Snowshoeing with Gratitude

As planned, I met Pam M. at Notch View Farm in North Chatham, New Hampshire, for an afternoon adventure. This is one very special parcel of private land that abuts the White Mountain National Forest and it always has something to offer to our wondering eyes and wandering minds.

The owner had mentioned a new trail that we should follow and told me it was near the sap house. We started out from the winter trail head, but then I couldn’t remember where the sap house was located that would lead us to the new path and so we backtracked to the mailbox where maps are stored.

We followed Sap House Trail to Loop Trail and finally took a right onto Brook Trail, having passed some fox prints and lots of meandering indentations in the snow that indicated pup Sully had accompanied his owners and helped to trim branches along Brook Trail.

The brook, for whom the trail is named, was frozen and snow covered, but we imagined its sights and sounds in the months to come.

Upon a pine near the brook ornamental baubles dangled in a manner defying gravity.

And then the tracking really began, first with this critter who made us chuckle for its never ending change of direction, presumably influenced by the source of food–birch seeds being a major choice at the moment.

This critter is able to walk atop the snow because of its pectinations, or comb-like structures, that grow in the fall on the outsides of its toes and help it walk without sinking. These modified scales will fall off when spring arrives. Who is it? We know it locally as a ruffed grouse.

Another, whom moons ago we were told was a true hibernator, has over recent years made us realize it leaves its underground den upon occasion during the winter and a recent day was one such for the chipmunk made a couple of short excursions and left behind its own impressions.

And then we followed another critter off trail (don’t tell) and up a steep incline, questioning its identification all the way. By the two smaller feet in the group of four that landed on a diagonal and the two larger hind feet that landed on a parallel line above the front, I was 85% sure I knew the creator–but why were the hind feet breaking through the snow.

That said, the ruffed grouse’s trail intersected what I thought to be that of a snowshoe hare.

Another critter that was surely a predator also followed the trail of the bird and though I didn’t photograph it, perhaps because I couldn’t get a good read on it, I followed to see where it might lead. The snow is such that it’s quite fluffy and so deeper impressions are messy to read at best.

Unfortunately, the grouse met its demise and all that was left were some scattered feathers.

In these situations, I always remind myself that energy has been passed through the system from one critter to another.

Pam had gone in a different direction following the predator trail and eventually we reconnected, both frustrated with a lack of ID, so we decided to return to Brook Trail and see what else we might find.

Snowshoe hares are abundant this year and we gave thanks to this one because not only did it share some clear prints, and scat, but it also offered a few groups of tracks where those larger hind feet made deeper impressions and it made us think that on the steep incline what we were looking at was a hare leaping upward, its hind feet sinking with the force of acceleration and landing with the same force.

Eventually we reached Moose Alley, a perennial favorite.

Today, however, though we sought evidence of the one for whom the trail was named, all we found were more of the same: hare, mystery predator, and Sully prints.

But, we also spotted benches in several places including at Moose Bog, a cascade, and another spot overlooking the Baldfaces, best viewed when the leaves are off in this season.

At the intersection with Boulder Loop, of course we followed it.

And then, and then, by the boulders, some oversized impressions. Man or beast?

Though filled with a bit of snow, the extra-large and super deep dumbbell shape bespoke the creator, its foot entering the snow, ankle moving forward, and then hoof, yes, hoof exiting. We had found our moose.

Actually, it was more than one moose and they climbed up, circled around as they browsed and then journeyed back down to Boulder Loop. We did the same, though looking a bit beyond in the woods in hopes of finding more of their action. Instead we found trails created by their deer cousins and red squirrels.

We, too, headed back to Boulder Loop, and then Pam spotted another red squirrel feeding spot, where it sat upon what was probably a tree stump and dined on a hemlock cone, seeking the two tiny seeds tucked under each scale. What it left behind was a midden or garbage heap of scales and cobs and even a few seeds. But . . . there was more.

This was possibly one of the greatest finds of the day–red squirrel scat.

After exclaiming over the squirrel scat, we made our way back to Moose Alley, diverted to Sugarbush Trail and eventually walked along the edge of Route 113 in front of the farm house on our way to our vehicles.

Though our journey was over, no visit to Notch View Farm is complete without taking time to admire the Norwegian Fjord Horses who live here.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that their owner was trying to trim their manes. She was successful with twenty-year-old Marta.

We suspected six-year-old Kristoff was thankful we showed up for he was momentarily saved from a trimming as the owner walked across the paddock to greet us.

We were so glad she took a break for it gave us a time to thank Becky (and her husband Jim) for sharing their land, carving out trails, and allowing people like us to wander and wonder any day of the year. It’s a lot of work involved, but in listening to Becky’s stories of creating trails, building benches, enjoying wildlife, we know it’s an act of love. And then there were the tales of the horses and their escapades, including a recent escape, which helped us make sense of some scat that we first thought was moose, but then suspected horse.

To Becky and Jim, Marta and Kristoff, and Sully, we once again snowshoed with gratitude and thank all of you for caring for the land as you do and making such great efforts to share it with all of us.

P.S. Thank you also to Pam and Bob K. for introducing us to this property a few years ago.

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.

As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.

We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.

Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.

In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.

And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.

And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.

I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.

Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.

And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.

The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.

We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.

Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.

Do you see a bear?

Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.

And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.

In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.

Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.

Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.

Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.

As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.

Ever A Sense Of Wonder

I thought I was losing it. Wonder, that is. I’ve hiked or walked many miles, taken thousands of photos, but haven’t been overly wowed by much lately.

This weekend, though, that all changed.

Maybe it was the fact that a friend and I spent a bluebird, yet brisk Saturday snowshoeing many miles as we tracked a couple of local mammals.

There were porcupine dens to explore. Well, not actually crawl into because we didn’t know who might decide to crawl out. We discovered two new ones that were obviously in use, but visited this older stump dump and found no one at home. Why? It had all the makings of a nice condo. Lots of room available, hemlocks growing right out the back door, beside a field with other offerings for a summer diet. Don’t you just want to move in?

We did discover other abodes that showed signs of life with tracks leading to the inner chambers.

How many inner chambers was the next question. Atop this much larger stump dump we counted at least seven holes coated with hoar frost around the edges–leading us to believe someone was breathing within. Did that mean there were seven porcupines living in this den? Do you know what a group of porcupines who share the same winter den, but sleep in their own bedrooms, is called? A prickle of porcupines. Don’t you love that?

By the amount of tracks, we couldn’t tell how many actually lived there, but in the fresh layer of snow we did note that at least one had gone outside to eat the previous night for we followed its tracks for a bit.

It also had visited another den, and by the amount of scat, it was obvious that this wasn’t the first day in a new house.

The porcupines weren’t the only ones we were interested in. For miles and hours, we also tracked a bobcat who’d paid a visit the previous night. Would we find evidence of what it had eaten? A kill site where a prey was attacked? Scat?

We knew by the fact that the bobcat track was atop the turkey prints that this bird lived to see another day.

The same was true for the squirrels that managed to avoid being consumed by the predator overnight as they huddled somewhere close by. But the bobcat apparently didn’t catch a whiff of their scent, though the former did check out holes by stumps and snags.

Sometimes we noticed that the cat picked up speed and we were sure we’d find the reason.

And then . . . and then it would pause and we did too. When the bobcat led us back out to the road we’d traveled on, and crossed to the other side, we knew our time with it had come to an end but enjoyed the journey, though still had questions. Did we miss a kill/feeding site?

We had noted an abundance of food available, much of it in the form of the squirrel or hare. This is my snow lobster, as I’ve mentioned in the past and love how the front feet, being the smaller two prints, land on a diagonal and form the lobster’s tail, while as they lift up to leap forward, the hind feet land in such a way that they appear in the front of the set to form the lobster’s claws. And I’m reminded that for ground dwellers like the hare, the front two feet tend to land on a diagonal, while for tree dwellers like the squirrels, whose front feet also appear smaller and at the back of the set of prints, are most often parallel.

That was yesterday. Today dawned with a sleet storm. When I ventured out the back door this afternoon, I noticed again an abundance of hare prints, these the larger set in the photo while the smaller ones belong to a red squirrel. When I said an abundance of food, these are two of the many choices and this year the hare is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I find it hopping through communities I’ve not seen it in the recent past. Certainly the bobcat of yesterday will or did find one–we just didn’t stumble upon it.

After spending so much time tracking, a favorite winter activity of mine, I finally turned my focus to trees, another passion. I was actually looking for insects, but fell for this solid droplet of balsam resin that looked rather like a bug. I would love to see the colors of the dribble repeated in yarn.

Then there was the ice that mimicked the shield lichen attached to a branch of the fir.

At last I did find an insect. Well, at least the left-behind structure of a sawfly–where it had pupated and then once ready to emerge, cut its perfect circular escape hatch. How to remember this insect: think of it as a circular saw-fly.

And attached atop the pupating case–what looked like another insect pupating. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to name its species, but I thrilled in spotting it.

Bark is cool, but especially when you begin to notice all the idiosyncrasies of life upon it, such as the fruiting disks of a couple of crustose lichens, but one of my favs is the braid-like formation of the liverwort Frullania. It has brown leaves divided into two lobes. Liverworts are cool because they are flowerless and lack roots and reproduce via spores. Frullania is abundant upon bark, but unless you slow down and look, you may not ever spy its spiderwebby structure.

Speaking of spying, yesterday’s brilliant sun shone upon the hairy twigs of paper birch, another sight easy to overlook.

Today’s natural community found me tramping through an area where gray birch, with their bumpy, hairless twigs, grow.

How did these two members of the same family develop such differences? I think about that and how it is true of all in the natural world. Maybe the hairs don’t appear in exactly the same line-up and the bumps are more or less bumpy on another twig, but they all are variations on the same theme. Mammals are like that as well. And flowers. And ferns . . . and well, everything. We can learn to ID them because generally they share the same characteristics from one dandelion to the next. But . . . what about us? As humans, there are familial similarities, but very few of us look exactly like another. Though perhaps somewhere in the world we all have a twin we’ve yet to meet. Alas, I’ve rambled on enough.

It all boils down to the bush clover–a species my friend Pam and I first met at Brownfield Bog a couple of falls ago and recognized almost immediately when we discovered it in a field in Stow, Maine, before encountering our first porcupine condo yesterday. Today, she informed me in a text message that a year ago we met it in the same field, and we shared a chuckle that neither of us had a memory of that moment. Uh oh.

But I was reminded this morning that it’s important to go forth with a child-like attitude, finding awe in all that we see and encounter and I realized then that I’ve been too busy lately to slow down and really look.

Here’s hoping I can ever renew and enjoy that sense of wonder and that you can as well.

Knowing My Place

I planned to accomplish so many things since I had time off this past week. And I did check a couple of items off my list, but . . . most of my time was spent wandering and wondering in the woods behind our house.

Sometimes I followed trails known only by those who like to zoom through this space and never really see.

Other days I bushwhacked, eager to discover what might present itself.

Always I was reminded that this has long been my classroom and its taught me many a lesson, including that the bracts of the Witch Hazel flower persist in the winter and offer a dash of color in the landscape. Notice how each flower consisted of four bracts that curl back. The ribbony flowers fell off in the fall. And I have to admit that there was a time when I thought these were the flowers.

While bushwhacking, debris on the snow drew my attention and of course I had to investigate.

Much to my delight, I found a couple of Pileated Woodpecker scats filled with insect bodies. And notice all the chiseled wood–it’s a lot of work, but I’m always happy to note via the scat that the attempt was successful.

Equally successful was the digging of a Red Squirrel who had cached a pile of hemlock cones and returned within the last few days to dine and leave behind a midden of cone scales–its garbage pile.

This is a truly wild place that serves as home to so many mammals and birds and I give thanks to them for leaving behind prints and other signs of their presence. Of course, I was looking for the resident Moose, who has eluded me so far, but the White-tailed Deer are everywhere, including sucking seed from our bird feeders every night.

The Turkeys haven’t discovered our feeders yet, but by their prolific tracks I know they are nearby.

I’ve also been noting many, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, some in places I don’t recall seeing them previously and methinks there is plenty of prey available for predators. One of the learnings these woods have offered is that the hare’s prints can throw one off on ID, especially when the snow is soft and its hind feet (top of photo as they always land in front of where the front feet landed and lifted off) spread out and leave more toe impressions than one typically sees.

Of course, no visit to these woods is complete without a check-in at the vernal pool. And this week I discovered two other pools to check on in the spring. But those are for another day three months away.

For all my wandering, actually spying wildlife is rather rare, but from inside our kitchen door sometimes we see so much. Every few nights a porcupine pays us a visit. And every night four healthy looking deer stop by as I said earlier. But on these stormy days, the feeders see the most action and today’s visitors included Tufted Titmice,

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

Eventually, this male flew to the ground and dug in, much like the Red Squirrel in the woods.

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

And his Mrs. came by as well. One day we actually spotted two Cardinal couples in the yard.

One of the joys of the feeders is that those who visit add color to the scene and it soon became apparent that red was the color of the day, this time with the spots on the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head indicating it was a male.

Another male of another species also showed off his red coloration.

I was tickled to welcome a couple of House Finches. And do you see the deer hair on the snow to the upper right of his beak?

It’s that time of year when the Juncos also pay a visit and keep the red theme going with their pink beaks.

Not all birds are created equal or don’t tell the Gray Squirrel he’s not a bird because like the deer and porcupine, he’s sure that the seed and nuts are meant for his pleasure. Certainly.

This was my week, a week spent happily dilly-dallying in my place and giving thanks for past and present and future lessons. A week spent wondering and wandering alone. And it was topped off with this icy sculpture in the woods that reminded me of a bird’s head–it seemed apropos, but I did have to wonder how it formed. Ahhhh, not all is meant to be understood in this school of choice.

How well do you know your place?

Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.

Mary

Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.

My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.

And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.

Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:

  • Gap in the overstory
  • Trees over 30 feet tall
  • Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
  • Water
  • Some age variety
  • Snags over 6 feet tall
  • Large downed wood

I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.

But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.

I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.

There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.

Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.

I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.

After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.

But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.

In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.

A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.

And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.

Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?

In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.

My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.

Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.

And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.

Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?

But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.

Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!

Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.

And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.

Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.

It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.

Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.

With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.

The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.

As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!

Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

And so I began by walking slowly and breathing deeply as I followed the labyrinth in and out.

Eventually I met an old friend who shouted with glee that I had stopped by.

Behind said friend, her age lines were revealed and it was obvious that from time to time she’d hosted a variety of others who ate at her inner core in such a manner that her death provided a means for their life.

Similarly, her sibling showed off his own marks of healing and growing.

And then I moved into a different neighborhood, this one a conifer stand, where an obvious meal had been interrupted and I wondered why.

Upon another rock, another midden indicated an earlier meal consumed, perhaps in a safer place as maybe the barbed wire added some safety.

And then I saw them. Prints that is. Impressions in the snow. Created by not one, but two coyotes. Why did they change direction?

By the hair-filled scat one of them had left not long ago on another rock along the wall it was obvious they’d been here before.

A few steps more and I knew why. I’d discovered the crossroads–that intersection of life where red squirrel headed left, snowshoe hare in the same direction as my boots, and the coyotes circled about.

The red squirrel survived. This I know because it left fresh prints that led to a hemlock stand where, though I couldn’t see it, it scolded me from high above. Or perhaps it was telling me a tale of its heroic adventures to outwit the coyotes.

The coyotes’ trail indicated they’d moved north. The snowshoe hare? I’m not sure where it went.

As for me? I returned home to enjoy this gift I received from dear friends that now graces our kitchen wall. It was fun naming all the ornaments they’d bestowed upon the wreath from Northern White Cedar leaves to Evening Primrose, lichens, sensitive fern spores, an acorn, a hemlock cone, and Queen Anne’s lace in its winter form.

Taken all together, today’s adventure followed the circle of life and the circle of friends from trees to woodland critters to givers of the wreath. I am grateful for all.

Breaking Tradition

While most people gathered round a table to share a feast yesterday, my guy and I decided to give thanks in a different manner . . .

And pardon the turkeys. Instead, it was chicken and cranberry relish sandwiches that we made in the morning, the ingredients locally sourced.

And then on to The Stone House in Evans Notch did we drive, our hearts grateful that there were only two other vehicles parked by the gate.

Our official journey began on White Cairn trail, where though we don’t always do what we’re told, this time we abided the sign, given that there was maybe a foot of water below. Otherwise, I’m sure we would have jumped in.

It’s a steady climb up Blueberry Mountain. Oak and beech leaves obscured rocks while hearts pumped vigorously. Because of the latter, my guy took a seat while I shed a couple of layers of clothing.

Part way to the summit, a look back revealed Shell Pond glimmering below.

And then in the middle of nowhere, which really is always somewhere, we met the official greeter–a cockeyed face that has weathered many a storm.

Lunch rock turned out to be Blueberry’s summit ledges, where we could again see the conch-like shape of the pond below, Pleasant Mountain’s ridge line in the far beyond, and a front moving our way by the look of the sky.

Though summer had escaped this mountain months ago, the flowers continued to grace the rocky landscape with their unique colors and seedpods, and of course, buds whispered hope for the future, this being Rhodora.

Among the mix was plenty of Sheep Laurel, its seed capsules reminding me of the jingle bells we’ll soon hear pealing Noel tunes.

Leaving Blueberry Mountain behind, we climbed more ledges where three types of reindeer lichen added their own hues and textures to the scene.

It’s a fairly long hike up and back at almost ten miles, which came into perspective when we noted the upper and lower bays of Kezar Lake in Lovell, which is about nine miles long.

Between open ledges, we frequently passed through conifer stands where occasionally we spied red-belted polypores on standing tree snags.

And then it was onward and upward again to the next conifer stand.

My heart sang within that stand when we came upon Hobblebushes, their leaf and flower buds donning hairy winter coats so unlike the waxy, scaled buds of the Rhodora and so many other shrubs and trees.

Sometimes the trail through the conifers had challenges to offer not in the form of slippery leaves, but rather ice. That’s why one packs micro-spikes at this time of year.

Those much more agile than us in this mountain terrain had already feasted and as usual left their garbage pile, aka midden, of spruce cone scales behind. They don’t observe “Leave no trace.” But it is for the Red Squirrels and all other critters and birds that we do.

It was early afternoon when we reached the second summit we sought–Speckled Mountain–where a fire tower once stood. Our pause was quick for we needed to climb down before dark. Though again, headlamps in the pack are another must have and we did.

First though, we enjoyed the view and a slice of chocolate chip pumpkin bread. Mount Washington’s snow-covered peak was part of the backdrop to the west.

It’s almost a 360˚ panorama from the top.

Daylight waned as we descended so we moved as quickly as possible.

But those views. Breathtaking with each step.

Finally back at Blueberry Mountain, we descended via Stone House Trail, which is far less challenging than White Cairn. And has bear claw trees.

Oft visited bear-claw trees.

This one even leaning as if it still recalls the mighty forager of its beech nuts.

My guy reminded me that I needed to stop looking for other such trees because the sun was low in the sky and we still had at least a mile to hike.

At about 4:20pm we reached the old airfield by the Stone House, having saved visits to Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge for another day.

Our reason for choosing to hike on this day–because it was my birthday and so as I’d promised my sister, who knows I did not receive the family’s musical gene, I sang from the mountain top where a breeze muffled my voice as it floated across the ridges and valleys to anyone who was listening below.

Walking arm in arm back to the truck as the sun set behind the Bald Face Mountains, my guy surprised me with a favorite tune that I love to hear him sing.

I have so much to be thankful for including all of you who join me either in person or virtually and help me get lost in wonder along the way.

But I am especially thankful to my family and my guy for letting us break tradition and pardon the turkey.

What’s To Come Mondate

Perhaps we’re getting smarter in our old age. Or maybe luck just happened to be on our side today. The thing is . . . we remembered to pack our micro-spikes–a first for this season.

Our intended hike: Kearsarge North off Hurricane Mountain Road just beyond North Conway, New Hampshire. The Fire Tower was our destination at 3.1 miles and while the conditions looked clear yet wet from the trailhead, we suspected we’d discover otherwise after about two miles.

It’s a steep hike with roots and rocks for those first two miles and then the trail transitions to granite ledge. So no matter what, if one wants to look up, one needs to pause. Otherwise, at least for us, we developed hiker’s neck, the exact opposite of spring’s warbler neck.

But . . . when one looks down, one sees some fun stuff like this frothy collection, an interaction of water friction and air. Tiny bubbles . . . make me happy, make me feel fine.

The bright yellow of a slime mold also captured my attention until I realized it was actually trailblazefungusamongus.

A look up and I knew exactly from whence it sprouted.

Another sweet find was a small patch of Pipsissewa, their leaves evergreen, and buds already formed for next summer. Scientifically known as Chimaphila umbellata, it’s a native wildflower of the Pyrola family that blooms in July.

As we continued to climb, we encountered one hiker on his way down and asked him about the conditions for the rest of the way. He informed us that there was snow but not so much ice, which we’ve encountered on this steep trail in the past.

And then we met it! Another first for this season. SNOW!!!!

It just got prettier and prettier the higher we climbed. That said, conditions were slippery underfoot than the first hiker stated and we encountered another hiker descending in sneakers who struggled to stay upright.

Yet another first, for where there is snow, there are tracks–those of our fellow hikers, but also of the wild mammals with whom we shared the space and I couldn’t help but smile at these left behind by a Red Squirrel. Let the tracking season begin.

As the conditions underfoot got a tad bit rougher, I chose to put on my spikes for the final quarter mile, which happens to be the longest quarter mile in the world.

I didn’t realize until we got home that I never took any photos of the trail once conditions worsened until we reached the summit, and the same on the way down because I was so focused on placing one foot in the right spot before choosing where to put the other foot.

But . . . none of that mattered when we reached the summit. This was once the sight of an inn that was destroyed by storms. In the early 1900s the fire tower was erected, rebuilt in the 1950s and manned until the late ’60s. Today, hikers can get out of the wind and take in the 360˚ views.

Do you see my guy on the stairs?

From the deck surrounding the tower, one can look toward Upper Kimball Pond in Chatham, NH, and on to the ridge line of our Pleasant Mountain in western Maine.

Or below to North Conway.

Or beyond to the White Mountains.

But the best part is stepping inside to sign the guest book, eat a late lunch, and enjoy the views without the wind.

We didn’t stay long because it was late and we could see precipitation in the offing. And both donned our spikes once we got to the base of the tower.

Lowering by the moment, the sun occasionally glowed upon the trail as we descended. Eventually, it disappeared completely and felt like someone had turned off the light as it gets dark early in the mountains. About halfway down it began to sleet.

All that said, two things came to mind. As much as I fret while climbing up because I dread what the hike down will be like (if only I could just hike upward and meet either an elevator or helicopter at the top–in a perfect world), that descent is always much easier, even when it’s as technical as today’s difficult hike, than my brain imagined. Of course, the spikes and a hiking pole were huge aids.

And as my guy said when we started to see snow on the trail and trees, “This is what’s to come.” Indeed.

When we reached home I saw an email from a friend that included this line: “Your favorite season is coming.” Yes, Karen Herold, it is!

And today we got a glimpse of it. Let it snow!

Beautiful Maine

Two weeks ago a week of vacation loomed before us and we had no plans. Where to go? What to do? My friend, Marita Wiser, suggested the Bold Coast of Maine. Though she hadn’t been, she’d collected articles about it and felt a yearning to get there. I told my guy. He liked the idea, but also wondered if we might spend some time inland. Bingo. Another friend, Molly Ross, serves on the board of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and so I asked her to suggest some trails. Somehow we lucked out and found places to stay and so on Monday morning, October 4, our adventure began.

We broke up the drive to Lubec with lunch in Machias, and then a quick five mile out and back hike at Cutler Coast Public Lands for a view of the Bay of Fundy. From there it was on to our resting place where we settled in for a couple of nights’ stay.

Thankfully, we left the curtain open as our hostess had mentioned something about sunrises. When the dormer window suddenly lit up, we threw on as many layers as possible and headed outside.

I’m pretty sure we were the first people in the world to ever observe sunrise, or so it felt to us in that moment.

Sitting on the deck, we each took a million photos as the sky kept changing and then, in a flash, there it was–that golden orb upon the horizon between Campobello Island and Grand Manan, with Lubec Channel in the foreground.

It was that same morning light that we rejoiced in as we journeyed along the trails at Bog Brook Cove Preserve and then a return to Cutler Coast Public Lands for a much longer adventure. Along the Inland Trail, though there were rocks and roots, there was also so much moss gracing the scene as spruce and birch and maples towered above that we felt the presence of fairies.

The Coastal Route offered a different feel and we soon learned to appreciate that the coast was indeed bold. And bouldery. Even the beaches featured rocks; rocks so warn by the sea that they had become rounded cobbles.

Speaking of round, lunch and lots of water kept us going, but the real treats were what we looked forward to most, these being M&M cookies baked by a long-ago student of mine, Lisa Cross Martin, owner of Stow Away Baker in Stow, Maine.

Cookies consumed, we soon realized sometimes a helping hand was most welcome–or at least a helping rope.

Other times found us peering down into thunder holes where we could only imagine the water crashing in at high tide.

As the sun had risen, so did it set with us enjoying one more trail at Eastern Knubble Preserve. Because the tide was low, the cobble bar connecting the mainland to Eastern Ear (also known as Laura Day Island) was visible. With the setting sun lighting the treetops, campfire flames came to mind.

Another beautiful day found us exploring some of the trails at Quoddy Head State Park, the easternmost point in the USA. The candy-striped lighthouse was originally fueled by sperm whale oil, and later lard oil, and then kerosene, and finally electricity.

Why the stripes? It’s easier to spot in fog and mist, and given that the coast is rather bold, that makes perfect sense.

We walked a section of the trails at the park, but saved some for another day in another year deciding that we will return because there is so much more to see than our time allowed.

And then we transitioned to our inland location where the setting sun cast a glow upon the mighty Mount Katahdin. It had been years since we’d last visited the area and upon that previous trip we’d rafted on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Our plan was to support Millinocket businesses as much as possible, and to explore the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

We knew we were blessed when another morning dawned with a brilliant blue sky that accentuated the fall foliage. The funny thing, to us anyway, is that we hadn’t given a thought to this being a peak foliage week. But then again, we’d hardly made time to give much thought to this trip.

Our first adventure into the monument found us driving to the northern most part and then hiking beside the East Branch of the Penobscot, where we followed as many spur trails as possible to the water’s edge, this one being Stair Falls, so named by a surveyor in the 1700s.

Our next stop, Haskell Hut, a cabin open to the public when there isn’t a pandemic wreaking havoc with the world. We peeked through the windows and what should stand out on a shelf across the kitchen?

Why a True Value bucket, this one filled with kindling for a fire. And we thought we’d left our work worlds behind!

Beside Stillwater we paused and ate lunch, finding nourishment not only in our PB&J sandwiches, but also the scene that surrounded us.

Beyond Stillwater, the water was hardly still. We didn’t know this previously but on Maine rivers, a pitch is a waterfall that’s too large to navigate in a canoe and one must portage around it. In what seems a play on words, falls are navigable whitewater.

A curve of the river and downstream, we discovered a conglomerate mass reported to be about fifteen feet tall. The right hand structure bespoke a person to me, perhaps leaning against a river creature, the two giving thanks for sharing the space. We certainly gave thanks for the opportunity to be witnesses.

Our turn-around point was Grand Pitch, where the water thundered over the rocks.

Take a moment to listen to the roar.

Before turning completely around, however, we had to pull another sweet treat out of the bag. Again, a creation by Stow Away Baker, this one being a brownie for it was my guy’s birthday.

If you are getting a sense that we hike to eat, you would be correct. What I neglected to mention is that we also dined upon pie we’d purchased from Helen’s Restaurant located in Machias. It made for a delicious breakfast. Yes, we ate pie for breakfast–lemon meringue for him and chocolate cream for me. And it didn’t occur to us until after we’d finished, that we should have offered each other at least a taste!

Our final day at Katahdin Woods and Waters dawned rather gray, and so we drove along Swift Brook Road to reach the loop trail, with our first stop being a hike to Deasey Pond.

The next stop in our line-up was a hike to Orin Falls. It’s along an old logging road and as we walked, we met another traveler who complained that the trails weren’t more “trail-like.” At times they are, but this is an area that had been logged and we actually enjoyed the roads because we could walk side-by-side for a ways.

We also met another traveler on this trail, but first I must back up a bit. I’m not sure how this happens, but frequently we can be in places we’ve never been before, either here in Maine, in another state, or another country, and inevitably my guy will run into someone he knows. It happened to us at Bog Brook Cove Preserve when he greeted a young couple and then the parents behind them. All of a sudden the light bulb went off simultaneously for my guy and his counterpart as they realized that though out of context, they knew each other for they had played on opposing town basketball teams about thirty years ago, and the other man is a frequent customer at my guy’s hardware store.

And then on our way to Orin Falls, we met a single hiker and paused to chat, only to discover that he was on a birthday celebration hike. It turns out he is one day younger than my guy. And because the other man lives in Old Town, Maine, he knows some of my guy’s former classmates at UMaine. Though trite, it’s apropos to say it’s a small world.

At last we reached Orin Falls along Wassataquoik Stream, fearful we’d be disappointed after the wows of the previous day, but this offered a different flavor that complemented lunch.

And to think I can’t remember what we ate for dessert!

Finishing up the hike, we continued around the loop road, realizing we were probably doing it backwards for we’d chosen to drive counterclockwise. But, given the grayness of the morning, I think it was the right choice for the mighty mountain for whom this land was named, had been shrouded. By the time we reached the Scenic Outlook, the weather had improved and once again we were graced with an incredible view. It was our last look before we drove home to western Maine.

Being home didn’t stop our vacation, and after two days of yard work, we treated ourselves to a hike today that proved to be much longer and more difficult than anticipated. But the reward–more incredible fall foliage to fill our souls.

In the end, it wasn’t just the bigger landscape that made us smile. We also enjoyed all that presented itself along the way such as this Tricolored Bee frantically seeking nectar and pollen upon a White Beach Rose.

And then there was a small Red-bellied Snake on the coastal trail at Cutler Coast Public Lands, a new species for me.

My guy rejoiced when we spotted seals frolicking by the bridge to Campobello in Lubec.

I have to admit that I rather enjoyed them as well.

Another fun sighting was that of a Ruffed Grouse that walked out of a Spruce Bog and onto the loop road as we made our way around.

Today, we also found an oft-visited bear tree that made us smile as they always do.

The funny thing for us–we found only two piles of moose scat while in the national monument, but upon today’s hike we counted over thirty piles along the trail. My guy really wanted to spot a moose. Anywhere.

I reminded him that we need to go without expectation.

And so we did and were completely startled to spy a porcupine waddling toward us this morning.

Fortunately he did what porcupines do and climbed a hemlock tree beside the trail, then walked out onto a branch, keeping an eye on us. We skirted off trail for a second to get out of his way.

The end of his tail marks the end of vacation 2021 that allowed us the opportunity to explore bunches of new trails and corners of our state that we’d not seen before and we gave thanks for the suggestion from Marita and recommendations from Molly because this tour certainly reminded us that Maine is a beautiful state. And we all need to work to keep it that way.

To Be Continued Sun/Mondate

We drove forty minutes north at midday on Sunday with the intention of hiking a trail we’d enjoyed only once previously. Our memories of it had petered a bit, but we did look forward to bear trees and cascading falls.

And we were not disappointed. Within minutes of beginning the ascent, a look up at the gnarled top of a Beech gave me reason to scan the bark below and by the number of claw marks left behind it was obvious that this had been a well-used source of nuts in the past.

We could just imagine the bear scrambling up, sitting upon the branches and pulling them in to form a “nest,” or so it looks when they’ve been broken and folded inward, foraging for beech nuts, and then, once all were consumed, scrambling back down and on to the next tree.

Bears weren’t the only animals that have known this land and beside a stone wall we paused for a second. Our first ponder was whether it was a boundary fence or meant to keep animals in or out. Until . . . we spotted a piece of barbed wire growing out of a tree. No wait, barbed wire doesn’t grow out of trees. Trees grow around it. And our question was answered: the wire would have been added to keep the animals in the pasture.

That said, it had been a while since the wire was installed and even longer than a while since the stone wall had been built, for the trees had had time to grow and mature and incorporate the wire into their souls and while one still knew the flow of xylem and phloem, this other was a source of new life for insects and birds.

Our next pause was at picnic knoll where two tables and two Adirondack chair invite hikers to take a respite and enjoy the view. We tarried not given that we had a football game to get home to and pizza dough to prepare. Well, one of us had a football game to get home to and the other the dough.

Onward and upward we hiked, keeping an eye on ankle biters (saplings not cut to the ground that caused us to stumble repeatedly if we weren’t paying attention) at our feet, while searching for more bear trees, not an easy task during leaf season. But our best reward was the sight of this oft-climbed tree and the realization that the two behind it had also been visited.

We know there are more like those in this forest thus giving us a reason to return in late autumn and search off trail to see how many we can count. If memory serves us right, from the trail we once counted over twenty such bear trees.

Oh, there were other things to see along the way, like the Hobblebush’s ripening berries . . .

and Bald-faced Hornets gathering nectar.

But the second object of our intention was eventually reached for we’d found the cascades, beginning with one named for the family that farmed this area: Chapman.

It was a bit of a scramble but we were well rewarded for our efforts.

Again and again. After viewing this final flow, Library Cascades, we practically ran back down the trail. Just in time to catch the start of the game on the radio. Pizza was a wee bit late, but we didn’t mind.

The story should have ended there, but while hiking on Sunday we came up with a plan for Monday. So . . . back into the truck for that forty-minute drive we did go. This time, in the same forest, we hiked up an esker, which I saw as the stick of a lollipop.

At a junction, we chose the Red Pine Trail, a tree with bark so rich in color and design, it creates an art gallery in the forest.

Along the way, we paused at openings to enjoy the views, but . . .

a ridge off-trail, and really off-property (Shhhh, don’t tell. The boundary was marked but not posted.) invited us and we couldn’t refuse. What view might there be that we would miss if we didn’t accept the summons?

We were rewarded with the sight of the surrounding mountains showing off their summits in crisp contrast to the sky above.

I’m pretty sure the invitation included lunch and so we sat down and dined.

Our off-trail pursuit offered one final gift as we headed back to the trail–galls created by a wasp upon a Northern Red Oak twig.

A few steps later and we startled a Garter Snake who flicked its tongue to get a better scent of us before deciding we weren’t worth the effort and slithering away.

Again, there was water to cross, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the cascades of Sunday.

And some porcupine work to acknowledge, though we had hoped to see a den, but determined it was probably in the ledges below.

One final view at the land beyond and then we completed the loop that formed the sucker at the top of the lollipop stick and began our descent. Again, this should have been the end of the story. But . . .

There was plenty of daylight left and this day’s football game wasn’t until much later and so we sought a third trail in the same forest. The natural community differed, which made us grateful because each trail had its own unique flavor, this one including Striped Maple dripping with seeds of the future.

Once again, we climbed toward the view.

One sight that caught our attention for it was the only one of its kind that we saw along any of the trails was a Lady’s Slipper, and we gave thanks that it had been pollinated for perhaps its future will spill forth in multitudes we can enjoy next spring.

A flock of nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees entertained us occasionally, but it was the silent Hermit Thrush who paused that caused us to do the same.

At last we reached the end and stood for a moment to take in the range beyond, before turning around and retracing our steps for this last trail wasn’t a loop.

Nailed to a tree, was this sign: To Be Continued. As so it was on this Sundate/Mondate. We trust we’ll return to see where the trail may lead next.

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine. Our hats are off to Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) for her willingness to be the lead on this project and work in collaboration with us. Alanna, you see, has conducted previous surveys for Maine Inland Wildlife & Fisheries (MDIFW) at LEA properties, and was trained by wildlife biologist Derek Yorks to set these up.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Each trap was given a number to identify on subsequent days, and all were marked with waypoints on a GPS map of the area. The traps were designed so critters could get in from either end without harm, but could not escape . . . until we recorded them and set them free, that is. An empty water bottle helped each trap stay partially afloat, thus allowing any captured turtle an opportunity to surface for air since unlike fish, they don’t have gills. And each trap was baited with a can of sardines in soybean oil, opened just a tad to release the oil, but not enough for the critters to eat the fish. That was the messy . . . and stinky part of the task. But I swear my hands and wrists currently are less wrinkled than the rest of my arms.

As Alanna on the right, showed GLLT’s Executive Director Erika Rowland, on the left, and me on day 2, the information we needed to collect included air temp at the beginning of each set of five traps, water temp at every trap, plus we had to document turtle species and any bycatch. And if we moved traps, which we ended up doing a day or two later, we needed to note that as well, and remember to change the location on GLLT’s iPad.

We felt skunked at first, because a bunch of our traps were empty, but soon learned that every day would be different. Our first painted turtle, however, was a reason to celebrate.

In no time, it became routine, and GLLT’s Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau, Erika, and I took turns sharing the tasks of the daily trips. If it sounds like a hardship, it was not.

Even GLLT’s Office Manager, Alice Bragg, had an opportunity to spend time checking traps with us and taking the water temperature.

With confidence that we knew what we were doing, well, sorta knew, we invited all volunteer docents and board members to get in on the fun. Of course, my email to them mentioned the stinky soybean oil and feisty mosquitoes, but that did not deter. Often, if something was in the trap it would wiggle upon our approach, but sometimes, as Pam Marshall learned, it wasn’t until you picked it up to check, that the real action began.

A hornpout, aka brown bullhead, started flipping around and there was a moment of surprise.

I knew nothing about freshwater fish at the beginning of the survey, and still don’t know a lot, but am learning. Hornpouts are native catfish who come out at night to feed, vacuuming up worms, fish and fish eggs, insects, leeches, plants, crustaceans, frogs–you name it.

They have a thick rounded body, and a broad, somewhat flattened head with a distinctive set of “whiskers” around the mouth called barbels, which they use to find prey. Their fins have sharp saw tooth spines that can be locked in an erect position as we soon learned and wearing gloves was the best way to try to pull one out if the release zipper on the net wasn’t working. With no scales on their skin, they were a bit slippery, but we managed.

On another day, when volunteers Pippi and Peter Ellison and I had to wait out a fast-moving rain storm that initally left us soaked and chilled, the first catch of the day was a water scorpion. At the time, I kept calling it a walking stick, because it does resemble one. But this is an aquatic insect. It’s not a true scorpion, despite its looks. It uses its front pincer-like legs to catch its prey. And its tail actually acts as a kind of snorkel, rather than a sting, allowing it to breathe in the water.

Once the rain stopped, the Ellisons and I carried on and they were well rewarded. All told, they released the biggest variety of species from this small snapping turtle, to several painted turtles, a crayfish, and several fish species.

In the very last trap, Pippi also pulled out a giant water beetle.

On another day, one of Bob Katz’s finds was a freshwater snail. Thankfully, it was not the large, invasive Chinese Mystery Snail, but rather one of the 34 natives.

As was often the case, teamwork played a huge role in the process of removal of not only the species, but also the stinky sardine cans that were replaced with fresh ones every other day. That didn’t stop Joan Lundin from smiling about the chores to be completed on a super hot day when the air temp hit 90˚.

While some days were downright cold or windy, and whitecaps made crossing the pond a real challenge, others offered calm waters and Basil Dixon and Bruce Taylor joined Rhyan and me for one of the latter.

Up Cold River, much to our surprise, Basil hoisted out a trap filled with four hornpouts.

They waited impatiently for a photo call and release and in moments were on their way.

At the very next trap, Bruce discovered four as well, this time all being painted turtles.

They looked as grumpy as the hornpouts, but who could blame them. Painted turtles are common throughout Maine and in fact, the most wide-spread native turtle of North America. This colorful turtle’s skin ranges from olive to black with red, orange, or yellow stripes on its extremities.

Each time we went out, I prayed we wouldn’t find a large snapping turtle in the trap and that if we did, Rhyan would be with me. Several times, we had to replace traps because big snappers had torn the mesh, and twice we released small snappers, one feistier than the other. On the very last day when we were pulling the traps out because the study was drawing to a close, as luck would have it, Rhyan was with me and we caught not the biggest snapper we’ve ever seen, but still one of decent size.

Notice the plastron, or bottom shell, and you can actually see the bridges that connect it to the much larger top shell or carapace. The zipper on this particular trap had been sewn shut because apparently in a previous study another snapper had torn it, but Rhyan carefully unstitched it to let the turtle swim free.

So, the thing about visiting the same place on a regular basis, is that you get to know so many of the community members, such as the six-spotted tiger beetles who chose that very moment to move rapidly across leaves and rocks by the pond’s edge as they mated. Their large eyes, long legs and sickle-shaped mandibles are characteristic of these metallic green beetles. Usually, however, I can’t get close for a photo because like some dragonflies, as soon as I take a step, they fly ahead a few feet and land until my next step. I was grateful that canoodling slowed them down at least a tad.

Did I mention dragonflies? Each day more exuviae were added to the stems and leaves of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Though fragile, the casts of exoskeletons retain the exact shape of the full grown nymph. You might think of it as a kind of death mask for that previous aquatic stage of life. In each exuvia there’s a hole located behind the head and between the wing pads where the adult dragonfly emerged, literally crawling out of itself. The white threads that dangle from this exit hole are the tracheal tubes.

For a couple of hours after we’d finished the survey on the day Pam was with me, we watched this dragonfly that for some reason could not completely escape its larval form. It was obvious by its coloration and body/wing formation that it had been trying for quite a while to free itself–there was still life in it as we watched it move its legs and wings, but we didn’t interfere (though a part of us regretted that) and the next day I discovered it in the same position, but lifeless. Two days later, it was gone and I had to hope a bird had a good meal.

Speaking of birds, we saw them and delighted in listening to them, like this yellow warbler, and herons, osprey, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one lonely loon, and even a hummingbird.

But our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond.

I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak. As you can see by the context of this photo, Rhyan and I weren’t far from him at all.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

On the sandbar below, stood a sandpiper.

At last, however, the eagle flew, the sandpiper didn’t become a meal, and we watched as the bigger bird landed in a pine where we’ve spotted it before. We still had two more traps to attend to that day, and both were located below the eagle’s perch, but it left us alone.

The smallest birds that delighted us we heard first for they were constantly begging for a meal. All of the first week, we knew they were there by their sweet peeps, but it wasn’t until the second week that we began to spy them. And their demands for food began to sound louder and more adult-like. Unfortunately, the excavated hole used as a nest, was located in a spot where the afternoon sun made it difficult to see, but again on that last day the Kodak moment arrived.

Turtles, too, entertained us not only from the traps, but from their much happier places, basking on rocks or fallen logs. Typically, they slid off the substrate as soon as we approached, but this one actually let us pass by as it remained in place.

Because the water was shallow and clear, occasionally we spied one swimming below. Erika and Rhyan also paddled over one large snapper on a day I wasn’t out for the survey, but our snapping turtle finds tended to be on the smaller side–thankfully.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space. But . . .

as we paddled the canoe across the pond, Rhyan spied the young bull moose first. We’d seen moose tracks on the road way and every day hoped today might be the day. At last it was.

For a few minutes we sat and watched as he dined upon vegetation.

He seemed not bothered by our presence; mind you we were farther away than appears.

For a while, he browsed in one area, and then began to walk along the edge. And we gave thanks that the stars were aligned, but felt bad that one more volunteer, Moira Yip, who was supposed to be with us, hadn’t been able to make it.

Finally, the moose stepped out of the water and we knew our time together was coming to a close.

He gave one sideways glance and we said our goodbyes.

And then he disappeared from Charles Pond for the moment, and so did we.

What an incredible two weeks it was as we surveyed the wildlife of Charles Pond. Many thanks to Erika and Rhyan, to all of the volunteers who joined us (including Nancy and Brian Hammond who went on a day that I wasn’t present) and especially to LEA’s Alanna, and MDIFW’s Derek Yorks for letting us complete this assessment.

It was an honor and a privilege to be part of this project.

Spring In Our Steps

Early spring, that time of transition when it feels as if the world has slowed down, is one of my favorite times of the year. Oh, besides all my other favorite times that is–like tracking time and dragonfly time and stalking insect time and . . . and . . . and.

These days it seems my day often begins with a certain male visitor.

No, it’s not my guy, but another handsome fellow named Jake. At least I think that’s his name, based on the length of his beard, short conical spurs on the backs of his legs, and light red and blue head, which would be much brighter for his elder named Tom. It doesn’t matter for in the morning sunlight he gleams and makes me realize that he embodies every color of the rainbow.

We typically spend a few minutes together before he departs and I know that means it’s time for me to do the same.

To ensure there will be more of these little water tigers, I discover two adults canoodling.

In its adult form, the beetle backs up to the water’s surface and captures air under the elytra, or firm front pair of wings where the spiracles or respiratory openings are located. (Think external pores) The challenge is to carry enough air to breath, but not too much that might cause them to sink. That said, I frequently watch them surface and then swim off after an oxygen grab, but storing that air for at least ten minutes serves them well while mating for they certainly don’t have a plan to rise for a refill.

If you’ve never watched a pair of Predacious Diving Beetles mate, this is worth the eleven-second clip. It was a first for me, and what a frenzied time it was.

Ah, but there are other things to look at in a pool and so I pull myself away from the canoodlers and begin to focus on the result of some other interaction, this being egg masses of Spotted Salamanders. One evening in the past week, a male Spotted Salamander deposited spermatophores that look like tiny pieces of cauliflower on the pool floor. A few nights later a female picked up sperm from the small structures and internally fertilized her eggs, which she later attached to the small branch in the water. If you look closely, you might see the gelatinous matrix that surrounds the mass.

Likewise, Wood Frog egg masses have also been deposited and their overall structure reminds me of tapioca. In no time at all, the embryos began to develop, but it will still be about three weeks before the larval tadpoles hatch.

Because I was looking, I had the good fortune this week of spying another tiny, but significant critter swimming upside down as is its manner–a fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp don’t feed on the embryos but rather filter algae and plankton with eleven pairs of appendages, which they also use for swimming and breathing.

Similar to the Predacious Diving Beetle, in order to digest food, a Fairy Shrimp produces a thick, glue-like substance to mix with a meal. My awe with Fairy Shrimp remains in the fact that after a female produces broods of hardy eggs called cysts, they lay dormant once the pool dries up and don’t hatch until it rains again the following spring or even years later.

I could spend hours searching for Fairy Shrimp and other insects and in fact, do even marvel at the Mosquito wrigglers as they flip and flop their way around.

You, too, may watch them by clicking on this short video. And remember–they eventually become great bird and insect food.

By now, I suppose it’s time to honor other more beautiful sights of spring, including my favorite first flower of the season, the tiny spray of magenta styles at the tip of Beaked Hazelnut flowers waiting for some action from the male catkins.

And yesterday’s most delightful surprise, the first blooms of Trailing Arbutus on the forest floor. Known as Mayflowers, they usually open in April. Just to confuse us.

Standing for a while beside a river rather than a pool, another of my favorite sites was an abundance of Painted Turtles basking. No, they aren’t sunbathing to get a tan, but rather to raise their internal body temperature. Being cold-blooded, their body temperature is determined solely by the temperature of the surrounding environment.

In the same neighborhood a pair of Belted Kingfishers could be heard rattling as they do in flight and then seen preening and it seems that love is not only in the water, but in the air as well.

Likewise, a Song Sparrow or two or three trilled their lovely notes to announce their intentions to any who would listen.

And then today dawned–and with it a spring snowstorm graced this part of the world and all who live here, like this Sheep Laurel with buds still tiny.

Back to the pool went I, where the only action seemed to be snow striking its surface and creating rippled patterns in constant flux.

Some of the snow drops were so large that bubbles reflecting the canopy above formed. Under water, I couldn’t see any action and finally turned toward home, trusting all the swimming critters were tucked under the leaves in an attempt to avoid the rawness of the day.

There was one more stop to make, however, before I headed in. On December 1st, 2020, upon this very same tree, I watched slugs for the last time last year as documented in a post entitled “My Heart Pines.” It was a squirrel midden that had attracted me to the tree, but so much more did it have to offer on that day.

Today, as I searched for slugs, I was equally surprised for just as I found last year, once again 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. Even in snow, I learned, it can occur. Plus there was a subtle rainbow of colors.

Ah, but it certainly didn’t match the colors Jake displayed.

Today’s snowfall will melt by tomorrow and only be a memory of that year it snowed on April 16. We’ve had much bigger April storms than this one turned out to be and henceforth Jake and I will walk with a spring in our steps.

One Act Play: The Bog and Just Beyond

Act One, Scene One.

Setting: The forest road, a two-mile walk beyond closed gates.

Sound effects: Woodpeckers drilling; Chickadees singing cheeseburger songs; Spring Peepers peeping; Wood Frogs croaking.

Props: dirt road, birch, aspen, and maple trees.

Cast: Tiny skipper butterflies flitting from one spot to another as they seek minerals from the road.

Star of the act: Mourning Cloak Butterfly: Clothed as it is like one who is in mourning.

Scene Two.

Setting: A bog.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; ducks in the distance.

Cast: A shy Painted Turtle basking in the sun.

A second Painted Turtle stretching its neck in reflection.

Two looking south in reverence of the day’s warm temperature.

Three turtles in a . . . bog.

And one smug female.

Scene Three.

Setting: An underwater rock.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; an American Bittern in the distance

Cast: An Eastern Newt (adult form of a Red Eft salamander).

A bullfrog tadpole entering its second year of growth.

And lots of leeches that change shape constantly as they swim by the rock.

Scene Four.

Setting: varies between bird blind with Eastern Phoebe nest, tree branches, ground.

Sound effects: Fee-bee; a guttural readle-eak or rusty gate; low-pitched peek; plumbing sound.

And singing the fee-bee song.

A Common Grackle appearing aloof while consistently rasping that rusty gate sound . . .

and appearing to look upward, while really looking down.

And a Hairy Woodpecker representing many.

Some aren’t quite ready to sing yet having just arrived, like the White-throated Sparrow.

Scene Five.

Setting: On the water.

Sounds: Canada Geese honking; Spring Peepers peeping; American Bittern plumbing; Barred Owls in a duet.

Cast: Male Hooded Merganser–an actor who loves to transform his shape for the occasion.

The action requires focus on the male’s head as he becomes the star of the show.

All eyes focus on the white patch on his head.

She goes into shock as he starts to raise his hooded crest.

She takes his show into consideration.

Scene Six: Grand Finale.

Setting: The road home.

Sounds: Silence.

Action: A bear cub crosses the road and pauses in bramble.

This is the first of one act plays featuring the bog and beyond. Stay tuned as life plays out in the water, on the ground and among the tree limbs.

Bound and Determined

For his birthday in the fall, as you may recall, I gave my guy a baker’s dozen list of geocaches to locate in the wilds of Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to this past weekend, he’d located twelve with one left–burning a bit of a hole in his pocket because we thought we’d get there on Thanksgiving, but rain changed that plan. And then winter happened and we knew the journey would require more time because gates on the Forest Road would be closed and we’d have to trek a longer distance. With the dawn of spring, however, he thought we should take our chances. Oh, we’d still have a ways to hike, but thankfully it’s light later and so we had that on our side.

That was Saturday. But . . . that journey wasn’t enough, and so despite high winds on Monday, I created a mini-list for him and off we went in search of five more geocaches.

Our Saturday adventure found us practicing our balance beam skills, for if we fell off, which we did from time to time, we’d sink into snow that was at least knee deep.

That said, not only were we gymnasts, but we also had to pull some ballet leaps out of the daypack; sometimes the stream crossings like this one, were obvious, but other times we had to guess where the softest spot might be and try to jump to the other side without crashing through the snow bridge. Success wasn’t always on our side.

On a different trail, we outbested the conditions by walking in the stream that was actually a woods road, having chosen different footwear.

And yet again, there was a narrow balance beam to climb across. Thank goodness we had such great training in junior high and knew how to stay on top, otherwise we would have gotten soaked. Haha! I don’t know about him, but I’m pretty sure I failed the gymnastics unit all those years ago.

At one point in our journey, we spotted a gate ahead and thought for sure it would be our turn-around spot, but upon reaching it we found this kind note, which inspired us to pick up downed branches along the private drive since the owners were kind enough to let us venture forth.

And beyond said destination (read: geocache), we continued on to a summit we’d never reached before.

We also spent a few moments on the property of the Parsonsfield Seminary, founded by the Free Will Baptists as a seminary, aka high school in 1832. The eight-acre campus includes four buildings and once served as part of the Underground Railroad. Though the buildings are no longer used for education per se, special events are hosted by the Friends of Par-Sem, and it’s available for private functions.

Over the course of the two days, we crossed the state line between Maine and New Hampshire multiple times, both via truck and foot. Our favorite crossings came in the form of stumbling upon standing split granite stones in the woods.

Maine must have been the poor cousin for we could almost not see the M.

The marker on top, however, clearly established who owned what portion of the land.

and a sign in Taylor City, where Earl Taylor served as mayor until his death at the age of 95 in 2018. Earl was a graduate of Par-Sem it seems. He ran the general store and was quite active in town affairs–on both sides of the border.

Mind you, hiking and history weren’t the entire focus of our time together. Nature also was on display like the underside of lungwort showing off its ridges and lobes that reminded someone long ago of lung tissue. In reality, Lobaria pulmonaria is an indicator of a rich, healthy ecosystem.

There was also a bear nest high up in a beech tree–where last summer a black bear sat for a bit, pulled the branches inward till some of them broke, and dined on the beech nuts.

Multiple times we spotted moose tracks in deep snow . . .

and mud.

One of the creme de la creme sightings for me, was the first Beaked Hazelnut flower of the year. Gusty wind prevented a better photo, but still, it was worth capturing the moment.

And upon the ground, an old bee structure, each papery cell precise and reflective of all that surrounded it.

others medium in size . . .

and a couple on the larger side.

Water always seemed to be part of the scene. We hiked for at least a mile beside a racing brook.

And stood for a few minutes enjoying the sun at Mountain Pond.

There was a wetland that we explored from all sides (actually, there was more than one wetland that we explored and got to know rather personally–from the soles of our feet), full of future life and opportunity.

Spanning it all, we hiked thirteen miles through snow, ice, mud, and water, and found five of six geocaches, including completing the birthday baker’s dozen list.

The fact that we didn’t find one is driving my guy a bit buggy and we actually returned to the location, but to no avail. He’s bound and determined, so I have a feeling we’ll look in that spot again. But overall, we felt successful and appreciated that our quest led us to a mountain lake we’ve enjoyed in other seasons, but not this one, and new vistas/locations where nature provided moments of wonder.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.

But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.

The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.

And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.

But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.

I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.

I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.

I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .

and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .

and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.

But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.

The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.

“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.

Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.

As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.

March Madness

I awoke early, filled with concern for Greater Lovell Land Trust’s March Madness hike planned for today. The wind was blowing and the temperature had dropped significantly after several days of “Fake Spring.” Would volunteer docents and staff be ok in parking lots and summits at GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve where we were encouraging people to climb one, two, or all three “peaks”?

We had it all planned–“snowman” passports available in the parking lots, along with trail maps, healthy snacks, magazines, and advice. Oh, and a donation jar 😉

At each summit, participants would have their passports stamped and choose one GLLT/nature-related swag item.

But that wind. A check of the weather report, thankfully, promised that the wind advisory suggesting gusts up to 45 mph, would end by 10am. Our event was planned to begin at 9:30. As I wrote in an email to volunteers and staff, “Let’s go for it.” No one balked. One replied, “We’ll be there.” And another wrote, “They don’t call in March Madness for nuthin’.”

After making sure everyone was set, at parking lot #4 on Route 5 in Lovell I opened the back of my truck to display the offerings. Our talented executive director had created a snowman out of the three summits, one of them actually being the snowball, and the buttoned breast serving as connector trails.

For the first two hours or so, my only companions were chipmunks, which despite, or maybe because of the cold, ran frantically from one side of the trail to the other, in and out of holes, and disappearing at one section of stone wall, while a short time later reappearing at another. Or was that a different chipmunk?

I counted four, but really, there could have been more for they entered and exited so frequently. Meanwhile, I was also on the move in an attempt to stay warm. The wind may not have been gusting per se, but it was rather breezy and certainly quite chilly.

And so I walked (and sometimes ran) around the parking lot and about a tenth of a mile up the trail, over and over again. In a way I wish I’d tracked my trail, because it would have looked as if I was indeed mad.

But . . . I made discoveries, including raccoon prints in the mud,

Yellow birch catkins flying like flags upon their twigs over my head,

and their associated trunk showing off its curly bark.

A Red Maple sported the perfect target fungus that I often mention to others, who can’t always see the bulls-eye pattern.

And somehow, though I’ve walked this trail many times over many years, I’ve never spotted the burnt potato-chip bark of a Black Cherry right beside the path before.

I also learned something about chipmunks. They scampered for several hours, but early afternoon must be siesta time and I never did see any of them again, though I checked frequently.

By 11:30, participants began to pull into the lot and I felt a certain sense of relief. Being without cell phone reception, I had no idea how things were going with anyone else, but gave thanks that people wanted to participate in the hike and had learned about it from several forms of media.

As they hiked, my parking lot meandering continued, though the space to move shrunk due to their parked vehicles.

With the chipmunks no longer offering entertainment, I decided to add an examination of the kiosk to my point of view.

Upon it I found a bunch of larval bagworm moths, their structure such that they remind me of the caddisflies I’ll soon be looking for as waterways open.

Another frequent observation at any kiosk is the cocoon structure of tussock moths. This one didn’t let me down.

Speaking of down, it was down that my eyes were next drawn and I spotted an old apple oak gall that curiously sported two exit holes–or had someone dined upon the goods once forming inside. How it survived two feet of snow and retained its global shape stymied me. Another thought though is that it may have remained attached the tree for a long time and only recently blew to the ground.

While I considered that, something hopped. Seriously.

The hopper turned out to be a . . . grasshopper instar. A what? An instar is a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate animal. Think of it as a nymph, if you will.

Spying one seemed an anomaly, but . . . I spied three more upon the snow.

They couldn’t yet fly, but they certainly could hop up to three feet despite their diminutive size of about 2 centimeters. Their direction wasn’t always forward, but sometimes more sideways.

In the end, thirteen folks hiked from my lot and the others had 12 and 9, so I’d call the first annual March Madness a success. All volunteers and staff stayed sorta warm–each finding their own way to do so.

As for me, I somehow managed to cover 7.8 miles in a small space and found myself smiling frequently as March Madness was really March Gladness.

Grasshoppers?!!!

Tail-end Greetings

Despite a frigid temp and wind chill in the negative numbers, today was a day to head out the door and check on an old friend or two. I wasn’t sure I’d find either, but since so many work from home these days it was worth taking a chance.

Two years ago there was evidence that the first had spent some time sleeping in the den, but on that day, though I knocked and knocked, no one answered the door.

This morning, however, I spotted the family name hanging on a shingle right by the front door and suspected a greeting in my future.

Beads of sap accessorized a brand new tapestry of grooves that spelled out Erethizon dorsatum, aka North American Porcupine. And my heart began to sing. Maybe. Just maybe.

To the front door I again ventured. And noted that familiar pattern of tracks on the welcome mat. Maybe. Just maybe.

My heart stilled. After years of stalking a variety of porcupines, this was a first for me–to actually spy one within its winter den. And in so doing, I garnered a keen look at its quill-covered backside and tail. A porcupine’s body is covered with at least 30,000 quills on its back, shoulders and the upper surface of its tail, but it’s not only those large stiff hairs that complete the animal’s coat. Their fur also includes fine hair as you can see in the mix here.

We visited for a bit, but I soon realized our conversation was one-sided–me asking questions and answering for my friend who slept quietly in hopes of gathering energy for a night-time feeding frenzy.

Eventually, I moved along the trail, that is until I noted where my friend, or one of its kin, had crossed and descended down the steep ledge, a path I chose not to take.

Turning in the opposite direction, I decided instead to follow a track which turned into an intersection of roadways–all created by my friend.

Step into the living room as I did today. By the dropped hemlock twigs, I recognized the carpet design on the floor.

Angle-nipped twigs were part of the room’s wall decorations.

Dribbles of pee, and there were lots of them, added to the aura, some of it a few days old.

Other samples were more recently shared.

And scattered among it all, like dust-bunnies in any room . . . SCAT!

Upon a hemlock frequently visited for that’s what porcupines do, frequent the same tree year in and year out that is, I spied claw marks indicating the staircase upon the uneven bark substrate.

And so it was that because I was in the vicinity, I decided to check on my other friend who lives about a tenth of a mile away. The last time I visited in November 2020, it was obvious that my pal had been by, though I couldn’t say exactly the last time this bedroom had been used.

Spotting a track in the right locale, I decided to see where it might lead.

Bingo. Tracks and even a few scats led to a small opening below the boulder.

Like with my other friend, on hands and knees I went and was well rewarded.

Notice how porky friend one and two both had their tails facing out–a defensive move incase a predator shows up and needs a little needling to remind it of who is boss. But . . . being a friend, I felt honored to be able to spend a few minutes with each–neither of us disturbed by the other.

Having spent that time with those two friends, I did feel a bit of porcupine greed and went in search of several other friends located in different areas. I really wanted an eye-to-eye meeting like this one in January, but still . . . today I was blessed with a tail-end greeting of my porky friends and who can complain about such?

Ho Hum Mondate

Today’s adventure began earlier than most because we hoped to beat the snowstorm and so over bumpy roads did we travel to an old favorite. Actually, it’s a favorite we haven’t visited in at least a year because on one approach there were so many cars parked along the roadway that we knew the trails would be crowded so we found a spot to turn around and skedaddled out of there. And with the overcrowding of trails in mind, we’ve spent a lot of time finding the those less traveled, and not always mentioning our location. But . . . finally, we returned to this one.

One of the reasons I love the winter trek is that the road upon which everyone parks from spring through fall isn’t plowed, so one must walk in. And do what I always do–check the telephone poles for bear hair.

Whether it’s the creosote on the pole, the hum of electricity riddling high above on the wires, or something new and shiny in their territory, bears are attracted and rub their backs against the object as they turn their heads to nip and bite. The jagged horizontal lines speak to the upper incisors scraping the wood as they reach toward the lower incisors. And the shiny numbers that marked the pole–all that is left is a notation in the power company’s data base.

The thing is: we always check the poles along this stretch when we hike in on the road. And we’re always rewarded for our efforts. Do note the color of the hair–bleached by the sun, a Black Bear’s hair turns ginger.

Almost a mile in we reached the starting point for our expedition as a few flurries fluttered from the sky. Much but not all of the Stone House property is conserved under an easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust.

Our plan was to continue down the road, then turn right onto the Shell Pond Trail system.

All along the road we’d noted tracks galore of mice, squirrels, hares, foxes, fishers, coyotes and weasels.

The snow was well packed, but we weren’t sure that would be the case when we turned onto the intended trail.

It was, and so having donned our micro-cleats, and carried our snowshoes, we decided to ditch the latter behind a tree. And crossing over the trail at said tree, a bobcat track, complete with a classic segmented bobcat scat. Did I mention that we almost always encounter bobcat tracks here and that we often store our snowshoes, deciding that we should be just fine without them?

At the first bridge, we paused and I hoped against hope we’d see signs of an otter. Or even the real deal.

No such luck, but there was a mink track by the edge of the water. It’s often one or the other that we expect to see here.

Ditching the snowshoes, like always proved to be a good idea as our progress was much quieter (and quicker–but then again, any hike with my guy is rather on the quick side no matter the distance). Only occasionally did we punch holes into the snow.

On a couple of occasions my post-holing was intentional for I spied woodpecker trees.

The debris below each meant the bird had spent a lot of time excavating.

And the depth of the excavations meant it must have found delightful little carpenter ants and maybe some beetles to dine upon. What do I always do when I see such a refuse pile? Examine it for scat, of course. At the first tree, I found none and worried that either the bird had gone hungry or was constipated.

I was just about to stomp back to the trail after looking about below the second tree when the pièce de résistance caught my attention. The bird wasn’t starving and didn’t have digestive issues after all.

And then there’s another tree that begs to be honored with each passing and so we always do. Today the burl gave us the feeling that we might be passing through the Jurassic period, albeit snow taking the place of lush vegetation.

At last we reached the bench, or at least the top of it, and my guy turned from Shell Pond to clean it off for lunch.

Our traditional PB&J sandwiches unwrapped, we took in the view and watched the clouds play as they danced across the mountain range.

At last we continued on in the area where Peregrin Falcons will soon nest (or so we hope) on the cliffs above, and if you follow us frequently, you may note that at first my guy doesn’t have the Curious Traveller pack on his back. Once lunch is eaten and more water consumed, he takes the pack and I tease him about it being so much lighter.

The journey took us through the old orchard . . .

across the former airstrip where the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky . . .

and past the privately-owned stone house for which the property is named.

And then, because the snow had held off for the most part, we decided to hike a short distance up the Stone House Trail to Rattlesnake Pool. Surrounded by ice and snow, it had shrunk in size, but still, it’s always worth a visit.

We climbed down and got within about six feet, but chose not to dive in. The emerald green water was enough to revive us.

Because we were there, we also needed to walk in to Rattlesnake Gorge, located south of the pool. Water gurgled in the background, but much of it travelled under the weight of snow and ice.

And when we turned, it was more of the same–a frozen world waiting for the upcoming thaw to free it.

Oh, did I mention that we stowed the backpack before heading up to the pool and gorge, giving my guy even more of a break from hauling it the rest of the way? As we returned to the airfield, the snow was just beginning to fall in earnest.

Remembering to grab our snowshoes, we finally made our way back along the road, past the lemonade stand house, and returned to the truck, completing a seven-mile journey.

We are creatures of habit, as becomes more obvious each day, and we’re thrilled to back at this perennial favorite. To top it all off, we realized that we had the entire property to ourselves today. No Ho Hums about this Mondate.

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

It’s hard to believe that six years ago I gave birth to wondermyway as a means to record the natural world and all I met along the way.

There’s no need in reminding everyone that since last February it has been quite a year, but I have to say that I’m especially grateful to live where I do, in a place where I CAN wander and wonder on a regular basis.

As I look back through posts of these expeditions, I realize how often nature presents itself in such a way that moments of awe make everything else going on in the world seem so foreign. If only everyone could whisper to a dragonfly upon his or her hand; watch a cicada emerge from its larval form; and even appreciate a snake or two or three.

Join me for a look back at some of my favorite natural encounters of the past year. If you want to remember a particular adventure, click the titled link below each photo.

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

We’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Under the Bubbles

Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.

In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that your bubble is attached to so many others as you share a brain.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun. And birds. And dragonflies.

I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he? He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose. The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

Marvels of the Meadow

“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.

Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by mid-afternoon. But our bug eyes were wide open. In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape 
upon stones that memorialize the past...

On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas. 

Frog Alley

I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.

But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”

No way.

After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three.

Crowning Glory

The theme of the week didn’t dawn on me immediately, but a few days into it and I knew how blessed I am.

It was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life are from our sons whom I can chat with on the phone to those who have chosen to make this area of western Maine their home and to get to know their place in it. And then to go beyond and share it in a way that benefits the wider community.

Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent, and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.

We are all blessed. Today we crowed Hadley, and in so doing, gloried so many others.

Making Sense of Scents

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

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.

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.

First there was the porcupine den, then a beaver tree, and along the way a fungi.

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?

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.

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. Because of the temp, the day offered some incredible wonders.

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.

Sharp Observation

I was early–a rare occasion as usually I’m the one who arrives at least ten minutes after the agreed upon time. It wasn’t always that way, but has become a bad habit. That said, it was a creature of habit that I went in search of because I had some time to spare.

He was up there enjoying the cambium layer of the bark as witnessed by the goldeny color of the branch by his feet. All those downed twigs–apparently they were in his way so he nipped them off and dropped them to the ground in order to get to the nutrients he sought for his winter diet.

Check out his eye. We were both sharp observers as we eyed each other from a distance.

Ghost of the North Woods

For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.

After finding so many signs year after year, today . . . today I spied an uprooted tree at the very spot I thought might be a good place to stop and spend a few hours in silence. As I made plans to do such in the near future, the tree moved.

And transformed into you!

When at last you and your youngster departed, despite your sizes, it was as if you walked through the forest in silence. My every move comes with a sound like a bull in a china shop, but you . . . Alces alces, you weigh over one thousand pounds, stand six feet at your shoulder, and move through the forest like a ghost. For that reason and because you let me spend some time with you today, February 11 will henceforth mark the day that I celebrate the Ghost of the North Woods.

Thank you to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. With each learning or sighting, I get excited and can’t wait to share it with you. I’m not only grateful to be able to wander and wonder, but I’m also thankful for all of you who take the time to read these posts.

Top Notch Tracking

“Want to go back to Becky’s?” was the message I received last night.

My instant reply, “Yes!”

And so we did, Pamela M. and I.

We chose Moose Alley as the first trail to follow, though traveling in a counterclockwise pattern to change things up a bit. If you joined us for our journey there a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that we found lots of moose sign and even a few beds. Oh, I know, this is indeed a sign, but . . . it wasn’t exactly what we hoped to discover.

Within seconds of beginning today’s journey, tracks of a snowshoe hare pretending to imitate a snow lobster made themselves known.

We soon began to realize that the hare crossed the trail . . . frequently. One hare? Two? Or even more. One thing we did notice was that there was a least one of a slightly smaller size than the rest and now I regret that we didn’t measure the print and snap a photo. Oh well, maybe the next time. There’s always time for another trip to Becky’s.

There were some domestic dog tracks and we had to remind ourselves not to be confused by those, but we did spy coyote and possibly fisher along the way as well. More certain we were, however, when we occasionally spotted prints on the diagonal of a bounder. We quickly nailed down the identification to either ermine or long-tailed weasel by the size and track pattern.

After a bit, we found another moose sign. But still no moose prints.

So, we decided to explore the land around and beside the bog to see if the moose was just off trail. In our search, we found an old vireo nest tucked away in a beech sapling. On first thought it seemed the bird had built it rather close to the ground, but a second thought was the realization that the ground was probably two feet below our feet for such is the depth of the snow all of a sudden.

We also found a small cottony egg sac on red maple bark and wondered if it was deposited by a moth.

And an intact sawfly cocoon. Quite often we encounter these with perfectly cut lids meaning the adult fly had previously emerged–as in six months previous at least.

But, just as we know we should follow a track for a ways to make a correct identification, or walk all the way around a tree to study its bark, we were also reminded to look at the backside of the cocoon. Had a bird tried to dine? Or perhaps a wasp parasitized the sawfly? We’ve been spending a lot of time lately focused on bug forms in winter, but thankfully still have so much more to learn.

The bog, itself, was beautiful and we followed the edge of it for a wee bit, until that is, we saw water and thought better of our intention to locate the moose for which it was named.

Back on Moose Alley, we made our way downhill and then a depression about fifteen feet off trail stopped us. And, of course, we had to tromp through the snow to check it out. Though we made quite a disturbance with our snowshoes, there was only one possible track about ten feet behind us and five feet off trail. Then we noticed a ball of scat.

Being the mighty investigators that we are, once we realized the sawdusty scat was from a moose, we got down on all fours to investigate the broken depression. When we started digging we discovered more moose scat frozen inside. But still, we pondered. There were no other tracks. The depression was several feet across, but not large enough for a moose. We hadn’t seen any deer tracks. And it seemed odd that it the crusty chunks were not smoothed out by the body heat of an ungulate. Still, we did consider a small flying moose. How else would it have gotten to that spot?

Walking back to the “prints” that were closer to the trail, we examined them again. And noted a bit of tunneling. Maybe they weren’t prints after all.

And then we spied a bird track a few feet beyond. Turn on the light bulb please. Could it be that the ruffed grouse, who burrows into deep, soft snow to hide from predators, and scares the daylight out of us when it explodes out of its hiding spot, had blasted through the crusty layer of snow to spend the night. Was it surprised to find moose scat in its chosen spot?

Once we began spying the grouse tracks, we realized they were everywhere. Just like the snowshoe hare. The question remains: which came first?

While the grouse was searching for birch seeds upon which to dine, the hare made its meals of the woody foliage stems. Like a moose’s winter scat, the hare’s is also quite sawdusty in texture given its food source.

Did I say the grouse’s tracks became quite ubiquitous? And we began to find more holes like that made by the flying moose, I mean grouse.

The thing that really struck us was the thickness of the crusty layer and the energy the grouse had to use in order to blast into and out of it. Some call them fool’s hens, but they struck us as being rather smart about penetrating solid slabs.

Eventually, our own need for nourishment and energy renewal brought us to a halt in a sunny spot at Moose Alley’s intersection with Loop Trail. We each found a stump upon which to dine and while we sat quietly, chickadees entertained us with their quick seed gathering foray and calls to each other.

To take it all in, Pam struck a pose the reminded me of a certain famous person; she just needed wool mittens 😉

Eventually we stood and moved along, pausing briefly beside mullein in its winter form–hoping against hope that a spider or another insect might make itself known. No such luck, though we did admire the size and structure.

More domestic dog tracks shouted their names by their behavior, but we soon discovered prints of a strict carnivore who had recently moved through the forest with intention.

By the four toes, no visible nails, and shape of the ridge and heel pad, we knew it to be one who says, “Meow.” Well, maybe not exactly like a domestic cat, but still a feline, in this case a bobcat.

Our final find of the day was the track of a red fox. Oh, we’d seen squirrel and mouse as well. And maybe a few others I’m forgetting to mention. But moose?

Just as Marta and Kristoff wanted nothing to do with us, we suspect the moose was the same. That means only one thing.

We must return to Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch again . . . and again . . . and maybe again.

As for today, with powder upon the crusty layer of snow, it was a Top Notch Tracking day.

P.S. Thank you, Becky and Jim.