Thursday, June 26, 2014

Exciting Things in Nature, Part II

Sunday afternoon, when I got home from dropping E and Z at a friend's house, C met me at my car asking, "Did you get my message?" But my phone had died while I was at M's baseball game the night before and I hadn't bothered to bring it inside, let along plug it in to charge (I like to be left alone on the weekends--okay, all the time).

"Come check this out." He led me through the grass he had been cutting with the scythe, to our upper garden where the peas and asparagus grow, and there in a balsam fir growing next to Blueberry Tree, we beheld this:

A swarm of bees.

C, not a fan of stinging things, had noticed a lot of buzzing while he scythed and looked up to see a basketball-sized clump of bees hanging in the branches.

We wondered if they had escaped from a beekeeper nearby and if we should call someone to come get them. I remembered seeing on a nature program that bees are less aggressive when swarming. Or was it more aggressive?

Fortunately, C's phone was charged and he looked it up online and found out that:

-Bees are less aggressive when swarming, because they have no broods to protect (but if you do anything to piss them off, they'll give off the attack pheromone and you'll have 1000s of angry bees after you).

-Bees swarm very near their original hive (swarming is how colonies reproduce--the old queen leaves with a whole bunch of workers to start a new hive, leaving behind a larval or virgin queen to take over the old hive), which means we have a wild honeybee colony somewhere in our woods nearby.

-Between 20 and 50 scouts will fly out from the swarm, up to a kilometer away in search of a new hive location. When they return to the swarm, they do a dance, trying to convince the other bees of the superiority of their choice. When 80% of the scouts agree on a new site, the whole swarm will fly there and establish the new colony.

-The swarm will have moved to its new site from within a few hours to two or three days. If they don't establish a new colony in that time, they will have used up the honey they gorged on before they left and die.

Because the weather was projected to be nice as far as we could see into the future, and because we think it's really cool that we have wild bees surviving here, when so many domestic bees are in trouble, we decided to let nature take its course. C checked the swarm Monday morning, and the swarm was still there, but smaller (all huddled up to stay warm, perhaps?), but it was gone by the time he got home from work, with just a few dozen straggler bees in the area. I hope our bees found a nice, dry, ant-free hollow log somewhere not too far and are on their way to a healthy colony.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exciting Things in Nature, Part I

One evening last week, after dropping E and Z off at baseball practice and having an hour or so to myself, I went down to our gravel pit pond--which will be my "delimited study site" for the naturalist class I'm taking--to try to get started mapping it.

As I approached the pond from the driveway that angles down into the gravel pit, I noticed large ripples on the surface of the water, far to big to be caused by frogs or turtles. I trained my binoculars on the pond and saw something brown and largish swimming around. Beaver? I wondered. Muskrat?

Then I saw another one way at the far end of the pond, turning somersaults like a kid in the pool. I could see that it clearly did not have a wide, flat tail, so it definitely wasn't a beaver. As I approached the pond to get a closer look, the two creatures caught sight of me, and instead of disappearing underwater, like a muskrat would, they swam toward me, snuffing their nostrils and making a high, whining sound. They had smooth, sleek heads, almost like a seal, and thick, brushy mustaches. Definitely not muskrats. Otters!

I stayed and watched them for a few minutes, all the while, they never took their eyes off me and continued to snuff. I wondered briefly if they would come out of the water and chase me away, but they didn't. I went back to the house and brought M and C (who of course didn't believe me) down to see them, and of course brought my camera, too. I don't have a telephoto, so I couldn't get that great of pictures, but you can kind of see one here. When E and Z got back from baseball, I brought Z down (E had wandered off on an adventure of his own), with strict instructions to not try and catch them (he's totally convinced that if he could just get his hands on a wild animal, it would curl up in his lap, instantly domesticated), and then we left them alone for the night.

I've been back to the pond several times in the last week, but there has been no further sign of the otters. Maybe we scared them away, or maybe they were just passing through on their way from one branch of our river to the other. I don't think our pond would have much to offer otters long-term, being small and shallow and vulnerable to the vagaries of precipitation. Also, I'm pretty sure there are no fish in it (although there are frogs aplenty...and we're still hearing gray tree frogs at night, so the otters didn't eat all of them for other types of frogs, I'm not so sure).

I keep thinking how fortunate it was that I went down to the pond on that particular evening. Imagine how many wondrous things are going on around us all the time that we don't even notice because we're busy doing other things. I'm so glad I have the excuse of my class to force me out more so that I'll hopefully bear witness to many more exciting things in nature.

Edited: Thanks to Meryl for pointing out that not everyone may have heard of freshwater otters! These are North American River Otters, whose range appears to cover most of the east coast, Canada and the northwest US. I'm adding the link to the Wikipedia page here, and I hope to learn and write more about them in this space in the near future.

Friday, June 20, 2014


The first order of business in the naturalist class I'm taken has been ferns.

Over the week, I needed to collect, identify, draw, press, and mount a fern specimen.

So Sunday I went out into our woods in search of ferns.

I never noticed before how many different species of ferns we have growing just along our little trail.

I saw at least eight different species (and succeeded--I think--in identifying six of them).

I brought the specimens back to the house to key out (it was too mosquitoey out there to sit and look at sori under a hand lens!). 

For a couple, I hadn't grabbed fertile fronds (which are often necessary for identification--see how much I've learned already?).

Now when I walk outside, I can say, "Sensitive fern!" or "Bracken fern!"--two that have clear characteristics (most of the others I would probably have to start again and key them out).

I'm looking for them everywhere I go!

I've set up my desk as a naturalist station, and I'm hoping it inspires the kids to join in (Z and I looked under the microscope at the little scent balls on the back of the hay-scented fern)

While I was out, I got a look at the river, which I haven't visited in a while, and which was running high thanks to all-day rain last Friday.

And waded through this gorgeous buttercup field.

I already love how this class is getting me outside more and noticing things that have slipped by my attention in the past.

What are you noticing this summer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


The little caterpillars we collected a couple of weeks ago made chrysalises after a few days nibbling aster greens in our jar, and then, a week or so later, they emerged as butterflies, the first four last Friday, two more Saturday, another Monday and the last one this morning.

We found out last year that they are Harris's checkerspots (and re-confirmed with a look at the field guide this year).

Since we released the first batch, we've seen quite a few fluttering about the place, especially near the field where we found the caterpillars.

Whenever he sees one, Z says, "There's one of our butterflies."

"Even though they're not monarchs," he added, "they were still pretty fun."

I agree, but I still hope we see some monarchs this year.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lady's Slippers

It's important to go to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in June, because Lady's Slippers.

More grow there than anywhere I've ever seen. Even along the parking lots (let's not think about how many were in the places the parking lots now are, okay?). And even more along the coast trail. But first, the Children's Garden.

I am madly in love with the book house. If I could do my house all over again...

Z loves the drying house.

Which right now is filled with little fairy houses. Maybe we could do this in our playhouse (but how do they keep out the bugs?)

The boys even spent a few, fleeting minutes cooking in the play kitchen.

Which also happens to be my dream writing studio (I think I take this picture every time we go, as if I could make it mine by taking enough pictures of it!).

I busied myself taking pictures of bees

and dragonflies

while they caught frogs and polliwogs. I think if I didn't have an agenda (lady's slippers and rhododendrons and a hike on the trails), they could spend an entire day at the frog pond. Next time, perhaps.

But this time, there were rhododendrons to see.

And lady's slippers.

(I crouched in a nest of biting ants while I was trying to draw this one).

The boys built fairy houses

and climbed through the giant pinecone

and "meditated" (I'm not quite sure the designers had this in mind for the reflecting pool in the meditation garden).

Then we hiked the longest trail in record time, the boys running ahead the whole way, like puppies, leaving arrows scratched in the pine needle duff so I'd know which way they went. Which I think means they're officially Big Kids, because they didn't whine or complain or require lollipops to bribe them along the trail.

E found some feathers

Along the way, we saw a number of flowers like this plant, perhaps some kind of lily? I should probably look it up in Newcomb's guide, or at least ask C what it is.

and, of course, more lady's slippers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fiber Frolic

I've been feeling kind of cranky lately, due to a lack of time to do any of the things I want to do, so this weekend, I staged a protest. I said "no" to baseball--instead of sitting in the sun to watch M's double-header of rescheduled rained-out games, took E and Z (after their practice) to the Fiber Frolic.

Where we ate falafel and French fries.

Patted sheep.

And lambs.

Collected fresh bunny fuzz.

Watched collies herd ducks.

I've been to the Frolic now almost every year it's been around, the most memorable being when E and Z were about two weeks old and my mom and I each carried one of them in a front pack, and it was about a bajillion degrees and a bajillion percent humidity. Now they're old enough, I can just park them at the sheep dog demo and go look at all the delicious fiber by myself, which is a much less sweaty way to enjoy the frolic than with a newborn glued to your chest.

I actually bought one of these dreamy hand-woven dish towels (shh, don't tell my husband how much it cost).

I kept my money in my purse, though, when it came to yarn. I still have that skein of angora I bought last year, not yet made into anything, not to mention a whole lotta yarn from Ireland (and elsewhere) that needs my attention.

Oh, yeah, and ice cream.

Z really liked this knitted square bunting on the way out, especially the rainbow one. So bright and cheery.

We made it to the last half of M's second game, just in time to see M hit a grand slam (and, later, catch a fly ball in center field), as the team made a come-back and won its first of the season.
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