New Year's Eve Lessons 2019

When the snow falls on the last day of the year, embrace all that it has to offer.

And there’s no better way to do such than by strapping on the old snowshoes and taking a selfie. My style of selfie, that is.

As you head into the woods, the first thing you should do is locate a treasure map. You never know where it might lead. Sometimes, you’ll discover you’re traveling in circles, as I did a couple of times today.

If the map leads you under archways, be sure to duck.

Or if it presents a field of pine saplings, find your way around them. Do be sure to look for insects and spiders as you pass by.

Today, all I saw were needle-like snowflakes.

You might soon discover that you aren’t the only one on a quest: the batman-shape of prints may indicate other travelers on the snow–in this case a squirrel.

At some point, you may come to realize that others followed the directions on the map, but at an earlier time. By the muted hour-glass shape and depth of the track, you should recognize it as a white-tailed deer.

If you are really fortunate, the map will lead you to deer beds, the rounded part of each large indentation indicating the back of the mammal.

When you look up, you’ll understand why they chose this location to bed down during the night–the huge hemlock above provided some protection from the weather.

Take a few more steps and suddenly you may discover that fresh tracks had been left behind probably moments before you approached.

And though your brain may trick you into thinking the deer had gotten a head start on a New Year’s Eve party, reality will sink in when you remember that they have two basic needs: food and safety from prey.

Fresh beds may also make themselves visible and by the shape you might begin to envision a head on the snow just right of the center, the rounded back side on the left and extended legs toward the bottom right of the impression.

As you continue your journey more treasures will be revealed, like the “naked,” yet hairy buds of hobblebush keeping winter’s weather at bay.

And the waxy scales of beech buds doing the same. For some, such a sight will provide a measure of hope that spring will come again.

Be sure to enjoy all the messages on the map, such as this one: be proud of your roots and don’t be afraid to let them show.

Or this: interruptions happen and that’s probably a good thing.

Always do you best to be as transparent as possible.

Listen to you mama and dress in layers.

Don’t be afraid to cross boundaries (even if they’re marked).

Recognize that you may have some prickly moments.

And in the end, check in on old friends and make new ones.

When the last day of the year, in fact, of the decade, gives you snow . . . make a snow person.

The heartiest lesson of all: take time to laugh with it and at yourself. Ho Ho Ho!

Happy New Year, dear readers. I truly appreciate having you along for each wonder-filled wander.

On the Fringe

When Pam and I decided to meet this morning we knew it was going to be the coldest day of the season and so we’d need to dress accordingly. For me, it was six layers on top, two on my legs, wool socks, a hat and buff, plus mittens and hand warmers. Her ensemble was similar.

We met on the side of a road by an old stomping ground we’ve been eager to revisit for there was a certain porcupine that had been calling our names since last winter.

He didn’t let us down. Almost immediately we spotted his track pattern and the hole that serves as an entrance to his home.

His prints weren’t super clear, but I suspected some snow had blown into them after he’d made his way home about sunrise this morning. We could also see more muted prints that led away from the hole and decided that those were made just prior to last night’s snow squalls.

We looked around the area for other signs of his presence and found a vent hole or two above his underground home.

Outlined with hoar frost, we knew this guy was snug within his living quarters.

But, the question remained: where had last night’s adventure taken him? His track passed by the hemlock he spent last winter in and we noted that all the twigs he’d snipped off now decorated the ground as skeletons of their past, needleless as they were.

He led us to another hemlock tree that he seemed to pause beside and perhaps climb, but he didn’t do any dining there. A chipmunk had also raced around a wee bit later than the porcupine.

Sometimes he waddled over downed trees.

Other times he went under them and we had to find an easier way around, all the while making sure that in wet spots, we didn’t fall through any ice. It was a bit tricky to say the least, but we were determined.

At last our question was answered when we saw disturbance in the snow and oak leaves. Mr. Porcupine had come to forage for acorns.

We even found a spot where it appeared he’d paused to dine. And the track of a vole. One of the things I love about snow is the information it gives us and the fact that it makes us think about the story. The porcupine’s story ends there for our adventure, as the acorn feast was his turn around point. From there, his track returned to his den.

We, on the other hand, went looking for more and on our way to a brook that slices through the property, we discovered many ornamental icicles decorating the trees, each with its own interpretation of form and structure.

Our hope was to get as close to the water as possible, for there we were sure we’d spot others who had passed through the landscape. To keep from falling through the thin ice, however, we had to cross from one Cousin Itt clump to another.

If anyone tracked us later in the day, they must have thought, “Hmmm, human paused here for .minute, then took a giant step to get to the next Cousin Itt.” And they would have been correct in their assumption.

It was closer to the edge, where the winterberries and sweetgale grew, that Pam spied another ornament to add to nature’s Christmas tree.

The remains of a small bald-faced wasp nest dangled from the shrub. One cannot view such without wondering about the fact that the wasps had collected plant and wood fiber, mixed it with saliva, and chewed it into a papier-mâché of their own form. And in so doing, though this nest was smaller than some we’ve encountered, its structure was the same. This happens over and over again in nature and my awe never ends.

Eventually, we left that spot and journeyed to another. Not far along, we recognized another old friend, a snow lobster, I mean snowshoe hare.

Typically with hoppers, leapers, and bounders, I don’t take time to measure the stride because it can vary so much, stride being the length from one set of prints to the next. But, this was one huge hop and so out came my tape measure. Mind you, it’s a six foot measure. And by the black lines you can see that the hare flew through the air and landed almost seven feet from his jumping off point.

We followed him for a few minutes and then got distracted by the bird prints that were everywhere . . . as were the hemlock and birch seeds. Tis the season, and while folks aren’t necessarily finding birds at their feeders, I hear and/or see them every time I step into the woods. Let’s hope the same holds true for next week’s Christmas Bird Count. BTW: these are junco tracks.

A ruffed grouse had also wandered through and we laughed as we followed his track for he made some abrupt turns.

Again, making our way to the brook that crossed through this property, we found other cool things to admire and wonder about, including the Blackberry Knot Gall. Of course, we didn’t know it’s exact name at the time, but some homework helped with the ID. Apparently, the Blackberry Knot Gall Wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) laid numerous eggs in the plants cane and the plant accommodated such by creating an abnormal growth. Being colonial, there’s a group of larval wasps wintering inside. I did wonder, however, if the hole was created by a very hungry woodpecker or some other bird. This one will need repeat visits so we can keep track of any ongoing activity.

Besides more bird tracks, lots of bird tracks, we found a set of gray squirrel tracks and chuckled as we noticed his attempt to climb to the top of the tree, at which point it appeared that he decided not to jump to the other side of the brook, but rather to run back down and cross via the ice. The brook isn’t entirely frozen, so his journey was precarious at best.

For a bit, we followed the brook to the wetland, a wetland that we love to explore in winter, but again, the conditions were such and I did break through some ice, that we finally turned around. But really, we may have continued if it hadn’t been for the temperature and wind.

When she arrived home, Pam sent me this image. I think saying it “feels like 2˚” may have been an understatement. It was our feet that proved to be the coldest. Later, we each admitted that it took a hot bath/shower to finally warm up. A cup of tea also helped do the trick.

Despite that, we were grateful for the opportunity to travel the fringes of the wetlands during the fringe season as fall turns to winter in western Maine.

Laughing All The Way, Ho, Ho, Ho

It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.

And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.

Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.

Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.

Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.

Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).

Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.

The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.

It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)

Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.

Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.

We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.

And so Joe did.

And Dawn followed suit.

It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.

I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.

At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.

Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.

Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.

And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?

There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.

This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.

And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.

One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.

Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.

I bet you can see it now.

I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.

Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.

We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.

Rejoice in the Unexpected

My hostess wasn’t home when I ventured upon her land today, but I went with her blessings. And in return was blessed.

I’d barely stepped into the woods when a female pileated woodpecker called for attention as she tapped with intention and sloughed off pieces of bark in a quest for insects.

My own quest was to check on beaver activity, for I’ve traveled this land before and knew their previous hangouts, but . . . by the level of water behind the first dam the water was a wee bit low and I sensed no one was at home nearby.

Just below the dam, a tall sculpture created last year indicated that we grow ’em big in these parts. Beavers, that is. But really, last winter the water was higher and so was the snow, so it wasn’t a super hero beaver after all who had gnawed and shouted, “Timber.”

A wee bit downstream stood dam number 2, also not in current use. But . . .

By the path through broken ice, I suspected that an otter had checked out the scene rather recently.

Perhaps he had high hopes of finding someone at home. When I knocked, no one answered.

Dam number 3 was also defunct and I began to wonder if there were any beavers in the neighborhood.

And then . . . and then I spotted a tell-tale sign: fresh incisor marks on a single tree. Do you notice how they are oriented left to right? A beaver must turn its head to the side in order to scrap the tree trunk and reach the inner bark with its upper and lower incisors.

Beyond the new works, were plenty of old, the shades of the wood telling the story of years of activity.

And on some trees, new met old, adding more colors and designs to the art work.

An old lodge stood in the middle of the wetland that was fed by a brook and stream, where ice sealed the world above from the world below.

A closer look at the lodge revealed that it had been compromised, and the memory of an exploration last winter reminded me that a predator had been attracted to it but didn’t seem to find anyone at home. Today, it seemed, the house was still an empty chamber.

As I continued along the edge of the wetland, I found one tree where a beaver merely took a quick taste and perhaps didn’t find it to his liking. Or . . . a predator happened along and he skedaddled back through the icy water to the safety of home.

It became apparent that someone was indeed home, just not in the first lodge. And by the color of the wood, the logging operation had occurred rather recently.

Wood chips on the ice added to the assumption that this was a recent harvest and if you look beyond, you’ll see two dome-shaped lodges in the offing.

From the shore, both looked well mudded, like we might add insulation and Typar to our homes to keep winter temperatures at bay. This technique also makes it resistant to attack from predators. What it doesn’t keep out is other undesirable visitors often in the form of hordes of insects.

The closest lodge was rather skyscraper in height and I began to wonder, was it the living room and the shorter one perhaps the kitchen? Did you know that beavers heap sticks until they are well above water and then gnaw their way up into the structure to create a chamber?

Much of the color surrounding the houses and throughout the wetland was provided courtesy of leatherleaf and its upright leaves and future flowers stored within the tiny buds.

Not far downstream from the two lodges, an infinity pool any homeowner might die for gave proof that someone was indeed home. Keeping the water high is important for beaver survival since they need to access their food supply of munch sticks stored underwater near the lodge and come and go from said homestead via a secret entryway. Secret to us and most of their predators, that is. Water snakes came find them in season. And otters can find them at any time, especially when the possibility of enjoying a meal of a young one seems a possibility.

Below dam number 4 water rushed and ice formed.

Dam number 5 was along a different stream, and though it hasn’t been in use for several years, its structure is worth honoring.

The meadow above invites others to take advantage and in the spring muskrats and wood ducks were seen in this place.

That’s the thing about beavers; they create wetlands that create habitats for others to enjoy, such as the deer that left behind some rubs on trees by dam number 1. From the raggedness at both ends of the rub and smooth wood between, I knew a buck had roamed this land and rubbed his antlers, leaving an inviting scent for a doe to notice.

And a chipmunk hole surrounded by hoar frost indicated someone was eating and breathing within.

But . . . not all chipmunks have decided to retreat to their underground homes just yet. The funny thing about a chipmunk is that it can pose as still as possible for minutes on end so a predator won’t spy it, but the minute it decides to move, it chirps. Why is that?

Certainly, it seems, it sends out a message to others like the bobcat who left behind a print or two or three on several patches of snow.

I traveled this land today because of the generosity of my hostess and so for her I found a bunch of fungi and decided to honor her with a false tinderconk as my way of giving thanks for letting me trespass almost anytime I want.

I’d gone to check on the beavers and was pleased with the discoveries I made for I know where they are and aren’t active. And I’ll return because those five dams and four lodges are only a taste of what her land has to offer.

But, it was the ice that once again stopped me in my tracks. Like the water it forms from, I’m always awed by the artwork created, in this case chandeliers dangled.

Seriously. Seriously, my heart stopped when I found a three-dimensional heart sticking up from a rock. Seriously.

My favorite find of all though, was a reflection of my face as I rejoiced in the unexpected.

This next month I hope you’ll make time to do the same.

Matter of Nature

Mid-morning this email message arrived: “Hi Leigh,
I just returned from Heald Pond Road GLLT trail with this sample. There are other white hair clumps on several rocks along the path about 8 blue signs in.
” The attached photo was of a clump of deer hair. Why the clump? Why the location? Was there more? Was it a mammal versus mammal kill site?

I had to know. And so when another friend contacted me about a hike later this weekend, I asked what her afternoon plans were for today. She’d be free by one. Perfect. We agreed to meet just after that at parking lot #1 for Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

We weren’t exactly sure which trail to follow as two headed off from the lot, but placed our bets on the Chestnut Trail. As we started, I began to count trail blazes, but soon lost track.

Heck. There were other things to notice, including the minute blue stain fungus still holding court in its fruiting form. I’m enamored by so many different fruiting forms, but I think if someone asked which is my favorite, it would be this one. The color. The teeny structure. The fact that when it’s not fruiting, one can easily mistake it for a painted trail blaze.

It appeared that I wasn’t the only one who felt such love. Do you see the Springtail, aka snow flea? The size of the snow flea should provide perspective on the size of the fruiting body–lilliputian at best.

And then on a white pine sapling another structure captured our attention. Who was the creator?

By all the hairs in the structure, we suspected a tussock moth caterpillar. We also wondered if there is a good guide to cocoons. If you know of one, please enlighten us for we see them everywhere in every form and desire to know more. As much as we pay attention, we realized we need to watch even more closely and perhaps one day we’ll be honored by discovering the creator.

So, truth be told, we left the cocoon behind and continued along the trail searching for deer hair, but suddenly realized we’d lost track of the number of trail blazes. At a fork in the trail, we figured we’d gone too far, so we walked back to the start, turned around and tried to be present in the moment as we counted blazes. Of course, we got distracted, but had a general idea and still no deer hair. We again reached the fork and decided to split up. Along the route I explored, a female Hairy Woodpecker made her presence known by tapping at the tree trunks in hopes of detecting an insect tunnel.

At last I found the hair, a few more than eight blazes out. I went back to find my companion, Pam, and as we regrouped, the woodpecker worked other trees. And because we paused to admire her, we spied a Bald-faced Wasp nest dangling, much of its papery structure still intact. Why? Why? Why? Why are all wasp nests similarly shaped. It’s the same for so many other aspects of nature and internalizing the innate nature of it all is beyond our understanding.

Finally, I showed Pam the hair, rod-like in structure for such is its winter insulating form. Softer, curlier hairs were also in the mix. Had these tufts been pulled out? We wondered what had happened while the teeny, tiny Springtails made themselves at home on the shafts, their preference for moist conditions met by the location.

Channeling Sherlock Holmes, we searched for more hair and found clumps and tufts and even pieces of pelt.

Flipping one over, we wondered how it had come to be on the trail. Was the deer attacked by another animal? But . . . there was no blood.We eventually searched off trail, expecting to find a carcass or other signs of a confrontation. Nada.

But, we did find other things to make note of like an open catkin of a Yellow Birch resembling a cone, some of its babes already sent off to make their way in the world and others awaiting a moment to fly the coop.

There was also some handsome Lungwort Lichen to admire, its ridges and valleys reading like a topographical map.

Back on the trail, we continued forward and found more clumps, determining that it was spread about in a thirty foot section. Near some clumps we found that moss on rocks in the path had been disturbed. What was going on?

Over and over again, we got down to examine and photograph our finds.

At the next Y in the trail, where the grape ferns grow, we turned to the right. And found another clump of hair a wee bit along.

We also discovered a beautiful scalloped fungi with gills that we couldn’t recall ever meeting before.

And we made a really cool discovery that took us some time to understand because neither of us recalled making its acquaintance previously. Or at least we think we understand it. Soft in form and many veined, we wondered if it was the cellulose of a leaf, perhaps a maple. Once we found one specimen, we began to see many, some possibly maple and others from flower leaves gone by.

Speaking of flowers, we recognized one of a most unique structure: an American Basswood. The hairy, nutlike fruit was once a small greenish flower uniquely attached and hanging under a pale, leaflike bract.

As we looked at the basswood bark, a Winter Firefly caught our attention. How can a firefly glow in the winter? Do they? Adults don’t emit light and do hide in the bark of trees, so unless we pause to look for other things such as rubbing our hands along the smoothish bark today, they largely go unnoticed.

It was getting dark as we made our way back to the parking lot, when we spotted one more find–that of another caterpillar cocoon. Was it a Promethea Moth? I almost don’t think so, but seeing so many cocoons makes me want to better understand their structures. Do you see the guideline attaching the cocoon to the tree? Maybe it wasn’t even a moth. But if not, then who?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Indeed.

As for the deer, we ended up suspecting that a hunter had shot it and carried it out, perhaps pausing to drop and drag it for a few minutes. It didn’t all make sense, but it was the best we could determine.

Everything else was a matter of nature.

Desire to Learn

Maybe it’s my teacher blood. Maybe it’s just because I love sharing the trail with others who want to know. Maybe it’s because I realize how much I don’t know, but love the process of figuring things out.

Whatever it is, I had the joy of sharing the trail with this delightful young woman who kept pulling her phone out to take photographs and notebook out to jot down notes about our finds along the trail, that is . . . when her fingers weren’t frozen for such was today’s temperature.

Among our great finds, a Red-belted Polypore capped with a winter hat as is the custom this week.

I was really excited about our opportunity to share the trail for I wanted to learn more about her work with Western Foothills Land Trust and Loon Echo Land Trust, and her roll as the Sebago Clean Waters Conservation Coordinator.

But, I was also excited to walk among White Cedars for though I was only twenty minutes from home, I felt like I was in a completely different community. Um . . . I was.

Shreddy and fibrous, the bark appeared as vertical strips.

We paused beside one of the trees where a large burl that could have served as a tree spirit’s craggy old face, begged to be noticed. We wondered about what caused the tree’s hormones to create such a switch from straight grains to twisted and turned. Obviously some sort of stress was involved, but we couldn’t determine if it occurred because of a virus, fungus, injury, or insect infestation.

And then there were the leaves to focus in on for their presentation was like no other. (Unless it’s another cedar species, that is.) I loved the overlapping scales that gave it a braided look. And if turned right side up, it might have passed as a miniature tree or even a fern.

Lungwort Lichen drew our attention next. My ever-curious companion asked if it was tree specific. Found in humid forested areas, this lichen grows on both conifers and hardwood trees.

Having found the lichen, I knew it was time for a magic trick and so out of my mini-pack came a water bottle. Within seconds, the grayish color turned bright green due to its algal component. It’s an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Where the water didn’t drip, it retained its grayish-green tone, and the contrast stood out. Curiously, snow sat atop some of the lichen’s structure, and one might have thought that all the lettuce-like leaves would have the brighter appearance, but today’s cold temp kept the snow from melting and coloration from changing.

Our next great find: a reddish-brown liverwort known as Frullania. It doesn’t have a common name, and truth be known, I can never remember if the dense mat is asagrayana or its counterpart: eboracensis.

Three dimensional in form, it reminded me of a snarl of worms vying for the same food. Oh, and the dense form: asagrayana in case you wondered.

Over and over again as we walked, we kept looking at the variety of trees and my companion indicated an interest in learning about them by their winter presentation, including the bark. I reminded her that once she has a species in mind, she needs to use a mnemonic that she’ll remember, not necessarily one that I might share. In this case, I saw diamonds in the pattern, and sometimes cantaloupe rind. Others see the letter A for Ash, such as it was. She saw ski trails. The important thing was that we both knew to poke our finger nails into its corky bark. And that its twigs had an opposite orientation.

One of the other idiosyncrasies we studied occurred on the ridges of Eastern White Pines, where horizontal lines appeared as the paper my companion jotted notes upon. It’s the little things that help in ID.

Sadly, our time had to end early as she needed to return to the office, but I decided to complete the loop trail and see what else the trail might offer.

Vicariously, I took her along, for so many things presented themselves and I knew she’d either be curious or add to my understandings. Along a boardwalk I tramped and upon another cedar was a snow-covered burl.

A wee bit further, and yet another peeked out from between two trunks, stacked as it was like a bunch of cinnamon buns. Curiously, the center bun formed a heart. Do you see it?

It was upon this trail that I began to see more than the bark of trees. At my feet, tracks indicated that not only had a few humans walked the path, but so had mammals crossed it. And one of my first finds was the illustrious snow lobster, aka Snowshoe Hare.

It had tamped the snow down among some greens and I knew it was time to stoop for a closer look.

Each piece of vegetation that had been cut, had been cut diagonally–Snowshoe hare-style, that is.

Moving along, some winter weeds presented themselves as former asters and others, but my favorites were the capsules of Indian Tobacco.

In my book of life, one can have more than one favorite, and so I rejoiced each time I saw a birch catkin upon the snow carpet, its fleur di lis scales and tiny seeds spread out. The seeds always remind me of tiny insects, their main structure featuring a dark body with translucent wings to carry it in a breeze, unless it drops right below its parent and takes up residence in that locale.

Further along, scrawled scratching in the snow and leaves indicated another mammal lived in the woodland, conserved as it was by Western Foothills Land Trust. With this sight, my mind stretched to the fact that a corridor had been created and the more I followed the trail, the more I realized others crossed over it because this was their home. And they were still at home here.

The scratcher had left a signature in its prints.

And the source of its food: fallen nuts that about a month ago rained down like the sky was falling. Northern Red Oak Acorns. This one had been half consumed by a White-tailed Deer.

While traveling earlier with my companion, we’d talked about the tree that produced the deer food, but it wasn’t till I followed the loop that I found it. To me, the ridges of the Northern Red Oak looked like ski trails, with a reddish tinge in the furrows.

Oh, and that deer; it seemed to have dined on the bark of a Red Maple in the recent past–probably as recent as last winter or spring.

After a three hour tour, I delighted in traveling the Half Witt Trail three times (out and back with my companion and then again as I completed the loop) and Witt’s End.

They are new additions to Western Foothills Witt Swamp & Shepard’s Farm Preserve, and the journey . . . ah the journey.

Along the way, this young woman wanted to know what questions to ask and where to seek answers. I helped as much as I could, but noted that there are others who understand much more than I do.

Thank you, Hadley Couraud, for today’s journey. When it’s shared either actually or virtually with one who has a desire to learn, it’s always special.

Giving Thanks Beside Sucker Brook

Since it’s deer hunting season in the Maine woods, we decided to host a walk one Sunday in November on a Greater Lovell Land Trust property because hunting is prohibited on this day. And today happened to be that Sunday. But first, this story begins with a few other events. On Friday, I had the honor of participating in a late afternoon program at New Suncook School. Before the young girls in the program, their leaders, and I stepped outside, one of them struggled with a Hannaford bag that was splitting apart because it was full of canned and boxed food. I helped her get the bag into her backpack before she dropped all its contents and the act drove home the need to make sure my guy and I attended the second event.

The second event was the Second Annual Bowls and Brews Chili and Chowder Challenge and Beer Tasting held at the Lovell VFW Hall last night.

The land trust was well represented by participants, including Executive Director Erika Rowland who created a delicious Black Bear Chipotle Chili.

Erika’s chili didn’t win, but she and GLLT’s Office Manager Alice Bragg were still all smiles.

The real winners of the event were the kids like the young girl I helped on Friday. For what she was trying to hold was a bag full of food as is provided to her family by the Sunshine Backpack Food Program. And the Bowls and Brews event was a fundraiser to support that program. Throughout the school district, elementary students in need go home with nutritious, non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food every Friday. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the fundraiser support the program.

That brings me to this afternoon’s walk first advertised as Sunday Beside Sucker Brook. Months ago I wrote this description: Let’s get a head start on Thanksgiving, and journey the trail at John A. Segur East where we’ll take in the afternoon views of Sucker Brook, its plants in their winter forms, beaver lodges, and mountain views.

And so we did. First we stepped off the trail and took in the view to the south where Sucker Brook empties into Kezar Lake’s Lower Bay.

And then we looked north to admired the hills that are reflected by three beaver lodges situated in a triangle. The one to the right had some mud on it and so we trusted the beavers had been adding insulation to the homestead.

It’s a good thing because a thin layer of ice had formed around the edges of the brook and we realized the next season is on the horizon.

Even within the Pitcher Plant leaves ice had formed. Some of today’s participants touched the downward pointing hairs that draw insects into this carnivorous plant, noting the difference between the easy slide down and much bristlier texture one encounters trying to climb back out.

Continuing along the green-blazed trail, one among us spied a Bald-faced Hornet’s nest. When we noticed part of it on the forest floor, we had to step off the trail and check it out.

In the summer we avoid these nests for fear of being stung by the aggressive workers who defend their territory. But by now the workers have all died and the queen has found a snug spot to overwinter under tree bark.

Being able to examine the nest drew our awe as we noted the individual hexagonal cells created by the queen who had collected wood and plant fibers, chewed them into a papery pulp mixed with her saliva, and built brood chambers into which she placed eggs. To enclose the chambers that housed her girls she then constructed a thin papery envelope. The fact that the cells were the same size and shape was worth our wonder as we thought about the queen’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Within the outer envelope, several suspended combs contained chambers for larvae. A two-tiered section had fallen to the ground and Miriam picked it up for further examination. Her findings: brood chambers were papery and the darker gray that glued the combs together was much firmer.

Pam gave the piece the sniff test. Her findings: the combs smelled like hay, but the glue offered a much more offensive odor.

Our examination also revealed a few grub-like larvae that didn’t have an opportunity to cycle through life.

After kinda, sorta, not really bee-lining to finish before darkness fell, we reached the scenic view that again included the brook and mountains beyond.

There was even more ice in our vision. Ripples made it look like the water flowed from south to north, but we knew it to actually be the opposite. The wind blew from the southwest and thus caused the current oxymoron.

Quietly we stood for a minute and then shared “thanksgivings” for the land, the air, the water, the people, and the place.

Before turning around, a short bushwhack revealed another beaver lodge in the offing.

It, too, was covered in the beavers’ form of Typar: mud. And topped with fresh wood. Construction continues.

With one final view of the brook, the clouds shifted and revealed the Baldface Mountains in Evans Notch.

On the way out, we paused for moths as we’d done on the way in. Linda’s eagle eyes spotted this tiny one: Bog Bibarrambla Moth.

All along we’d noticed male moths flying about, but again on the return trip one among us noticed a few males in one area. If we’re correct in our identification, they were Bruce Spanworms, but what was even more important was the realization that the female is wingless. Yes, these two are canoodling.

One last stop to make before continuing our “bee-line” to the parking lot was a bit of a scavenger hunt: A Bear-claw Tree Scavenger Hunt. Bingo. Brian made the discovery and everyone gathered ’round for a closer examination.

As I said earlier, when I first wrote the description for the walk, I said we’d get a head start on Thanksgiving, but I didn’t really define what that meant. And then a brainstorm a week ago revealed a plan. To offer thanks as we did by the brook, but also . . . to bring food for the Sweden Food Pantry, which serves Lovell, Sweden, Stow, Stoneham, Waterford, Fryeburg, and Bridgton. Our numbers were small today as nine of us traveled the trail at John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge, but our givings big (and we had some items from a few others who couldn’t join us.) We were equally glad to have Linda Bradley (she’s wearing the blaze-orange vest), president of the food pantry, along for the journey.

We’re grateful to all who either joined us or contributed to our offerings as we gave thanks beside Sucker Brook and helped fill the shelves in Sweden.

As we departed we made plans to repeat this event, but choose the following weekend next year so we don’t complete with the Third Annual Bowls and Brews fundraiser.