Friday, July 29, 2011

Changes -+Ten Geese a Honking

The lake changes dramatically from day to day—sometimes from moment to moment. On Tuesday there were real waves—stirred up, as usual, by a wind from the southwest. Then came a driving rain and thunderstorm. The next morning, though high clouds still travelled from west to east, the water’s surface moved in tiny rivulets originating in the northeast.
            And the lake population has changed. Now there are many fewer dragon and damselflies. I had read that the flying stage of their lives was short—as little as two months and weather dependent. And of course, birds have probably feasted on them while fish enjoy their larvae stage. 
I watch one large dragonfly ride the wind. His double set of wings is a blur as he flies 12 feet upwind. Then, like the tiny helicopter he resembles (rather, they resemble him) he changes direction, rising suddenly and flying back less frantically on the wind. He repeats the upwind trek and downwind float many times over the next 15 minutes. I imagine he is enjoying it. Am I projecting my own feeling onto him? You bet! If I had lived in the water, dodging the mouths of hungry fish for about four years to finally earn my wings I would soar on the wind every chance I got!
This morning we were awakened by a gaggle of geese—ten of them—on our neighbor’s lawn. I suspect they were just stopping by. I haven’t seen geese here since I made friends with one some days ago. Then nine female Mallard Ducks caucused in the lake. I’m expecting to see eight maids a milking or at least seven swans a swimming.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Model Goose

                I want to learn to paint water. I’ve painted trees and flowers but they are very static except perhaps when there’s a gust of wind. But the lake is a very different story. Sometimes it is perfectly still, mirroring the mountain, trees, docks and shrubs. Then suddenly there’ll be ripples that break into waves. I can see light crosshatch the lake surface—but how do I paint the reflections under the waves with light playing over them?
                I decide to start small—some weeds at the edge of the lake.  The sun plays peek-a-boo behind a large cloud making it all the more challenging. Since I’m using watercolors, I have to paint from light to dark. I cover the lake surface with a wash of silver then start on the lightest green—defining the weeds. I’m hoping a dragonfly will land on them—they often do—but not today.
                I’m busy concentrating on the leaves when I realize that I’m being watched. A Canadian Goose is sitting in the water only a foot from shore. She’s showing me her profile—giving me a one-eyed stare.
                I try to keep my movements slow—dip the brush into water then paint, carry it to the paper, gently touch the surface—expecting the goose to leave any moment. But she doesn’t.
                I don’t have any food here,” I say quietly. “But if you stay, I’ll paint you.”
                The goose shows me her other side. It’s equally attractive. I switch colors. Black neck, brown, tan, even dark red make a scalloped pattern on her back, amber at the base of her breast. The goose starts to turn away.
                “Please don’t go yet,” I call. “I haven’t quite gotten your beautiful neck.”
                She glances back at me but turns away.
                I don’t speak goose. When I was eleven, I had two white ducks for pets—just from spring to fall then my parents released them to join others in a pond.  But I learned to quack well enough to call a duck from across a lake. So now I give a couple of low quacks. My goose turns back,  takes her position and poses for me again. I finish her portrait and even her reflection.
                “Thank you,” I say.
                The goose drifts past me and waddles up on shore a few yards away.
                “Well, hello,” I say. “Sorry. I still have no food.”
                She soon returns to the water and sails out of view. I have yet to paint in the water.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heat Wave

In the lake is the only place to be today. Anywhere else is just too hot. Floating around, looking back toward land, I find that Nature has set up a light show. As ripples roll toward the shoreline, the crest of each is reflected onto a tall tree standing where land meets water. Curving lines of light continually cascade down the trunk, making it look like an upended movie marquee. I wonder if the first person to animate the lights of Time Square got the idea from just such a natural occurrence.

That tree affords the only shade on the nearby shore so I leave the water to sit behind it and attempt—again—to paint the water. I’m getting a bit better at it, seeing three colors—pale amber, slate blue, and a deeper blue-green-gray—and the crisscross pattern of the waves. I begin to block out the weeds on the shore but I have to drop my brush and slap my ankles—repeatedly. Seems I’ve either disturbed some tiny, biting insects or arrived just in time for their lunch. They refuse to stop so I retreat to the dock. No more painting that view for me today!

I rub my ankles. They still itch from a previous attack four days prior in Montclair. I had begun to water a corner of my garden when I felt a piercing stab in my right ankle. As I jumped back there were two stabs on the left. I looked down to see a swarm of tiny yellowjacket wasps. The water must have jolted their unseen nest. I ran for the house. Armed with a can of insect spray my husband made certain they wouldn’t attack again. I truly prefer to respect all nature and hate having to kill, but in the past I’ve had allergic reactions to such attacks. Besides, they had declared themselves my enemy.

I wish insects did not find my ankles so attractive.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lake Weeds and Eggs

Dragonfly eggs on weeds

The lake is full of weeds today. I’m tempted to call it seaweed, but that’s obviously inappropriate. Lakeweed? If the honor of naming what is floating there had been mine, I would have called it mermaid’s tresses. Long, thin, feathery green and sometimes yellow streamers tangle together. I find a number of websites for lake/pond weed identification. I think what I see is called coontail. I like my name much better. Walking around the lake later I see posted signs informing that an herbicide has been applied to control the weeds—seems to have uprooted them. It says the stuff is safe for wildlife and humans. I certainly hope so.

There are fewer pieces of a broad-leafed weed also floating on the lake surface. And near the water’s edge there is something very curious. Groups of tiny yellow bubbles sit on top of the broad leaves. They look almost gelatinous. I stare at them for a while and decide they might be some kind of egg. Many tiny orange dragonflies hover over them so, when I get to the computer, I begin by looking up the life cycle of the dragonfly. Seems I guessed well. It is dragonfly mating season and the female typically lays her eggs on the water’s surface or on floating weeds. 

I almost wish I hadn’t looked up the dragonfly. The nymph stage is a very ugly bug that lives in the water for several years. I hate the thought that I’m swimming with them. Now I also recognize the ugly shells of bugs that are clinging to the sides of the dock. Amazing that the beautiful, graceful dragonfly emerges from so unattractive a case. Apparently the nymph or larva stage is a voracious consumer of mosquitoes. For this great service I suppose I can overlook its ugliness.

Dragonfly nymph in water- from

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monarch Season

The Monarchs have returned! Well, to be more accurate, at least one monarch female has laid eggs on the milkweed plants in my backyard. I still haven’t spotted an orange and black butterfly in my yard this summer. They are very late. My friend, Trina, who is an expert on the subject and has raised hundreds of butterflies, was worried because she too, had not seen any yet. 

But now the evidence says they are back. It is surely a mixed blessing. When I innocently accepted a milkweed plant from Trina some years ago, I didn’t realize what was involved in being a butterfly farmer. The plants spread rapidly—they are, after all, weeds. And Trina told me that 98 percent of the eggs do not make it to butterflies. Eggs or caterpillars are eaten or do not survive weather conditions. So of course I felt obligated to: search for the teensy eggs, bring them into my home on a milkweed leaf, and each day toss out the frass (insects get a special word for their poop) and replenish their supply of milkweed. Then, when they are ready to go into chrysalis, I find a container for them to cling to.

Each butterfly release is a reward as is sharing them with others. People are excited to get a butterfly chrysalis of their own and watch the amazing metamorphosis. At least three teachers in the school where I used to work expect me to supply them with last stage caterpillars at the beginning of each school year. And of course, with so many people using insecticides along their pathways of migration, monarchs might well be endangered if it were not for the many people who are raising them.

So I expect tomorrow morning to find tiny holes in my milkweed leaves indicating that the newly hatched caterpillars are now at the business of eating. The caterpillars start so small that I cannot see them without a magnifying glass. But that will change all too soon because they are eating, pooping and growing machines.

The tiny dots on the leaves in the picture are monarch eggs.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Damselfly in Distress

A glint of light at the edge of the lake catches my attention. I go closer. There, floating in the shallows where grass meets water, is a silvery damselfly with iridescent wings. I think, Poor thing must be dead.
            Even while feeling a pang of sadness, I decide to retrieve it. Damselflies and dragonflies are such jewels of the insect world. I’ve always wanted to paint them but never got a long, up-close look—as if I could do justice in water colors to wings so transparent I can see the lake through their membrane.
            To my surprise the damselfly, which lies on its back, kicks its legs and waggles its wings. It’s alive!
            I dip one finger under the delicate wings and right it, conveying it to the nearest wild flower. It latches on and flutters its wings. Now I get that close-up look. Only the eyes of this fragile insect seem large—making its head appear the greater part of the pale yellow body. The yellow is accented with silver-gray stripes running down along the tail, which extends the creature’s length by a factor of four.  Even its incredibly narrow legs are striped. Remarkably, it seems to match the colors of the wild flower.
            The damselfly folds its wings and continues to hold on. I take the opportunity to return to the house and come back with my camera. After an hour it flies off. Someday I will try to paint these jewel-like insects.

Lots of great info about damselflies at

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sharing with the Fauna

            The local fauna is definitely taking unfair advantage of us. Yes—we had our Montclair backyard certified as a wildlife habitat. I provide birds with seeds and fresh water and lots of places for them to nest and for small animals to hide. So wouldn’t it be fair if they left us a share of each fruit we’ve planted?

            I really don’t mind that the birds eat all the wild blackberries; after all, they planted them. Though those brambles have become so thick that I can’t get close enough to harvest cherries. Who am I kidding? We saw plenty of blossoms on the cheery tree this spring, then saw small, green orbs on their way to becoming fruit. That was all. Before they could turn red, they were gone.

            The nectarine tree is a total loss too. We planted that about five years ago and have given up hope of ever eating a nectarine. I can’t blame the birds for that, however. Some insect bores into the small, developing fruit, causing it to ooze nectar. Then it turns dark and falls off. I thought to head off those insects this year by purchasing traps that lure the insects. The traps seem to have worked. They are full of small dead nectarine-destroyers. But apparently I did not get enough of them because we lost all those nectarines once again.

            We share our pears unwillingly with a squirrel. He helps himself way before they are ripe—still only about a third their final size. Every day he appears in the tree top and picks a pear. I’ve yelled, “Stop thief!” But he calmly takes a bite and drops the rest to the ground.  Last year he seemed to have entered into a contract with the groundhog who dared the closeness of our back door every morning to finish off the partially eaten pear. So far this year the groundhog is ignoring pears. Maybe he, like us, wants them riper. I hope he’ll soon help himself to the squirrel’s leavings. I hate the waste.

            I’m thankful that at least there’s an abundance of raspberries. The birds leave just enough for our breakfast. They must be too stuffed on cherries, seeds and blackberries.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Relenting Robin

            Something was different one morning when I entered my back yard. The dew wet my bare feet as usual. My large black cat predictably lounged in his favorite place under the hemlock bush. The garden gate was as I’d left it – closed.
            Then a bird whistled, “We greet you. We greet you. We greet you.”
            That was it! There was no scolding yell of the robin—bird song had returned.
            That robin had been the tyrant of the trees throughout May and into mid-June. But this morning I didn’t hear or see him. I looked again at my large cat. “I hope you didn’t have anything to do with this,” I said.
            “What happened to the robin?” asked my husband when he came in with his harvest of salad greens for dinner. “He’s not screaming or chasing today.”
            Now I was concerned. Yes, the robin was annoying—had practically made our backyard unusable. But I hadn’t wished him harm.
            I told my friend Steve about the robin who had seemed to claim our backyard as his own private preserve—and that he had suddenly stopped. Steve is a lifelong camper who knows much from observations of nature.
            “Ever see a baby robin?” he asked.
            “No. But I’m sure they have them.”
            “Your robin was protecting his young. They must have left the nest,” he said.
            Seems Steve was right. What really convinced me was the starling that took over the front yard shortly after the robin’s reign of terror ended. I located its nest in the weeping cherry tree in front of the house. Whenever we crossed the lawn to the car it scolded loudly. And it chased after my little orange cat yelling, “Cat, cat, cat,” so that she always scurried back into the house. Thank goodness that lasted for only a week.

            The cardinals have reappeared—two pairs of them—as have a couple of tufted titmouses (titmice?) The mourning doves and sparrows still visit. They were never intimidated. We even see an occasional gold finch flit through the cone flowers. And I do see a pair of robins browsing through the grass each afternoon. Life’s so much more peaceful now that we have an empty nest.