Tuesday Tracking is ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see the scat, prolific in nature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic of Holt Pond

I’ve recently felt like the wonder disappeared from my wanders. And so I hoped a tramp late this afternoon around Lakes Environmental Association’s Holt Pond Preserve held the tonic.

We parked at the corner of Perley and Chaplin’s Mill Road, and hauled our snowshoes to the trailhead about a half mile down Chaplin. A few steps in and we decided to stash the shoes and proceed, sure that the snow depth would be on our side and we wouldn’t posthole too much. Until we did. And abruptly turned around to fetch the snowshoes, proving time and again how wise we are.

I was following my guy, so of course it didn’t take us long to get down to the pond, where love was written across the sky in the form of a squished heart and I knew my sense of wonder was about to kick back into gear.

Back on the trail, it was a pileated hole that stopped me in my tracks. Okay, so that happens on a regular basis, but take a closer look with me.

First there was the inner bark, call it cinnamon or mauve, or some crayola color between, with a delightfully bumpy texture, and I knew I had a winner. But there was more. Take a closer look. Do you see the horizontal lines where the woodpecker must have scraped its beak against the bark? And the fibers of the wood? And the depth of the hole? Certainly, this woodpecker must have found something worth drilling for in the depths of this hemlock.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that once I spy a pileated woodpecker’s excavation hole, the debris below becomes a focus of my attention.

I was not disappointed. What some may see as a silver caterpillar, I knew to be the cylindrical scat of the Woody Woodpecker of the woods. The compact package was coated with the bird’s uric acid, but it was the contents that really mattered. While I looked, so did a few others–do you see a couple of springtails, aka snow fleas–at least one on the wood chips and another on the snow?

With my continued perusal, a second scat appeared. Look closely at the darker sections and you may see some body parts of the carpenter ants and tree beetles that the pileated woodpecker sought from the inner confines of the hemlock tree.

My guy was patient as I looked and then we continued our journey. At the first stream crossing, where a bog bridge seemed to have disappeared, he practiced his inner ballerina (don’t tell him I said that) and leaped to the other side, landing a jeté: a leap taking off from one foot and landing on the other.

Since the pileated’s scat leant itself to my insect quest, I continued to look and smiled each time I spied a funnel spider’s holey web no longer in use. Check out all the points of attachment that strengthened the structure when it was in use.

In what seem like no time we reached a former log landing where he was astonished by the fact that pine saplings had grown into teens. And then he looked at one and asked, “Is that a red pine?”

“Yes,” I replied as I took a closer look and spied the tiniest of tiny homes among its needles. Do you see the circular cut in the center? It was the former home of a pupating pine “circular” sawfly. Their cocoons are everywhere and once you see one, you’ll see a million. If cut like this one, the insect departed when conditions were right, but if completely intact then life grows within.

At places along the trail, it was other compositions that bore witness to the nature of the community, such as this icy ornament that dangled like a stocking from one hemlock twig to another.

Another hemlock offered the vision of a forest wizard, his face, albeit, rather long and gnarly. His lips, pursed. His eyes, narrow. Certainly he had a lot to contemplate.

Throughout much of the preserve, which made sense given that it was a wetland habitat, fisher prints prevailed, its five tear-drop shaped toes adding a clue to its identification.

Check out that diagonal orientation that trackers look for because it tells them that the mammal who bounded across the landscape was a member of the weasel family.

Reading tracks isn’t easy, but learning the idiosyncrasies of family patterns, preferred community, and finer details such as number of toes and measurement of prints adds to the knowledge bank and enhances the trek for suddenly, even though you may not see the mammals that have left behind their calling cards, you can still get a sense of those with whom you share a presence in the woods.

The more we tramped today, the more I realized that there were sweet things to notice, like a snow-plop spotted hemlock twig that offered a suggestion of winter’s Swiss cheese.

An enlarged yellow birch catkin, formed by the tree to protect its seeds held tightly within, mimicked a wreath on the snow, and reminded me of the circle of life it represented.

And then I spotted one who perhaps best represented life. Foremost in consideration was the fact that it was alive. And second, that an antifreeze we can hardly comprehend allows it to remain active throughout the winter. Spiders on snow? Worth a wonder.

Our journey progressed as the lighting changed given the late hour of the day and our position on the globe. At times it seemed night would descend any minute.

And into the night tramped my guy, crossing a bog bridge he built several years ago. But . . . slow yourself down rather than try to keep up with him. What do you notice? Clue: to the left of his bridge?

Do you see the muddy line extending upward from the water? And the finger-like prints left on the snow. Yup. The signature of a local raccoon left behind like a done deal on a piece of property.

At last we reached my nemesis, the very spot where almost two years ago my feet flew out from under me, my wrist hit the edge of the boardwalk with a wallop, and suddenly I was a southpaw. It’s become my place of pause and contemplation. To go or not to go. Today, my guy did the same.

And then he went, assuring me from the other side that all was well. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard those words before.

I followed as I often do and gave thanks that I safely made it to the other side, where the snowy mounds and reflections offered a taste of mid-winter reflection.

Our journey across the snow-covered boardwalks through the wetland showed off the fruiting structures of many wetland shrubs, but surprisingly, winterberry offered the most brilliant form.

Eventually, we found our way out to the pond again via the quaking bog, following a fox track that we’d encountered during much of our journey.

Given that there were no dragonflies to spy at the pond’s edge, after a few moments we headed back into the woods.

At the next spur choice, we took it, and headed out to Muddy River, where the beaver resort included its big house, little house structure, bespeaking the New England tradition of home construction.

A bit of open water prevented us from taking a personal look.

But, freshly carved logs at the peak of the lodge bespoke recent activity. Similar activity below was questionable, but my whimsical mind wondered if they’d tried to set up a fire pit.

Our journey was coming to a close as we continued across the boardwalks through the wetlands, where within blueberry stems a baker’s dozen of wasp larvae pupate. The gall’s kidney-shaped form is easy to spy.

Following the Muddy River out, we couldn’t resist its late afternoon relections.

Beside the river another weasel showed its form in the prints of a mink.

Diagonal, diagonal, diagonal, so is a weasel pattern.

At last, before climbing up to the Emerald Field that would lead us back to our starting point, we paused beside the brook and let it work it’s magic in the sound of flowing water, but also the forms and reflection and colors and wonder. Moments of wonder. I gave great thanks for yet again Holt Pond had worked its magic.

Anyone Home?

A friend recently sent me some photos of a mink resting area and, of course, I just had to see it.

The site is situated by a wetland and brook, but to get there, one must travel through the hundred acre woods. And along the way, the traveler might get distracted by the tracks of squirrels and coyotes galore. And then another traveler might show its prints and voila, though you intended to keep going until you reached a certain point, you suddenly find yourself following where a porcupine had recently waddled.

Across the landscape it will take you, and occasionally you’ll find yourself lifting your hands and swaying your hips and trying to imitate its sashaying motion.

And then, like magic, one track will be come two and then three and you might realize that they represent the path of one who traveled out and back and out again–always connecting the dots of den to food site, but often, given the current snow conditions, not along exactly the same path.

The tracks might lead to the base of a tree and you might instantly feel the pull to draw near and take a closer look.

As you peer, you may notice the stain of porcupine pee leading from the base of the tree.

And within you might see the start of a porcupine latrine where the curve-shaped scat gathers and may grow more prominent in time. Anyone home? We looked up and down, my companion and I, but saw nary a porky among the trees. Nor did one grunt at us, but perhaps it was fast asleep within.

From the porcupine tree, we made our way north and finally found our paths intersecting with a brook that we sought. Our hope was to see otter slides along its edges.

Such was not to be, but we enjoyed the view and did spy some tracks on the other side that we couldn’t define. Neither of us chose to get our feet wet to take a closer look.

Instead, we turned our attention to an old beaver dam and the snow-covered icy formations below it.

And then, right behind the rocks upon which we’d stood to admire the dam, we found the prints of a mink. Knowing that this was the one we sought, we got excited and began checking out the base of trees beside the water in hopes of spying what my friend had seen.

Her first was a photo with a latrine in the foreground and what looked like a well-visited hole to the left of the tree trunk.

We found mink prints leading to what one might assume was the same spot, but recent storms disguised outer appearances.

My friend had also found a pile of scat full of fish scales. Mink eat fish; as do otters.

Today we found several holes and thought about the mink’s activity of checking each one to see if a meal might be available within the confines.

And we found hoar frost making us wonder if a creator was hiding inside.

But our best find of the day was one out on the ice where by the raised snow and sticks sticking out, we wondered if an abandoned attempt at building a beaver lodge had created a resting spot for a mink.

Prints and scat certainly marked the spot. And it wasn’t too far off to think that the mink, which shouldn’t be quite ready to den up yet given that it isn’t birthing season, may have chosen a different space to rest than my friend saw last week. Sometimes they spend only a day using such a space to hide, and other times they may use it repeatedly for several weeks.

Curiously, coyote tracks passed by and in so doing may have added another conclusion to the story for they didn’t take any time to sniff out the mink’s use of space.

Vivid as they were on the wind-blown snow of the wetland, every detail was visible, but the pattern of their track showed mammals on a mission to be concluded somewhere in the future.

As it was, our future included a hike out for we were chilled and the sun was growing lower in the sky. But . . . our best find of the day was that “new” resting spot for the mink. On the back side, I could see a hole and the snow that had been carved out to create it. I wanted to take a closer look, but my friend encouraged me to not go nearer because ice conditions had been funky lately and we knew water flowed below. Was this a resting spot for a mink? Or had an otter actually happened by? The hole seemed rather big. And even the prints on top looked larger than those of a mink?

We may never know, but it sure would have been nice had we asked, “Anyone home?” for the real inhabitant to have stood up.

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.

Lighting The Way

It felt like months had passed since our paths had crossed, but finally the stars aligned as they say, and my friend Marita and I found time for a hike this afternoon. Our chosen destination: Mount Tom in Fryeburg, Maine.

Within the foundation at the start of the trail the snow outlined the stones. In other seasons, these structures blend in with the landscape but on this day they were highlighted and we could almost imagine the stories of yore.

Lines intersected and wood interrupted, much as we’ve raised our children both together and independently.

Higher up, again the snow showed off the details in a way that might normally blend in and remain invisible. It all seemed so symmetrical and then in the debris below–a much more random design reflecting the course our paths have taken.

At the edge of the ledges we noted edges. Rounded and straight, interwoven as our families have been with variation along the way.

As we followed the path made by others we caught up on each other’s lives and shared a few memories of the past for ours is a journey that began long before we actually knew each other since we are from the same hometown.

Occasionally, the trail offered shades other than snow white and gray granite; a glimpse into the future was featured by the evergreen leaves of Trailing Arbutus, aka Mayflower. What will our future hold? A continued friendship we know.

We know not what the future holds, but revel in the possibilities as indicated by fresh Pileated Woodpecker holes.

And when scat happens, we’ll be there–to examine it, decipher it, and help each other through it, or at least listen and offer comments of reassurance and consideration.

Two and a half miles later we reached the summit where the contrast of sky and landscape pleased our eyes and gave us our bearings.

And a view of Little Mountain to the far left and the long ridge of Pleasant Mountain pointed to the hometown we have shared for over thirty years, almost twice the time of the place where we grew up but still have some ties.

Our stay at the top wasn’t long for we wanted to descend before daylight gave way to night.

At last we returned to the foundation where our journey had begun and again admired the stones and their placement.

Lighting the way had been the glory of the January light, but really there was more: friendship, understanding, similarities, differences, and hearts that may sometimes turn sideways, but always love.

Tuesday Trackers Track

“Even if the conditions weren’t great for tracking, it was still fun to get out,” said Gilda, one of the newest Greater Lovell Land Trust Trackers as we explored off trail today. Mind you, it was -11˚ at daybreak, and the temperature registered in the single digits when we all met at Lot #1 of Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Not too far along the Chestnut Trail a trough extending from both sides drew our attention. We split up and followed it in either direction trying to determine the creator. Deer? No, not deep enough in the fluffy snow. Coyote? We kinda sorta saw the footprint and perhaps the pattern, but why the trough? Fisher? We were almost certain it was for we convinced ourselves that the vague prints were on a diagonal and the critter had bounded and slide across the landscape. It seemed to be characteristic of a weasel family member. But would a fisher slide that much? We’ve seen occasional slides but this was consistent. Porcupine? Now that didn’t occur to us and as I looked at the first photo I took I thought why didn’t I think of that. I know that the summit of Flat Hill is covered with porcupine tracks and dens. We were at the base. Just maybe what we saw was the trough of a porcupine. As it was, we spent a lot of time questioning our observations and blaming it on the snow for not providing us with the best tracking conditions. Someone mentioned that I should have kept track of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” Perhaps tracking those three words would have provided us with a higher success rate.

What I did know was that when we reached the stream and noted that the mystery trough maker had crossed to the other side and we didn’t like the looks of the ice and running water below and chose not to follow suit, we did spy some prints with a pattern we all knew to be coyote based on the size, X between the foot pads, and nail marks. Actually, we thought a family was on the hunt. Perhaps for a porcupine?

All in all, we did find vole and mouse tracks, and later some that we were 95% sure were fisher, and domestic dog. But like Gilda said, it was fun to be out on a brisk winter day in a beautiful location as we shared a brain and tried to figure out the stories in the snow.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Joan, Bob, Lucy, Ingrid, Pam, Joe, Gilda, and Frank.

These trackers were as intrepid as those I traveled with year ago and the article that appeared in today’s Bangor Daily News was based on a similar adventure last year. Well, let me clarify that. It was similar in that the temp was 4˚, but if I recall correctly it must have been windy for it felt even colder. And the tracking conditions were pristine that day.

Here’s the article: https://bangordailynews.com/2020/01/21/act-out/how-to-track-maine-wildlife-in-the-snow/

Thanks once again to Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News and “Act Out with Aislinn” for giving me the opportunity and making it all happen.