The wonderful thing about nature, and life in general, is that there is always a “was”, an “is”, and a “will be” at any given moment. A mid-winter walk is a great time to confirm this. At the time- my “is” consisted of a walk along a bitter cold marsh. The watery landscape was locked in the grip of a thick pavement of black ice, the nearby woodlot was silent, and the place was devoid of active life. All sensible creatures were tucked away and under cover. A light wind provided a constant reminder to this non-sensible creature that it is wind chill, and not the actual temperature, that rules the tip of my frozen nose.
The absence of evident life, however, is not evidence of absence. No, I didn’t make that up, but it certainly fits. There were plenty of life signs in the form of coyote & raccoon tracks. The raccoon apparently enjoying a frisky night out in the cold air as he tramped along the boardwalk and the coyote engaging in a territorial patrol along the cat-tail edge of the ice (perhaps looking for raccoons). A mink also passed by the previous evening – half tunneling/half bounding through the drifted snow. You could say that these tracks are evidence of what was.
I, still firmly in the world of “is”, came upon a different kind of “was” in the form of a few Long-billed Marsh Wren nests (see below and here). These well concealed clusters of plant fiber are extremely well camouflaged during the summer, but in the dead of winter these structures almost stand out. I say almost because they still share the dead brown hues of their cat-tail surroundings and are only a few feet above the ice (former water) level. If I hadn’t previously known of their existence I doubt I would have found them on this day. The wrens were very active in this part of the marsh and the antics of a particularly animated male called them to my attention way back in July. Now, abandoned and deteriorating, the nests stand as testaments to “what was.”
These nests are oval or lozenge shaped with a side entrance hole. This entrance doesn’t show up well in the photo because the shape was somewhat compressed, but it is there. Some of the literature claims that these holes usually face west or south but I couldn’t tell you what the reality was in this case. I was too cold to care, I guess. They are made up of tightly woven cat-tail leaves integrated within a half dozen supporting cat-tail stems. One of the unique features of Marsh Wren nests is that you rarely find just one. There are usually several – up to a dozen – located in a relatively small area. This is why I refer to them in the plural.
During the breeding season, the male birds go on a building blitz in the hopes that a female will take a liking to at least one of them. Once she chooses her favorite, the pair puts on the finishing touches (consisting of a fine layer of soft cat-tail down lining the interior) and commences the business of wrenlet raising. Lucky males are sometimes able to attract an additional female to take up residence in one of the other nests. The whole nest complex forms a love commune of sorts. This particular commune was a small one consisting of only two nests – both of which look like they had been occupied. Once the season was over the real nest (s), and the so-called dummy nests, were abandoned to the elements and to the curious eye of a passing naturalist.
Further down the trail, in the woodlot, a cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillar eggs stood as an example of something that “will be” (see above and here). This egg mass, laid back in mid-summer, represents the efforts of a single female Tent caterpillar Moth who glued about 200 circular white eggs around a pencil sized Black Cherry twig. They were laid long before the cold season but were prepared in such a way as to withstand all but the harshest of winters. To insure that her clutch will survive the winter, she covered them with bubbly coating of natural shellac called Spumaline. Now, here is where things stray from the expected.
Soon after they were laid in the summer, the young caterpillars developed into fully formed larvae – taking about three weeks to become complete. Instead of hatching, however, they remained within their egg shells and entered into a state of hibernation (diapause) within their vanished nursery. A high dosage of Glycerol in their body will allow them to super-cool without freezing as the “r” months progress. Oddly enough, the varnish covering the egg cluster actually attracts moisture rather than repels it. This prevents the eggs from drying out. The bubbly formation of the spumaline structure also acts like a solar heater and traps radiant energy. Consequently, these egg masses are maintained at temperatures slightly warmer than the surrounding air. Now, tell me that’s not incredible (don’t call, just write your response on a crisp $5 bill).
Inside this gray shiny mass are hundreds of moist, warmish little life forms. Like long distance space travelers they are kept in suspended animation until their capsules arrive at the other side of the year. Then they will eventually exit and begin to feed on the first fresh leaflets of the new year. For now, they represent the spring that “will be.”