Got Mint? (I do, and a video too!)

Mints are known to attract a wide variety of insects, and I’ve spent many hours watching and documenting the beetles, bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and wasps visiting the mint family plants in my garden. I enjoy my wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), but I definitely have a favorite in the mint family, and it’s Monarda punctata, known variously as dotted horsemint, spotted beebalm, or any combination of those four words. When I try to think about how to describe it to someone, I get all tongue-tied because it’s so pretty and the structure is unlike most other plants that I know.

Each stem holds whorls of small yellow tubular flowers dotted with maroon (thus the name), and below each whorl of flowers are large showy bracts (they look like leaves) that can be purple, pink, white or yellow. Sometimes as I’m watching insects crawling all over the various levels of a stem, I imagine it as an insect condominium tower, with everybody going about their own business on a different level.

I have just a small amount of dotted horsemint in my native garden, and most of it has been in a pot for the last three years. I grew some plants from seed, and then I’d bumped the seedlings up to small pots that are meant to biodegrade. The idea is that you can just put them in the ground in the pot, without risking the soil falling away from the roots when you unpot them. So I put several small pots in a larger planter and intended to put them in the ground at some point, but they did so well that I decided to leave well enough alone. And now that I see how well it’s doing in a planter, I may try to get a few more planters of it going so I can have them right beside the patio and keep a closer eye on the insect activity.

I spent some time the other day trying to photograph more of the insects who were feeding (and doing other things) on this wonderful native plant. I saw many of the “regulars” and met a couple new species, much to my delight. So let’s see who’s been to visit.

My happy place, with my camera on the ground beside the dotted horsemint.

The easiest to photograph are the large wasps who are here every day, the great golden digger wasp (1″) and the great black digger wasp (1.4″). They allow me to sit very close while they explore every nook and cranny of these complex blooms.

Great black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus)
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

This was the first time I’ve ever seen the noble scoliid wasp, and I watched a pair of them feeding and mating.

Noble scoliid wasp (Scolia nobilitata), the first one I’ve ever seen!

An ambush bug lay in wait, hoping for a meal to wander close enough. I didn’t see him (her?) catch anybody while I was there.

Pennsylvania ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica) – shhh, pretend you can’t see him.

As I started to get bored watching the ambush bug sitting motionless, there was other motion nearby. I’ve seen this little character enough times that all I had to see was something ‘weird’ twitching around and I knew who it was. The camouflage looper caterpillar uses pieces of flowers to disguise itself and protect it from predators. I’m not sharing my first shots with you because the caterpillar was so well dressed that I didn’t think you’d be able to see him through all the fancy stuff. I went back a little while later and he was out in the open, where I was able to get a much better shot. But…I’ve just discovered that I took those pictures without the memory card in the camera — haha, one of the perils of not yet being familiar with your new camera. So here’s a picture of another one from another day.

Camouflaged looper caterpillar, on black-eyed susan on a different day

Isn’t he smart? When this caterpillar grows up, it’ll become the wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata), a lovely little green moth.

I wonder if the ambush bug was wishing he could reach that caterpillar?

And now I give you the pièce de résistance from the “mint extravaganza,” a wonderful beetle that doesn’t even have a common name. Meet Macrosiagon limbata, and tell me this doesn’t remind you of two stag reindeer facing off for battle with their huge racks of antlers. Aren’t they fantastic?!

Until a couple weeks ago, I’d never seen these beetles anywhere, let alone in my own yard. But they’ve become regular visitors to this patch of horsemint now. I’d assumed my earlier sightings had been females, and when I saw these two with their big antennae, I assumed they were males. But it looks like the one on the left is ovipositing (laying eggs), so I’m really not sure what I’ve got here. But a few minutes later I saw a pair of them mating, so there were definitely both sexes present. (Another photo I took without a memory card…sigh, you would have loved it.)

When their larvae hatch, they’ll sneakily hitch a free ride on a bee or wasp, and when they get back to the host’s nest, they’ll disembark and burrow into the larvae in the nest. This practice of babies eating babies is very common in the insect world, as I’m learning.

I hope you enjoyed this focused study of the life that’s happening on a single plant. I’ve written about this a couple times before — the most recent was Thirty Minutes Under an Elm Tree. Last week was my secret staycation, and I spent it with limited contact with other people, focusing instead on my home and garden and quiet study of the insects who live here with me. It did me a world of good, and I feel refreshed and happy. Sitting on the ground in my garden was a perfect way to end the week, with gratitude for the natural world.

I have one more surprise to share with you before I go, but it has nothing to do with dotted horsemint. After I finished my outdoor photo session, I walked in the garage and found this adorable jumping spider (maybe Phidippus putnami) on top of my trash bin. He’d caught a leafhopper for his dinner, but he had to tolerate me holding my phone in his face for a minute before he finally chased me away so he could eat in peace. I almost edited off the last couple seconds of blurry footage, but I thought you’d like to see that I’m apparently afraid of a tiny, cute spider charging me.

Thinking About Wind

We need to sing with all the voices of the mountain
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind

~~ Lyrics to “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas)

Do you ever think about wind? The other day I was browsing my archives and realized that I often make videos of plants blowing in the wind. I never go out intending to focus on the wind, but the fact that I find it interesting enough to record it makes me think that I should consider why I do that.

On the day I made this first video I’d gone to a local Nature Conservancy plot to look for a specific butterfly. If I’d known it would be this windy, I probably wouldn’t have made the trip over there. But even though there were few butterflies able to navigate the gusts that day, I found myself enjoying the feeling of being buffeted by the strong breezes.

Standing in a wide open space with the wind swirling around me gave me a feeling of peace and freedom, I think. And it reminded me of the strength of the forces of this amazing planet. Obviously wind can do enormous damage, but it can also be a source of renewal, can’t it? So many of us spend far too much time breathing stale indoor air. Being outdoors on a windy day also makes me feel younger somehow; maybe it reminds me of those childhood days when we were allowed to play outside during a heavy rain, giggling as we stomped in the rivers of water that ran down the edges of our sloped road, and feeling the wind as it blew water in our faces. (By the way, when was the last time you stood in the rain on purpose? I have an intense desire to do that right now. Do you think my neighbors would think I’d lost my mind if I sat on my garden swing in the rain? I might have to find out….)

A day with gentler breezes at the same Nature Conservancy property

And maybe I’m just being sentimental because I’m approaching one of those birthdays that end in zero, and I’ve been very much preoccupied with feeling older lately. This is the first birthday in my life that has knocked me down a bit, and I can’t wait to get past the day and move on. I know it’s just a number, as they say, but it feels significant this time. I’ve developed a sense of urgency about making sure I do the things that make me happy. No longer will I do things just because other people want me to — this is my life and it’s about time I stopped worrying about the expectations of other people, gosh darn it. 🙂

But I digress. Let’s talk about the wind some more. I found this little clip I made a couple years ago of the breeze billowing the curtains in my sunroom on a spring day. Every time I get to enjoy a day like that in this room, I feel a deep sense of contentment. So grateful to have this space.

And it won’t surprise any of you to find that I made a video of a green darner with its wings braced against the wind.

I hope you get a chance to feel the wind on your wings (or face) soon.

The Peace of Wild Things

Blue sky and clouds at Maumee Bay State Park

Today was a gorgeous March day in the northwestern corner of Ohio, with the temperature rising to about 70F and south winds of around 15-20 mph. This is the kind of day that gets naturalists excited around here, because those south winds can usher in waves of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

During spring migration, as birds arrive here at the shore of Lake Erie, they take time to rest and feed before continuing their journey across that massive body of water. That gives us wonderful opportunities to see them in large numbers in fields, woodlots, marshes, and on the beach. And that’s why northern Ohio is a world-renowned migration hotspot, and explains why you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a birder.

But birds aren’t the only migration story in town. Some of our dragonflies are migrants too, and the first green darners have finally begun to show up in the Toledo area this week. It’s no secret that I await my first dragonfly sighting each year impatiently, and this year was no different. But this week was especially difficult, as my mother went in the hospital on the same day that a good friend went into hospice. Thankfully my mom is home and doing well, but I’m mourning the passing of my sweet friend Susie, who left us this weekend after a long battle with cancer.

Today I was in dire need of some intensive nature therapy, so I headed out to the Lake Erie marshes for some healing. I hoped to see my first dragonfly of the season, but even if I didn’t, it would help me to be out there immersed in the drama of spring in the animal world.

Painted turtle crossing the road

My first encounter was this little painted turtle sitting on the road at Magee Marsh. It’s common practice around here to help a turtle or snake off the road whenever possible, so I stopped the car and walked up behind him to encourage him to continue moving. He hissed at me (thanks?) and quickly scuttled off into the grass. I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from the car waiting behind me, and continued driving toward the beach area. I’d felt so helpless all last week, so I felt a bit of happiness that I’d been able to save the little reptile, at least.

When I met Susie four years ago, she said we should be friends so I could teach her about nature. And so that’s what I did. I took her birding at Magee during spring migration, and helped her start to learn the warblers. I introduced her to my birding friends, and showed her caterpillars on our hikes. She was a joy to be around, full of enthusiasm and optimism, and with an ever-present smile. She seemed to become instant friends with everyone she met, and I admired how she did that.

I saw three killdeer standing on the road, and remembered how we’d had lunch on the beach there, watching killdeer running around on the sand. I loved teaching her about birds that were so familiar to me. Seeing so many animals on the roads today made me think about how animals live without any awareness of death and how near it may be. I recalled the beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, and realized that I was seeking the ‘peace of wild things’ today. (You can listen to Wendell Berry read his short poem, The Peace of Wild Things, here.)

Killdeer on the road, discussing who knows what

How freeing it would be to not have any awareness that your life would end one day. The birds and turtles go about their lives, doing what they need to do and avoiding danger as best they can, but they don’t think about the inevitable end of their lives like we humans do. I envy them that.

As an immature bald eagle circled above the beach, I thought of how each day last week passed in a blur, a spiral toward…something…moving too fast and too slowly at the same time. I desperately wanted Susie’s pain to stop, but the thought of a world without her smile was hard to accept. She was like a big sister to me. I will miss her dearly, but will long remember how she modeled bravery and optimism for me.

Immature bald eagle soaring over me at the Magee Marsh beach

I’m filled with gratitude for the time she was in my life, and it’s my hope that I enriched her life as much as she did mine.

Oh, by the way, I did find my first green darner of the year today. I would show you a photo, but it was flying fast, and my pic was so blurry it could be mistaken for one of those so-called Sasquatch photos. Instead, here’s a photo of Susie and me having some fun with Sasquatch a couple years ago. Just look at her smile — I bet you can almost feel how wonderful she was.

Wee Folk Wednesday

Faeries, come, take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame!

~William Butler Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” 1894

In my last post I wrote that I regretted that I hadn’t continued my fairy photo project, so I headed to the woods today to remedy that.

The pumpkin fairy and the gnome are old friends, so when she found him napping with his sheep on a bed of moss, she stopped by for a visit. “What,” you say, “gnomes have sheep?!” Why yes, they certainly do. At least in my enchanted forest.

The violet fairy made her first visit to the woods today too. She rescued one of the errant sheep from this mossy mountain, and soon returned him to the gnome’s herd. I would assume he’ll be grateful…when he wakes from that long nap. (It’s strange that every time I come across that guy, he’s sleeping.)

Speaking of sheep that need rescuing…these two somehow got stuck on fungus mountain. Since the fairies were busy and the gnome was, well, you know…I helped them down.

It may seem silly for a grown woman to be playing with fairies in the woods, but this little project helps take me out of my head when it’s too “grown-up” in there. And it sure does entertain passersby in the woods (“What is that crazy lady doing with those sheep?”).

I hope this brought a smile to your face today. Happy Wee Folk Wednesday!

And the Trees Hugged Me Back

I went for a walk in the woods in the late morning last Wednesday. I knew it would be a long and stressful day as we endured planned protests to the certification of the electoral votes for our new president, and I was trying to do some self-care to keep my stress level in check. Every new day seems to push me to what feels like a new limit to my endurance, and I worry about the long-term health consequences of constant high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in my body. I really miss being able to go to the gym.

On this walk, I stopped often to look skyward and enjoy the feeling of being comforted by the trees “hugging” me. Maybe they’re repaying me for all the times I’ve hugged them?

I’ve been off my photography game lately, but on this day I decided to snap some cell phone photos of mosses and lichens. At this time of year they’re a welcome pop of color in the mostly-brown-and-gray woods. I don’t know much about these organisms and can’t identify most of them, but I love looking for them.

On this walk I found lots of large trees with moss socks going up several feet from the ground. I often stopped to pet them and enjoy the tactile aspect along with the verdant feast for the eyes.

This tree is wearing a moss sock
A wood fern, another nice green surprise in the winter woods. (Maybe dryopteris genus.)

As I drove home from my walk, I turned on the radio and heard the news of the domestic terrorists invading the US Capitol. I finished my drive in a state of shock, anxious to get home and see what was on the tv news. I remembered that I had ended my last gratitude post with a statement that now seemed like a dare: “Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.” I have to take that back now…we were not ready. At. All.

I think this is the first time I’ve photographed this particular lichen. It appears to be one of the rosette lichens in the genus Physcia. It occurs to me that this might be the reason I’ve been craving mint chocolate chip ice cream…you see it too, right?

And here we have a lichen sitting on a soft bed of moss. The moss is a plant, but the lichen is not. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, allowing the fungus to benefit from the photosynthesis ability of the alga, and thus retain a constant source of nourishment. (At least this is how I understand it at a very basic level.) Luckily for me, it’s not necessary to understand the science in order to enjoy them.

I need to get back on board with my fairy photo project soon. I used to carry little fairies and gnomes with me so I could pose them on big mushrooms or tucked into beds of lush moss. That project gave me a lot of pleasure, and it should be one more thing I continue to help keep my mind off of all the scary things that I have little or no control over. I hope you remember to take good care of yourselves too. I can highly recommend being hugged by trees.

Brooding

As the days have ticked away on the countdown to Election Day, I’ve found my mood alternating between an almost breathless panic and an odd calm. I don’t sleep much, and when I do, I have nightmares. It’s unsettling, to say the least. This afternoon, unable to focus on the project I should be working on, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head.

The mood on the prairie at 3:30 this afternoon

I bundled up against the cold wind and headed for the prairie. With my earbuds tucked under my hat, listening to a soothing musical playlist, I quickly got lost in my thoughts. Before I knew it, I’d made several loops around one of my favorite trails. Not ready to come home yet, I stopped for a moment to sit on a bench and contemplate what might happen tomorrow, and how I might cope with each outcome.

I looked up, lifting my hand to shield my eyes from the bright sun, and was struck by the beauty of the clouds. I think this might be what’s called a mackerel sky, and if so, it’s supposed to be followed by changing weather. One can only hope so, at least when it comes to the political climate in this country. I know I’m not alone in being exhausted by the never-ending vitriol and chaos. I long for the days when we could go about our lives without having to worry every day about the next affront to decency and humanity coming from our own government.

Trees reaching for the clouds

We may not know the outcome of the election for days or even weeks, but whatever it is, I hope there will be some way for us to begin healing. I hope our leaders will begin to lift us all up together. I hope we can mend the torn relationships with friends and family.

I hope…because without hope, all is lost.

I leave you with a short video that I’ve titled, hopefully, “The Winds of Change.”

Today I’m Grateful for…a Squirrel

In this trying time, I’m finding how important it is for my mental health to have something to distract my mind from the endless “what if” thoughts spiraling around my head. I lucked into my first “mental health project” of the day this morning, when I walked into the kitchen and my sleepy eyes caught movement in the yard.

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A mouthful of leaves and newspaper

Last fall I put down layers of newspaper to create some new beds in my native plant garden. This fox squirrel has discovered that the paper makes excellent nesting material, and she’s been grabbing mouthfuls of it and running up the neighbor’s oak tree to refurbish her nest. (It could be a male as well, but I’m just going to pretend it’s a female.) She’s also mixing leaves into these bundles, and I’m extra glad I didn’t rake all of my leaves last fall.

That’s the view of the big oak tree from my kitchen window, with the nest circled in red.  The nest has been up there for at least a year, and I’d never been able to get photos of the squirrel actually using it. I’ve seen blue jays go up there and poke around the underside for insects, but it’s so high that I can’t really get good close pics of anything.

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I watched her make several forays up the tree and back down to my yard, using the power lines and my fence as convenient highways. (There’s video below these photos.)

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Snowflakes were falling as the fence gecko tried to sneak up on the distracted squirrel. That colorful lizard was left by my home’s previous owners, and I quite enjoy having it there, especially in winter when it adds a pop of color to a mostly-gray scene.

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Halfway between the ground and the nest, aware that I’m watching her.

I wonder if this is the same squirrel I watched flipping over my freshly-filled bird feeder yesterday? I ran out of regular bird seed, and all I had left was something from Wild Birds Unlimited called Bark Butter Bits, in the pepper-laced variety that is supposed to be unpalatable to squirrels. The squirrel went from one feeder to the next, inspecting each container and finding the same nasty surprise in it. I think the flipping over of the feeder was an act of revenge on me for not serving up the food she wanted. If squirrels were the size of humans (or even of dogs), we’d be in such trouble!

If you have your sound turned on as you watch these two videos, you’ll hear robins chirping, and my resident cardinal singing. (And you might also hear my microwave beeping…oops.) In this first one, she tears the paper and then runs rapidly along the top of the fence.

This last video shows her running from the power lines to the tree and then up to the nest.  She ran too fast for me to keep the camera on her, but I tried.

I was thinking of ending my bird feeding for the season (I only feed in winter), but now that I’ll be at home most of the time, I think I’ll go get some more seed today, before they close the rest of the businesses here in Ohio.  (I assume that’s the next step in fighting the coronavirus.) I think watching my feeder birds is going to become an important “mental health project” for me in the coming weeks.

I hope you find some good projects to keep your mind busy through this period of isolation, and I’d love to hear about them.

A New World

It’s been more than a month since I’ve written here, and my gosh, how the world has changed in that time. Six weeks ago I could not have imagined the reality we’re living with today, as a frightening pandemic sweeps the globe. In just the past week, Ohio has ordered the closing of all schools (for at least three weeks), as well as all bars and restaurants (except for take-out orders). People have been hoarding supplies of toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, and bread, as they try to come to grips with an uncertain future.

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Fungus on tree trunk – maybe milk-white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus)?

We’re all scared and confused. We’re told we should stay at least six feet away from other people who don’t live with us. I began my own “social isolation” immediately after getting a haircut last Friday, and it’s already starting to drive me crazy. I usually love being single and living alone, but I’ve discovered that there’s a huge difference between choosing to be alone and being forced to do it. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to cope with a deep loneliness that’s settled over me. Today I finally started reaching out to friends, because I realized that many of them may be so absorbed in their own lives that they forget about those of us who don’t have a built-in support system in our homes. It’s going to be up to me to admit when I need someone to talk to, but that’s hard. I told a friend today that I feel a little bit of shame that I feel so lonely. But I’m determined to fight those feelings and get the support I need to get through this. And I swear, when this is all over, I’m going to organize my friends for the biggest group hug ever.

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Tunnels made by some type of boring insect

When the world was “normal,” my calendar overflowed with things like board meetings, field trips, lunch dates with friends, and yoga classes. Within about three days, all of that was wiped clean, as almost everything has been cancelled for at least the next two months. I feel adrift, unsure what to do with myself.  Right now my brain is too distracted to do much reading or writing, two of my favorite things to do.

I quickly realized that the solution for getting me to the other side of this crazy time is going to be, not surprisingly, the natural world. Nature is really and truly going to be my therapy for the foreseeable future. I’ve got to double down on my Big Bug Year, and use that to focus myself on something other than my fear. It’s still a bit early for much insect activity up here though, and so I’ll just go for walks and do some birding until the bugs are active again. The photos in this post were all taken on my walks over the past few days. Despite how it feels in the human world, the natural world is proceeding without regard to our problems. Plants are starting to send out new growth and birds are beginning courtship rituals.

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Dried seed heads of mint — I can’t resist crushing them and inhaling!

The other day, as I unloaded groceries in the sun-infused kitchen, I watched a squirrel at my bird feeders. He was performing his normal acrobatics to raid the bird feeder, and I found myself envying him his ignorance of the human world’s troubles.  While I look at my email filled with notifications of events being cancelled and businesses closing, the squirrel just keeps reaching into that feeder and basking in the sun.

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Seed pod of a wild cucumber

Each morning as I drink my coffee, I’m serenaded by the boisterous songs of the male cardinal in my yard, with backup from the muted cooing of the mourning doves. The beginning of spring bird activity is always a welcome sign at this time of year, but it’s especially important this year. To me, it’s a reminder that life will go on. It may seem that chaos reigns everywhere right now, but when I pay attention to what’s happening in nature, it calms me. When I’m focused on the natural world, my breathing slows and I know my blood pressure probably goes lower as well.

Lately I’ve been enjoying the loud performances of chorus frogs in vernal pools. Sometimes they’re so loud it sounds like there could be thousands of them. And yet I can’t find a single frog! Here’s a short video of one of their performances:

I hope you’re able to get out in nature often in the coming weeks as we settle into a new normal of reduced human contact. If you’re on Facebook, I would love it if you would share your nature experiences on my blog’s Facebook page.

Be safe out there, and be kind to one another.  It’s going to be okay.

 

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

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Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

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Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

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Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blog v3
Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

I’m Exhausted and We’re Just Getting Started

Magnolia Warbler - Magee 2018 (2) w sig
Magnolia Warbler

Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.

My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:

Hooded Warbler - Metzger 2018 (2) w sig
Hooded Warbler

Kentucky Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Kentucky Warbler

And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.

Cerulean Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Cerulean Warbler

At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.

The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.

Standing beside me in this photo is Katie Fallon, author of Cerulean Blues, a book about the plight of this declining species.

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Bay-breasted Warbler at Magee Marsh

I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby. Blue-winged Warbler - Magee 2018

Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.

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Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)

And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.

I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences.  There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.

I’m so thankful that I discovered birds —  the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable.  There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂

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Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)