Spring In Our Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from the Master

Through the Maine Master Naturalist Program I’ve become acquainted with the most fabulous people from across the state. And today I had the pleasure of sharing time with a few of them as we participated in a seminar entitled “Down to Earth: Elementary Mapping and Surveying for the Naturalist.”

Our instructor was the one and only Fred Cichocki, MMNP Science Advisor and one of the MMNP founders. In less than five minutes of being in Fred’s presence, one realizes he/she will come away with a variety of ways to create tools of the trade AND more knowledge than anyone can possibly retain.

Today’s mission: learning to map the land on a small scale–in this case by using a planetable survey method.

c-tools of the trade

After an indoor introduction to the idea of simple map making, Fred gave us some literature and supplies.

c-threaded socket

We all felt official when we received our own drawing boards with a threaded socket on the back side so we could attach them to a camera tripod.


With gear in hand, we walked to the farm pond at Chewonki.

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Of course, we were instantly distracted.

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Wood frog egg masses begged for our attention.

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Spotted salamander masses also warranted a notice.

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And I learned about something else–duckweed. This tiny aquatic plant floats on or just beneath the surface. When I first saw it, I thought it was some sort of feed that had flowed into the water after the recent rain events.

c-duck weed and egg masses

It seemed invasive, but did create a rather pretty mosaic mixed in with the egg masses.

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Before we started our mapping task, as a group we walked around the pond and decided where to place pin flags–to indicate a change in the shoreline or a key feature such as a rock or tree. Each flag was marked with a number.

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Then we split into two teams and took turns with the various tasks, including holding the range pole by each pin flag.

c-adjusting the tripod

Meanwhile, across the pond we set our drawing boards on tripods and spent some time adjusting them to be level. We also measured out our first two points–A to B.

c-Cathie casting an eye

With Fred’s guidance, we used our triangular engineering rulers as alidades–straight-edged sighting devices, and a straight pin as a turn point.

c-dick drawing lines

Once we had the range pole in sight, we drew lines on our map sheets.

c-point a to b

From Point A and Point B, two spots we’d all agreed from the start marked a straight edge on the pond, we took sight of each pin flag, drew the related line, and labeled it.

c-thistle weed

Before we went in to do some more work, a few things caught our eyes–our NDD (Nature Distraction Disorder) was acting up again with the sight of these thistles displaying their winter form.

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Nearby, the prickly-leafed rosettes speak to the plant’s future.

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And overhead, two bald eagles played in the wind.

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Back inside, we followed the two sets of lines out and noted their intersection.

c-points 2

Then we connected the intersections with a line that indicated the perimeter of the pond–in theory. Um, in reality, my team was admittedly off. Our beginning scale was longer than it should have been and our table not always level so the pond’s shape was not quite accurate. But just the same, the process had us all jazzed to try again.

the process

We learned from each other and considered future tweaks. (Thanks to Denise for the photo)

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At the end of the day, we were all smiles because we’d spent time learning from the master. Thank you, Fred.