Hunting Quiet Waters

Earlier this summer I was walking the towpath of a small canal, wondering what I might discover in the heat of the late morning sun.

A young couple and their dog on a seldom used section of towpath trail – one of my favorite places

Nothing caught my fancy so I plopped down on a massive stone abutment, the remains of a 19th century aqueduct. The quiet, spring-fed canal water a few feet below soon showcased some of its many treasures. Miniature predators roamed the duckweed, lily pads and surface film. The activity was unpredictable and, at times chaotic – several species flying, darting, swimming, skating and swirling in all directions, in and out of sunshine and shadow.

Bluets are “pond damsels” and are common around still, sluggish waters and wetlands. They perch horizontally and hunt on the wing. Mosquitoes are fair game.

Damselfly (Bluet) at rest on a lily pad

Damselfly (female Bluet) laying eggs on aquatic vegetation

I once discovered a Water Strider while leading a group of 4th graders on a nature walk and paused to ask if anyone knew what it was. Water Strider!!! They all knew it immediately – a large group of 10-year-old kids, common knowledge. Inhabitants of still waters throughout North America, these fascinating insects dart around on the surface film with amazing speed, feeding on tiny aquatic organisms like mosquito larvae.

Water Strider (and reflection) on the surface film

Other common names include “Skaters” and “Jesus Bugs” (of course — walk on water!).

Water Strider on the surface film in bright, reflected light – underexposed for special effects

Oval, blackish Whirligig Beetles motor around on the surface film like wind-up toys on steroids. Compound eyes allow them to see above and below the film, a nifty adaptation for finding prey and avoiding head-on collisions with obstacles.

Whirligig Beetle (bottom center) pausing briefly on the surface film above a lily pad

A whirling Whirligig Beetle causing concentric circles in the surface film

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetlands: Like a Box of Chocolates

My early summer haunts are mostly wetlands: swampy places, vernal pools, undeveloped canals and small ponds.

Cattails, lilies and swarming insects at the edge of a Leland Pond swamp

These habitats are indeed like a box of chocolates. I never know for sure what I’ll find, and each experience is uniquely rewarding.

One of the more common predators in wetlands and sluggish waters: the Snapping Turtle. This one was foraging in the quiet, weed-choked waters of the Chenango Canal and is heading for shallow water near shore (and me).

A snapper basking in the midday sun along the edge of a farm pond; MSC Equine Rehabilitation Center

Family of Wood Ducks, adult female and young; Chenango Canal

I travel light and walk and stalk a lot, but also stop and get comfortable when things are slow. Detailed landscapes in the foreground then become the center of attention.

Fragrant Water Lily and damselfly (Bluet)

Green Frog in a tiny, seasonal pool

Swamp Milkweed on the edge of a cattail marsh

Following up on a tip from a former student, a midday excursion to a small pond at the Morrisville State College Equine Rehabilitation Center provided me with a rare opportunity to observe the foraging behavior of a Green Heron. Small fish, frogs and tadpoles are dietary staples; in this instance, tadpoles (probably Bull Frog) were the main target.

A happy heron, with fresh tadpole for lunch

Common Elderberry, approaching full bloom; thrives in open, moist habitats

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetland Jewels

Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are constant companions along woodland trails near wetlands. They perch often on trail-side vegetation, sparkling in the sun like wetland jewels – blue or green, depending on the orientation of the sun.

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Jewelwings are damselflies. They’re related to dragonflies (Odonates), but distinguished by upright rather than horizontal wing positions.

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Ebony Jewelwing, female

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.