tiger beetle

it all started last sunday: on my way to oxbow in harvard i noticed off the side of the road a sign for guggins brook conservation land in acton. i didn't have time to visit but i went online and did some research. turns out the town of acton has many conservation lands, many with trails and printable pdf maps. it's sort of a hidden gem because in all the nature books i've read none of them ever mention acton. a check of the weather forecast said today would be the nicest day of the week and just so happened i didn't have very much work today so i decided to take it off and going naturing instead. i woke up this morning a little sore, side effect of yesterday's run, but nothing too bad. i printed out maps to 6 different locations i wanted to visit. i ate some cereal for breakfast and then headed out for route 2A, a familiar stomping ground.

the first place i visited was wills hole which according to the map contains a classic quaking bog. you'll recall from last year i was all about the bogs and i thought i visited all the ones nearby so i was excited to find a new one. i parked the bike in some shade and got prepared: put on my large backpack (which contained my rubber boots, in case i needed to go bog walking), got out my trail map, and slung the camera around my neck. overhead a small speck was gyrating in the air, i could tell right away it was a red-tailed hawk. as i started walking into the forest, i saw a black squirrel climbing a pine tree.

for the most part, the forest was still preparing for the big party AKA the annual spring flower show. things are popping out of the ground and trees all have their buds but nothing's revealed yet. once more the predominant forest birds were the robins and the predominant forest butterflies were those tiny blue azures. i did see a yellow flower (that wasn't a dandelion, those are all out too by the way) but didn't know what it was, and got a photo of my very first brown elfin (really only exciting for me, a rather nondescript tiny butterfly).

following the long stretch of dirt road (access trail), i saw things flying around. i noticed the carpenter bees but was secretly hoping i might see one of my favorite insects. a flash of brilliant emerald green confirmed my suspicions: tiger beetles are out! i spent the next 30 minutes trying to get a good photo of these elusive beetles. everytime i got close, they'd fly off a few feet ahead of me. i managed to work in the telephoto lens with the macro filter attachment, but that still meant i had to get within 2 feet to get the lens to focus. despite it all, this is what i live for, crouched down on all fours, taking photos of a tiny bug (tiger beetles are about an inch long). a lone hiker walked down the path and scared away a beetle. we chatted briefly; when you've been naturing as long as i have, you can tell real quick if a person you're talking to knows his/her nature. "tiger beetles...those anything like japanese beetles?" the man answered when i told him what i was doing. "no, tiger beetles are actually good bugs, they eat other insects." i asked him if he saw anything interesting, since he was walking out of the forest. "oh, there's blue salamanders, and all sorts of things," he replied. "you saw salamanders today?" i asked, suddenly very serious. "no, i've never seen salamanders before, but i hear they've got 'em in there."

eventually i reached the bog. it wasn't a long walk in terms of distance but because i was chasing beetles it took an hour before i arrived. the boardwalk into the bog wasn't particularly long (i like a really long boardwalk, like at ponkapoag). the end of the walk stopped at the edge of a pond, slowly being swallowed by the encrouching bog vegetation. fatty tadpoles swam away the moment i approached the water's edge. all around i could hear the mechanical squeaks of grackles. although i didn't get a photo, i saw a pretty blue-colored bird with my binoculars repeatedly swooping into the water - maybe a kingfisher perhaps? i waited for it to come back but it never did. off on either side of the boardwalk were pitcher plants growing out from sphagnum moss. they seemed somewhat tattered, hardy survivors of the new england winter.

pitcher plants

coming into the bog i noticed a large mass of frog eggs floating in the water. since i brought my rubber boots all the way out here it'd be a shame if i didn't use them at least once. so i pulled them out of protective trash bag and put them on. a mother and daughter walking their dogs caught me as i was sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, about to jump into the mud. they made a quick detour, didn't want anything to do with whatever i was about to do. the mud was pretty deep, almost coming up to my knees. i don't know what frogs these are but the embryos inside were all green. if i come back in another week i could see the tadpoles developing inside.

my next destination was nagog hill. according to the trail map there's a vernal pool and a path leads to nagog pond. a horse riding school is situated right next to the parking lot so the first few hundred yards into the forest smelled like horse manure.

i'm starting to get in the habit of turning over any log or rock small enough that i can push over to see what's underneath. in the past i never did this because, quite honestly, i didn't want to know what was living or growing under there (slugs and centipedes and other sorts of grossness). but now that i'm on a salamander search, that's where they live, so i'm hoping maybe i'll get lucky.

well, i got lucky today.

red-backed salamander

it was just a log next to a boulder, but situated in such a way that i could sit on the rock and push over the log with my legs. as soon as the log lifted, i saw something that looked like a fat earthworm but it wasn't colored like an usual earthworm. in my mind i was already asking, could this be a red-backed salamander? did i actually find one? i just stared at it for what felt like infinity, trying to see more. then it started moving and even though i couldn't see its head yet, i could definitely see its legs. earthworms don't have legs. and then it crawled completely out from under the leaf litter, this wormy-looking thing that was definitely a salamander, with a frog-like head and feet for crawling around (about 3" long). i was in an awkward position, still holding onto the log with my legs, yet somehow i managed to grab my camera and take a few snapshots. after a few minutes the salamander turned and crawled back underneath some leaves. i slowly lowered back the log.

so my very first salamander sighting! not including newts and efts. still, it wasn't the yellow-spotted salamanders - famous for those spring mating migrations. that's the one i really want to see. i also read that red-backed salamanders are actually pretty common (you just have to keep on flipping over those logs). nevertheless, that was definitely the highlight of today's outing. after that i made it to nagog pond, which is this amazingly clean and tranquil body of water. i walked around the edge a bit looking for snakes before heading back out.

behind the horse riding school is where the vernal pool is located. i made a quick stop to take a look. the pool had that weird rainbow-colored sheen i saw at the broadmoor vernal pools. near one end of the pool was a large mass of frog eggs, all green like the ones i saw back at the bog (now that i think about it, i think they might be green because of algae growth, not their actual color).

frog eggs

by then it was starting to become late afternoon and i noticed there were a lot more flying bugs, flying bugs like mosquitoes. i kept on moving and slapping myself so as to not get bitten, but they were more annoying than aggressive, almost like they don't know how to bite yet. looking into the vernal pool i saw it was filled with tiny wiggling things - mosquito larvae! i felt like i was watching a movie where the alien invaders are about to invade earth and underneath in big bold letters are the words TO BE CONTINUED. i quickly made my way back to my bike and left.

i wanted to visit 6 spots but ended up just seeing 2. acton has a lot more to offer, i'll be back again the next change i get. in the meantime i made it back home and quickly jumped into the shower to check myself for ticks. miraculously, i escaped tick-free. since i didn't have any lunch, i ate the easter ham manny gave me last night (great ham!). i went down to the basement and finally turned off the furnace (winter is officially over!). my mother came over with dinner and ate here. afer she left i watched the baseball game (red sox lost). sometime during the evening i heard somebody frantically knocking on my front door. it was my neighbor renee, she couldn't start her car and her key was locked in the ignition and asked if i could fix it. i gave it a try but she ended up having to call the 24-hour subaru help desk.