Wonder Wings of the West

When we first met I was certain I knew you from past encounters.

Moving about under a leaf as you did, it was your coloration of yellow and brown bands with a hint of rust that first caught my attention and I bent over to say hello.

Those veined wings of two tones added to my sense that we knew each other well.

On your body I saw no hair, another reason to believe we’d met previously.

And your short antennae added to my certainty.

The way your thorax connected to your abdomen also bespoke your name, or so I thought.

But there was something different about you that made me question our relationship.

That beak of a mouth . . . to whom did it belong?

And below your mouth . . . was that a bug you were trying to dine upon? If so, that didn’t fit the picture of you I’d assumed.

As you held the supposed bug close, I noted that it remained the same size for minute after minute.

The closer I looked, the more I came to realize that it wasn’t a bug you feasted on, but rather it was a part of your body.

In the midst of trying to figure out your identification another flew to the edge of the woodland who also had wings of two tones.

There was no question in my mind that this dragonfly and I had never met before. If only I felt so sure about my encounter with you.

I’d thought from the start that you were a Paper Wasp for everything matched up . . . including your placid behavior. But . . . that insect that I was so sure you held, which didn’t make sense for your kind isn’t predatory, told me you were different. Rather, the bug was actually thick forelegs like a Praying Mantis might have. It was a strange mix of features that you shared, and I can only hope I’ll forever remember your name dear Wasp Mantidfly. You are a strong mimic of the one I thought you might be, but more closely related to the Mantis family.

As for the dragonfly, a Widow Skimmer added to today’s finds of the wonder wings of the west–the west being western Maine, of course.

Hunting the Common

I knew when I headed out this morning that there was one member of the Odonata family that I wanted to meet. But . . . where oh where to find her.

Her habitat includes muddy-bottomed ponds, lakes, and streams, as well as disturbed areas. Hmmm. That should make the quest easy.

With that in mind, I first stopped beside a muddy-bottomed pond that flows into a brook, which at its start more resembles a stream. It is there that Slaty Blue Skimmer and I got reacquainted after so many months have passed since our last encounter.

He reminds me that dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera, which means “different wings” since their hindwing differ in size and shape from the forewings. Those differences may be subtle, but they are there.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I watched Slaty Blue come and go, defending his piece of the shoreline from his family members, I suddenly spied something under the Winterberry leaves: a newly emerged skimmer resting while its wings dried.

And then one shrub over a Racket-tailed Emerald, with neon green eyes paused longer than I expected. (This one is for you, Kate Mansfield Griffith–it doesn’t have the full green body of the Eastern Pondhawk that walked down your Connecticut driveway today, but the eyes were a good match of color, don’t you think?)

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Upon a Pickerel Weed in the water I notice a favorite of mine, this one also recently emerged and drying its wings before taking flight: a female Calico Pennant Skimmer. For some who have been watching, you’ll be happy to know that there were males about, but they were busy and didn’t wish to pose for a photo shoot.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Old friends, like Kate who was one of my first playmates and even if we can’t spend time together we can still share moments of wonder like we did as kids, make themselves known such as this male Chalk-fronted Corporal. I’ve described it before as being kid-like in behavior because its kind love to play leap frog and land three feet ahead of me with each step I take.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I soon leave the pond behind and find myself walking with intention along a woodland pathway and into an old log landing located near another brook. Guess who greets me? Yes, another Chalk-fronted Corporal, this one a female.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

As I continue to look, one with whom I struck up a conversation last summer flew in and snatched a moth before settleing on leaves to partake of the meal. Meet my friend: Black Shouldered Spinyleg, a clubtail so named for its black shoulders and spiny hind legs.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

Next, a Spangled Skimmer with black and white stigma on its wings took me by surprise and I vowed to remember it for no other has the dual-colored stigmas.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

In the shadows I spotted another I’m getting to know this year, the Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly was stunning, but I found it amusing that its common name refers to tiny spots when so much more could have been honed in upon for a descriptor.

How common are you? Very, but not the one you seek.

I was about ready to head for the hills when another dragonfly caught my attention. Okay, so that’s a bit of an understatement as so many more than I’ve shared made themselves known to me and I stood still and watched how they moved, where they rested, and how big their territory was.

How common are you? Very, and I AM the one you seek.

I wanted to find this female Common Whitetail Skimmer because she hardly seemed like an every-day dragonfly to me. Those zigzag stripes on her abdomen. The way each segment stood out more 3-D than most. And those three black patches upon each wing. Words fail to describe her beauty.

How common are you? Very and yet . . . not at all.

I set out to hunt for the common and along the way I met others equally common, but in the end the one I sought was hardly common at all . . . despite her common name.

Transformation of a Different Sort

Late afternoon found me heading to the vernal pool behind our home, mostly out of curiosity for we’ve had a week of dry, steamy days and I suspected the worst.

Not only by sight, but also stench did I know that my fears had come true.

There was merely a drop of water left, hidden below the leaves as it were.

I stood in the center for the first time all year, where the odor reminded me of New Haven Harbor at low tide, though the pool was perhaps more rank. The harbor has a mud-flat smell that entered my nostrils as a youth and has remained in my memory since, becoming that upon which I judge all other such scents.

Directly above, the sky veiled only by the canopy, offered a few clouds to occasionally shade the hot sun, but not a drop of rain was to be felt as has been the situation of late.

The source of the stench was my little friends who unfortunately didn’t get to hop out.

I could only hope that a few did leave the water of their own accord, but sadly most were fried.

All that realized, it didn’t mean the pool was a static place. There were Flesh Flies with brick red eyes who found this habitat of tadpole carcasses to be to their liking.

And Rove Beetles who surprised me with their presence, though they shouldn’t have for they also have a preference of feeding upon decaying matter.

Both the Flesh and Rove moved quickly through the neighborhood, but for a brief second each paused and posed, as if it was meant to be.

Others included the metallic Green Bottle Fly,

a cricket,

canoodling moths,

and a spider or two or many. There were also birds in the canopy and I suspected they were waiting for me to leave so they could bring food home to the nest.

In the midst, a splash of color was offered by the wee Northern Crescent butterfly whose presence perplexed me at first . . . until I realized that the pool still held moisture and other nutrients, and it offered just the right habitat for butterflies who need to puddle or suck the fluid and minerals to enhance their breeding relationships.

Right beside the pool I spied another of the order Lepidoptera in the pupal form of a Viceroy butterfly.

As has happened year after year, the vernal pool didn’t follow quite the path I had hoped since early April when the ice went out, but still, it’s a place where transformations of a different sort occur . . . and despite the demise of the tadpoles, life goes on.

Myrtle’s Morning

Meet Myrtle. Yes, she’s a turtle.

A Snapping Turtle to be exact. Chelydra serpentina is her scientific name: Chelydra meaning “tortoise” and serpentina deriving from the Latin word serpentis, which means “snake,” in reference to her long tail.

Myrtle’s neighborhood is one where carnivorous plants grow in abundance and right now show off their parasol-like flowers.

I spend some time with the old girl who certainly deserves a parasol to shield her from the sun. Turtles of her type don’t reach sexual maturity until their carapace, or upper shell, measures about eight inches in length and that doesn’t typically happen until they are at least seven. Myrtle’s is at least eight inches, maybe even longer, but I didn’t dare get too close and risk disturbing her. Nor do I ask her her age, cuze after all, we women stand together on such issues.

Below her Pitcher Plant bouquet grow its leaves shaped like . . . pitchers and filled with water and digestive juices. Downward facing hairs attract insects into the trap, and once within the pitfall, there is no escape. The prey drowns in the nectar and body gradually dissolves, providing the plant with nutrition it can’t possibly get from the acidic soil in the community.

Myrtle doesn’t really care. Her back legs are busy digging in the sand and it isn’t to plant a garden full of Pitcher Plants.

Also at home in Myrtle’s neighborhood are Crimson-ringed Whiteface dragonflies, the male showing off a brilliant red thorax.

While the dragonfly poses, waiting for a moment before taking flight to defend its territory or find a gal, Myrtle begins to press her front toes down while simultaneously lowering the back end of her carapace.

Within minutes, the male Crimson finds a date and the two become one, so engrossed in each other as such that they don’t really notice what Myrtle might be up to today.

In a form all her species’ own, Myrtle stands up on her tippy toes and moves that carapace up like the bed of a dump truck ready to make a deposit.

All the while, songs birds ring forth their joyous sounds accompanied by the strums of Green Frogs.

Sometimes Myrtle winks or perhaps its a grimace and other times she smiles with absolute glee. That or she captures a fly or a breath.

Another neighbor also uses its mouth for more than just its usual chitter. Despite the acorn in its mouth, Red Squirrel speaks around the edges and greets Myrtle without dropping its great find.

Meanwhile, Myrtle’s back end dips lower and lower.

I offer her a word of warning for I notice that there’s evidence of some neighbors she may not appreciate–raccoons to be exact based on their tracks.

In that moment, however, Myrtle doesn’t give a hoot about who might be lurking in the shadows waiting to dig up the contents of her hole during the dark of night that will fall hours and hours later.

She’s spent over an hour digging a hole with her hind feet and depositing eggs as evidenced by the plop, plop that I hear. Even though I cannot see them, I trust that more than 40 have filled the hole as she continues to dig and tamp, dig and tamp. It will be several months before they hatch and then, even another week at least before the wee ones slip into the water, and the fact that she lays so many is important because truly predators such as raccoons and skunks and foxes and coyotes may help themselves to Eggs Myrtle.

But for today, Myrtle’s morning was the most important thing on her mind and I delighted in being able to share it with her and her neighbors.

As the VP Turns

This drama began in April when the ice started to go out. As always seems to be the case, it’s there one day and buddaboom, gone the next.

Official ice out is considered to be when you can navigate unimpeded from one end of a water body to the other. For this particular pool and its amphibian visitors that day was April 5 of this year.

Those who determined such were the wood frogs for on April 6, their “wruck, wruck” voices chorused . . .

until that is, I approached and then all went silent. This year, for the first in many, the W.F. Chorale had more voices than in the past for so many more had returned to the natal breeding ground than I can previously recall.

According to plan, dance cards were filled out and he, being much smaller than she, climbed atop to grasp her in what was known as amplexus.

By the next morning egg masses had been attached to vegetation and bubbled forth at the surface much like a bowl of tapioca. Slowly they began to absorb water, expanding in size day by day.

As is their custom, the egg masses created a hub about the size of an extra large truck tire for such is the frogs habit of laying and attaching these in the same area, colonial in nature.

Within each orb, life began to take form.

Their life was constantly at risk for other hungry beings knew of their location and paused pool side to consider the choicest treat.

Thrown into the mix were rainy days, which occurred with more frequency at the start of the season, thus providing hope that the water level would remain high for the duration of the story.

Almost two weeks after the adult wood frogs had finished calling and exited the pool to return to their upland habitat, where they spend fifty weeks each year, spotted salamanders paid a visit and the males deposited cauliflower-shaped spermatophores upon which they encouraged their lady friends to dance.

As is their custom, he led her to one of these sperm packets and she picked it up through her cloaca, the opening amphibians use for breeding, egg-laying and waste. She then fertilized the eggs internally.

Where the wood frog egg masses consist of a bunch of individual eggs all gathered together in a bumpy matrix numbering up to 1,500/group, salamander masses are enclosed in a gelatinous coating and consist of 50 to 250 individual eggs.

By the next week, tadpoles began to emerge and really it’s all about timing for a larval spotted salamander might feed on the larval frog, thus the latter are granted a brief reprieve in which to develop.

In the midst of it all, others also experience life in their larval form including mosquitoes who first wriggle through the water column and later tumble in their pupal form before hatching into their biting selves.

As the spotted salamander embryos grew . . .

so did the tadpoles.

Within two weeks, the salamanders bodies begin to take shape in their individual homes.

And then a week later, they began to emerge much like their frog counterparts.

Seven weeks after the ice officially went out, the pond teemed with life of those hoping to mature into the future.

Metamorphosis continued as young ones began to take on their adult forms.

But still, there were those with whom which to contend . . . including the larval form of predacious diving beetles.

It’s not just the predators, either, that need to be acknowledged for once the April rains ended, the dry season started and the water level drastically declined leaving stranded egg masses on the edge.

As a hope-filled human, I tried to intervene and moved some to deeper water.

Meanwhile, there were no signs of any salamanders, but the wood frogs did grow.

And fed voraciously upon the green alga that has a symbiotic relationship with developing eggs in one of those “I’ll feed your stomach if you’ll feed mine” manners.

With each new day, the tadpoles took on their adult features. But . . . where were the salamanders?

By today, June 12, despite yesterday’s downpour, the water had diminished significantly and still I hadn’t spotted any of the gilled beings.

And then, I did. They were more leaf-like in color and thus harder to see, but they were there, though hardly as abundant as the tadpoles.

It finally began to make sense, the number of eggs within a mass and the number of egg masses. Really, this pool could be considered significant by state standards for there were more than 40 wood frog masses and more than 20 spotted salamander egg masses, either of those a number to be considered in its own right, but . . . the pool isn’t natural. It was dug long ago to serve the purposes of the farm that once was.

To produce so many progeny makes sense for despite the fact that it seemed to be teeming with life, its own life is short lived. How many will actually hop or crawl out before the pool dries up?

I suppose to that end, it also made sense that some resorted to cannibalism.

What lightened the moment was when a Black and White Warbler stopped by to take a bath.

Drama plays out constantly and I’ve only covered a few snapshots of it . . . as the vernal pool turns.

Stepping Up A Notch Mondate

Today’s hike meant we had to drive about thirty minutes north to an old favorite, but though we’ve hiked it a bunch in the past, we had no idea what to expect–including meeting my friend Rachel Pickus and her friend Eleanor on the trail.

Not long after we began hiking, we discovered a lone lady’s slipper and fondly thought of our discovery last week of over 200 of these beauties. The special thing about this one was that not only was it a solo but also pure white . . . a variation of a pink.

Offering other colors to the mix in the mixed forest were a couple of red-belted polypores, the name truly a misnomer for the belt along the outer margin was whitish-orange, but can also be yellowish-orange, red, brown or white.

Flitting about at our feet whenever it seemed the sun shone through the canopy were tiny blue butterflies known as Spring Azures. Though named for the season in which they are one of the first to fly, they’re known to be on the wing until autumn so keep your eyes as wide open as theirs for a one inch flash of blue at your feet.

Within a short time we reached a beaver pond that was most active with dragonflies and the banjo strums of green frogs than beavers.

To cross, one must get a wee bit muddy along the beaver dam where a few large tree cookies have been added this year as stepping “stones.”

As we moved across, the frogs who were calling did leap away, except for one who channeled its inner chipmunk and froze in place, perhaps in hopes that we wouldn’t notice. Can frogs hope? Or is that one of those most people of things?

Upward we climbed, though really, the trail is moderate in difficulty. But speaking of difficulty, check out the root of this hemlock tucked as it was inside the rock. Hemlock rock. Hemrock?

And then there was the snag of an ash tree. So you see the scar? That hollowed out part? Many of the trees along the trail exhibited such scars for the area had been logged years ago by the United States Forest Service given that we were in the White Mountain National Forest (and actually met a forester on the trail). Why the scars? Because trees pulled out of the forest would have been dragged past these and injured them in the process.

But . . . again a sign of hope if trees can hope. Or rather, if snags can hope. For this ash still had roots participating in the flow high and low of fluids and an errant compound leaf grew out of the bark.

It wasn’t long after that that I once again realized my guy has an eye for the ladies. Or at least their slippers. And odd fetish indeed. But we began to count.

The count continued as we ventured out to the ledge of a spur trail and Kearsarge North showed off its pyramid form in the distance.

Continuing to climb, we soon met a friend in the form of a Racket-tailed Emerald dragonfly.

They’re known for their metallic green thorax with brown hairs, black legs, and clear wings. with a wee bit of yellow and black at the base of the hindwings. In their simplicity, they are truly beautiful.

And speaking of beautiful, have you noticed Tiger Swallowtails everywhere of late? This one sought the nectar of chokeberry in bloom.

While I noticed the butterflies and dragonflies and trees and fungi, my guy focused in on the ladies of his dreams. By the time we’d reached the summit and ledges beyond, he’d counted many.

As we took in the view at the last cairn, and the peak on his back matched the peaks beyond, he commented that a week ago he never expected to spot so many lady’s slippers and today he added 150 to the count. I never expected him to slow down and count. Two hundred last week. One hundred fifty today. We definitely stepped it up a notch on this Mondate.

Mondate with the Ladies

Our afternoon adventure began beside a brook in western Maine where the wildflowers and mosquitoes do thrive.

We looped along beside the water, enjoying the sound of it and each other’s voice flowing forth, rhythm and tempo matched.

Occasionally I’d say, “Wait a minute,” from behind for so stunning were the sights including Clintonia (Bluebead Lily) and . . .

even a lingering Painted Trillium or two.

But soon it became apparent who the biggest star of the show at our feet might be. I think it was a mention that so many Lady’s Slippers were spotted along a short section of a Greater Lovell Land Trust trail over the weekend that got my guy going and suddenly he pointed out every moccasin flower within sight to me.

Along the way he saw other interesting things like a burl on a birch that could have been two small bear cubs.

I pointed out an Indian Cucumber Root in flower and decorated with drops from rain and hail that fell upon us occasionally as the sun shone, but the blossom didn’t seem to excite him as much as it did me.

Instead, pure white flowers offered their rendition of a Pink Lady and he didn’t let it go unnoticed.

After a few miles we reached the pond for which the mountain in the background was named and enjoyed the view, knowing that a mile or two later we’d be at the summit looking back toward the very place where we stood in the moment.

Onward we continued and so did the Lady’s, which found my guy saying, “If you told me I’d be counting 150 Lady’s Slippers today, I’d say you were crazy.” But so we did. And then we counted more for we found a huge patch.

“Thirty-one right here,” he said. And with that he felt quite satisfied for he knew he’d far surpassed the weekend count on another trail. Ah, nothing like a little competition to keep this guy going.

At last we reached a bog crossing at the end of the pond and then followed the trail uphill.

It was here that others garnered our attention such as a young chipmunk that dashed up a tree as my guy passed and then turned to look back.

Chipster paused as we stood, then dashed down the tree and disappeared into a hole in the leaf litter.

Onward and upward we journeyed into the land where the slippers weren’t as abundant, but still there were a few.

At last we reached the summit where the pond below formed a heart in our mind’s eye and we gave thanks for the fact that we can get out and hike and never spot another person. All that and as we descended there were more Lady’s Slippers to add to the count.

On this Mondate with the ladies my guy was amazed to spy so many and I was amazed that he enjoyed the sight of every one of them.

Bug Bar

On a steamy spring afternoon beside a local river the residents harkened a notice. And so, of course, I did.

Dangling like ornaments decorating hemlock trees the Mayflies did hang.

Their discarded exuviae offered a different presentation of segmented bodies and tails of length.

Here and there, newly emerged graced the same twigs of their former life style.

Many had already lived out their lives and succumbed as is their manner once mated, some upon the water’s surface. Others seemed to struggle and perhaps it was their turn to move from this life to the next, but I thought I should at least offer a finger for rescue, just in case there was a wee bit of life left to fulfill.

I let my friend free upon a shrub in hopes that I had done right by it, knowing all the while that I shouldn’t intervene, but . . . how can one living being not at least try to save another?

When it later landed upon my pants I was sure it smiled. Wait, adult Mayflies don’t have mouthparts so how could that be possible? But still . . .

Beside the water’s edge there were others who graced the scene including this giant Cranefly with wings so intricately designed.

An Assassin Bug waiting for dinner upon which to dine.

And a Frosted Whiteface Dragonfly with a penchant for mosquitoes so welcome and fine.

But the crème de la crème of this landscape was the sight of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies numbering in the teens.

Their behavior so grouped was caused by their penchant to “puddle.”

Mainly the males of the species will stick their proboscises into mud puddles or, as was the case here, scat. Otter scat to be exact. It provided a source of nutrients and fluids needed, especially sodium necessary for reproduction and flight.

While the Mayflies couldn’t take advantage of the offerings, each of the rest stepped up and placed a different order . . . at the Bug Bar.

My Other Favorite Season Begins

It’s been a yard work kind of weekend for my guy and me, but in the midst of it all, the habitat that this is kept drawing my focus. Oh, I shoveled more piles of dirt than I care to count and shook it down as many times as my guy did to separate the rocks from the loam and raked it all into place and did it all over again for hours on end, but in between I did what I love to do on days such as this. I stalked.

I stalked insects including mimics.

And wee ones like sawflies.

And ants trying to bring spiders home for lunch.

And miniature wasps pausing on blueberry bushes.

And hoverflies seeking nectar from azaleas.

And then. And then. An Eastern Forktail damselfly upon one of those mounds that we were working on.

And then . . . the crème de la crème for the weekend: a female Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly.

My other favorite season is officially underway. Bring on the damsels and dragons. And everyone else in between.

Before Spring Leaps Away

Spring. How can it be that she marches in as expected yet takes us by surprise every year? Oh, we expect the buds to burst, flowers to blossom, birds to sing, and all forms of life to give birth, but still . . .

It never grows old to worship her display that transforms our world of winter’s gray and whites to subtle reflections changing with each dawning day.

Life forms long spent hiding in the mud suddenly emerge to bask in the sun.

Some listen dubiously as their male counterparts sing the ok-a-lee songs.

Others tuck into their surroundings, seeking warmth among foliage both old and new.

There are those who weave.

And others who appear to dance upon webs woven.

While fall is most often revered, spring begs to be noticed as more than a novice for as often as autumn occurs does her vernal season come before.

In so doing, she seems to combine the colors of both fringe seasons as if it came naturally. Because . . . it does.

Within seconds of opening her fountains of the future, pollinators find a fine source of nectar.

And those who teach gather to announce a local cooking class.

Into the woods and beside the waters I travel on almost a daily basis and with each tramp, life begs a notice.

Sometimes it’s in the form of a green pretending to be a tree–frog that is.

Other times it’s a female fairy shrimp who doesn’t seek the attention of a male, much to his dismay, because the brood pouch at the base of her abdomen is already full of future life forms.

And there are other signs of the future as seen in spotted salamander embryos forming and mosquito pupa tumbling.

Predators such as the predaceous diving beetle make themselves known because when you stay in the same neighborhood for a period of time, bumps in the road, or pool as it may be, are bound to happen.

Despite such roadblocks, life happens . . . in abundance.

Over and over again, the sunshine above . . .

finds its form in the forest floor below.

Sadly, it’s all so fleeting. I want it to stop. To pause. We’re all in pause mode right now and though we miss so much of the past, the present is a beautiful thing . . . if only we could hold onto it . . . before the spring that marched in leaps away.

Firsts of May

Spring springs forth each year and yet I always find myself greeting its gifts as if for the first time. Such was my journey today as I met a few old friends along a path near, you guessed it, a wetland.

My first moment of awe occurred beside a Beaked Hazelnut. These are the first of the shrubs to flower with their teeny tiny magenta ribbons that may look large because I zoomed in with my lens, but typically the petals fall off as the leaves emerge. And so it was with great joy that I could honor this particular flower today and note that said flowers will eventually become the beaked fruits filled with the most desirable of nuts. And those new leaves–oh my. They were a close match for the flowers in gaining my attention.

And then in the shadows I saw another who garners notice in every stage of its development as well. Those pleated leaves. That crazy beautiful flower structure.

In the sun’s rays, another Hobblebush showed off its incredible flowerhead taking more shape with larger sterile flowers on the outer edge and the smaller fertile flowers just beginning to gain their shape.

And if that wasn’t enough, as is the situation along many a trail right now, an American Beech cotyledon sported its embryonic leaves. Okay, so this was the second day in a row that I saw such, but still . . . it’s always worth celebrating.

The lower set of leathery embyronic leaves remind me of a butterfly and appear before the tree’s true leaves make themselves known. Part of what intrigues me about these seed leaves is that they contain stored food. Eventually these food stores will wither and fall off.

I also love how the word cotyledon (cot·y·le·don \ ˌkä-tə-ˈlē-dᵊn ) flows off my tongue, much like marcescent, which describes the leaves of this same tree that cling, wither and rattle all winter long.

There was more for everywhere I looked a variety of fern crosiers sprouted from the ground, this particular array belonging to either cinnamon or interrupted for they both are similar at this stage. The morning was cool, but it appears that this fern has it covered–literally, with a hairy coating for its head and legs and a cape styled by an errant leaf.

As if that wasn’t enough, another tiny flower showed off its stamen-studded head. You’ve heard of Goldilocks. Meet Goldthread.

It wasn’t just the shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns that begged to be noticed, however. My only wish is that I could share sound and action with you, but in its place, color. First I bring to you a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

And then a Blue-headed Vireo.

There were also Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Phoebes, and so many more. But the Blue-headed had my eye. Don’t you love its eye?

I was almost done with my tramp when I spotted one that I know going forth I’ll photograph a trillion times. Is there a problem with having a trillion photographs of trillium? My guy thinks so, but . . . I don’t agree. And so today I began by honoring Stinking Benjamin, aka Red Trillium, with the first photos of the season.

There was all that and then . . . on the way home a bird beside the road caused me to back up. One can do that in western Maine. This American Woodcock and I spent a few minutes together, but just when it turned to show off its long beak two cars whizzed by and it scampered into the undergrowth. Perhaps we’ll meet again, but if not, I was grateful for the opportunity.

On this sixth day of the month I gave thanks for the firsts of May.

Bugged by the Otherworldy

There was a time when insects bugged me. Apparently, I’m long beyond that for though I morn the loss of snow and tracking season, I can’t wait for insect season to begin. Ah yes, that is, except for the blackflies, aka Maine’s state bird, or so they should be. But even the blackflies I can endure because I know that they provide food for actual birds and for other insects such as dragonflies. By now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to present a series of dragonfly shots. Not today, but that day will be upon us very soon for in the natural world everything seems to be on time and there is no such thing as The Pause.

Pause, however, I did beside another wetland setting today in a spot where my boots slowly sunk down into the sphagnum moss for the longer I stood the deeper they went, and the stoneflies crawled, their veined wings showing off a stained-glassed window naturally.

If you look closely at the tip of the abdomen that curves out from under the wings, you may see the cerci or paired appendages. They are one of the clues to identification and sighting stoneflies is a great thing because they are intolerant of water pollution.

Of course, when one is looking one sees . . . caddisflies everywhere, though because I was in a different wetland habitat today as compared to yesterday’s vernal pool journey, the shelter of choice differed. Notice how this caddisfly’s home resembles the equisetum upon which it climbs.

But at the risk of boring you with too many caddisfly photos, I moved on (after taking too many caddisfly photos). About an inch to the left, that is. And that’s when I spied a mayfly larva with cerci of three. The thing with mayflies–they can have two or three tails. At this stage mayflies are called nymphs or naiads.

Eventually I made my way over to some false hellebores and what should I spy at the tip of one? A teenager! Well, not exactly, but the subimago or dun form of a newly emerged dragonfly. Notice the cloudiness of its wings–a clue that it isn’t an imago or adult. Mayflies are the only insects that I know of which also molt as adults. Once the final molt occurs, the clear-winged adult will live for a day or two, mate, lay eggs, and then become part of the detritus upon which they fed as nymphs.

Checking the next false hellebore was worth it not only to embrace the design of the ribbed leaves, but hiding within–yes, another subimago.

Again, the cloudy wings were the giveaway.

At a different spot along the water’s edge, a giant of sorts scanned the scene in hopes of snagging a meal. Yesterday I looked for giant water bugs. Today I found not one, but two. My next hope is that someday I’ll get to see a male carrying the nursery his mate deposits upon his back.

But then another sight forced me back into the world of the mayflies for I spotted the exuviae or cast skin of . . . a mayfly larva. Can you see where it split at the top (bottom actually) of the structure.

And just a few inches away, the one who had just emerged from aquatic life . . .

found its feet and began to march toward a new life . . .

as it tried out its balance in the terrestrial world.

Being bugged by insects is one of my favorite ways to be. Even if there are some who annoy or predate, they are all still worthy of our wonder for they each bring something to the natural world–otherworldly or otherwise.

Aqua World

It’s never the same, any visit to a wetland or vernal pool, and such was the case today when I got my feet wet in three different aquatic habitats.

The first was at the edge of a wetland that borders a local lake and it was there that the crazy little springtails taught me a lesson.

I’d gone to see what I might see and first it was a spider, mosquito larva and a few springtails that caught my eye.

But then, I began to notice white springtails floating across the watery surface. Oh, and a water bug of sorts climbing a submerged twig.

For a bit my focus turned to the latter as I noticed his antennae and legs.

And for a second, I considered him to be a small grasshopper, but that didn’t make sense for he was in the water, after all. For now, he’ll remain a mystery until I gain a further understanding.

But then I turned back to the springtails in pure white form. They didn’t move. How could that be? Was I missing something? Or were they actually the molted skins of some of the slate-colored ones that did jump about? My later learning: Some springtails can molt up to forty times, leaving behind white exuviae. After each molt, the springtails look the same.

While watching them, something else caught my eye–a small circle . . . with a thousand legs.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a millipede in the water before. Moist places like our basement, yes. But swimming? Perhaps I just haven’t paid attention.

Or perhaps all the rain that graced our world yesterday caught this one by surprise.

With that find, it was time for me to take my leave.

But my next stop brought pride to my heart.

And I found myself promising a hundred million tadpoles that I will keep an eye on them since their parents have left the nursery unattended. As their surrogate mother, I’m going to worry each day and pray the water doesn’t dry up, the garter snake doesn’t return, and that these little ones will be able to mature and hop out.

A little further on at another vernal pool I met more caddisfly larvae than I ever remember meeting before.

Each sported a log cabin built of shredded plant material and I got to thinking about how they carry their houses with such agility.

Each is a wee bit different and some are messier structures than others. As I watched, one actually flipped over a few times and I finally realized it was adding another layer to the building.

A few took it upon themselves to meet at a social closeness we’ve come to avoid of late, for this one long structure is actually three sharing the same space.

Even the mosquito wrigglers, such as the one in the upper-right-hand corner, captured my sense of awe today. And all of these species got me thinking about their good works. Most feed on algae, detritus and other organic material, so yes, even mosquito larva should be celebrated.

Aqua World–it’s a wonder how it works.

I’m in Frog Heaven

The ice went out on the vernal pool in our woods on April 5th and by the 6th the wood frogs were singing their love songs and egg masses had already been attached to fallen branches.

Once I spy such I become addicted to visiting the pool on a regular basis to keep an eye on the activity. As much as I’d love to bring some home, I know that that would interrupt the natural process and so I do the best I can by peering into the water.

One of my great finds early on turned out not to be as extraordinary as I first thought. What I thought were blue spotted salamander egg masses slowly morphed into wood frog masses. They were laid out like sheets on the floor of the pool rather than attached to sticks as is normally the case. But it didn’t all make sense as up to the point that I spotted those masses, I hadn’t seen any salamander spermatophores.

Daily visits to the pool garnered a better understanding and about two weeks later not only had the spotted salamanders left their deposits on the pool floor . . .

and the next day their eggs on sticks . . .

but the so-called blue-spotted suddenly began to look more like wood frog masses with tadpoles developing inside. Perhaps they were laid at the very edge of the pool by young wood frogs just getting the hang of the annual ritual.

With the help of my son who works for a film editing house in Manhattan, I’ve pulled all of this together into a video so even if you can’t get to a vernal pool, perhaps you can enjoy the magic of this place for a few minutes by clicking on the link and watching: Are You in Frog Heaven?

There’s so much more to come and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the action.

In the meantime, why not create a Frog and Toad Chorus as you stay at home.

In the amphibian world, males sing as a means of attracting a mate and defending a territory.

Here’s how to conduct your own chorus: Assign a species to various family members who will imitate the sound as best they can. Have fun leading your gang as you control who “sings.” And then head outdoors to see if you can identify the species based on your knowledge of the songs they create.

Wood Frog: quacking duck or wruck, wruck in early spring

Spring Peeper: high-pitched peep-peep in early spring

American Toad: sustained trill lasting up to 30 seconds (from your lips or throat), early to late spring

Green Frog: throaty gunk! like banjo strings, late spring – early summer

American Bullfrog: deep, resonant rr-uum, or jug-o-rum, late spring – early summer

Gray Tree Frog: slow, musical bird-like trill lasting 2 or 3 seconds (use your lips or tongue), late spring – early summer

Are you in Frog Heaven? I know I am.

Earth Day 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all Skipper really wanted to do was play.

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

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

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

And their molting deer friends browsed nonchalantly behind them.

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

The scuffle continued across the field first to the left.

And then center stage.

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

paced while the other two continued to fight.

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

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

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

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

Easter Parade 2020

Back in the before, our Easter celebration included a simple breakfast, church service, and gathering with family for brunch or lunch before a short afternoon hike. But that was then. The now is controlled by forces beyond our understanding. And so . . . today’s celebration was much simpler, yet possibly more eloquent in nature. The morning’s highlight included decadent treats from Craft Patissiere scored yesterday at Lovell’s improvised farmers’ market. After that, time spent together listening to Bishop Thomas Brown’s remote homily brought tears to our eyes as we recognized the significance of the good works my guy, his employees, and so many others have been doing this past month, many quietly performed behind the scenes.

And then it was time to pack a picnic lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, the ham cut from last night’s dinner, and created upon sourdough bread from Fly Away Farm, also scored yesterday thanks to Justin and Jenn Ward of Stow, Maine. The sandwiches I placed first in bees wax wrap created by Sierra Sunshine, The Barefoot Gardner, and then in sandwich wraps that came from groundcover, a former shop in town that we already miss. Water bottles filled and lunch packed, including a couple of dark chocolate treats, and we were on our way.

Our destination was the seven mile parade route where babbling brooks struck up the marching band, joined at various points by song birds, beaver slaps, and drumming grouse.

Spring’s cheerleaders performed their routines with pompoms created by flowering red maples.

Teeny, tiny beaked hazelnut flowers topped their catkins like minute magenta threads were used to sew costumes for the performers along the route.

Floats were varied and included boulders with attempted splits,

springs long ago sprung,

and yields 24/7.

Decorations were varied with scales being a major part, including those that resembled rattlesnakes in appearance.

Some, such as leatherleaf, showed off shiny silvery scales above and rusty below–gems sparkling in the day’s light.

Others included scurfy witherod buds, exposed as they were between yellowish-brown scales.

In their presentation, the witherod proudly showered drupes of old fruits, raisin-like in appearance to the gathered crowd.

Providing more good cheer to the day were the marsh rose hips–offering a hint of yesterday with the bright hope of tomorrow encased within.

Giving a springy green appearance to the parade was the sight of false hellebore, its pleated leaves ready to add texture to the mix.

On this Easter Day when we all have found ourselves experiencing social and physical distancing, Trailing Arbutus, aka mayflower, offered one more sign of hope as its buds expanded.

We found lunch log overlooking the route,

somehow avoided the crowds as we traveled between stone walls,

viewed rocky floats from the parade stand,

and ended the day beside a brook where the beavers are quite active.

Every Easter celebration is different, but this one of 2020 will stand out among the best as we gave thanks along the parade route–thanks for being able to appreciate the offerings made more meaningful in the moment. We can only hope that “the after” is influenced by our decisions made in “the now” rather than a return to “the before.”

The Dividends of Noticing

We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I have to wonder if all of our physical/social distancing, and stay-at-home orders may actually have a silver lining. Think of the creative initiatives underway to help others; the reaching out that has become an essential component for many. And think about how all of this is affecting the natural world as we travel much less and spend more time noticing the action in our own backyards.

What have I noticed? For starters, nature didn’t get the directive for social and physical distancing and so as they do, semi-aquatic springtails gathered upon stagnant water as well as in the leaf litter. The mob scene was initiated by phermones sent out by adults, perhaps as a way of saving their lives in herd fashion. If you look bigger than you are while you feed on dead organic matter, algae, spores of mold and mildew, and pollen on the water’s surface, perhaps your enemies, such as spiders and beetles, will reconsider your fate.

What have I noticed? A spider paused briefly before journeying on toward a goal. That goal? To eat some springtails? Spin a web for future meals? Carry out a courtship ritual with a mate? Our time together wasn’t long, and while I moved forward so did it, though less conspicuously for there was plenty of natural litter to hide its progress.

What did I notice? Because I was looking down so much, that is when not looking up trying to spy all the birds chiming up their orchestral instruments from the tops of the hemlock trees, there were other things to see like this vole tunnel and hole. I placed the quarter for size and wondered if the creator survived? Voles are everyone’s favorite food and so typically they spend the winter in what’s called the subnivean zone, the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack, which allows them to move about without being spied by their predators. Once the snow melts, the tunnels they’d created as they fed on roots and grasses and seeds become visible.

What did I notice? I don’t know the vole’s fate, but I do know how the story ended for the hickory tussock caterpillar. Well, rather, I think I know. There’s so much I don’t know, but I do love trying to figure it out. My theory is that it waited too long last fall and a cold snap zapped the life out of it before it could wrap itself in a cocoon.

What did I notice? Life was certainly happening for some, like the underwing moths that chose to “puddle” on fox scat. While they get most of their nutrition from nectar (which must be a challenge right now), perhaps they found sodium as they probed that could serve as a gift should either of them find a fair maiden.

The name “underwing” comes from the fact that while at rest, the brighter wing color of their hind wings doesn’t show. Granted, the brighter color appears on the upper side of those “underwings.”

What did I notice? The hairy buds of Shagbark Hickory were growing larger by the day and each wore its own set of pastel colors. The colors reminded me of the inner part of an oyster shell.

What did I notice? The furry catkins of Pussy Willows begged to be touched, and if everything else wasn’t already giving the message that spring is on, these certainly did.

What did I notice? It wasn’t only the insects, spiders, birds, and buds that were the harbingers of spring, but the acorn also had a message to deliver in the form of a new root: Life will continue; and perhaps because of the challenges so many face, we’ll come out on the other side better persons for it–on behalf of each other and on behalf of the Earth. That would be one of the greatest dividends of noticing.

Transitioning with my neighbors

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

On sunny days, water scavenger beetles swim about in search of a meal to suit their omnivorous appetite.

Preferring decaying plant and other organic matter as the ideal dinner menu are the mayfly larvae. Some call them nymphs, others know them as naiads.

To spot them, one must really focus for they are quite small and blend in well with the bottom debris, but suddenly, they are everywhere.

And then, another enters the scene, this possibly one of the flat-headed mayflies. If you look closely, you may see three naiads, two smaller to the upper far left and lower on the stick to the right. In between is the larger, its paired gills and three tails or caudal filaments easier to spy because of its size.

Switching to a different locale, a winter stonefly, its clear wings handsomely veined, ascends fallen vegetation on its tippy toes and my heart dances for this is probably my last chance to see one of these aquatic insects until next year. Then again, none of us can predict the future.

In the mix, green insects move and I surmise by their minute size, shape and coloration that they are leafhoppers all set to suck sap from grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Who else might live here? Why a caddisfly larva in its DIY case.

Of course, no aquatic exploration is complete without sighting mosquito larvae somersaulting through the water.

And a wee bit away from the watery spots, the pupal stage of a ladybug, a form that has perplexed me for months. It is my understanding that motion stops and so does feeding, the insect scrunches up its body and color changes . . . but the transition should last five to seven days–not since last fall. Or perhaps this species has a lot to teach me about waiting and what is to come.

Another one for the books is a translucent green caterpillar not much more than inch-worm size that I discover clinging to a red maple twig only hours before snow descends upon the setting.

Mind you, I also spotted three crescent or checkerspot butterflies, their small orange and black wings adding a quick flash of color as they flutter across my path.

And then my mind shifts, as it has a lot in the last few weeks, and between patches of snow and a fresh snow fall, I welcome the opportunity to remember others who share this space, including an opossum amidst the turkeys and deer.

Following a Tom turkey who seemed to walk with determined speed, I get to meet another neighbor and note by Tom’s toe print that his path intersected with that of a coyote after the predator had passed by. Phew for the Tom.

After all, he has a job to do. Suddenly, I note a change in his pace, which slows down considerably based on the closeness of his feet. And then I spy wing marks on the outer sides of the prints and know that he is in display mode. The curious thing: on average, he takes ten steps, then displays, takes ten steps, then displays. I know this because I counted, over and over again. But then . . . he must hear his lady friends for he makes an about turn.

And struts his stuff.

I’m not sure they are impressed for they move on and head in the direction of other neighbors, specifically a squirrel and porcupine. Others presenting tracks include chipmunks, snow lobsters, I mean snowshoe hares, moose, and a bobcat.

This is my little space on the Earth and I love spending time trying to understand it and find out more about my neighbors.

Watching over all of this action is a Fox Sparrow, whom I greet as a welcome visitor, knowing he’s on his way north to the boreal forest.

Like him, we’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Recipe for a Mondate Dessert

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Prep Time: Four hours, including a six-mile hike.

Baking Time: Varies, based upon pace.

What you’ll need:

Birch burl bowl.

Birch bark baking sheet.

Red pine whisk.

Ingredients:

One slightly chewed Red-belted polypore.

A midden of spruce cone scales; be sure to discard the “cobs.” Any seeds will provide a bonus.

A year-old Striped Maple leaf as a sweetner.

A clump or two of reindeer lichen for texture.

A single Blue Jay feather for color.

And a bear claw tree for high fat content.

Directions:

Combine the fungus, ground spruce, striped maple, lichen, feather, and fat in the mixing bowl.

Beat rapidly in order to incorporate brisk fresh air.

Cream until the right texture is achieved.

Drizzle more water into the batter.

Keep an eye on its consistency, added more as necessary.

Pull the whisk straight up and down to form stiff inverted peaks.

Pour a glaze over the top.

Place it in the oven knowing that you put your heart and soul into the recipe.

Hike to the summit and beyond. After stopping for a PB&J lunch break out of the wind, check the oven.

Tada. The perfect dessert rising before you. Topped not only with the glaze, but a few snowflakes as well.

(View of Round Mountain from Long Mountain in Albany, Maine. If you go to this quiet place, do beware of ice underfoot.)

Ides Bog'ling: Beware. Be present. Be still.

When the world goes haywire, the perfect antidote is a day spent outside soaking up the sights and sounds and sun and most of all, fresh air.

Today, that spot offered so many sights including Mount Washington’s snowy covering in the great beyond.

And Pleasant Mountain’s ridgeline at a closer range.

But the sights also included selections much smaller such as Buttonbush’s winter structure–offering a half globe rather than the full orb of its summer form.

And Rhodora giving off its own glow as with buds and flower structures waiting in the wings.

What’s not to love about an infusion of color to the late winter/almost spring landscape.

Speckled Alders, their male catkins growing long below the females, also bespoke the season on the horizon.

Having developed last summer, the males are slender spikes of tightly appressed scales. Above, the females are more bud-like in manner. Both persist throughout the winter and soon will bloom before summer leaves appear.

While new buds showed off their reddish faces, last year’s alder “cones” remained woody in form. Not truly cones for those grow only on conifers, there is a strong resemblance. Thankfully, Mary Holland of Naturally Curious explains the difference best: “Angiosperms, or flowering plants such as Speckled Alder, produce seeds that are enclosed within a covering (the ovary), whereas gymnosperms (conifers) have un-enclosed or “naked” seeds. Alder “cones” open to release seeds in a manner similar to many conifer cones and, like most cones, do not disintegrate immediately after maturity. Female flowers/catkins of Speckled Alder, if fertilized, will develop into ‘cones.‘”

That said, there were some of last year’s structures that showed off a much different form. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were Alder Tongue Galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins.

Other sights included Morse Code representations of the dot dot dash work created by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers upon many a birch.

I traveled this day with a friend and in our quest to clean out the innermost recesses of our lungs, we walked across ice, snow, mud and through water. it was totally worth the effort to get to the other side.

For on the other side, we encountered Maleberry shrubs with ornaments of a different kind.

Each had been sculpted in a unique manner, but we suspected all resulted from the same creator.

Our best guess, after opening one or two, was that some insect had created a home in the Maleberry leaves last fall but once again, we were stymied by a new learning and suspect the lesson hasn’t ended yet.

As our journey continued, we suddenly found ourselves in the presence of wind dancers for so did the marsescent White Oak leaves appear.

On the ground we found a comparative study between the White and Red Oak leaves, their lobes and colors bespeaking their individuality.

And upon some of the White’s saplings, another gall of this place–Oak Marble Gall. Growing in clusters on twigs, they turn brown in maturity and their emergence holes show the site of escape for mature adults who flew out in the fall. They are also called oak nuts.

Today’s sights included the landscape and its flora, birds of the trees such as nuthatches and chickadees, plus those of the water including woodducks, and sky birds like two eagles we watched circle higher and higher until they escaped our view. We also found bobcat and coyote scat. And then in some mud, signs left behind by others such as the raccoon’s close-toed prints.

Among the raccoon track, there were also plenty of bird prints that we suspected belonged to crows.

And in the water beyond, a rather active beaver lodge.

On this day, my friend and I slipped away into the land beyond known locally as Brownfield Bog, where we at times were boggled by the offering of this Ides of March. Beware. Be still. Be present. It’s the best way to be. Be.