Beauty in small things

Lichen are so tiny and so close to the ground that we often ignore them. In close up they are fascinating. They are a fungal host in symbiosis with either algae or cyano-bacteria, which perform photosynthesis , under the protective cover of the fungal host. The component organisms cannot live independently: they need each other to survive.

It is possible to observe roughly how they reproduce, although many of the details are still not well understood. They have a variety of different methods.

The Trumpet lichen, of the genus Cladonia, extrudes tiny trumpet-shaped stalks called podetia:

Cladonia sp. lichen

The little pea-like objects inside the podetia are the lichen “spores”. More properly, they are called soredia, and they are granules of algae and fungi ready to disperse and start a new lichen. Here they are in close-up.

Cladonia sp. lichen

Other lichens have different strategies. This is a ruffle lichen, as I usually find them, on a fallen tree branch. .

Ruffle lichen

This one, however, looked different.

Ruffle lichen

In close-up, those brown patches are shiny:

Ruffle lichen

They are, I think, isidia: small growths of the upper cortex with a shiny surface, and they are the fruiting bodies of this type of lichen. They are brown after rain, they turned black the next day when they were dry,  then brown again after another rainy night.

The lichen below is a species of pelt lichen, Peltigera, that grows on rock, and the reddish brown upcurled lobes are the fruiting bodies:

Pelt species, with reddish brown lobes that are fruiting bodies

The moral of this tale is look closely at your lichen, especially after rain, and you might be delighted. This illustration is from a 1908 German book, entitled “Flora im Winterkleide”, or “Flowers in winter dress”, the artist clearly recognizing the beauty to be found in small things.


Frog Blog 6

The tadpoles are growing apace.  Here are three photos, taken over a total of two weeks, to show you how much they have grown.  If you hover over each photo you can see when it was taken. How long do you think it will be before the legs appear?? I am guessing within a week, fingers crossed.

I have put some of the tadpoles back in the pond, because I thought they needed more room to swim around. I have kept about 16 for now, and I may put a few more back as these get bigger and bigger, But they have a good safe place to live with me, and I am feeding them well, and there are no predators in my kitchen!

In with the tadpoles this morning was a tiny miniature water snail. Here it is next to the dime to show you how small it is:


In close-up it is very pretty. Look carefully at the next photo and look for two things: its eyes, and its mantle. “What’s a mantle”, you ask. Patience, and I’ll tell you!


First, the eyes. They are the two tiny black dots at the base of the tentacles. The mantle is the soft part of the snail, and in some snails, like this one, it has flaps that partly fold out over the outside of the shell.

It walks around using its entire body like one huge foot. Here is a picture of one taken from underneath, when it is walking around on the inside of a glass bowl.

pond snail


Clothed with scarlet*

[For the adults who don’t read my Frog Blogs, here is a grownup post. I started this one a while ago, and it never got sent because I got distracted, but I thought you might enjoy it anyway, and I updated it with one more scarlet bird.]

American Robins (both sexes) have striking red breasts, and when you see one in a field it stands out from its surroundings in a way that seems to invite attention.

American robins

But then you see one in an apple tree amongst last year’s apples, and suddenly it almost disappears:


Cedar Waxwings, Bombycilla cedrorum,  are handsome birds:

cedar waxwings

And they too were eating the rotting apples as winter refused to relinquish its grip:

cedar waxwings

They are called waxwings after the vermillion tips of their wing feathers, apparently dipped in sealing wax by an unseen hand. You can see them peeping out on the lower of the two birds. Their Latin name Bombycilla means silky tail, because the plumage is especially soft. Wouldn’t you love to be able to touch one? I think it is why so they are very hard to photograph, because the feathers are extremely fine, and my brilliant camera struggles to focus!

And a month later, I saw this stunning Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus:


They are not rare, but for me it was my first glimpse. Like all our woodpeckers at this time of year they are drumming like crazy to attract a mate, which makes them easier to find in the woods. Why it is called Red-bellied when it has this flame-coloured head and nape, I cannot imagine.

* The robins in the snowy tree inspired my title,  from the King James’ Bible, Proverbs 31:21

She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.  

Frog Blog 5

Answer to the Mystery Photo from last time: The photo was of a Mayfly nymph. It breathes through a forest of feathery gills:


The beautiful Mayfly that emerges looks like this:

Mayfly, sub-imago, also called a dun.

Back to the tadpole. They are getting really big now. But this morning I was puzzled. In amongst all the big guys was one teensy one. I took a picture of it next to one of the giants:


What has happened? Did this one just hatch very late? Maybe, but I have a different theory.

A week ago, the wood frogs stopped making their quacking sounds, and returned to the woods. Instead, the spring peepers began. Here is what they sound like:

Spring peepers are even smaller than wood frogs. Here is a picture of a full-grown one one on the edge of a hydrangea leaf:

spring peeper

So I think the tiny tadpole is a spring peeper tadpole that was swimming around in my pond, and when I put in fresh water yesterday I scooped it up by mistake and now it’s in my aquarium. Anyway, I’ll keep watching him (or her) and keep you posted.



Deerly beloved ..

We’ve lived in our house in Maine for 38 years. White-tailed Deer are common, but I rarely see them. They eat my flowers, I see tracks, droppings, and signs of browse, but that’s about it.  We have a large field in front of our house, surrounded by woods. Once in a blue moon, a single deer can be glimpsed at the very edge of the meadow, barely out of the woods, but they are very skittish around here, unlike in the suburbs.

On the evening of March 30, four deer emerged from the woods and came some way out into the meadow.


I was, of course, beside myself with excitement. I crept around a corner of the house, and grabbed a few shots, and then something alerted them, and up went the tail:


One was so panicked it crawled underneath the belly of a larger deer,


and off they went:


The tail is a very effective danger signal, even if only glimpsed at speed.

White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, the only species of deer in New England, can be up to 3 1/2 feet at the shoulder, and weigh up to 400 pounds. A group like this is probably a mother, last year’s fawns, and perhaps even a fawn from the previous year. The fawns are born in June. The following summer, they will leave to forage on their own, but they will return to spend the winter with her, and  perhaps even the following winter.

In New England, deer are often considered pests, and they are widely hunted.  But if they were on the plains of Africa, tourists would badger their guides for photo opportunities of those glorious tails.

P.S. I have since seen a lone deer, on two separate occasions, out in the woods when I was was walking quietly alone.  Perhaps the rarity of my sightings means my particular woods aren’t really very good deer habitat?? I don’t know.

Frog Blog 4

Answer to Mystery Photo from last time: The insect that built itself a house was a Caddisfly. It crawls around on the bottom eating tiny animals and plants. One day, if a fish doesn’t eat it first,  a small fly that looks a bit like a moth will emerge and fly around. 

The tadpoles have grown enormously. Here is how they looked on April 13th, about 1/3 the diameter of a dime:


And here is how they look today, April 18, only five days later, almost as long as the diameter of that same dime:


The tadpoles now have lovely round bodies, and elegant tails with nearly transparent edges that are their fins.  You can sort of see a tiny frog inside. Can you see the eyes?


They swim quite energetically now, here they are:

Here is a new mystery creature for you: what do you think it is? A clue: it turns into something that flies, and it is called after the day of the month when the magic happens and the fly appears …  Answer next time.

Mayfly nymph

And a poem for you: you can read it out loud, or even sing it!

Five little tadpoles swimming near the shore.

The first one said, “Let’s swim some more.”

The second one said, “Let’s rest awhile.”

The third one said, “Swimming makes me smile.”

The fourth one said, “My legs are growing long.”

The fifth one said, “I’m getting very strong.”

Five little tadpoles will soon be frogs.

They’ll jump from the water and sit on logs.

Whaling and the Gray Whale Population

[This is not my usual nature post. Rather than discussing whaling in my other gray whale posts, I though I’d do an entirely separate one. Some people are very interested, others would prefer to move on. Up to you.  This is my last whale post. Next time I return to Maine.]

The Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest have traditionally hunted grey whales from canoes, as shown in this 1883 drawing:


This photo was taken in 1910.


The numbers they caught were small, and a healthy gray population was not heavily impacted.  In the North Atlantic, however, countries like Iceland hunted them from at least the 1300’s and for whatever reason by the late 1700’s gray whales had disappeared from that ocean.

In the Pacific, when the European settlers came and started to catch gray whales on an industrial scale, things changed. One pivotal event was Captain Charles Scammon’s discovery of the calving lagoons.


Born in Pittston, Maine in 1825, about 90 minutes from where I now sit, he discovered Ojo de Liebre lagoon (now called Guerrero Negro), and caught whales there from around 1857, and then in San Ignacio lagoon (where I was) two years later. Within a few years they had killed so many whales that they had pretty much emptied the calving lagoons. Later in life Scammon wrote an apparently unsuccessful scientific book about whales, which is now ironically highly thought of.

 Scammon, Charles (1968) [1874]. The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America: Together with an Account of the American Whale-fishery. Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-21976-9.

In Baja California, the whalers were often based on land and went out in small boats. It was a dangerous occupation; the gray whales frequently overturned the boats, or towed them for long distances.

Moby Dick swam swiftly round and round the wrecked crew. (Page 6

Nonetheless, they caught whales in huge numbers. Between 1845 and 1874 it is estimated that whalers killed over 8000 whales, a disproportionate number of which were mothers with calves.  Dead calves were not counted, so the actual numbers were much higher.

It looks rather charming here, but the reality was quite different.


By 1875, industrial-scale whaling of gray whales was over, and it is thought that no more than 1-2000 whales were left alive, though one estimate was that only 160 remained. In the 20th century only 4 countries continued to hunt gray whales: the USA, USSR, Norway and Japan. They used cannon-fired explosive harpoons, and killed a total of 2407 between 1910 and 1946.

Whaling for gray whales was banned for commercial purposes in the US and Norway in 1937, in the USSR in 1946, and in Japan in 1951. Aboriginal peoples have special quotas for subsistence whaling, about 160 whales per annum worldwide. In 1971, the Mexican government protected the calving lagoons as marine wildlife sanctuaries, and in 1993 they became part of the huge Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World heritage site.

Astonishingly, since whaling stopped and protection began, the Eastern Pacific gray whale population has rebounded to what are thought to be close to their original numbers of around 26,000, and the Eastern Pacific population of gray whales has now been removed from listing under the US Endangered Species Act. They are still protected by CITES.

It seems, then that we are somewhat atoning for our barbaric treatment of gray whales in the 19th century by finally affording them the protection that they desperately needed and deserved. It is heartening to see that recovery on this scale is indeed possible.


I am indebted to James Sumich’s wonderful 2014 book E. robustus: The Biology and Human History of Gray Whales. 

The article below came out this month, and is an authoritative overview of what has been done, can be done, and should be done to rebuild marine life in general.

Duarte, C.M., Agusti, S., Barbier, E. et al. Rebuilding marine life.Nature 580, 39–51 (2020).