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.

Gravestone, Salem, Mass.

In Salem, Massachusetts, yesterday, we spent a half an hour wandering around the old burying ground. There are some seventeenth and eighteenth century stones there, and I could have spent a couple of hours looking at them. While I’m most interested in the carving, the inscription on one of the stones caught my attention:

In Memory of
Miss SALLY GRANT,
daughter of Cap. SAMUEL
& Mrs. ELIZABETH GRANT,
who died Sept. 16th 1789:
in the 26th year of her age.

I long[,] she faintly cries[,] to lose my breath
And gently sink into th’embrace of death
Adiue [sic] vain World[,] a long adiue[,] I go
Where joys that have no bound forever flow.

I have been unable to find a source for the short verse on this gravestone. It sounds like it might be a verse from a late eighteenth century spiritual song or hymn, perhaps remembered not quite accurately.

Memorial

We went up to Swampscott today to see the memorial at the train station for the 1956 Swampscott train wreck. The memorial reads:

IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO DIED IN THE
SWAMPSCOTT TRAIN WRECK
FEBRUARY 28, 1956
WALTER D. ALLEN     WALTER B. LEE
RUTH F. BEAN      PAULINE PAVLO
FRANCIS E. BOETTNER    GEORGE S. SILLARS
ALBERTA L. HALEY     DONALD K. TAYLOR, JR.
RAYMOND F. JONES     ERNEST A. TOURTELOTTE
PENELOPE KOTSOVILLIS    GARDNER S. TRASK, SR.
GEORGE V. WARREN, JR.
DEDICATED NOVEMBER, 2005

The memorial is relatively small, and sits at the bottom of the wheelchair access ramp that leads from the parking lot up to the train platform. The actual wreck took place about a half mile farther up toward Salem, along an inaccessible stretch of track.

Our grandfather’s name is the first one on the list: Walter D. Allen. He died before my mother had children, so neither my sisters nor I knew him. Even so, I found it affecting to see his name there.

Tide pool

Tide pool at East Point Sanctuary near Biddeford Pool, Maine. Tentative identifications of organisms in this tide pool: Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea), a snail that is an invasive exotic species introduced in North America in the nineteenth century; limpets (mollusc spp. in family Lottiidae); Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis); barnacles (crustacean spp. in subclass Cirripedia); Knotted Wrack, a seaweed (Ascophyllum nodosum).

Redding to San Mateo

We left Redding, in the narrow upper end of the great Central Valley, and headed south towards home. In the late morning, we stopped just south of Willows at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge to walk the two-mile marsh loop.

There is something about being near wetlands that I find soothing: perhaps the big vista of sky you get from being in an essentially flat landscape; perhaps the nearness of an astonishing number of nonhuman organisms. Carol felt like walking fast and charged on ahead. I walked as fast as she, but stopped now and then to look at or listen to something: a mixed flock of White-fronted Geese, American Coots, Northern Pintails and other ducks swimming cautiously away from me; Marsh Wrens calling in last year’s dead and grey tule reeds; swarms of Red-winged Blackbirds flying across the marsh and up into the trees and back down into the marsh.

I stopped to look west towards the Coast Range in the distance, and the nearer ridge of the Great Valley Sequence, which, according to Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, 2nd ed., “defines the boundary between the flat valley floor and the gaunt ruggedness of the Coast Range.” For someone raised among the smooth glaciated hills and mountains of New England, the mountains and ridges of California always look strangely ragged. This is a landscape defined by ongoing tectonic movement, not by the glaciers of fifteen thousand years ago.

A little later on, I stopped to spend ten minutes looking at an alkali meadow. The soil was almost white in places, the vegetation low and scraggy. It was not a very attractive place. Yet there were a number of game trails criss-crossing the meadow, and earlier I had seen a jackrabbit lopping off towards this meadow. In the distance, through the moist and hazy air, I could just see Sutter Buttes, the old defunct volcano that sits in the middle of the Central Valley.

I finelly caught up with Carol near the parking lot where we had started walking. It was time for lunch. We sat and ate at a picnic table near half a dozen bird feeders. The birds were cautious of us at first, but when they saw we probably wern’t a threat, they swarmed out of the tule reeds and nearby trees: White-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches.

The rest of the ride home was unremarkable and dull. I read aloud from a bad murder mystery while Carol drove. The traffic got bad as we approached San Mateo. At last we arrived at home.

Seattle to Redding

We dropped off Saba at the Montessori school where she works, and started driving south. It was a gray and dreary day, and before long it started snowing. Pretty soon it was snowing hard enough that the ground was white on either side of the highway, and in a few places slush accumulated between the lanes. We saw some accidents: a couple cars spun out and off the highway, something on the northbound side of the freeway with several tow trucks and emergency vehicles and traffic backed up for a mile or more. South of Eugene, the snow stopped, but the forecast for the Siskiyou Mountains was for snow tonight and snow tomorrow morning. We decided to drive as far south as we could before we got tired. Wes topped briefly in Ashland so Carol could collect mineral water from the public fountain in Ashland Plaza. Then we started driving again, winding up over the mountains and back down again until we reached Redding, where we stopped to spend the night.

As for the lithium water, it smells sulphurous, like slightly rotten eggs. The water also has quite a bit of barium in it, so you’re not supposed to drink more than a few sips at a time. If we decide to drink it, we should do with it what they do with “Crazy Water” from Texas: dilute it; “Crazy Water” tastes pretty yucky, too, but once diluted it’s at least drinkable.

San Mateo to Eugene, Ore.

We got up later than planned (and isn’t that how all our trips begin, getting up later than we had planned?), and immediately gave up on the idea of driving to Seattle in one day. Carol researched places for us to stay while I drove through the unpleasantness that is Bay Area traffic. We were glad to get off Interstate 80 and head north, away from the sprawling tentacles of the growing San Jose – San Francisco – Sacramento megalopolis.

I’ve been reading Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, and when Carol started driving after lunch, I read to her from the section on driving Interstate 5 up through the Central Valley: it’s all Quarternary alluvial deposits, for miles and miles, with the one exception of the Sutter Buttes, a group of craggy hills that thrust up seemingly out of nowhere, a volcanic intrusion that seems incongruous.

The geology along the road got really interesting a couple of hours further north, but by that time we had moved on to other things. We sang some Sacred Harp songs, to get us ready for the Sacred Harp convention we’re going to this weekend, and then we sang some other songs — old standards like Moon River, Close to You, Ring of Fire — until I got the hiccups and had to stop.

We drove up, up, up over the Siskiyous, where there was some snow on the side of the road once we got above 4,000 feet, and then down, down, down into Ashland where we stopped for dinner. We saw a lot of street people in Ashland. Two of them accosted us as we walked towards a restaurant. “Hi, how are you?” the young white man said. “Good, how are you?” I said. “Poor and hungry. Can you give us a dollar?” he said. “We’ll stop on the way back,” Carol promised, and we did, but they were gone: it had gotten pretty chilly by then.

As we approached Eugene, we talked about Steve who had lived in Eugene. Steve was someone we had hung out with at the Alaska Sacred Harp Convention in October, and he had died suddenly and unexpectedly in California last month at the age of 60. He was not someone you would expect to die suddenly, and we keep talking about it, trying to make sense out of his death.

And then we were at the motel, where they were showing Olympic ski jumping competitions on a big TV. I talked to one of the young men staffing the desk while Carol checked in. “What they have on right now is figure skating or ski jumping,” he said apologetically. “I don’t need to see figure skating,” I said. He grinned. We talked about all the sports they never seem to show. “Like curling,” I said, “ho come they never show curling?” “It’s pretty boring,” he said, “it’s like people who weren’t good enough to play hockey had to invent a sport they could play.” It turned out that he enjoyed shooting, and shot both pistols and rifles; we both agreed that we would like to see the Olymplic biatholon competition, where you have to ski a certain distance, then shoot. We both looked up at the big screen as another ski jumper twisted through the air in slow motion, then landed wrong and tumbled down the hillside.

Lichens, Camp Meeker, Calif.

These lichens were growing on reddish soil exposed by a road cut, in the redwood forest above Camp Meeker, California. The lichens in both photos are approximately the same size; in the first photo, the edge of a nickel appears at lower left to provide a sense of scale.

As to identification, these lichens are in the genus Cladonia: the primary thallus consists of whitish-green squamules (the little leaf-like things at the bottom of the organism); and arising from the squamules is the podetium, an upright structure characteristic of the genus Cladonia. But to determine which species of Cladonia, I would have had to collect some samples and carefully examined them. In Lichens of California, Mason E. Hale Jr. and Mariette Cole state that “Cladonia is one of the first lichens collected by amateurs; since I am a rank amateur when it comes to lichens, it is thus no surprise that I paid so much attention to these showy and fascinating lichens.