Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snake Killers and Hobgoblin Flies



A pair of dragonflies is taking it in turn to do sentry duty in our garden. On some warm evenings, a vivid red dragonfly perches on the shepherd's hook that holds bird feeders in the winter. Other evenings, a dark dragonfly lined with yellow passenger-train windows on his sides alights there.

Both dragonflies use the site as a launch pad for hunting insects on the wing. The dragonfly suddenly whirs away, zigzags in the air, and circles back to the hook to watch for prey again. It will spend a good portion of an hour hawking like this.

Dragonflies are famous for their speed and maneuverability as well as their keen eyesight (if you had 30,000 facets in each eye, you might be able to spot a flying gnat 10 feet away, too). Oh, and also for being Very Large Insects. (Though not as big as their prehistoric kin, which would have required a yardstick for measuring, if yardsticks had been invented yet.)

Their size, huge eyes, long abdomens, and strong flight have caused them to migrate into the folklore of many cultures (and you can find out about some of this in the wonderful book A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell).

Not all of this folklore resides in the ancient past, either.

The first dragonfly I ever saw was one that skimmed over my suburban backyard on New York's Long Island. I didn't know what it was. I screamed bloody murder. I was, after all, very small, and it was very big.

My mom explained to me that it was a "darning needle," this being one of the dragonfly's many common names. I hadn't a clue what a "darning needle" was (except for, now, this insect) and my ears heard "diamond needle," which is what I called it for weeks thereafter. No wonder nobody knew what I was talking about when I still came in screaming about one appearing.

Why the screaming? I'd been informed by my German grandmother that dragonflies were known to sew shut the mouths of children. You'd scream, too.

Sewing shut mouths as well as eyes, ears, and noses, and even stitching together fingers and toes, were among the crimes dragonflies were accused of in the past. This earned them their darning-needle name as well as the epithets devil's needle and ear-piercer.

And speaking of the devil, in Europe dragonflies were often believed to be one of the devil's favorite animal forms to inhabit or simply for evil beings to ride, giving rise to names such as devil's horse, hobgoblin fly, witch's horse, and water witch.

Another completely false accusation laid at the dragonfly's six feet are that it possesses a venomous sting. This untruth has dubbed the insect with colorful names such as horse stinger, bull sticker, blind stinger, and snake killer. (Though oddly it's also known as a snake doctor.)

The dragonfly enjoys a more exalted position in Native American and Asian folklore, in which it's generally admired for its grace, beauty, ferocity, and flying skill. Judging by the number of dragonfly motifs on modern dishware and other home furnishings, it appears that this take on the dragonfly may predominate nowadays.

Which is an excellent thing, as it would prevent an uprising of Instantly Concocted Folklore such as occurred in that long-ago backyard. As I cringed on the ground one afternoon when a dragonfly began circling above my sandbox, my friend Elaine had a scathingly brilliant idea.

"Did you know that dragonflies are scared of sand and you're supposed to throw it at them to make them go away?" she said.

Wow! Who knew! Well, obviously Elaine did! We could be proactive! Soon we were merrily flinging great handfuls of sand into the air, dodging it as it rained down on the lawn. My mom looked out the window, gaped at what was going on, and quickly put a stop to it.

Dragonflies (known as "mosquitohawks" in parts of the Midwest) are aces at devouring pesky insects, so I don't think most people are driving them away with buckets of sand. Dragonflies are also very cool to watch, and don't appear to mind your approaching them quite closely (they probably glance-x-30,000 at you, think "not bug no eat it, not bird it no eat me" and go back to spotting midges).

They also have beautiful names. In this department they've truly lucked out. Unlike gorgeous birds who get saddled with tiresome names that include their so-called discoverer's name (Clark's nutcracker, Bewick's wren, blah blah), dragonflies have scooped up adjectives as avidly as they scoop up mosquitoes in the basket formed by their legs.

Just a quick look at a dragonfly-&-damselfly field guide offers up such evocative names as Smoky Shadowdragon, Amethyst Dancer, Apache Spiketail, Ebony Boghaunter, Rainpool Spreadwing, and Spangled Skimmer.

I still don't know what species the dark dragonfly that visits my garden belongs to. The bright red dragonfly appears to be a Cardinal Meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum).

I could be wrong. If I am, please don't throw sand at me. I certainly don't throw sand at dragonflies anymore. Nor do I scream when they show up, unless it's to holler to a family member to come take a look.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

It Is Balloon!

A few days after July 4th, when most of the fireworks and firecrackers had finished exploding and the dog's terror had somewhat subsided, I stepped outside and saw a weird purple object underneath the Resident Teen's window.

At first I assumed that somebody had dropped something off at our house. Another teen was due to sleep over that night, and I thought maybe she'd dropped off her stuff while en route to the stable so as not to schlep it around all day.

I was not only wrong, but was advised that this supposition was really outlandish, and I was left with the impression that I should have my head examined.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a sky lantern. An expired sky lantern, which I suppose becomes a ground non-lantern. Or litter. My husband assumed it had been set aloft as part of Fourth of July festivities, enabling me to pass along the "have you lost your wits?" incredulous look, because a sky lantern that could stay aloft for days powered by only a tea candle's flame would be pretty amazing.

Where did it come from? Perhaps it had something to do with the local lavender festival--Woodinville is home to a big lavender farm, and the festival was going on later that week. But no, no lantern launches were associated with this event.

(Not that Woodinville is any stranger to balloons--we saw the first hot-air balloon of the season pass over the other day. Thankfully it did not land on our house.)


After learning that sky lanterns cost just pennies and come in packs of 20 or more, we concluded it was just some local party or a wedding. And were glad its flame had fluttered out before it cozied up to the wooden siding. Though how it managed to snake its way through the tree branches is beyond me.

Sky lanterns have a long history in Asia, and the custom of launching them spread to places such as Portugal and Brazil a few centuries ago. Subsequently more countries picked up on the tradition. And Woodinville. They're sometimes called wish lanterns. They're associated with good luck, good fortune, and the carrying of wishes to the stars.

Unfortunately, they also carry flames into flammable materials, as happened in 2013 when a lantern landed on a recycling plant in England and started one of the country's biggest fires ever, causing about 6 million pounds' worth of damage. I gather that the owners of that facility did not feel the association with good luck and good fortune. Sky lanterns are banned as fire hazards in some countries and parts of the States, including Washington D.C., which banned them as far back as 1892.

48'' Solid Lavender Beach Balls
A cousin of  Bunce, though not as handsome
as Bunce, who was swirly.
I hate to be a killjoy, but if I lived in eastern Washington, which is currently in flames with the largest wildfire in state history, I'd boycott them, too.

 I bet they look really beautiful, though, when they take to the sky by the hundreds in festivals in more fireproof parts of Asia.

I have decided, however, that this particular luminous lilac lantern is actually the soul of the long-gone purple beach ball Bunce, who was the mascot of a group of friends at my first college and starred in his very own photo essay of his adventures.

Two of the other three people in that group will be visiting in a few weeks' time, so I think Bunce sent this message to wish us a good time.












Monday, July 21, 2014

What Animal Weighs the Most?

Veiled Chameleon
A lizard, of course. It's covered with scales!

Ha ha.

Begging your pardon, but it's been about half a year of reptiles here in Cottage Lake.

Today I handed in 250 pages' worth of words about reptiles to my editor.

Part of the fun in researching this wonderful topic was having an excuse to head up to Monroe and visit The Reptile Zoo.

Not that you need an excuse. But my family's driven past it for 16 years and I could never persuade them to stop and visit the World's 10 Deadliest Snakes or the Albino Alligator.

So when my sister and her three wonderful children came for a visit, it was the perfect opportunity to head out of town with my 10-year-old nephew.

The Reptile Zoo, on the outside, has the look of one of those roadside mystery spots where water flows uphill or the force of gravity is missing or the like, but that's clearly just to pull in road-weary travelers. It's actually (shh) educational. The owner is a former science teacher who is out on the road himself visiting schools with a menagerie of reptiles most of the time.


It's hot and humid inside, and there's a pungent pong--just so you know. But that's because the place appears to be geared to the comfort of the cold-blooded critters. I'm not an expert, but I've been to enough zoos to know the creepy feeling of being in a place where animals are not housed properly, and I certainly didn't get that feeling here; in fact, the reptiles here seemed bright, alert, and active, which isn't something you typically find yourself saying about reptiles.

Caiman Lizard
We were also lucky to have stumbled in on a day that they happened to be feeding most of the animals. Reptiles don't need to eat everyday because they get a lot of mileage out of their meals, being of slow metabolism and not needing to stoke their internal furnaces to produce heat like us frantic mammals.

I say "lucky" guardedly, realizing that seeing a vat of rats in broth and watching snakes consume them is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.


But my nephew certainly enjoyed it, especially as he got to hold a small alligator for the keeper (in addition to getting to hold a corn snake, one of several animals rotated in and out of service over the course of the day for visitors to touch).

Mali Uromastyx
The keeper also asked him to bang loudly on the glass of the big alligator's cage to distract it while he opened the door on the other side to bring several chickens and fish into the exhibit. How often does a kid get asked to bang on the glass at a zoo? It's a big no-no at all other times.

The zoo is home to a wide variety of lizards, snakes, and turtles as well as a few crocodilians, with clear signs explaining who's who.

And someone's been having fun naming the animals: There is a species of legless lizard named Legolas, a snake named Steven Steven Stevenson, and one cage of critters that go by Starscream, Bumblebee, Megatron, Soundwave, and Optimus Prime.

If Burma-Shave still made highway signs, they'd tell you what to do:

NEXT TIME YOU DRIVE
HIGHWAY 2
STOP AND SEE
THE REPTILE ZOO
THEY'VE GOT A COBRA
AND CHAMELEON
AND LOTS OF OTHER
THINGS REPTILIAN