Three geese are in a large puddle by the high river, after a drenching rain. They form a lovely tableau as one preens, its fluffy white feathers resting on top of the water, and the other two are in elegant waterfowl poses. Across the glassy water, purple loosestrife and layers of reeds and greenery make an exquisite striated reflection in the peaceful river. Overhead, a large bird soars along the river, makes a wide turn back toward us, and flies off. By the process of elimination — it’s not an osprey or heron or hawk — and by seeing a flash of pure white, we determine it is a bald eagle! A rare sight here these days.  

On the way to Winter street in Waltham, we pass the Cambridge reservoir. A rock formation in the water stands out, as four cormorants pose as if for a photo op. Their dark silhouettes in the misty scene form sculptural shapes: some sit with long necks up, others spread wings in a W formation to dry off.

Their design seems counterintuitive at first, as they can dive deep and swim long distances for up to two minutes underwater to catch fish. It would seem they would need to be waterproof, but nature has left them with less oil, to enhance their ability to dive down more easily! Later, they have their own strategy for drying off. 

I was once snorkeling in Crystal Springs, Florida and saw one under water, furiously swimming with its webbed feet to catch its prey, sometimes assisted by its wings as well. I had seen them so many times here, up north, diving, then appearing far off again after quite a long interval, but never imagined how they looked and behaved underwater.                                               

Today, there is a chill in the air, and bright orange and yellow flowers in a field presaging the season to come. Just moments out of the city we already find pale cows at Drumlin farm, and turkeys and chickens at the Codman Estate. 

Driving along route 117, we spot a huge hawk atop a sawed-off section of tree trunk, facing the road at waist level, very close to the edge. The bird is enormous, probably a red tail, but the tail is not visible. Juveniles can be very large, but have not yet developed that distinctive tail. A biker passes by, stops, and stands feet away to take a photo. He moves forward a foot or so and the bird takes a step forward toward him! Then he turns his back to the raptor to catch a selfie with that bird.  Two more bikers arrive to chat and take pictures with their phones, but the bird flies off!  

At our local cemetery we see a lone coyote, motionless at the edge of the brush, standing still in an elegant, alert pose for a brief interlude, before disappearing. On 117, another large canine runs across the road in front of us, and disappears into the woods. My friend had seen a deer gambol across that road recently. 

Closer to home, rabbits in the yard are furiously digging angled holes in the lawn to prepare for new broods. Toward dusk, one stays motionless on her area for a long time, and I imagine she is nursing her young. Time will tell. 

I find a moribund cicada on my small back porch, and when I gently touch it, it flies up to land on a little branch and remains, motionless, for several days. Its protruding eyes are red, and the wings have clear transparent sections delineated in black, like a stained glass artwork. Massachusetts has several species, most annual and one periodical, which spends most of its life as a nymph underground. Our most common ones are nicknamed dog-day cicadas, as they appear in late summer, known for its usually hot and humid days. Some species south of us spend 17 years underground as nymphs, drinking sap from tree roots. Then, like clockwork, they emerge simultaneously and live for 4 to 6 weeks. They mate and lay eggs which fall to the ground when they hatch, becoming the nymphs which create those burrows underground. They do not hibernate, but go through several nymph stages before attaining their final form. 

Their sweet late summer song is created by the males vibrating membranes on the abdomen. These calls are the harbinger of the first frost in about 6 weeks. Females answer softly, and the duet soon becomes a love song as the cycle begins anew.    

At the cemetery all is quiet, but the killdeers have returned to their grassy breeding ground to fatten up for their fall migration. Their crops look round and full as they feed and skitter about, occasionally flying up a few feet to show brilliant orange underfeathers. 

A sizable raccoon skulks at the edge of a cove, foraging, then turns to face us with that masked countenance and striped tail, before disappearing into the brush. 

At the public dock area there is a crystalline reflection of sun at the river bend, where a group of American black ducks actively swim around, close to shore. 

Cabbage-white butterflies flutter erratically, land on leaves and flowers briefly, then meet up in pairs to whirl around one another in a mating dance. They are able to mate on the ground or on air, as the male can grip onto the female. As they reflect ultraviolet light not seen by humans, to their own species the males appear a brilliant royal purple, and the females a pale lavender. Watching them in the yard, it would never occur to me that their reproductive life is complex and unique, although other butterflies exhibit some of the same features. 

Ed Yong reports in The Atlantic that Nathan Morehouse began researching them at the University of Pittsburgh along with his colleagues. The male implants a large spermatophore into the female, with a hard coating containing rich nutrients as well as sperm. The object comprises 13 per cent of his body weight. The female organs break down this exterior, allowing her to be nourished as well as providing nutrients to lay half of the 300 eggs she will eventually lay. They are not monogamous, and can mate with up to 6 males. The first spermatophore must be consumed before she can mate again. Her reproductive tract resembles a digestive tract. She can mate many more times than the male, as she gains nutrients and he loses body mass. The competition among males takes place internally, as the outer edge is tough to break through and prevents the next mating until it is depleted. Morehouse is amazed at this complexity, and uncovering it inspires a  sense of wonder and appreciation of our natural world.             

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  1. Wowww, another impressive composition of knowledge, I had to look up a few words, I love that, more than interesting, visually and mentally, seeing these visions of nature and having them explained explicitly , thank you my friend….I only wish I could see the beauty the cabbage white butterfly 🦋 sees…..

  2. I often wonder if I spent more time outside just looking around if I would see the amazing amount and diversity of nature that Elsa so beautifully describes each month. Her articles are so lovely and informative simultaneously. And, of course, I learn something new each month!

  3. Love your Nature column. Your words are so evocative and create such amazing visual images. “Cicada Lovesongs” – there’s a poem in there. Thank you. ❤️

  4. I learn so much every time I read your articles. Your words are poetic yet filled with wisdom. Your eyes help mine to see more and to understand the everyday grandeur around me. Bless you and your eyes!

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