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Posts Tagged ‘Dragonfly Metamorphosis’

Here on my first day of retirement I don’t think the reality that I have nothing I have to do and nowhere I have to go has fully sunken in yet. Maybe I’ll need time to decompress after 50+ years of working. It was an odd career that went from gardener to mechanical engineer and then buildings and grounds maintenance. Though I started out fine with maintenance nearly 7 years ago I didn’t end fine. The job, always a dirty and dusty one, became increasingly difficult due to weakening lungs and I could feel myself slowing down, so it was time to go. One of the more pleasant memories of those last 7 years that comes to mind is of the many beautiful things I saw on those 25-mile drives to and from work; like clouds of mist rising up out of the forest in Marlborough, or the morning sunlight turning the snow-covered peak of Mount Monadnock to pink and orange. These sights were always unexpected and, though the drive wasn’t always welcome, they always were.

When I finally got to work each day, there on the shores of Half Moon Pond in Hancock, it wasn’t that uncommon to find something like this waiting. Each morning I would cross the road and stand on the shore in the quiet and watch as the sun rose behind me. It was a wonderful way to start the day and it wasn’t long before I felt that I had stumbled into paradise. I might not miss the work but I will miss the place.

You could feel an energy on the shores of the pond; an infectious childlike spirit, and that’s because children have come here for over 100 years to learn about and enjoy nature. The land, all 700+ acres, is known as The Sargent Center for Outdoor Education, owned by Boston University and currently in use by Nature’s Classroom, which is an outdoor environmental education program. Children, musicians, artists and other groups come from all over the world and the happy shouts and laughter of children can be heard all day every day, almost all year round. It was like music to me and I loved hearing them and seeing them having so much fun, but then covid came along and everything had to stop for a time. I can’t see that the place will ever stop attracting children though; after a fallow year in 2020 they returned for 10 weeks last summer and this summer looks like it will be even better.

The children come to what we call the camp to learn about nature and though that wasn’t my reason for coming, I learned right along with them. This was the first place I had ever seen dragonfly nymphs clutching the pond weeds, waiting to shed their exoskeletons. Once free they are apparently disoriented for a time. (I know how they feel) I had them land on me several times over the years and their empty shells, called exuvia, can be found here and there all along the shoreline.

This was the only place I knew of where I could get close enough to the big mother snapping turtles to see them laying their eggs. It was a slow, seemingly exhaustive process.

Before I went to work there, I had to drive for half an hour to see a rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) in bloom but that first year I found them along the shoreline. I was able to get to know them like I never could before. They’re one of our most beautiful early spring flowers and it was great to know that I could now find them with ease.

The same is true for sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia). I used to have to drive for miles to find it and even then I had a hard time, but there it was right on the shore of the pond. This is another relatively rare and beautiful native shrub which blooms later than the rhodora. Our native laurels have 10 anthers that fit into tiny pockets and spring out when an insect lands on the blossom, dusting it with pollen. The thought of it always fascinates me.

Before I started working at the camp the only way I could see a beautiful marsh St. John’s wort (Hypericum virginicum) was from a kayak, and if you’ve ever tried taking photos while sitting in a kayak you know how that went. Here, I could walk right up to them and see them in all their beautiful glory. It’s a relatively rare plant so I was happy to find them growing right along the shoreline. This is the only St. John’s wort I know of with pink flowers; all of our others St John’s worts are yellow.

A little further up on shore I found my favorite milkweed, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). As I watched over the years one plant became two, and the first plant grew more and more flowers. The pretty flower clusters always remind me of millefiori glass paperweights.

Humble little Narrow leaf cow wheat plants (Melampyrum lineare) grew and bloomed by the hundreds there. I know of only one other place to find them and they don’t grow well there. This little, shoe top high plant may look innocent but it has a secret; it is a hemiparasite, which is a plant that can photosynthesize and create its own food but is still a parasite on surrounding plants. It seems to want more than its share. 

One year I cut a large area of brush right along the pond edge to open up a view and the following year I was surprised to find it full of wildflowers, including the beautiful little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia) above. This is one of the last of our spring ephemeral flowers to bloom and it’s a signal that it’s time to start looking for flowers out in the sunny meadows rather than in the woods. Other plants that grew in this spot were pink lady’s slippers, painted trillium, blue bead lily, and partridge berry.

In certain places in the camp woods you can sometimes find large colonies of painted trilliums (Trillium undulatum). Throughout my experience I have found only one or two plants here and there, so finding large numbers of them here in this place was surprising. And beautiful; painted trilliums are our most beautiful trillium, in my opinion. They will bloom in May, just about the same time as the rhodora we saw earlier.

I was also surprised to find so many broad leaved helleborine orchids (Epipactis helleborine) growing at the camp because I normally see so few of them. They were introduced from Europe in the 1800s and almost immediately escaped gardens and are now considered an invasive orchid; the only one I’ve ever heard of. Scientists have discovered that its nectar contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature, and wasps have been seen moving away from it in a kind of staggering flight. Strangely, the plants have chosen to grow in the shade around building foundations.

Since I’m colorblind, before I started working at the camp I had seen only one cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and that was only because a kind reader had sent me directions to it. But it was across a stream, so I could never get close to it. When a red cardinal lands in a green tree it disappears to these eyes, so I almost stepped on the plant in this photo before I saw the red flower. It grew in a peaceful place beside a stream at the camp. It was a real treat to finally see them up close after so many years of looking for them but now I know that I should stop looking, because the only way I’ll ever find them is by luck. If I should happen to stumble across them again well, that will be a lucky day.

Another plant that I had never seen before working at the camp was the ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi). Like the cardinal flower it is a plant I searched for for many years. I stumbled across it growing in a lawn, which is the last place I’d have thought to look for it. Though there are native plants called ragged robin in the U.S. this particular plant was introduced from Europe into New England.

As I think back on my time at the camp, I can see that it was really just one discovery after another, and I could probably fill two posts with all the “firsts” I saw, like the eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus) above. Its “eyes” are really just eye spots, there to mesmerize and confound predators. It has a spine that it can click and use to propel itself away from predators, and it used it to jump and hit me in the back, otherwise I’d have never seen it. One day a bobcat walked past a group of us from just feet away, and one morning I saw a young moose come up out of the pond. Several people told me that a black bear walked just 10 feet from me when I was blowing leaves one day, but I never heard or saw it. This was also the first and only place I ever heard the song of a whippoorwill. It really is a magical place that is filled with natural wonders, and I’m very grateful to have had the chance to spend time there.

Another wonder was the cluster of Dryocosmus deciduous galls I found on a red-oak leaf one day. These galls are created when a tiny wasp in the Dryocosmus genus lays eggs on the midrib of a red oak leaf. Each tiny gall has a single larva inside. As the scientific name reveals, these galls are deciduous, and fall from the leaf before the leaf falls from the tree. I remember how amazed I was when I read that about them.

One of the jobs I had at the camp was mowing a 13-acre meadow. The first time I mowed it I noticed that there were one or two chicory plants (Cichorium intybus) in it, so I started mowing around them. Year by year their numbers increased until last year there must have been 15 plants, all blooming together. Several people asked me about them over the years and I think everyone enjoyed the blue flowers, even though they looked a little odd out in such a big expanse of grass.

The meadow that I mowed was full of tiny black insects which I think must have been weevils. There were so many thousands of them I could feel them peppering any uncovered spot on my body as I mowed, so I had to always wear glasses and keep my mouth closed tight. But mowing was when I first noticed something strange; a group of dragonflies would fly alongside the tractor, a few on either side, and every now and then one or two would peel off for a moment or two before coming back to rejoin the group. I realized then that the dragonflies were eating all the insects that were being scared up by the mower. I also realized that they were intelligent creatures. They must also have some type of a memory, because they flew along beside me every time I mowed the meadow in summer. The one in this photo was so used to me mowing I rode right up to it and took this shot with my macro camera as it perched on a chicory plant. If a fish can learn to come when it is called at feeding time, why can’t a dragonfly?

Because I spent most of my time outside, I could keep a close eye on the local monarch butterfly population, which seemed to rise and fall quite a lot from year to year. Last summer seemed to be a good one for them and I hope the future will be kind to them.

I realize as I work on this post how much there was to see and discover in an area smaller than the center of an average small New England town. It’s just amazing, but it isn’t just the beauty of it all; it’s also the rarity of the things found here, like the dewdrop (Dalibarda repens) flowers above. I’ve seen them in exactly one other place in over 50 years of wandering through nature.  

And then there is the purple fringed bog orchid (Platanthera grandiflora) I found growing beside a trail through a swamp one day. People had been walking by it without seeing it perhaps for years and if I hadn’t caught just a glimpse of color out of the corner of my eye, I would have done the same. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget how I felt that day. I think it has to be the most beautiful flowering plant I’ve ever seen in these New Hampshire woods.

All of the animals, plants, insects, and amphibians that have made this place their home is what makes it so special. Just think of all the children, more than a hundred years’ worth of them, who came to this place and might have seen one, two or all of the things in this post. Think of how much they might have learned. This place, full of beauty, wonder and enchantment, should always be here for them.

Last year a group of artists came to stay for a week and my co-workers cajoled one of them into doing an oil painting of the bog orchid, which they gave me on my last day. It was a great gift and it now hangs here where I’ll see it every day. Though I doubt I could ever forget the camp, this painting will make sure I don’t. I hope many people who pass through the camp will get to see and admire the flower that inspired it, especially the artist. He did the painting from a photo that I had taken.  

There was a time when I could sit in the quiet of dawn on a summer morning and listen to the birds sing through the open windows, and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing again more than anything else. In the evening I can walk to the stream down the road and watch the sunset turn it to liquid gold, and then when it gets dark I can sit outside and watch the stars while listening to the the spring peepers. These are some of the things that are most important to me, and I’ll have time now to do them and anything else that comes to mind. The possibilities are infinite.

One sweet dream, came true today. ~The Beatles

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Since it had been about a year since my last visit and since I was interested in seeing what aquatic plants might be blooming, I decided to go up to Goose Pond last weekend. The pond is part of a five hundred acre wilderness area that isn’t that far from downtown Keene. Goose Pond was called Crystal Lake and / or Sylvan Lake in the early 1900s. The pond was artificially enlarged to 42 acres in 1865 so the town of Keene would have a water supply to fight fires with. Wooden pipe fed 48 hydrants by 1869, but the town stopped using the pond as a water supply in the 1930s, and in 1984 it was designated a wilderness area. The vast forest tract surrounding the pond has been left virtually untouched since the mid-1800s.

One of the first things I saw were these fungi growing on a fallen hemlock log and despite their odd shapes I believe they were hemlock varnish shelf fungi. Hemlock varnish shelf fungi (Ganoderma tsugae) can be quite big and their color can vary greatly but they’re almost always shiny on top, hence the “varnish” part of the common name. In China this mushroom is called the Reishi mushroom and it has been used medicinally for centuries. It is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese medicine and scientists from around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential.

I think we’ll have plenty of blackberries this year. I’ve never seen them bloom like they are now.

Beautiful blue flag irises (Iris versicolor) bloomed in the shallow water along the shore.

Unless you own a nursery or spend a good deal of time in the woods, there’s a good chance that you’ve never seen the seed leaves of an American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia.) Seed leaves are called cotyledons and appear before a plant’s true leaves. If the plant has 2 seed leaves it is called a dicot (dicotyledon), and if only one it is called a monocot (monocotyledon.) The cotyledons are part of the embryo within the seed and contain stored food that the young plant needs to grow. As the food stores are used up the cotyledons might either turn green and photosynthesize, or wither and fall off. That’s the quick botany lesson of the day. It’s hard to make it any more exciting.

What is exciting, at least for me, is how this was only the second time in my life that I’ve seen this, and since I’ve spent a lot of time in nurseries and forests I’m guessing this is a rare sight. Seed leaves, as anyone who has ever started vegetables or flowers from seed knows, often look nothing like the true leaves.  In the case of American beech they look more like flower petals than leaves and feel tough and leathery. If you know of a beech tree that produces nuts, take a look underneath it in the spring for seedlings that still have their seed leaves.

In places the trail is one person wide but generally two people can pass easily. If you come here you should wear good stout hiking boots because there are a lot of roots and stones and in places it gets muddy. I’ve had questions from people afraid of getting lost out here and I did on this day as well. A man asked about following the trail all the way around the pond and I pointed out that the trees were blazed with white rectangles. But even without the blazes I told him, if the pond is on your right side when you start make sure it stays there the whole way around, and don’t leave the main trail. That way you’ll never get lost. Even though the trail does leave the water’s edge in a couple of places you can still tell where the pond is. It sounds like common sense but I’ve caught myself wandering off the trail before, especially when looking for slime molds or fungi. You need to pay attention to the trail as well as what grows along it.

A large colony of hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) had been eaten down to about a foot high by deer. They’re one of our most beautiful native viburnums but they’ll never bloom while being constantly pruned like these were. Deer have to eat though, so I don’t fault them for doing a little pruning. At least they aren’t pruning someone’s vegetable garden.

I think is the best shot I’ve ever gotten of the tiered and whorled growth habit of the Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana.) It’s a very pretty plant and I saw a lot of them here. Since I just described their flowers in my last post I won’t put you through that again.

Fringed sedge (Carex crinite) grew in wet spots along the trail, and sometimes right in the water. It’s a large sedge that grows in big, 2 foot tall clumps. I like its drooping habit and I’m not the only one, because it has become a popular garden plant. Many animals and waterfowl eat different parts of sedge plants, especially the seeds. Other names for this plant are drooping sedge and long-haired sedge.

I’m not prone to blisters thankfully, but all of the sudden I felt what felt like a painful blister on the bottom of one of my toes, so I thought I’d sit down for a bit. I’ve had bouts of back pain for most of my life so I know a little about how to get past pain. Watching dragonflies helped me get my mind off it and trying to photograph them put me in another place altogether. When I got home and saw the photos though I saw something else on the cattail leaf under the dragonfly, so I thought I’d try to figure out what it was.

The toe was still bothering me when I started out again but not as bad as it had been and it didn’t matter anyway because I was half way around the pond and the only other way out of here was by boat or helicopter.

The bridge in the previous photo is chained to a nearby tree and I’ve heard people laugh about how “they must think that someone will steal it,” but that isn’t it. The chain is there to keep it from washing away in flooding, which has happened. It’s amazing what our small streams can do after a few inches of rain has fallen.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) grew near the stream that the bridge crossed. This is the only fern that grows on every temperate continent except Australia, which makes it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are thought to be able to live 100 years or more. They like wet feet and grow along stream and river banks in low, damp areas. Another name for this fern is “flowering fern,” because someone once thought that the purple, fertile, fruiting fronds looked like bunches of flowers.

At their early stage the spore cases of royal ferns are green but they soon turn a beautiful purple color, and that’s why the plant was named flowering fern.

I saw lots red trillium (Trillium erectum) seed pods, so I’m guessing there will be lots more of them in the future.

The flowers on our native viburnums like the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) shown will almost always have five petals and the leaves, though quite different in shape throughout the viburnum family, are usually dull and not at all glossy. In fact I can’t think of one with shiny leaves. What I like most about this little shrub is how its leaves turn so many colors in fall. They can be pink, purple, red, yellow, and orange and combinations of two or three, and are really beautiful. Each flattish maple leaved viburnum flower head is made up of many small, quarter inch, not very showy white flowers, which were just starting to open here. If pollinated each flower will become a small deep purple berry (drupe) that birds love to eat. This small shrub doesn’t mind dry shade and that makes it a valuable addition to a native wildflower garden. The Native American Chippewa tribe used the inner bark of this plant to relieve stomach pains.

I sat beside the water again for a while to rest my toe and watch the dragonflies and saw another one of the husks on the same cattail leaf that the dragonfly was perched on, just like last time. I was fairly sure that I had seen this before and that was confirmed when I did some reading on the Dragonfly Woman’s blog. According to what I read I was seeing dragonflies not too long after they had emerged from the water. They crawl up a leaf or stick (with great effort) as nymphs and shed their exoskeletons, and that’s what the husks are. A part of metamorphosis is what I was seeing and I’m very grateful for having had the chance to see it. By the way, the Dragonfly Woman is a very knowledgeable lady. If you are at all interested in insects you can visit her here: https://thedragonflywoman.com/

A few years ago I found the only example of a northern club spur orchid (Platanthera clavellata v. Ophioglossoides) that I’ve ever seen here. On this day I found its single leaf, so I know it’s still alive and well. I hope to see it bloom again in late July. 

By the time I had made it to the odd stone that doesn’t belong here, my toe pain was gone. I’ve never been able to figure out what kind of rock this strange thing was made from but a lot of work went into making it square, with perfect 90 degree corners and very smooth faces. It’s about 5-6 inches on a side and dark colored like basalt, which makes it even more of an enigma. It’s too short to be a fence post but in the 1800s people didn’t spend hours of their time working on something like this for a lark, so it was used for something. How it ended up partially buried in the trail is a mystery. I’d love to be able to dig it up and see, but of course that isn’t possible. I wonder if it’s just the very top of a marker of some sort.

Or maybe the odd stone is the very top of a gravestone. People did live out here at one time, as evidenced by the stone walls that are found crisscrossing the landscape. In fact this entire forest was most likely pastureland in the 1800s, probably abandoned when the men went to work in the woolen mills, furniture, or shoe factories that had suddenly sprung up everywhere. They made more money in the mills for less strenuous work and many left farming altogether. Piling up all those stones and cutting down trees with an axe is hard work; I’ve done both and I hate to say it but I probably would have followed them to the mills.

As I was leaving this dragonfly flew toward me and landed right on the trail between my feet and stayed there, letting me take as many photos as I wanted. It had the same markings as those I had seen earlier on the cattail leaves, and I think it’s a calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa.) I also think it’s a male, but with my poor record of insect identification I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Juvenile males look different than adults so it can be confusing, especially if you’re colorblind. In the end it really didn’t matter what its name was because it and others of its kind had taken me on a fascinating journey, and that was enough.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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