My nature muse and a delightful experience

Dear unseen spirit,

You are a muse for me who permeates the air and leaves and water and earth that form the sphere in which I feel so at home, at rest yet invigorated, excited, awed, happy and amazed in turn and sometimes simultaneously, in a welter of positive emotion and feeling.

Yesterday, you brought me one of those moments. A smallish, perhaps teenaged, painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), with a smooth ebony carapace with some iron oxide-like highlights, was busy laying her eggs. My friend Lucretia and I stopped to watch.

Lucretia had discovered her while walking a fence line near a lake cove, sticking to that border of mostly bare dirt except for some leaves and twigs so she could avoid the longish grass that could very well be harboring ticks and chiggers – the nemesis bugs for birders and naturalists!

 

Ms Turtle was not quite vertical but leaning like the Tower of Pisa with her bottom in a hole she’d dug and her red-striped front legs anchoring her above. She was using her back legs and toes to move aside dampened clay earth, sometimes moving her body side to side to widen the depression. We wondered how much she’d had to urinate to get the dry ground to a nice malleable consistency; it turns out that painted turtles can store water in their urinary bladder, which helps with buoyancy in the water – and nest digging on land.

When we first stopped, she withdrew her head into her shell and stayed motionless but not for longer than 45 seconds or so. Her natural impulse for self-protection was weaker than her need to procreate, so she resumed moving small mounds of earth.

After some 15 minutes or so, we moved on along the cove, Lucretia noting birds and me looking for dragonflies to photograph. Spring was still in the air with one female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) being chased by 3 to 5 males in an aerial ballet as they sought to be the one who could grab her head and become her temporary mate.

One pair of conjoined dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface while others hovered over water plants or rested on shoreline foliage for a few minutes.

Spangled skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

  

Eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera)   Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Thoughts of Ms Turtle came back to me and I cut my insect investigations short to go back around the cove to her birthing site. Lucretia was already there and waved me over – she’d just seen Ms Turtle expel two white eggs, which I saw below her tail as she resumed her back-leg maneuvering of damp earth. She was now covering the eggs and perhaps that is also what she had been doing when we arrived. Painted turtles lay from 1 to 11 eggs and we wondered if she had already laid some and was covering them in layers.

At any rate, she was now obviously done with placing her progeny in the nest and was filling in the hole. She deliberately and meticulously grasped balls of soft earth and maneuvered them over the eggs. Her instincts were good and she apparently was doing this all by feel as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Her back legs unerringly found the next clump to move into position and she was quite thorough in making sure it was placed and smoothed over in just the right spot.

The process was slow but careful and as she gathered in the mud, her body began going more and more horizontal – a really noticeable change from when we first saw her more or less standing on end to deposit her clutch.

Ms Turtle was no longer bothered by our presence at all – nothing was going to stop her completing the process, although she occasionally did pause for a moment or two. She’d been at this for at least 70 minutes or so – or perhaps longer if she’d already laid some eggs before our arrival. Lucretia commented on what a hard worker she was!

When Ms Turtle was finally entirely horizontal, resting on the packed earth that was even with its surroundings, she took one more precaution to prevent predators (e.g., snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, raccoons) from finding her developing offspring. She used her back legs to draw in leaves and twigs to top off the dirt over the nesting site so that it looked exactly like the surroundings!

This, too, was done deliberately and carefully and by feel – never once did she turn around to look at what she’d done. In fact, when she was finished, she set off at an angle to trundle rapidly through the grass to the lake, never casting an eye on the covered nest.

 

We vowed to investigate egg incubation times (on average, 72 days, making 19 August a possible hatching day) and Lucretia tied a paper towel on the fence in front of the site so we could re-locate it. I also tied some weeds into the mesh of the fence.

 

In the meantime, Ms Turtle was making good time to the lake and we saw her tip over the shoreline edge, only to end up on her back. Within 10 seconds, she’d righted herself and plopped into the water, briefly floating and then submerging.

 

 

  

   

We spoke about her wonderful work – even if instinctual, it was amazing to watch and we felt privileged to have borne witness to it. Suddenly, not far off-shore, up popped Ms Turtle; she floated at the water’s surface enjoying a well-earned rest after her double labors (birthing and excavation/reconstruction). Her carapace glistened and she was a beauty to see and admire.

It would be super to be able to see her hatchlings emerge in August. I don’t know if we will be so lucky but recalling their mother’s construction of a nursery will be a great nature memory for sure. And who knows what new event you, my nature muse, will bring along in the meantime – when I arrived home, two of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) had hatched!

Mother Nature, you always delight and/or edify to be sure!

Many thanks! Maria

                                 

A working farm as a nature reserve

cattle I77A8663© Maria de Bruyn resTo continue the saga of Braeburn Farm, I’d like to introduce you to some of the non-avian wildlife to be found there. As a vegetarian, I’ll admit I was originally a bit reluctant to go there, but I must acknowledge that the farm management does many things to give the cattle a good life.

Red Devon cattle I77A6581© Maria de Bruyn resThey keep their herd of Red Devons (Bos taurus) to about 300 animals and allow the calves to reach the age of at least 3 years. Some cows and bulls are allowed to grow much older (10-12 years or more) and they enjoy a peaceful life before they go to market, rotating through the farm’s varied habitats, which include meadows and fields, ponds, woods and creeks. No pesticides are used in the habitats and the vegetation is allowed to grow as naturally as possible. Farm manager Nick said that when it is time to shift the cows to a new pasture area, he just calls them. The older cows know that they will be enjoying fresh and different veggies so they follow him willingly, leading the rest of the herd along.

My visits in June and July showed how this farm is cultivating biodiversity among plants and wildlife. The fields were dotted with thistles, white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and many other plants.

brown-eyed Susan I77A7112© Maria de Bruyn res        Moth mullein Verbascum blattaria I77A5812© Maria de Bruyn res

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)                           Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Bees and butterflies were abundant, showing that the farm’s methods are good for the pollinators.

clouded sulphur I77A6930© Maria de Bruyn res    Clouded skipper I77A7102© Maria de Bruyn

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)                             Clouded skipper (Lerema accius)

Least skipper IMG_0155© Maria de Bruyn    Sachem skipper I77A7026© Maria de Bruyn res

Least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)          Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris)            cabbage white I77A6735© Maria de Bruyn res         monarch I77A6970© Maria de Bruyn res

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae)                      Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus), margined leatherwing soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus), bees and various species of syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies and often mistaken for bees) were exploring the thistles.

leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res   leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4400© Maria de Bruyn res

margined leatherwing soldier beetle IMG_4437© Maria de Bruyn resMargined leatherwing soldier beetle

Eastern carpenter bee 2 I77A6964© Maria de Bruyn res            syrphid fly Sphaerophoria I77A5781© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)            Syrphid fly (Sphaerophoria)

common oblique syrphid fly Allograpta obliqua IMG_4418© Maria de Bruyn res

Common oblique syrphid fly (Allograpta obliqua)

Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn bg    Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn res

Syrphid fly (Palpada vinetorum)

Elsewhere, the nymph of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) moved along large leaves.

Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4499© Maria de Bruyn    Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4481© Maria de Bruyn res

It pays to look down at your feet as you wander through the fields in the early morning. The grasses are covered in tiny webs that glisten with water droplets. Underneath are the tiny red dwarf sheetweb spiders (Florinda coccinea) that may show themselves if you stay very still.

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0117© Maria de Bruyn res     dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0126© Maria de Bruyn res

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0127© Maria de Bruyn   dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0121© Maria de Bruyn

In the vegetation below you can also see other insects, like the Spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus), or the Forage looper moth (Caenurgina erechtea).

spur-throated grasshopper Melanoplus IMG_0152© Maria de Bruyn res      Forage looper I77A5943© Maria de Bruyn res

Various dragonflies and damselflies balance on grasses and sometimes alight on the ground (the former hold their wings out when resting and the damselflies fold their wings along their bodies).

halloween pennant I77A6315© Maria de Bruyn res   halloween pennant Celithemis eponina I77A6337© Maria de Bruyn res

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Double-striped American bluet Dancer damselfly I77A6155© Maria de Bruyn res

Double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens)

widow skimmer I77A6998© Maria de Bruyn bg

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

common whitetail I77A6394© Maria de Bruyn res

Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

At the creek crossings, you may see a common sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus, a lifer for me!), paper wasps (Polistes) or a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) having a drink or looking for a mate. The viceroy mimics the monarch but can be distinguished easily with the line crossing its wings horizontally when you see it rest.

Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6480© Maria de Bruyn res    Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6508© Maria de Bruyn res

paper wasp Polistes I77A6454© Maria de Bruyn bg       Viceroy I77A6432© Maria de Bruyn res

Walking through the fields, you may also occasionally spot a mammal although they are not as easy to see as the other wildlife. As I trudged around a pond, this white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) was startled from its hiding place – showing off the part of its anatomy for which the species is named and looking as if s/he was sporting a very large feather.

white-tailed deer I77A6198© Maria de Bruyn res           white-tailed deer I77A6199© Maria de Bruyn res

On one outing, Nick and I spotted a couple darling raccoon kits (Procyon lotor), who wasted no time scurrying for cover when they spotted us.

raccoon I77A7213© Maria de Bruyn res     raccoon I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn res

Red Devon cattle I77A6617© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm is a great place to spend quality time outdoors. You can contact the farm management to schedule a visit and they will instruct on which fields and areas are open for visitation. And if you should wander by mistake into a field with some of the cattle, you needn’t worry as the Red Devons are likely to walk away or just watch you as they are a placid breed. I hope that Braeburn Farm becomes a popular birding and wildlife observation area so that we can continue enjoying visits there.