For three hours this morning I wandered across the crusty snow in the forest behind our home, all the while wondering what I might see. Occasionally, I sat on a stone wall or tree stump and let the sun’s warmth embrace me on this brisk day as I listened.
There were a few sights that gladdened my heart, including the woody capsules of pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys. Monotropa means once turned, while hypopitys refers to its habitat under pine or fir trees. This one had grown under white pines by a stone wall. And from the looks of it, the capsule had not yet split open from the tip to the base, thus the seeds hadn’t been released.
As I sat there, I looked across into an area of forest succession. About 15-20 years ago, one section had been almost clear cut and pine, beech, oak, and birch saplings now vie for air space. They aren’t the only ones, for wasps had apparently flown their own route among the branches as evidenced by the nest that was now in disarray.
I’m not sure if the wasp nest was from this past summer or a previous year, for some of the pulp had been threaded into a nearby bird nest. But then again, I’ve found other wasp nests in these woods in previous years.
Within minutes, I changed my focus from tree branches to the icy snow carpet. Where the forest was young, snowshoe hare scat was abundant. Oh, how I wanted to see one. But, my movements were too loud and quick.
Where the forest was a bit more mature, but still included coppiced trees (coppiced means a trees ability to make new stems from the roots or stump after its been cut down), moose tracks and scat were equally abundant. My favorite sight was of a moose print filled with scat–including the two dew claws a the back of the foot. Since this is a sideways photograph, the dew claws would be those two little scat-filled circles, one atop the other, just right of the center.
Oh, how I wanted to see a moose. But, I had to settle for the prints, scat, and possibly another sign. Many coppiced red maples’ terminal buds had been heartily consumed and so I studied the branches. An voilà, hair stuck behind one lateral bud. You many not be able to see it, but the fibers were tubular, as the winter coat of our northern mammals usually is–thus allowing the critter to trap air inside and remain warm(er). Moose and deer don super-insulated jackets of long, hollow hairs. They also sport a dense, soft undercoat that allows them to stay cozy and warm. I’m not certain, but some of the hair specimen may have included the wispier undercoat.
I was grateful for my findings, but all along I kept thinking about the fact that I really wasn’t seeing anything exceptional and perhaps my sense of wonder had disappeared. And so I decided to head home and along the way I recalled a few fun sights I’d made from behind the glass in our back door. Can you see the red squirrel’s tongue?
And do you spy the gray squirrel that tried to hide during a recent icy rain storm?
That same day a chickadee watched intently as an icicle dripped from the feeder’s overhang.
Then there were the red foxes. One or two pass through our yard almost every day. Sometimes we see them more than once in a day. During our most recent snowstorm (when all of one inch or so coated the snow we already had) the duo graced us with a lunch time visit (our lunch time, that is).
The bird feeding station is always one of their stops for it’s a gathering place day and night of birds and other mammals.
And then, on Christmas Eve morning, one of the foxes got down on all fours in anticipation, ready to pounce . . . on a gray squirrel that ran up a tree. Red foxes don’t climb trees, but had it been a gray fox, it could have outsmarted the squirrel for they do climb.
I was almost home, and indeed back in our woodlot, when I remembered first hearing and then watching a male pileated woodpecker the other day. How do I know it’s a male? Because it has a red “mustache” on its cheek, and the red crest on its head extends to its bill.
At last I was back behind the window in the back door and periodically I checked on the activity. A downy woodpecker didn’t let me down. Check out the red heart on the back of its head–thus it was a male.
The downy’s bill is about a third the size of its head and rather narrow when compared to other woodpeckers that frequent western Maine. What I find fascinating are the light brown rictal bristles as the base of its bill, which are thought to offer some sort of sensory mission.
And then as if on command, in flew a hairy woodpecker, so named apparently for the long, filamentous white feathers in the middle of its back. I find that a curious distinction because the downy seemed to have a similar feature. But the differences I do recognize are the red color–in the male you’ll see two bars on the back of the hairy’s head, not joined together as on the downy; and the bill again–for the hairy, the bill is thicker and almost as long as the bird’s head. And easy mnemonic: huge hairy for the huge bill.
It was a while before the hairy left the long-damaged quaking aspen in the yard. Have you ever watched one? It can stay in one position for a long time, all the while looking about. Was it listening for insects? Looking for something? I don’t know, but eventually it flew to the feeder and began to eat the suet. And if you look closely, you’ll see the rictal bristles that looked like a bushy mustache atop its upper mandible.
Squirrels too, attracted my awe. Earlier in the day I heard one chastising me and thought, “Oh, it’s just a red squirrel.” Then I reminded myself that I like squirrels. I’m fascinated by them. And am having fun watching them move across the landscape, which is bringing a new understanding to my mind and will possibly be the topic for another post.
You wanna know one cool fact about red squirrels? Of course you do. Do you see the tufts of hair on the tips of its ears? During early fall, the tufts grow like a crown on their heads. It seems apropos since despite their size, they think they are the kings of the forest.
One of the resident gray squirrels (possibly the one that survived the fox treeing episode) joined the feeding frenzy out the door. It showed an outline of white fur behind its ears, but no tufts at the top–more visible if you look at her left ear.
And then there was the titmouse–a tufted titmouse to be exact. Yes, it too has a tuft . . . all year round. And the largest eyes. But why the tuft? And isn’t a cardinal also tufted? Why isn’t it called a tufted cardinal?
At the end of the day, I know there’s more for me to see and notice and question and I realize that I’ve returned to wonder. Thankfully.