Funky Mondate

It seems like it’s been forever since my guy and I shared a Mondate, but truth be told we snuck away to Diana’s Bath and beyond in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a week ago and here’s a sneak peek.

We’d had snow two days prior and the lower falls of Lucy Brook showed off the force that the Lucy family had harnessed in the late 1800s to operate a saw mill.

Remnants of the mill’s foundations still exist.

Fortunately, the falls are watched over by fairy-sized snow people.

Stopping by the Upper Falls, we had memories of ice discs spinning counterclockwise, but they remained just that: memories from a Romancing the Stone Mondate two years ago. Last week, the temp was not quite as frigid so no discs formed.

Despite that, we hiked on for a couple of miles and eventually turned around to retrace our steps.

Fast forward to today and we headed off to explore two land trust properties in western Maine, the first of which we’d never traversed before. My extreme excitement upon arriving at the first was to learn that an outermost trail was named for G. Howard Dyer.

I had the pleasure of knowing Howard, who died at age 103 in 2009, when he lived at a local assisted living home where my mom also resided. He was an independent Mainer who drove a car into his late 90s and I remember his license plate: GHD. To me, it read: GOD. He’d turn into the home’s parking lot practically on two wheels, and though the old car had some dings, somehow Howard’s adventures weren’t thwarted by his age, maybe because he was GOD.

At the time that Mom lived in the same home, I volunteered to help the Activities Director one day a week and one of the things I did besides arts and crafts was create a monthly newsletter filled with recipes, poetry, songs and memories of yesteryear that the residents shared with me.

For one issue, I spent some time interviewing Howard about his life and experiences. He was a great storyteller and shared with me that over the years he’d lived in Otisfield on and off. Knowing that state law required perambulation of the town’s boundaries, in 1946 he conducted his first walk about town. Fifty-six years later, in 2002, he knew that no one had walked the boundaries in a long time. So, at 95 years of age, he decided to do it again. “Weren’t sure I could do it,” Howard told me as his eyes twinkled. “Didn’t say it to anybody.”

It took him months to complete because he’d walk here today, there tomorrow. When he finally finished the job, he told town officials. As Howard told it, they were surprised because they couldn’t get anyone to do it due to “swamps and all, you know.”

Howard’s accomplishments were included on the 2002-2004 House Appendix of the Legislative Record when he received Otisfield’s Boston Cane. “Town law required perambulation of the boundaries every ten years, and as a gift to the town, Mr. Dyer walked the 34-mile Town of Otisfield’s boundary line, once at the age of 39 and more recently at the age of 95.”

He was quite a guy and actually ten or more years ago my guy and I decided to follow his example and perambulated the boundary of our town, a section this Monday, another section the next Monday, taking a year to connect all the dots.

I was thrilled to see that Howard had been honored by having a trail named for him, and suggested to my guy that perhaps we need to consider repeating our perambulation. To which he readily agreed.

For today, however, we had other things to notice, and lately it seems no hike is complete unless a Winter Firefly can be found.

There were other insects burrowed in place and they shall remain nameless because I didn’t want to expose them any more than they already were.

My learning continued as we journeyed on and we were almost finished exploring Howard’s trail when I spied an oval shaped sawfly cocoon on a Northern Red Oak twig.

But it was the cluster of cocoons at the end of the twig that deserved even more attention. I’m 95% certain (until someone tells me otherwise) that this is the random formation of a parasitic bracinoid wasp cocoon. The question remains: who died so this structure could be created? Because that’s what these wasps do–parasitize other insects by laying their eggs upon them.

We soon left Howard’s Trail behind and moved on to tramp along another trail, where a White Oak pulled me in because the salmon color and rounded edge of the leaves always stops me in my tracks.

Because I stepped in for a closer look, the sapling honored me with the offering of what I think is an old Wooly Sower Gall, which I believe only has a relationship with this species. When first formed, it would have consisted of white wool highlighted with pink spots, but apparently it takes several years for the larvae to mature and the structure develops “horns” over time.

Lest you think I have been ignoring mammals to focus on insects, never fear–I delighted with the discovery of a large cache/midden created by a Red Squirrel.

Our journey took us beside a river that follows a crooked course through the landscape, but what always amazes me is the erosion along the edge. For how much longer will this tree stand?

As we stood on the edge ten to fifteen feet above the river, we had to wonder–how high does it get that the bank should be so eroded at this height? We never seem to visit in late winter, but maybe this year we should. Though given the current lack of precipitation, maybe this isn’t the year to gain a baseline understanding.

At last we reached the trail end, and knew it was time to turn toward home.

It had been a successful day, coming unexpectedly upon the trail named for Howard and my guy locating a winter geocache that wasn’t really a winter geocache for he had to dig through some snow to find it and the snow isn’t at all deep. Yet.

We also discovered an impressive hollowed out tree through which we just had to chat. If I were a bear in the woods . . . this would be my den. Note to self: if you ever need an out-of-the-way place to rest, remember this spot.

And we found a fun key hanging from a tree, adding icing to our funky Mondate.

Winter Bug Safari

I’m a winter gal and snow and tracks and scat and bark and buds all pull me out the door on a daily basis as I try to understand who has traveled where and why, and through what natural community the journey has been made.

But now . . . I have another reason to slip outside: Bugs. And how they overwinter. And where.

On one tramp through the woods this past week, with eyes peeled for the tiniest movement on the snow or twigs or tree trunks, I spotted the fresh work of a Pileated Woodpecker. Though I would have loved to see the bird, I was equally thrilled to see the pile of debris below the hemlock tree. (And that gorgeous magenta-colored inner bark, of course.)

The fresh wood chips on the snow invited a closer examination. And you thought this post would be about bugs. But indeed it is for it’s Carpenter Ants that the bird sought. By the two clumps of bird scat that I found, it was obvious the woodpecker had been successful.

For you see, within the cylindrical casing coated with uric acid were body parts.

Ant body parts. Now, here’s the thing that I need to learn more about. I’ve watched Pileated Woodpeckers land on trees and pause, sometimes deciding to excavate, but other times moving on. And I’ve been told that they test the tree out and listen for the ants. I’ve never been able to prove that. But here’s the thing: what I learned today is that Carpenter Ants not insulated by snow or the warmth of your home enter diapause, a low-energy state that allows them to survive the cold and go for long periods without eating. So the question remains, how does the woodpecker know which tree to pick on, or is it a lucky strike?

Further along that same trail, I came upon the prints of a horse that had stymied me a few weeks ago when I tried to mentally turn its track pattern into either a bear or a moose, knowing full well that what I was seeing didn’t quite fit what I knew to be true of those species. Horse manure would have helped, but there was none to be seen . . . until the other day when a fresh plop in the middle of the trail offered an invite to look for insects seeking minerals upon it. I saw one small fly that I couldn’t identify, but beside the manure was this Winter Cranefly. It was a brisk day and today I learned that this species is only active when the temperature is below freezing. My kind of bug, indeed.

On another day and another trail, it was a Winter Firefly that drew attention. First, fireflies are not flies; they are beetles.

Second, unlike many beetles, Winter Fireflies overwinter as adults.

Third, Winter Fireflies are diurnal and don’t have lanterns to light up the night sky.

And fourth, though I find most tucked into the bark of maple trees, the first one this week was on a hemlock. After that, it seemed to be maples upon which I found others.

As the temperatures rise bit in the next month, they’ll become more active and will be visible crawling up the tree trunks and eventually flying. By summer, you’ll see not a one but their nocturnal cousins will light up the night.

One day, it was Snow Fleas, aka Spring Tails upon lichenized bark that garned a look.

And another day, upon another crustose lichen on a maple tree, shed larval skins of possibly Twice-Stabbed Lady Beetles were visible. Kinda creepy, especially when you are looking up-close and personal with a hand lens, but oh, so cool.

And then there were the spiders, thus the reason this isn’t just an Insect Safari. This minute eight-legged creature that practically ran across the bark must have had antifreeze in its blood.

Behind another piece of bark was this slightly active crab spider . . .

and its more dormant relatives hunkered down who had probably supercooled through the process of accumulating glycols in their blood (antifreeze again). Apparently, despite the below freezing temps, their tissues remained unfrozen and they won’t become spidercicles. How in the world did spiders and other critters physiologically adapt via the antifreeze compounds so that they won’t turn to ice?

It’s all a wonder to me.

Before I finish, let me leave you with one last image. It’s some sort of beetle, I know not what. And I don’t know what is on its wings–perhaps some sort of mite or parasite? When class reconvenes again, I will ask the instructor.

I am so excited to be taking Bugs In Winter, taught by Charley Eiseman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: a Guide to North American Species. Thank you to Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood for suggesting it to me (perhaps so I’d stop sending him photos of mystery bugs and asking his advice).

The course has only just begun and a few naturalist friends are taking it with me. We have tons to learn and so I invite you to tag along cuze for the next two months I’m going to be on a Winter Bug Safari, which will then turn into Spring Bug Safari, and after that . . . you get the picture.

Hindsight is 20/20

It’s been a year like no other and we can only hope there is no other like it in the near future.

But today I had the opportunity to look through the long-range lens and reflect upon the fact that the past can quickly go out of focus.

The trail may have had lumps and humps and water and ice, but there were ways to get around its slipperiness.

One of the major take-aways was that when a tree’s inner bark offers you wood fiber–take it and weave a cocoon into which you can wait until it’s safe to emerge, most likely in a changed form.

Another take-away when you suddenly find yourself spending so much time at home–redecorate, even if that means carving the entryway into the shape of heart to let everyone know that love is greater than fear.

And . . . whether a hugger or not, warm embraces no matter whether you are of the same heritage or differ, will be even more meaningful when that’s something we can freely offer each other again.

Perhaps one of the biggest take-aways of all has been learning to go with the flow even when it seems all layers from the heart(wood) to outer coat have nothing left to offer. Somehow, life continues to flow wihin.

While looking back, one might discover new learnings such as the fact that Ghost Plant or Monotropa uniflora can present stop-in-your-tracks cinnamon-colored hues upon their woody winter forms rather than the expected chocolate brown.

Slowly, rather than spend time constantly lamenting the past, one’s sight might turn toward the future, though there may have been some influence because one performed a magic trick. And a heart or two may reveal themselves in the midst of showing off eyes of surprise at the immediate act of photosynthesis coaxed when water was poured upon the lungwort.

Other signs of hope will also be recognized, these in the form of Trailing Arubutus flower buds already taken form while awaiting a May budding.

And then there are two connected in the dance of time performing their canoodling act first upon scat and then moving onto the.frozen gravely substrate to complete the marriage of their bodies–leaving one wondering about the timing of it all.

Timing is everything and though our timing was thrown off on so many fronts this past year, nature proved over and over again a sense of when to perform and when to withdraw. Our job was to be quiet and notice.

And . . . just when it all seemed too much to juggle, 2020 hindsight reminded us to channel our inner clown because you never know what or who you might encounter on a woodland wander and in the end one’s focus really should be on the wonder of it all.

As we put 2020 behind us, let us remember that it taught us so many more lessons than I’ve touched upon here and may we look at 2021 as an opportunity.

Look The Otter Way

Though we’re currently not gathering in groups such as Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, which typically convenes when the first flakes fall, the mammals are still on the move, crisscrossing our lands as they hunt for food. With the latest snowstorm, a hike up the Flat Hill trail at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve revealed tracks of a red fox or two, red and gray squirrels, mice, a fisher, and the resident porcupines.

But . . .at a different locale, that being John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge East on Farrington Pond Road in Lovell, there were other signs and tracks left behind following an earlier Nor’easter.

For starters, a beaver chew, which turned out to be only half a success on the sawyer’s part.

For rather than the top of the tree topple as planned, it got hung up in its neighbor’s branches. Such is the case in maybe one out of every eight or nine attempts, especially along a shorefront as wooded as this.

Then there were the prints made by a mouse, presumably scampering along a downed tree that had collapsed on its own accord and landed in the water. On more than one occasion a track like this led to the end of a log in water and one has to wonder: why did the mouse scurry that way?

A larger mammal also left behind its telltale footprint—the chevron in the heel pad almost identical to that which David Brown sketched in his Trackards. Other clues to the identity of the creator included the size and the X between toe pads and heel. Perhaps the mouse scampered because the fox was trotting?

And then. And then there were the prints that might fool anyone who is just putting on his or her track eyes for the first time in this snowy season. And that would include me. The pattern of the overall track didn’t seem correct, but the icy clump left behind almost matched. Could it be a black bear? My heart be still.

Or . . . perhaps a moose. Flummoxed I was. One other possibility entered the brain because each print seemed rather rounded, but there was no other sign to make one feel certain about the creator’s species. What was obvious, however, was that it had gathered ice much like I was upon the underside of my micro-spikes and constantly I had to stomp the ground to loosen the frozen ball or risk walking on high heels. The latter I know not how to do.

Later I learned from Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau that a local resident rides her horse at JAS East. If only the horse had left behind a calling sign in the name of manure!

Other mammals, however, did leave plenty of signs announcing their frequent visits to this land trust property, including using this large boulder near the water as a frequently visited latrine.

There were piles of older scat filled with bones and scales that had grayed with age and practically disintegrated. An otter’s diet consists of birds, bird eggs, turtles, aquatic plants, and small mammals, but their favorite meals are crayfish and fish, thus the bones and scales.

There were fresher examples, also filled with scales indicating the meal of choice. Oh dear, I hope you aren’t dining on breakfast or lunch as you read this 😉 Otter scat can be tubular in shape, or look as if it was squirted. Sometimes it takes on a reddish hue, a la crayfish.

And where there is scat, there might even be urine. Scat and urine and anal gland emissions at the latrine all include information that we might see or smell, but more importantly, that another otter can interpret. The latrines are communal and it may be that one otter is announcing its intention to seek a date in the upcoming months or he may know where the best fishing spots are located and is willing to share the secret.

Part of the fun of looking for otter action is the discovery of a slide used repeatedly as you can see by the two different directions of the prints in the light snow covering.

Placing David’s Trackards on the side, gives a sense of width of one print on the right, and a discerning eye may see the second footprint located diagonally behind on the left. Weasels are bounders and their print pattern is typically on the diagonal.

And where else might there be tracks? Why, upon a log in the water that tells the rest of the story. Or perhaps it’s the beginning of the story, for the log served as a dinner table.

And based upon the blood left behind and location of the site, I’d surmise it was a fish that had been devoured.

Knowing that this was a frequently used area, it was time to set up a game camera a day later. And the next day, the action began.

Two hours later, another shot—we know not if it was the same or a second otter, for Rhyan had happened upon three of them frolicking in the water a day or so before my visit. Otters tend to follow a circuitous route in their home range, visiting the latrines over and over again to defecate, scent mark, and roll around as a means of spreading oil throughout their coats to make them waterproof, which is why our frigid temperatures don’t affect them.

The next morning it appeared that two or maybe three, romped by the latrine. A day or so before I visited, Rhyan had seen three frolicking in the water. Chances are it’s a momma and her kids appearing to “play,” which in otter speak means she’s teaching them how to hunt or some other survival skill.

Two days later and our friends made it obvious that they are active both day and night. The trick to seeing one: being present. Or, as we did, using a game camera to capture some of the action.

Because you never know when one might to decide to pose for a selfie and look the otter way. Naturally.

Feeding the Need

I’ve been known to spend a good chunk of time watching the buffet station from inside the back door, which acts as a “blind” most of the time. I say “most” because some visitors either hear me despite my best stealth attempts, or somehow sense my presence and in a whoosh, everyone leaves the scene.

For the past two days, I’ve assumed my post much like this Blue Jay upon a Quaking Aspen. Blue Jays have a reputation of being the backyard bullies, but maybe there’s more to them that we don’t understand.

Perhaps they don’t mean to be grumpy and scare everyone away. Do they really want to embrace their neighbors, but don’t realize that their own size or loud squawks only serve to make others flee. Probably that’s just my possible consideration because innately they know that by being large and obnoxious they can partake of the feast without competition.

Eventually, though, the jays fly off and the Black-Capped Chickadees return, doing their chickadee-kind-of-thing as they fly in, grab a seed, dash out, sit on a limb, break the morsel into digestible bits, and repeat. Constantly. They’re so cheerful about it, these feathered sprites, but it must be an exhausting way to get a quick spurt of energy between dawn and twilight.

What pleases me is that with the chickadees come the Tufted Titmice, who like the jays before them, like to pause and consider the possibilities before settling on the best feeder to visit.

Any one that offers sunflower seed seems to be the buffet of choice.

Not so for Downy Woodpecker who also pauses upon the aspen.

Fresh suet is her meal par excellence.

The nuthatches, both red and white, this one being the latter, also enjoy the sunflower seeds, but they’ve been known to hang out at the suet feeder upon occasion.

One who thinks he’s a bird manages to make a liar out of the “squirrel proof” baffle and then takes a flying leap to the “squirrel proof” feeder.

For the moment, he is indeed baffled.

But that doesn’t stop him and he moves on to the next feast with his name on it.

Acting as he should, the feeders openings close as the outer “cage” slides down preventing the squirrel from dining. Surely it’s a success?

Kinda, sorta. He succeeds in opening the top, but fortunately, he can’t reach the seed and I learn a lesson: Don’t fill the feeder to the top and the squirrel won’t be able to show off how much of a glutton he truly is.

But, squirrels need to eat as well, so I do make a habit of spreading seed on the ground, which others like the Northern Cardinals appreciate. And I appreciate the color they add to mix.

Other ground feeders include the turkeys.

The neighbors’ dogs also like to snack when they think no one is looking, this being Finn.

His sister by another mother . . . and father (but don’t tell either one), briefly considers the suet, but then moves toward home when she hears her name called–not immediately, mind you, for she likes to test the limits.

One of the best ground feeders, however, comes by himself and takes off when others arrive. The Common Redpoll is hardly “common.”

And I have to wonder what passes through its bird brain, perhaps something like this, “Oh drat, I just stepped in turkey scat.”

Another favorite also likes feeding on the ground, in particular the females of the species.

I think that’s because the male Evening Grosbeaks hog the platform of the feeder above. They give her a talking to as she tries to land.

Other males are welcome . . .

time and again. And still the original two males remain in place.

In the end, in a defiant manner, she gains platform status on the other side.

And I gain more and more understandings for the more I watch the more I see, like the hierarchy that defines the behavior of the chickadees, turkeys, and grosbeaks; titmice are quick, but not as quick as chickadees; Downy Woodpeckers, like their Hairy cousins, always announce their arrival; Northern Cardinals do the same, but in a quieter fashion and tend to visit more often in the early morning and late afternoon light; while the Red-breasted Nuthatch performs a quick “Dinner-To-Go” stop, its White-breasted cousin likes to hang, upside down, of course, for minutes on end, and rather like the Blue Jay, clears the queue; Squirrel-birds love the challenge and in time will always find a way around the human’s attempt to baffle them; the neighbors’ dogs are harmless, but neighborhood cats can mean disaster; “common” should not be part of a common name; and ways of approaching and even timing of approach are all species specific; and color and drama are icing on the cake. This doesn’t even include the nighttime visitors, but when I turn on the light or check tracks in the snow come morning, I discover that deer, porcupines, raccoons, opossums, and foxes also stop by.

Feeding the need means more than that of my feathered and furred friends, for by feeding them, they also feed me.

The Secret Giver of Gifts

If you feel like you’ve read this before, you may have. I first posted this in 2016, but keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well, especially in light of the current pandemic. Peace and joy be with you. And safety and health.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes something like this . . .

s-snow-limbs

The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

s-stockings

Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

s-santa-hat

One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bear for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine.

Needing a fresh-air break mid-day, I ventured into our woodlot, where part of a fertile fern clinging to a dead tree branch about five feet above the ground garnered my attention. How did it end up on the tree, I wondered. Given that I’d been picking up branches from last night’s gale-force winds, I suspected it had somehow been torn from the rest of the frond and blew onto the branch. Maybe.

Below it, perched in a more stable manner, was a half eaten pine cone and this time my interpretation was much clearer for frequently I’ve been scolded by a Red Squirrel on this trail. He must have been dining on a branch above, out of danger’s way, and for some reason I don’t know, let the cone slip from his front paws where it fell and landed between a branch stub and piece of bark that was partly dislodged from the tree.

A glimpse at the base and I was 98% certain my story was correct for a large midden or refuse pile of cone scales and cobs removed by Red in order to consume two tiny seeds located inside each scale decorated the forest floor.

Because I circled the tree to further examine the midden, and because it was raining, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my next find, but the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Plus I love the rainbow colors.

With great patience, I watched the drops drip onto the froth and realized that if I counted to twelve I might get to see a drop just before it let go.

And could almost capture its journey.

As if that wasn’t enough to make my day, I was stepping away from the tree when I discovered a hickory nut on the edge of the midden. One of the manners in which a Red Squirrel opens a hickory nut is to split it in half. Notice the grooves along the edge created by the squirrel’s incisors.

By this time, I was hungry and maybe a wee bit damp, and ready to follow the path home, but . . . a sudden look at the tree’s bark, and I spied life.

The life of a slug is interesting and not to be rushed. No longer was I.

For almost an hour I watched four slugs as they moved at their own slow pace into and out of the furrows of the pine. These terrestrial gastropods (gastro=stomach; pod=foot) create a layer of mucus that they secrete so that the “foot” under almost the entire length of their bodies can move rather smoothly.

Their heads include two sets of tentacles that they can retract (and grow back should they lose one). The upper tentacles are light sensitive and have eyespots at the tip of the stalks. They also use these to smell.

The lower tentacles are for feeling and tasting.

And then there’s the mouth, that funky-looking line to the left of the tentacles in this photo. The radula is a tongue-like organ covered with thousands of raspy tooth-like protrusions–the better to scrape or brush particles from the surface of a tree or plant.

Here’s another cool fact about snails; they are hermaphrodites, meaning each one has both male and female sex organs.

As my snails headed in each and every direction, I at last pulled away, though I did stop to examine other trees on my way home, but found nothing else to look at. 😉 Or at least, nothing else to report.

An hour or more later, I slipped out the door again, curious to check on the action upon that one pine. The fern had blown to the ground. The cone was still lodged between the branch stub and bark. The rain had slowed and froth diminished, though remnants of it remained. The hickory nut had disappeared. And I could only find one slug who was making its way to the safety of its underground habitat.

But . . . because I went back, I spotted an Assassin Bug.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Treebuster Doorbuster Sale

Today being that post-Thanksgiving-pre-Christmas-better-get-shopping-for-everyone-on-your-list Day, I knew I needed to head out the door.

But I’m a postpone-it-as-long-as-you-can type of shopper and so I didn’t get as early a start as I probably should have because I just wanted to hang out at home for a while.

A few hours later, however, I decided to join the crowd because I was pretty sure that the best deals worth my time and money awaited.

And, of course, they did. First there was the well-chiseled Pileated Woodpecker tree with a sign indicating I could save up to 50%. Into the cart it went. I was thinking perhaps JinMe might like this on her mantel.

Surely Faith and Sara will enjoy this ice sculpture–that is really a bunch of hidden pictures. I won’t let on how cheap it was, but even if I did, I suspect they wouldn’t care because, after all, it’s the thought that counts.

For Pam, there was that one-of-a-kind bird nest decorated with curly wisps of paper birch bark and enhanced with an acorn. I know she loves a mystery and suspect she’ll enjoy trying to figure out who created such, cup-shaped and located in the crotch of maple sapling.

For the other Pam, I put a limited-supply pond-scape photograph on layaway. It will serve as a memory of that day long ago that we passed by a barn, followed the S turns on a snowmobile trail, crossed over a number of water bars, looked for the point when the trail started to feel like we were descending rather than ascending, found a hemlock grove (or did we?), and looked for a sign we never saw, but decided to bushwhack instead to the edge of a certain pond. I couldn’t afford the entire price of the photo today, but with weekly payments, I should be able to wrap it in time to place it under her tree.

Four hours of shopping later and I was done in, not being much of a shop-till-you-drop person. I have so many others on my list, but in due time I’ll again force myself to join the crowds and snag further discounts and get something to show my appreciation for all.

I was just about to head to the check-out when I learned of a limited-supply item. You rarely find brand new products on sale so soon after being released, but there it was, a bear nest in a beech tree, that spot where a bear sits high up in the tree and snaps the branches to pull it inward in order to dine on beech nuts. I knew I had to get it for Bob. He really wants a partridge in a pear tree, but I think this doorbuster sale will suffice. Or maybe it’s a treebuster doorbuster sale. 😉

Cached In My Heart

I knew it was going to be a great day when snowflakes began to fall. And when asked the day before how I intended to spend yesterday, I said I’d probably read, bake, and knit. But . . . those plans were postponed for a few hours because that white stuff was falling and I heard it calling my name.

Thankfully, it was only my name that it called and for the first time since March, I stepped back into Pondicherry Park, a place that I love, but have intentionally avoided because so many others have discovered it as a tonic to the worries of the pandemic and I wanted to give them space, knowing I could find plenty of other places to explore with the same quest in mind. But . . . it was snowing, and I suspected that others might be home reading and baking and, well, maybe even knitting, and I would have the place to myself.

Soon, however, I discovered that I wasn’t really alone for even though the snow wasn’t piling up, tiny tracks on boardwalks indicated others were scampering about.

A few minutes into the hike, bright green moss invited me off trail to examine the base of pine where a hole beneath the tree . . .

and a cone still intact made me wonder: If this was the home of a little scamperer, what might it be eating other than this cone?

And then I twisted right–in more ways than one. And spread out along a downed pine and all around the base of another–a huge cache/midden: the cache being a collection of cones gathered and stored; and the midden being the refuse pile of scales and cobs left behind after the seeds were consumed.

I’ve been looking for one of these for a few weeks as the air temperature has dropped and wondered when the little guys would get their acts together and gather a supply to see them through winter.

One among them had, indeed, been busy, not only gathering, but dining, and with today being Thanksgiving, you might think this critter had the longest dining room table because it intended to invite everyone over for a meal.

But, its a feisty diner, and each meal is consumed quickly, with some chits and chats warning others to stay away–social distancing naturally.

Peeking under the dinner table, I discovered some cones tucked away in the pantry . . .

others in the fridge, with the door left open, thus exposing them to the elements . . .

and a few in cold storage.

On the other side of the pine table, holes in the midden showed the downstairs and upstairs doorways: all leading to Rome–or rather, the cache that must have been huge based on the size of the midden left behind. I did feel concern that so much had been consumed and there might not be enough for winter survival.

No need to worry. On the backside of the tree, three were tucked into furrows–making me think of a $20 bill stored away in a wallet, just in case.

My journey through the park eventually continued and meant a few pauses at favorite haunts, including one where the reflection nourishes my little friends . . . and me.

Occasionally more boardwalks curve through the landscape offering their own reflection–of this past year, which has taught us all that when there are curves in the road, we should follow and embrace them.

And if a hemlock grows beside a pine, it’s okay to cache your pinecone supply atop the former’s roots. You don’t always have do what the rest of us expect you to do.

Especially if you are the creator of the caches–a feisty Red Squirrel, ever ready to give chase to your siblings and chitter at any intruders such as me.

Of course, if you are a Gray Squirrel, you’ll take a different approach to winter preparations and store one acorn at a time and hope you remember where you left each one.

Three hours later, I finally found my way home, grateful that the stars had aligned, it had snowed, and I had the trails to myself. And then I began to bake, but never got around to reading or knitting or even writing this post for the phone kept ringing and there were envelopes and gifts to open, messages and emails galore to read, and cake to consume, and though we can’t be with our family or friends today, I gave thanks that on my birthday the squirrels let me share their world for a wee bit and I was showered with so much love–that I’ve cached in my heart.

All In A Flash

To feed or not to feed? That is not the question for I know I will continue to put out bird seed from now til April or May since it provides them with a constant food source and me with a constant entertainment source.

But still, things happen, like Gray Squirrels figure out how to access the squirrel-proof feeders.

And when I least expect it, everyone makes a mad dash because a bird of prey suddenly rockets in with talons extended.

I’d only placed the feeders in the yard a few days ago, but today this Cooper’s Hawk explained why I keep discovering feathers on the grass. Do you see the gray feathers by its talons? Tufted Titmouse? That makes me sad, but . . . raptors need to eat too.

Meanwhile, a female Northern Cardinal who had been feeding on the seed I spread on the ground tried to take cover in the grass. Notice how her crest is raised? I suspect it stood tall indicating her worry.

Even after the hawk flew off, she remained in the same spot. But, do you see the difference? The crest began to drop, perhaps because she began to relax.

I could almost hear her say, “If I don’t move, he won’t see me.”

About 15 minutes and lots of raindrops later, she finally perused the yard.

And let a few more raindrops gather on her feathers before flying off. I was grateful to see her fly, because for a while I worried that she had been injured in the fracas. My other thought was that she might be in shock. But, I think for now, until I learn more about bird behavior, I’ll stick with thinking she was playing it smart and waiting for danger to pass.

Two hours later, I spotted the hawk on our stonewall and later went out to search for feeding evidence as chipmunks and other small mammals are also part of their diet. I found only a couple of downy feathers where the bird had stood in the yard and nothing by the stonewall, but I suspect there may be something to notice in the future.

Today’s drama all happened in a flash and as odd as it may seem, I was grateful to be a witness.

All In A Day’s Walk

My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.

And so it was that on this brisk morning, snow-capped Mount Washington greeted me. If you zoom in, you might see the buildings at the summit.

Because I was at a different summit that I frequent, I knew I had to check on the activity of the local residents and wasn’t disappointed. First, I followed their trails, where leaves are well packed. Those led to trees, but no downed nip twigs as one might expect. That could only mean one thing–there are still plenty of acorns on the ground for them to eat. Because I was searching, however, I was thrilled to discover one sign that the season is changing. I knew that by the five layers I was wearing, but the stripped bark and cambium layer of a birch indicated the same. A porcupine’s diet varies with the offerings and part of their winter dining includes just this. Notice, too, the pattern of the incisor marks. Such a design thrills me no matter how often I encounter it.

One of the porky trails led into a crevice below where I stood. It was there that I caught the first glimpse of icicles and knew I had to climb down. My route wasn’t the same as the porcupine’s for I’m not quite as nimble on rocks and slippery leaves.

But, with grace, I descended and made the surprise discovery of Mount Rushmore East. At least, that’s how the rock faces looked to my eyes.

But seriously, I wanted to spy the icicles from below and they became the inspiration for next week’s GLLT Moment.

That wasn’t all I wanted to spy and I wasn’t disappointed for the trail of scat indicated one potential den site.

And more scat led to another. I suspect those aren’t the only two, but I wanted to keep moving, such was the temp.

That said, right beside the second porcupine den, I found a small hole in the ground capped in hoar frost and suspected that someone was inside. It seemed a bit larger than a chipmunk hole. Maybe a squirrel? Or a weasel? Or even, the porcupine’s den vent?

While those choices rolled around in my brain, I climbed up the ledges and made my way down the trail until it intersected with another. Eventually, water once again stopped me as it often does.

Only two weeks ago the temperatures in western Maine were in the 60˚s and 70˚s, but the past few days have been chilly and already dancing elephant legs are forming over sticks that dangle above moving streams.

Even the froth created by the friction of the stream’s movement had frozen in place.

I stopped a few more times, but finally reached the spot that was my second intention of the day. While exploring in this area a couple of week’s ago with several Greater Lovell Land Trust docents, we noticed beaver trees. The work looked rather recent and so we set up a game cam in hopes of getting a view of the perpetrator.

Today’s visit, however, showed no fresh work on this tree.

And a skim of ice indicated no one had recently walked out of the water. I snagged the camera and dropped it at the office so the photos can be downloaded. I hope they reveal more than a few test pics of us homo sapiens.

It was while heading back to my truck that this splash of color caught my attention. Notice the Striped Maple leaf on the mushroom–they are like a matched set. I’ve been torn in my identification between an Artist’s Conk and a Red-belted Polypore, whose belt is not always red.

But more important than identification was presentation. And the knowledge that the middle mushroom grew when the tree was still standing, while the others fruited after the tree had fallen, for mushrooms must always orient toward the ground, the better to spread one’s spores, of course.

My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?

How about now?

Surely now you can.

Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.

People versus Nature: who wins?

Artifacts. In the woods. A sign.

A sign of the past and the present. A sign of people. A sign of nature.

The people story may have ended 72 years ago in this space . . .

but the nature story continues with many interesting twists and turns along the way.

The people may have tried to defy nature . . .

but nature has a way, whether we like what emerges from it or not.

And figuring out the procession of the nature story, as much as some of it may not please us, is still intriguing.

People and nature.

People versus nature.

Who wins? In the end, nature reclaims her own as the lichens demonstrate on this quarried granite.

November By Surprise

I love November. Maybe because the first snowflakes typically fall. Maybe because the air is crisper (except for last week, that is). Maybe because the days are shorter and I love being embraced by darkness.

Maybe because the color palette is all its own after the reds and oranges and yellows of October and before the white and gray and evergreen of December.

Maybe because we might have one last chance to visit this special place before the gates are closed on the forest road for winter.

Maybe because we get to see Mergansers swim and dive and fly and slide into a landing over and over again.

Maybe because if we look closely, we might just spy a Bullfrog tadpole swimming.

Maybe because in the middle of our looking here, there, and everywhere for a moose, or some otters, or even a beaver family, we may suddenly spy a little red flyer.

No maybes about it because this Autumn Meadowhawk took a while, but eventually let me coax it onto my hand today. Why is it still flying? Maybe because we did have a warm up this past week, though the past two mornings Jack Frost has visited. Whatever the reason, it certainly took us by surprise on this November day.

NOTE: previously, the latest I’ve seen a meadowhawk fly was Nov 4, 2019.

Cascading Mondate

Yeah, so on Sunday my guy and I hiked about four miles all told and found three geocaches in the mix cuze he’s now hooked, which is fun on my end since it slows him down a wee bit.

And on Monday–almost eight miles covered. But it wasn’t the mileage that mattered. Really.

Our morning began beside still waters. Well, the water was hardly still, but considering how crowded the area can be on a summer day, it was a delight to be the only two human beings in that space for those moments.

It’s a cool spot on many levels. No, we didn’t slide into the pool below; nor did we jump off the 20-foot cliff. Rather, we stood in awe and appreciated. That is, after finding another geocache located nearby.

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away because there was more water to meet, though we were surprised to arrive at a closed gate. No signs forbid our trespass and so we walked around the gate, and up the dirt road to the parking area and kiosk. On the way, we could hear a machine being operated and wondered if we’d stumbled upon a logging operation. A few minutes further along, a young man with an easy grin pulled up in a pick-up truck and knowing that the gate behind us was closed, we figured he must have something to do with the property. Sure enough, he told us they were working on the roadway and bike path ahead. The gate is closed for hunting season, but will reopen in the winter. Still, we were welcomed to hike on.

Half a mile later, we slipped into the woods and left the machinery sounds behind.

Occasionally, we walked across bog bridges and into the future.

Looking down at our feet was a constant, given that there were lots of slippery beech leaves to contend with, but . . . beech leaves mean one thing: American Beech Trees. And much to our delight, smack dab beside the trail stood a well-used beech tree. Some of the claw scratches weren’t all that old, given the width of the scars, and though this year proved to be yet another mast year for Northern Red Oaks (is it just me, or have red oaks been producing acorns on a yearly basis for at least the past five years?) it wasn’t so for the beeches. But perhaps last year or the year before or maybe a few years ago, this tree was a magnet for Ursus americanus.

We could have turned around then for our hearts were delighted, but, of course, we didn’t and soon found ourselves beside a single-wide stone wall.

Barbed wire that a tree had grown around told us the wall was intended to keep animals in . . . or out, depending on your point of view.

Certainly the tree knew, and had we spent a few more minutes with it, I suspect it would have quietly shared more knowledge with us, but we were on a quest and knew we only had so much daylight left.

And so, we hiked on. Until we reached one rather large blow-down and wondered: if a tree falls in a forest . . . Our answer: it land on the ground. Presumably with a thump. And this one must have created a ground-shaking thump.

Not far above the tree, a fanciful picnic table graces a knoll, and invites all questers, including this guy, to pause.

He didn’t pause for long. Back on the trail, as we climbed higher, the naturally community did what it does, and changed. For a bit, the delightful aroma of Balsam Fir spurred us forward, both by our feet and by our thoughts of the holiday season to come.

At last we reached water, and I thought our quest might be over. Could this be what we sought? As much as I loved watching bubbles form and pop, I was rather disappointed.

But after crossing rocks to get to the other side, the fall coloration of Tiarella (Heartleaf Foamflower) in all its hairiness called for attention.

And then, as we entered an opening where pine saplings grew in the sun, one showed off its crosier-shaped leader–bent over as commanded by a pine weevil. The tree will grow, but the live whorl of branches below will take over as leaders and change its stature.

Did I mention that the natural community kept changing? My guy and I soon realized that that was one of the things we really enjoyed about the trail, for there was so much diversity. And just steps beyond the weeviled pine, we entered a beech stand, where you know who had lumbered before us.

As much as we knew we needed to keep moving, we couldn’t help but search and didn’t have to stare far off trail to see evidence of so many bear claw trees. We figured we spied at least 25, though ask me tomorrow and I may say 30. They were everywhere and we wondered how many more we had missed.

But . . . there was more to see and so down a portion of trail that the young man we’d met had created all on his own and opened only last week, did we tramp. It was so new that the ground practically sprang under our feet. Can ground sprang?

We’d reached our quest at last and had to hurry three plus miles back as quickly as possible, promising each other not to stop and recount the bear trees, and we emerged at the parking lot as the sun was setting, with only the half mile walk down the road to our truck left to complete.

Oh, but what was our quest? It wasn’t a geocache this time.

And it wasn’t the bear trees; though they were a bonus.

Rather, it was the water that cascaded forth in three locations on this Mondate and already has us dreaming of return visits–though on a day when we either begin hiking earlier or there’s more daylight so we don’t have to hike down in twilight.

Thank you, Rosemary Wiser, for hiking this trail before us and giving us the inspiration.

Treasuring The Hunt

My guy doesn’t make it easy to come up with birthday or Christmas gifts, but one thing I’ve learned over the years, and it’s taken me many years to figure such out, is that he loves a challenge. Especially when we’re hiking. So . . . there was the Amazing Race–our style and the Bear to Beer Possibilities and now . . . a birthday list of geocaching finds to seek. Or is it seek to find?

His birthday may have been almost a month ago, but we didn’t start our latest quest until today, a day that started and ended cold and blustery, but began in a place where a few Tamaracks shone of their autumn foliage. Why do I love these trees so? Perhaps because each time I see one I am taken by surprise.

Perhaps because they can’t decide who they are: deciduous or coniferous or a deciduous conifer? It’s the latter, for sure. What I appreciate most is the fact that it represents both. It rather reminds me of my brain where left and right meet on a Myers Briggs test and encompass the best (and sometimes worst) of both worlds.

But I digress, and so back to the trail. We followed two today, and one of our first finds was that tree we always covet. A bear-claw tree, this one a favorite and oft visited given the claw marks that decorated it.

Of course, as things go in the natural world, or any world for that matter, where one finds delight, there is also something not so delightful taking place. In this case, Beech Bark Disease that begins with many Beech scale insects feeding on the tree’s sap while they form a covering of white wooly wax over their body. The scales create wounds in the trunk that allow the nectria fungus to enter bark, cambial layer, and sapwood, thus producing cankers, or raised blisters and calluses.

As if that isn’t bad enough, because eventually it will kill the tree, tarry red spots ooze from the cankers like blood from wounds.

It would be so easy to spend our day looking for all the bad in the woods, but we chose to focus on better things as we moved forth and so to a wetland did we arrive.

Standing there in silence, the sky kept changing while the wind gusted to at least 20 miles per hour and snow flakes fell.

Across the wetland, it was obvious that some had been preparing for temps such as today’s for the beaver lodge appeared to be well mudded and winter decorations set, only in need of holiday lights.

And speaking of Christmas, a surprise gift appeared under the beaver lodge trees . . . in the form of a male Hooded Merganser.

He moved to the right and then the left while the snowflakes fell and what struck me was how the reflection of his hooded crest resembled the surrounding birch trees.

From that place we drove to another for our quest continued. And it was in the second place that we smiled at the discovery of a neighborhood library.

But it was the water flowing behind the wee library that quickly diverted our attention. While we appreciated the structure over which it flowed, we didn’t realize its true significance until we traveled further down the trail.

Faded interpretive signs told the story of the past, but I only skimmed those. What I did learn was that the foundation upon which I stood had once been a powerhouse, thus the importance of the water flowing from above for saw mills, grist mills and such. And as I stood there, I noted the structures that once supported a penstock and then the location of a turbine that must have been situated within the powerhouse and I gave thanks to my friend Sue Black (RIP Sue) who long ago helped me gain a better understanding of these structures along Stevens Brook Trail in Bridgton, Maine. As serendipity would have it, her son, Andrew, had contacted me only a few hours earlier about an unusual natural sighting he’d made.

Climbing down to the penstock, it was well worth the effort to gaze toward the powerhouse below . . .

and flow from the dam above.

Around another bend south of the powerhouse, the water calmly mirrored its surroundings.

Oh yeah, the surroundings. We were supposed to be searching. And we did. Successfully, I might add. Actually, it was my guy’s thing to search and he was well rewarded.

Today, thanks to geocaching.com, he scored two discoveries, including this well-hidden micro. We still can’t believe the creative hide or the fact that we found it, though to be honest, we looked for a bit, thought about clues, went back to the truck to eat lunch and reconsider our strategy, and then headed out again. I was about ready to give up, when suddenly I heard him exclaim, “I found it.” I did have to explain to him about Muggles and the proper way to quietly announce a find a few minutes and feet away from making such a discovery.

As I suspected, he was hooked and is already talking about our next adventure. For both of us, we treasured the hunt and the finds we each made.

Juxtaposition

Outlined by nature’s tapestry . . .

the crystal ball offers consideration of things to come,

while nearby the brook falls,

chanting fervently on its eternal course.

Some drops choose to remain as frozen spirals,

and extend the reach of the last form touched.

This is a wild place,

where coyote and bobcat do roam.

And seedhead displays . . .

introduce zigzag patterns to match curious footsteps.

Others may make one hobble, but the slow down they encourage causes appreciation.

At the brook’s source, sunshine waves upon open water,

though half the pond shows off an icy coating that shouldn’t surprise.

Embedded within, a frozen summer flyer juxtaposes the seasons.

Bump in the Day

With Halloween only a few days away, the woods are alive with “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and all things that go bump in the night.” Well, maybe it’s supposed to be only the night, but during the day spirits certainly seem to make their presence known.

And their homes as well, this one serving as a mansion.

Sometimes they dance quietly from tree to tree or scamper loudly across the forest floor, but still others . . .

roar through the landscape with the flow of water.

In the mist, or midst, others are always there; you just need to look and listen. Do you see one watching?

As loudly as some may seem at times, with the look of an eye, they can quickly transform to sudden calm.

The ghoulies and ghosties of these western Maine woods come in all shapes and sizes, as do their homes.

And it’s those homes that can also leave one wondering. Who lives here?

Who could possibly live in this tree that despite its hollow trunk still produces leaves?

Why, one who often goes bump in the day. And the night. And loves to have fun in the woods.

Making Sense of Scents

Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement on the ground caught my attention.

My heart sang because I suspected I knew who I was looking at, but just the same, there were a few key characteristics that had to be acknowledged before I was one hundred percent confident.

You see, the first clues were the three buff-colored lines down its back. Between the lines, the keeled scales were quite dark. And this snake is known for its thin body and narrow, mahogany head.

But one of the most defining features, at least for me, is the whitish spot in front of each eye.

Do you see it? And the fact that there’s a line below separating it from the labial scales? Oh, and its lips are pure white.

These are examples of Ribbon Snakes, Thamnophis sauritus. In Maine, they are listed as a Species of Special Concern, which means this: “Any species of fish or wildlife that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.” ~maine.gov.

I’ve had the good fortune of spying three or four this year, but always, I have to stop and think about the characteristics before feeling comfortable that I’ve made the correct identification.

I really wanted the kids in the Greater Lovell Land Trust/Lovell Rec afterschool program to see this snake when they arrived. We searched. But the best I could offer was the photos I had taken.

A much more frequent sighting is of one of the largest snakes in Maine–at least of the snakes that I have met. There are nine species of snakes in Maine, but in my encounters, I’ve only met five of them (and only have photos of four to share).

This species is happy on land or in the water and before you let the hair raise up on the back of your neck and think you may never swim in a Maine lake or pond again, in the 35 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen plenty, but never encountered one while swimming. Oh, I’m sure people have other stories to share, but that has been my experience.

That said, this is one LARGE snake and can measure up to 42 inches in length.

Coloration can vary from a base color of pale gray to dark brown.

Notice how the pattern looks like bands wrapped around the body as presented from behind the head, but then becomes more blotchy in appearance.

Meet Maine’s Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, featuring a face only a mother could love.

I know some favorite haunts of Water Snakes and always look carefully because it can be well camouflaged.

One not camouflaged at all that my guy and I saw a few weeks ago on a Mondate, struck us as being out of its realm as it paused briefly on a granite ledge near the summit of a mountain upon which we hiked.

Its coloration gives away its common name: Smooth Green Snake. Smooth because unlike the first two snakes and the one I’m about to share, Green Snakes’ scales are not keeled. And its scientific name: Liochlorophis vernalis.

In my book of observations, I’ve only seen two Green Snakes ever–because they do look like their preferred grassier habitat.

The final snake of this series is the one I see most often. It might be sunning on a granite rock or searching for a meal in the kitchen garden.

Sometimes more than one crosses my path simultaneously.

And though it would be easy to mistake for a Ribbon Snake because of the buff-colored lines on its back, it isn’t. This snake has a stockier body and wider, olive-green head. Two other differences include dark marks along the edges of each labial (lip) scale, and of equal importance, no defined white spot in front of each eye. Oh, it’s pale yes, But scroll back up to the photo of the Ribbon Snake and see how they differ.

Also note how its coloration differs from one snake to another. Blotches between the stripes are common on this species but not a part of a Ribbon Snake’s appearance.

This is a Common Garter Snake: Thamnophis sirtalis.

So here’s the most exciting news of the day. Yesterday, before meeting with the same afterschool group as last week, I pre-hiked the trail. Suddenly, I walked into web as thick and sturdy as a fish net and bounced back with surprise. When I looked for the creators, I found three small spiders, who immediately went into action to fix what I had just ruined. I spent a few minutes watching them, then turned my attention back to the trail and just off to the left I spied this Garter Snake at eye level in an Eastern Hemlock sapling.

Snakes spend the fall basking in the sun because they are ecothermic, meaning they are cold-blooded and their body temperature varies with the environment. Mary Holland, in her Naturally Curious blog post today, described their fall/winter habits of Basking and Brumating.

When the kids arrived, I told them about my sighting–and we talked a bit about the differences between last week’s Ribbon Snake sighting and this week’s Garter Snake. And then we began our hike, stopping along the way to examine leaves, dig into the leaf litter as Forest Floor Archaeologists, and play with sticks cuze kids just love to play with sticks.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.

Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.

For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.

For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.

Real McCoy Mondate

We had no idea when we set out what today’s hike might involve. Oh, we’d read the trail description and studied the map, but still, other than it being six miles long and of moderate ability and owned by a land trust and located in western Maine, we knew nothing. Yikes, that sounds like a lot, but follow along and you’ll see what I mean.

Our goal these past months has been to hike less traveled trails. That said, we’ve done some old favs that are everyone’s favs, but we’ve also made some discoveries along the way and gotten to know our neck of the woods just a wee bit better. This was such a trail. It began much like a walk in a park.

Within moments it led us to a swimming hole that we might have enjoyed had the temperature been a wee bit warmer. But still . . . it was delightful and as the trail continued we soon realized the brook would accompany us for our entire journey, murmuring and gurgling with each step we took.

Periodically we crossed it via bridges new and old . . .

and listened as it sang–hearing it rejoice for the recent rain.

Along the path from the trailhead to the summit, Pearly Everlasting looked ready to enhance a winter bouquet.

Meanwhile, a Red Clover pretended it was still summer.

A little further on, many willows unwittingly played host to a gall gnat midge with plans to overwinter in a structure created by the reaction to a chemical released by the larva.

What would have been leaves were forced to harden into a pinecone-look-alike.

Those weren’t the only galls along the way. A small aphid, Melaphis rhois, laid an egg on the underside of a Staghorn Sumac leaf, causing it to secrete material that created a sac over the egg where a number of generations of aphids formed inside. For such small aphids, it’s a rather large gall.

And speaking of aphids–we actually saw some as we approached the summit.

Theirs was an assemblage bigger than any I’d ever encountered–each speck of Wooly Alder Aphid made up of a waxy, curly, white wool, excreted from the insect’s abdomen. While it always strikes me that the filaments keep them warm in the winter, actually they help keep the little creatures from being eaten.

Birds also enhanced the seen, though not so many today as might have been there a month or three ago. But still we heard a few and saw a nest perhaps created by a cardinal or catbird or another who built a cup-shaped structure about three feet off the ground.

And in the midst of the trail, one scat–left behind by a bobcat, segmented and tarry as it was.

An hour and a half and two miles after beginning, we reached the final lookout point where the view embraced the White Mountains to the west.

It was behind us that we met Mother Maple standing tall over all her offspring.

And back below, we followed the same brook as we crossed the road and watched it journey south toward its outlet. The brook that is.

It was there that we met Father Maple and wondered about all that he had seen and heard, the stories he knew and history he’d observed.

Upon an esker we did finally journey, our trail in constant change the entire way. That was part of what made it such a joy to hike.

For a few moments before our journey ended, we sat upon a bench and expressed our gratitude to the woman who wanted 400+ acres of her land conserved after her death, the land trust that did so and now manages the trails and built bridge crossings and even a few steps, and what we assumed were members of a local Congregational Church for providing a place of contemplation beside a river that the brook we’d followed emptied into.

Amazingly, we encountered only two people on the trail.

Ours was a real McCoy Mondate.

Stymied by Nature

To the vernal pool I wandered on this overcast, drizzly, rainy day.

I thought for sure I’d later expound upon the deciduous trees that surround it and their leaf colors for such was the carpet at my feet as it reflected the sky above, despite the lack of water in the pool.

But . . . it was the conifer trees that shouted quietly for my attention, their offerings much more subtle than their broad-leafed cousins. First, there was a firefly that made me wonder how he could move so quickly and gingerly in an upside down manner.

Take half a minute and watch his progress.

From the pine sapling I moved over to a hemlock on the far side of the pool. Something dark dangling below its branches begged to be inspected.

It was (is) about two inches long and felt almost leafy when I touched it. Protruding from it were several spikes that weren’t really sharp.

I looked at it from as many angles as I could. And found it curious that it appeared to be performing a split at its upside down base (meaning the top portion in the photo).

Some serious webbing held it in place and what appeared to be sap decorated it.

What could it be? I wondered if we’d ever been introduced before and like so many I’d forgotten its name. Perhaps a moth cocoon inside a spider web? Or a gall that dropped from a tree and got caught in the web? Or a spider egg sac? I looked for a spider and found one. Do you see it in the lower left-hand corner? Rather tiny compared to the alien object. Was the object an alien? Something from outer space? I suppose I could have split it open to see what it contained, but I decided to look around for others like it. And found absolutely none. Knowing that, I could hardly destroy it and so it’s still dangling from the hemlock and I’ll visit from time to time to see if the mystery solves itself. (Please don’t tell me if you know because that will ruin the fun of making a discovery.)

Oh, I did have one other thought, that it might be related to a hemlock cone gone awry, but when I stopped to look at cones on another tree, that theory didn’t make sense. It was there, however, that I spotted a flying insect that wasn’t flying. It, too, was a dangler.

Though my identification wasn’t definite, I suspected it was a member of the flower fly family. Curious enough, just moments before spotting the fly, I’d noticed a couple of blueberry flowers blooming. These are strange times, indeed.

A few more steps and I began to notice one I am familiar with: the tube created by a Pine-Tube moth. The larva ties needles together with silk as a form of protection in which to pupate. The tubes then get lined with more silk and are usually half as long as the needles because the larva eat the ends off. Though the larva may eat their way through several tubes over the course of a winter, I suspected this one was currently active because one needle stuck loosely out of the end. Inside, someone must have been dining.

And then . . . and then . . . I spied a small inch-worm type caterpillar. A Pine-Tube Moth larva?

Again, I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to display the right behavior.

I didn’t have all the answers today, but I know right where I met my acquaintances and hope that the next time we meet I’ll recognize them and perhaps will greet them by name. Chances are, though, that when I head out the back door to look for them, something else will shout quietly for attention and I’ll meet new things in the forest that will also leave me stymied by nature.