The Naturalist's Journal

When the Winter Aconites burst into full bloom during the unnaturally warm weather last week, the blossoms attracted nary a pollinator. The first and, thus far, only insect to take the plunge was a glistening, metallic Blow Fly tentatively identified as a member of the genus Lucilia. 

 

Contributing Writer

In the naturalist’s lexicon—this Naturalist, and just about every other member of the congregation I know—there’s s phrase that comes up over and over again. It’s this: “Sometimes, you get lucky.” I’ve used it often enough in the Journal, and it’s happened to me so many times that, in all honesty, I see it less as a manifestation of dumb good fortune and more as a sign of Divine Blessing.

So it was last Tuesday afternoon, February 25th.

However you define God, He... or She... had clearly been smiling on me. The day before had been almost unimaginably warm with temperatures in the sun reaching the low 70s. There were many patches of pale-blue crocus blossoms open for business, and on one glorious, sunshiny Winter Aconite flower, a small and extremely well-ahead-of-schedule fly was busy lapping up pollen. Seeing this glistening gem, the color of dark and highly polished metal, was itself a blessing, as was having a friend who could help me identify it... at least, tentatively.

When I first noticed the insect, I had high hopes that I was bearing witness to the first of this year’s flower flies. But as I examined it closely and then looked at the photos I’d captured before the critter eluded my net, I realized that it was definitely not a member of the syrphid clan. Still, I thought that über syrphid biologist Jeff Skevington, whose Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America was awaiting a second year of field testing, enlightenment, and delight, might be able to point me in the right identification direction.

Blessed again. 

From his headquarters at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa, Dr. Skevington quickly wrote back to tell me that while he didn’t “profess to know these flies very well,” he had a highly educated guess that was far more specific than my simply putting the bug in the Diptera cubbyhole. “I suspect your blow fly is a species of Lucilia,” the good professor told me, and then proceeded to provide the BugGuide address of a relevant information page: https://bugguide.net/node/view/7176/bgpage, if you’re curious. (If you’re ready for a really deep dive into the fly family Calliphoridae, visit cjai.biologicalsurvey.ca/jwm_39/jwm_39.pdf for your own personal copy of Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 39, which was published in September of last year and will make you a blowfly pro. It’s free, incidentally—a matchless service of the Canadian government, and yet another sign of a more-highly-advanced-than-ours civilization to our north, eh?)

Jeff also let it be known that dwellers in what has become the Banana Belt should consider themselves lucky to be out of the winter woods so early. In Ottawa, he wrote, “I wish that I could say we were close to seeing flowers and pollinators, but we are likely still a month away from that.”

I added the likely Lucilia, to say nothing of the lack of chill, to the blessings list, and there it joined an unexpected observation of the first Water Striders of the year skating nimbly across an ice-free, still-water-pool on the stream named in honor of my son Noah.  (As is becoming a pattern, this is the earliest I’ve ever seen members of the bug family Gerridae.) There was also a quick glimpse of a flying squirrel as I walked my friend’s dog, and, thanks to my live-in granddaughter’s entomophobia, there was a horrified shriek, then a longer sighting, as Stasia discovered a freshly emerged Predaceous Diving Beetle that had spent the winter in the leaf litter near the house and was now crawling over the driveway gravel to make its lumbering way across the lawn towards the neighborhood vernal pools complex. 

In the ridiculous warmth and heavy rains last week, I half-expected to hear the first annoyed-duck calls of the thawed-out Wood Frogs and the bell ringing of their Spring Peeper counterparts, but neither kind of amphibian was fooled by the faux spring. Then, a brief cold snap put an end to such tomfoolery, and things got back to a semblance of climatological normalcy.

However, before that happened, there was the “sometimes you get lucky” moment I mentioned at the outset. On that February 25th afternoon, I had embarked on my thrice-weekly five-mile walks mandated by my cardiac rehab handlers as the closest thing possible to insurance that I will still be able to offer the Journal on its 50th anniversary in February 2028. (Here’s hoping I’ll still have readers... and publishers... of real news.) To make sure I keep a good pace and get my heart rate to the target of over 115 beats a minute, I’ve stopped carrying my camera gear, and only pack some small, lightweight binoculars that I use as rarely as possible.

Some treks, I never stop at all.

On this one, as I was approaching the Palmer’s Pond wetland I mentioned in last week’s waterfowl edition, I noticed what was probably a large Red-tailed hawk in one of the big trees that ring the pond. I didn’t think the raptor was likely worth stopping for, but force-of-habit—sorry, cardiac team—had me taking out the binoculars and giving the hawk a brief once-over. As I focused on my subject, a pair of annoyed Red-winged Blackbirds flew straight at the bird and forced it into the air. Once the majestic creature left the shadows, its pure white head and tail revealed its identity: a fully mature Bald Eagle! (It takes our nation’s symbol at least four years to develop its iconic adult feathering.)

There’d been reports around town that a member of the Haliaeetus leucocephalus tribe was here for a visit. The luck of the Irish had rewarded me with an eagle sighting on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2019, and this year, the good saint arrived a few weeks early.

Would that I had a way to record the jaw-dropping observation with more than just words, but the unexpected bird wasn’t back on its perch when I finished my walk and returned, telephoto-lens-equipped camera in hand, about an hour later.

There’s a time-honored piece of advice that photographers offer to acolytes that bears repeating: “F/8, and be there.” The phrase, attributed to the great New York City street photographer “Weegee,” a.k.a. Arthur Fellig, means that if you want to take good pictures, use a sure-fire lens setting of f/8, and get out there and shoot.

I didn’t really expect that I’d be blessed with good luck again—after all, I spotted last year’s eagle pair just once and, so far, never again in that area—but the next morning, I returned to Palmer’s Pond, poised and ready. Woody Allen once noted that “80 percent of success is showing up,” and, praise the Lord, there I was, and there was the Bald Eagle. It eyed me haughtily, offered various views of its splendid white head feathers, and then took to the air slowly and gracefully, as I followed its movements in my 400mm lens and viewfinder. Eventually, the eagle disappeared, and, as I write this on a windy and cold Friday morning, the bird seems to have left town. Its blessings remain on my photo database. So, I hope, does my good luck. If and when it arrives, may I be well equipped—f/8 and there—to take advantage of it... and share the wealth.

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