Insect Awe

I never intended to like insects. They weren’t really my thing. At all. And if I encountered one in the house, I’d either ask someone to smoosh it or do the dirty work myself, though sometimes that meant my hands clenched together until I got up the nerve.

But one day I began to look. I’m not even sure when that day was, but for quite a while now, it has become a daily habit.

What I am about to share with you are some finds from this past week. Some were new acquaintances while others were old friends I was meeting all over again.

For starters, I discovered this tiny, cylindrical structure on an oak leaf. Notice how it was right beside the main vein. I had to wonder, was the top rim also a vein, for so thick it appeared.

It’s my understanding that after creating the third role of the leaf, a single egg is laid. What triggers the insect to lay the egg then? Why not on the second role? And how many roles are there before the nest is completed?

What is this? A Leaf Roller Weevil nest, which is called a nidus.

In another place I spotted the first of what I suspect I’ll see repeatedly as spring gives way to summer. The wasp who built this global structure also used an oak leaf.

I’d love to see one of these being created and I am humbled not only by the perfectly round orb, but also the interior. This one happened to be split open so I could peek inside. The wasp used the leaf tissue to surround a single larva located at the center. Fibers radiating from that central larval capsule supported the exterior. How could it be that an insect could create such?

What is this? An Oak Apple Wasp Gall.

Standing with others beside water as we listened for and spotted birds, I noticed the largest insect remaining in one place for minutes on end as if suspended midair.

It’s rather scary looking, but that’s all an act for this impersonator likes to look like a wasp or bee in order to avoid becoming prey (think Batesian mimicry where something looks dangerous but is actually good).

In reality, despite its “fierce” presentation, it’s actually harmless. And beneficial. While it consumes nectar, honeydew and pollen, but doesn’t actually collect the latter like a bee, in the process of visiting a flower may get some pollen on its body and transfer the goods from that plant to the next.

But that controlled flying? You can see by the photo that the wings were moving, but with the naked eye it appeared motionless.

What is this? A Hover Fly.

I was standing about ten feet above a pond when I spied and first thought that these two insects were one. In fact, I was sure I was looking at the largest example of this species. And then I saw all the legs and realized something more was going on.

Indeed, a lot more was going on. She was on the bottom and as you can see, he had a tight clasp. Theirs is a mating habit that’s quite unique and if she doesn’t give in, it can go on for a couple of days. And might mean doom for her.

You see, she has a genital shield to guard against him if she doesn’t think he’s the man she wants. But, he has a counter behavior–he taps the water in a pattern that might lure predators such as fish. And since she’s beneath and closest to the fish’s mouth, it behooves her to submit quickly to his endearment.

What are these? Water Striders.

This next one was discovered when some young naturalists I was hanging out with lifted a rock upon a rock beside a brook. Burrowed in to the humus was a segmented insect.

In its larval form it would have had protective filaments, as well as gills to help it absorb dissolved oxygen. And a set of mean-looking mandibles. Ten to twelve times it would have molted before leaving the water and finding this moist environment under the rock upon a rock where it dug a cell within which it spent up to fourteen days before pupating. Under the same rock was the exoskeleton it had shed. In this next stage of life, it develops wings, legs, antennae and mouth parts. We covered it back up and I suspect that by now or very soon it will dig its way out of the cell and emerge as a winged adult.

What is it? A Dobsonfly Pupa.

One of my favorite finds was beside a river–and though I didn’t get to see it emerge from its exoskeleton, I did watch it pump some blood into its body and grow bigger and longer over the course of an hour or more.

Its cloudy wings needed time to dry out and lengthen, as did its abdomen. And eventually, its colors would help in a determination of its specific name, though I wasn’t there that long.

Just across a small inlet, another had also emerged and while it had almost reached maturity, it was still waiting for its wings to dry. Notice how in the previous photo, the wings are held upright over its back, but as demonstrated here, when they dry they extend outward. That’s actually a great way to differentiate these from their Odonata cousins who wear their wings straight over their abdomens.

Meet the cousin–the damselflies.

And now back to the others, who also begin life as aquatic insects that molt a bunch of times before becoming adults. When the time is right, they climb up vegetation and undergo an incredible metamorphosis as you saw above. Left behind as skeletons of their earlier life are the delicate structures that remain on the vegetation for quite a long time.

I’m always amazed when I discover one atop another, and as far as I know it’s all just a matter of this being a good spot to go through the change of life.

What are these? Cruiser Dragonfly Exuvia above a Darner.

Also recently emerged as indicated by the still cloudy wings (and fact that I saw the exoskeleton a few inches away) was another that wasn’t a damsel or a dragon. Instead, it has the longest and thinnest legs that look like they can hardly support the abdomen, but they do. In flight, people often mistake them for Mosquitoes, but if such, they’d have to be considered giant Mosquitoes.

As it turns out, however, they are not, nor do they bite. In fact, in their adult stage, which only lasts for ten to fifteen days, they do not eat. Anything. Their sole purpose at this stage of life is to mate.

What is this? A Crane Fly.

I have saved my favorite for last. Oh, I think they are all fascinating, but this one . . . oh my. Notice that needle-thin abdomen and the zebra-like appearance of those long, skinny legs. I think they have at least three joints which give each leg a zigzaggy appearance.

The legs become important as it flies through the air–or rather drifts. Or maybe swims would be a better verb to describe its movement. You see, each leg is hollow. And each foot (a teeny, tiny tarsomere) is filled with air. Crazy? Yes. As it lifts off, it spreads its legs, but barely moves its wings, and disappears into the vegetation beside the brook in a ghostly fashion.

I’m really not sure how I spotted it, but I’d never seen one before and then this past week twice it made its presence known and I felt honored for the meeting.

What is this? A Phantom Crane Fly. (And if you hear me say Phantom Midge while we’re walking together–feel free to correct me. It’s like birch and beech, and so many others–my mouth jumps before my brain kicks into gear.)

Insect Awe. Who knew I would ever experience such. I can only hope our paths cross again soon.

Stop, Look, and Listen

I’m a wanderer both on and off trail, and sometimes the path has been macadamized. Such was my following this morning as I paused on the way home from running an errand in North Conway, New Hampshire.

I’d stuck to the backroads on my way out of state to avoid road construction on Route 302, but knew that upon my return I wanted to stretch my legs along the Mountain Division Trail in Fryeburg.

The delightful four-mile rail trail, so named for the railroad line it parallels, intended for walkers, runners, bikers, roller bladers, etc., extends from the Maine Visitors Center on Route 302 to the Eastern Slope Airport on Route 5 and can be accessed from either end or several points between.

The wind was blowing and the bug count low, so though it wasn’t a warm, sunny spring day, it was a purely enjoyable one. And the cheery cherry flowers enhanced the feeling.

All along the way, it seemed, the Red Maples had not only leafed out, but yesterday’s flowers had magically transformed into today’s samaras that dripped below like chandeliers.

Lovely tunes and chips were also part of the landscape and I have no idea if I’ve identified this species correctly, but I’m stepping out on a branch and calling it an Alder Flycatcher. I’m sure those who know better will correct me. The naming isn’t always necessary, however. Sometimes, it’s more important to appreciate the sighting, the coloration, and the sound. For this bird, it was the dull olive green on its back that caught my attention.

And then up above on the other side of the track, it was the “Cheery, Cheery, Cheerio” song that helped me locate the American Robin in another maple raining with seeds.

Maples weren’t the only trees showing off their flowers, and those on the Northern Red Oaks reminded me of grass hula skirts below Hawaiian-themed shirts.

Even the ordinary seemed extraordinary like the Dandelion. Each ray of sunshine was notched with five “teeth” representing a petal that formed a single floret. Fully open, the bloom was a composite of numerous florets.

Nearby, its cousin, the early blooming Coltsfoot, already had the future on its mind and little bits of fluff blew in the breeze.

Eventually, I reached Ward’s Pond and after scanning the water found a Painted Turtle seeking warmth. The day was overcast and there was a bit of a chill in the strong breeze. Being down below the trail, at least the turtle was out of the wind and I had to assume that the temperature was a bit higher than where I stood.

This is a trail that may look monotonous, but with every step there’s something different to see like a Pitch Pine showing off three generations of prickly cones. What was, is, and shall be all at the tip of the branch.

It seemed like every time I looked to the left, such as at the pine, a sound on the other side of the trail caught my attention. And so it was that I realized a White-tailed Deer was feeding on grasses behind a fence by a now-defunct factory (so defunct that the roof had collapsed under the weight of snow). Notice her ears.

And now look at her again. A deer’s ears are like radar and she can hone in on a sound by turning them.

I don’t know if she was listening to me or to the Eastern Towhee telling us to drink our tea.

After 2.5 miles, I decided to save the rest for another day and follow the path back. Though loop trips are fun, following the same path back brings new sights to mind, like the Interrupted Fern I’d walk past only a few minutes before. Notice its clump formation known in the fern world as vase-like.

And the butterfly wings of its interrupting leaflets covered with sporangia. My wonder came with the realization that within the interruption not all of the pinnules or subleaflets were covered with the bead-like shapes of fertility. Spores stored within essentially perform the same function as a seed: reproduce and perpetuate the species. So–is part of the pinnule fertile while the rest remains sterile? Do I need to check back? Oh drats, another trip to make along the Mountain Division Trail. Any excuse to revisit it works for me, though one hardly needs an excuse.

Further along I looked to the other side of the tracks for I’d spotted bird movement. Behind it was the reason–my White-tailed Deer friend. I have a feeling people feed it for it seemed not at all disturbed by my presence, unlike the ones in our yard and the field beyond that hear my every move within the house even in the middle of winter and are easily spooked.

The deer, however, wasn’t the only wildlife on or near the trail. Suddenly, a Red Fox appeared and we each considered the other. He blinked first during our stare down and trotted away.

Passing by Ward’s Pond once again, I stopped to check on the turtle. It was still in the same spot I’d seen it probably a half hour before.

Not far from the visitors center, a Big-Toothed Aspens chose to be examined for the soft downy feel as well as color of its leaves. The various hues of color in leaves during spring is caused by the presence of pigments called anthocyanins or carbohydrates that are dissolved in the cell sap and mask the chlorophyll. As the temperature rises and light intensity increases, red pigment forms and acts as a sunscreen to protect the young leaves from an increase in ultraviolet rays.

Because I was standing still and admiring the leaves, I heard another bird song and eventually focused in on the creator.

And so I have the Big-Toothed Aspen to thank for showing me the Indigo Bunting. My first ever. (Happy Birthday Becky Thompson.)

A turtle. A deer. A fox. A towhee. A bunting. All of that was only a smattering of wonder found along the Mountain Division Trail. If you go, make sure you recall the old railroad signs: Stop, Look, and Listen.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

It rained. The sun came it. Rain drops continued to fall. Until they didn’t. Then the temperature rose to a degree we haven’t seen in over eight months here in western Maine. And we melted.

But, with the heat wave came some new visitors, including this male Baltimore Oriole, so named because his coloration resembled the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

The funny thing about Lord Oriole: he’d stopped by a few days ago when I had a sturdy chunk of suet in the feeder. After seeing him, I immediately added orange slices to the offering in hopes of enticing him to return.

And so when he did this morning, I marveled at the fact that he ignored the oranges and chose instead a small bite of the suet.

Adding more color to the yard was a male House Finch. He tarried not long for his gal paused in the lilac bush and then flew past and he followed in hot pursuit.

But I gave thanks to the finch for as I looked for him to return, I noticed movement on the outer edge of the garden below the back deck. Shuffling about the dried leaves looking to glean a meal was a Common Yellowthroat. My very own Common Yellowthroat. Certainly another reason to rejoice.

There was more rejoicing to be done for I eventually found my way to the vernal pool. I realized I’ve been avoiding it lately, ever fearful after discovering a few dead frogs that life had taken a turn for the worse within that small body of water.

But the surprise was all mine when I discovered recently hatched tadpoles resting atop an egg mass. The green color is an algae with which they share a symbiotic relationship. The algae colonize the egg mass and produces oxygen. Being symbiotic, it’s a two-way street and the algae benefits from the eggs by gaining carbon dioxide produced by the embryos. The carbon dioxide is needed for the photosynthetic process. For a few days after hatching, the tadpoles feed on the alga.

Salamander embryos within their own gelatinous also took on that greenish hue due to the same symbiotic alga. My heart was filled with joy for there were numerous masses within the pool, most of them spotted salamander. And now I can only hope that the pool stays wet enough for them to mature and crawl out as their parents did.

Leaving the pool behind, I wandered toward home, but a familiar call beckoned. It took a few minutes for me to locate the creator, but eventually I saw him.

On a sturdy branch parallel to the ground, the Broad-winged Hawk did dine. He also frequently announced his presence with his high-pitched voice.

As a true carnivore, he’s known to eat reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals and even large insects. From my stance, I thought I saw a long tail that didn’t seem right for a vole. Instead, I wondered if it was a snake. I kept expecting to be greeted by one beside the vernal pool and the hawk wasn’t all that far away. I suppose that means that if the salamanders and frogs are able to crawl and leap out of the water, they’d better find good hiding places because this guy and a possible mate have been soaring above for a couple of weeks and probably have a nest nearby.

In the end, it seemed that whatever his meal was, it was lip-licking good. Upon finishing it, he flew south while I trudged across the field to the east. But I suspect our paths will cross again going forward.

All of those finds were spectacular, but . . . one of the best parts of the day–watching Eastern Bluebirds in the yard. I first spied the male in this morning’s rain.

And then late this afternoon, I was surprised to discover that they were both here, the she and the he. For the most part, they stayed out by the stone wall, perched on branches above before flying down to catch a meal.

Then they flew closer to the house and landed atop the feeders where I don’t have any mealy worms that are much to their liking. I hadn’t even planned to still have the feeders out, but with each new day bringing new visitors, I’ve delayed taking them in for the season. That is, until a Black Bear arrives.

But no Black Bears yet. (Just wait, one will probably show up overnight or tomorrow.)

And so . . . Bluebird, Bluebird, through my focus. Thanks for taping me on the shoulder. 😉 And sharing this day with me.

Thrice the Blessings

My mother always said that things happen in threes. It’s a sentiment that has stuck with me and sometimes even haunted me. But when it is good, it is very, very good. And today was one of those days.

Though it was after noon by the time I stepped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, the bird song was on high pitch. The American Redstart’s sweet, yet explosive notes came amidst bursts of acrobatic energy as he flew quickly from one branch to the next and then back again a second later over Stevens Brook.

Twenty feet away, the delightful phrases of the Gray Catbird’s tunes filled the air, but it was his raspy mews that gave away his identity. And suddenly, there he was atop a tangle of shrubs and vines as is his habit. I suspected the nest he shares with his lady was located below.

“Wichety, wichety, wichety,” was the give-away song for the Common Yellowthroat, although I do have to say he was much easier to hear than to see.

While the redstart donned the colors of Halloween, the catbird appeared to be a cat in a bird costume, and the yellowthroat was equally disguised with a black mask.

For a few minutes, I stepped off the bridge and followed the Stevens Brook trail where I was met by a delightful surprise. I spied the mottled leaves before the flowers and my heart sang its own tunes with recognition of the species that I didn’t know grew there.

But the Trout Lily flowers were beautiful with a hint of bronze accenting their yellow petals. Do you see the formation? What may look like six petals is actually a configuration known as tepals for it’s difficult to differentiate between the three inner petals and their surrounding three sepals, which had previously enclosed the flower. Ahhh, language.

And within the center core, the pistil (she’s a pistol of a woman) surrounded by six stamen (Stay men), their anthers rusty red with pollen.

Also sometimes agreeing with the division of three were three tiny Goldthread flowers looking all fresh and perky. And their leaves of three parts that remind me of Cilantro.

And then another that knows the number being repeated time and time again: Jack-in-the-Pulpit or Arisaema triphyllum. The “pulpit” from which “Jack” (technically, the “spadix”) preaches stood between two long-stalked, three-parted leaves.

Further along the trail, I watched a female Hairy Woodpecker foraging for insects on stumps and logs.

A male I assumed was her guy did the same.

And then, though the colors don’t really show it in this photo, I heard another bird sing and by his white hanky in the pocket (a dash of white on his wings, right Molly?) I think I’ve identified him correctly: Black-throated Blue Warbler.

I was grateful not only for the two that I knew, but also the third that I’m just learning.

Other flowers showed off their structures, like those of the Norway Maple. OK, so the tree is invasive and grows prolifically in the park because it was originally planted as part of the streetscape above, but the fragrant yellow-green flowers blew delicately in the breeze. (As will their seeds soon, and thus the invasion).

Another that grows much less abundantly, but always makes me smile is the Striped Maple, an understory tree. And it too had flowers to share so there is hope for more of this species.

Flowering in a different way was the Woodland Horsetail, an equisetum. Its flower was in the form of a cone at the tip. Once its spores have been shed, the cone will collapse.

Insects also were part of the scene and tis the season of Mayflies, this one a subimago as indicated by the color of its wings. Cloudy wings indicated it was a teenager that had not gone through its final morph.

And then, a Great Black Wasp–its translucent blue wings giving it away in the duff. I tried to get closer, but it took off.

Such was the case also with a Mourning Cloak butterfly, which would have given me three insects to share. Do remember that insects have three pairs of legs–there’s that number again.

At last, several hours after I’d begun, it was time for me to leave Stevens and Willow Brooks behind.

But not until I had a chance to enjoy the beauty of Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), which was my initial reason for the journey. Trillium: Latin for tri, refers to the flower parts occurring in threes; llium: Latin for liliaceous, refers to the funnel-shaped flower; and undulatum: Latin reference for wavy, referring to the petals’ wavy margins.

Mom was right. Good things do happen in threes. Along my journey I also had the blessing of chatting with three wonderful women, Becky, Sheila, and Lori.

Thrice the blessings worth a wonder indeed.

Book of May: Identifying Ferns the Easy Way

I love it when people recommend books to me and even more when I discover the the recommendation is spot on. Thus was the case when at the Maine Master Naturalist Board Retreat last month, Beth Longcope suggested Identifying Ferns the Easy Way by Lynn Levine. She’s also the creator of Mammal Tracks and Scat, a life-size tracking guide that I don’t use as often as David Brown’s Trackards. And she has authored several other books.

Book of May

But it’s this newly-released little guide that will find its way into my pack on a regular basis this spring and summer. Within the 74 pages of the 4.5 x 6.5-inch book are simplified explanations with illustrations.

Levine begins with general information about how to use the guide, general tips, and how to observe ferns. Under general tips, I especially appreciated the second: “Ferns that usually grow in clusters will sometimes grow alone.” The key “read-between-the-lines” takeaway is that if we just go by what most books say or people tell us, we’ll become totally confused when we meet an oddball choosing to strike out on its own. Not all ferns have read the books. And that goes for any and all species. It’s best to familiarize ourselves with the various species so that when one does behave in a different manner, we recognize it for what it is.

I also appreciate tip #4, but you’ll have to purchase the book to understand why. 😉

Being thorough with her topic in such a short space, she includes information about the ancient history of ferns bringing them from past to present structures. Their unique reproductive system is also discussed with the life cycle illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

And then, the nitty gritty part of the book. First, she shows how ferns are grouped as once-cut, twice-cut, thrice-cut (I’ve always loved that word: thrice), three parts, and unique. Another sketch, as you can see, illustrates the parts of the blade and defines the terms. I appreciate that at the bottom of page 9, Levine compares the terms she uses with those used by others, aka Leaflet/Pinna.

For those who are visual learners like me, on pages 11-17 are silhouettes for each group of ferns based on their cut type. That becomes valuable information for once you recognize the type of cut, you can simply go to the group pages devoted to it. For instance, Group 1 covers once-cut ferns on pages 18-27. All are denoted by a staggered black tab on the edge of the page, therefore making each group a quick find.

Group One begins with Christmas Fern. For each fern within a category, the reader will find a two-page description with illustrations. The description includes the Common Name, Scientific Name, Where it Grows, Tips for Identification, species it Can be Confused With, and Interesting Notes.

From these, I noted some different ways to consider the fern and picked up some new ID tips to share with others. I did find it funny that what I long ago learned was either Santa in his sleigh or the toe of a Christmas stocking, Levine refers to as an ear on the leaflet/pinna.

Right now, Christmas Fern fiddleheads have sprung forth in the center of the evergreen blades and they are mighty scaly.

Fiddlehead is the term used to describe the crozier shape (like a Bishop’s crozier) of an emerging frond. And not all fiddleheads are created edible. In fact, I know of only one that is. This is not the one. But do note those mighty hairy scales.

Another Group 1 species, Maidenhair Spleenwort. In her tips for ID, I love this line: “Leaflet pairs are opposite each other (like a bow tie).” This isn’t a species I typically encounter in western Maine. In fact, this photo was taken in the Glendalough monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century–in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland.

Under “Interesting Notes” for Rock Polypody, Levine clears up the meaning of the name for me, for though I knew that poly means “many” and pod refers to “foot,” I didn’t understand why the fern should be named thus. “Rock Polypody has many ‘feet’ connecting one fern to the next by their roots.” Now I can’t wait to revisit them.

I chuckled when I read under her tips that Sensitive Ferns grow in large colonies. Indeed.

They are so named because with the slightest bit of cold they turn brown. Levine says it’s sensitive to the first frost, but I’ve noticed it turns brown in mid-August if not sooner, when the nights have that wonderful chill, but we haven’t yet had a frost.

Group 2A are those ferns that are twice-cut and form a vase-like cluster. The first in the group, Cinnamon Fern, like all others, is slowly unfurling and if you head outdoors you might see the splendid display.

Soon, the cinnamon-colored fertile stalks will be visible in the center of the plant formation. But, once they have done their duty and dried up for the season, you really have to look to locate the fertile frond. And Cinnamon Fern can be easily mistaken for Interrupted Fern.

But as Levine reminds us, the give-away is on the back of the leaflet/pinna. By the center rachis, that main part of the frond to which all leaflet/pinna are attached, do you see the wooly tufts? In this neck of the woods, those only occur on the backside of Cinnamon Ferns.

Its cousin, Interrupted is best identified also by its fertile fronds, with the interruptions occurring in the middle of the blade. Levine sees them as butterflies when they first emerge and face upward. You’ll hear that pass through my lips going forth.

Here’s the thing with Cinnamon and Interrupted Ferns in their fiddlehead form. They are both covered in a veil of hair. But at least you know it’s one or the other and once they unfurl, the determination becomes easier.

Levine’s tips for IDing Marginal Wood Fern included a note about the subleaflet/pinnule’s wavy appearance making us think it might be thrice-cut. She makes the point, however, that it belongs in Group 2 because they “are not cut deep enough.”

Do note the spores dotting the margin of the backside.

At last, she comes to Ostrich Fern. This is the one edible fiddlehead that I know of in our area. Notice how bright green it is? And the lack of scales? There’s another clue that you may or may not see in this photo, but it’s also important for ID if you plan to dine for the stalk is deeply grooved. Deeply. Always double-check.

The vase-like form of Group 2A is especially evident in this display of Ostrich Fern, but there is an intruder. Can you name it?

Like Levine states, the “fertile frond may remain standing during the winter.” I took this photo last spring.

Group 2A ends with one of my favorites: Royal Fern. She describes it as having an “airy appearance.” I like that. And again, she uses that bow tie description.

It’s the location of the spore cases that give this fern its name. Curiously, though she says the cluster appears at the tip, she doesn’t mention that they are like a crown on top of a head.

I did find it interesting to note in her “Interesting Notes” that “Roots are a source of fiber (osmundine) that is sometimes used as a growing medium for orchids.”

Group 2B are those ferns that are twice-cut but do not grow in vase-like clusters. Such is the case for the Beech Fern, so named according to Levine because it is common where Beech trees grow. Another thing to pay attention to going forward.

All together, there are seven ferns described in this group.

Group 3 are those that are thrice-cut. Did I mention that I’ve always loved that word: thrice. Say it thrice times. Thrice. Thrice. Thrice.

Lady Ferns are part of this group and their scaliness can be referred to as hairy legs. They also have spore cases on the underside of the leaflet/pinna that remind us of eyebrows.

What I liked about Levine’s description is the following: “Fronds grow in asymmetrical clusters, but it sometimes grows in small groups of just 2 or 3 fronds.”

Group 3 includes five different ferns.

Group 4 consists of those ferns with a blade divided into three parts. The tallest among them is Bracken Fern. If you look closely, you may see a young friend of mine hiding under one.

With this species Levine issues a word of caution about the consumption of Bracken Fern fiddleheads: Don’t eat them. Buy her book and on page 62 you can read why.

While the Bracken Fern grows 3 – 5 feet, most of the other members of Group 4 are rather diminutive in stature, such as the grape ferns. I do love that she notes how the sterile blades range from being finely cut to less finely cut. The illustration on page 65 helps clarify that. You’ll have to buy the book. 😉

A species not included because it’s not all that common in the Northeast, at least in the woods, or rather associated wetlands I frequent, is the Virginia Chain Fern. It looks very similar to Cinnamon Fern, but . . . while Cinnamon has a separate fertile frond that forms in the spring and then withers, Chain Fern’s sporangia are oblong and on the underside. I’ve seen this at Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest and Holt Pond Preserve. That being said, you do have to get wet feet.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you to buy this book. It includes the twelve most common ferns of Maine: Christmas, Polypody, Sensitive, Cinnamon, Interrupted, Marginal, Royal, Beech, Hayscented, Lady, Evergreen, and Brachen, plus a variety of others, most of which we do stumble upon either often or less frequently depending upon habitat.

My favorite local bookstore, Bridgton Books, was not able to get a copy of the Book of May: Identifying Ferns the Easy Way, so I ordered via Amazon on Tuesday and it arrived today.

Identifying Ferns the Easy Way by Lynn Levine, illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, Heartwood Press, 2019.

Lessons from Muskrats and Beavers

Cousins they are, but the semi-aquatic rodents are often confused. Muskrats and Beavers are easiest to identify by their tails, but those aren’t always visible when they are swimming. Typically, a Muskrat’s whole body is visible as it swims, its long, skinny tail sticking out behind. With a Beaver, though its tail is wide, flat, and paddle-shaped, it’s usually only the large wedge-shaped head that we spy.

Today, I had the good fortune to search a friend’s property for both. My journey began at an old beaver pond that’s been devoid of water in recent years, but this year’s snowmelt and rain water have filled the space where an old, yet substantial dam does stand. The curious thing about the dam is that the Beavers built it just above an old man-made dam, or did they? I had to wonder: who came first?

For close to an hour I stood and reflected . . . on the reflections before me and past memories of times spent observing this space. All the while I hoped to see two Muskrats my friend had observed mating last week, but they were a no show.

About twenty-five feet to the left, however, I did note a well-worn hole in a tree.

It must have been a flash of action that first drew my attention to it and so in between moments of Muskrat surveillance, I turned my attention to the snag where a Chickadee did pause.

All the while “Hey sweetie, sweetie” Chickadee songs reverberated through the woodland, and then . . . the bird slipped into the hole and a minute or two later flew out. Hey Sweetie, indeed.

When I finally pulled myself away from the beaver pond, my sense of disappointment for not spying the Muskrats thankfully displaced by the thrill of seeing the Chickadee nest snag, I started to hear a certain high-pitched whistle. I looked and looked but couldn’t locate the whistler, though I did spy a nest in the lower third of the canopy.

And then . . . movement caught my attention and it settled on a snag. A Broad-winged Hawk stayed high, but let me know that this was its territory and I was an intruder.

Not too much further along, it was movement rather than song that drew my attention. I knew I was looking at a thrush, and suspected a Hermit Thrush, but I’ve been wrong before. If you know better, please teach me. What I did note was the eye ring and smudges of brown on the lower breast. Again, I’m open to interpretation.

Eventually I reached another beaver pond of sorts.

There, the Hobblebush bouquet shown its sweet face. In reality, it’s an inflorescence or lacy cluster of tiny fertile flowers surrounded by a halo of showy, yet sterile bracts. Those larger, sterile flowers attract insects while the tiny fertile flowers do all the work of seed production. Nature has its way.

And so do the Beavers. As I moved along the wetland, I noted numerous scent mounds and knew that somewhere out there the rodents were active and making their claim on the place.

Everywhere, their works old . . .

and new . . .

and new again were on display.

In the water, a raft of winter chew sticks provided another indication that the lodge had been active.

But even more evident were the birds, their songs and calls filling the air space.

My favorites were the Yellow-rumped Warblers that flew from tree to tree along the water’s edge.

That yellow. White throat. Black mask. And black and white stripes. What’s not to love?

As I walked out, a Song Sparrow didn’t sing for me, but I loved its contrasting colors among deciduous needles.

And finally a Veery.

So, I went in search of two Muskrats and the Beavers. Perhaps I was too late in the morning to see them. But because of them I was treated to a variety of birds and appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with them and learn a little more about their habitats and habits.

My gracious thanks to M.Y. for the opportunity yet again. I have to admit that I covet your property.

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.