Soldiering on


Newbury, Massachusetts

The goldenrod trumpets with its bursting bright yellow flowers. To these golden trumpets of color, the soldier beetles are called. They busy themselves collecting the nectar-bribe given by the goldenrod in exchange for carrying pollen to other flowers. For me, these trumpets of color and the arrival of the solider beetles herald the arrival of another: Fall.

I can remember in Arkansas the arrival of the soldier beetle just about September; a month into the start of school. I used to catch them and try to get them to crawl on my hand like they do on the flowers, but not offering any sort of bribe, they flew off. I collected them in jars, like their lightning bug cousins, and kept them on a shelf. Like their lightning bug cousins, too, this is where they met their fate. Kids are unfit zookeepers.

The soldier beetles seemed to arrive suddenly. And leave just as suddenly, along with the goldenrod. And then the trees blushed and my sleeves grew longer.

A day at the shore

Gloucester, Massachusetts

I am still that little kid with the bucket at low tide looking for ocean treasures.

I spent part of yesterday on the rocky shores of Gloucester (made famous by the movie The Perfect Storm). I knelt down on the slippery rockweed that carpeted the granite stones and boulders, over-turning rocks for new finds. Yellow, blue and purple plastic pails surrounded me as little kids did the same and yelled out excitedly to their parents about their finds. But the parents were mostly laying on the beach, taking a break from the kids and letting low tide babysit them. I didn’t yell out to anyone. But I did get excited to find the little tiny baby smooth periwinkles, even though I’ve seen this snail a hundred times before.

So I share my low tide excitement with you with a few pictures.

Smooth perwinkles!

Sea squirts! Believe it or not, this is in the same phylum as humans – Chordata, because it has what is essentially spinal cord. So say hi to your long lost cousin!

Shore crab! A beautiful, yet invasive, crab. Introduced to Delaware Bay in the 1980’s, it is now found as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina.

A fouling community (those things that colonize hard surfaces – to us humans, they are ‘fouling’ our stuff. To the inverts, they’re just trying to make a home).


Rachel Carson and me

The statue of Rachel Carson over looking Woods Hole.
The statue of Rachel Carson over looking Woods Hole.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts

I never met her, but I think she’d be disappointed in me.

I had just finished a sandwich and I was sitting on a bench near the water. I wasn’t looking at the water. I had pulled out my cell phone to check my email – email I had checked 20 minutes ago. There were emails that needed responses and I started to respond.

Then I thought, what the heck am I doing? There’s a whole ocean out there? I looked up and saw that all the other people – all sitting near the water, were looking at their cell phones. A little boy yelled “Look at what I found! It’s over here!” His mother didn’t look up from her phone. The only adult person sitting near the water and not looking at a cell phone was Rachel Carson. Well, a statue of Rachel Carson.

Carson is a hero of mine not because of she helped start the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring about the effect of DDT pesticides on bird populations –  but because she writes with the soul of a poet about the ocean in her lesser known, but just as impressive, books about the sea. If you haven’t read the essay about eels in Under a Sea Wind, you need to stop right now and go read it! Go!

Taking a cue from Rachel (we’re on a first-name basis now) I went snorkeling and completely abandoned work.

Treasures found while snorkeling. Slipper shell, oyster drills, an ark, and a dove shell
Treasures found while snorkeling. Slipper shell, oyster drills, an ark, and a dove shell


The water was cold water and I saw the comb jellies bob in front of me and fish dart into the rockweed. Oyster drills dotted the rocks and crabs ate their suppers while wedged in the rocks.

The most amazing thing I saw was (that’s an palindrome!) a polychaete worm with his bristly body swimming through the water. I followed him for ten minutes thinking, “Worm! Don’t you know that this ocean has fish in it!?” But he didn’t mind. He did not crawl like the other worms. He swam until he tired and then dipped back into the rocks.

Refreshed by the cool Buzzards Bay I returned to Rachel to look out over the ‘hole’ of Woods Hole and write.

As she might have done decades ago.

David and Rachel, different eras, but both writers and both scientists.
Trying to draw inspiration from a fellow scientist and writer.

David and Rachel, different eras, but both writers and both scientists.

The greenheads are coming, the greenheads are coming!

I wanted to take her picture so I let her bite me.

I’ve had stranger dates.

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She finds a suitable spot near my elbow. She cuts with her mouthparts that look like ragged handsaws. I resist the urge to slap her. Once she has cut and shredded my capillaries she pulls herself as close to my skin as possible. Blood pools outside of her mouth and runs down my elbow. I’m a healthy bleeder and she can’t drink me fast enough.

Click, click, click. I can’t quite get the shot. Click, click, click. This is to her advantage as she drinks savagely. I move the camera with millimeters of her big green eyes. She won’t move until she’s had her fill. In fact, she can’t pull out quickly because her jagged saw is deep into my flesh.

I finally get the shots I want. Either she senses the photo-shoot is over or she has had her fill and she pulls out of my arm without so much as a thank you and flies off. I was too busy replacing my lens cap to smash her.

My subject was the greenhead fly, a horse-fly that terrorizes New Englanders each July. They are marsh residents but will fly to the forests and the beaches and the lobster shacks for a meal. Like many biting flies, it is only the female that bites. She wants protein-rich blood for egg production. Eggs she will lay in the marsh mud that will hatch into maggot larvae that are predators of small crustaceans and other insects on the marsh. I have been walking at high tide on the marsh surface and floating greenhead larvae bit me. Even as larvae they are mean little buggers.

When the first greenhead is seen in July in New England, newspapers and neighbors act like Paul Revere’s screaming, “The greenheads are coming! The greenheads are coming!”

And when they arrive it’s mayhem.

“Did you hear the greenheads are here, Ethel?”
“Oh goodness, I heard they carried the Reynold’s boy into the woods and roughed him up pretty good.”
“I heard they robbed the local Market Basket grocery store and set fire to the Burn’s place.”
“I hear they never use re-useable shopping bags.”
“Those greenheads are no good.”

Being one to work in the marsh, I do agree that the greenheads are annoying, but they are only here a month (basically from one full moon to another). I grew up in Arkansas where we had big, black horseflies the size of silver dollars and they were liable to bite your arm off if you let them. And they hung around all summer.

We are currently half-way through the greenhead season and my hardy New England friends who mocked my Southern softness in the winter, now shudder at the thought of those big green eyes (‘greenhead’ is a misnomer, should be ‘greeneyes’).

For now, remember it may be your blood that feeds that greenhead, but it is the greenhead that feeds the swallows and the dragonflies.

The slow drown

Salt marsh sparrows are little brown birds that have short, hopping flights in the marsh that you may not pay much attention to. But scientists keep a close eye on this species because they are obligate marsh breeders (the birds, not the scientists) that nest on the ground. In terms of marsh persistence, instead of the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ we have the sparrow in the marsh, because as the sparrow goes, so may the marsh. That’s the topic of the latest article I’ve published in the newspaper.

Great Marsh sparrows a harbinger for things to come

Saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) eggs with a coffee-bean snail (Melampus bidentatus), Ipswich, Massachusetts
Saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) eggs with a coffee-bean snail (Melampus bidentatus), Ipswich, Massachusetts
Photo: Will Sweet, courtesy of


The vigilance of the tick

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Ever wonder how a tick finds you and bites you without you knowing? And what’s happening when she bites you? And is it always a she (most of the time, yes)? I explain tick biology in my latest newspaper article.

In the marsh, ticks are ever vigilant

The images above are of a tick ‘questing’ (looking for a host) and of the barbed straw she plunges into your skin without so much concern for you and slurps up your protein rich blood.

In other news, here is an article I published on the reed boat:
Our marshland nemesis, the wily Phragmites



Loony tunes

Memorial Day 26 May 2014
Sidney, Maine

A common loon and chick. Courtesy of

I’m sitting in the backyard of a summer home near Lake Messalonskee (which is bizarrely also called Snow Pond – it is clearly a fat lake and not a trim pond. The snow I believe because though it’s late May I still have a sweatshirt on. New England has a funny idea of spring). Somewhere on the lake I hear the wail of a common loon (Gavia immer) – a bird I’ve not paid much attention to until this weekend. The wail is a long, wolf-howl-in-a-misty-primeval-forestcall that starts low in pitch and then climbs a hill of octaves at the end. The loon is using this wail to let other loons know where he is. Another will call back. It’s effective because the loon is using the surface of the lake as a megaphone.

Two nights ago I lay in a hammock listening to a loon’s haunting tremelo (which means to lower and raise the volume quickly) echoing across the lake. The sound of the loon’s tremelo reminded me of the sound of a fast-spinning wheel that’s threatening to jump off its axle – but it’s a beautiful and stirring sound.

The loon has an incredible repertoire of calls and it’s hard to find analogies of what they sound like. To me they are distinctive and sound like, well, loons.

Click here to listen to their other calls.

The loon’s haunting calls are announced from a heavy-bodied bird with a black-and-white checkerboard body and an impossibly black head.  A deep, rich black with no luster, like a fresh, virgin chalkboard. A red eye is nestled in the rich sea of black of the head. An eye that has seen eons of evolution happen around it while it held on to its primeval features.

Loons are ancient in terms of birds.  If you look in your field guide for birds in North America (go ahead, I’ll wait for you to get yours), the first bird you’ll likely see is the loon. That’s because these books are often organized in evolutionary age with the oldest first and the most modern last. Loons have what are considered primitive features (primitive does not connote antiquated or maladaptive) such as heavy bones, unlike the more recently evolved birds whose bones are hollow and light. These heavy bones make for heavy bodies and as a result loons need a long runway of water for takeoff, sometimes as long as a quarter mile.  A loon that lands in a small pond or a wet parking lot is stranded there without a long enough runaway to take off. And this loon will call its calls and may never hear an answer.

The calls of loons are conversations that we overhear on the internet of the lake. They are haunting and primeval to our human ears because they are echoes from ancient times – a time before there was a Snow Pond and summer houses in Maine.