Tag Archives: nature

Lunar Camel Co. field guide to nature, ch. 5: North Haven

As I explained in my last post on the subject, my mornings on the island of North Haven always begin with a stroll around the perimeter of the house, coffee in hand, Looking At Stuff. Apparently I’m part of a long-standing tradition. As the North Haven Historical Society explains, the island was discovered by “rusticators” in the 1880s, first coming from Boston, then from New York and Philadelphia, and what is it I’m doing if not rusticating? Sometimes I rusticate all day long. In the years that I visited the nearby island of Vinalhaven, my viewing tended to focus on osprey fishing dramas, with the occasional hairy moth for comedic relief. The location of the house I’ve been renting on North Haven is not situated quite so close to osprey fishing grounds — a pity, since they’re vigorous and adroit in nearly everything they do — but it’s been very good for moth and spider-gazing.

luna moth macro, square format

A luna moth in the faux bois style, Vinalhaven, 2007.

the woodpecker was here

There are plenty of woodpeckers at work on North Haven,
but they’re camera-shy.

*****

For much of last week my friend and I were captivated by the goings-on of two spiders down a web-hole in the driveway, and returned to it to check on them several times each day. I’d seen this type of web many times before, littering the grass, sometimes as neatly hemmed as a handkerchief blown off a washline — the handiwork of the Agelenidae family — but the hole in this one was full of tension: they were engaged in a stand-off that lasted for days. A timely stand-off: mating for this type of spider “occurs in late summer or early fall.”

the scene of the spider drama

One of the two had a more substantive spinneret, round and plump where the other’s looked almost perfunctory, more like a husk. We presumed the bigger and curvier of the pair to be the female, full of silk, and from her position we also surmised she was the original occupant and defender of the hole. She faced outwards while the other tried to enter, his back to us, advancing further and further down the funnel a few steps at a time over a period of two or three days. His progress was not consistent at all; he was repeatedly put into retreat, and several times reduced to standing just outside the entrance. Clearly they were about to fuck, or fight, but in what order? We didn’t want to miss any of the action but the arriviste often blocked the view, and I could never quite make out whether his acquaintance’s eight eyes were saying “get OUT!” or “hey, hi.”

spider confrontation

Or both at once. Spider romances can be hard to parse. We returned again and again to try to do precisely that, and one morning there was just the missus home. Whatever had happened, she’d apparently eaten him afterwards, and this required extensive thinking-about in the hammock: might people, in certain rare circumstances, benefit from this practice?

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The common female funnel grass spider was the subject of a recent study on sexual cannibalism, and it turns out they can go any which way:

[The researchers] found that the females were likely to eat any male that arrived if they were hungry, or just feeling particularly aggressive. In other scenarios, they found the females a little more discerning, allowing some to mate with them, while eating others. In some extreme cases they found some females that refused to eat any males at all, and some that ate every male no matter what else was going on.

Phys.org, reporting on a University of Pittsburgh study published in Animal Behaviour.

With her gentleman caller so tidily disposed of, this individual spider probably will not find herself carrying, years later, a useless, stubborn, ossified little ball of love and acceptance that she’d mostly prefer to be rid of, and that she once felt sure she’d successfully passed through her irritated digestive system like a kidney stone. She’ll almost certainly never spend an odd and sleepless night brooding over the way his relentless caginess had made her feel panicked beyond belief and reason, mortified by the words her panic had manifested itself in, and pointlessly wondering whether she ought to have simply bitten his head off the very instant she’d first had a clear-eyed look at him, cleanly and incisively. She probably won’t waste a moment of her time marveling at the circular little dance he performed, obscuring parts of himself so as to be more likable, drawing attention to others that somehow didn’t hold up, all the while skittering away from any fool or creep who might like him too much. At the very least she’ll never have to suffer him suggesting that she’s too sensitive about things, as if she ought to wear some sort of protective gear, as a welder does. Or as if her sensitivities are out of order — maybe she ought to take a sharper look at her priorities and put her 401-k nearer to the top? Eight angry feet to stomp are not enough. No, she’s probably free to enjoy a peaceable solitude down her well-tended bolt hole, watching the shadows outside lengthen, sinking her mouth into the soft, glimmering, green-black abdomen of one fly after another without feeling wary and worn-out and guarded, qualities that she has always pointedly disliked in other spiders.

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Or, as my friend sensibly pointed out, “maybe he got laid and took off.”

*****

Some of my most memorable nature-viewing moments on these islands have gone unphotographed, for various reasons. I’ve yet to visit either Vinalhaven or North Haven without at least one good bald eagle sighting, for example, but I never seem to have a camera in hand when it happens, and anyhow I think they all look alike. The tufts of strange, pubic mosses that cling to the trees might have more character.

tree moss

tree moss

Seals pop up every now and then, but they tend to keep their distance. This past Saturday my friend and I sat on the rocky beach across from the house and talked about four nearby seals for a good part of the afternoon while they (possibly?) conferred about us. They were very good company, but I didn’t have any urge to try to capture their little round heads bobbing up and down, not over such an expanse. I prefer close observation to mechanical zooming-in-on.

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My most sensationalistic sighting took place on Monhegan Island some time in the late 90s, at considerable distance but wholly consuming. My friend and I were out hiking and cautiously approached the edge of a very sharp, very high cliff crawling on our bellies. (Not overly cautiously; Monhegan’s cliffs are serious, and last year while we were on North Haven an Irish visitor to Monhegan was swept out to sea and killed after he lost his footing). When we looked down we saw two massive orca whales splashing about in the water below, almost preposterously close to the edge of the island, and close enough to the surface that we could see their full length at moments. I didn’t have a camera with me at the time, but if I had, the height, the wind, and the waves and whales crashing below would probably have kept me from reaching for it; I felt sick with vertigo, and very nearly as tempted to back away as to keep watching. I don’t know enough about whale behavior to know what they were doing, but from my vantage point they appeared to have found a spot where they could stretch out and enjoy the turmoil around them, their breaching and lunging some sort of commentary on or appreciation of the endless conflict between granite and ocean. My stomach was down there with them.

*****

The moths of North Haven and Vinalhaven are numerous and varied. I know very little about them but seem to be on the verge of getting into them in a big way. I’ll be in New Mexico next month and I’m eager to see what sort of moths they’ve got, though somewhat concerned about the lack of porch lights in the desert. (I’ll be meeting up with friends near Albuquerque and driving to Monument Valley). The moth below is Ennomos magnaria, a Maple Spanworm moth, and upon close inspection it wears a mullet.

leafy moths

moth mullet

fuzzy moth

They seem to hang around far longer than other types of moths, no matter how frequently the screen door swings open and shut. I think it takes them all day to dry the dew from their hair.

*****

beach llama

Beach llama.

my new book accessory

New reading accessory.

"the baked potato"

“The baked potato.”

*****

My friend had another well-considered observation the day after the spider drama had come to a head, when he came out to join me on the deck and found me inches away from a very large spider of some other sort that was dangling out of a shrub, a brown spider as big as the first joint of my thumb. These islands in Penobscot Bay are full of spiders, some more monstrous than others; Wikipedia says the nearby island of Islesboro is home to the up-island spider, “also known as a hearse-house spider,” and “thought to be a species of unusually large wolf spider. . . . Its unusual feature is its size, by some reports spanning at least 8 inches with its legs splayed out. Some specimens are reported to be large and heavy enough to create audible footsteps in a quiet room.” I had a camera between me and it, but, my friend admonished, might nonetheless end up with a face full of spider, and probably would not be happy if that happened. It’s not that I was unconscious of my peril. It’s that my urge to document things overtakes me at moments, and I become an instrument of it, unconcerned with my own self-interests. It was probably for the best that the ugly little beast disappeared up its rigging before I could steady myself to get a better shot. My friend also thought it remarkable that I should love bugs on vacation but mostly hate them at home, but it makes perfect sense to me: people are deeply, deeply irrational.

*****

Chapter 4 of my field guide to nature is here and you can work your way backwards from there. Like the ones preceding it, it fixates on trees.

Lunar Camel Co. field guide to trees, chapter 2

I’ve blogged about trees kind of a lot. Some of my favorite specimens are here, here and here. My friend Jim asked if I’d seen any good ones lately and I said yes of course, the woods are full of them, and it is easier than ever to spot vague obscenities in the off-season, when there isn’t so much distracting greenery about.

treehole with stuff in it

We don’t have nearly enough trees in Manhattan so I’m thinking about doing something more public with my collection of them.

trees of Harriman State Park, figure B

I don’t mind showing them to you like this but they’d be much better big, 2′ by 3′ prints or somesuch.

trees of Harriman State Park, figure A

I’m recovering from surgery at the moment but looking forward to adding to my tree collection soon. It’s been a mild winter in my part of the world, so I haven’t really had to take a break from my observational field trips. I keep thinking every hike will be my last for the year, but there’s always another. I thought a November hike in CT would surely be my last until spring. The air smelled like snow, and with the dressing rooms closed for the season the little beach on the lake by the park’s entrance looked lonelier than ever.

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The trees looked lonely too, or maybe just self-conscious about their nudity.

the trees have eyes

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It was the time of year when allegedly pumpkin-flavored donuts come out. They seemed like an ideal post-hike snack but the actual flavor was closer to orange-colored holiday.

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This famous beardo ice-scraping system I admired at a local discount store probably would’ve made a better souvenir. As Mr. Lunar Camel Co. noted, “it looks like he has the ice under control.”

famous beardo heated ice scraping system

There were strangely compelling breakfast systems on offer too. Plastic crap, yes, but if bears could take crap like this back to their caves and have it there when they awaken from hibernation, they probably would. I think that is the idea, to settle in for a very long nap, a nap so long your hands will tingle with pins and needles for days afterward, leaving you unable to prepare breakfast without these contraptions.

outlet shopping breakfast section

Later in the season, when I went for a hike at Harriman State Park, I found an ideal hibernation spot, a small cave protected by icicles.

icicles of Harriman State Park, figure D

There’s all sorts of exciting, twinkly bits like this in the woods in the winter. You just have to wear more layers to go look at it. Here is something I’d never seen before, because — I am guessing — it only happens at very particular temperatures, when the ground is a certain temperature in relation to the air: spindly strands of ice poking out of the dirt. They’re strong enough that I could easily pluck a few out and set them on a nearby rock for looking-at with minimal breakage.

weird ice

mystery ice specimen

I’m going to read up on weird things like this until I can get out into the woods again. In my cart right now:

Winter Tree Finder

Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in Winter by May T. Watts and Tom Watts. I like leafsnap but one needs a book for leafless moments.

Forest Forensics

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels. I always want to know what I’m looking at so I’m excited about this.

Gathering Moss

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Not winter-specific; I just really like mosses.

Do you go hiking in the winter or do you prefer to look at trees on the internet until it’s warmer outside? Recommend any books or unusually cozy socks for me?

among the turtles and the cacti in Queens

On Saturday afternoon I went to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. It’s near JFK airport but it’s a peaceful place. The trail is short (I think 1.7 miles?) but there are interesting creatures to meet and plants to admire, and the views of Manhattan are excitingly Wizard of Oz-esque.

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I live in Harlem so we got on the FDR at 116th St. Here’s Uneeda Check Cashing in East Harlem.

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Voila, the Wildlife Refuge isn’t very far. If you’ve got a cashed check burning a hole in your pocket there are some interesting places to eat in Queens along the way.

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A turtle depicting a turtle in the Visitors’ Center.

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Manhattan in the distance.

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Shy turtle.

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A pile of logs with snakes reportedly living inside.

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There’s cacti growing all over the place. Yucca too.

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And rosehips.

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Shore birds.

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A pair of ospreys in their nest.

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Cannoli Italian ice from Uncle Louie G’s in Howard Beach.

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I went to CT for the weekend and had my first hike of spring on Saturday at Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, CT. That sort of thing can be very exciting in its way. Do you people like nature? I find it tremendously restorative to walk in the woods, even when it’s chilly and damp and the trees are still bare.

exciting hidey hole

What sort of creature lives inside an exclamation point-shaped hidey hole?

bare trees

round perfect tree

snowdrops

Here’s the beguiling Flintstonian lavender floor at the Parthenon Diner, Old Saybrook, CT. While I was taking this photo my stepfather said “That is a very famous pattern. It’s called ‘bathroom floor.'”

diner floor

f / m / k The Professor, Diva, Dude, Ginormous Egg? They’re at the Stop n’ Shop in Old Saybrook.

choco rabbits

Sunday was too cold for hiking so we bundled up and went for a walk on the beach instead.

clam shells

boats, Grove Beach

sand pattern, Grove Beach

at Grove Beach

seaweed, Grove Beach

driftwood nubs, Grove Beach

Saw this on the way home on I-95. Go ahead and take down the number for your friend. You can’t really see it here but one of the people painted on the windows is saying “hey man, got a smoke?”

going to the clink

There are older photos from a similar field trip on my other blog here if you are really into having a mental visit to CT today. Playlist too.