The 8 Guardians of Mill Pond Park- Bellmore, NY

For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.

 In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails.  On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.

On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk  to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. They had to know and I had to tell them.

Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat.  After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.

Photo by Brandon Montrone on Pexels.com

If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.

I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true.  My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.

We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.  

It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway.  The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.

The day was not to end just yet, however.

As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.

Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.

It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.

The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?

I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.

In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.

My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.

Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.

When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.

There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.

I really was wearing this shirt:

(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)

Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:

Great Blue Heron (White)

Angel Wing in Birds

Mill Pond Park | Bellmore, NY Patch

Mill Pond Park | Nassau County, NY – Official Website

King of Vessels Wildwood Tarot Card Meanings

Blue Heron – Dolman T Shirt – Curbside Clothing

Tongue-biting Cats and Cowardly Chickens?

Animal Idioms Explained

We’ve all heard the phrase “sly as a fox,” but how sly are foxes, really? Are foxes actually cunning and deceitful in their natural habitats? If not, how did this phrase enter the common vernacular? Should we really still be using this idiom?

I’ve done some basic research on the 4 animal phrases I hear a lot. With some exploration, I found the origin of sly foxes, dead horse beatings, feline tongue thieves, and cowardly chickens.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Don’t Beat a Dead Horse”

As a precociously verbal and compulsively curious kid, this phrase piqued my interest for years. On many subjects, I would ask continuous explanations of the exhausted adults around me. “But why is it like that?” I’d harangue. “Don’t beat a dead horse” came a reply to end the conversation. From context clues, I figured it meant don’t continue talking about a subject that has become pointless or isn’t important, but where did such a gruesome concept come from? Who beats horses, let alone –gulp– horse corpses? 

Photo by Kata Pal on Pexels.com

Background

Apparently, it isn’t just beating and it isn’t just horses. One might figuratively ‘flog a dead horse’ as well. Or beat a dead dog. These usages are not nearly as common in my part of the world, but are alternative idioms.

One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase was popularized during an unsuccessful campaign toward British parliamentary reform. John Bright was said to have been ‘flogging a dead horse’ in Britain’s House of Commons in March 1859, and this is widely believed to be how the phrase was popularized. 

The Horse Phrase Origin

Scholars believe that the phrase originated elsewhere. In the 17th century, a horse was a symbol and slang for hard work. Wages were paid after ‘horse’s work’ was finished. If wages were awarded before ‘horse’s work’ was complete, the work was less likely to get done and the work was considered a dead horse. The likelihood of a dead horse working is nil, so it goes that a prepaid worker is less motivated. It follows that beating that dead horse would be pointless. 

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

As horses evolved alongside humanity as working animals, it is likely a phrase that has been with us dating back to the dawn of symbolic language, with perhaps slightly different meanings. One such usage can be found in the Greek tragedy Antigone

“Nay, allow the claim of the dead; stab not the fallen; what prowess is it to slay the slain anew?” 

In Antigone, this is a reference to the body of an actual dead person, and means there is no sense in punishing someone’s dead body, or, in this case, refusing them burial rites.

There is also an unsubstantiated claim that a Roman citizen and playwright Plautus coined the phrase in 195 B.C.E. It is unclear where this claim originates and, aside from being copied over, it doesn’t appear to be accurate.

“Cat got your tongue?”

This one feels like it’s out of a movie where men wear pinstriped suits, drive oversized Cadillacs, and call the women ‘dolls’. “Hey doll, I got you a present,” a gent might say, brandishing a mink stole. The receiver of the gift, being so stunned into silence by the expense of the gift (or the horror of the nickname) might stand slack-jawed, eyes darting from fur to face and back again. After a beat, he might say, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” The audience understands that he’s acknowledging that she is at a loss for words, at the beauty of the gift, at the rent check wasted, or at the heavy, bribing hand of the patriarchy. But what do cats have to do with speechlessness? 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Background

There are a lot of false, unsubstantiated claims on the internet for this one. Explanations involving Ancient Egyptian delicacies or punishments for British sailors have no direct evidentiary link — meaning they are internet hoaxes or the creation of the confused. What is known is that the phrase became popularized in the 1960s, but it existed as far back as 1859 where a Wisconsin newspaper reporter used it colloquially to mean ‘was not going to say.’ As such, the phrase likely originates from the American West in this time period.

“Chicken”

Don’t chicken out! and I’m not chicken are classic, obscenity-free ways to indicate risk-taking is in play. The exchange might involve a bullying brute standing at the bottom of a tall slide, daring a smaller, younger, or generally nicer kid to climb up and jump down. From the ground, the daree might have agreed, but from the dizzying height of a slide ladder, perhaps had second thoughts. It’s at this point that the darer will yell out, “Don’t chicken out!” as in don’t back down from doing the risky thing you said you’d do, at which point the daree will call back, “I’m not chicken!” before taking the risk and proving that they were not scared.

Background

 Real-life chickens have never seemed particularly risky to me, but I’m not a farmer or chicken sanctuary caretaker or anything. It seems like there are plenty of other animals that are skiddish, nervous, or timid, so how does the chicken cross the road and into our dialect? 

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

According to the Independent, the chicken’s cowardly reputation began in 1600, where William Kemp wrote, “It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! A hebber de hoy! A chicken! A squib!”

It can be found in the works of Dickens and Godwin following this first appearance in print. Personally, I may start using “hoddy doddy” on a regular basis.

Addendum

The chicken is so ubiquitous today that we hardly notice the diminutive and disempowering nature of calling a woman a “chick” or “chicken”. According to some writers, however, women have reclaimed chick as their own, coining female-friendly movies ‘Chick Flicks’ for instance, but I’m not convinced. It still seems clearly offensive to me.

“Sly as a Fox”

This is perhaps best described as the charm offensive. Someone who does something smartly manipulative is often said to be sly as a fox. Foxes are portrayed as clever, cunning, sly, manipulative, self-involved, and vain in modern programming. Reynard the Fox is one such character, who originated in the 12th century, but continues to turn up on television and in movies to this day. Sly foxes date back even earlier than that.

Photo by Funny Foxy Pride on Pexels.com

Background

There are 28 Aesop fables that reference foxes (including The Fox and the Grapes, which I’ve translated into modern vernacular in my new series). In The Fox and the Crow, for instance, a crow finds a piece of cheese and settles on a branch to eat it. A fox, coveting the cheese, flatters the crow by complimenting on its beauty and then asks if the crow’s voice is just as beautiful. The crow lets out a loud caw and drops the cheese, which is quickly devoured by the fox. Pretty clever fox, eh? As Aesop’s fables date back to approximately 600 BCE, it is safe to say that the slyness of a fox has been part of recorded history for millennia. 

Fox Facts

Red foxes in particular are very clever. They adapt well to changes in their landscape or human incursion, and they eat a wide variety of foods based on availability. They raise their young as parental pairs in the expanded, found dens of other animals. 

Although confirmation was difficult, it would seem that the phrase sly as a fox might be a direct commentary on foxes themselves, dating back throughout the oral storytelling tradition of humankind.

Choose Them or Lose Them

Every iteration of these phrases entrenches them further in our modern vernacular. Choose to use them with the full knowledge of where they come from, how accurate they are, and what they intend. Choose to lose them if the meaning or origin is disquieting to you. 

Although idioms are not meant to be taken literally, they draw upon symbolic imagery to emphasize a feeling or observation. How gruesome does symbolism in our daily speech need to be? I don’t want to keep going past sunset but I’m also not jumping back like a coward when I say, let’s choose idioms for their full origin and meaning or let’s lose them from our language catalog.

Are there any phrases that stand out as odd in our modern dialog? 

Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some research and post the answers soon!

April Blog Recap

In its first month since inception,

Sunshine and the Scientist present: Putting Down Roots and Raking Up Leaves

has been garnering a lot of support and well wishes. We’re new to blogging and we’re hoping to be here for a long time. For the sake of perspective, here is the recap on April…

In the month of April, we published 12 entries, predominantly authored by Sunshine, as the Scientist finishes up his current research efforts.

(Sunshine is looking forward to sharing all of the Scientist’s work, explaining data regarding lead contamination in suburban areas of Long Island, where we live and work. The Scientist is looking forward to a long nap and a mint chocolate chip ice cream sundae.)

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

By the Numbers

The 12 entries received a total of 226 views from 90 visitors, from 13 different countries, as far-reaching as New Zealand, Japan, Romania, Finland, and Germany, to name a few. Those entries enabled us to gain 17 subscribers, for a total of 17 *first month data here*.

Stats are so important when looking at anything, really, but especially when working toward a goal.

It is our hope to publish at least once every two days in the month of May, continuing to share a variety of articles and stories, from our personal and professional lives, citing our sources and speaking truthfully. Gaining 17 subscribers in a month is the benchmark, so when rounding out May, we hope to have 2s+1 or 35 to be exact.

Our all-time visitors count is 125, and as 17 subscribers are 13.6% of those visitors, we hope to increase our subscribing rate to 15% of viewers in the next month. This will be accomplished through more effective tagging and more intentionally curated content.

Qualitative Notes

On a more qualitative note, some articles were stellar, unexpected crowd favorites, while others did not get as much attention as hoped.

There’s Something About Lori received the most views and likes, and as it is about the personal journey of recognizing one’s autism (Sunshine’s autism), the reception is greatly appreciated.

Transorted in the Cold, April Rain was another unexpectedly well-received piece, considering it was written reflexively with very little care put into outlining or planning.

Less well-received was the entry published giving some basic advice to parents (With Kids, the Importance of Being Literal), which flipped the script of Sunshine’s life being autistic to showing the main lesson learned from helping autistic kids. It’s a niche audience.

Goals for May

  • Increase reach, reception, and enhance discourse
  • Publish 15 entries, plus Stats and Goals
  • Use feedback to enhance article content

Connect with Us

Please subscribe, follow, contact, and connect. The writing is improved by the opinings and critical receptions of others.

Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds. 

Mantis and Me

On a sunny day in June, I heard my mother yelping loudly from the garage. I knew this instantly as a cry for help, involving an insect or arachnid. Had a bee flown into the house? Was a colony of ants exploring a shelving unit? When I reached her, I was stunned at the sight.

In a shaded corner near the garage door, where dust and leaves had accumulated, a mantid writhed in a thick, cotton-like web. From the coloration- a leafy, uneven and camouflaging brown, and size- approximately 6 inches, I assumed it was female. (This was not necessarily true, I’d learn later.) Her forelegs were wrapped tightly together and her abdomen had been spun several times over amid the gray death trap. Her head pivoted wildly as she jerked, fruitlessly, to free herself.

My heart broke at the sight. As a naturalist, I’m ordinarily contented allowing nature to follow her course, intentionally interceding minimally. The harsh natural landscape consists of predators and prey, and our sentimental human values are infrequently doubled in nonhuman life. This mantid had fallen (or flown or walked) into a well-laid snare by an assuredly large and hungry spider. She may have been trying to eat the spider, the spider’s eggs, or the spider’s webbed victims. Human intervention aside, the mantid would likely not survive very long in this sticky and vulnerable state.

Nature, however, does not build garages, which meant human intervention was already a factor. Insects who found themselves inside this garage were also routinely subject to intervention. I’ve been known to relocate indoor spiders elsewhere out-of-doors or to release my indoor cat to playfully dismantle the errant cricket. Besides, I reasoned, there was no sense in allowing one of nature’s most incredible predators to be taken out by a lucky, mostly unwelcomed, well-placed arachnid. 

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

At my childhood Long Island suburban home, a family of mantids inhabited the arborvitae directly outside my front door. I believed, was told, mantids were endangered, a common misconception caused by their general rarity and low numbers. I relished in the mantis’ ability to keep flies and other insects away from our porch, silent bug zappers, and I felt privileged whenever I saw them clinging to the railing or resting on a shaded needle. I hadn’t seen one in the 15 years since we’d moved.

To find a mantis, struggling against bindings, was so peculiar and incredibly sad to my mother and me. Her yelping was entirely understandable. I needed to save the mantis! I rushed to action.

I retrieved a few twigs and a postcard of junk mail. Bending down over the mantid, I used the twigs to slowly detach her from the wall and carefully transferred her to the card. She froze, no longer moving her head or limbs at all. Was this fear? Instinctual protection? I had no idea how sturdy or fragile her limbs were and hoped that any damage was impermanent. I moved to a nearby patch of grass and knelt down, placing her still-webbed body gently on the ground. Only her back two legs were untangled. Her face turned to mine as if sizing me up. Friend or foe? Her mantid eyes were mesmerizing and I lost a few seconds to the awe of being so close to such a magnificent, alien-looking creature.

Shaking quickly from the reverie, I began the arduous process of removing the spider silk from her body and forearms, one sticky strand or clump at a time. I spoke in soothing soft tones as I would an injured animal, not knowing what mantis hearing was like. (Later, I’d learn that mantids have a single ear in the center of their chest, which they use to help them hunt flies, cicadas, and even *gasp* bats.) During the field procedure, she meditated continually on my face, her head in a upturned angle in my direction. I expected that at any moment, once free, she would flee if her wings were still in tact. Instead, she remained, lifting each newly freed limb and flapping each wing as it became unstuck. 

With the last of the webbing removed, she turned her head away. I placed my hand near her forearms, wondering if, cinematically, she might crawl upon my arm. Sharply, she turned to look at me and rocked back and forth on her back legs. Then, she ceased swaying and gently placed her forearms around my pointer finger for three or four seconds. It was a brief handshake between humble predators. My heart swelled up and a lump caught in my throat. I’d received gratitude from a queen of the insect kingdom.

She moved her hands to the recognizable mantid prayer position and began again to sway, a common mantid hunting technique. It occurred to me that she might be incredibly hungry after her ordeal — mantids will often skip meals and then hunt for bigger and better prey to compensate — especially if she had been searching for a meal when she was ensnared. I left her to her devices, walked slowly away, and watched her from a distance, until she flew off about 20 minutes later.

I expected it would be the last I saw of her. I was wrong.

About a month later, she clung to my front door, hunting moths attracted to my porch light. I watched from inside the glass pane as her head turned, her legs bent, and she snatched an unsuspecting meal from the air. 

Not long after that, a green mantis, whom I assumed to be male, appeared on my parked car tire at the far end of my driveway, and then the next day on the deck railing. From a crouch, I watched him hunt a large horsefly from 3ft away. It was truly a sight to see. Giving him distance, I observed his prayer-like dance, his calculation of wind speed, direction, distance, and time, before he flew (more accurately, leapt) toward the fly, and the two disappeared from view underneath the deck. (I can only assume the fly was ended that day, but not alone. It is unlikely the male mantis lived much longer, either, as female mantids are known to devour the heads of their mates shortly after breeding.) 

I learned through later research that mantids will often choose to live and breed in decaying wooden structures. They are not relegated to shaded shrubbery, as I had mistakenly presumed. Unknowingly, I had been cultivating the ideal mantid habitat right outside my front door. Plenty of prey, food, and crumbling, unsealed decking had likely attracted the mantids in the first place.

It was a month after that, the first of several babies, nearly translucent and an inch long each, appeared on the front door’s frame. 

My connection with the female mantid from that fateful day forward was palpable. Even if the webbing was uninhabited, she would have surely starved in a futile effort to escape. I had only intended to save her from imminent peril, but her wide eyes trusted me, the giant in her microbiome. Did her countenance really change from fear to gratitude? I could never have expected a ‘hand’ shake, nor did I anticipate that she had chosen my home as her own.

Has my house become a stopover from the mantids of the neighborhood? A place to rest, hunt, and nest? Will this summer bring a new generation of neighborly mantids, for whom I’ll imagine wildly unrealistic personalities and magnanimous friendships? Only time will tell. The only thing I can say for certain is that the intervention was a success and my humanity errs closer to nature than I knew.

A Walk thru Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge

On a frigid Sunday in March, I set out to explore the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. Donning an unseasonable spring jacket under a pair of binoculars and shivering into my coffee cup, I chose the longest path to make the most of nature’s offerings. 

a tufted titmouse on a branch in winter [pixabay]

The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is a 2550-acre preserve, part of the 6500-acre Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge is located on the south shore of Long Island and is bisected by the Carmans River, historically the Connecticut River, a 10-mile long stretch with four dams, which begins as 8 miles of freshwater and becomes more brackish as it leads into the Great South Bay. The habitat supports numerous waterfowl, box turtles, and osprey, as well as providing haven to other native Long Island species, like white-tailed deer, foxes, frogs, and fish. 

My walk began upon a wide and well-marked trail, running briefly parallel to and in shadow of the railroad. The path was easily navigable, as signs were posted at all intersections and benches were accessible throughout for the comfort of even the most amateur hikers. Near the trailhead, passing trains were cause for great excitement to several young, novice walkers, who temporarily ceased collecting sticks and kicking mulch to point and wave at the railcars.

I chose the White Oak trail, which began in the Northeastern span of the refuge, a minutes’ walk from the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. The trail continued in a southwesterly direction, before looping back on itself, staying entirely to the north side of the brackish marsh. The trail provided scenic views of the wetlands as well as a fairly isolated walk through the Pine Barrens, another mainstay in the pride of Long Island naturalist.

With my unusually long stride, I quickly found myself isolated along the waterfront and able to view the estuary in full. I noted a few geese paired off, while some seagulls and mallards were going about their topside fowl duties. Soon, the signs directed me into the pine barrens, to a more forested area on a narrower, yet also well-marked, trail. I was comforted to note the excellent upkeep by park employees.

For an afternoon in early March, the forest felt desolate and abandoned. It could have been January by the look of the land. No budding groundcover or greenery could be seen along the White Oak trail, aside from the distant pine canopy and an occasional English Ivy. Were I in a more depressed mood, I would have found the forest to be equally so, its continued hibernation rife with symbolism. Fortunately, rather than letting the gloom become me, I set my senses to seek out forest dwellers— ground rodents, birds, deer— to no avail. Finding none for the greatest duration of the trip, I marveled instead at the wild logistical adaptations which pine tree trunks and limbs will maneuver to ensure the most amount of sun exposure in a crowded canopy space. Their twisting branches and steeply angled trunks were truly fascinating to behold, especially as the trail looped northeast, back toward the marshlands and the scenic overlooks. I delighted at a brown sign with its depiction of binoculars, which led me to an accommodating wooden perch.

The sea of reeds sprawled between the river and the bay expansively. From the dock, acres of long-stemmed phragmites, a non-native invasive genus, were thriving in the brackish transitional waters. With the tide low, the waving reeds freely caught the breeze. It was truly a feast for the senses. I imagined the ospreys and hawks enjoying their predatory turns above this expanse, but, disappointingly, saw none circling overhead.

Photo by Laura Meinhardt on Pexels.com

At the close of the walk, after 2 miles of observational vigilance for animal life, a solitary bird whistled into the late afternoon sun. Startled at my luck, I fumbled with binoculars as the bird jumped and resettled five times on five separate branches. I couldn’t help laughing as I realized how rusty I’d become over a cold, birdless, binocularless winter. It was a tufted titmouse, a somewhat common songbird to Long Island’s habitats, but not one I have personally seen often. His proud grey crest appeared tall and sure, and as he confidently hopped closer, he looked down on me as I looked up to him. I thought how strange or how delightful it must be for a songbird in a preserve, to have a parade of humanity pass so closely by his home regularly. After a few moments’ observation and not wanting to encroach on his territory, I moved on and made my way back to the car to head home. 

The walk was an easy, solitary one, which promised burgeoning animal and budding plant life as the weather warmed to spring. The paths were well marked with signage more readily apparent than in most places I’ve visited, and important information was posted prominently. It was a walk I would recommend for the beginning hiker or the newly curious natural adventurer, and one I will likely return to once the seasons change. If you go, be sure to bring tick spray! You might spot raptors, songbirds, or the declining black ducks, all of whom make their home at the Wertheim Refuge.