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.

Looking for Spring

Last night one of the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s volunteer docents earned her certification from the Maine Master Naturalist Program. The MMNP’s goal is to develop a statewide network of volunteers who will teach natural history throughout Maine. With hands-on training, the course provides over 100 hours of classroom and outdoor experience, focusing on geology, identification of flora and fauna, wetland and upland ecology, ecological principles and teaching methods. By the time students complete the program, which includes a final capstone project, they have developed the skills to lead a walk, present a talk and provide outreach. In the year following certification, each graduate agrees to volunteer 40 hours and thereafter must continue to volunteer to remain an active Maine Master Naturalist.

And so it was that Juli joined four of us in the GLLT’s docent group by becoming a certified naturalist last evening. And today, she was out doing what she does best–leading homeschooled families along a GLLT trail. You see, for her capstone project Juli created a group called Nature Explorers. On the second Tuesday of each month (and today’s was the third trip she’d led for this group), other homeschooled families join hers for a walk with a focus along a GLLT trail. Today’s focus: Signs of Spring.

Given the fact that the snow is still at least knee deep, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But the day dawned bright, if a bit chilly to start, and so two of Juli’s kids waited for others by hanging out with the trees. Or rather . . . in the trees.

Once all had gathered, she led us down Slab City Road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

It was there that while we began our search for the season that often begins with a stubborn start in western Maine , we spied something that brought smiles to our faces and awe to our experience. Otter slides. On both sides of Mill Brook. Look carefully and you may also notice the slides–they look like troughs in the snow.

We tromped through (leaving our snowshoes behind, which we sometimes regretted) to take a closer look, noticing where the mammal had bounded and then slid down the embankment.

And then we moved on . . . to observe and learn, including fifty cent words like marcescent, which means withering but remaining attached to the stem. Juli pointed out the dried up leaves on the beech trees.

And the kids joined her to take a closer look–at the leaves, but also the buds, which had started to swell. Ah, sign one!

It was a Witch-Hazel which next grabbed the group’s attention. She explained that while the small, gray woody structures looked like flowers, they were really capsules that go dormant throughout the winter. Those will develop over the next growing season and then in autumn forcibly expel two shiny black seeds about 10 to 20 feet.

One of the boys noticed that the buds were hairy and so others came in to examine the structures.

From there, it was another beech tree to check out, but this time the discussion moved toward the alternate orientation of its branches and leaves.

And then, because they suffer from the best of syndromes we refer to as Nature Distraction Disorder, the group stopped at a Red Pine to admire its bark.

With hand lenses, they focused on the various colors of the thin, puzzle-like scales. Some had fallen to the ground as is the habit of the flakey bark, but Juli reminded everyone that it’s best not to pull it off for bark protects the tree much like winter coats protect us.

It was a fungi that next attracted the group.

And so they pulled out the lenses again to look at the spore surface of several Birch Polypores growing on downed trees. The brownish underside was actually another sign of the season for they would have released their spores in late summer or autumn.

A wee bit further and a wet spot was noted where we could see some brown leaves reflecting the names of trees in the canopy above, but also, drum role please . . .

some greenery with buds beginning to form–in the shape of Wintergreen. One of the girls did point out that though it was a sign of the season, it did have the word “winter” in its name.

Another one of the girls looked up at an old Pileated Woodpecker excavation site, and noted the spider web within that had been created last summer by a funnel-web spider, so named because of the funnel-shaped web. Though no one was home today, the spider typically waits in the funnel for prey to fall onto its horizontal web. Then it rushes out, grabs its victim, and takes it back to the silken burrow to consume and hide in wait.

Since our signs were few and far between, and Juli really wanted to get to Otter Rock to show some fun finds, she challenged the kids to run with her.

They did. And then they slid.

And looked.

And spotted.

And wondered.

And wondered some more.

We’d reached our destination of Otter Rock and though we didn’t have any dipping containers, we made do with lucite bug boxes.

At the edge of Heald Pond, the kids found movement in the water . . .

in the form of Mayfly Larvae, with fan-like gills along the abdomen and three filaments at the tip.

Spring indeed! With that discover, we left with a spring in our steps, already looking forward to next month’s vernal pool exploration.

P.S. Thanks Juli for this wonder-filled offering, and congratulations on your achievement. You are now a member of the nexus of naturalists.