It’s still cold and blustery. Oh, we had warm spells in January and February. But now it’s March. And it’s Maine. So wind chill in negative to single digits shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nor should the impending Nor’easter predicted for this week. Only more than a foot of snow possible.
Today’s cold wasn’t nearly as frigid as yesterday’s and when I stepped out the back door, I could feel the warmth of the sun penetrating my outer being. It worked wonders for my inner being as well.
My first stop was beside the quaking aspen tree. Yesterday, some Maine Master Naturalist students and I examined tree buds and their characteristics. I love looking at these and do so every day since the tree is right off our back deck.
Varnished scales protect the aspen’s leaf and flower buds as they lay dormant through the winter. Its flower is produced within a catkin and already the cottony part of the seeds is appearing, much like a pussy willow.
As I moved into the woodlot, I stopped to re-admire the only striped maple that grows here. Last year a deer used the lower portion of the bark as an antler rub. Yesterday, as we stopped to look at the characteristics of its bark, we noticed it’s been used most recently as deer food. This tree is barely larger than the circle formed within my thumb and pointer finger–and I have small hands. How much more deer attention can it take?
As I looked at the striped maple, my eyes were drawn to the activity of another mammal. Out came my Trackards and I took measurements. I knew by the walking pattern that it was a canine. And I knew by the size that it was a fox. But red or gray was the question. I suspected the latter because I could see details clearly in the soft snow atop the hardened crust.
Measurements and a look at a bunch of prints confirmed my suspicion. Rather than stay on the path, I decided to backtrack the fox’s trail.
Within minutes, I realized another mammal had traveled in the opposite direction. Also a canine.
And atop a double-wide stone wall, I found where the coyote (follow the red pencil) and gray fox (yellow) crossed paths. Not at the same time, I’m sure, but given the track conditions, I don’t think they were too far apart. We saw neither set of tracks as we examined trees and lichens in the same area yesterday.
I also found where the fox sat and then peed. Not much odor–in case you’re wondering.
My journey took me across a few more stone walls and through a hemlock grove. I lost the fox, but followed the coyote and then I found others including squirrels, deer and turkeys.
It looked like the turkeys had been dancing on an ice-covered puddle. And then perhaps they took off for the wing marks were well defined. Did they fly because the coyote approached? Or was there another reason? Time to head up into the trees for the night, maybe? It’s difficult work for these hefty birds to lift off.
Everywhere I went, others had been before me. It seemed the prey followed the old logging routes and predators crossed.
My own wander became a bushwhack meander. And a few lichens called me in for a closer look. My inclination was to quickly brush off all the gray foliose (leaf like) lichens as weedy hammered shield, but I suspect there was some bottleshield lichen in the mix and realize I need to look again. I’m forever a student–thankfully.
While there were specks of shield lichens on a young maple tree, the variety of flattened crustose lichens covered so much of the trunk that it was almost difficult to distinguish the bark color. The mosaic pattern suggested a painting–naturally.
The buds and leaves of the beech trees also asked to be noticed. It’s been my experience that younger American beech keep their leaves throughout the winter–perhaps because their buds are lower to the ground and therefore easy targets for hungry herbivores. There are other theories as well, but I think it’s key to note that it’s the younger trees who keep their leaves, or in the case of this one, those that remain were on the lower branches.
They remain until the tree buds begin to break or leaf out. The word to describe this leaf retention is marcescent (mahr-ses-uh nt), which means withering but not falling off. Their rattling in the slightest breeze may be enough to keep those herbivores at bay.
In the tree’s silhouette, the pointed buds stood out,
each one a cylinder of overlapping scales in opposite orientation on a hairy stem.
That, of course, led me to another marcescent tree that loves this wet woodland, the witch hazel. Its leaves have always intrigued me with their wavy margins and asymmetrical base. But it’s the winter color of the withered leaves that I also find attractive.
And its naked buds, which don’t have waxy scales like the aspen or beech. Somehow the fuzzy hairs must provide enough protection for the winter months.
Everything is fuzzy on a witch hazel, including the bracts left from last fall’s ribbony flowers,
and the woody, two-seeded pods that ripen a year after the flowers have formed. These split open in the fall as the seeds were forcibly ejected.
I wandered for hours and miles and never saw any prints from the moose that frequented these woods earlier in the season. But, where the snow had melted under a spruce, I found evidence that blended in with the leaf litter.
And in an area I used to frequent prior to the logging operation of the last few years, I found more sign. The ruler is mine and this side shows centimeters.
When I reached the former log landing, my coyote friend made its presence known again. Actually, one became two as they had walked in single file and then split apart several times. They were on the hunt and a snowshoe hare was in the vicinity.
I followed the main logging trail for a while and then turned off to explore unknown territory. But . . . before turning, it was the maroonish color of the cherry bark that warranted attention. And the lenticels–raised, elongated and horizontal imprinted on my brain.
My meanderings continued and again I saw lots of predator and prey activity. Even a porcupine, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Finally, I walked into an area of young red oak, red maple and gray birch and knew I was approaching familiar ground. And so I stepped onto the snowmobile trail.
All along, I’d thought about the many tracks I’d seen, but no mammals . . . until I approached our cowpath. I wasn’t the only one headed that way.
The deer herd seems to have survived this winter well. I’ve yet to find evidence that suggests otherwise.
And I felt blessed that I was able to move as close as possible despite the crunching of the snow beneath my feet. The wind was in my favor. And then, it heard me, flashed its white tail and ran down the cowpath. Perhaps we should rename it the deer path for a cow hasn’t walked on it in decades, but like me, the deer use it almost daily.
My day was made because I wandered.