learned that copulation lasts about twenty minutes and then they remain together in tandem as she tests sites to lay eggs. She actually goes underwater to lay her eggs upon stems while he releases her and waits, hoping to reattach before moving to a new egg-laying site, though she doesn’t always allow him to do such.

The Skimming Bluet was my next great find, but again, I didn’t know its name at the time. This is one of only two species of bluets where the abdomen terminates with black appendages below segments 8 and 9, which are blue. The other is the Turquoise Bluet, which prefers a stream habitat. Here’s hoping I remember that fact.

While the American Bluets, the largest and most numerous genus of damselflies, are named for their bright blue coloration, not all have this color pattern. Some bluets are actually orange, red, yellow, green or black.

The Orange Blue actually begins life as a pale blue damselfly, but gradually turns orange like this one that landed on the kayak. It stayed perfectly still for quite a while, so I thought I’d channel my inner damselfly whisperer self and offer it a finger. This works for some dragonflies, but I can’t recall a damsel ever taking a ride until this one climbed aboard much to my delight.

We spent a long time getting to know each other. I was quite taken with the orange occipital bar that connected its two eyespots and had a bit of a chevron shape.

I’m sure it found something about me to admire as well. As we looked at each other, in flew one of many Deerflies. I still have a few welts to attest to their abundance. My great hope was that the damselfly would decide to do me a favor and eat the Deerfly.

Granted, the Deerfly was quite robust. And eventually flew off without the Orange Bluet giving it any notice, which should have been a bit of foreshadowing I didn’t know how to read at the moment.

Twice I put O.B. back on the boat and the second time was as we started for home. He seemed a bit sluggish.

As we moved around a bend and the wind picked up he took cover and slipped down out of the breeze. Eventually, he dropped onto my leg, and I’m sad to say, died. Damselflies have a short lifespan–living between two and four weeks. I was sad to say goodbye, but trust that he had done his duty and I’ll meet future generations of the bluet that in adulthood isn’t blue. Given that, however, he is easy to ID in the field.

And as luck would have it, a few minutes later I spotted a newly-emerged damselfly waiting for its wings to dry and pumping its bug blood back into its body. Life circles about in the aquatic world.

As for my guy, he often departed the kayak ferry and went in search of his own favorite shade of blue. He found some favorite bushes missing due to the fact that the local beavers built a new home and needed construction materials. But still, he found plenty and left plenty for others, including the birds and other critters who eat blueberries.

We were together, but each understood blue in our own manner. It was a perfect Sunday Mondate.

Getting Inside a Dragonfly’s Head

First they transform from aquatic macro-invertebrates into flying insects. And then they perform flight rituals that include snagging a meal and mating. Dragonflies, as many of you know, absolutely amaze me.

And today, that amazement reached a new level.

For today, I took a closer look at the compound eyes of my favorite insects. I know from reading and listening to others, that large dragonfly eyes consist of 30,000 lenses . . .

each an individual light-sensing structure, but . . .

whenever I study them in situ, though I’m completely wowed by their colors . . .

and the arrangement of eyes that helps with identification . . .

always it seems, the eyes are splotchy with some areas glowing and others a slightly different hue.

Do you see what I mean? Dark blue-gray above and almost a streak of whiteness in this Ring-tailed Emerald, followed by another shade of blue-gray below?

And have you ever noticed that dragonfly eyes wrap around almost the entire head? The thing is, an insect can’t move its eyes like we can so it needs a different adaptation . . .

in the form of hexagon-shaped structures that sense light and are known as the ommatidium or those 30,000 lenses per eye. Can you see the hexagons? Each ommatidium is much longer than it is wide. The ommatidium narrows as it leads to the brain as I’ve learned from How Insects Work by Marianne Taylor. She states: “Each ommatidium is topped with a cornea and a crystalline pseudocone, which acts as a focusing lens, directing light into the rhabdom, a long, narrow, and transparent structure at the center of the ommatidium. It contains photosensitive pigments that respond to certain wavelengths of light. The rhabdom is formed by the combined inner parts of (usually) eight specialize nerve cells–photoreceptors. When the rhabdom’s pigments undergo chemical change in response to light, these cells send a nerve impulse to the brain. The ommatidium also contains six pigment cells, which absorb light that strikes the cornea at an indirect angle. This ensures that the photoreceptors only receive light that passes through the cornea directly . . . what the compound eye “sees” is, as far as we can tell, a scene formed by an array of colored specks (including, in some cases, ultraviolet “color”), each speck contributed by an individual ommatidium. In dragonflies, there are enough specks to form a detailed picture, but in insects with fewer ommatidia the compound image has little detail.”

Here’s a look inside the head of a dragonfly from a specimen I’d collected after it died two years ago. What I didn’t realize until today was that the head had fallen off the thorax because its such a delicate creature once dried. But . . . that was great news because it gave me an opportunity to see more. I thought you might like to do the same. Though we can’t really get inside a dragonfly’s head, we can certainly enjoy the view of the backside.

Worth a wonder!

The Happy Fox Trot

I know. I know. I should have taken the bird feeders down two months ago. But I blame it on My Guy because he keeps bringing damaged bags of bird seed home. And because of that, we’ve actually had a delightful time watching all the action at the feeders and below where I scatter plenty of seed on the ground so others can partake.

A pair of Northern Cardinals are the most frequent visitors, and lately he’s taken to making sure she’s well fed. Often she sits and waits rather than helping herself, taking notes on the kind of parent he will be to their offspring.

Chipping Sparrows have also participated in courtship feeding, and just maybe this behavior also strengthens the bond between the two genders.

He did look at me as if to say, “Hey, this is between the two of us. Skedaddle.” And I eventually did disappear.

But when I looked again, I spotted an Eastern Chipmunk filling its cheeks. While this is common behavior, what wasn’t quite so common is that fact that most of its tail was missing. Had a fight occurred or did it narrowly escape becoming a meal?

I’ll never know. Among the most frequent mammal visitors are the Gray Squirrels. And they, along with the Red Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks have learned where we store the seed in the barn and no matter how many times we think we’ve outfoxed them, we soon discover that they’ve been chewing again. We’re now using small metal trash cans, but knowing the prowess of these critters, I doubt we’ve won this battle. And keeping them out of the barn is impossible because it’s an old barn with lots of secret passageways, some that I’m sure we’re not aware of . . . yet.

Some days there are five or six Gray Squirrels foraging for seeds and looking as if they own the place. I suppose they do. We’re merely itinerate tenants and we give thanks that they let us live here.

Oh, and then there’s the neighborhood fox. We haven’t discovered the den yet, but every morning we can expect two or three visits. If it isn’t successful at sneaking up on one of the other critters, and squirrels and chipmunks can outrun a fox, it, too, dines on some seeds.

And then pauses to lick its chops.

But what the fox really wants is a more substantial meal and I suspect it has kits nearby that need feeding.

Unfortunately for the fox, sometimes the American Crows announce its presence and all the little critters run up trees or fly away.

Soon, however, they return. And begin to forage again.

And from high positions, they’ll take a break, and actually pull seeds out of those puffed-up cheeks in order to dine.

And so this morning dawned with a light rain, and just as our Red Fox walked in front of the stones by the garden, I saw a flash of brown run across the flatter rock. R.F. jumped up, looked around, jumped down and gave chase. The fox was unsuccessful.

But that didn’t stop it from returning and though the crows didn’t alert us, the squeal of a Gray Squirrel made us raise our heads and look out the back door.

Breakfast had been secured and the last we saw of the fox, it was trotting away with a meal in its mouth.

The Happy Fox Trot indeed.

Lake Living Celebrates 25 Years in Print

I wish I could say I’ve been along for the entire journey, but still, I’ve been working with Laurie LaMountain to produce Lake Living since 2006, so I’ve been here for sixteen of the magazine’s 25-year journey.

In her editorial note of the summer 2022 issue, Laurie comments about our brainstorming sessions, where with our shared brain we bounce off of each other and do come up with what we both think are great ideas and once we get going the thoughts flow like raindrops pouring out of the water spout. What she doesn’t mention is that we also solve all the problems of the world, or at least our small portion of it. And we don’t always agree, but still we listen to each other and maybe months later recognize that our guts were right or the other one knew best. There’s an article in this issue that ruffles my feathers a wee bit, but . . . as I said, we don’t always agree and that’s fine. I’m sure you as readers don’t always agree with us either.

I think the thing about working on the magazine all these years is that I’ve had the honor of meeting so many interesting people who live right here. We rarely travel far for an interview. And yet if you look at the archived magazines, you’ll see that we’ve covered a multitude of topics.

And the special thing for me about working with Laurie is that she gives me huge, read that as HUGE, leeway to pursue a topic at any angle that I see fit. She also knows what topics I prefer to write about and usually those come my way, but sometimes I have to do what is best for the magazine and leave my personal opinions in my truck. It’s rare, but it has happened over the years.

Enough of my jabbering. On with the magazine!

In the line-up: “Growing Up” about downtown Bridgton by Laurie; “Scribner’s Mill & Homestead” about a living history museum in Harrison by me; “Docks that Stay Sturdy” by Great Northern Docks owner Sam Merriam in Naples; “A Fascination for Fungi” about a local artist’s interpretation by Laurie; “Summer Living,” which is a modified calendar of local events by me; “Summer Bookshelf” by the owners and staff of Bridgton Books; “Click-free Shopping” about Main Street stores that somehow survived the chaos of the last few years and chose to meet customers’ needs without too many online sales by me; and “Salted” about cooking with salt by Laurie.

Here’s a link to the entire issue should you care to read it online: Lake Living Summer 2022

You may have noticed that we didn’t produce a winter or spring issue. Sadly, that was due to the pandemic and local economy. Lake Living is free and supported by the advertisers. For the last three years, we’ve been unable to get enough winter advertisers, so we combined fall and winter articles into one. And then this year when things became even worse, we couldn’t get enough to support a spring issue that we’d pulled together. Unfortunately, because of that, some of those articles are now in a folder and I don’t know if they’ll ever get published. And even when it seemed we could pull off a summer issue, again there weren’t quite enough advertisers to support the usual 40 pages and this one is only 32. That coupled with the fact that the cost of paper went up 40% this spring, added to the downsized summer issue and again, not all the articles we’d written made it in to the final copy and some had to be edited drastically in order to fit the page count.

But . . . the magazine is out there. On a shelf if you live locally, or in the link I included above. I hope you’ll take time to read it. And then take time to support the advertisers and let them know where you saw their ads because unless you tell them, they don’t know the effect of their dollars.

Happy 25th Birthday, Lake Living! And hats off to Laurie and editorial designer Dianne Lewis, and all those who have contributed over the years.

Be Present in the Moment

Wandering,

as I so love to do,

found me beside a brook

in the late afternoon

as spring prepares

to give way to summer.

A burst of sudden movement

caught me by surprise,

enhanced especially

because something skittered

across the water

toward me

in a manner

unlike its shy parents.

We spent a few moments together,

the young Wood Duck and me,

as I whispered hello,

and it answered with a squeaky whistle,

before skittering

back across the water’s surface

toward the safety

of the opposite shore.

Because I was standing so still,

another who favors

this riparian habitat

flew in

and I was offered

a few pleasurable moments

to enjoy the beauty

of a male Yellow Warbler.

Finally finding motivation

to continue my journey,

I was stopped in my tracks

when by my feet

I discovered

a patch of sundews

growing in a place

I’ve visited many times

but before this moment

never spotted

them hiding quietly

below ferns

where they could carry out

their stealth carnivorous activities

in an inconspicuous manner.

Back on the path

embellished with the

flowering structures

of Maple-leaf Viburnum,

the fervent behavior

of Long-horned Flower Beetles

drew my attention

as two canoodled

in the midst

of so many others

conducting a pollinator dance.

A brief bushwhack

found me staring into

the remains of

an ephemeral vernal pool

that only a week ago

teemed with

thousands of tadpoles,

but now in

its puddle-size

bubbled with those

who hoped for

a quick metamorphoses,

or at least,

that was my hope

for them.

Beside the brook again,

my heart quickened

once more

as I suddenly realized

I was staring into

the richest of porcelain blue eyes.

That I could recall

we’ve met only

once before,

but in this very same spot,

which will forever

be known as

the Lilypad Clubtail Dragonfly

meeting spot.

Upon a different shrub

a few feet away,

another flew in

and asked to be recognized

by the color

of its face

and markings upon

its abdomen,

but it was

the glossy wings

that made me realize

I was greeting

a not-long emerged

Belted Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly.

Finally making my return

along the same path,

a sight that had

eluded me earlier

now asked to be acknowledged

and I couldn’t help

but think

how much a

Beaked Hazelnut

resembles the body

of a dragonfly.

As my wander

drew to a close

and evening set in,

I was honored

one last time

with the first view

this year

of a tiny skimmer

with big personality

as expressed

by its colors and patterns

including the red hearts

along the abdomen

of this, a male Calico Pennant.

To say I went forth

without expectation

would be wrong

for I fully expected

to spy some cranes

or a beaver at work,

and certainly the resident moose

who keeps tempting me

with its tracks,

but to encounter

the unexpected

reminds me to be

grateful and present

in each moment.

On this occasion I was.

Making Everything Count

On May 21, 2022, My Guy and I hiked Albany Mountain Trail in the White Mountain National Forest on a reconnaissance mission. Ours was to note the number of Lady’s Slippers either in bloom or prepping to do so because it was May 24, 2021 that we last counted blossoms. On the 21st of this year none were in bloom, and honestly, we only spotted 21 plants.

And so we returned this afternoon, which found us enjoying Raspberry Bars baked by Fly Away Farm while sitting upon dessert bench at the summit.

On the way up, however, we did keep track of the Pink Lady’s Slippers, including this one that featured last year’s seed capsule.

Occasionally there were spots such as this, where a bunch showed off their lovely moccasins.

But our perennial favorite is the bunch of ten. It’s such a favorite that when we encountered another making his descent, My Guy suggested he hike back up about a quarter mile with us to see this display. He was grateful that we’d shared this special find with him.

But it wasn’t just Lady’s Slippers to note for when we last climbed up two weeks ago, the mosquitoes and black flies were thicker than thick and we practically ran down to finish the route as quickly as possible. Today, there were a few, but it was hardly notable and we gave great thanks to dragonflies such as this male Common Whitetail Skimmer for patrolling the territory.

We found two others on patrol, these being Garter Snakes. I really wanted to stay and watch their movements, for I suspected that the one toward the top was the larger female and the lower one might be a male, but My Guy had Lady’s Slippers on his mind and standing to watch a couple of snakes didn’t tickle his fancy.

And so we moved on, leaving the slitherers to their own intentions without interruption.

But the real star of the show (don’t tell the Lady’s Slippers) was the beaver. You see, there is a dam about a half mile in that hikers must cross to access the rest of the trail and the last few years it has been a bit easier. But this year . . . things have been different and today we met the engineer who made it so.

He was hard at work making repairs when we first came to the dam and we had to time our crossing accordingly.

We watched him as he watched us, sure that he’d slap the surface with his tail in an effort to tell us to move on. Surprised were we when he did not.

Once on the other side, when we encountered the first group of hikers making their way down, we mentioned the beaver. They hadn’t seen it upon their ascent but their group of seven said they may have been the reason for its need to work for apparently they’d messed the dam up a bit as they crossed. It’s not an easy thing to do–the crossing that is.

Upon our own descent we looked about as we reached the dam and tada, there he was swimming away.

And then we got the message–a tail slap! A statement, indeed.

A bit muddier for the experience, we both made it back across as quickly as possible.

And gave great thanks for the opportunity to make everything count.

Lady’s Slippers: 2020: 150; 2021: 47; 2022: 266!!!!

Dragonflies: Never enough, but love how many we saw.

Garter Snakes: 2

Beaver: 1

And as My Guy noted: 266 Lady’s Slippers today + 286 Lady’s Slippers at Overset Mountain on Monday = 552 this week!

But who’s counting?

Friends on the Edge

My Guy and I were climbing Mount Tom in Fryeburg, Maine, this afternoon when it began to rain. Being under the canopy, it didn’t bother us. Until it did. That moment occurred when the thunder began and continued as the storm seemed to circle nearby Pleasant Mountain. Even though we were close to the summit and had planned a round trip hike, we quickly turned about and backtracked as the heavens opened and even the canopy could no longer protect us. And then back at the trailhead, the sun came out. This is Maine after all.

And so I drove down the road to another spot where the actual “hike” is about 50 feet long, but the view and sounds spectacular.

The first friend we did meet was a Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly, so named for that spot on its abdomen and the fact that its face is white. Sometimes common names make complete sense and other times they are a source of confusion, but to learn the scientific names boggles my brain most of the time. Or maybe I’m too lazy.

Dragonflies are often territorial, unless they are Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers as are two resting here on Sensitive Fern. The Corporals often share a space and I’ve frequently spotted bunches resting on rocks or the ground.

But there’s another dragonfly in this scene. Can you find it? And it got me thinking about how some different species do share a space within the same habitat. That is, until one decides to eat the other.

In the mix, Familiar Bluet Damselflies also flew … and rested. This one upon an equisetum.

And another upon a Sensitive Fern. The damselfly wasn’t all that senstive for if you look at the last few segments of its abdomen, you’ll spot little red dots, the bodies of water mites.

Some species of water mites are parasites on insects like damselflies. The mite larvae attach to a damselfly nymph in its underwater stage. When the nymph emerges from the water and enters adulthood, the mite larvae stay with it and also mature as they feed on the body fluids of the damselfly. While the damselfly will probably survive the mite parasitism, it may be weakened by the tiny critters.

In the water itself, tadpoles. Tadpoles galore.

Above the water, a Frosted Whiteface Skimmer, a rather minute species in the whole scheme of things.

That’s not all. Four-spotted Skimmers also flew and paused, flew and paused. The Four-spotted is an aggressive hunter of other insects, sometimes even capturing smaller dragonflies, um, like the Frosted Whiteface. Fortunately, no such action happened on our clock. (Though it would have been cool to witness.)

Oh, and then a Viceroy Butterfly flew in. Be still my heart. While one might think Monarch Butterfly based on the coloration, the Viceroy is much smaller and features that black line that crosses the hind wing, Monarchs don’t have a line across their hind wings.

Perhaps, though, my favorite spot of the hour was the Racket-tailed Emerald, so named for the tennis racket shape of its abdomen–use your imagination. Even more important to notice: those shiny green eyes. This was the dragonfly that shared the space with the Chalk-fronted Corporals.

So the reality was that My Guy spent a few minutes with me and was impressed by the tadpoles, but then he returned to the truck and took a nap.

The Dot-spotted Whiteface looked at me as if to say, “Hey lady, haven’t you had enough yet? Maybe it’s time for you to return to the truck as well. And skedaddle. ”

I supposed I should, but really, based on all the sounds and sights and the fact that there was so much more going on that I didn’t capture, I could still be standing there.

Take a gander yourself. I welcome you to observe friends on the edge of Abraham Krasker Bog Pond on Bog Road in Fryeburg.

Getting Close to a Black Bear Mondate

Our day began with a remembrance of our fathers and uncles and cousins and friends and all who have served and continue to serve our country. Growing up, my hometown celebrated Memorial Day with a parade and I remember riding or marching or watching–depending upon the year. And after there was a picnic topped off with Strawberry Shortbread. But in my adopted hometown, July 4th is the date that receives all the attention.

And so, that’s a long introduction as to why My Guy and I headed off to Overset Mountain for today’s hike. We were on a mission.

Said mission was not to count all of the Indian Cucumber Root plants we could find in flower, though My Guy did point to this one at the start of our journey because just a week ago I introduced him to their double-decker structure necessary for extra sugar creation and therefore flower followed by fruiting form.

Nor was said mission to marvel at the water as it flowed over the rocks in Sanborn River.

Instead, it was a bit of a treasure hunt that motivated us as we sought the ones who liked to hide along the trail. Um, kinda like My Guy is hiding in this photo. Can you spot him?

Success at last. The first success that is–a Pink Lady’s Slipper in full bloom. #1. Henceforth, had you been with us, you would have heard us stating the number of each Lady’s Slipper we spied and honored.

At first, there weren’t many but we did what we like to do when faced with a challenge such as locating bear claw trees–we scanned both sides of the trail in hopes of being the one to announce the next number.

Oh how they hid!

To spy one often required a sharp eye. The question was thus: what determined where a Lady’s Slipper would grow? I knew it was a certain fungus, but the US Forest Service clarifies it more than I can: “In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as ‘symbiosis’ and is typical of almost all orchid species.”

Turns out, we weren’t the only ones on the hunt. This Garter Snake crossed the trail and then paused, certain that it was so well camouflaged by the leaves and the twig it passed under that we couldn’t possibly spy it. But we did.

Sometimes, it was the white version of the pink that we spotted. As I mentioned, Lady’s Sippers orchids in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words “Cypris,” an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal, so named for the fused petals that form the pouch and their resemblance.

There were other white flowers to also admire, such as the Canada Mayflower or Wild Lily of the Valley that decorated a boulder.

Ah, but we reminded ourselves that Lady’s Slippers were our focus. Though most stood upon straight stems, there was the occasional one such as this that had a mind of its own. What had this flower endured to create such a curvature?

At last we reached Overset Pond with the mountain of the same name beyond. This became our lunch spot and while there we watched a Common Loon and a Snapper Turtle swim underwater, for so clear it is.

It was after that, however, that our Lady’s Slipper numbers began to increase. We were at 47 when we reached the pond. But then, it felt like we were constantly taking turns announcing a number and pointing to make sure the other saw the same flowers.

When one is noticing, one notices. And so My Guy pointed out this Tiger Swallowtail taking a break, its proboscis rolled as it should be when not seeking nectar.

The next flower we spotted chose a different orientation, as if it had done something wrong and needed to show its backside to the trail. But really, perhaps it was honoring the tree beside which it grew.

We soon reached one of My Guy’s favorite spots where he counted 50 in bloom in a ten-foot-square area. And that’s just what we could see from the trail.

We found some who stood tall.

And others barely overextending the height of Bunchberry.

At the summit of Overset Mountain, we paused for a dessert break before making our way down.

On the descent there were still others to admire, though for a wee bit it felt like we’d entered the desert, but once closer to the pond, the natural community changed and apparently the fungus did as well for such were our finds.

The last of the day appeared to be the richest in color, though I’m not sure we had an overall favorite for each offered a different hue of the same theme from pale white to this rich pink.

We were on our way back to the truck, when things got even more exciting–if that can be so given all the Lady’s Slippers we’d spotted. Say hello to an immature male Common Whitetail Skimmer Dragonfly. By the time he matures, his tail will turn whitish blue, but those wings will remain the same. Oh my.

And then for the final oh my . . .

Oh My Guy! This was the closet I’ve been to my favorite Black Bear (UMaine grad–though known as UMO grad back in his day) on any hike . . . ever. And for this I give thanks to the Lady’s Slippers for slowing him down to my speed. All together we counted 286 flowering Lady’s Slippers today and know that we missed some and beyond the trail there are probably a million more.

Celebrating My Daily Wonders

Every day this week found me wandering a different trail, or even sometimes the same trail on multiple days.

To that end, on May 24th, I celebrated a full-fledged dragonfly emergence.

Though I wasn’t there at the time of eclosure, many of the dragonflies I spotted, and there were hundreds, were either still pumping hemolymph from their wings back into their bodies, gaining their color patterns, or letting their shiny wings dry in the breeze as they slowly began to expand them. A few had wings that seemed stuck together, but then in an unexpected moment they flew and I whispered farewell in hopes that we might meet again.

On May 25th, there were other species to behold.

It was that day that I knew the Highbush Blueberry crop will be significant this year for so many were the robust Bumble Bees that worked the pollen route. I even managed to capture one doing a happy dance with pollen on its feet. And this is canoodling season, after all, so it was fun to find a pair of flower bugs enjoying a tender moment upon Chokeberry flowers. The Mayfly did not have such a happy ending for before maturing to its adult form, it landed in a sticky web, but . . . alas, the spider must eat, so it was a good day after all.

On May 26th, my travels were more varied, as were the sightings.

For a few moments, I watched as ants, both winged and not, farmed aphids upon the stem of a Maple-leaf Viburnum. Along a trail or two that day, a melodious Song Sparrow serenaded me with its happy tune. And a quick trip to the vernal pool out back found me looking into the eyes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Wood Frog tadpoles. But the best find of all, a fairy ring along a trail.

On May 27th, I was one of a bunch who arrived at a certain locale to bird at 6:30am.

Though I couldn’t stay for the entire trip, which yielded 38 species, I did have the joy of watching a small flock of Cedar Waxwings land and fly, land and fly. And then there was the Indigo Bunting. It’s blue coloration reminded me of Clintonia’s Blue Bead fruits we’ll spot in the summer if the birds don’t eat them all first. And I’m never sure why I’m surprised to find a House Wren on these journeys, but perhaps its because for so many years I didn’t see them (or didn’t realize I was seeing them) and thought of them more as a childhood bird from my beginnings in southern New England. The best find of all, on this day, however, was an Eastern Phoebe sitting on her nest.

On May 28th, I met some old friends, though for the first three I had to jog my memory for their names.

The first was a female Common Whitetail Skimmer dragonfly. It’s her guy who has the whitish “tail,” and I believe that she received the better strokes of nature’s paintbrush. Then there were the Hudsonian Whiteface Skimmers, she with yellow marks and his defined in red. Soon, the Calico Pennants will emerge, and we’ll see she also dons a yellow coat while he sports red. But as much as you know I love dragonflies, a fresh moose track also makes my heart sing.

On May 29th, I wondered how I could possibly top all of that.

And yet I did. First there were more ants farming aphids, this time Wooly Alder Aphids on Speckled Alders. After that, a Bluet Damselfly that didn’t seem to mind that I rustled around in some shrubs trying to get better photos of other species. For its patience, I thought I should honor it in this post. One of those other species, a small Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer dragonfly, drew my attention to a Pitcher Plant Flower preparing to open. I was surprised by its presence because though I knew I was in the land where Pitcher Plants are abundant, I couldn’t recall spying one in this particular spot before. But the best find of the day, an Assassin Bug, Pselliopus cinctus, finishing a meal. I had never met this species of Assassin Bug before as usually it is the slender green Zelus luridus that I encounter. The black and white legs were to be admired, by me, not its poor victim who had just had the juices sucked out of it.

It certainly has been a week to celebrate my daily wonders as I wander. And though the Assassin Bug was the best of today, the actual best I did not capture a photo of this afternoon. A River Otter popped up and stared at me briefly, chirped, and before I could reach for the camera, disappeared. But I will remember that moment and that spot in my mind’s eye.

To Fly or Not to Fly?

Sigh. And sigh again. Happy sighs are these. Because . . . the dragonflies are transforming from their aquatic form to flyers. In either lifestyle, they are predators, but it’s the latter flyer that we appreciate the most. Especially during years like this when the Black Fly and Mosquito populations are prolific. We give thanks, of course, for such prevalence, because these little stinging fliers become odonata and amphibian and bird food, or so we like to pretend that we give thanks. Really, we’re grateful for the insistent buzzing and biting, but even more grateful for those who predate upon them.

The exciting thing about this week is that several of us had the great opportunity to spy some dragonflies eclosing, the act of emerging from their larval forms. So here’s the deal: fully developed aquatic larvae, aka nymphs, crawl out of the water onto emergent grasses, sedges, shrubs, and rocks, split the back of their skin and emerge as winged adults like the one in view here.

Newly eclosed dragonflies lack pigment so identifying them isn’t always easy. Of even more importance, they are extremely vulnerable to predation as they clutch their old skin while pumping air into their bodies and liquid into their expanding wings. One way to note an emergent adult is by the cloudiness of the wings as they set their internal systems in motion. The tough part is that they must wait in this position, unable to escape predators, until wings dry and they can fly. The process can take several hours.

And so it was with great glee that we noticed wee, yet mature Hudsonian Whiteface dragonflies, members of the Skimmer family, flying and posing, flying and posing.

The yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, aiding in the identification as I get my dragonfly eyes back on.

In no time, it seemed, there were dragonflies everywhere. Well, not everywhere for I traveled several trails and realized that those who were emerging tended to be near stiller waters. The Common Baskettail, as this species is known, is a member of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds). Unlike other Emerald family members, baskettails lack the green eyes, though as they age the color does change. But they make up for it by being super hairy. As a naiad, the hair apparently traps tiny pieces of debris, thus hiding it from predators in the muck. In its adult form, the hair serves as a spring jacket, holding in heat.

All that is fine and well and there will be many more odonata references during the next six months as I wonder my way. but today I happened upon one who added to my knowledge bank and I’ll forever celebrate this opportunity to learn more. Do you see the neon green appearing to drip off the wings?

Look closely at the left behind aquatic structure, aka exuvia or cast skin, and you can see the length of the former nymph that helps define this species to family based on its shape: Darner.

Though I first thought this specimen was dead, suddenly it walked along the underside of an old stump beside the water. Try as I could to separate its wings, I was unsuccessful. For some reason they were stuck together. And one was even folded still as it would have been upon first emerging, thus there was green at its tip, though it appeared at first glance to be in the middle of the wing.

Based on the fact that its thorax stripes were already taking on its adult colors, I knew this darner had been trying to reach flight stage for hours. What had gone wrong? What was the neon green? Something must have gone astray as this dragonfly tried to pump hemolymph (Insect fluid like blood) through to its wings to stiffen them for flight.

Hemolymph is made up of water and other characteristics like carbohydrates and amino acids, and also pigments, though the latter are typically clear but may be tinged with yellow or green. In the case of this darner, it seems that green is the color of choice. Had it been able to expand its wings, the fluid would have drained out of the wings and back into the body. Usually, it takes about an hour or more for the wings to reach full length and they have a cloudy appearance as the fluid is pumped into them. They are held together over the back, much like a damselfly, but once the fluid drains out of them, the dragonfly is able to extend the wings and there’s a shiny glint to them until they fully dry and stiffen. And then, in a split second, when one such as me is watching, flight happens.

For some reason, this darner will not know flight, but I gave thanks for the opportunity to see its blood and slow my brain down to think about the process.

To fly or not to fly?: it’s a complicated question.

As The Vernal Pool Turns

If you follow me either virtually or in reality, you know that during April and May I spend a lot of time beside vernal pools. And this year is no different. Thankfully, I also get to take others along on the journey, from school children to their parents, and members of the public, plus colleague naturalists in the form of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s volunteer docents.

And so it’s been that this particular pool on a land trust property has received tons of attention this year. We’ve always known it to be special because it’s home to Fairy Shrimp, which just the occurrence of one makes it significant by State of Maine standards.

Vernal pools provide essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including salamanders and some frogs species. At the same time, juvenile and adult amphibians associated with such a pool provide an important food source for small carnivores as well as large game species. Many of these amphibians are pool specific in that they must return to their natal vernal pool to breed, thus making them and the surrounding habitat important and the loss of such would lead to loss of local amphibians, a decrease in biodiversity, and a decline in food available to others who inhabit the surrounding natural community.

Upon visiting this past week, the pool had taken on a new sheen, appearing at first glance to resemble ice. But it was much too warm for that to be the case.

Floating upon the pool’s surface were male Red Maple flowers, the oval items at the ends of slender, threadlike stalks the pollen producing anthers dangling on their filaments and the release of said pollen the cause of the ice-like presentation.

So the exciting thing about this particular pool is that though It has long been a breeding ground for Fairy Shrimp (and mosquito larvae), this year we spotted more of the former than ever swimming along on their backs as they filtered the water and sought a mate.

Though the pollen on the pool may give it a look of being polluted, the presence of Fairy Shrimp actually serve as an indicator of good water quality.

Where a month ago we were scooping up hundreds of these tiny crustaceans, this past week we found only a few, which served as one sign that this is a pool in transition. Their life cycle isn’t long, but if you checked in recently with the post entitled Peering Into the Pool, you’ll have learned a cool fact or two about their existence.

Back to now. Wood Frog tadpoles had suddenly emerged and their egg masses began to disintegrate, though still adding a source of food in the symbiotic relationship with an algal form.

Mosquito larvae and pupae, though still present, were not as prevalent, given that their flying, biting form had begun to hatch.

And then there was another change to note. And it’s a major change in my book of these habitats. Large Bullfrogs had taken up residence.

The wee bit smaller but similar Green Frogs had as well.

How does one decipher between a Bullfrog and Green Frog? First, as you approach a pool and you hear a squeal as a frog jumps from the edge into the water, you know that Green Frogs are in the midst.

And if you finally get to spy one, look for the line behind the eye. If it follows along both edges of the frog’s back, called dorsal lateral folds, it’s a Green Frog.

If, however, the line extends from the back of the eye and wraps around the round disk, or tympanum membrane (think ear), it’s a Bullfrog.

Also, Bullfrogs don’t leap away quite a suddenly as Green Frogs. In fact, they can stay quite still for hours on end.

Once human eyes adjust to the surroundings, shadows may pretend to be frogs, but they aren’t. The real deal, however, lurks at the surface, often only its eyes making its presence known.

Hemlock needles and maple flowers decorate it, and much to my surprise don’t frustrate it. Though some frogs may seem super sensitive to us, they also exhibit a patience not to be matched as they sit and wait.

Oh, did I mention that they were everywhere? Literally.

The thing is. these two frog species weren’t in the pool to breed like the Wood Frogs had been. They, after all, need a permanent water source because their tadpoles take two years at a minimum to morph into adults and a vernal pool that dries up each year would not be suitable. This tadpole was spied at a nearby pond, indicating that perhaps the Bullfrog came from that source to the vernal pool.

So what were the Bullfrogs and Green Frogs doing at the pool? Predating all that live within. Remember what I said earlier, that vernal pools provide food for small and large predators. These would be on the smaller size, though not the smallest.

Perhaps that’s why we weren’t seeing as many Fairy Shrimp this past week. And given the prevalence of these two frogs, who knows what will hop or crawl out of the pool, but we suspect some Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders will make it to adulthood so that they can carry on the tradition of returning to their natal pools to breed.

The thing about visiting a pool such as this with the younger set is that they are bound to make exciting finds. And so one did, locating a Spring Peeper swimming about.

And in the surrounding uplands, another found a Pickerel Frog. We could hear their snoring chorus, so this discovery wasn’t unexpected. But still it was special.

How to tell a Pickerel Frog from a Leopard Frog (the latter a species I’ve only seen a few times): by the spots on its back. The Pickerel’s spots are more symmetrical than the randomness of a Leopard’s and the Pickerel’s spots are outlined while a Leopard’s are not.

And then there was this teeny, tiny American Toad covered with warts and suddenly the ground was hopping with these wee creatures and Spring Peepers and one had to be careful where one stepped.

The final find of the week, an adult Wood Frog with its robber mask making for a sure ID. This one was a poser.

As the vernal pool turns, so do its inhabitants and I give great thanks for the opportunity to learn from it and share it with so many others who add to the lessons.

Dedication: This one is for Nancy Hogan Posey cuze I was going to write about something completely different today and your question turned the page to this one. Thank you.

Just Another Boring Mountain Mondate

No need to read on. You know it will be photos of today’s finds. Ho hum.

Our day began as it always does, with a shared piece of CraftonMain Lemon Meringue Pie topped with a raspberry, while we sat and watched this pair enjoy a meal of their own. Wait. We don’t always begin with the pie–but sure wish we could. Cardinals, however, have been blessing us with their appearance for years.

And then there was the sighting of the neighborhood fox in the field beyond our stonewall; it had its eyes on the neighbor’s dogs while we had our eyes on it. Don’t worry, the dogs didn’t become breakfast. In fact, as their mistress began to walk toward the fox (we don’t think she spied it, nor did the dogs or they would have given chase), the fox turned and dashed across the field, over another stonewall and into our woodlot.

At last, it was time to begin our hike along a trail we haven’t visited since August 2019. Our intention had been to climb it in 2020, but during the first year of the pandemic, it was closed and then we never considered it . . . until this morning. And as we started up, I remembered . . . this is the mountain where the Early Saxifrage grows.

 It’s also known as rockbreaker for its habit of cleaving to the rocks, and perhaps suggested the Latin name–Saxifraga virginiensis. Saxum-rock and frangere-to break.

A funny name for such a diminutive and delicate display.

Round-leaved Violet with its scalloped-rimmed leaves more heart shaped than its name suggests also grew along the trail. Spying these tiny offerings of yellow with those incredible magenta runways meant to attract pollinators always brings a smile as if they were meant to brighten the day of all who hike this way.

Our journey found us enjoying the sound of the water’s rhythm as we climbed higher . . .

and contemplating each step once we turned away from the brook.

At the summit, the view from lunch rock included a look to the southeast where the sky predicted the forecast of a front moving in.

Meanwhile, our hometown mountain stood out in the sun.

But the grand lady, Mount Washington, was starting to disappear into the clouds.

It was windy and a bit chilly at the summit, but that didn’t stop the Brown Elfin butterfly from flirting with a few others where the blueberries grow.

I also spotted one Spring Azure. Both are rather small butterflies and if you look closely, you might spot that their antennae are patterned white and black.

On the way down, we did what we often do–looked for bear claw trees because we know they exist here. And because I know such an activity will slow my guy down. 😉 Bingo. He spotted one that was new to us.

I went in for a closer look and couldn’t believe all the marks on display.

And so I began to circle around the trunk.

One can only imagine the crop of Beech Nuts this tree must have offered.

But enough is enough. It’s just another bear claw tree, after all. Nothing to write home about. Or is it? Think about the bear and the blueberries the Brown Elfin Butterfly will help pollinate and the Beech Nuts the trees will produce and all the connections that will be made, which will include the Cardinals and the Red Fox and the flowers and all that is part of the forest. And be wowed like us. It was hardly just another boring mountain mondate on Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine.

Peering Into The Pool

If you’ve been following wondermyway for a few years, you know that each spring I make a bee-line for vernal pools, those shallow, short-lived ponds that fill with snowmelt or spring rain for at least several weeks most years, have no major inlet or outlet, and most importantly, no fish. Without fish, reproductive success is more likely for some amphibians, crustaceans, and insects who depend upon these ephemeral water bodies for breeding.

There are four indicator species in Maine that define a vernal pool as significant. Since 2007, significant vernal pool habitat has been protected by law under Maine’s Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA): “Significant Vernal Pool (SVP) habitat consists of a vernal pool depression and a portion of the critical terrestrial habitat within a 250-foot radius of the spring or fall high water mark of the depression. Any activity in, on, or over the SVP or the 250-foot critical terrestrial habitat zone must avoid unreasonable impacts to the significant vernal pool habitat and obtain approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, either through Permit by Rule (a streamlined permitting process) or full individual NRPA permit.”

Those four indicator species that define such significance: Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, Blue Spotted Salamanders, and Fairy Shrimp. The pool must contain 40 Wood Frog egg masses, or 20 Spotted Salamander Egg masses, or 10 Blue Spotted Salamander egg masses, or one Fairy Shrimp. I’ve yet to see a Blue Spotted Salamander or its eggs.

Some may see these ponds as oversized puddles, but let your eyes focus and suddenly you’ll realize that they are places teeming with life.

As you do, it might surprise you to spot lots of flying activity just above the pool’s surface. It’s actually Midges on the move, trying to get a date so that there will be even more Midges on the move. They look rather like mosquitoes, but don’t bite, so not to worry.

Male Midges have a longer, more slender body that the females, and they like to posture in attempts to interest one of the opposite gender. They’re actually fun to watch.

Of course, equally, ahem, fun to watch are the larval forms of Mosquitoes as they wriggle and wraggle through the water column, some even forming dense clusters.

If you do some container dipping at a vernal pool near you in order to take a closer look, I trust you won’t dump these onto the leaf litter rather than back into the water. As much as the females annoy us once they morph into that annoying flying insect that needs to suck mammal blood to gain proteins and nutrients for their eggs, they play an important part in the food web.

Especially for warblers such as this Yellow-rumped that was part of a flock that arrived in western Maine this week–just as it should have, being the end of April. It was spotted quite near one of the pools, so I suspect Mosquito Mash will soon be on the menu.

Back to those four indicator species for a significant vernal pool . . . it was this week that while looking close up at some Wood Frog eggs, I realized we had babies in the form of tadpoles.

I saw “we” because mom and dad Wood Frog do not hang around. Once they’ve canoodled and eggs have been fertilized and deposited, they exit the pool and return to their upland habitat, where they spend the next fifty weeks, so it’s up to us to watch over their young ones. Their metamorphosis, or change to adult form, will be completed by late June or earlier should temperatures rise and the pool begin to dry out.

I encourage you , dear readers, to do what I do and stare intently into the leaf litter to see if you can spot some tadpoles. And who knows what else you might discover.

While looking into another section of the pool, you might notice another type of egg mass, this one coated with a gelatinous mass that encompasses all of the eggs. Spotted Salamanders made their Big Night return to the pools about a week or so later than the Wood Frogs, so the embryos are still developing.

I find it fascinating to see the little forms take shape. It’s like looking into a mother’s womb without medical devices.

Okay, it’s time for you to peer into the pool again. This time you are looking for Fairy Shrimp, those tiny crustaceans that are about a half inch long, swim on their backs, and move eleven pairs of legs like a crew team in a rowing shell. Remember, I said one Fairy Shrimp makes a pool significant according to the State of Maine. How many do you see in this photo?

Those in the first Fairy Shrimp photo are males, but females are present as well. The way to identify a female is to look for her two 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. One of the pools I’ve been frequenting lately I’d only discovered last year and it had no Fairy Shrimp. The other day when I approached with some volunteer docents from Greater Lovell Land Trust, one exclaimed within seconds of our arrival, “Fairy Shrimp.”

That got me thinking: how is it that we didn’t spot any last year, and this year we started seeing them everywhere. Also, in another pool where we’ve often spied a few, we’ve noticed they are in abundance. Previous to this week, I knew that the eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, but assumed that if the pool flooded each year, they all hatched. It didn’t make sense though that one pool suddenly has shrimp and the other has so many more than normal. It was time to do a little research, and what I learned from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies , is that only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching. So I thought about winter 2021 and how we didn’t have a lot of snow and the temperature was on the mild side. This past winter was much snowier (though not enough still in my book) and much chillier. My unscientific conclusion, based only on limited knowledge and observation, is that conditions weren’t conducive in 2021 at that one pool and so no shrimp hatched. I’m already looking forward to next year.

For your enjoyment I’ve included a video of a Fairy Shrimp moving through a pool this past week. Fairy Shrimp indicate unpolluted water, so finding one is significant. Finding so many . . . bliss.

When you are peering into the water for such a long time, other life forms make themselves known, such as Predacious Diving Beetle larvae, aka Water Tiger. Just like the adult this insect will morph into, it eats everything including tadpoles and insects, and even its siblings sometimes.

It wasn’t just the docents and I who had fun at the pools, but also a group of middle school students I have the immense honor to work with each Friday and yesterday they enjoyed documenting life at the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year. Quiz yourself on ID of the species one student scooped up in this bug box. And rest assured that these critters were released back into the pool after being studied for a few minutes.

As I said, I’ve done a lot of scanning this week, including on a couple of solo trips, and it was on one of these that I made one of my favorite discoveries: a Caddisfly larvae. In larval form, Caddisflies are resourceful architects who repurpose their surroundings to create their homes. Sometimes I find them constructed of hemlock needles topped with a maple flowers, and a friend sent a photo today of one she found who had built its house of grains of sand. My find . . . in the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year: a mobile home built of leaves. It was so well camouflaged that only the movement made me realize what was before my eyes.

Larval Caddisflies eat various types of detritus, including bits of leaves, algae, and miscellaneous organic matter so they, too, are important as they break down what is in the pool.

If it wasn’t that I need to eventually find my way home and make dinner, I’d probably still be out there. But yikes, it’s 7:00pm, and I haven’t even started dinner, and my guy will be home from work soon, so I’d better get going.

If you are looking for me in the next few weeks, however, I’ll be the one with hands on bent knees as I hunch over the pool. Join me and we can peer in together.

Reading the Signs

Make each mind-filled step count as it presents reminders of wonder . . .

whether beside rushing waters that nourish with sight and sound,

or along mountain ledges where one is reminded that gravity holds us down.

Admire first the Trailing Arbutus as you drop to a knee to take in the sweet scent of spring enclosed within its delicate petals.

Don’t overlook the tiny fly seeking nourishment from Coltsfoot, pollinator at work upon a flower whose modified leaves give it an otherworldly appearance.

Notice the wee fiddleheads rising up beside Polypody ferns,

their hairy crosiers so minute that if you don’t search under leaves and moss, you’ll surely miss them.

Let the Eastern Comma Butterfly entertain as it dances up and down a forest trail,

occasionally pausing to allow onlookers to spot the tiny white comma, for which it was given its name, on its hind wing.

Let the past also astound in the form of last year’s Ghost Pipe flower appearing now as an intricate woody capsule.

Consider the American Beech with its canopy a bit askew, especially when compared to its neighbors.

And then gaze down the trunk until claw marks left behind years ago by a very hungry Black Bear make themselves visible.

Look with awe at the granite so evenly and naturally sliced and delight in the hues once hidden within now on view.

Embrace the panorama from a windswept summit where turbines producing energy define a nearby ridge line.

See also the old mill town that continues to produce paper products from its location nestled among mountains.

Note also the bronze geological monument used by surveyors since 1879 for mapping purposes as our forebears laid stake to the land that we can never truly claim.

And on the way home, don’t forget to take a few steps toward the barn that features memories of the past.

Try to make time to be present in the moment and see the wonders of life that surround us. Be awakened by reading the signs and not just whizzing by, no matter how or where you travel across the Earth.

A Wonder-filled Easter Parade

While bonnets are on display each Easter in New York City, the parade takes a different form in the wilds of Maine. This year’s festivities began in the late afternoon of Good Friday.

It was then that this handsome Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapped an announcement inviting everyone to the avenue.

A River Otter was one of the first to arrive, pausing in the midst of playing with a relative.

From a branch above, a Grackle showed off its iridescent spring finery as it viewed the procession below.

Fluttery marchers moved along, pausing in their routines before flying high and then dancing toward the ground again.

Willows stood along the way, waving flowery flags to the tap of the music.

And Ring-necked Ducks wondered what all the frivolity was about.

The route changed over the course of the weekend, and Saturday night found it along a backroad where Wood Frogs showed off their float techniques and sang love songs as rain drops fell.

A female heard the band and hurried across the road to get to the other side. (She may have had some help)

Spring Peepers high-pitched notes filled the air and all felt a sense of excitement despite the weather.

As the night went on, the grand marshal, a Spotted Salamander, finally arrived.

Actually, there was more than one grand marshal and some needed a little help to get to the grand stand so they could watch and participate in the action.

And then Easter Day dawned and after a festive church service, the parade resumed, this time along a gated Forest Road where Beavers had created sculptures to decorate the way.

Those Beavers had completed other work and due to the footwear of some of the onlookers, the route had to be changed for crossing the beaver dam proved a challenge.

Instead, it followed miles and miles of Forest Roads, where brooks contributed happy babbling songs to compliment the local Wood Frog and Spring Peeper chorus.

It wasn’t just music, though. Balsam Fir natural essence rainbows reflected bird balloons for everyone to enjoy.

As the parade neared its end, an early spring flower known as a Coltsfoot, appeared along the way.

And suddenly there were three, a trinity. Faith, Hope, and Love. Sunshiny faces for all to see.

Then a Sapsucker tapped the final announcement. This may not be New York, but the weekend’s Easter Parade has drawn to a close and hope, and awe and wonder are in the air.

Hug An ASH Mondate

My guy and I began this day with a list . . . of things to do and places to go, all within about 15 miles from home. Our starting point was our camp, where I wanted to do a few things inside, while he picked up branches that had fallen over the winter.

Once our chores were completed, we paused for a moment and enjoyed the view of Shawnee Peak Ski Area at Pleasant Mountain and the almost iced-out northern basin of Moose Pond.

Maybe the ice finally went out this afternoon, but the longer it stays, the better in my opinion. Not all that long ago we could predict the event to occur in mid-April, but sadly everything is happening earlier than it should.

From there we hiked up a hill on some land we own behind his store because he’d recently spotted a site he knew I’d appreciate: a carpet of Eastern Hemlock twigs. We looked up, but no porcupine was in sight.

Following a quick lunch at home, we headed off for a quick hike up Mount Tir’em where another porky tree greeted us beside the trail.

From the summit, we spied first Keoka Lake to the east, its ice still in.

And Bear Pond to the south, also still covered in ice. And yes, toward the west, that is Pleasant Mountain and the ski area of the earlier photo.

No trip up this mountain is complete without a visit to the glacial erratics that our sons, back in their youth, called The Castle. I’ve always thought of it as offering a great bear cave and so we went in search.

We did find the neighborhood bear who has been keeping an eye on this spot for a number of years now. My, what long, sharp claws you have.

In the best cave though, only this momma bear emerged and she seemed kinda friendly ;-).

Our final adventure of the day found us following several Yetis into the woods.

They led us to this tree, which bespoke a long and gnarled history.

On one side it sported a burl, that strange-looking collection of tree cells. Known as callus tissue, the burl forms in response to an environmental injury such as pruning, disease or insect damage.

On the other side, a tree spirit smiled. They often do if you take the time to look.

Its bark was so stretched that though it remained a bit corky, its diamond pattern had stretched into sinewy yet chunky snakes of furrows and ridges.

Upon the ground a shed limb ready to give nutrients back to the earth that will continue to aid the tree sat in its shadow.

Holes in the tree offered further intrigue . . .

and so my guy climbed up and looked in first.

I followed and couldn’t believe the site within. This tree is still producing leaves, thus the xylem and phloem still function, but almost entirely hollow and I fully expected to see a bear or two or a slew of raccoons in residence. Certainly, it would have created a delightful hideaway to sit and read and sketch, and watch . . . life inside and out.

By now you’ve possibly figured this is one mighty big tree . . . and I found this information about it: On October 30, 1969, the Maine Forest Service stated that it was the largest of its species in the state. And in 1976, the bicentennial year, it still held that honor. The dimensions in 1969 were these: circumference 17′ 81/4″, height 70′ and crown spread 77′. I’m not sure if any of those measurements have changed, but I learned last week that is still the biggest of its kind.

So this blog post is entitled “Hug an ASH Mondate.” I actually hugged two ASHes today–this White Ash that deserves to be honored for who knows how much longer it will be around and I was so excited to meet it, but my own ASH as well for if you look at the watermark on the two photos of me you’ll see © ASH. You may have thought that my guy’s initials were M.G., but really they are A.S.H. Hug an ASH. In any form, what an honor.

Where the Bobcat led us

When GLLT Tuesday Trackers meet at a property, we never know what animal sign we’ll need to interpret or what greater understanding we’ll gain. Today was no different and we had a few surprises along the way.

What we’ve all learned is that we need to take a bird’s eye view and consider where we are, whether it be forest or field or wetland, look at how the mammal is moving and what type of pattern it is creating as it moves, get down and count toes, look for nail marks and notice other idiosyncrasies, and then follow the trail for a ways, looking at the prints in different light, or under different trees. Often under hemlock trees we find the best prints because there’s not as much snow since the boughs hold it.

And so today’s adventure began with us following this particular animal and debating—do we see claw marks, is the overall shape round or oval, is there a lead toe, is the ridge creating a C on its side or an X between the toes and heel pad? It took some time, but we finally found a few prints that gave us confidence it was a bobcat we were following. So, where did the bobcat lead us?

Our first stop was along a stream where he walked beside the edge—about two or three feet above the open water for such is the snow height—but then paused for a moment and seemed to step down because he was curious about something. And so were these three, Pam, Dawn, and Emily, for they spied something in the water below.

From our position on the opposite bank, a few of us saw what we thought they were looking at. “It’s furry,” Dawn told us.

She wanted to go down into the water because it didn’t appear to be all that deep, but still that would have meant she’d be wet and so Emily hunted around and found a branch to use as a poker instead.

As Dawn wiggled the stick, all the time exclaiming that it was big, whatever it was, and trying to turn it over, Emily and Pam grabbed her to make sure she didn’t turn into an otter and slide down, though I suspected she would have laughed about the experience.

We all watched intently, making suggestions about the critter’s identity while Dawn continued to poke at it and move it. Mammal? Skull? Full body?

The coloration was definitely unique, but it is winter after all, so the freezing temperatures and fact that it was in water may have altered its appearance.

Those were our thoughts anyway, and we voiced our opinions, until . . . Dawn flipped it over and saw . . . a tag.

So hoping for a kill site where the bobcat may have dined, instead we found ourselves looking at . . . a stuffed owl.

Peter took Pippi’s hiking pole and aided Dawn in rescuing the sopping wet bird and if you look closely you may see water dripping from it.

Our chuckles must have rippled through the forest as we laughed at our great find. Mighty trackers are we. But . . . we think the bobcat was almost fooled as well. Almost.

The owl then flew from Peter’s hands to a perch and there it shall remain, or so we think.

For a few minutes we returned to and continued upon a logging road, and then the bobcat called for our attention again and so we did follow it. As I said to the group, normally I’d insist that we backtrack the animal so we don’t put stress on it, but the tracks were at least a day old.

This time the bobcat led us to a hemlock tree. Do you see the debris under the tree?

How about now? And stained snow by the trunk?

There were even little brown commas atop the snow that could easily be mistaken for hemlock cones. But rather, they were a form of scat.

Like us, the bobcat had been here, but for some reason he chose to pass by.

Whenever we spy downed hemlock branches, comma-shaped scat, and lots of urine at the base of a tree, we know to look up and so we did. High above sat a male porcupine. Males are known to stay in a tree during the day while females typically return to the den each morning and head back to the tree of dining choice at twilight. Here’s are two curious things: 1. the bobcat passed by—they will go after a porcupine, but perhaps this one was too high up. (Fishers are a porcupine’s #1 enemy.) 2. we looked all around and couldn’t find any porcupine tracks. If we had, we might have followed them to see if we could locate the den. But, since we couldn’t we came to the assumption that this porcupine has been up in the tree since at least our last major snowstorm on Friday, February 25.

Back on the bobcat’s trail we did go, being stymied occasionally because though we knew it was a bobcat, there were a few prints that resembled a deer and we came up with all kinds of stories about flying deer and other critters of our imaginations.

But always, we’d find a few classic prints and again feel 100% confident of our ID. Well, not ours, but the bobcat’s.

So where would it lead us next? To a spruce tree all covered with sap . . . and fur.

Some of the hair was dark and coarse.

In other spots it was redder and softer. After much debate, and noting that it was all up and down the tree from just above snow level to at eye sight and maybe a bit above, I think we all agreed it was a bear marking tree. Bears sometimes nip and bit trees and rub their backs on them and their hair gets stuck on splinters or in this case also sap.

According to North American Bear Center: “Favorite trees have little ground vegetation to prevent a bear from approaching them, and they often lean slightly toward the trail.  Look for hair caught in the bark or wood 2 to 5 feet high and look for bites 5½ to 6½ feet high.

The hair often bleaches to brown or blond after a few months but can still be distinguished as bear hair from its length and appearance.  Guard hairs are typically coarse and 3-4 inches long and have a narrow base that may be wavy.  Bears are shedding their winter fur when much of the marking is done in spring or early summer, so the bark may also catch underfur, which is thin, wavy and shorter.”

Two feet up made sense given the snow’s depth.

You’d think that would have been enough, but again we wondered: where will the bobcat lead us?

This time it was a snapped snag and we noticed he’d walked along the top of it.

And then one among us spotted this. Brown snow and more hair. We were sure it was a kill site. Yes, as trackers we really like kill sites because they are fun to interpret and we appreciate the energy passed from one animal to another via the predator/prey relationship.

For a few minutes we took turns walking around the site trying to take in everything presented to us, including some hair that had fallen into the snag’s hollow.

I think it was the two=toned hair that helped us figure this one out. Plus the fact that there was no blood. This was a spot where the bobcat sat down, thus the rather tamped down snow that had turned brown. The warmth of his body helped to flatten it and in so sitting, some of his hair, which is black and white, got stuck, similar to what we see in deer beds at this time of freezing and warming temps. The mammals are beginning to shed their winter coats and last week we had an unusually warm day so change is in the air.

We admired his hunting spot and balance beam. And then it was time for us to leave.

But those grins remained on our faces for we were grateful we’d taken the time to see where the bobcat might lead us at GLLT’s Charles Pond Reserve today.