Looking Up

With recent encouragement I changed my focus and gazed skyward.

Rewarded immediately, the porous and slightly concave underside of Otzi, the Ice Man’s Tinderconk fungi, revealed a pattern repeated over and over again.

In another place where the forest is intended as a demonstration project, the dancers of the woods let their boughs reach down as if they were ladies dressed in gowns rather than Norway Spruce standing in a foreign community.

The upward gaze, however, was soon drawn down to the cone with scales numerous, thin and irregularly toothed, attracted my eye and that of a squirrel who left a large midden at the tree’s base.

And then that gaze focused outward where Common Mergansers whispered amongst themselves in a language only they understood.

In their midst, a Common Goldeneye swam and once again I wondered about that descriptive term “common.” Exactly what is common about that golden eye and all the other features of this duck?

Moments later I gazed skyward again from under a princess pine clubmoss that ends each leaflike structure with a Y as in “Why”? Certainly. Perhaps because.

Distracted once again–I spotted a spring stonefly with its rolled wings providing a stain-glassed venation.

The next upward gaze turned a tree stump into a nurse nourishing an entire deciduous forest as if it could.

Downward, I focused on a black-capped chickadee puffed up on a cold spring morning . . .

and a Mourning Cloak butterfly who had overwintered as an adult under the bark of a nearby tree.

So as a friend reminds me, I’ve entered a new season, one where I squat over vernal pools and beside streams and search for life within for hours on end.

For now, the ice is only just melting and life within the pool taking time to emerge, such as this predacious diving beetle larva.

At last I stand up straight and turn for a reason I don’t recall. But . . . there it is. A bird I’d seen swoop over the pool and stand at its edge as I approached. Of course, then it took off, not giving me an opportunity to identify it . . .

Until the barred owl did just that. Flew back in and posed above. And I realized that as I looked up at it, it looked around . . .

and then down at me. My gaze might be upward, but the owl also searched outward and downward.

As it should. This well-focused visionary knows that one must look in every direction for there’s always something to wonder about. Especially as we celebrate Easter 2021.

And my guy and I give thanks for receiving our second Pfizer shot this weekend. In the midst of joining the owl’s vision, we’re all looking upward.

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.

Tire’m Out Mondate

Recently someone whispered in my guy’s ear (from a moose-length away and fully masked, of course) an alternate trailhead to a small mountain we’d hoped to climb last week but avoided because there were too many vehicles. “Take a left, and then drive a mile or two down the road, and I don’t know if there is a plowed parking area,” is the way the message was relayed to me.

And so we did.

And much to our delight there was not only a small parking area that had been cleared, but also blazes painted on the trees and footsteps showing the way. We felt like we’d found the pot of gold, especially since there were a few cars at the other trailhead as we passed by.

The cool thing about the trail we followed today is that it reminded us of the walled path on our property; not wide enough to be a road, but two stonewalls indicating a previous use of the land. Maybe for cows. Maybe each farmer marking a boundary. Doesn’t matter; it made for a delightful beginning.

In a short time, we reached another wall that ran perpendicular to the two we’d walked between, though this one was intentionally made of flatter field stones. While it called to mind stonewalls in Connecticut more than Maine, given the ledge mountain upon which we hiked today, it made perfect sense that construction should be such. And gave me reason to consider a return on another day when there is no snow on the ground so I can further explore it.

For today, our focus was first on reaching the summit via this new-to-us trail that was like a walk in the park. After passing through the field stone wall, below which mixed hardwoods grew, we entered a hemlock grove and knew the summit wasn’t far off.

It was by the summit that we took a turn in order to visit the castle, a place our sons in their youth used to love to explore. We took them with us in spirit today as we played while they were in their respective cities and hard at work.

Long ago, the rocks were deposited upon this mountain top as the glaciers receded and over time weathering split them creating spaces for playmates like us to wave to each other from opposite sides.

And peek through . . .

before crawling out.

We finally moved on to the summit outlook, where our view embraced Keoka Lake to the east . . .

Bear Pond in front of lunch rock . . .

and our beloved Pleasant Mountain to the west with the ski trails at Shawnee Peak showing off their white paths.

Following lunch, we decided to hike down a different trail with hopes of eventually reaching the road and then climbing back up the main trail we’d passed by earlier. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s the way we are: crazy.

We thought we knew what we were doing as we followed a skidder trail down. After a bit, while my guy went ahead, I paused by a downed tree in search of what I might find.

The best find I made in a limited amount of scanning was a sweet, yet dried, capped mushroom.

My guy’s discovery: we’d reached an apple orchard and no trespassing signs and so much to his dismay we turned 180˚ and started back up, in hopes of finding another skidder trail to follow in a different direction.

Success greeted us eventually, though like the turkeys, we did a bit of postholing on the next route we traveled. Or perhaps we were the turkeys.

At last we reached the road as we crossed someone’s land, walked about fifty to one hundred feet down and then found the main trailhead to climb up once again.

And so up we went, though by now my guy had followed my example and donned his micro-spikes as the conditions warranted.

At the end of the day, he was tickled because he’d discovered not one . . .

but two geocaches.

When he opened the first, though the contents were in baggies, they were wet and frozen, but the second was in prime condition and we saw that our friend David Percival had signed the log this past summer.

I was happy to spend a couple of minutes searching for winter bug sites, and found the egg sac of a spider . . .

and pupating form of a bagworm moth caught in someone’s web, both discovered upon a shed as we trespassed on property that wasn’t posted.

A double red-belted mushroom also caught at least my eye.

Our best find of the day, however, was one we’ve seen before, but always brings a smile to our faces as it gives new meaning to bear tree.

It was back to the summit outlook for a Lindt candy before following the trail back to the cowpath.

Up and down, up and down with a little bit of a third up and down along way, turkey-style. No wonder they call it Mount Tire’m. To that end, my guy took a power nap on the way home. Good thing I was driving.

Special thanks to Bob Spencer for being the whisperer of trailhead information.

One Drip At A Time

This two-destination day found a friend and me pausing for birds (frequently) before driving north. I should mention that she was enjoying watching the Sandhill Cranes in a cornfield before I arrived and scared them off. Such is my nature.

But our real plan was to climb to the Millard Chandler Feldspar Mine (aka North Star Mine) in Evans Notch.

Millard Chandler was a descendent of one of the founding families of Chatham, New Hampshire, where the mine is located. Originally, mica was mined from the pegmatites but prior to World War II, Whitehall Company, Inc, focused on feldspar.

Today, its man-carved chambers were enhanced by icy sculptures.

A view toward the top revealed that life on the rock somehow continued despite the cavern below.

And from there, the water flowed and froze and formed . . .

stalactites of sorts. Icicle sorts.

Fluid in nature, it was ever changing and we could hear the action of the water within providing a sustenance to its structure.

As we stood there, we honored how every little seepage created a massive outpouring.

And marveled at the displays that began as simple lines and developed into enormous works of art.

After admiring the possibilities within, we looked outward toward Blueberry and Speckled Mountains before descending.

It was upon the return to Route 113 that we spied examples of Black Knot Fungus that gave rise to a discussion about our last adventure to the area a month ago when we’d discovered an aphid poop-eating fungus. How did they differ? We’d have to return to the original discovery to figure that out and so to Notch View Farm we journeyed next.

After circling the Loop Trail and noting tons of apple-filled coyote scat plus coyote, bobcat, red fox, and turkey tracks, we followed the Moose Loop aptly named for the moose that journeyed that way frequently, but also featured coyote and fox tracks. At Moose Bog, we again met the aphid poop-eating fungus and so the comparison began. Black Knot encircles the twig, while the Poop-eating fungus doesn’t. And Black Knot features a beady construction, while the Poop-Eaters are much lacier in looks, rather like the wooly aphids who offer their poop for consumption. The Black is much firmer, and Poop-Eater much more crumbly when touched. Either is interesting and . . . both offer opportunities to wonder.

Despite all the tracks and scat we found along the trails, I was a bit amazed that we saw few insects. And then, moments later, not an insect, but an orbweaver spider crossed our path–quickly at first . . . until it posed.

After it scurried again, we watched as it tried to hide in the snow–and played peek-a-boo with us.

At last we approached the sugarbush, where Sugar Maples were tapped and sap flowed . . .

Droplets formed . . .

And perched . . .

then fell. Mind you, a close-up it may seem, but we kept our social distance as is the new norm.

And spent time watching Norwegian Fjord Kristoff blankety, blank, blank paw for food under the snow.

At last we headed south, but had each barely driven down the road a few hundred yards when a couple of birds called our attention. Turns out they were White-winged Crossbills and thanks to local birder Joe Scott’s response when I asked if they are uncommon in our area, “Some years we get them, some we don’t, depending on food sources up north in the boreal forest and food sources down here. This is about as far south as they come.” Joe added that while other birds are arriving, our sighting was a good one because these crossbills are leaving.

Many thanks to friend Pam Marshall for joining me today for a journey to the mine and farm where one drip at a time bookmarked our day. And for providing perspective.

Be Like a Hemlock

On this St. Patrick’s Day, my hope is that as we practice the new norm of social distancing, we’ll make time to step outside and become intimately connected to the earth.

May we find a path to follow that will lead us into a hemlock grove where we can shout, cry, laugh, or just be.

May we realize it’s okay to talk to a tree for the tree will listen.

May we discover that the trees help their neighbors by offering nourishment perhaps in the form of yellow-bellied sapsucker holes . . .

and bark upon which to scrape one’s teeth–a deer one that is.

May we notice that as a fungus takes control from within and shows forth its fruiting body, it too, might provide sustenance for others–in this case, perhaps a squirrel enjoyed a few nibbles. (Hemlock Varnish Shelf or Reishi has long been touted for its medicinal benefits.)

May we get down on all fours as we peer under a hemlock on stilts–we never know who might peer back. Perhaps a leprechaun?

May we know that we all have a squiggly road in front of us.

But, as much as possible, may we follow the hemlocks example and heal what ails us.

At the end of the day, may we all have the courage to hug a tree. Any tree. And may we be surprised by its calming effect.

While we are at it, let’s be sure to thank nature for giving us space to heal ourselves.

Go ahead. Be like a hemlock.

Lemonade By Shell Pond Mondate

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

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

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

On more than one occasion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occasionally, seasonal streams offered mini-challenges.

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

They also offered icy sculptures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And squiggly shadows intercepted by linear reflections.

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

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

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

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

Province of Chat-HAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside us was the dam and outlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perennial Mondate

It’s an old fav, Bald Pate Mountain Preserve in South Bridgton. And we love to visit it in any season. That being said, winter will “end” in a few weeks and this morning we realized we needed to head on over.

Our plan was to follow the Moose Trail for its entire length, then continue on the South Face Loop to the summit, start down the Bob Chase Trail, veer off to Foster Pond Lookout and then make our way back by rejoining Bob Chase.

One might expect to see a moose along the first trail, and we hoped to have such luck, but it was not to be. Instead, do you see the ski tracks? Portions of the preserve are groomed for cross-country skiers as part of the system at the adjacent Five Fields Farm.

What else did we spy? Some wicked cool finds in my book of wonder. For instance, you may think that this broken off piece of a twig is merely dangling from its counterpart, but . . . it is solidly stuck in place by a fungus known commonly as glue crust. It glues together twigs and branches that touch each other.

And sometimes twigs meet the bark on the trunk of a tree and hang in what you might think of as an unnatural stance.

The fungus is the dark bumpy structure that the second twig is stuck to, much like a magical act performed by nature. Really though, this fungus doesn’t let the twig fall to the ground where it would be decomposed by other fungi. Pretty tricky–making a claim all for its own benefit.

Continuing on, we scanned every beech tree in hopes of finding bear claw trees. We did find a beech worth honoring for we loved how it rested an elbow on the boulder below and with two arms formed a frame of the scene beyond.

Ever so slowly we climbed upward, our pace not my guy’s usual because of the bear paw challenge. When one is looking, however, one discovers so many other things upon which to focus like this rather common birch polypore in a rather uncommon shape, almost like a Christmas bell jingling in the breeze.

And then there was a display of snipped hemlock twigs scattered across the snow-covered forest floor.

We looked up and saw not a silhouetted form, but by the debris, which include diagonal cuts on the twigs, comma-shaped scat (some a bit more rounded than others), and even the soft, curly belly hairs of the creator, we knew a porcupine had dined overnight.

We looked a wee bit, but found not its den. By its tracks, however, we could tell that it had made more than one visit to this fine feasting spot.

Had we climbed the Bob Chase Trail we would have reached the summit in twenty minutes, but our choice to circle about before hiking up meant we spent two hours approaching the top where the bonsai trees of the North grow–in the form of pitch pines.

The true summit is a wee bit higher and so we continued on and then turned back to take in the view of Peabody Pond below.

It was there that while looking for insect cocoons I came across the gouty oak gall caused by teeny wasps no bigger than fruit flies. The structure was woody as it’s a couple of years old. And almost creepy in its display, like a head with many eyes looking every which way.

We did take the hint and looked every which way ourselves, the next point of view beyond Hancock Pond and beyond.

And then we moved on, until that is, we reached the wall of tripe, which always invites me to stop.

Water had also stopped in the form of several frozen falls.

And again, more of nature’s magic for the icicles facilitated photosynthesis by the algal partner of the lichen’s symbiosis. It’s a thing worth liken.

Nearby, a relative also begged a notice. Do you see the black flat-headed disks upon the surface? Those are the fruiting bodies or apothecium where this lichen’s spores are produced. The common name for this umbilicate structure: toadskin.

Just above the tripe and toadskin offerings, Pleasant Mountain came into view. Hidden behind a cloudy veil was Mount Washington, which typically sits in the saddle of the Pleasant Mountain ridgeline.

As we wound down and around, polypody ferns spoke about the weather–some were curled as it was cooler in their location upon a boulder in a hemlock grove, but others were flattened bespeaking the rising temperature.

Our last focal point before heading back to the parking lot was the lookout to Foster Pond. Where once stood a tall cairn, there are now two shorter ones marking the point of view and turn-around.

It was there that we discovered another gouty oak gall, its size at least that of a golf ball; a rather holey, warty golf ball.

This preserve is forever a fav in any season, which on this Mondate offered a flash ahead (think the opposite of flashback, rather like a preview) of what is to come. We love winter. And we especially love snow. But . . . we also love all the other seasons and the perennial plants on the southern side of the mountain where the snow has melted a bit, showed off their evergreen shades and hints of future events. Wintergreen and Trailing Arubuts, the later with the long buds atop a hairy stem.

Because of the Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It led me to yet another Snowshoe Hare form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Mystery Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scat Happens

The forecast was for temps in the teens, with a wind chill making it feel like single digits. But . . . plenty of sun. And so Greater Lovell Land Trust docent Alice and I decided to go ahead with this morning’s planned Wetland Wonder at John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge West on New Road in Lovell.

After a two day storm that left snow, ice and more snow, we were happy to stretch our legs despite the temps. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, only one other person joined us, the ever adventuresome Hadley Couraud, Sebago Clean Waters Conservation Coordinator for Loon Echo and Western Foothills Land Trusts.

On a pre-hike last week, Alice and I decided it would be best to beeline to the brook and wetland or we’d never have time to enjoy the wonders that both offered. Today’s temp confirmed that that would be best as it would warm us up.

In what seemed like an amazingly short time, because for us it was, we found ourselves beside Bradley Brook and glanced downstream. Of course, we’d passed by some mammal tracks, but promised to look at them on the way out.

As we looked upstream, we noted that though it was a bit chilly, the wind hadn’t picked up yet and all the snow still coated the trees.

And then Alice rattled off a few species she wanted Hadley to look for and the first presented itself immediately. It took me a bit to catch on, but that was Alice’s way–to mention something and bingo, it was right there even though she wasn’t looking at it. That was certainly a fun way to feel like you were the first to make a discovery.

Hadley discovered the lungwort lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, and I pride myself all these hours later in remembering its scientific name.

Of course we had to move in for a closer look. It’s one that we can never resist. Its ridges and lobes create a lettucey look, but many super moons ago it was thought to resemble lung tissue and thus a good remedy for maladies such as tuberculosis.

Its a species that begs a closer look (doesn’t everything?) and so we moved in, Hadley taking the lead.

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but the tiny granules trimming the outer edges of the lobes much like a fancy accent on a winter hat or sweater. Those structures are actually the lungwort’s asexual means of reproduction–and are called soredia.

Just before I performed a magic act with my water bottle, both Hadley and I took a few more photos of the brittle structure.

And then, tada, we watched as the water performed the trick.

It never ceases to amaze me: Once wet, the photosynthesizing green algae in the thallus or main tissue causes the lichen to instantly turn a bright shade and become pliable; once it dries, the color recedes to a duller olive green.

All that wonder, and we still hadn’t reached the actual wetland.

And so we marched on, pausing next beside a member Betulaceae ( Alnus and Betula) family. Alnus includes the speckled alder before our eyes and betula the birches. Scientifically known as Alnus incana ssp. rugosa, we got caught up with the male and female catkins, which both grow at the end of twigs.

The males are the longer catkins that formed in the fall, and just above them the wee females. Pollination is by wind and the fertilized female matures to a cone.

Both alder and lungwort lichen fix nitrogen, the former through a bacteria in its root nodules and decaying leaves and the latter as its structure falls to the forest floor and decays.

Upon one of the shrubs, we noticed what appeared to be cones in flower Actually, it was alder tongue gall–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths were green to begin, but transformed to orange, red and finally the brown we saw. Can you see the curly structures such as the one the black arrow points to?

We were there to look at the little things and the whole picture as it’s a place we only enjoy in this season, being difficult to access at other time of the year. In the midst of the wetland, the sun provided welcome warmth as we enjoyed the spectacular scene before us.

Artwork created by nature’s sketching artist gave proof that the wind was starting to pick up at about 11am.

It was at that point that we knew we were reaching our turn-around point, but still we reveled in the joy of being out there.

That is, until Hadley, as the caboose for some of the journey, found a weak spot in the ice. I gave her a hand to pull her out and we knew we needed to head out.

And so we followed a snowshoe hare back–giving thanks yet again for the snowshoes that we all wore.

What probably should have been a beeline much as we’d done on our way in, however, turned into frequent stops. The first was at a tree that had fallen across our path, which wasn’t really a path, but rather a bushwhack scouted out by Alice.

The fallen tree turned out to offer a lichen form classroom of crustose (appearing flat on the bark like a piece of bread or looking as if it had been spray painted onto the surface); foliose or leaf-like in structure; and fruticose, which reminds me of a bunch of grapes minus the grapes.

It was within the foliose lichen that we spotted the apothecia in the form of brown berets or disks.

And then there was the ice marching up a branch like miniature elephants on parade. We considered its formation and how it was anchored to the branch here and there, but not consistently. Was there warmth in the wood that created such formations?

As we headed back toward Bradley Brook, we spotted a tinderconk or horse’s hoof fungi that could have been a foot at the end of warm snowy white leggings.

The brook again offered a transitioning scene and we rejoiced in the sound of water flowing over rocks and downed trees.

Because we were still looking for the species Alice had suggested when we started, we stopped by well-browsed hobblebush where she shared their idiosyncrasies, including the fact that the buds aren’t covered in waxy scales like most tree and shrub species.

Instead, they are naked. And one of my favorites with their accordian-like design and fuzzy outer coating.

Eventually we made our way back to an old log landing, where evening primrose in its winter form became the subject of focus. Hadley is an apt student of nature and so even if she felt any discomfort from her dip in the water, she continued to ask questions and take notes about everything we encountered.

On the way out we noticed more snowshoe hare tracks, bird and squirrel prints, and then at a well worn deer run with fresh movement, we spotted the X in a print and new that a coyote had followed the deer, predator seeking prey.

One would have expected that with the mammal tracks we did see, we might have found some scat. We did not. But . . . all the same, Hadley really wanted an opportunity to say, “Scat Happens” with meaning. And she found it in her polar bear dip.

Still, the three of us had a wonderful tramp and rejoiced over hot cocoa and tea once back at my truck. I checked in with Hadley tonight and she’s fine, thankfully. But did I say she’s adventuresome? And ever eager to learn?

Still . . . scat happens. And with the right attitude, one can recover.

From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Matter of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything else was a matter of nature.

Desire to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

Shreddy and fibrous, the bark appeared as vertical strips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scratcher had left a signature in its prints.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something Special Beside Sucker Brook

My friend, Marita, joined me today for a walk along the trails at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge on Farrington Pond Road.

Though we moved rather quickly, frequently picking up sticks and branches that had fallen as a result of last week’s nor’easter (Marita deserves trail crew credit), we did stop occasionally to appreciate the world around us. Our first point of wonder occurred when she noted a burl of sorts on a beech tree. A closer look and we spotted shiny black spots that turned out to be five or six black ladybird beetles, their red spots offering a contrast. I’ve since learned they are Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle bugs, and beneficial as they feed on scale insects, aphids, and mealybugs, including Beech Scale Insects.

Maple-leaf Viburnum, still holding onto its leaves and fruits called our attention next. Only last week, we were finding its magenta fall coloration decorating the woods, but when the calendar turned to November, it seemed the world transformed and took on its late autumn look.

Via a spur not marked, we ventured forth and stood in admiration of the colors before us as we looked out toward the Lower Bay of Kezar Lake.

And then we looked in the opposite direction and embraced the view toward the north where hills formed the backdrop . . .

and found their reflection in beaver lodges. Though we never saw any sign of recent beaver works, it appeared that at least one of the lodges was being mudded for winter, a beaver’s form of insulating the house.

Our route back to the trail was circuitous for I wanted to show her the Pitcher Plants that grow in the edge between the land and water.

No matter how many times I see this plant’s urn-shaped leaf, I am in awe and today was no exception. The hairs on the leaf’s “landing pad” stood out on a younger version as well as its aging elder.

We weren’t the only ones curious about the plant for the snow fleas, aka spring tails, had also discovered it. And it them. How many snow fleas does it take to create a meal? Many I would think given their teeny tiny size, but . . . many found their way down the hairs and into the plant’s digestive fluid.

Back on the green-blazed trail we finally continued, and a display of mushrooms begged for a Kodak moment. As I often do with mushrooms, I’m going out on a limb and calling these Late Fall Oysters (Panellus serotinus), which aren’t oysters at all but the rippled edge did remind me of the shells I used to pick up as a kid. What really sang out about this moment though was the fact that the fungus grew on a beech tree and the husk of a beech nut had stabbed into the fruit, giving the entire display a layered cake look with a candle on top.

We also discovered a Red-belted Polypore, Fomitopsis pinicola if I’m correct, the size of a dinner plate.

Onward, we swished the dried leaves, hit a few mucky spots, and continued to pick up sticks. At last we reached a second scenic view that again provided colors demarking this month.

All along we’d tramped beside Sucker Brook, though we couldn’t always see it. But that’s what made the scenic views even more spectacular.

Our journey was quick and we covered over two miles and followed the blue-blazed trail back, but it was the waypoint that I marked at Marita’s suggestion, which was our final find of the day.

Well, really, it was her final find for I made her hunt for it. I gave her a general area to scan and after a few moments of looking, we turned it into a hot/cold game. At last her eyes cued in on the bear claw marks upon a beech tree.

You, too, may spy some of the same for next Sunday the GLLT will host a walk at John A. Segur East (as we refer to this part of the wildlife refuge). We’re offering something a bit different for this hike.

November 10 
12:30 - 3:00 pm
Sunday Beside Sucker Brook

Let's get a head start on Thanksgiving, and journey the trail at John A. Segur East where we'll take in the afternoon views of Sucker Brook, its plants in their winter forms, beaver lodges, and mountain vistas.
In honor of the upcoming holiday, we'll think of our neighbors as we gather. Please bring one or more items to give to the Sweden Food Pantry, which serves the towns of Sweden, Lovell, Fryeburg, Stow, Stoneham, Waterford and Bridgton.
Popular Items:
Tuna Fish
Peanut Butter and Jam
Hearty Soups like Progresso
Staples other than pasta
Gluten Free items
Canned Beans (NOT vegetarian) and Canned Beets
Personal Hygiene Products
Also: Be thinking about something or someone for which you'd like to offer up thanks, either silently or verbally.
Location: John A. Segur East, Farrington Pond Road, off Timber Shores Road, Lovell
Degree of Difficulty: Easy/Moderate

I hope you’ll join us for something special beside Sucker Brook.

Wandering and Wondering the Jinny Mae Way

This morning I chose to channel my inner Jinny Mae in honor of my dear friend who has been in isolation for medical reasons since last January. That meant I had to try to slow down and be sure to notice. And ask questions. Mostly it meant I needed to wonder.

She’s a lover of fungi, so I knew that she’d pause beside the Violet-toothed Polypores that decorated a log. The velvety green algal coating would surely attract her attention. Why does algae grow on this fungus?

I didn’t have the answer in my mind, but a little research unearthed this: “As is the case for lichens, the algae on top of a polypore arrangement appears to benefit both partners. The algae (usually single-celled ball-shaped green algae), being filled with green photosynthetic pigments, use sunlight to make sugars out of carbon dioxide gas. Some of these leak out and are absorbed and consumed by the fungi as an extra source of energy-rich organic carbon. The fungus, in turn, provides a solid platform upon which the algae can set up shop and grow into dense green communities.” (~rosincerate.com)

The next stop occurred beside the fall forms of asters where the seeds’ parachutes could have easily passed as a flower. What’s a seed’s parachute and why does it have one? The parachutes are made up of hair-like structures. As an immobile parent plant, it needs to disperse its young so that new plants can grow away from those pesky competitive siblings. And maybe even colonize new territories. At this stage of life, the seedy teenager can’t wait to fly away from home and start its own life. Do you remember that time in your life?

And then, it was another fungus that asked to be noticed. Those gills. That curly edging. And crazy growth structure. Jinny Mae would have keyed in on it right away, but it took me a while. I think it’s a bioluminescent species, Night Light aka Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus). But as I often say, I don’t know mushrooms well, so don’t look to me as the authority. What would Jinny Mae ask? Hmmm. What makes it glow? That’s even further beyond my understanding than naming this species. But I can say that it has to do with enzymes that produce light by the oxidation of a pigment. And have I ever actually seen such a glow? NO. But one of these nights 😉

As I continued to walk along, I noticed movement and realized I was in the presence of a butterfly. A butterfly I don’t recall ever meeting before. It had the markings of several familiar species, but it wasn’t until I arrived home that I figured out its name. Do you see its curled proboscis?

Jinny Mae would have been as wowed as I was by this species that I can confidently call a Faunus Anglewing or Green Comma. Typically it flies from May to September, so why today? I got to wondering if this week’s Nor’easter caught it in a more southern clime and forced it north on the wind? But I discovered that its a boreal species and was perhaps at the southern end of its range. Maybe the storm did have something to do with its presence today after all.

Eventually the journey became a mix of following a trail and bushwhacking. Both provided examples of the next moment I knew Jinny Mae would love. Dead Man’s Fingers, all five of them, in their fall form, the lighter color spores having dispersed and the mushroom now turning black. Why the common name for Xylaria longipes? According to Lawrence Millman, author of Fascinating Fungi of New England, “Certain African tribes believe that if you’ve committed a crime, and you rub the spore powder from an immature Xylaria on your skin, the police won’t identify you as the culprit.”

It seemed these woods were a mushroom garden and one after another made itself known. I could practically feel Jinny Mae’s glee at so many fine discoveries. Resembling cascading icicles (I was wearing a wool hat and my snowpants actually, which turned out to be overdress after three hours), I wanted to call it Lion’s Mane, but to narrow down an ID decided to leave it at the genus Hericium. I suspected Jinny would agree that that was best and it should just be enjoyed for its structure no matter who it really was.

Nearby, another much tinier, in fact, incredibly teenier fungus could have gone unnoticed had the sun not been shining upon it. I was pretty certain 2019 would be the year that would pass by without my opportunity to spy this one. But, thankfully, I was proven wrong. Forever one of my favorites, I knew Jinny Mae also savored its presence. The fruiting body of Green Stain are minute cup-shaped structures maybe 1/3 inch in diameter. I used to think when I saw the stain on wood that it was an old trail blaze. And then one day I was introduced to the fruiting structure and rejoice each time I’m graced with its presence. There was no reason to question these delightful finds. Noticing them was enough.

In complete contrast, upon a snag nearby, grew a much larger fungus.

Part of its identification is based on its woody, shelf-like structure projecting out from the tree trunk. Someone had obviously been dining upon it and based on its height from the ground and the tooth marks, I suspected deer.

The pore surface, however, is the real reason to celebrate this find for it stains brown and provides a palette upon which to sketch or paint, thus earning it the common name of Artist Conk. But the question: while some mushrooms fruit each year and then if not picked, rot and smell like something died in the woods, what happens with a shelf fungus? The answer as best I know: A shelf fungus adds a new layer of spore tissue every growing season; the old layer covered by the new one, which look like growth rings in a tree.

A lot of the focus on this morning’s walk tended to be upon the fungi that grew in that neck of the woods, but suddenly something else showed its face. Or rather, I think, her face. A Wolf Spider. Upon an egg sac. Super Mom though she may be for making a silk bed and then enveloping her young in a silk blanket, and guarding it until her babies hatch, this spider did not make the slightest movement, aggressive or not, as I got into its personal space. Usually the mother dies either before or after her babies leave the sac. What would Jinny Mae think? Perhaps that for some reason Momma waited too long and maybe the cold weather we’ve experienced upon occasional lately got the better of her?

I don’t know entirely what Jinny Mae would think, but I have a pretty good idea because the reality is that today, she and I traveled the trail together for the first time in forever. For each of these finds, it was like we played trail tag–first one spying something wicked cool and then the other finding something else to capture our attention as we tried to capture it with our cameras.

We caught up. We laughed. We noticed. We questioned. We laughed some more.

Our three-hour journey drew to a close as we revisited the Stair-step Moss that grows in her woods.

I’m still giddy about the fact that I got to wander and wonder the Jinny Mae way today.

P.S. Jinny Mae returned to Super Momma spider a couple of days later and as she paused to take a photo, Momma scooted into a tree hole, carrying her sac. She LIVES.

Ponds #1 and #2 Mondate

My friend, Alice, suggested a trail to me over the weekend, and so when this day dawned, my guy and I had a plan. We’d pack a lunch, drove a wee bit north, and let the fun begin. We love exploring places new to us and this was such.

Immediately, the forest floor reflected the canopy above where Sugar Maples, Beech and Red Oak presided.

Other items also made themselves known, including the dried capsules of Pinesap, a plant that features three to ten topaz-colored flowers during the summer. The plant has such cool characteristics: it lacks chlorophyll because it doesn’t have any leaves to photosynthesize, and acts as an indirect parasite of trees. You see, Pinesap’s roots steal nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi, specifically from the genus Tricholoma, that the mushroom obtains from associated trees.

It wasn’t long before the carpet changed color indicating we’d entered a Red Maple community.

And again, upon the ground, another cool site worth honoring. Many-fruited Pelt is a foliose lichen that grows on soil, moss and rocks. The rust-colored projections among the shiny brown lobes made me squat for a photo call. Those reddish-brown projections are the fruiting bodies on the leafy margins–thus the name.

Again we moved onward and upward and again the community changed, the leaves telling us we’d entered a Big-Tooth Aspen/American Beech neighborhood.

Wherever beech trees grow this year, it seems the parasitic Beechdrops are also present. Lucky for me, though my guy likes to hike as if on a mission to get to the destination, when I ask him to pause, he quietly does. I’m forever grateful that he understands my need to take a closer look. I’m not sure if he’s amused by it or just tolerates it, but he never complains. And occasionally he points things out for me to notice or tells me the name of something.

Anyway, Beechdrops, like Pinesap, lack chlorophyll, have scales in place of leaves so they have no way to photosynthesize, and are parasitic. In the case of the Beechdrops, however, it’s the roots of the American Beech from which it draws its nutrition. Small, root-like structures of the Beechdrops insert themselves into the tree’s roots and suck away. Do they damage the trees? The short answer is no because the parasitic plant is short-lived.

Our journey continued to take us uphill and really, it wasn’t easy to follow, but somehow (thanks to GPS–I surprised myself with my talent) we stayed on the trail.

Do you believe me now that it wasn’t easy to follow? Yes, that is a blaze, the yellow paint practically obliterated by a garden of foliose and fruticose lichens. Foliose being a “leafy” looking structure and at least two grew on the bark. Fruticose, likewise the “fruity” structure (think a bunch of grapes minus the fruits) also presented itself in at least two forms.

Of course, there were still many other things to admire including the multiple shades of magenta presented by the shrub: Maple-leaf Viburnum. In my book of autumn, nothing else exhibits such an exquisite color, making it easy to identify.

Our luck increased once we began to spy rock cairns marking the trail.

And it got even better when I noticed several classic deposits beside the cairns. Bobcat scat! Check this one out. Have you ever seen anything quite so beautiful? Look at that hair tucked within the packet. Of a snowshoe hare. Oh my.

While taking a closer look, I realized I wasn’t the only one with all eyes on the structure. Yes, that’s a wolf spider.

Realizing we were at the summit of a certain small mountain, suddenly we found ourselves walking along ledge.

And then the view opened up. It became lunch rock view.

Words seemed not enough to describe.

At last we made our way down, for still we hadn’t reached our destination.

And that’s when Pinesap’s cousin, Indian Pipe showed off its one-flowered structure. While Pinesap features three to ten flowers per stalk, Indian Pipe offers only one waxy structure made of four to five small petals. Until fertilized by a Bumblebee, the flower droops toward the earth, but upon pollination turns upward toward the sun. Eventually a woody capsule will form.

Also parasitic, Indian Pipes have a mutually beneficial relationship with many tree species plus Russula and Lactarius mushrooms, as they work together to exchange water and carbohydrates with nutrients from the soil.

At long last, we reached the first of our destinations, Pond #1. The glass-like water offered a perfect mirror image of the scene upon the opposite shore and we both let “oohs” and “aahs” escape from our mouths when we came upon an opening in the shrubby vegetation that protected the shore. I think my favorite portion of this photo is the evergreens that add a fringed frame.

Our journey, however, didn’t stop there, for we had another pond to locate. Again, we referred to the GPS and found ourselves climbing over several fallen trees. Upon one, I spied pumpkin-colored fungi that requested a stop. Of course. But really, it’s another I can never resist–Cinnabar-red Polypore.

As lovely as the color of the upper surface may be, it’s the pore surface that really makes my jaw drop. That color. Those angular shapes. Another “oh my” moment.

And then upon another downed tree, multi-aged tinder mushrooms. It was the mature one that fascinated me most for it looked like happy turtle basking on rocks in the sun.

Last week I met a Snapping Turtle in the shade and he hardly looked thrilled with our encounter.

At last my guy and I reached Pond #2, where we sat for a few minutes and took in the scene. Okay, so we also enjoyed a sweet treat–as a celebration.

We still had another mile or so to hike before reaching my truck, but we gave thanks to Alice for the suggestion and for the fun we’d had discovering Pond #1 and #2 on this Mondate. And all that we saw between.

Go ahead, take a second look at that bobcat scat. You know you want to.

Peeking with my Peeps

As has been our custom for the past six years, on a quarterly basis an email is sent out with a date and location and at the agreed upon time any number of grads, teachers, and mentors from the Maine Master Naturalist Lewiston 2013 class gather. Today was one of those days.

The plan was to explore a vernal pool or two at the Cornwall Nature Preserve on historic Paris Hill, but . . . it didn’t take us (Pam, Beth, Alan, Dorcas, and yours truly hiding behind the lens) long to get distracted when we saw green poking through the many shades of brown on the forest floor.

Together, we scrambled through our brains searching for the name. With the season finally feeling like it’s transitioning, we realized we have to dust off the floral flashcards in our minds and start reviewing them. And then it came to us. One year ago, on May 5, we had seen the same at Smithfield Plantation as we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Naturally. Then, however, we had keyed it out minus the flower. Today, the memory of last year’s ID slowly sifted to the forefront and by its leaves and colonial habit, we felt safe to call it Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily.

A few more steps and we started dipping containers into a potential vernal pool that was really too shallow and offered no apparent key characteristics. But . . . there was an owl pellet filled to the brim with hair and bones, the one sticking out by central vein of the leaf a hip bone. (Yeah, so I may sound like a smarty pants, but Dorcas pulled it out and quickly identified the bone by its structure.) Some little mammal, or two, or three, had provided a bird with a meal.

Stair-step Moss (Hylocomium splendens) was the next great find. I would have dismissed it as Big Red Stem or Pleurozium schreberi, and in so doing missed its finer points. Do you see how each year’s new growth rises from the previous, rather like ascending stair steps?

And then there was another new learning, for I’m always referring to this species of fungi as jelly ear or wood ear. But, with Alan the fungi fun guy in our midst, we learned that it’s really Brown Witch’s Butter or Exidia recisa. (Drats–it’s so much more fun to say Auricularia auricula.)

As we admired the Exidia recisa, we realized others were doing the same for we’d interrupted a slug fest. If you bump into Alan Seamans sometime, do ask him about the numbing qualities of slugs. 😉

A few more steps and we began to notice trilliums, especially the reds with their leaves of three so big and blossoms hiding. All of a sudden we know the flowers are going to burst open and we can’t wait to witness such glory.

At last we reached the pool of choice, located maybe a half mile from the parking area. Two years ago, MMNP students from the South Paris class discovered Fairy Shrimp in this pool.

Our best finds today were log cabin caddisflies! At this point in time, the caddisflies are in their larval stage and as such, they construct their temporary shelters from available materials. Think of them as the original recyclers.

Should a predator be about, like a hermit crab, the caddisfly can retreat into the house of needles or leaves or stones or whatever its preferred building material might be. Apparently, it didn’t mind us and we were honored to watch as the elongated body extended forth while it searched for food. In its larval form, these aquatic insects have a hardened head and first thoracic segment, while the abdomen remains pale and soft. Can you see the three pairs of legs?

The cool thing about caddisflies is that though they may use similar construction materials, no two are alike. Beth called them works of art.

I referred to this one as a she for the case included a Red Maple bouquet.

If you look closely, you might also note some filmy gills on the abdomen. And the grayish thing the Mrs. approached and a second later ignored. It seemed rather leech-like in its behavior, but I think it may have been a Planaria, which is a tiny unsegmented flat worm.

As we dipped for insects, we also noted plenty of Spotted Salamander spermatophores sticking up from leaves and twigs. But we could find none of their milky egg masses and wondered why.

We did, however, spy plenty of Wood Frog masses, some with their tapioca structures bubbling upon the surface, but most attached to the stems below.

And then a chiseled tree section across the pool called to us and so we made our way over to check the wood chips below. Of course, we searched for Pileated Woodpecker scat, but found none. Instead, we spotted a dead frog in the water. And just beyond it, a dead salamander.

It wasn’t pretty, but did make us question what had happened. Were the two amphibian deaths related? We don’t know, but we did note puncture marks on the Spotted Salamander’s underside, and even a nip of the end of its tail. Plus it had one slightly deformed front foot. And we learned that salamanders have poison glands in their skin, mostly on their backs and tails. Did the frog go after the salamander and both died from the experience? Or had another predator entered the pool? And then realized it had made the wrong decision?

We never did figure it out, but had fun asking questions. And as we stood there, our eyes keyed in on a bit of color at the end of a downed branch. Again, more questions and the use of our loupes as we tried to take a closer look. We debated: slime mold or insect eggs?

After looking closely and continuing to ask question, a quick poke with a twig provided the actual answer as we watched the spores puff out in a tiny cloud. Slime mold it was. Should we have poked it first? No, for that would have been too easy and we wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the possibilities.

On our way out, there was still one more discovery to make. I could have dismissed this one as a moss.

But, again Alan knew and he explained to us that it was a liverwort known as Porella platyphylloidea. And upon closer examination we could all see its three-dimensional structure as it curled out from the tree trunk.

Almost three hours later, our brains were full as we’d also examined trees, lichens, and other fungi, but our hearts were happy for the time spent in each others company sharing a collective brain.

I’m always grateful for an opportunity to peek with these peeps, even at something as common as a caddisfly because really . . . there’s nothing common about it.

Looking for Spring

Last night one of the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s volunteer docents earned her certification from the Maine Master Naturalist Program. The MMNP’s goal is to develop a statewide network of volunteers who will teach natural history throughout Maine. With hands-on training, the course provides over 100 hours of classroom and outdoor experience, focusing on geology, identification of flora and fauna, wetland and upland ecology, ecological principles and teaching methods. By the time students complete the program, which includes a final capstone project, they have developed the skills to lead a walk, present a talk and provide outreach. In the year following certification, each graduate agrees to volunteer 40 hours and thereafter must continue to volunteer to remain an active Maine Master Naturalist.

And so it was that Juli joined four of us in the GLLT’s docent group by becoming a certified naturalist last evening. And today, she was out doing what she does best–leading homeschooled families along a GLLT trail. You see, for her capstone project Juli created a group called Nature Explorers. On the second Tuesday of each month (and today’s was the third trip she’d led for this group), other homeschooled families join hers for a walk with a focus along a GLLT trail. Today’s focus: Signs of Spring.

Given the fact that the snow is still at least knee deep, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But the day dawned bright, if a bit chilly to start, and so two of Juli’s kids waited for others by hanging out with the trees. Or rather . . . in the trees.

Once all had gathered, she led us down Slab City Road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

It was there that while we began our search for the season that often begins with a stubborn start in western Maine , we spied something that brought smiles to our faces and awe to our experience. Otter slides. On both sides of Mill Brook. Look carefully and you may also notice the slides–they look like troughs in the snow.

We tromped through (leaving our snowshoes behind, which we sometimes regretted) to take a closer look, noticing where the mammal had bounded and then slid down the embankment.

And then we moved on . . . to observe and learn, including fifty cent words like marcescent, which means withering but remaining attached to the stem. Juli pointed out the dried up leaves on the beech trees.

And the kids joined her to take a closer look–at the leaves, but also the buds, which had started to swell. Ah, sign one!

It was a Witch-Hazel which next grabbed the group’s attention. She explained that while the small, gray woody structures looked like flowers, they were really capsules that go dormant throughout the winter. Those will develop over the next growing season and then in autumn forcibly expel two shiny black seeds about 10 to 20 feet.

One of the boys noticed that the buds were hairy and so others came in to examine the structures.

From there, it was another beech tree to check out, but this time the discussion moved toward the alternate orientation of its branches and leaves.

And then, because they suffer from the best of syndromes we refer to as Nature Distraction Disorder, the group stopped at a Red Pine to admire its bark.

With hand lenses, they focused on the various colors of the thin, puzzle-like scales. Some had fallen to the ground as is the habit of the flakey bark, but Juli reminded everyone that it’s best not to pull it off for bark protects the tree much like winter coats protect us.

It was a fungi that next attracted the group.

And so they pulled out the lenses again to look at the spore surface of several Birch Polypores growing on downed trees. The brownish underside was actually another sign of the season for they would have released their spores in late summer or autumn.

A wee bit further and a wet spot was noted where we could see some brown leaves reflecting the names of trees in the canopy above, but also, drum role please . . .

some greenery with buds beginning to form–in the shape of Wintergreen. One of the girls did point out that though it was a sign of the season, it did have the word “winter” in its name.

Another one of the girls looked up at an old Pileated Woodpecker excavation site, and noted the spider web within that had been created last summer by a funnel-web spider, so named because of the funnel-shaped web. Though no one was home today, the spider typically waits in the funnel for prey to fall onto its horizontal web. Then it rushes out, grabs its victim, and takes it back to the silken burrow to consume and hide in wait.

Since our signs were few and far between, and Juli really wanted to get to Otter Rock to show some fun finds, she challenged the kids to run with her.

They did. And then they slid.

And looked.

And spotted.

And wondered.

And wondered some more.

We’d reached our destination of Otter Rock and though we didn’t have any dipping containers, we made do with lucite bug boxes.

At the edge of Heald Pond, the kids found movement in the water . . .

in the form of Mayfly Larvae, with fan-like gills along the abdomen and three filaments at the tip.

Spring indeed! With that discover, we left with a spring in our steps, already looking forward to next month’s vernal pool exploration.

P.S. Thanks Juli for this wonder-filled offering, and congratulations on your achievement. You are now a member of the nexus of naturalists.

“A Perpetual Astonishment”

It was actually still winter when I joined Lakes Environmental Association’s Education Director Alanna Doughty and LEA member Betty for a “Welcome Spring” snowshoe hike at Holt Pond Preserve this afternoon–but really, for western Maine, it was a delightful spring day.

Our hearts smiled as our journey began beside a clump of pussy willow shrubs, so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws. Actually, the white nubs are flowers pre-bloom. Their soft, silvery coating of hairs provides insulation thus protecting these early bloomers from cold temperatures.

That being said, they aren’t protected from everything and if you look, you may see pineapples growing on some. Those pinecone-like structures were created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows. It’s a crazy world and everything seems to have its place.

Hanging out with the pussy willows were speckled alders, some with protrusions extending from last year’s cones. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were alder tongue galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths are green to begin, but transform to orange, red and finally brown. I’ve yet to see it in its early form but time will tell.

We passed a spider walking across the snow and then came upon another member of the lilliputian world–a winter stonefly on the move. How they and the spiders survive the cold and snow is dependent upon special compounds including glycerol, proteins, and sugars that act like antifreeze. By its presence, we knew we were approaching a fast-moving stream.

More evidence of the stream’s presence became immediately apparent when we moved from the field to woods and immediately spied a sign of beaver works.

Stepping down beside the Muddy River, we began to see beaver tree after beaver tree. Each a most recent work.

Alanna stood upon an old dam, but though it was obvious they’d crossed over it by the well traveled trail of tracks, repair work was not yet part of the scheme for the water flowed forth.

We stood there for a few minutes and tried to understand what they had in mind, when one in our group spied the beaver chews in the water–their snack of choice.

We wondered if they were active downstream or up, and decided to follow the trail north.

A few minutes later, we came upon another trail well-traveled and knew that they’d been working in the vicinity.

In the brook, covered with spring ice, which features a different texture than the frozen structures of winter, was a small tree.

And then our eyes followed the beavers’ tracks back and we saw from whence it had been sawn.


And dragged through the snow. In our minds’ eyes we appreciated their efforts.

Still, we didn’t know what the beavers were up to, so we moved on in hopes of learning more about their activities. All the while, there were other things to notice, like the orange brain fungus growing on the inside of a stump. We weren’t the only ones to appreciate it for snowfleas, aka spring tails, also searched the surface.


Since we were beside the river, it might have made sense that we checked out the beaver works via canoe, but . . . the snow is slowly melting and it will be a while before we need to bring our own paddles, personal flotation devices and duct tape (just in case the canoe springs a leak).

From the boat launch we followed the secret trail and made our way out to the red maple swamp.

In a sunny spot we spied a swab of earth–a taste of what is to come. And the ever delightful wintergreen offering the first shade of spring green with a dash of spring pink.

Slowly we made our way back out to the Muddy River, where we stood and looked across at two beaver lodges on the other side. We didn’t dare cross, but from where we stood, it appeared that the lodges may be active given that we could see the vents at the top. It also appeared that they’d been visited, though we weren’t sure if the tracks were created by predators. Was this where the beavers who had been so active downstream were living? Or were these the homes of their parents? Were the new beaver works those of the two year olds who had recently been sent out into the world to make their own way? Our brains wondered and wondered?

We weren’t sure, but with questions in our mind, we moved on toward Holt Pond.

There were other things to see as we walked across the wetland, including the woody structures of maleberry capsules and their bright red buds.

Rhodora, that delightful pink beauty showed us that she’s waiting in wings.

As we made our way back, more wood chips on the ground indicated that a carver of another type had been at work–of the bird type rather than rodent.

To identify it, we looked not only at the shape of the chiseled structure, but also the scat we found among the chips.

Because it was filled with the body parts of carpenter ants and we knew its creator’s name–pileated woodpecker.

And then we found an insect of another type. Why was a hickory tussock caterpillar frozen to a twig? Was it shed skin from last fall? How did the structure last throughout the winter? We left with questions, but gave thanks for the opportunity Alanna provided to share the afternoon wandering and exploring and thinking and looking forward–to spring.

In the midst of our wandering, we did discover a fairy house and suspect that tonight some wild dance moves are on display under the Super Equinox Worm Moon.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.”

British Author Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plume, Ellis Peters (1913-1995)