The Naturalist's Journal

Shadbush flowers (top left) signal the arrival of migrating fish upriver and the start of the greening of the woods.

 

Earlier this year, I led off an edition of the Journal with that famous quote from Revolutionary War patriot Tom Paine about these being the times that try men’s souls. I wasn’t, back then, lamenting the state of environmental preservation and the failure of the supposed conservation watchdogs in Washington and beyond to guard the henhouse... instead of stuffing themselves with chickens and eggs.

No, my nod to Paine was about the angst I was feeling over the fact that certain parts of the year are not exactly replete with natural history action, and if one is charged with documenting the natural world, there are times during every twelve month trip around the sun when, let’s be charitable, there isn’t very much going on outdoors. But I’m nothing if not curious... and inventive... and, so far in this 41-years-and-counting journalistic journey, I’ve always managed to find something to fill what would otherwise be a black hole with my name slowly disappearing over the horizon line.

There is, of course, a reward for all of that dogged industry, and it became obvious last week when I realized that, once again, I was right in the middle of yet another soul-trying time. This recurrence was not, however, because of environmental paucity. Rather, the angst and, to use a wonderfully apt word from my Yiddish forebears, tsouris came from an embarrassment of natural history riches. All of a sudden, there was too much to write about rather than too little.

I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Instead, I should just focus, although this was easier said than done, especially after I spent an entire day outdoors as a reward for having passed a major health exam that involved... well, let’s just say it was an extremely unpleasant investigation and, had it been positive, would have been worse. Thankfully, everything turned out fine, so, as soon as I recovered, I laced up my boots, shouldered my documentation backpack, and hit the trail. I had plenty of things on the possible-observations list.

Every naturalist has a series of signature stops at certain times of the year, and one of my must-visit places to trek in late April and early May is a modest promontory in southeastern Connecticut known as Lantern Hill. As a climb, it’s not too taxing, but it features a couple of environmental touchstones that make the journey mandatory.

The first—I’m not sure why this is true, but it’s been an annual event for most of the decade—is the debut appearance of a fairly rare dragonfly called the Blue Corporal. Ladona deplanata is among the earliest flying odonates in our area, and it’s considered a Species of Special Concern in Connecticut. (The Blue Corporal, so named because of the two short corporal stripes on the front of its thorax, is not state-listed in Rhode Island.)

Early in my dragonfly-identification adventures, I discovered one of these odes sunning itself on the rocks atop Lantern Hill. At the time, I didn’t know the identities of too many species, and when I saw the insect, I knew it wasn’t familiar. I wasn’t having any luck keying it out in the field guides I had, so, in an effort to figure out its name, I sent the photo to David Wagner, a University of Connecticut biologist I’d worked with to learn how to ID caterpillars, which were his specialty. This might have seemed a stretch, except that Dr. Wagner, I knew, was also an über ode man, and he was happy, praise be, to take me under his considerable wing. He quickly showed me how to identify the mystery creature, and, in return for the guidance, he enlisted me in an ongoing effort to monitor this L. deplanata population.

Once again, here was the Corporal, and while it didn’t pose long enough for a professional portrait, the lone snapshot I managed would be more than enough for documentation purposes. I searched in vain for others, but before I could utter an “aw, um, shucks,” there was a rapid-fire abundance of compensation.

The spring air was alive with soaring Ravens and Turkey Vultures. The forest floor was carpeted with newly vibrant greenery, the leaves of Canada Mayflower and emerging fern fiddleheads in particular. An exquisite, early-flying butterfly called the Pine Elfin seemed to be seeking some form of sustenance in a patch of reindeer “moss.” (Actually, the moss is a kind of Cladonia lichen.) The delicate breeze sent the first flowers of the Wood Anemones, Shadbush, and Rue Anemones into a quiver, and in the more sheltered areas among the rocks, the stunning blossoms of the Trailing Arbutus entertained a steady stream of admirers.

The year’s new crop of bumblebees, all of them queens ready to lay eggs and start fresh colonies, foraged for pollen and nectar in the white flowers. The fat and furry insects were soon joined by smaller and harder-to-identify hymenopterans, most of them solitary ground dwellers. (I’m working on getting to know these important pollinators, thanks to a guidebook on the group I reviewed in the Journal last September: www.ricentral.com/arts_entertainment/a-new-field-guide-helps-the-naturalist-fall-in-love/article_ec1d2b66-bcdb-11e8-a170-4b770afd5d0e.html.)

And then there was something that looked a bit like a bumblebee but hovered like a hummingbird. The insect was obliging enough to pause in what I supposed were pollination duties to let me observe and photograph it at close range—close enough to let me see that any insect with two wings instead of four was a bee mimic rather than the real thing. What I was watching was, in fact, a kind of fly known as Bombylius major. The so-called Greater Bee Fly—a closely related species, the Lesser Bee Fly, lacks the characteristic dark band at the front edge of the wing—is a fascinating creature that, it turns out, is a parasite on the larvae of burrowing bees. When B. major encounters a suitable solitary bee, the fly follows the unwitting insect back to its subterranean lair and, at the opening, coats her eggs with sand, perhaps for camouflage or to make them easier to throw, and then, hovering in place, she pitches a few in the direction of the  underground tunnel. The fly youngsters hatch, make their way to the well-stocked nursery, and, after devouring these provisions, set about eating the bee larvae. Come spring, what emerges is a Bee Fly, not a hymenopteran... and the entire grim scenario begins anew.

It is, to be sure, an ancient story, but while it certainly negates the breeding efforts of individual bees, it doesn’t seem to have any untoward impact on the overall solitary bee population. Over time, parasites and hosts have been able to strike a serviceable balance.

As I took note of this quiet drama playing out in the Arbutus blossoms, I realized that I’d struck a balance, too. Those too-little-to-write-about “paines” were now being replaced by an annual overabundance of natural history gold—an April through November situation that, in itself, can be a “paine.” There are worse things, I thought, as I realized that, in chronicling the Lantern Hill trip, I had no room in this edition of the Journal to relate the day’s other adventure, which featured encounters with Round-lobed Hepatica, a newly returned Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Marsh Marigolds, and a Spotted Turtle, to name a handful. For too much, much thanks.

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