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. My earlier sightings had been females, and when I saw these males acting aggressively toward each other, I knew the females must be nearby. And sure enough, a few minutes later I saw a pair of them mating. (Another photo I took without a memory card…sigh, you would have loved it.)

After mating, the females will lay their eggs on the plant. When the 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 Putnam’s jumping spider (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.

1999

“Life is just a party, and parties aren’t meant to last.” ~ Prince, “1999”

Hepatica in the woods

It’s that time of year again, time to hurry up and see the spring ephemeral wildflowers before they’re gone. Every year at this time I’m reminded about how we place so much importance on things that aren’t here for very long. Think about rainbows. Warblers during spring migration. The cherry blossoms in Washington and Tokyo. Hepatica rising from the leaf litter in the woods.

We have festivals to celebrate these things — well, except for the rainbows (as far as I know). We eagerly anticipate them and cherish memories about them when they’re no longer present. If warblers were here all year long like blue jays, would we appreciate them as much? If you could look out your window and see a rainbow every day, how long would it take for you to start taking it for granted?

My opening quote from Prince’s song “1999” popped into my head recently as I was admiring a vast swath of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) on one of my walks. I’ve read that those flowers only bloom for three days.

This party on the forest floor definitely doesn’t last long!

One of the earliest hoverflies to show up each year is this narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus), and they’re plentiful wherever I find spring beauties. Notice the five pink anthers on the flowers, as well as the pink lines that serve as nectar guides that…well, guide pollinators to the nectar, of course.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another spring flower that has a very brief bloom time, but it leaves behind its hand-sized, deeply-lobed leaves as a welcome consolation prize for us. In the photo below, you can see the single flower stem standing in front of the leaf. At night or on a cold day, that big leaf wraps itself around the flower like a protective emerald blanket. Even when I’m out on a cold day, I can enjoy seeing these because I know there’s a beautiful flower inside those tightly curled leaves.

Bloodroot leaf waving at me

And here’s a bloodroot flower blooming, with the leaf gently curving around it.

The back of the bloodroot leaf is yet another interesting part of this plant.

Speaking of leaves, take a look at the speckled ones of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen the flowers of this plant, but I get lots of enjoyment from the leaves all by themselves.

If you’re like me when you think of the word ephemeral, you think of things like those I’ve just written about. But what about our lives? Aren’t we also ephemeral relative to the grand scheme of things? You and I are just here for the blink of an eye, at least in terms of the age of our universe. We do often hear people say that “life is short,” but I don’t think that phrase really captures what I’m thinking of. Considering our lives as ephemeral in this way is reassuring to me, as someone who tends to take everything too seriously and think too much about things that really don’t matter in the end.

Greater bee fly feeding on a bloodroot flower — check out that proboscis!!

This line of thinking leads me to considering nonconformity, and what it means in a social species like homo sapiens. A couple years ago I wrote an article about nonconformity and how it feels when you don’t fit the mold of what your society expects you to be. I included a quote from an author who said humans are basically just monkeys in clothes, and who cares if the other monkeys judge you? That quote has been in my mind lately as I look out over the beautiful yellow flowers dotting my front lawn, knowing that most of my “perfect lawn” neighbors probably think I should be using chemicals to kill them. I know dandelions are aggressive non-native flowers here, but I really think they’re beautiful on the green grass, and they help the early pollinating insects when there’s not much else for them to feed on yet.

This is NOT my yard…but so what if it was?

So yeah, I’m a monkey and I’m only going to be here for the blink of an eye. So why not just do what I think is right, and enjoy the party? Let the other monkeys judge me if they must.

As we celebrate Earth Day this week, I hope you find time to go out and appreciate the ephemeral beauty of spring wildflowers or migrating warblers in their breeding plumages.

Cape May warbler at Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio

Life is Good in Toledo

A couple months ago I mentioned that Metroparks Toledo (“Metroparks”) had recently been named the best park system in the country but I want to expand upon that little tidbit today. I just participated in a volunteer meeting on Zoom, along with about 150 other volunteers who help make our park system the gem that it is.

The volunteer coordinator staff expressed appreciation for all we do, whether it’s monitoring invasive plants or breeding raptors or dragonflies (me!), or being a trail safety monitor, or helping with the manor house at holiday time, or any of the hundreds of other things that volunteers do for Metroparks. It felt good to have our contributions acknowledged like that, and it made me proud to be part of it.

One of the many rustic trails in Oak Openings Preserve

The story of how I ended up here is long and complicated, but I’ll just say that it’s ironic that I settled down in a place that I used to scorn as I drove through it on my trips back and forth from Michigan to visit my family in southeastern Ohio. For 15 years, I drove past the city thinking it looked kind of…um…uninviting. From the highway, you see big, dirty oil refineries, and lots of other industrial stuff associated with the major shipping port activity that goes on here (cargo ships and railyards). But if you get off the freeway and look beyond that, you discover that this city has a lot to offer, even when you’re used to living in much larger cities with their ample cultural and recreational opportunities.

Grapeleaf skeletonizer moth on yarrow – Oak Openings Preserve

We’ve got a wonderful art museum with free admission, a zoo, a symphony, community theatre, the University of Toledo, the beloved Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball), lots of ethnic restaurants, and so much more. I’m not much of a sports fan these days, but I absolutely adore our art museum and community theatre. But the thing that made me decide to move here was the metropark system, hands down. And seeing the park system continuing to shine as it is, well, that helps to reinforce in my mind that I made a good decision. Recently I was reading a thread on social media in which somebody claimed that Metroparks were an important factor in convincing people to move to Toledo. Somebody else mocked the idea, and I just couldn’t let that stand…so I stepped in to set him straight by telling him that I, in fact, am a person who chose this city primarily because of the fantastic park system. So there.

Pileated Woodpecker, Oak Openings Preserve

In recent years, Metroparks has been telling us they had a goal to build a park within five miles of every resident in Lucas County. At the end of last year, with the opening of Manhattan Marsh in north Toledo, they achieved that lofty goal. It’s hard to keep track, but I believe we have about 20 metroparks now. And they’re not done yet. They’re nearly finished with the first phase of a new park on the riverfront in downtown Toledo; Glass City Metropark will eventually be part of a majorly-renovated riverfront along the mighty Maumee River that should reap big economic rewards for the city. Apparently for each dollar a city invests in riverfront improvements, it can expect a return of $7-20. And already there has been construction of nearly 400 luxury loft apartments right beside the park; the builder has said that he was only able to make this investment because of our metropark system.

And as if that’s not amazing enough, Metroparks recently opened the largest treehouse lodging in the nation, with Cannaley Treehouse Village. The various accommodations there are already being booked nearly a year in advance!

I know that people have different priorities in life, and everyone doesn’t care about the parks in the way that I do. But these parks are central to my life — I spend hundreds of hours in them studying dragonflies and other insects, and walking the trails for exercise or just to give my brain a rest. (Ecotherapy, ya know?)

Flag-tailed spinyleg, Wiregrass Metropark

Metroparks also runs an award-winning nursery that grows native plants for the park system and for other restoration projects in our region. I’m so thankful for their leadership in demonstrating the importance of native plants in our community. Their Blue Creek Seed Nursery supplies many of the plants for our Wild Ones/Green Ribbon Initiative Native Plant sale that takes place each May during Blue Week. Last year we had to run the plant sale as an online event, but we still had huge demand, and are gearing up for this year’s online sale with even more plants. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the website for the sale, and can’t wait to see how it goes this year.

I hope I’ve not bored you by gushing about Metroparks Toledo. I just wanted to express how important these parks are to my life, and do a little bit to improve the image of my city for anyone who might think of it the way I did before I moved here. My friend Sherry is an avid urban birder, and when people are surprised at the birds she finds in the city limits, she always reminds them that “birds are where you find them!” I’m borrowing her sentiment to express how I feel about Toledo — you can find happiness anywhere if you look hard enough. I’m so glad I kept looking. Thanks for reading!

(All of the photos in this post were taken in the Metroparks system– I have thousands more of them and I’ve only been here four years so far!)

Get Ready, Here Comes 2021

2020 worst year ever

It’s okay, don’t let that title scare you. You’re reading this, so you’ve already made it through one of the toughest years the human species has had to face for decades. Take a moment to acknowledge that, if you can. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve learned how immensely important it is to get serious about mindful gratitude these days, because life can be turned on its head in an instant.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day details of life that we forget to appreciate the good parts. And it’s far too easy to find things to complain about this year, so let’s not do that today. I want to mention some things that I’ve been especially grateful for recently, in the hope that this will encourage you to do the same.

Friendships

My gosh, where to start? For a couple decades of my life I lived a relatively unsocial lifestyle with few meaningful friendships. After making the scary decision to leave my former life six years ago and start over, I have felt like a new person. The change wasn’t instantaneous and it wasn’t easy, but I pushed myself to adopt new habits and new ways of interacting with the world. I dug deep and kept trying after each setback. And before I knew it, I’d built a life full of wonderful friends and meaningful relationships with colleagues in my nonprofit volunteer work. I sometimes couldn’t believe I’d been able to do it after having been trapped in the old patterns for so long. I finally felt needed and respected, and had as much social life as I could handle. Life was great.

Then the pandemic hit. After all the work I’d put in to build my new life, and when I’d realized that I really did need people, all of that important social interaction was taken from me virtually overnight. I wanted to pound my fists and scream, “No fair!” But, alas, life is what happens when you’re making other plans, right?

Wingspan game day at my house…in 2019…sigh.

Of course the friendships remain, but we can’t spend time together now.  No more game nights at my house with a kitchen full of laughter. No more meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. No more community theatre dates with my theatre buddy. I do meet a couple friends for walks occasionally, but it’s getting too cold for that to be fun anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel this lonely. I’m normally so grateful that I can live alone, but some days I would give anything to have someone in my household “pandemic pod” so I could get a hug. I know things will eventually return to some kind of new normal in which we can be together again, but this forced separation has made me realize how important these people are to my life.  Some friends teach me new things, others make me laugh, and yet others share those deep conversations about life that I love to engage in. I cannot wait for the day that it’s safe to grab every one of my friends in a huge bear hug — I may never want to let go again!

Time

I’m very lucky that I don’t have to deal with a job and kids during the pandemic.  So lucky that I feel guilty about it. I try to make up for that by donating to causes that help the people who are suffering more than me with more immediate physical or financial needs. Most days I have to myself now, with very few appointments or even reasons to leave the house except for groceries or a walk in the park. Despite the loneliness, I’m incredibly grateful for the mental space I’ve been able to reclaim with all this solitude. I see the benefits I’m reaping from being able to use my time to read and write.

A few of my favorite inspirational books

The other day I finally took some time to remove all the books from my messy shelves and re-organize them. That process gave me the chance to rediscover some of them, and I’ve developed the new habit of just pulling a book from the shelf and reading a chapter at random. I’m focusing on my large collection of books about writing, mostly. I’ve long had a fascination with the processes of other writers: how they get ideas, how they organize their notes, and how they tell stories. I feel some momentum building toward my dream of writing my own book. I’m getting more confident that I have something to say that other people will be interested in reading. It’s scary, but I’ve always believed that doing the scary things is important in order to move yourself forward.

My Pets

After my cat Mickey’s traumatic death during my divorce, I was determined not to have pets again because it hurt too much to lose them. And I managed not to look at any cute kittens for more than a year…until a colleague wore me down with her constant urgings for me to get a cat. I begged her to stop telling me about stray cats she’d found or people giving them up for adoption, but she persisted relentlessly. Eventually she wore me down, and I adopted two five-year-old cats from someone who was getting married to a guy with severe cat allergies. 

That was five years ago. I’ve sometimes regretted that I allowed myself to be pushed into adopting them, especially when I had to deal with expensive pet sitting rates and when I found out that one of the cats is very demanding of my attention. But…and this is a major but…since the pandemic and the ensuing isolation, these cats have saved my sanity. I love them both and adore their little quirks. Sophie is my little brown and black tabby girl with the softest fur and loudest purr you’ve ever heard. Her legs are so short she has to try several times to get up on the bed. And the big orange one, Sam, sleeps curled up against my chest with his paw across my neck. It’s hard…really hard…to be alone in this time of such uncertainty about the future. And if I didn’t have these cats to keep me company, well, I just don’t want to imagine how much harder it would be.

And before I finish with this subject, I’ll mention the pets of my friends too. Two of my friends have graciously shared their dogs with me — isn’t it strange that dog walking is something new for me? I realized that I had never walked a dog in my life before the pandemic. And I discovered that I love it! When you can’t hug a friend, the next best thing is to hang out with their dogs. I’ve helped one friend train his rescued dogs to get socialized in the park, and the other friend has allowed her dogs to smother me with kisses and an occasional tackle.

So those are some of the things I’m especially grateful for these days. What are yours?

(Yes, I need a haircut!)

So now we move ahead into a new year. Sure, it’s just a number on a calendar, but we give it a great deal of symbolic significance. There are hopeful signs that life may get better soon: Vaccines are beginning to be administered, and the leadership of our government will be much more sane in just a few short weeks. I’m generally a cynic about New Year’s resolutions, but not this year. I resolve to hold on just a while longer. I’m so tired of wearing masks, but I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I miss my friends and family so much, but I can endure this separation just a while longer.

Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.

Maybe Dorothy Was Right

It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.

Monarch on butterfly milkweed
Monarch on butterfly milkweed

My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.

I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.

You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one.  That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.

One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.

Shrubby st john's wort

Anemone virginiana - tall thimbleweed
Tall thimbleweed flower, only an inch across

Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.

I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.

grasshopper collage

One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain

I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.

Green darner on blue vervain

And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!

Blue vervain - verbena hastata

I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.

When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome

Young rabbit in my yard
One of my resident bunny twins chowing down on ferns

Lifting Each Other Up

Magnolia Warbler - Magee Marsh 5-21-18 blog
Magnolia Warbler

How are you all doing? I hope you’re finding ways to adapt to this new normal. It’s really important now that we take care of ourselves and each other, both physically and mentally.  We don’t know how long we’re going to be in this situation where we have to keep our distance from each other — it could be weeks, or it could be months. And that’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it? The not knowing.

I’ve noticed some cracks showing among my friends in their posts and comments to each other. Perfectly lovely people are snapping at each other. The other day I sent a message to a friend asking how he was holding up, because I hadn’t seen him on social media as much as usual. His terse reply of just two words hurt my feelings for a while, until I reminded myself not to take it personally and that he’s just dealing with stress in his own way. In this time when communication is so important, everyone is touchy and it’s difficult to know what to say or not say to someone. So it’s evident that the stress is starting to wear on all of us. I find myself increasingly wanting to reach through the computer or the phone and give someone a tight hug, to quell their fears as well as my own. I hate being alone all the time! I would give anything to be able to meet a friend for coffee, or to host another day of board games or cards.

Cape May Warbler close crop with black currant blossoms w sig Magee
Cape May Warbler – I see you!

I’m so glad that it’s spring, and soon we’ll have the healthy distraction of warblers migrating through and dragonflies emerging. It won’t be the same as enjoying those things with friends, but it will be a lifesaver. Birders here in northwest Ohio will be denied their usual warbler migration hotspot, as the famed Magee Marsh is closed and I believe it’s likely to remain closed through May.

In the coming weeks I’ll have more nature photos to show you, but today I wanted to share links to some things humans have done to lift my spirits lately. Human beings are so much more resilient than we think we are, and I’ve been incredibly thankful for those people who have used their creativity and talent to help the rest of us get through this. Here are a few of them. I hope something here makes you smile or at least gives you some comfort. I find these wonderful reminders that, while I might be physically alone, I’m not alone in my experience. Billions of people are enduring this with me. Keeping that in mind helps me get through each day. We’re all in this together, and we’ll come through it together.

This first one is my absolute favorite. Italians have been playing music out their windows each evening as a way of maintaining social connections during their quarantine. It’s beautiful.

Virtual orchestra performing a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now.”

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performing “Higher and Higher”

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.

squirrel nest building - blog (6)
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.

squirrel nest building - blog (1)

squirrel nest building - blog (5)

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.)

squirrel nest building - blog (4)

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.

squirrel nest building - blog (2)
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.

This Too Shall Pass

Rattlesnake master with snow - B&W
Rattlesnake master in my garden today

Well, I sure wasn’t ready for this yet! We got our first snow of the season yesterday, and it wasn’t just a teaser, it was a smack-you-in-the-face-wake-up-call. Of course I’m being dramatic (it’s only four inches), but I really dread the cold sloppiness of a northwest Ohio winter.  I cleaned my gutters twice last week because they were jammed with leaves from my prolific maple trees, and today I shoveled snow. Most years we have time to get through fall before winter comes lumbering into our lives like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It feels unsettling to have a significant snow this early. There’s supposed to be a rhythm to the seasons, gosh darn it, with time to make the mental adjustment to the next one.

Rudbeckia with snow - blog
Rudbeckia with a snow toboggan

I complain mightily now, but I know in a few weeks I’ll be resigned to it and will be able to find enjoyment in (some aspects of) winter.  This morning after I shoveled the driveway, I begrudgingly trudged around the backyard with my phone, taking photos of the native plants in their winter hats and coats.

I remember a day about a decade ago when I went for a walk in the woods one winter and had a sort of awakening, because I’d never done that before. It seems unbelievable to me now, but before that day, I had never gone outside in winter for the sole purpose of taking a walk. Sure, I’d gone sledding or birding, but never just walking and paying attention to the details.  I found interesting ice formations on a creek, wind patterns in the snow, and the stunning sight of bluebirds in the black-white-gray woods. I felt I’d discovered an exciting new world, and now I treasure winter walks.

Fire in woodstove - blog
My favorite spot on a cold day – my Happy Chair

I must admit, though, that one of the best parts of a winter walk is coming back to the warmth of the house and curling up with a blanket and hot cup of tea.

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, already starting its job as Melter-in-Chief.  I’m grateful for that today; it helps me see the beauty of the snow and not dwell (too much) on the long, dark months ahead. Sophie is making the most of her favorite sunspot, blissfully unaware of the cold on the other side of those windows.  I envy animals sometimes for their ability to live in the moment, without worrying about the future.

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Sophie napping in her favorite sunspot

WInd patterns in the snow - blog

When I started writing this, it was intended to be a sort of venting of my begrudging acceptance of winter. But as I’ve been writing and thinking about it, I’m reminded that we only appreciate the warmth because we know the cold.  We appreciate the flowers and insects in summer because of their absence in winter. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere that didn’t have the dramatic seasonal changes that we have here. Change is what makes things interesting.

Spring tree birds avatar - blogI doubt I’ll ever be converted to one of those people who love winter, but I can tolerate it, and sometimes even appreciate it. Well…as long as I know there’s another spring at the end of it.

Before I go, here’s a short video I just took looking out my kitchen window, showing leaves falling on fresh snow. That’s just not right, LOL.

Happy New Year!

Carpenter bee on Swamp milkweed - NIMT meme - little things big things

Thanks to all of you who have remained faithful readers of my blog this year. I’m grateful that so many people find value in what I share here, and I hope you’ll stick around to read about more nature adventures in 2019. Happy New Year!

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.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
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.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)
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.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig
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