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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

book-coverMike DiGiorgio and I did an interview on NPR’s Faith Middleton Show. It was for our book “Guide to the Night-singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole, 2009). I was at the tail end of a bout with bronchitis, and my voice barely held out, but managed to get through it.

NPR puts their shows online a few days later – you can hear it here –

Link to NPR Faith Middleton Show

About this book – We worked on this book for 8 years. I wrote “It started as a hobby, turned into an obsession, and then, when I decided to write a book, it became my job. As much fun as it’s been, I am looking forward to this becoming a hobby again…”

I figured the easiest way to tell you about it is by cutting and pasting the “Introduction”. Here it is:

Introduction

We all hear them. The true katydids scratching out their raspy chirps; the crickets staging their choruses of trills. They are the sounds of summer. They have replaced the calls of the Spring Peepers and Gray Tree frogs, which have already seen to their nuptial duties. Come July, the night singing insects begin to sing. By the end of summer, they’ve reached their crescendo, filling the soundscape of every yard, meadow, woodland, and tree-lined street. Most of us take these sounds for granted. They are just there. But some of us listen. We hear these songs and are grateful for our ability to appreciate what they do for us. Sometimes the sounds create an aural thread to our past, bringing us back to another time and place. Sometimes, we just enjoy that very moment and realize there’s something going on outside our homes that may have little to do with us, but touches our senses.

But, what are making those sounds? While we can hear the katydids and crickets, we rarely get to see them. That cryptic ability allows them to survive. It’s not easy being a bug. There are so many other creatures out to eat them that evolution had to come up with ways to usher them to adulthood. Katydids took the path of cryptic shape and coloration. They look like the leaves and grass upon which they live. Field and ground crickets blend with the soil and dead leaves on the ground, and spend most of their lives under things. They possess a rich diversity of forms that allow them to look like what they eat and the habitat in which they live.

While most guides deal with the eyes – what things look like, this one focuses on the eyes and ears. I don’t know how this happened, but it appears orthoptering has arrived, and seemingly from out of nowhere! It helps that this new interest offers much of the satisfaction of the popular pastime of birding. For one, you have the songs, which can be used to identify the species. You also have the pleasing aesthetic quality of the makers of those songs. Add to that the advantages of having fewer species to learn and the fact that your subjects tend to spend their entire life in one area.

It could be that the growing interest in butterflies and dragonflies got people thinking that insects had more to offer in terms of “the hunt”. It is often the case that one interest leads to another. When you’re out looking for one thing, it is impossible not to notice what else is around. That’s what makes us naturalist types who we are. We’re curious. One answer leads to three questions. One pretty bug makes us want to see another.

However, while a swallowtail butterfly gets noticed as you walk down a trail, a bush katydid is just one of the many leaves along the way.

The purpose of this book is to make those leaves jump out at you. You hear them; now it’s time to put a face to the call. It’s time to see them.

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Board resting perpendicular to hill showing how much it has risen in the last few weeks.

Board resting perpendicular to hill showing how much it has risen in the last few weeks.

Something strange is happening in my yard. I’m not sure what to make of it. You see, there is a strip of lawn on the east side that was flat. In fact, it has always been the only part of my yard that is flat. Because of this, it’s the site where we set up canopies and chairs when we have get-togethers in warmer weather. I think we even did some lawn bowling there one summer. Why? Because it’s flat – real flat. Flatter than the proverbial pancake. You put a level on it and the bubble floats in the middle. It’s the kind of “broke” a person with absolutely no money would be. You know, like a giant skillet came crashing down upon it. Or like the sound a G string on a guitar makes when it’s a tad under-tightened. A straight line connecting two points on a plane, directly across from each other, would have nothing on this lawn. If you traveled back to the pre-Columbus years of the early fifteenth century and described this little stretch of grass to the average person, he would have said, “Oh, like the world, right?”

I just want to drive home the point that it was a flat level area. Always has been since we built our home here about ten years ago. Flat. Flat flat flat.

Then I noticed something when I pulled up to the house a couple of weeks ago. What was once a level strip is now a hill; a small hill, but a hill – and it’s been growing! The photo above shows that it’s about a foot high now. It runs along the length of that strip for about twenty feet. It was not there last summer! Believe me, I would have noticed. When I mow the lawn I save that area for last, because it’s the easiest to mow after about an hour of pushing the lawn mower up and down hills. You know, because of it’s flatness…

So what’s going on? Am I witnessing plate tectonics along the New England coast? Could this be the beginnings of a new volcano? Is there a really big mole tunneling beneath?

I have a theory, but won’t know if it’s correct until spring. This little area rests just west of an elevated area in the yard. That elevated area is often wet, in fact, I have cranberries thriving along its edge. When we first built the house, that level strip used to flood. I had to dig a trench to carry the water away from the foundation. I am thinking that water has collected beneath the lawn and froze in this long, cold winter. This is likely a wicked big frost heave.

So, I could be looking at one soggy patch of grass this spring. Time will tell…

Postscript: July 21 – Meant to tell ya’ll, it’s all been long flat a’gin…

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Betsy watching a Bald Eagle sitting on the ice.

Betsy watching a Bald Eagle sitting on the ice.

Betsy and I went eagling on Saturday. It was the first relatively warm day in a couple of weeks and we had to take advantage of it.

The Bald Eagles come to the Connecticut River from Maine and the northern provinces every winter. They seek out open water where they fish, and sometimes do a little duck hunting. It’s a regular phenomenon that draws thousands of eagle watchers every year.

This is the sub-adult Bald Eagle Betsy's looking at in the above picture.

This is the sub-adult Bald Eagle Betsy's looking at in the above picture.

I usually lead tours for different groups interested in seeing these striking raptors. There is nothing like watching someone see their very first eagle. This is a bird many have seen pictures of, and of course recognize as our national symbol, but have never imagined they’d actually get to see – and up close!

I took a break from leading trips this year, but still needed to get my fix in. The way I see it is if these birds are going to go through the trouble of migrating to an area within twenty minutes of my home, I owe it to myself to see them.

It’s good medicine.

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White-footed Mouse tracks

White-footed Mouse tracks

There are mouse tracks all over the snow in my yard. I’m pretty sure they are made by White-footed Mice, since that’s the species I come across throughout the year. They spend most of the time beneath the snow, but venture out in the evening.

The mouse tracks are often accompanied by another set of larger tracks, these made by our Jack Russell, Maddy.

Maddy tracks

Maddy tracks

Being a terrier, Maddy lives the dream of one day catching one of these little varmints. She knows they’re under there, and is intent on ferreting them out. She actually snaps the twigs growing out above their stronghold, with her teeth, in order to make the tunneling easier. It’s an action I imagine is on the edge of the use of tools. It reminds me of film I’ve seen of crows using sticks to forage. It shows a capacity for problem solving.

Maddy's rump

Maddy's rump

She hasn’t caught a mouse yet, at least that I’m aware of, but the dream lives on. I’m not quite sure who I’m rooting for. I’ve got nothing against the little mousies, but there’s a part of me that would love to see Maddy’s tenacity rewarded.

"There will come a day..."

Incidentally, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about the life cycle of the White-footed Mouse (“A Mouse’s Life – Scholastic). I guess that’s why I feel a certain affinity for them.

From "A Mouse's Life" (John Himmelman, Scholastic)
From “A Mouse’s Life (John Himmelman – Scholastic)

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