More Odonates

In among the errands I had to run today, I managed to find time around noon to take a walk at the Concord unit of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It was hot and humid with a light breeze (8-11 mph), enough wind to keep the temperature bearable. The breeze and the time of day meant the birds were keeping under cover, so I spent half an hour looking at damselflies and dragonflies (Odonates).

I managed to get close enough to photograph three species reasonably clearly. As I tried to identify those species from photographs, I got introduced to the chalenges of Odonata identification. One species was easy to identify:

The above photograph shows a Common Whitetail (Libellula [Plathemis] lydia), in the Skimmer family (Libellulidae). This was a straightforward identification. According to Blair Nikula et al., A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts, “identification of most species [of Skimmers] is possible in the field based on a combination of body, eye, and wing color and pattern.” And this is a particularly distinctive species.

The next taxon, however, was more difficult. Based on the photo below, I’m willing to place this individual in the genus Enallagma, the Bluets. But I’m not willing to make any determination as to species: “The bluets (Enallagma) … are very difficult to identify without examining the male terminal appendages under a hand lens or loupe” (Nikula et al., p. 31). That would mean capturing the insect with a net, holding it the hand, and examining it; I don’t have an insect net, and, not being particularly coordinated, I’d worry about damaging the insect while trying to examine it.

The next taxon, shown below, was even more difficult. All I’m willing to say is that this individual is in the family Corduliidae, or Emeralds. To take the identification to the level of species, once again I would have needed to capture the insect. According to Nikula et al., “although genera can often be recognized in the field with experience, identification as to species is very difficult, typically requiring in-hand examination of subtle body markings, male terminal appendages, or the female subgenital plate.” I’ll be happy if I ever get good enough to identify the Emeralds to the level of genus.

At this point, I don’t feel the need to make specific identifications of every individual; it’s enough for me to appreciate the unexpected diversity of the Odonates.

Published a day later than the date on the post, due to travel.

Odonates

Just before noon, Abby and I took a walk along the recently-opened Bruce Freeman Rail Trail that runs from Chelmsford, Mass., through Acton. The part of the trail we walked, around the Route 2A crossing, passes through several wetlands, with a few small areas of open water and some nice cattail stands. I was mostly looking (and listening) for birds, and even in the heat of the day there was a nice variety of birds, from Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats, and other swamp-loving birds to forest-nesters like American Robins and Chipping Sparrows. Abby was most interested in the Red Squirrel population. However, it was hot enough that there weren’t enough birds or Red Squirrels to keep us occupied, and we both began noticing insects in the order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) along the trail; I do not know much about about Odonates, but it sure looked like there were quite a few different species flying around us.

I am intimidated by the challenges of identifying Odonates; I find them hard to track in my binoculars, and I find it difficult to observe the level of detail required for identification down to the species level (sometimes you have to be able to see the shape of the male sex organs to get a definite identification). But my new camera has a really good zoom lens, and I find it easier to try to make an identification from a photo. I managed to get one reasonably good photo of an Odonate. A tentative identification might place this insect in the Aeshnidae family, or Darners, according to A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts by Blair Nikula et al. (Westborough, Mass.: Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 2003), p. 69. Unfortunately, the photo does not show how the insect’s eyes come together, a key identification point for this family.

 

Later the same day:

After taking care of some business we had to deal with, Abby and I went for a short walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, one of our father’s favorite places to go for a walk. I did a little birding, until Abby and I both became fascinated by the dragonflies and damselflies flying around us. I was able to get pretty good photos of a few of these odonates.

The photo above shows, I believe, a young female Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis); I’m fairly certain about the genus, less certain about the species. I’m basing my tentative identification on the species account in Nikula et al., p. 56. And I’m somewhat more confident of this identification because on p. 30, Nikula et al. state that the Eastern Forktail “is probably the most widespread and common odonate in Massachusetts.”

And above is a photo is of an older female of, I think, the same species; older females of this species, according to Nikula et al., “become extensively pruinose blue-gray.”

The photo above shows one of the many Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) patrolling the marshes and the edge of the river in Great Meadows. I’m fairly certain of this identification, and this is quite a common dragonfly in Massachusetts.

We also saw a couple of Monarch Butterflies, and an unidentified sulphur butterfly. I didn’t find many birds today, but the spectacular Odonata and Lepidoptera we saw more than made up for the lack of birds.

West Concord, Mass.

I was working away at the little things that need to be done before we sell dad’s condo, when Carol said something about a Great Blue Heron sitting near the Assabet River. I stopped what I was doing and looked out the window, and sure enough, there it was. Carol said that it had been sitting there for a long time. I got my camera to take a photograph, while saying my photo wouldn’t be much good because you’d need a powerful zoom lens to make the heron appear as anything more than a little speck. Take it anyway, Carol said, you can always give it to the realtor to show what the view is like from the condo.

Assabet River, West Concord, Mass.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

The old time Universalists were fond of saying that “God is love.” That statement may be true, but not in any sentimental sappy sense. Many years ago, Tennyson pointed out that he who might place trust in the belief that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law” needed to remember that “Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek’d against his creed.”

On our walk today, Abs and I saw a butterfly that had lost much of its left hindwing, and a part of its left forewing. We speculated that perhaps a bird or other predator had attacked the butterfly, and somehow it had gotten away, and was still flying:

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Living things need to eat, and as often as not they eat other living things in order to stay alive. And this is true of you, too, O human being who think yourself an apex predator: there are plenty of microorganisms and parasites and biting insects who feed on you.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:

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It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

Outdoors

The errands and chores took up most of the day, and everything took more time than usual due to the traffic which got increasingly worse as the day went on, as the winter storm warnings for Wednesday grew more dire. Get your Thanksgiving shopping done today! shouted the news media. Begin your Thanksgiving travels now! But in spite of all the traffic, and in spite of the errands and chores I had to do, I did manage to get outdoors.

I got up early and drove to White Pond. I walked to the pond over the bluff on the southeastern shore, and as the pond came into view, the white sand banks stood out through the November gloom, and I was struck by how appropriate its name is. The rainbow trout were rising well within casting distance of the shore, little dimples of water appearing her and there as a fish sucked a fly underwater. But the trout didn’t like anything I cast; there was a hatch of flies going on, and I suspect they were completely absorbed by that; had I been fly fishing, perhaps I could have presented something they would have struck at.

A woman came walking down the shore, and we started chatting. “I haven’t fished here in a dozen years,” I said, “and the houses seem to keep getting bigger.” The houses on the pond started out as modest summer cottages, but now many have them have transmogrified into McMansions. “Oh, it’s terrible,” she said, “they keep expanding them. Some of them are huge now. Three, four floors.” I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought: this is what growing wealth inequality is doing to Concord, Massachusetts: changing it into an enclave of the elite. That thought dampened my mood, so I started fishing again.

After three quarters of an hour, the rainbows stopped rising, and I went off to start my errands. Sadly, I had to spend most of the rest of the day either in the car, or indoors.

But as the day turned towards dusk, I found I had just enough time to go to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and see what birds were there. I arrived too late to see the immature Bald Eagle that has been there for the last couple of days, but I arrived just in time for one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in months.

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Above: Two Mallards swimming in the upper pool at Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

Tail race from Damon Mill

Dad’s condo is across the street from Damon Mill in West Concord, a mid-nineteenth century brick mill building now converted to offices. The old outflow stream from the mill, technically a “tail race,” flows right behind Dad’s condo and thence into the Assabet River.

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Above: The tail race from Damon Mill; the main current of the Assabet River is visible through the trees.

A cold front went through last night, and this morning when we got up, there was a skin of ice on the tail race; leaves and twigs that had been floating on the surface of the water got frozen into the skin of ice. It was cold enough today that the ice never melted. I took the above photo at 3 p.m., and there’s the skin of ice, still holding on to the leaves and twigs.

A week ago, Dad and I walked around the edge of the field below his condo. But today it was too cold to walk that far. We made it to Dad’s garden, which is close by his condo, before he decided he wanted to turn around. We did see, however, that there is still one last pea plant struggling to survive the cold snap. It’s supposed to get up to sixty degrees on Monday, so perhaps the pea plant will revive then.

Assabet River

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Above: The Assabet River, just below the Pine Street bridge in Concord, Mass., on 15 Nov. 2014

Tonight, my father’s brother Lee, and my cousins Lynn and Steve came up to visit Dad. Uncle Lee spent his career as a chemist, but I would be more likely to call him a practical icthyologist; he knows as much about the biology of fish as anyone else I know; he raises something on the order of a hundred different species of fish in his basement, and he’s an avid fisherman of wide experience. For her part, my cousin Lynn works for MassWildlife as a habitat protection specialist, and has a wide knowledge of many different Massachusetts ecosystems, including rivers, streams, and ponds.

As we were eating our dinner (we had fish, of course), Uncle Lee and Lynn got to talking about fish. Between them, they covered the possible effects of global climate change on lake trout in Canadian lakes; invasive Asian carp in the Midwest; the reintroduction of sturgeon into the Chesapeake River; which species of fish were native in Eastern Massachusetts rivers; etc. Since the Assabet River is visible from Dad’s living room window, of course we talked about the SuAsCo (Sudbury/Assabet/Concord) river system. I tried to participate in the conversation, but it was far more interesting to listen to the two of them. At one point, I looked at Steve and said, “Isn’t it interesting to listen to two fish experts talk?” He agreed. It’s always interesting to hear people talk about something they know well.

Wetlands, Concord, Mass.

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Above: Cattails in a wetlands along the abandoned Old Colony Railroad (later New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad) grade that parallels Old Marlboro Road, Concord, Mass.

This wetlands area has a substantial expanse of open water, due to beaver dams; in the photo there is open water on the far side of the cattails, and you can see the grey trunks of dead trees, trees which could not survive the flooding from the beaver activity. Beyond that, you can see hills covered mostly in white pine (Pinus strobus), with some red oak (Quercus rubra) mixed in; this mix of pine and oak is typical on upland glacial till soils in eastern Massachusetts.

These are characteristic colors of mid-November wetlands in Concord: the dull brown and white of dead cattails and their seeds and the grey of dead or leafless deciduous trees; a sky covered with dull gray clouds above; and in the background, the dark green of white pines with a few spots of dull red provided by the red oaks which still retain their leaves.