Being a Maine naturalist is risky business.

Another installment in my progress as a Maine Master Naturalist tier 1 student.


Toebiter Dytiscoidea. Family (after he declined to bite my toes

Toebiter. Dytiscoidea Family (after he declined to bite my toes.) (Roberta Sharp photo)

One thing we were not told when applying for the Maine Master Naturalist program were the risks involved. Yes, sun block and insect repellent were mentioned, but vicious flying toe biters and aggressive as-only-a-mother-can-be goshawks were not.

Our first field trip started with bird hunting behind the local high school. We heard over 40 different birds, and my brain was going “buzz-trill-phoebe-teacher.” I was loving it, but overloaded. It was a welcome diversion when we headed to our cars to move to the next location and saw an unfeathered visitor on the front of my car. Roberta Sharp, friend and one of the program teachers, and I approached it with curiosity. It flew off. We followed it. “Hummingbird moth,” I shouted, proud to think I knew something. “Maybe,” Roberta replied, wiser and less rash than I. It spiraled through the air, then turned around and headed straight for me, landing with a thump on my left shoulder. I looked at the beetle-like thing with big wings closed on its back as it explored my chest. Not a hummingbird moth. “Get your camera, “ I called, and Roberta ran for it. I tried not to move, so it would not fly away again. It crawled down my stomach, wound around my left leg, and was on my foot when she returned. She started taking photos as it moved off onto the parking lot tarmac. We were both crouching and chasing this thing when Susan Hayward, the program organizer and director, came by to see what we were up to. “Predaceous diving beetle, known as a toe biter,” she said, identifying it at once. “Don’t get too close, they have a really painful bite.”

I thought about those not-so-little pincers that had been inches from my cheek. I have a lot to learn. Susan provided a collecting box (an old Altoid box, yes, I have those and can keep some in my car) and we collected it.

It is now in my naturalist’s corner—a bookshelf in the guest bedroom—with all my texts, journals, specimens, petri dishes, colored pencils and a growing number of twigs, pressed leaves and cones. We were given a Cornell box and pins, as part of our student paraphernalia, so I suspect mounting this beetle will be part of my education, and I am glad to have a history to go with it.

After this encounter, I Googled predaceous diving beetle, and found a much younger naturalist’s video of a predaceous diving beetle, killing a snake:

I appreciate the Latin ID: (Belostomatid, probably genus Lethocerus) and this is more terrifying than any horror movie.

I am also really glad I did not know anything about this thing as I stood still allowing it to make him or herself at home on my body.

At the aforementioned bird walk, we were told about a goshawk nearby, and our birder leader pointed to the trail. We did not have time as a group to look for it, but we understood we would hear it screeching for quite a distance before we were near the nest.

My last post mentioned what an abysmal birder I am, and Megan McOsker, a friend who has been a professional naturalist for twenty years, offered to go birding with me. She calls herself a slow birder, like slow food. We took our time, and did not look at 40 birds, but just a few. It was so focused and relaxing. She was spotting countless birds, but kindly did not mention them. She  helped me to learn a select few. We were both were intrigued by the goshawk, so decided to take that path. The woods had a high canopy with filtered light. We were unfettered by clocks and agendas and caught up on our lives. It was a chill and peaceful, unstressed, birding morning. We thought we were heading towards the goshawk, but lost track, and thought we had taken a different path. There was no distant screeching, no sign of  of a goshawk

We wandered on, ready to make a slow approach if we heard the faraway call of the goshawk. We walked deeper and deeper into the woods, alert for the raptor screech, but only heard song birds. We checked out mushrooms, and mosses and plants, and decided a goshawk sighting was not going to happen.

And so we were unprepared  and unwary when an explosion of sound erupted twenty feet above our heads and a fury came dive bombing at us. It was a flying monkey from the wizard of oz, it was it was an angry mother telling us to get away or we would be hurt. Surprise made us fear and laugh at the same time. We wanted to go away and leave her, but she was between us and the path back to the school. She swooped defensively over our heads. We froze.

Megan protects herself with a stick.

Megan protects herself with a stick.

“Grab a stick,” Megan said, and I found a stout branch, groping without looking as I really did not want to take my eyes off the taloned fierceness overhead. “Stick,” I repeated, and held it defensively, memories from my stickfighting and fencing days rushing along with adrenalin into my arms. I was in stance, and poised and ready, when logic intervened and I wondered what I was supposed to do. Whack this thing if it comes close? That did not seem fair to a bird whose territory we were invading.

I looked to Megan for help, and if she was not so intent on watching the goshawk she might have smiled. She did explain. “You hold it above your head, they attack the highest point.”


The goshawk let us leave, not without a few frightful swoops. Unless you have seen a goshawk beak and talons up close, you might not understand our concern for leaving with our eyes intact.

Female goshawk kindly let us pass.

This Accipiter gentilis (goshawk) kindly let us pass.

I am still an aspiring Maine Master Naturalist, and grateful I have my eyesight for examining stamen, fern sori and owl pellets. I have survived attacks by a predaceous diving beetle and a goshawk on the warpath. Piece of cake. I want more. Bring it on MMN program!

If you want the real thing–daily, small, perfectly-sized doses of what’s happening in our world right now, everyday, follow Mary Holland (I do):

For more about the Maine Master Naturalist program:

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.