My Great Escape

The past two days have found me wandering on and off trail at John A Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell, where spring slowly emerges.

Yesterday’s journey, which began beside New Road, required me to climb up over the snow bank. If you go, don’t worry; I did my best to carve out steps for you.

Do, however, choose your footwear appropriately for I spent a lot of time creating post holes.

My intention was to locate timeless sights I can upload to a Google Map for at the Greater Lovell Land Trust we are working to create virtual hikes for those who can’t get onto the trails right now.

But there were other things that garnered my attention and I’m never one to pass by a White Pine personally decorated by the rain.

And then there was the beech leaf that arced in such a manner its veins mimicked rays of sunshine on a gloomy day.

Speckled Alder catkins poured forth with their own presentation of color as they added more cheer to the landscape.

And Trailing Arbutus (aka Mayflower) buds, like all others, provided a sign of hope that the future will arrive.

Beside Bradley Brook, an Eastern Hemlock held a raindrop-in-waiting, its gift from the sky soon to be transferred back to the place from whence it came.

The brook flowed forth with a rhythm all its own and I rejoiced in its gurgles, temporarily forgetting the world beyond.

Eventually I followed it back, giving thanks for all its meandering curves in hopes that we will all be able to continue to enjoy life around the bend.

Today dawned a new day, and a much brighter one at that, and so my truck made its way to the other trailhead along Farrington Pond Road. The parking lot wasn’t plowed this winter and so I tucked into the edge.

Lost in thought, the sight of a fruit still dangling on a Maple-leaf Viburnum pulled me back to reality.

One of my favorite places on this property isn’t along an actual trail, but rather its one folks can easily find on their own. I prefer to think of it as the secret garden.

It offers views of Sucker Brook Outlet feeding into Kezar Lake’s Northwest Cove. But even more than that, it offers layers and colors and teems with life. Today I startled two Wood Duck couples who quickly flew off “oweeking” all the way.

Life in the secret garden includes three beaver lodges that reflect the mountains beyond.

And flowers like this Rhodora, waiting for their chance to burst into color beyond understanding.

Back on the Blue Trail, I discovered one small feather, so light and delicate and fluffy, and yet barbed, the better for all of its kind to interlock and protect.

At a wet spot, the feather slipped from my mind and I marveled at the thin layer of ice that transformed the watery display.

Within the puddle, a broken Paper Birch trunk showed off the fact that even in death, life continues.

And then I met death. At first, I thought it was a scattering of more feathers.

That is, until I bent down and realized it was deer hair. Had the deer shed its winter coat?

That was my first thought until I spied this. Do you know what it is?

I hope I’m not disgusting you, but I found it fascinating. As best I could tell, it was the contents of the deer’s rumen or first stomach chamber.

And what exactly were the contents? Acorns. Can you see a few shells not quite digested?

Beside all of that was some scat filled with hair and a chunk of something.

And just beyond, more rumen offerings and then an even larger area of deer hair.

As best I could, I tried to piece together the story. Earlier on the trail i’d seen what I thought were bobcat prints until the behavior didn’t quite match for a bobcat wouldn’t follow the entire length of a trail and the presentation seemed to morph into coyote.

I searched high and low for a carcass, but found none. Nor any blood.

What I did find was more deer hair as if something had circled around a tree.

But the curious thing: there were lots of downed branches but none of them were broken. If a coyote had dragged a carcass, surely there would be blood and guts and broken branches. My wondering began to focus on a human. Some of the twigs were on top of the hair so the incident would have occurred at an earlier time? And perhaps all of this had been hidden by snow for a while? And then recent rain events obliterated some signs?

I may never know the answers, though I’ll return to look for more evidence. About a quarter mile away, I did find more proof that a coyote had dined on something quite hairy. It included a big chunk of bone.

For those wishing I’d get back to the prettier scenes, my tramp eventually took me to a lookout point, where the backdrop was provided by the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch.

And the foreground included another beaver lodge.

Eventually I turned around and followed the Green Trail out, stopping to pay reverence to a Bear Claw tree. With the scars being gray/black and at least a half inch wide, I’d say these were created more than seven years ago. In fact, I know that for I’ve been visiting that tree for far more than seven years. But . . . it never gets old.

Nor does the sight of ice as it turns anything into a pleasing-to-my-eyes work of art.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to sneak away and even though I had a work project on my mind, these trails have been my greatest escape so far. May you also find escapes of your own making.

Ides Bog'ling: Beware. Be present. Be still.

When the world goes haywire, the perfect antidote is a day spent outside soaking up the sights and sounds and sun and most of all, fresh air.

Today, that spot offered so many sights including Mount Washington’s snowy covering in the great beyond.

And Pleasant Mountain’s ridgeline at a closer range.

But the sights also included selections much smaller such as Buttonbush’s winter structure–offering a half globe rather than the full orb of its summer form.

And Rhodora giving off its own glow as with buds and flower structures waiting in the wings.

What’s not to love about an infusion of color to the late winter/almost spring landscape.

Speckled Alders, their male catkins growing long below the females, also bespoke the season on the horizon.

Having developed last summer, the males are slender spikes of tightly appressed scales. Above, the females are more bud-like in manner. Both persist throughout the winter and soon will bloom before summer leaves appear.

While new buds showed off their reddish faces, last year’s alder “cones” remained woody in form. Not truly cones for those grow only on conifers, there is a strong resemblance. Thankfully, Mary Holland of Naturally Curious explains the difference best: “Angiosperms, or flowering plants such as Speckled Alder, produce seeds that are enclosed within a covering (the ovary), whereas gymnosperms (conifers) have un-enclosed or “naked” seeds. Alder “cones” open to release seeds in a manner similar to many conifer cones and, like most cones, do not disintegrate immediately after maturity. Female flowers/catkins of Speckled Alder, if fertilized, will develop into ‘cones.‘”

That said, there were some of last year’s structures that showed off a much different form. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were Alder Tongue Galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins.

Other sights included Morse Code representations of the dot dot dash work created by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers upon many a birch.

I traveled this day with a friend and in our quest to clean out the innermost recesses of our lungs, we walked across ice, snow, mud and through water. it was totally worth the effort to get to the other side.

For on the other side, we encountered Maleberry shrubs with ornaments of a different kind.

Each had been sculpted in a unique manner, but we suspected all resulted from the same creator.

Our best guess, after opening one or two, was that some insect had created a home in the Maleberry leaves last fall but once again, we were stymied by a new learning and suspect the lesson hasn’t ended yet.

As our journey continued, we suddenly found ourselves in the presence of wind dancers for so did the marsescent White Oak leaves appear.

On the ground we found a comparative study between the White and Red Oak leaves, their lobes and colors bespeaking their individuality.

And upon some of the White’s saplings, another gall of this place–Oak Marble Gall. Growing in clusters on twigs, they turn brown in maturity and their emergence holes show the site of escape for mature adults who flew out in the fall. They are also called oak nuts.

Today’s sights included the landscape and its flora, birds of the trees such as nuthatches and chickadees, plus those of the water including woodducks, and sky birds like two eagles we watched circle higher and higher until they escaped our view. We also found bobcat and coyote scat. And then in some mud, signs left behind by others such as the raccoon’s close-toed prints.

Among the raccoon track, there were also plenty of bird prints that we suspected belonged to crows.

And in the water beyond, a rather active beaver lodge.

On this day, my friend and I slipped away into the land beyond known locally as Brownfield Bog, where we at times were boggled by the offering of this Ides of March. Beware. Be still. Be present. It’s the best way to be. Be.

Lemonade By Shell Pond Mondate

As is the custom right now, today’s journey took us over bumpy roads and found us turning right directly across from Notch View Farm where I ventured with friends a few weeks ago. We couldn’t drive in too far, and so parked, donned our Micro-spikes for the walk in and grabbed snowshoes just in case.

I love the winter trek because it forces us to notice offerings beside the dirt road (hidden as it was beneath the snow) that we overlook when we drive in during other seasons. There’s a certain yellow house that has always intrigued us and today was no different because the snow and ice created an awning for the porch.

As I snapped photos of the overhang, my guy redirected my attention to the eaves where bald-faced hornets had created their own abode.

On more than one occasion.

That was all fine, but the real reason I love the journey is because of the telephone poles along the way. At the tip of each arrow I added is a nail. By the top one you should see a wee bit of metal, which once represented that pole’s number. Not any more.

When the metal numbers are a bit astray or downright missing, it can mean only one thing. Time to check for hair. Black bear hair.

Wads of hair greeted us today. Usually we only find a few strands. Bleached out by the sun, I had to wonder if it still told the message originally intended.

Down the entire length we saw more of it and envisioned the bear rubbing its back against the pole as a means of communication.

Sometimes they scratch and other times they turn their heads as they rub, and then bite the pole with their upper and lower incisors, thus leaving the dash and dot horizontal lines. My question remains: did the one for whom this message was intended receive it? We’ll never know, but we are always thrilled to know that Ursus americanus still roams these woods.

What woods exactly are they? We’d walked in from Route 113 to the Stone House Property, where the gate may be closed, but hikers are welcome.

Our plan was to circle around Shell Pond via the trails maintained by the US Forest Service and Chatham Trail Association.

Six hundred acres of the Stone House property is under conservation easement with the Greater Lovell Land Trust thanks to the foresight of the owners.

A few steps beyond the trailhead, we decided it was packed enough that we could stash our snowshoes and pray we’d made the right decision. While doing so, some artist’s conks showed off their beautiful display.

A few more steps and my guy did some trail work. If we can move downed trees and branches, we do. And we did several times. But all in all, the trail was in great shape.

Occasionally, seasonal streams offered mini-challenges.

We didn’t mind for they mostly required a hop or giant step. And provided us with the most pleasing of sounds–running water being such a life-giving force.

They also offered icy sculptures.

And given the fact that today’s temp eventually climbed into the 60˚s, we knew that we won’t get to enjoy them much longer.

As Shell Pond came into view, so did the cliffs where peregrine falcons will construct eyries and breed. This is perfect habitat for them, given the cliffs for nesting and perching and keeping them safe from predators, and open water below creating habitat for delicious morsels (think small birds) worth foraging.

And then a rare moment arrived, where I agreed to pose beside a bust of T-Rex, for so did my guy think the burl resembled.

And then another rare moment, when we discovered bear scat upon an icy spot in the trail. It was full of apple chunks and we knew eventually we’d reach the orchard where our friend had dined.

At long last, well, after a few miles anyway, we stopped at lunch bench, which was still rather buried. My guy cleared a spot as best he could and then he sat while I stood and we enjoyed our PB&J sandwiches. Oranges and Thin Mints rounded out the meal. (We did stop at the Stow Corner Store later in the day for an ice cream, but Moe told us she was all out for the rest of the season. We should have grabbed some other goodie but left with ice cream on our minds–a desire we never did fulfill.)

Our lunch view–the spectacular Shell Pond with the Bald Faces forming the background and a bluebird sky topped of with an almost lenticular cloud. Or was that a UFO?

Off to the right-hand side, we needed to check on the beaver lodge to see if anyone was in residence.

From our vantage point, it appeared that someone or two had come calling and there was a lot of activity between a hole in the ice and the upper part of the lodge. But, conditions didn’t allow for a closer look and as warm as it was, we didn’t feel like swimming. Well, we did. But . . .

A wee bit further and we reached Rattlesnake Brook, which feeds the pond.

It’s another of my favorite reasons for hiking the trails in the area, for I love pausing beside it to notice the many gifts it provides, which change with the seasons. Today, those gifts included the feathery winter form of an ostrich fern’s fertile fronds.

And squiggly shadows intercepted by linear reflections.

It was near there that we found rotten apples and the muted tracks of many visitors, one of whom we suspected we knew based on the scat we’d seen.

At last we reached the military airstrip built in the 1940s for training exercises during WWII. As always it was a moment when we were thrilled by the views, but also sad that our journey was coming to an end.

After remembering to snag our snowshoes from behind the tree where we’d stashed them (and gave thanks that we’d made the right decision on footwear), we followed the road back out.

Our only other wish would have been the opportunity to purchase some lemonade on this Mondate around Shell Pond that felt like a summer day. We might have even bought cookies and fish flies, given the opportunity.

Province of Chat-HAM

Our journey began with a couple of detours this morning as a friend and I made our way to a particular trailhead in New Hampshire.

First there were the birds along the old course of the Saco River to listen to and welcome home including Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese.

Then there were some friends in New Hampshire to surprise with a quick visit.

Finally, however, we parked on the side of the road knowing that because we couldn’t drive to the trailhead, we’d have to walk along the snowmobile trail all the way in. That was fine with us for as the sign instructed, we took it slow. (And saw only two snowmobiles during the entire journey even though it was a super highway of sorts–apparently that particular season is also slowing down.)

There were artist’s conk fungi to admire for the white pore surface that invites those who sketch to do so.

After that find, we followed raccoon prints until they literally disappeared into midair. Well, maybe up a tree.

In the brook beyond, we found spring whispering her sweet songs as she enticed us with reflections of a season to come.

And then it was more artist’s conks that garnered our attention for their juxtaposition within a hemlock’s hollow center.

They numbered many on the trunk’s outside as well and presented themselves as stepping stones . . . perhaps for a squirrel.

And at least one small rodent had dined, probably on more than one occasion.

We took advantage of the feast as well as we focused our cameras on every possible angle.

Further along, we spent time following bobcat and moose tracks, but each time eventually finding our way back to the trail, where a fungus of another kind begged our attention.

By its youthful presentation, the common name doesn’t always make sense.

But its mature structure certainly does: Red-Belted for the upper surface.

And Polypore for the lower, so named for the many pores on the underside.

Bobcat and moose tracks soon led us to another site where bark had been scaled off a hemlock by either a woodpecker or nuthatch. Their search was for insect larvae. My search was for scat, but I found none and hoped they were more successful.

The cool thing about this if I’m interpreting it correctly, is that I could see lines where the bird’s beak had worked hard to remove each bark scale.

Behind the tree, those moose tracks I spoke of again captured our focus.

And we noted where it had browsed upon the buds of a maple. It appeared that the large mammal’s spit had frozen after it used its lower incisors to rip the buds off the tip of a twig and even left a “flag,” but really, it was probably a bit of sap. Still, I love the thought of the animal’s spit left behind.

Three hours later, and more than four miles for so wandering was our manner, we reached the trailhead we sought.

Because we’d gone slow as the sign early on had encouraged us, we tried to beeline to reach a certain pond before the sun set. Thankfully, as we approached the pond at last, another sign again encouraged us to go forth slowly. And so we did.

And we were rewarded–with a bluebird sky and view of Mount Shaw and the pond. For a few moments we stood still and took in the scene and wondered. And wanted to cross, but knew conditions might not be as pristine as they looked. It would be a long way out with wet feet.

Beside us was the dam and outlet.

It formed the headwaters for a brook bearing the pond’s name, which flows beside our friends’ home.

As we hiked back down the trail, we again beelined, but occasionally gave ourselves permission to pause. Sometimes it was to enjoy the little things such as Hobblebush flower and leaf buds readying for a future display.

Other times it was to listen: to the birds; but also to the million wild animals we swore we heard, and sometimes even sniffed, but never actually spied. They were there. We were certain of that.

As long shadows cast across our path, we made our way back, and then deviated a bit from our journey in, heading out to the paved road in a more direct line than we’d started. Pam suggested we might see other things.

She was correct. Back on the pavement, we had to walk a wee bit up South Chatham Road to my truck for we’d gone in via Week’s Brook Trail and then crossed over to Peaked Hill Road via the snowmobile trail and totally missed this sign.

Chat-HAM as it’s pronounced for H-A-M spells ham, is the site of Province Brook and Pond, and the Province Brook Trail. It’s also a mighty proud town–with a population of 300.

The sign made us smile and we gave great thanks for taking the time to read it and for the opportunity to travel over nine miles in this wee province of New Hampshire.

Because of the Hare

Yesterday’s torrential rain, sleet, torrential rain, snow, sleet, torrential rain, snow, wind, and cold became today’s frozen snow upon which I could walk without sinking.

Or wearing snowshoes, though I did choose micro-spikes because I wasn’t sure what conditions I might encounter as I headed out to the old cowpath and woods beyond.

It was at the far end of the path that a lot of disturbance drew my attention and I realized deer had pawed and pranced in an attempt to gain something upon which to dine.

Empty caps were all that had been left behind during the ungulates search for a meal fueled by Red Oaks.

A wee bit further, I paused by the vernal pool that will soon seek much of my attention. Today, it shared two things; yesterday’s weather had transformed it from a snowy crust to an icy one; and the neighborhood turkeys, which I’ve yet to see, had stopped by.

But my reason for heading out late this afternoon was to cross over the double-wide wall by the pool and disappear into the saplings that fill the space.

It’s a parcel of land that was nearly clearcut in its day, but since then I’ve welcomed the opportunity to watch forest succession and all that it has to offer in action.

Being an early succession forest, Gray Birch fills the landscape with its twigs atop triangular gray beards. Red Maples and White Pines add their own colors to this place.

At the gray birches’ feet, their catkins filled with fleur de lis scales and teeny tiny seeds that remind me of ever so minute insects with transparent wings, littered the snow. Two actual insects also made themselves known. Do you see them? (Faith and Sara–happy looking 😉 )

And then another insect came into my sight. Truth is, a friend introduced me to this pupal form of a ladybeetle in late autumn/early winter. Of course we’d never seen it before, but as happens in the natural world, once you see something and gain a wee bit of understanding about it, you suddenly see it everywhere. Until recently, everywhere for this species had been upon evergreen trees. And then we found it on tree bark. Gray Birch to start.

I had much to think about in terms of the ladybeetle, but really, I’d come to this place because of some downed trees. Here and there in this forest swath, trees are bent over for no apparent reason. I think I know the why for I don’t believe it’s because a storm came through or all the trees would have bent over. I suspect it has to do with the fact that so much of the plot consists of gray birch that topple easily with the weight of snow, such is their cell structure. And as they toppled, they took down some pine saplings in the mix.

The creator of this scat loves the forms that the downed trees created for it’s a great place to hide when predators or old ladies stop by on the hunt. What I wanted the critter to know was that I was only hunting with a camera. You see, last week I actually spied the scatter as it hopped out of the form and leaped away, its fur slightly streaked brown as is its manner in this between-season time, giving rise to one of its common names: varying hare. It was too fast for my camera and so today I went back in hopes of a second sighting.

By the angled cuts of surrounding vegetation, I’d knew where it had dined.

And by its track, I knew its most common name: Lobster Hare. Okay, so it’s a Snowshoe Hare, but each set of prints always reminds me of the crustaceans of Maine fame.

I tried, oh so hard, to stand still and hoped upon hope that the hare would show itself again.

In my standing still, I did see more ladybeetles in their pupating stage–this one upon a dead White Pine.

And near it . . . another set of downed trees creating another Snowshoe Hare form, that place where the lagomorphs rest during the day. Usually that place is located under evergreens as was the case.

Spying a certain set of prints by the form, I realized I wasn’t alone in my quest. Do you see the C-ridge between the toes? And the asymmetrical presentation of the two lead toes? And the impression of two feet, where a foot packed the sloshy snow of yesterday and a second foot landed in almost the same place? I present to you a Bobcat. 😉

It led me to yet another Snowshoe Hare form.

Atop the form were signs of life, much to my delight: prints, scat, and even the orange-red tint of Snowshoe Hare pee.

Still, the Bobcat moved–its track connecting with a run or well-traveled path of a hare.

Following the hare and cat tracks led to yet another “form.”

It was there that I stood for the longest time. And I swear I heard someone munching within. Was it my imagination? Probably. For my imagination also had me hearing all the wild animals of the forest closing in on the hare and me and then I realized that I was the one closing in on the hare and my “fear” was its “fear.” Marcescent leaves that rattled in the breeze and trees that moaned as they bent in the breeze became larger than life creatures of the forest.

As I stood and listened and felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand tall, I spied more ladybird beetles in their larval and pupal stage.

As much as I wanted to understand the life cycle of this beetle and especially how it deals, if it does, with our low winter temperatures, please, please don’t tell me your understanding.

From evergreen to hardwood, I’m in the process of learning the habitat of this species.

Heck, it not only doesn’t just use evergreens upon which to pupate, it also doesn’t depend only upon Gray Birch, given that it can be seen upon plenty of Red Maple tree trunks.

Oh, and as you look, others might surprise you like these puff balls, their spores still ready to pour forth when gently poked.

Over and over again as I waited patiently for the hare, the ladybeetles made themselves known.

Some presentations differed from others and made me wonder about their matter of timing. Were they frozen molts? Were they morphing? If you know the answer, please don’t tell for this is a new learning and I hope to stay on the case.

Still, as first discovered, there were more in the evergreens to spy.

As the sun began to set, I found the Bobcat track once again and it led into the forest beyond.

More importantly, I backtracked its trail and discovered yet another Snowshoe Hare form created by downed trees. In my mind, so many places for the hare to hide. So many places for the cat to explore. And in the mix–me.

I never did see the hare today. Or the deer. Or the turkey. Or the bobcat. But . . . by their signs I knew that we share this space and there were a few others in the mix including porcupines, squirrels and grouse, and I gave great thanks . . . because of the hare.

Today's Mystery Tour

The message arrived in the form of a text: “Meet me at North Fryeburg Fire Station at 10:30. I’ll drive.”

And so we did. Upon our meeting we realized we’d each left some gear home, but between us, much like we share a brain, we shared resources that would benefit us along the trail. The back of the Subaru packed with snowshoes and hiking packs, up the road we rode, one of us driving while the other two anticipated the near future.

Beside two Norwegian Fjord horses named Marta and Kristoff blankety, blank, blank, (cuze one of their owners couldn’t remember his full name), our driver did park.

Before us, a groomed trail presented itself–leading to infinity and beyond or so it seemed.

And within a mailbox, tucked into plastic sleeves, maps and track charts were available.

Rather than take either, we took photos of the map; and knew that we had a set of David Brown’s Trackards for our trail finds.

We were still by the road and farmhouse, when we noticed sap buckets tied to Sugar Maples and realized that the season had begun.

One of our good fortunes, and we had many as the day progressed, was to stumble upon Jim, the owner of the property who explained to us that the sap had only just started to flow and he had 200 trees tapped. Sap season can be fickle, but we hope the good fortune his land shared with us could be returned many times over in the form of gallons of syrupy sweetness.

Up the trail we finally tramped, stopping frequently to take in as many treasures as possible as we tried to gain a better understanding of the world that surrounded us.

One item that drew our attention was the thick twig and dome-shaped bud of an ash. Its corky leaf scar below the buds was filled with a smiley face of dots we knew as bundle scars–where sugar and water had flowed between last year’s leaf and twig/trunk.

By the shape of the leaf scar, its bud dipping into the cup and creating the form of a C, we knew its name: White Ash. Had it been a Green Ash, the bud would have sat directly atop the leaf scar, which would have looked like a D turned on its side.

I keep trying to come up with a mnemonic to remember these two species and may have just discovered such: C = cup = white cup of coffee; D = hmmmm? So much for that thought. Stick with C and if it doesn’t look like that, chances are it’s a D.

We paused beside many buds, examining them all for their idiosyncrasies, but equally prevalent on the trail were the tracks left behind by so many critters. Deer, snowshoe hare, birds of varying sizes, chipmunk, red squirrel, and the list went on. Red fox were part of the forest mix. And coyote as well. We so wanted bobcat and several times tried to convince ourselves that such was the case, but indeed, our further study made us realize it was no more than a wish.

We also wanted porcupine tracks and bear claw trees to make themselves known. We searched and searched for all three: bobcat, porcupine, and bear claw marks, but found none.

What we did discover, however, was the namesake of the trail upon which we tramped. My, what deep impressions it had left.

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

No indeed. Where it had traveled upon the trail we followed before it traversed cross country, it left discernible prints that gave another sense of its size and we talked about the fact that its stomach would have been at our eye level.

By the crescent-shaped halves and dew claw marks, we knew that somewhere in the forest beyond moved a moose. Actually, by the number of tracks we saw on the trail, we thought that at least two had traveled this way.

And directly above we could see that it had dined, for the tags on the Red Maples where buds had once been bespoke its breakfast source.

At last we came to Moose Bog and briefly let our minds slip into seasons to come and offerings yet to be, but quickly pulled ourselves back into the moment and reveled in the fact that beside the sign was a sign left behind by the one for whom the bog was named.

The impressions were so deep that we decided to measure them.

Fifteen inches. We had barely sunk in an inch or two on our snowshoes, so the moose’s prints lead us to realize the immensity of its weight.

While in the same area, an abnormal growth on Speckle Alder gave us pause. At first glance, we recalled the fluffy colonies of Woolly Alder Aphids and wondered if what we saw was somehow related. A bit of white appeared in the structure, but it didn’t quite match anything we’d seen previously or our understanding.

About twenty feet down the trail, we found it again, this time on an American Beech twig. The curious thing, it only grew on one side.

Upon closer examination, we realized it looked a bit like elongated coffee grounds, and within our hands, its brittle structure quickly splintered into tiny specks.

It wasn’t until I contacted Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood several hours later that we realized we were on the right track. Anthony is my go-to entomologist and I bug him (pun intended) frequently for identification or explanation. He never fails to reveal some amazing fact.

Today’s find: The Beech Aphid Poop Eater! What? Yup. A poop-eating fungus. We were thrilled to discover that we were on the right track thinking it was related to aphids, and we knew that ants like to farm them so they’ll secret honeydew, but . . . a poop eater. The natural world just got more otherworldly for us and our wonder will never cease.

Trees continued to attract our attention, but upon the trail were a slew of tracks, the prints of coyote and fox especially decorating the way. And then, and then some coyote scat and pee, the former so full of hair and a selection of the latter at another spot that sent us all staggering from the strong scent.

A bit further on we found an older coyote scat that contained large bone chips. Do you see one in the upper left-hand corner of the specimen?

We also found fox scat filled with hair and seeds, for like coyotes, omnivores are they.

And then, some small, cylindrical shapes within a print.

X marked the spot where the latter scatter crossed its own path.

And then it flew off. Who dat scat? A Ruffed Grouse.

At least five hours after we began our tramp, the farm house finally came into view. And so did Becky, one of the owners. She was actually looking for us for so long had we wandered.

We’d taken a photo of the trail map, as I said earlier, before we set off, but never again did we look at it. No wonder Becky was worried about us. The trail we followed was only eight tenths in length, but because we’d stopped every three steps or so to look at the next best thing, it had taken us five plus hours to complete the loop.

We chuckled again for after meeting up with Becky and reassuring her that we were fine and happy and well (super well and thankful for such was the day and all that her land had offered us), we wondered if she and Jim had made a bet on how long it would take us to travel the last few hundred feet to the road.

There were still things to note, including sap seeping into buckets.

Red maple buds growing more bulbous with age also garnered our focus.

As for our mystery tour: we were treated to the Moose Loop at Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch. That would be in North Chatham, New Hampshire.

As we were greeted, our journey ended, with a smile from Kristoff and grins across our faces for the finds we’d discovered, understandings we’d made, and time spent together exploring.

Many, many thanks to Jim and Becky Knowles for sharing their land with all of us, and for Pam K for discovering this treasure and providing the mystery tour. Well done.

PS. Our last few hundred yards took about 25 minutes–who placed the correct bet on our time–Jim or Becky?

Tuesday Tracking is ON

I promised the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s Tuesday Trackers that I’d let them know by 7am today if our adventure would actually take place because the forecasters were predicting a snow storm. We LOVE snow, but not when it ruins our plans.

And so at 6:43am, after checking various weather reports and TV stations for cancellations, whereupon I discovered that no school’s had cancelled, which seemed a sign that meant if the kids could go to school, we could go tracking, until I remembered that this is school vacation week and the kids weren’t going to school today anyway, I wrote to the 54-member group: “Weather reports state that the snow will start at 1pm in both Cumberland and Oxford Counties today, but in the hourly listing it shows snow showers at 10 and snow at 11.

I’m going to go for it in hopes that we can at least find some evidence of the porcupine and its visitors, but trust those of you who had intended to join me to make that old judgement call. Please don’t be afraid to back out.”

As usual, I told them that the plan would stay the same for those who had already told me they’d attend, unless, of course, they did decided to back out. None wrote to say they could not come. Three sent messages that they would join us.

Much to my delighted surprise, seventeen met at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve parking lot #1 at the far end of Heald Pond Road in Lovell as the snowflakes fell. It was 9:30am. Actually, I met some to carpool from the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, and it was there that a few of us first noticed the flakes were falling–just after 9. Hmmm. 1:00pm?

But, this hearty crew didn’t care and after donning our snowshoes, onward we charged. Well, not exactly, for we pride ourselves in not getting far from the parking lot and then spending an hour looking and wondering. First, it was fox prints, and then a fisher that took us a while to figure out based on the clues because snow had filled in the indentations, but the pattern of the track and a few glimpses of toes helped us make a determination that was confirmed after we crossed the path of a more recent snowshoe hare, and seemed to follow the activity of a porcupine.

Like the scouts that we are, we spread out at times, each one or pair trying to notice the finer details. We were in a mixed forest in Maine, close to a summit with rocky ledges, yet near a wetland, stream and between two ponds. The overall pattern was important to notice. How was the critter moving across the landscape? And did its action change at some point? Were any finer details visible in a single print? Or a combination of prints?

Taking measurements was also important–extremely so for those prints that were a couple of days old and muted. Their shape and size and the pattern of their overall track helped, but the measurements cinched the case as we noted stride, especially for the direct walkers such as a red fox.

Ah, how did we know it was red and not gray? The measurement of its stride and straddle were spot on, but also by the scent it had left behind on saplings and rocks did we know it. A few of us got down to sniff–and we were not disappointed. Skunky musky is the odor of some fox urine, especially at this time of year when leaving a calling card with ones age, sex, and telephone number is of utmost importance.

Once you take a sniff, you never forget and know that the next time you smell that skunk in the middle of winter, you are actually in the presence, past or maybe present but watching you from a distant point, of a red fox.

We spent at least an hour with the parking lot still in view as we noted other tracks including squirrel, snowshoe hare and deer. And then we challenged ourselves–a climb to the summit to check on the porcupine den below. The snow was getting heavier and accumulating on our hats, but no one wanted to turn around.

Occasionally, we paused to catch our collective breath, happy were we to be out for this adventure. I did, of course, tell a few who were unfamiliar with the trail, that the summit was just up ahead. Um, I said that more than once. Twice. Three times. Maybe four.

But . . . it was soooo worth it. At the summit, we could see more porcupine tracks that were fresh either last night or the night before and a smattering of pine twigs that had been cut and dropped.

The angled cut of the twigs added to our knowledge bank: rodents make such cuts, called nip twigs. The twig is snipped then turned so the nutritious tender buds can be accessed; and then it is cast off, creating a “trash” pile below the feeding tree.

Bark had also been a point of the porky’s focus and we paused by saplings to wonder about the rodent’s ability to climb what struck us as the scampiest of trunks, but also to appreciate the indentations of its teeth.

While some stayed at the summit, others descended below in hopes of finding a den.

We knew we’d entered a Disney World of sorts, for everywhere we looked below the summit we saw signs of the porcupine’s adventures, including troughs leading from one potential feeding or den site to another.

Getting down wasn’t pretty, especially in one spot, but still no one gave up. Remember, this is a determined group.

Under the ledges, we stopped to check for mammal sign, curious to learn more about the story of these woods and rocks.

We weren’t disappointed. We never are. That may sound pompous, but it’s really one of wonder. When we focus, things are revealed and we are wowed. One of today’s wonders, bobcat scat. Three times over. Do you see the arrows that point to the deposits? And their segmented structure?

But . . . that wasn’t all. Despite the tricky climbing we had more to see.

It was a spot, however, where we needed to take turns given the conditions, and so while we waited, we noticed other things of interest, like the curled form of Common Polypody ferns curled up like Rhododendron leaves to indicate the cold temps–nature’s thermometers. Did I say the name of the shrub began with an M? R? M? They’re close in the alphabet. 😉 (Some of you will chuckle to know that it was my guy I turned to for the shrub’s name–I was still stuck on M)

R or M? In the end it doesn’t matter. But do check out those double rows of orange sori, clusters of spore-producing organs on the fern’s underside.

Rock tripe (which for once I didn’t pour water upon to perform a magic trick) and icicles also garnered our attention.

But . . . it was the actual porcupine den and its juxtaposition with granite and evergreen ferns and snow that tickled our fancy.

Can you see the scat, prolific in nature?

With so much, including lots of fresh deposits, we wondered if we might be disturbing the local resident. And so when our friends who’d stay at the summit yelled down to ask if we when we were going to ascend, we knew the time had come.

Back at the summit, most of us posed. Can you see Mount Washington in the background? No, we couldn’t either.

Closer to the parking lot, we posed again, before heading off on snow-covered roads to reach our homes.

It’s my job to worry and so I did: that the road conditions wouldn’t bite us. That was why I hesitated about going forth with today’s journey, but the forecasters all seemed to think doing such would be fine. Thankfully, though the predictions for the storms start were incorrect, all was fine and I was jazzed by the time we spent together, watching this engaged group in action, asking questions and making observations and asking more questions, before coming to sound conclusions.

These are the Tuesday Trackers of today. The subject of my email message this morning was this: Tuesday Tracking is ON. And they were all totally ON for today’s adventure.

P.S. The mom in me had to check on them after we’d all departed from the trailhead. Thankfully, though a few of us saw cars off the road and/or accidents as we drove home, we each took our time and everyone made it home safely. ‘