Mondate with a View

I’ve been wanting to take My Guy to a certain place in North Chatham, New Hampshire, for the last few years and today was the day that the stars lined up.

Though it appeared we were the second and third humans to head out on the trails this morning, for at the start we spotted only one set of snowshoe tracks, it was obvious that so many others had followed or crossed before us–such as this vole, who tunneled through the fresh inch or two of snow that fell yesterday and then changed its gait.

And then I spotted a sign that always brings me to my knees–fox prints and a dash of urine, probably that of a male in search of a date. Confirmation that it was a fox, and a red one at that, came in the form of the urine’s scent–rather skunk-like. I asked My Guy if he wanted to take a sniff, but he passed on the opportunity.

A wee bit farther and we came upon a smattering of activity, where two foxes had left their dancing cards and I think at least announced their intentions for each other as a date.

These classified ads could be that of the male stating his desire, while the vixen left her own marks of estrus blood as she perhaps investigated his intentions and decided to say yes. The scat? It came from one of them. Another advertisement of health and age and vitality.

While I suspected a meal was not on their minds as she’s only ready to mate for about a week or less, by the amount of snowshoe hare tracks we spotted, we knew that there was plenty of food available. Other offerings on the pantry shelf included ruffed grouse and red squirrel.

Most of the trails at this place are well-groomed by the owners, but we also tried one or two that weren’t.

For the first time in the four or five years that I’ve traveled this way, I finally found the Old Sap House. The owners still tap trees, but obviously this is not where they boil the sap to make maple syrup.

So . . . this was my first journey on the network of trails with My Guy as I mentioned. And I had no idea that it is possible to circle Moose Alley in under an hour. In the past, when I’ve gone with a couple of friends, it has taken us hours and hours because we stop to look at every little thing. And go off trail to follow tracks. And make all kinds of discoveries. But today was different, and that was fine.

I’d also never been on the Sugarbush Trail, which brought us back to the Route 113 and an intersection with Snowmobile Corridor 19. It was here that we heard Chickadees and Red Crossbills singing and I finally located one of the latter in a maple tree.

Crossbills are finches with specialized bills that let them break into unopened cones. Can you see how the top of the bill cross over the bottom?

My intention was that we would eat lunch at one of the benches along the trail system, but we’d hiked most of the system before I knew it and so we sat on the back of my truck and ate. And then we headed back out on Corridor 19, a super highway through Evans Notch.

Only about a quarter mile from the farm boundary, we spotted moose tracks showing two had passed this way recently. We knew they’d been seen on the farm and hoped we might get to spy them, but just seeing their tracks and knowing they were still in the area was enough.

Can you imagine sinking two feet down with each step? Well, actually I can, because I’ve post-holed through snow many a time, but moose and deer must do this daily. For them, it’s routine.

Our reason for continuing on the snowmobile trail was that we had a destination we wanted to reach, that we hadn’t even thought about before reaching the intersection of Corridor 19 just prior to lunch. Eventually, we had to break trail again, and this time it was all uphill, and rather steep at that.

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. Originally, mica was mined from the pegmatites but prior to World War II, Whitehall Company, Inc, focused on feldspar.

From the top of the cavern, where life on a rock was evident as the trees continued to grow up there, the water flowed and froze and formed stalactites of sorts. Icicle sorts.

StalacTites grow down from the ceiling of the cavern–think T for Top.

StalaGmites, on the other hand, grow up from the floor–Think G for ground.

In this case, they looked like little fingers reaching up.

This was definitely a Mondate with a view, including Evans Notch from the mine . . .

Norwegian Fjord horses Kristoff and Marta at the farm . . .

and a window that caught my fancy at the sap house.

Our many, many thanks to Becky and Jim for sharing Notch View Farm with all of us. And thank you to Jim for chatting with us twice today. I’m still chuckling about the story of the women from Lovell who visit several times a year and spend hours upon hours on the trail. And then one of them writes long prose and includes pictures of every little thing spotted along the way. Yes, that would be Pam, and Pam, and me! Once, Becky even came looking for us on the snowmobile because we’d been out there for so many hours.

Today, with My Guy, it was a different adventure, but still a fun one and we appreciate that both of you work so hard to share your land with the rest of us.

The Beaver’s Tale

Once upon a time . . . no wait. This isn’t a fairy tale.

Rather, it’s about changes in the landscape that one might observe, such as a brook suddenly overspilling its banks as was the case in this location upon a December visit. We’d had rain, but that much?

It wasn’t long before a friend and I spotted the reason for the high water. Some new residents had moved into the area and built a lodge of sticks. Unlike the story of the three little pigs, one of whom built a house of sticks that the big bad wolf came in and blew down, the makers of this structure took special care to make it solid and strong and weatherproof. Yes, a beaver or two or six had taken up residence with the intention of spending the winter. Beaver families usually consist of a monogamous couple, plus their two-year-old (almost adult) kids, and yearlings. Mating occurs in the water during the winter and kits are born inside the lodge in the spring.

In order to move into the lodge, a dam needed to be constructed as well. If you look closely, you’ll see that above it there was a bit of an infinity pool with the ice at level with the dam, while below it some water flowed at a much lower level. Though we couldn’t walk along the ice to measure the length of the dam, it was quite long. and made of sticks and leaves and mud. Typically, the family works on this project by creating a ridge of mud and probably the herbaceous plants of the meadow, and then they use the mud and sticks to stabilize it. Maintenance is a constant as water or other critters or humans have a way of breaching the dam.

We, too, build dams to serve similar purposes, such as this one originally constructed to operate a saw mill. Hmmm.

Getting back to the lodge: it also needs nightly work as long as conditions allow and this has been a winter of despair for those of us who love cold temperatures and snow and even ice if it’s in the right place, like on a pond or lake and not in the driveway.

Take a look at how the beaver is holding the small twig.

A beaver’s dental formula is this: 2 incisors on top, 2 incisors on bottom, 0 canines on top, 0 canines on bottom, 2 premolars on top, 2 premolars on bottom (that look like molars), 6 molars on top and 6 molars on bottom, for a total of 20 teeth. Recently, I was able to sketch the upper part of the skull of an older family member, who’d lost some of its molars.

These large, semi-aquatic rodents are gnawers like their relatives. To that end, their incisors are highly specialized for chewing through really, really tough things and they grow continually throughout the critter’s life.

And like all rodents, the front surface of their incisors is coated in enamel reinforced with iron (hence the orange color), which makes it resistant to wear and tear from gnawing. When the chisel-like teeth chew and fell trees, the much softer white dentine layer (the section behind the enamel) is ground down quicker than the enamel, thus creating a sharp chisel surface.

But to me the coolest aspect is that their lips close behind the incisors, thus permitting them to gnaw and carry sticks underwater without choking.

And bingo, you can see the stick being carried in that gap between the incisors and molars. Food sticks become lodge or dam sticks once their nutritional value has been consumed: a true plan of repurposing.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only beaver family at work in town. This next family, however, chose to park their tree in a spot the fire department lay claim to for filling a water tank. But . . . reading is not on a beaver’s talent list.

In this other place, so many trees have been felled, but not all have fallen as intended, getting hung up on other trees instead. Not wanting to anthropomorphize, but I have to wonder what expletives flash through a beaver’s brain when trees don’t hit the ground as planned.

As strict herbivores, a beaver’s diet varies with changes in the season. During spring and summer, they are drawn to waterlilies, algae, grasses, sedges, herbs, ferns, shrub leaves and shoots. By late summer, however, tree cutting begins as they gradually change their dietary habits from herbaceous to woody materials. Twigs, roots, bark and especially inner bark become the source of nutrition. Aspen, birch, alder, and willow are favored species, but beavers will cut almost anything including conifers.

Imagine this. A beaver cocks its head to the side as it gnaws, thus the consistent angle of the half inch groove as the upper and lower incisors come together.

Likewise, porcupines gnaw, but their incisors are much narrower and the pattern more random.

So, the question remains. Where were the parking lot beavers living? In the past, a family has inhabited the northern most reaches of this pond, but in this case, they had built a lodge on a point not far from the southern end.

The top of the lodge is the only section not covered with mud, for it serves as a “smoke stack” of sorts, a place for beaver breath to escape. Visit a lodge on a cold winter day and you might observe the vapors rising.

And then it was on to another locale, where beavers have inhabited the same lodge for a number of years. When beavers choose to live in a pond or lake or sometimes even a river, there’s no need to build a dam for the water is usually deep enough for their underwater movement.

I often tell people that beaver prints are a rare find because they are either wiped over by the tail or by trees being hauled to the water. Once in a while, however, I’m proven wrong and the sleety snow on a recent day awarded just the right conditions for the webbed feet to be observed.

Tree work and broken ice added to the story of the critters’ journey to and fro the pond. While quite adept at time spent in the water, they are rather clumsy on land and most of their work is within a hundred feet of the edge.

Winter food is cached close by the lodge entrance so that they can swim under the ice to retrieve a stick. A beaver’s ears and nose have a valve that closes when it is submerged and they can stay underwater for up to fifteen minutes. Back at the lodge, there is a raised chamber surrounded by a moat that leads to the entrance tunnel. It’s upon the raised area that they dine, and groom, and even give birth.

At this particular pond, My Guy and I noted two lodges connected by an open channel between. Given the number of tail slaps that announced our presence near both lodges, we thought perhaps both were active and inhabited by the same family.

And then, and then . . . finally, we spotted a beaver that spotted us. We kept expecting it to slap the water with its tail in a manner of warning so other family members would seek deeper water or cover. Instead, it swam past us.

The thing is that a rodent relative, namely the muskrat, exhibits many similarities, but also differences, including a skinny, snake-like tail.

The beaver’s tail is a source of wonder. While its furry body consists of long, shiny guard hairs covering dense and softer hair that traps air and helps protect the critter from the cold, the tail is broad and flat and scaly. It’s used for a variety of reasons including stability when standing upright on land (think tripod), as a rudder for propulsion in water, as fat storage and thermal regulation, and how we are most familiar, as a warning device.

A beaver’s tale indeed.

Sworn to Secrecy

I’ll let you in on a tad bit of a secret . . . eventually.

But first, today was a tracking day and so five of us did just that. When we arrived at the intended location, due to snow conditions, I think we had low expectations. I know I did.

We had just stepped off trail to begin our bushwhack excursion when we spotted this Ruffed Grouse scat. So the curious thing about this is that there are two kinds of grouse scat, the typical cylindrical packets coated with white uric acid, but also a juicier, brown dropping. And I regret that I didn’t take a photo of the juicier, yet slightly frozen stuff we saw dripping from some twigs above. At the time, I knew the brown stuff was significant because I’ve looked it up before, but couldn’t bring it to mind. Thanks to Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks, I found an explanation in Bird Tracks and Sign: “Interestingly, after producing these lower-gut-generated solid evacuations, some game birds, such as a grouse, often then evacuate a semi-liquid brownish mass from the upper gut, or cecum, with the two types of droppings coming out sequentially; the more liquid, almost liver-colored scat comes out second and is spread on top of the solid matter. In Ruffed Grouse, it is common to find the hard, fibrous scats at one roost and the soft, brown cecal droppings at another.”

But not uncommon to find them together!

We stood for a long time discussing the grouse scat and when we finally moved on, it wasn’t too far that we discovered bobcat prints. Given that the prints were not super fresh because there was some debris in them, we decided to follow the track forward. Had they been fresh, we would have backtracked so as not to put pressure on the animal. Though secretly, we all love it when we do actually get to spot a mammal. Or a grouse, for that matter.

Eventually, we lost track of the bobcat, because as you can see, there were spots with no snow. But then we stumbled across a sighting that confused us. White-tail Deer scat on the edge of a boulder. Dawn has some new tools she was gifted for Christmas, and so she was excited to pull them out. Our confusion, despite the fact that it looked exactly like deer scat, was caused by the location. On top of a boulder. On the edge of said rock. We came up with a few stories, but will let you try to interpret this on your own.

Back in the snow, we found canine rather than the feline prints we’d been looking for and so out came the tape measure to determine species. Based on the fact that the print measured less than two inches at the widest point and that the stride, or space between where two feet touched the snow (toe to toe), we determined it was a Red Fox.

Everywhere, we spotted Red Squirrel holes and middens, indicating the squirrel had cached a bunch of hemlock cones in numerous pantries and returned since the snow fell to dig them up and dine, leaving behind the cone cobs and scales in trash piles. What struck us was that for all the middens we saw, we never heard or caught sight of any squirrels. In fact, we didn’t see any animals . . . until we did. Huh? You’ll have to read on.

Our next great find close to the pond we walked beside, was more scat! Of course, it was. This being the works of a River Otter and filled with fish scales, all those whitish ovals embedded in it. Like a small pile of Raccoon scat we’d spotted earlier, but again, I forgot to photograph (the sign that we were having fun making all these discoveries), otters tend to defecate in latrines, using the same places over and over again.

Our movement was slow, and every once in a while we’d spread out until someone made a discovery and then we’d all gather again.

Which was exactly what happened when this Snowshoe Hare scat was discovered. Three little malt balls.

After the hare find, we followed a couple of canine trails that took us back to the water. Domestic dog or Coyote? We kept questioning this, but never saw human prints. And the animals did seem to be moving in a direct line on a mission. The warm weather we’ve been experiencing may have been enough to make their prints look larger than they typically would so I think I’m leaning toward Coyote.

But in following those, we discovered a sign from another critter by the water’s edge: Mink scat!

When our time was nearing an end and we bushwhacked back to a road near the trailhead, we were all exclaiming about our cool finds. And then a little birdie we encountered asked, “Do you want to see a bear?”

We don’t need to be asked that question twice, though now that I think back, I’m pretty sure we asked the birdie to repeat the question. YES! She gave us directions and we decided we needed to take an immediate field trip. We each hopped into our vehicles, drove almost to the destination, parked, and walked as quietly as we could toward the den site.

We got us a bear! A Black Bear! The birdie said it has been there since sometime in December.

Now that I’ve shared it with you, I’ll say no more for the five of us are sworn to secrecy about its location.

First Day Substitute Mondate

A mountain on The Kanc (Kancamagus Highway, aka Route 112 that stretches from Conway to Lincoln, New Hampshire) has been calling our names for some time. We’ve hiked neighboring Hedgehog Mountain on several occasions, but never Potash–until today, that is.

Well, actually, that’s not true. We last hiked Hedgehog in early fall and after finishing thought we’d attempt Potash since the trail leads from the same parking lot. That is, until we met Downes Brook, which is about 35 feet wide and my brain-over-matter would not allow me to make the crossing. Another couple had arrived at the brook moments before us, and while both our guys ventured across the rocks, she and I thought it best not to go forth. And so it was today, knowing how much rain we’ve had recently, that we decided to follow the recommendation in the AMC guide and instead park near a gated logging road about a half mile beyond the trailhead lot. After hiking up the logging road, the intersection with the hiking trail isn’t marked and is very subtle, but we were grateful for people who had gone before and left their marks on the snow. Suddenly, we were in the woods and as we paused to look through the trees, the colors afforded us reminded us of spring. As they should, for today felt like a spring day. Actually, too many days have felt like such lately, so when it does freeze every few days, our bodies go into shock.

That spring feeling was evidenced by the lack of snow on the trail and lack of ice on the rocks. What should have been . . . wasn’t.

Even the streams along the way flowed with vigor and no ice had formed. Oh, it probably had, but then melted.

The trail starts out rather tame, but soon becomes rocky with lots of intersecting roots seeking to trip hikers.

Until I looked at the map, I thought we’d reached the summit in good time, only to realize it was a false summit, as so often happens. And we were only at the halfway point.

This would have been a great place to eat lunch, if we hadn’t already done so before leaving the truck. We had visions of Orange KitKats dancing in our heads, but promised ourselves a summit treat and so we had to continue–but first, we waved to Hedgehog Mountain in the foreground.

This photo doesn’t do it justice, for the last section of trail to the summit gets quite steep following a series of already steep switchbacks, and then one has to scramble over granite slabs.

We met the wind at the summit and the swirls in the snow showed that’s always the case. It was time to celebrate with a KitKat or two. Oops. We searched through the backpack and came up empty. Somehow we’d left them in the truck.

One quick look at the Sandwich Wilderness and then it was time to head down so we could reach the truck before darkness set in.

The descent was slow going, but that worked for me. Picking the right spot to place a foot always takes time.

Because I was spending so much time looking down and hugging trees as well as kissing some rocks, I spotted Cladonia squamosa, or Dragon Horn lichen.

Squamosa means covered in scales, which is apropos. And the brown tips are the reproductive parts or apothecia.

I also found some ice I’d missed on the way up. While it made me happy, I still am dismayed by the current conditions.

Here’s another curious thing. We spotted numerous Red Squirrel caches and middens, mostly of spruce cones. And then I spied this Ruffed Grouse scat, indicating the bird had roosted in this spot not too long ago. But other than hearing a few nuthatches, wild critter sign was non-existent. I can walk into the woods behind our home and find much more than this–why is that?

I pondered that thought as we once again turned onto the logging road, and hoped that a mammal would surprise us as we walked, out, but because I was expecting such, it didn’t happen.

Ah well, it was okay. In the end, My Guy and I were delighted we’d enjoyed this First Day Substitute Mondate. First Day Substitute? Whoever heard of that? But I guess that’s what the Monday following a holiday is called.

Oh, and we did gobble up the KitKats when we reached the truck. They tasted extra special.

Crows Count

Really? Can birds count? It’s a curious thought and we impose so many of our attributes onto wildlife that we come to believe it all true and that they have feelings and abilities that match ours. And so on this day of the Sweden Circle Christmas Bird Count in western Maine, I set out with Dawn to seek numbers and answers.

The territories assigned to us are marked in red within the circle for we had the opportunity to explore Pondicherry Park in downtown Bridgton and LEA’s Highland Research Forest on foot, rather than driving along a bunch of roads.

Mere steps from where we’d parked we heard and then spotted Northern Cardinals. Not one, but two, then three, then four. Three being a male such as this one, with one female in the mix.

Below the cardinals were other birds that we heard first and shared a simultaneous thought, “I hear Wood Frogs.” Oops, that would be ducks. But the thing is that when we approach a vernal pool in the spring, and the frogs croak before they sense our trespass into their territory, they sound like ducks quacking.

We counted 45 Mallards who quacked and swam and preened and paused and dabbled and quacked some more. Her markings soon became important to us.

As did his. Notice the differences between the two from coloration of heads and bills and feathers. It’s been said that the male is much more handsome than the female. Maybe he is, but she offers her own sense of beauty and design. Again, pay attention to his markings.

Why? Because we noted this one hanging out for a while under some shrubs. And immediately, we realized that it was somehow different. Look at the color of its head–muted green and a hint of purple or mauve crowning its head. Like the female Mallard, there was an eyeline, but much more subtle in presence. We thought it might be a female, but like the male, the bill was bright yellow with a dark spot at the tip. Plus the overall plumage was different from either the female or male Mallard. And yet, it looked so similar.

The curled tail led me leaning more toward a male, but if you have information to clear up this identification, please don’t hesitate to share. We were just thrilled to be able to state definitively that this particular duck was a hybrid. And I’m still jazzed by the color hues of its head.

The point of it being a hybrid was driven home when the male Mallard and this other specimen shared the focal point of my camera. The hybrid even had a neck ring like the Mallard, though a bit creamier in color.

The Mallard collection in the brook below kept changing and what spooked them (other than us), I do not know, but fly they would and then land a wee bit further down the river before flying upstream again a few minutes later.

We eventually moved farther from the parking lot (maybe an hour later) and just after we’d made a turn on the trail, we saw a bird take flight. And a dog and its person move along the trail (not part of the dog trail, mind you, but people don’t seem to see the dog trail/no dog trail signs anymore). As it turned out, we gave a quiet thanks to the dog for it flushed out this bird and we were gifted the opportunity to get quite close to it. That opportunity made us realize that we probably often are in the presence of this owl, but its ability to not only fly in silence, but also perch in absolute silence, meant that it could hide from us–camouflaged as it was upon a tree limb. We felt like our day was done with that sighting, but we continued in the name of science for we were participating in an annual bird count for Maine Audubon.

A few hours and a few bird species later, we made our way back to the park entrance where this Mallard’s head color, accented by the sun as it was, captured my awe. But what was the duck doing? Quite possibly, it had tucked its bill into its feathers to retain heat. Bills obviously have no feathers, so they can loose a lot of heat. Think of it like warming your hands with hand warmers inside your mittens.

His Mrs. was doing the same nearby. Dawn asked if Mallards are monogamous. What I’ve learned in the hours since is that generally speaking they are. BUT . . . paired males are known to pursue females other than their mates.

Mixing it up, after lunch we moved on to Highland Research Forest where our first bird sighting was in the shape of . . . a Red Squirrel. Yes, a squirrel hide. Since it sat at our eye level, we knew the predator wasn’t a coyote, raccoon, or weasel, but rather an eagle, hawk, or owl. We really wanted to spy the perpetrator, and searched high and low with our binoculars, but came up empty handed.

Sadly, and much to our misunderstanding, as we moved along the trails, we spotted and/or heard few birds calling. But, much to our delight, we did find some sign, such as this, the excavating works of a Pileated Woodpecker.

In. the mix of wood chips below the tree, for the woodpecker consumes only a wee bit of bark in the process of seeking Carpenter Ants from the innermost paradise of a tree trunk, scat happens. And this offered a great opportunity for Dawn to make her first P.W. scat discoveries. Bingo, She found at least three displays upon the wood chips.

Pileated Woodpecker scat is most often coated in uric acid and contains the undigestible parts of the consumed ants. Of all the possible finds in the natural world–this is one of my favorite discoveries on any given day.

All that said, did I mention that much of our journey was beside water, my favorite place to be? And that over and over again we noted not only water levels from a few days ago when brooks and rivers overflowed in our region, and since have been enhanced by ice formations given frostier temperature? This sculpture brought to mind another with whom we shared today’s trails.

Do you see the match between the ice formation and tail feathers?

Our overall sums were low compared to years past, but the learnings we gained of this hybrid outnumbered what we tallied.

That said, when we heard an American Crow caw, our response was rather bland. Until . . . we looked at each other and Dawn said, “Crows count,” because of course they do as any bird does.

We departed ways about 3:30pm, leaving with questions about why numbers were so low. Oh, we counted chickadees, and nuthatches, and robins, and others, but overall, not so many species and not so many of said species.

Taking all of that into consideration and awaiting thoughts from others about the state of our winter birds in Maine, we were equally overjoyed that during today’s Christmas Bird Count we got us a Barred Owl. Can birds count? Certainly!

Stocking My Wonders

My fingers reach in, wondering what marvel I might pull out of the wool sock, one I knitted when my guy and I first tied the knot so many moons ago.

Of course I shouldn’t be surprised that the first thing my fingers grasp is a dragonfly, this being a Common Whitetail male in the Skimmer Family, with those broad crossbands on the wings and black streaks at the base of each.

Calling it “common” strikes me as such an understatement and I’m thrilled when I next pull out an immature male of the same species. I mean, look at those wing markings. And the spots along the sides of the abdomen segments. And the difference in color from immature to mature. Surely, next it will be a female that falls into my hands.

It is quite a shock, however, to realize it is fur that tickles my hand, and voila, out of the sock comes a Red Fox. A Red Fox who settles for Black-oil Sunflower Seeds, not quite the next best thing to capturing a squirrel.

When I next reach in, I am sure I’ll pull out a female Common Whitetail, but . . . instead it is a much smaller, and even more extravagantly decorated female Calico Pennant Skimmer. The same family, but this is one of my favorite species (please don’t be offended Whitetails, I really do think you are more special than common), with those heart-shaped markings along its abdomen segments and basal wing coloration reminding me of a stained-glass window, which seemed apropos for today’s celebration.

And then there are two with similar colors and equally delicate, puddling as is their habit, these Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies sticking their proboscis seeking nutrients from the gravel road. The chemical make-up of the site is key, for the butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals

Most puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the source provides, especially after it has rained. They store these nutrients in their sperm so that when the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies as a nuptial gift along to the female. This gives the female an extra boost, which she then passes along to her eggs. It’s an important gift because eggs that receive the extra nutrients have a greater chance of success than those that do not.

Back into the sock do I dip, this time finding a Little Copper Butterfly seeking pollen and nectar upon Pearly Everlasting flowerheads. Little Coppers, tiny as the name suggests, thrive in areas disturbed by either human activity or natural events and it seems almost an oxymoron to think that as teeny and delicate as they are, they are right at home in waste places.

Once again, there is a significant change between the Little Copper and the next species that my hands discover. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” hoots the Barred Owl much to my delight. Only two nights ago I heard it calling out the back door, so to find it in the sock is a treasure indeed.

Almost immediately after, a Muskrat swims out of the sock, moving quickly toward me with its rat-like tail acting like a rudder in the rear. I love its questioning look as we meet each other for the first time.

Enough fluff about the Muskrat. It is a feathered friend. who next pops up out of the sock. One of the most amazing things to me about this gift is the color of its eyes and how they reflect the sky above and water below.

Still pulling from the leg of the sock, this Gray Seal floats forth, as if on the incoming tide. Sometimes called “horseheads,” because of their long snouts, Gray Seals scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, literally means “hooked-nose sea pig.”

Not the prettiest of names, not the prettiest of species, but I am still excited to realize this one is my own to keep.

Suddenly, there seems to be a theme to the gifts, and a life on or in the water makes sense. The next item in the sock is one we think of as nature’s engineer, and though not everyone is thrilled with their prowess at felling trees, building dams and lodges, and changing waterways for their own benefit, it’s good to realize that they also benefit other species in the process, including humans. This particular Beaver is active during the day because hikers like my guy and me keep ruining its dam as we cross over it to access a trail.

Still on the water theme, but much diminished in size, is a female Fairy Shrimp. Just sighting one such species is enough to make its vernal pool habitat significant. The way to identify a female is to look for her two dark brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.

So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch.

The eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, and only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching.

I’m beginning to realize how much I am enjoying the variety hidden within this sock, and the next gift turns out to be a Blinded Sphinx moth, a species one doesn’t ofter encounter during the day. Or at all, for it’s a night flyer. But those markings and folds, and the overall design. Oh my.

With the next item I choose, I am reminded that one must look for anomalies in the landscape. And so I do. It is the horizontal line of the back that gives away the fact that I am starring at a White-tail Deer. Otherwise, I might think that the legs are sapling trunks and the face maybe a few bleached beech leaves.

My next surprise–comes as a trio. And I might not even realize they are there if I hadn’t heard them first–chattering to each other as they swim and play and fish and sometimes sit on the ice before slipping quickly back into the water in what can only be known as River Otter delight.

Once again, I suspect I know what I’ll pull out next, only to be surprised to discover that it is not a prickly friend, but rather a feathered one who roosts high up in a tree–this being a Ruffed Grouse.

But the prickly one doesn’t disappoint, and makes its own appearance in a different tree and place.

That is to be followed by another I often spot basking in the sun with friends, but it is great fun to spot a Painted Turtle swimming below the water’s surface of a shallow pond.

The water theme begins to appear again, maybe because the one who filled the sock knows I spend a lot of time peering into the depths, and sometimes I’m rewarded with sightings such as this of tadpoles forming into their mature frog beings.

And then there is another that requires a stretch of my neck as it stretches its neck to feed its young high up in a nest.

Having regurgitated a meal, the mature Great Blue Heron stays with its young a wee bit longer before heading off to replenish the pantry.

No sock of mine would be complete without a couple of canoodlers, he atop her. Water striders can walk on the surface because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water, a technique called superhydrophobic. They move so quickly because what they are doing is more like rowing, vigorously rowing, creating little swirls in the surface that help propel them forward.

When I slip my hand down into what feels like the toe of the sock, I pull out the largest gift of all and a totally unexpected sighting–a buck. Actually, there are two, but this was the larger and definitely mightier. I feel blessed to have received such a gift. In fact, to have received all of these gifts. To have been present for these presents.

It’s actually toeless, this wonder-filled stocking of mine. And could go on forever. But I’ll pause here and rejoin my family. I do, however, wish you all warmth and peace and electrical power and good health this holiday season.

Cheers.

Making a Happy Face

Earthward they fell
So many flakes of white.
The forest enhanced
with accents to delight.
Even trees long dead
whorled with new light.
Pine saplings bent over
shortening their height . . . 
Mimicking hemlocks,
who were ever so slight.
Flakes piled upon shrubs
in a manner upright,
While others dangled
defying gravity's might. 
Meanwhile, the flying snag
prepared to take flight,
Just as the oak leaf
grabbed a blanket for tonight.
In the midst of it all,
calm water reflected varying light,
While flowing water
offered a beautiful sight. 
Feeling giddy about this snowstorm
I made a tree sprite.
In fact, I made two
with the intention to make others' days bright. 

Making Tracks Mondate

A dash of snow and an opening in our afternoon. What better way to spend it than hiking? And so we did. On Bald Pate Mountain. We followed the Moose Trail to South Face Loop to the summit to Bob Chase to Foster Pond Lookout. And tucked in a few miles.

Though there were tire tracks in the parking lot, we soon realized we were the only ones who had ventured onto the trails today. Or were we?

Within seconds, we encountered Red Fox prints, that chevron. on the back of the feet appearing in the snow if you really look. And remember, a fox is a perfect stepper so typically one foot falls onto or almost onto the spot where another foot had been.

The pattern left behind indicates that like us, this mammal was walking and following the man-made trail. Or did it? Perhaps we followed the critter’s trail.

In a wet spot, we discovered the prints of another who chose the high road to avoid the ice and water–certainly a smart Red Squirrel decision, unlike those poor decisions made when trying to cross one of our roads.

Climbing up the South Face Loop toward the Bob Chase Trail was new for us, as we usually continue along the base of the mountain toward the eastern side before heading up to the summit. We struggled with slippery conditions on a few rocks and soon discovered we weren’t alone for this coyote had also slipped a few times.

Approaching the summit, we were still surprised to find that our prints were the first on this beautiful autumn day.

We enjoyed the view toward Foster Pond . . .

and the same toward Hancock (and yes Faith, we waved to your camp).

It was up there that we spotted not only more Red Squirrel tracks, but also these Chipmunk prints. And you thought the little ones had snuggled in for a long winter’s nap, but truth be told, they don’t go into true torpor and we’ve spotted them or their prints occasionally in winter. Plus, despite today’s chill, it’s been such a mild fall and we haven’t had a decent snowfall yet, so there’s still plenty of opportunity to gather food for a cache.

Finally heading out to the Foster Pond Lookout, we found Snowshoe Hare prints and a very classic track left behind by a Meadow Vole.

Meadow Voles intrigue me because they can hop like a squirrel or hare, or walk with the zigzag pattern of a perfect walker like a fox.

And furthermore, Meadow Voles tunnel! We usually don’t see the tunnel, which tends to be in that subnivean zone between the snow and the ground until spring melt, but with last night’s dumping of maybe an inch of snow, it was quite visible.

Continuing toward the lookout, we spotted more Coyote tracks intersecting with those left behind by a squirrel. Up to that point, the squirrel was still alive since their tracks were headed in opposite directions. Good luck, Red!

And then on a ledge just before the lookout, we spotted feather and foot prints. A bird had landed and then it went for a walk.

And turned and went the other way before lifting off again. Based on size, we agreed it was a Crow rather than a Raven, though we often hear Ravens, especially on the other side of the mountain.

Finally, we reached Foster Pond Lookout, where the setting sun behind us made it look like the forest beyond was washed with color.

We had reached Trail End, but it wasn’t the end of the trail. Not for us anyway. Turning 180˚, we retraced our steps and headed back toward the parking lot.

As the sign indicated, it was time to go home. But we rejoiced–for we were back in tracking mode on this Mondate and grateful for this opportunity to head out on a slightly snow covered trail and embrace the brisk air, which made us feel so alive.

Art in the Park

Over the years, I’ve learned that one can know a landscape well, but not necessarily exhaustively, and so today I entered a place I love to frequent and suddenly realized I’d stepped into a museum.

Following the hallways within, I wended my way from display to display.

I discovered many favorites, this among them, which reminded me that all of us are entangled in the lives of our families and friends and those that we may not even know, but each twist and turn offers a window to the beyond.

I’ve seen sculptures similar to this so intricately carved by one artist and excavated by another. But it’s how the two worked together to leave behind a design that makes me think of stalactile hanging from the ceiling of a cave that amazed me.

Another sculpture focused on contrast of time as signaled by one closed and not yet ready to cast forth the future and the other open, knowing full well the future had dispersed in the past.

Then there was this sculpture entitled “Free Form” for so did the artist capture the subjects as they appeared to dance despite their still nature.

And I can never not pause by a turtle sculpture since such always takes me back to my childhood pets and then collection of stuffed, wooden, ceramic, you name it, renditions of this species, some of which I still own and display.

I’m certain my heart skipped a few beats when I eyed this beautiful painting, the leaf intentionally arranged among the moss in such a way that the colors and textures seem to leap off the canvas.

Into the Glass Room I did next wander and fell in love with these baubles so delicately attached and appearing to bob above moving water in a realistic way that was really so clever.

I was equally amazed by the artistry of creating feathers on a glass surface and then adding contrasting lines to accentuate the subject.

My third favorite in this room was the arrangement of six-sided crystals clustered in columns, but with a splintered effect. Why can’t I create something like that?

I knew when I saw the heart carving that the artistic universe had spoken with an offering of love and love all of these works I did, but it was time for me to draw this visit to a close.

On the way out, I looked back at the museum entrance one last timeand gave thanks for the opportunity to witness designs by nature at Art in the Park, that being Pondicherry Park.

A Montage of Mondates

I didn’t realize sixth months had passed since I’d last shared a Mondate adventure until I went back and checked. Never fear, my guy and I have continued to hike or paddle almost every Monday, but most of the trails I’ve written about before and really, I didn’t feel like I had a story to tell on each of them. But . . . put them all together and tada. So hang in here with me. I won’t write much, but do have a bunch of photos to share and hope you enjoy the journey.

Sometimes it was the root way to heaven that we’ve followed upon an ascent.

Other times a brook crossing that added a little tension to the adventure.

And in the mix there were a few granite scrambles to conquer.

We stepped out onto ledges,

rediscovered the rocky coast of Maine,

walked beside water racing around boulders,

stepped from the trail out onto the summit of a ski area,

paused beside a teepee that has withstood man and nature,

strolled across an airstrip,

followed more ledges,

took in the view from a spot where a fire tower once stood,

spotted the ridgeline of our hometown mountain on the cloudy horizon,

danced with hang clouds,

looked back at a summit we’d conquered a half hour before,

considered taking a chilly bath,

and always found lunch rock with a view.

Our journeys found us hiking in to mountain ponds,

and paddling upon a pond by a mountain.

During fleeting moments we enjoyed fall foliage.

On each hike/paddle we saw so much including this Northern Pygmy Dragonfly,

a Field Sparrow,

a Silver-spotted Skimmer Butterfly,

and a spider wrapping a dragonfly feast,

And did I mention Lady’s Slippers?

Over the course of three hikes in one week, we counted 963 of these beautiful orchids.

And then there was the Blinded Sphinx Moth,

a Giant Leopard Moth,

and a Green Lacewing pretending to be a leaf.

Our hearts ticked a little faster with the spot of bear claw marks upon a bog bridge.

And occasionally we were honored to spend some time with one of nature’s great engineers.

There was work to be done as the Beaver’s dam also serves as part of the path to a summit and people kept ruining it for the rodent.

Often, we’d spy a stick that suddenly slithered because it wasn’t really a stick at all but a Garter Snake.

One day we even had the pleasure to go on a Puffin Watch and spotted over a hundred of these colorful seabirds.

Today, we actually spotted a Doe who posed for about five minutes before giving us a huff and dashing off.

And a post from me wouldn’t be complete without a photo of scat–this being classic Red Fox–tapered at the ends, twisted, and located upon a rock in the middle of a trail.

We had the pleasure of hiking with our youngest (though we missed his girl),

and relaxing after another hike with our oldest and his gal, plus their pup.

My guy posed as a lobster,

and a picker of blueberries beside the water’s edge,

and across a mountain ridge.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about wondermyway.com and how it serves as a diary of our adventures as well as all the cool stuff I learn about almost daily in the world out the door.

And she replied, “Your blog is a love story.”

She’s right for it is a love story on so many levels like this one. He’ll forever be a Maine Black Bear and if you are looking for me, I’ll forever be following him into the next adventure wherever our Mondates lead us.

Being Present: The Observer

Walking in silence
along a trail so familiar
my eyes were drawn
to bubbles at my feet.
Tiny bubbles, tinier bubbles, tiniest bubbles
formed random patterns
as they gave new life
to dying grasses.
Nearby, salmon-colored disks
sprouted upon
the mint-green crustose form
of candy lichen's granular base.
Meanwhile, crimson caps of British Soldiers
shouted for recognition
as they showed off
their branching structures. 
Upon a rotting tree
and backlit by the sun
glowed the irregularly lobed fruits
of Orange Jelly Spot. 
In another sunny spot, a Little Copper sought nectar
from a goldenrod still in bloom
while a Spotted Cucumber Beetle
photobombed the shot. 
I have to admit that I struggled with ID: 
Ruby, Cherry-faced, and Saffron-winged
since this dragonfly showed characteristics 
of each in the meadowhawk clan. 
Being present on this October afternoon
reminded me of another day
when I paced before a couple of shrubs
and watched the insect action.
I am honored and humbled to announce that that blog post was recently published
in The Observer,  a publication produced by the Maine Natural History Observatory. 
My friend and fellow master naturalist, Cheryl Ring, also has an article in this issue. 

The most humbling thing for me was an email I received from a reader who is also an avid naturalist. She commented that my ID of a butterfly at the end of the article, which I called Painted Lady, is actually American Lady. I now realize I need a new field guide because mine refers to it as American Painted Lady and I inadvertently dropped "American," while hers dropped "Painted" in the name. It's another lesson in why I need to wrap my brain around scientific names since common can cause confusion. I do appreciate that she took the time to read the article and write to me. 

That said, the best lesson of any day is to take time to be present and observe in nature. Even if it's only for a few minutes. 

Beautiful Maine (and Canada)

Our time for a road trip was long overdue. But where to go? We knew we’d begin the week by driving to Lubec, Maine, where we’d enjoyed two days last year, but left knowing there was so much more to explore. And so we booked a room for the first four nights of vacation. After that? The question loomed. The answer eventually presented itself, but first, here’s to Lubec.

We’d barely landed in town after a five hour drive, when a walk down the road found my guy posing before entering Lubec Hardware. Curiously, because the owner had been to Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, not far from our hometown, he knew of my guy’s store and they enjoyed a chat. From there we sipped a beer at Lubec Brewery before heading off for our first adventure of the week, along a beach trail within reach from town.

After skipping some stones, we turned around and headed back toward our room, enjoying the cast of our shadows upon sand . . .

and cobbled beaches.

Back in the harbor of Johnson Bay, the setting sun upon moored boats captured our fancy.

And we got our bearings with a view of Mulholland Light on Canada’s Campobello Island located exactly across the Lubec Narrows from our room.

Morning and evening, whenever we were by the Narrows, we watched as the Cormorants preened and flew and swam against the current and preened some more.

On the windiest day, we took to the woods rather than the coast, knowing it would be calmer. And quieter. We weren’t disappointed.

Especially since we found a display of bear scat, this being only one chunk. Berry seeds pass through a bear’s digestive system and exit intact and viable, making bears an important part of nature’s seed distribution system.

We also spotted the largest burl either of us could remember seeing, this at the base of an old Yellow Birch turned silver in age like the rest of us.

We circled through a beaver’s territory, hoping that if we couldn’t catch sight of the bear, we might at least see the beaver, but both alluded us. Fred, the Red Squirrel, however, scolded us at every opportunity.

The next day dawned brisk and chilly, as most did, and found us first finding our way to Reversing Falls, where the incoming tide hit some rocks that splashed the water “backwards.”

Click on the link to catch a brief glimpse of the action.

Over the course of the day, we explored a few trails of Cobscook Shores, including enjoying lunch on a bluff overlooking sandbars at low tide.

Boot Head Preserve along the coast offered a variety of terrains and natural communities, including upland forests, bogs, coastal wetlands, and steep rocky shoreline.

My mom would have loved this–the rocky coast of Maine spoke to her.

We also appreciated all the bog bridging and benches placed to take in the vistas and gave thanks to those who had hustled to create such infrastructure, including my colleague Rhyan, a former intern at Maine Coastal Heritage Trust. The chicken wire along the bridges sang as we trudged, boot tread hitting wire, wire strumming against wood, and song echoing with each step as the wire bounded back off the wood. There was that to be thankful for, as well as the facts that it kept us from slipping, and from stepping upon the fragile environment at our feet.

Despite the daily chill, flower flies such as this bee mimic continued to pollinate asters in a manner hectic as the days grow shorter and temps lower.

Behind the asters we saw plenty of juicy Rose Hips and I thought of my dad who loved to eat these on our beach walks in Connecticut.

Because we followed a smattering of trails, the berry choices changed from Cranberries to . . .

Withe-rod or Wild Raisin,

and Mountain Ash in the shape of a heart.

Those berries fit right in with our daily cobbled beach quest for hearts and we found many, a few which followed us home. But this one, not exactly perfect, as no heart really is, my guy gave a pulse. A pulse with a smile. And then he left it behind.

Our favorite heart selection we did not disturb because it appeared in the midst of a fairy ring created by the tide.

Our adventures found us exploring different areas of the Bold Coast than we’d visited a year ago, but it seemed imperative that we make a quick stop at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse at the end of one day. It’s the easternmost point in the United States, thus bragging rights.

The cool news is that as of our first day of vaca, the border between the USA and Canada opened for travel without pandemic protocol and so we drove across the road bridge located about two minutes from our room, showed our passports, and within two minutes entered one of our favorite countries, this time to a place we’d never been before: Campobello Island. Once there, we drove east to the companion light of West Quoddy–and then climbed up and down two steep sets of stairs and across this wooden bridge, with lots of slippery seaweed in the mix to reach . . .

East Head Quoddy Lighthouse.

Driving back toward trails we wanted to hike, we paused to take in the scene of Head Harbour Public Wharf where lobster boats were docked in the moment.

It struck us as a safe harbor for the effects of the business.

Our next destination was Friar’s Head, where according to interpretive signs, “While occupying Eastport, the British navy was said to have used the stone pillar for target practice, altering its outline to that of a hooded monk or Friar in deep contemplation.

Native American Passamaquoddy legend referred to this rock as the Stone Maiden. “The legend speaks of a young brave leaving on a long journey, telling his lover to sit and wait for his return. Many months passed and the brave did not return. The young maiden was terribly upset and sat on the beach below the head and waited. When the brave finally returned to the village, he found his young maiden turned to stone, forever to wait and watch.”

Finally, it was time for a tour of the cottage of Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. It has 34 rooms of which 18 are bedrooms and six bathrooms. Until he was afflicted with polio in 1921, Franklin spent every summer on the island, his parents having owned a property next door. As a belated wedding present, FDR’s mother, Sara, gave the young couple this summer home, which they filled with five children, servants, and guests.

One of my favorite rooms was the site of Eleanor’s desk, where she wrote at least 500 words/day five days a week.

In the backyard stands a reminder that the 2,800-acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park is a US Government Agency and a Canadian Government Corporation, established in 1964.

Next door is the Hubbard Cottage, where the rusticators were known to party–men smoking their cigars as they played pool and women gathering around the grand piano, but . . . it’s the oval window that offers a breathtaking frame on the world beyond, ever changing as the seasons.. Mr. Hubbard was a very successful real estate developer from Chicago and his cottage was the envy of many. The oval window in the main room apparently was imported from France. 

Not ready to be done with our Canadian journey, we visited Eagle Hill Bog and then from Raccoon Beach we hiked along a loop path through bogs and fields and forest and along the coast, where we spotted a natural sculpture of faces and wondered if they represented people lost at sea or those looking for loved ones or perhaps those who came to wonder and wander like we did.

At Ragged Point, we followed a short spur to SunSweep, one of three sculptures carved from a slab of Canadian black granite and located strategically at this location in New Brunswick, a second in Minnesota, and a third in Washington. All are aligned to follow the sun’s path from daybreak to nightfall. We were there as evening approached and still had some hiking to do, so onward we journeyed.

But first, we made a quick stop at Sugar Loaf Rock, which reminded me of an iguana, and from this site had the good fortune to watch Minke whales feeding in the distance.

Before leaving Canada, we had one final stop to make–a visit to Mulholland Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in the country. It’s a wooden octagonal structure that was erected in 1883 and decommissioned in 1963. During its heyday, it guided ships through the Lubec Narrows, where even FDR, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, once made an inspection trip along the Maine coast aboard the U.S.S. Flusser. On a plaque it states: Taking the helm, the future President captained the vessel through the narrow channel between Lubec and Campobello Island, earning the respect of an initially concerned Lieutenant (later Admiral) William F. “Bull” Halsey. Admiral Halsey later wrote, “As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over; he knew his business.”

Our fascination with the lighthouse was that from our room at Cohill’s Inn we looked straight across to the lighthouse–the room being the double window just above the white door as we took in the opposite view.

But even more fun was spotting Harbor Seals who came snuffuluffing along with the incoming tide. It was a great way to end our Campobello/Lubec leg of the journey.

A few hours drive the next day and we began an exploration of Millinocket. I think in the back of both our minds we expected to end up there, but the plan didn’t fall into place until almost midweek. Thankfully, we found a place to stay and headed off on a trail soon after we pulled into town.

Whereas the colors along the coast were a bit muted, it was peak fall foliage in this neck of the woods, where Mount Katahdin dominates the landscape.

One hike found us making our way to Rainbow Lake, home of Eastern Brook Trout and Blueback Char. Though we didn’t see any fish actually jump there, we saw lots of activity while eating lunch beside Clifford Pond–ask us how high the fish jumped and you’ll get a different answer. Mine is maybe six inches, but according to my guy: two feet. That’s a fish tale if I ever heard one.

At the urging of an article by Carey Kish in the Portland Press Herald published on Oct 2 entitled Hiking in Maine: A hidden gem in the midst of Baxter State Park, we decided to check out the River Pond Nature Trail–and we’re glad we did. If you go from the Golden Road, we suggest following the trail counterclockwise. There are lots of blow downs that are easy to maneuver around or over or under if you begin from the opposite direction, but those might have dissuaded us at the start.

Instead, we enjoyed beautiful vistas before encountering the blowdowns. And always looked forward to the interpretive signs along the way.

I’m pretty sure that just as the moon follows us when we drive at night, so does the mountain when you hike this trail.

We were dazzled by the kaleidoscope of colors no matter where we looked.

It was pure magic enhanced by reflections along the way.

Of course, there were other things to see, like Stairstep Moss, one of my favorites known for producing a new level of growth each year. (And one that will always remind me of my dear friend, Jinnie Mae, RIP, for we discovered this species on a rock on her land.)

We added to our red berry collection when we spotted several Bunchberrys in fruit form.

A Jack Pine was also a welcome surprise, known for its bundles of two short needles: think Jack and Jill.

And then we headed into the land of the Bad Hair Day Giants, for so the Polypody fern covered erratics did seem.

Our destination–ice caves in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area! The cool environment in a deep hole under a jumble of boulders can retain ice sometimes as late as August (though I doubt that happened this year given how hot it was over the course of the summer). While we didn’t need nature’s air conditioning on this day, it was still a cool opportunity to explore.

One more stop on this day was a visit to The Crib along Penobscot River’s West Branch, where we recalled memories of dining above during a rafting expedition about 35 years ago and then how I ducked into the boat when we later passed this spot. Really though, when we rafted, they’d opened the dam above and there was much more water, but still . . . it was fast and furious. Oh, and do you see that mountain in the background? The Mighty K once again.

Our wildlife sightings on this part of the journey included a couple of startled Ruffed Grouse, a Fred the Red Squirrel who followed us, I swear, for we endured his scolding on every trail in both locations (and we hiked over 70 miles all told) and this Garter Snake. But then, the creme de la creme presented itself across from River Pond where we’d first stopped on the Golden Road to photograph Mount K and actually spotted its tracks in the morning.

Yep. We got us a moose! A male yearling I think.

On the way home a day later, we decided we hadn’t bumped across the Golden Road enough, and so headed west on it toward Greenville. Approaching Greenville, we spotted a sign for the B52 Memorial and made a sudden decision to follow the seven-mile road to the site.

The story is a somber one of a United States Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress on a low level navigation training mission during the Cold War that went awry. After the aircraft encountered turbulence on an extremely cold and windy January 24, 1963, a vertical stabilizer came off and the plane went into a nose dive on Elephant Mountain.

Only the pilot and a navigator survived. Signage explains the experience: “The pilot landed in a tree 30 feet (9.1 m) above the ground. He survived the night, with temperatures reaching almost −30 °F (−34 °C), in his survival-kit sleeping bag atop his life raft. The navigator’s parachute did not deploy upon ejection. He impacted the snow-covered ground before separating from his ejection seat about 2,000 feet (610 m) from the wreckage with an impact estimated at 16 times the force of gravity. He suffered a fractured skull and three broken ribs. The force bent his ejection seat and he could not get his survival kit out. He survived the night by wrapping himself in his parachute.”

Fortunately an operator on a road grater saw the plane turn and the black smoke that followed the crash. Rescuers looked in the wrong area that day. The next day, after plowing ten miles of fifteen foot snowdrifts and snowshoeing the final mile, they reached the site.

Today, pathways lead to the strewn pieces and viewers are asked to remain silent out of reverence. Visiting the site gave us pause and we offered thanks for those who protect us and those who complete rescue missions.

We’re glad we stopped there, just as we’re glad we revisited the two locales we enjoyed last year. Except for this one spot and West Quoddy Lighthouse, it was an entirely different adventure. Oh, and we celebrated my guy’s birthday, while also celebrating our beautiful Maine and Canada.

Be Present in the Moment

Wandering,

as I so love to do,

found me beside a brook

in the late afternoon

as spring prepares

to give way to summer.

A burst of sudden movement

caught me by surprise,

enhanced especially

because something skittered

across the water

toward me

in a manner

unlike its shy parents.

We spent a few moments together,

the young Wood Duck and me,

as I whispered hello,

and it answered with a squeaky whistle,

before skittering

back across the water’s surface

toward the safety

of the opposite shore.

Because I was standing so still,

another who favors

this riparian habitat

flew in

and I was offered

a few pleasurable moments

to enjoy the beauty

of a male Yellow Warbler.

Finally finding motivation

to continue my journey,

I was stopped in my tracks

when by my feet

I discovered

a patch of sundews

growing in a place

I’ve visited many times

but before this moment

never spotted

them hiding quietly

below ferns

where they could carry out

their stealth carnivorous activities

in an inconspicuous manner.

Back on the path

embellished with the

flowering structures

of Maple-leaf Viburnum,

the fervent behavior

of Long-horned Flower Beetles

drew my attention

as two canoodled

in the midst

of so many others

conducting a pollinator dance.

A brief bushwhack

found me staring into

the remains of

an ephemeral vernal pool

that only a week ago

teemed with

thousands of tadpoles,

but now in

its puddle-size

bubbled with those

who hoped for

a quick metamorphoses,

or at least,

that was my hope

for them.

Beside the brook again,

my heart quickened

once more

as I suddenly realized

I was staring into

the richest of porcelain blue eyes.

That I could recall

we’ve met only

once before,

but in this very same spot,

which will forever

be known as

the Lilypad Clubtail Dragonfly

meeting spot.

Upon a different shrub

a few feet away,

another flew in

and asked to be recognized

by the color

of its face

and markings upon

its abdomen,

but it was

the glossy wings

that made me realize

I was greeting

a not-long emerged

Belted Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly.

Finally making my return

along the same path,

a sight that had

eluded me earlier

now asked to be acknowledged

and I couldn’t help

but think

how much a

Beaked Hazelnut

resembles the body

of a dragonfly.

As my wander

drew to a close

and evening set in,

I was honored

one last time

with the first view

this year

of a tiny skimmer

with big personality

as expressed

by its colors and patterns

including the red hearts

along the abdomen

of this, a male Calico Pennant.

To say I went forth

without expectation

would be wrong

for I fully expected

to spy some cranes

or a beaver at work,

and certainly the resident moose

who keeps tempting me

with its tracks,

but to encounter

the unexpected

reminds me to be

grateful and present

in each moment.

On this occasion I was.

Making Everything Count

On May 21, 2022, My Guy and I hiked Albany Mountain Trail in the White Mountain National Forest on a reconnaissance mission. Ours was to note the number of Lady’s Slippers either in bloom or prepping to do so because it was May 24, 2021 that we last counted blossoms. On the 21st of this year none were in bloom, and honestly, we only spotted 21 plants.

And so we returned this afternoon, which found us enjoying Raspberry Bars baked by Fly Away Farm while sitting upon dessert bench at the summit.

On the way up, however, we did keep track of the Pink Lady’s Slippers, including this one that featured last year’s seed capsule.

Occasionally there were spots such as this, where a bunch showed off their lovely moccasins.

But our perennial favorite is the bunch of ten. It’s such a favorite that when we encountered another making his descent, My Guy suggested he hike back up about a quarter mile with us to see this display. He was grateful that we’d shared this special find with him.

But it wasn’t just Lady’s Slippers to note for when we last climbed up two weeks ago, the mosquitoes and black flies were thicker than thick and we practically ran down to finish the route as quickly as possible. Today, there were a few, but it was hardly notable and we gave great thanks to dragonflies such as this male Common Whitetail Skimmer for patrolling the territory.

We found two others on patrol, these being Garter Snakes. I really wanted to stay and watch their movements, for I suspected that the one toward the top was the larger female and the lower one might be a male, but My Guy had Lady’s Slippers on his mind and standing to watch a couple of snakes didn’t tickle his fancy.

And so we moved on, leaving the slitherers to their own intentions without interruption.

But the real star of the show (don’t tell the Lady’s Slippers) was the beaver. You see, there is a dam about a half mile in that hikers must cross to access the rest of the trail and the last few years it has been a bit easier. But this year . . . things have been different and today we met the engineer who made it so.

He was hard at work making repairs when we first came to the dam and we had to time our crossing accordingly.

We watched him as he watched us, sure that he’d slap the surface with his tail in an effort to tell us to move on. Surprised were we when he did not.

Once on the other side, when we encountered the first group of hikers making their way down, we mentioned the beaver. They hadn’t seen it upon their ascent but their group of seven said they may have been the reason for its need to work for apparently they’d messed the dam up a bit as they crossed. It’s not an easy thing to do–the crossing that is.

Upon our own descent we looked about as we reached the dam and tada, there he was swimming away.

And then we got the message–a tail slap! A statement, indeed.

A bit muddier for the experience, we both made it back across as quickly as possible.

And gave great thanks for the opportunity to make everything count.

Lady’s Slippers: 2020: 150; 2021: 47; 2022: 266!!!!

Dragonflies: Never enough, but love how many we saw.

Garter Snakes: 2

Beaver: 1

And as My Guy noted: 266 Lady’s Slippers today + 286 Lady’s Slippers at Overset Mountain on Monday = 552 this week!

But who’s counting?

Getting Close to a Black Bear Mondate

Our day began with a remembrance of our fathers and uncles and cousins and friends and all who have served and continue to serve our country. Growing up, my hometown celebrated Memorial Day with a parade and I remember riding or marching or watching–depending upon the year. And after there was a picnic topped off with Strawberry Shortbread. But in my adopted hometown, July 4th is the date that receives all the attention.

And so, that’s a long introduction as to why My Guy and I headed off to Overset Mountain for today’s hike. We were on a mission.

Said mission was not to count all of the Indian Cucumber Root plants we could find in flower, though My Guy did point to this one at the start of our journey because just a week ago I introduced him to their double-decker structure necessary for extra sugar creation and therefore flower followed by fruiting form.

Nor was said mission to marvel at the water as it flowed over the rocks in Sanborn River.

Instead, it was a bit of a treasure hunt that motivated us as we sought the ones who liked to hide along the trail. Um, kinda like My Guy is hiding in this photo. Can you spot him?

Success at last. The first success that is–a Pink Lady’s Slipper in full bloom. #1. Henceforth, had you been with us, you would have heard us stating the number of each Lady’s Slipper we spied and honored.

At first, there weren’t many but we did what we like to do when faced with a challenge such as locating bear claw trees–we scanned both sides of the trail in hopes of being the one to announce the next number.

Oh how they hid!

To spy one often required a sharp eye. The question was thus: what determined where a Lady’s Slipper would grow? I knew it was a certain fungus, but the US Forest Service clarifies it more than I can: “In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as ‘symbiosis’ and is typical of almost all orchid species.”

Turns out, we weren’t the only ones on the hunt. This Garter Snake crossed the trail and then paused, certain that it was so well camouflaged by the leaves and the twig it passed under that we couldn’t possibly spy it. But we did.

Sometimes, it was the white version of the pink that we spotted. As I mentioned, Lady’s Sippers orchids in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words “Cypris,” an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal, so named for the fused petals that form the pouch and their resemblance.

There were other white flowers to also admire, such as the Canada Mayflower or Wild Lily of the Valley that decorated a boulder.

Ah, but we reminded ourselves that Lady’s Slippers were our focus. Though most stood upon straight stems, there was the occasional one such as this that had a mind of its own. What had this flower endured to create such a curvature?

At last we reached Overset Pond with the mountain of the same name beyond. This became our lunch spot and while there we watched a Common Loon and a Snapper Turtle swim underwater, for so clear it is.

It was after that, however, that our Lady’s Slipper numbers began to increase. We were at 47 when we reached the pond. But then, it felt like we were constantly taking turns announcing a number and pointing to make sure the other saw the same flowers.

When one is noticing, one notices. And so My Guy pointed out this Tiger Swallowtail taking a break, its proboscis rolled as it should be when not seeking nectar.

The next flower we spotted chose a different orientation, as if it had done something wrong and needed to show its backside to the trail. But really, perhaps it was honoring the tree beside which it grew.

We soon reached one of My Guy’s favorite spots where he counted 50 in bloom in a ten-foot-square area. And that’s just what we could see from the trail.

We found some who stood tall.

And others barely overextending the height of Bunchberry.

At the summit of Overset Mountain, we paused for a dessert break before making our way down.

On the descent there were still others to admire, though for a wee bit it felt like we’d entered the desert, but once closer to the pond, the natural community changed and apparently the fungus did as well for such were our finds.

The last of the day appeared to be the richest in color, though I’m not sure we had an overall favorite for each offered a different hue of the same theme from pale white to this rich pink.

We were on our way back to the truck, when things got even more exciting–if that can be so given all the Lady’s Slippers we’d spotted. Say hello to an immature male Common Whitetail Skimmer Dragonfly. By the time he matures, his tail will turn whitish blue, but those wings will remain the same. Oh my.

And then for the final oh my . . .

Oh My Guy! This was the closet I’ve been to my favorite Black Bear (UMaine grad–though known as UMO grad back in his day) on any hike . . . ever. And for this I give thanks to the Lady’s Slippers for slowing him down to my speed. All together we counted 286 flowering Lady’s Slippers today and know that we missed some and beyond the trail there are probably a million more.

Celebrating My Daily Wonders

Every day this week found me wandering a different trail, or even sometimes the same trail on multiple days.

To that end, on May 24th, I celebrated a full-fledged dragonfly emergence.

Though I wasn’t there at the time of eclosure, many of the dragonflies I spotted, and there were hundreds, were either still pumping hemolymph from their wings back into their bodies, gaining their color patterns, or letting their shiny wings dry in the breeze as they slowly began to expand them. A few had wings that seemed stuck together, but then in an unexpected moment they flew and I whispered farewell in hopes that we might meet again.

On May 25th, there were other species to behold.

It was that day that I knew the Highbush Blueberry crop will be significant this year for so many were the robust Bumble Bees that worked the pollen route. I even managed to capture one doing a happy dance with pollen on its feet. And this is canoodling season, after all, so it was fun to find a pair of flower bugs enjoying a tender moment upon Chokeberry flowers. The Mayfly did not have such a happy ending for before maturing to its adult form, it landed in a sticky web, but . . . alas, the spider must eat, so it was a good day after all.

On May 26th, my travels were more varied, as were the sightings.

For a few moments, I watched as ants, both winged and not, farmed aphids upon the stem of a Maple-leaf Viburnum. Along a trail or two that day, a melodious Song Sparrow serenaded me with its happy tune. And a quick trip to the vernal pool out back found me looking into the eyes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Wood Frog tadpoles. But the best find of all, a fairy ring along a trail.

On May 27th, I was one of a bunch who arrived at a certain locale to bird at 6:30am.

Though I couldn’t stay for the entire trip, which yielded 38 species, I did have the joy of watching a small flock of Cedar Waxwings land and fly, land and fly. And then there was the Indigo Bunting. It’s blue coloration reminded me of Clintonia’s Blue Bead fruits we’ll spot in the summer if the birds don’t eat them all first. And I’m never sure why I’m surprised to find a House Wren on these journeys, but perhaps its because for so many years I didn’t see them (or didn’t realize I was seeing them) and thought of them more as a childhood bird from my beginnings in southern New England. The best find of all, on this day, however, was an Eastern Phoebe sitting on her nest.

On May 28th, I met some old friends, though for the first three I had to jog my memory for their names.

The first was a female Common Whitetail Skimmer dragonfly. It’s her guy who has the whitish “tail,” and I believe that she received the better strokes of nature’s paintbrush. Then there were the Hudsonian Whiteface Skimmers, she with yellow marks and his defined in red. Soon, the Calico Pennants will emerge, and we’ll see she also dons a yellow coat while he sports red. But as much as you know I love dragonflies, a fresh moose track also makes my heart sing.

On May 29th, I wondered how I could possibly top all of that.

And yet I did. First there were more ants farming aphids, this time Wooly Alder Aphids on Speckled Alders. After that, a Bluet Damselfly that didn’t seem to mind that I rustled around in some shrubs trying to get better photos of other species. For its patience, I thought I should honor it in this post. One of those other species, a small Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer dragonfly, drew my attention to a Pitcher Plant Flower preparing to open. I was surprised by its presence because though I knew I was in the land where Pitcher Plants are abundant, I couldn’t recall spying one in this particular spot before. But the best find of the day, an Assassin Bug, Pselliopus cinctus, finishing a meal. I had never met this species of Assassin Bug before as usually it is the slender green Zelus luridus that I encounter. The black and white legs were to be admired, by me, not its poor victim who had just had the juices sucked out of it.

It certainly has been a week to celebrate my daily wonders as I wander. And though the Assassin Bug was the best of today, the actual best I did not capture a photo of this afternoon. A River Otter popped up and stared at me briefly, chirped, and before I could reach for the camera, disappeared. But I will remember that moment and that spot in my mind’s eye.

A Whisperer’s Mondate

Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning? Or better yet, half way through. And so that’s where today’s story starts.

My Guy and I had some errands to run, but then it was time to have fun. To that end, we chose the Weeks Brook Trail up the backside (or maybe it’s the front side depending on your perspective) of Mount Kearsarge North in New Hampshire. We last climbed Kearsarge in November, which I recorded in What’s To Come Mondate, via the Kearsarge Trail that starts on Hurricane Mountain Road. We knew we didn’t have time to go to the summit today, but Shingle Pond, halfway up the trail offered a fine lunch log date and turn-around point.

Along the way we had many to honor and so we did, beginning with a colony of Clintonia showing off bright yellow blossoms.

Each cheery bloom offered an explosion of sunshine radiating from its flaring bell shape and six long stamens with yellow tips and a long style.

Sharing the trail were Pink Lady’s Slippers offering a variation of hues sharing a color scheme.

Since My Guy loves to count slippers, an activity that forever surprises me, he noted only eight in bloom today, but this one was extra special because it featured not only today’s blossom, but also last year’s fruit in the shape of a capsule that once contained thousands of tiny seeds.

And then there was Wild Sarsapirilla with its whorl of three compound leaves at the tip of a long stem.

The globe-shaped flowers that grow upon a stem of their own below the umbrella teemed with pollinators of all shapes and sizes.

My joyous heart kept growing larger and larger with each wonder-filled find enhanced in a few cases by being the first of the species I’ve spotted this year. Indian Cucumber Root topped that list with several in flower. To some, the flowers are inconspicuous as they nod below the plant’s second tier, but to me they are among nature’s most amazing constructions as the petal-like segments turn backward and the stamens stand out in reddish purple offering a contrast to the yellow pistils.

By the time we reached the Swamp Beacon Fungi, my heart was full, but like any sweet treats, there’s always room for more. These little yellow mushrooms love a wet seep and there were a few along today’s trail. I was reminded of my first encounter with this species in 2015 when I posted Slugs, Bears and Caterpillar Clubs, Oh My! (RIP PV. I’ll miss you forever)

At last we reached the pond and immediately my focus changed from flowers to other structures all belonging to the Odonata family, this one in particular being the left-behind exuviae of a Skimmer Dragonfly. I found it at eye level–my eyes that is and not My Guy’s.

I really wanted to introduce him to a dragonfly eclosing and the best I could find today was one that had already split out of its aquatic form and was still pumping hemolymph (bug blood) from its wings back into its expanding body. “Isn’t that cool?” I asked. His response somehow turned a basketball move he expected to see on tonight’s Celtics game into a cooler situation. Hmmm. I’ll win him over yet.

Despite that, I did win another one over. It was an immature Skimmer Dragonfly who had recently emerged for a wee bit cloudy were its wings still.

I knew it to species as a Whiteface for such was the color of . . . its face.

Whether it was a Belted Whiteface Skimmer or a Crimson Whiteface Skimmer, the jury is still out and based upon wing venation. My gut leans toward the former, but I’m open to learning so if you think otherwise, please explain.

That said, it was the first dragonfly that easily climbed upon my offered hand this year and I rejoiced that the Dragonfly Whisperer had joined today’s Mondate. Even My Guy was impressed.

Just Another Boring Mountain Mondate

No need to read on. You know it will be photos of today’s finds. Ho hum.

Our day began as it always does, with a shared piece of CraftonMain Lemon Meringue Pie topped with a raspberry, while we sat and watched this pair enjoy a meal of their own. Wait. We don’t always begin with the pie–but sure wish we could. Cardinals, however, have been blessing us with their appearance for years.

And then there was the sighting of the neighborhood fox in the field beyond our stonewall; it had its eyes on the neighbor’s dogs while we had our eyes on it. Don’t worry, the dogs didn’t become breakfast. In fact, as their mistress began to walk toward the fox (we don’t think she spied it, nor did the dogs or they would have given chase), the fox turned and dashed across the field, over another stonewall and into our woodlot.

At last, it was time to begin our hike along a trail we haven’t visited since August 2019. Our intention had been to climb it in 2020, but during the first year of the pandemic, it was closed and then we never considered it . . . until this morning. And as we started up, I remembered . . . this is the mountain where the Early Saxifrage grows.

 It’s also known as rockbreaker for its habit of cleaving to the rocks, and perhaps suggested the Latin name–Saxifraga virginiensis. Saxum-rock and frangere-to break.

A funny name for such a diminutive and delicate display.

Round-leaved Violet with its scalloped-rimmed leaves more heart shaped than its name suggests also grew along the trail. Spying these tiny offerings of yellow with those incredible magenta runways meant to attract pollinators always brings a smile as if they were meant to brighten the day of all who hike this way.

Our journey found us enjoying the sound of the water’s rhythm as we climbed higher . . .

and contemplating each step once we turned away from the brook.

At the summit, the view from lunch rock included a look to the southeast where the sky predicted the forecast of a front moving in.

Meanwhile, our hometown mountain stood out in the sun.

But the grand lady, Mount Washington, was starting to disappear into the clouds.

It was windy and a bit chilly at the summit, but that didn’t stop the Brown Elfin butterfly from flirting with a few others where the blueberries grow.

I also spotted one Spring Azure. Both are rather small butterflies and if you look closely, you might spot that their antennae are patterned white and black.

On the way down, we did what we often do–looked for bear claw trees because we know they exist here. And because I know such an activity will slow my guy down. 😉 Bingo. He spotted one that was new to us.

I went in for a closer look and couldn’t believe all the marks on display.

And so I began to circle around the trunk.

One can only imagine the crop of Beech Nuts this tree must have offered.

But enough is enough. It’s just another bear claw tree, after all. Nothing to write home about. Or is it? Think about the bear and the blueberries the Brown Elfin Butterfly will help pollinate and the Beech Nuts the trees will produce and all the connections that will be made, which will include the Cardinals and the Red Fox and the flowers and all that is part of the forest. And be wowed like us. It was hardly just another boring mountain mondate on Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine.

Reading the Signs

Make each mind-filled step count as it presents reminders of wonder . . .

whether beside rushing waters that nourish with sight and sound,

or along mountain ledges where one is reminded that gravity holds us down.

Admire first the Trailing Arbutus as you drop to a knee to take in the sweet scent of spring enclosed within its delicate petals.

Don’t overlook the tiny fly seeking nourishment from Coltsfoot, pollinator at work upon a flower whose modified leaves give it an otherworldly appearance.

Notice the wee fiddleheads rising up beside Polypody ferns,

their hairy crosiers so minute that if you don’t search under leaves and moss, you’ll surely miss them.

Let the Eastern Comma Butterfly entertain as it dances up and down a forest trail,

occasionally pausing to allow onlookers to spot the tiny white comma, for which it was given its name, on its hind wing.

Let the past also astound in the form of last year’s Ghost Pipe flower appearing now as an intricate woody capsule.

Consider the American Beech with its canopy a bit askew, especially when compared to its neighbors.

And then gaze down the trunk until claw marks left behind years ago by a very hungry Black Bear make themselves visible.

Look with awe at the granite so evenly and naturally sliced and delight in the hues once hidden within now on view.

Embrace the panorama from a windswept summit where turbines producing energy define a nearby ridge line.

See also the old mill town that continues to produce paper products from its location nestled among mountains.

Note also the bronze geological monument used by surveyors since 1879 for mapping purposes as our forebears laid stake to the land that we can never truly claim.

And on the way home, don’t forget to take a few steps toward the barn that features memories of the past.

Try to make time to be present in the moment and see the wonders of life that surround us. Be awakened by reading the signs and not just whizzing by, no matter how or where you travel across the Earth.