A quick paddle

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Pink Fragrant Water Lily

A was a simple plan—“a quick paddle to take some dragonfly photos.” Of course, I’d also “brake for damselflies” as they say, but the focus was purported to be on the other Odonata–the dragons. They were the goal, and that’s what got me on the water that afternoon.

A broad-winged hawk escorted me (not so happily, if I may add) part way down the trail as I dragged my blue kayak behind me. When I launched my kayak in the Tenants Harbor marsh an adult bald eagle took to the air and took off! I then reflected on the dozens of things I’d probably startled or scared as I pulled the kayak on the walk in.

It didn’t take long to understand that taking photos of dragons was not in my immediate future. Odonata activity levels were high, for sure, but the breeze was just strong enough to keep reeds, grasses, and lily pads moving. Moving perches make dragonfly photographing tricky, or at least too much of a chore for this guy. And that goes for the damsels too! I’d have to “just” watch them. I can do that.

Even with ospreys circling and screeching above and Eastern Kingbirds somehow snatching dragonflies from the winds, it was flowers (of all things) that demanded my attention. Both flavors of Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata)­—white and pink – were in huge numbers—polka dotting the water surface with a colorful alternative to the classic greens and blues of nature. Yellow Pond Lilies (Nuphar variegatum) were scattered throughout, giving the lily scene a yellow undertone. Scan in any direction and hundreds of lilies were there to inspire smiles.

The flower that hijacked my afternoon, however, was neither white nor pink and not a lily at all! In between the lily patches and alongside the beaver lodges were five-to-seven-inch “stalks” poking out of the water. Groups of tiny, yellow flowers clustered on the top and along the sides of these “erect racemes” (sounds racier than it really is). These are the flowers of the Common Bladderwort (Ultricularia macrorhiza—or vulgaris, depending where you look) and with a “lower-lip” petal feature they are rather striking when you take a closer look. The aesthetics of the yellow flowers was all fine and good, but for me the magic of bladderworts is what is going on below the water’s surface.

A Common Bladderwort in the hand

Let’s begin with some bladderwort basics—Lentibluriaceae is the catchy name for what’s referred to as the “bladderwort family.” Ultricularia (bladderworts) is one of three genus/genii in the family, with the two other being Genlisea (cork screw plants) and Pinguicula (butterworts). All the Ulticularia are carnivorous and they catch prey through the use of bladder-like traps. Underneath the Common Bladderwort flowers, for example, are long branching stems called stolons which are covered with up to 600 of these bladder traps. When set, the bladder trap is deflated and a sugary secretion is released around the trap’s opening to attract prey. When a tiny copepod, amphipod, or paramecium makes contact with one of several bristle-like trigger hairs a vacuum is formed as water and critter(s) are sucked into the sac until it is fully inflated. The trapping process takes less than a hundredth of a second, and once trapped the prey are dissolved in a bath of digestive juices and absorbed into the plant. All the while, water is being pumped out of the trap, and once empty of water–takes about 15 minutes—the trap resets and is ready for the next meal. The traps continue to capture prey as the bladders fill with the remains of their victims. This plant’s a killer, don’t let the innocent flowers fool you—it’s pretty gruesome down there!

Bladderwort in the water

The presence of bladderwort in a pond environment indicates a rich abundance of life. It is estimated that a single bladderwort plant can have around 150,000 organisms in its bladders and while I didn’t count carcasses, the stolons I checked out from the kayak that day were lined with traps that were dark and full. To be honest, I can’t ever remember seeing a bladderwort stolon who’s traps weren’t full, which makes me not want to drink the water that much more! There’s a ton of critters in there!

When the Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus!) angrily escorted a Cooper’s Hawk across the marsh (making it an elusive four-raptor paddle for me) and the eagle returned, I knew it was time to paddle on and paddle back. The bladderworts were neither as large or as numerous as the water lilies around me, but once you got looking you couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of them. Man there is a lot going on out there!

And that’s where we’ll see you—out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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