Ode to Pinus strobus

Oh ancient ones,
so tall and stout.

My gaze turns upward
to take in your mighty presence
as you reach out
and shake hands
with each other.

Your crown tells the story
of your true nature,
ever graceful as it is,
and decorated with
daintily dangling needles,
which spell your name
much like my fingers of five:
W-H-I-T-E.

In maturity you form furrows
of stacked outer layers
and I wonder about your age.
Within those furrows,
others, like a Stink Bug,
take refuge from the world,
especially as raindrops fall.

Though considered dead cells,
your skin protects life within,
where phloem and xylem
work like dumb waiters.
The former transports sugars
created by photosynthesis
from your needles
to feed branches, trunk and roots,
while the latter
pulls water and dissolved nutrients
from your roots for nourishment.

I have this and
so many other reasons
to revere you.
Today, I focus
on the decorations
you perhaps unknowingly encourage
by providing a scaffolding
upon which they may grow.
Mosses and lichens
first take advantage.
of your hospitality.

And they in turn,
offer places
for others to gather.
As I peek,
I notice tiny flies
of a robotic style
seeking each other.
The seeker advancing
upon a fruticose form,
while the seekee
waits on a foliose lichen.

Upon another,
a tiny cocoon,
once the snug home
for the larval form
of a Pine Sawfly.
Its opened cap
indicates the transformation
of another generation.

There were others 
who once considered
your trees their own.
A spider web
woven during warmer months,
gathered raindrops today
that highlighted
the 3-D artwork
of its creator.
Not to go unnoticed
were the fruiting structures
of lichens,
such as a crustose
with its thick, warty, grayish crust
topped by numerous
jam tart fruits.

But my favorite find
on this soaking wet day
was caused by
a chemical interaction
that resembles
the creation of soap.

During a heavy rain, 
water running down your trunk
picks up oils.
Air in the bark furrows
bubbles through the oily film
and produces froth.
It’s a tapestry-forming froth
and within some bubbles,
surrounding trees
pronounced their silhouettes.

Oh Pinus strobus.
Some know you
as “The Tree of Peace.”
I know you
as “The Tree of Protection,
and Life, and Color.”
And then I realize
that is Peace.
Thank you for all that you do, naturally.

Bear to Beer: Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge

Our intention had been to explore the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson, New Hampshire, during the summer months, but intentions are just that. An aim or a plan. In our case it was an aim that was a bit off plan.

Today, however, dawned, as each day does, and we honored the plan we’d made last night by packing a lunch and getting out the door by 9:30.

An hour and a half later, we’d driven across Route 302 through Crawford Notch, recalling sites we’d enjoyed from the Conway Scenic Train less than a week ago, and on to Jefferson where we found Airport Road, aka Hazen. At the kiosk, we developed a bit of a trail plan and then ventured forth.

The area is supported by several organizations as noted on a website: “Pondicherry is a Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and it is owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with New Hampshire Audubon and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. A local Friends group also plays a role in the management of the refuge, and the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails has specific jurisdiction for the rail-trails.”

For a mile and a half, we followed the rail trail to its vantage point. Well, not quite all the way, but to the Waumbek Station, where three rail lines once converged.

We thought we’d step out onto the Tudor Richards Viewing Platform, then continue on the rail trail. But, a woman ahead of us had stepped onto the platform to practice Tai Chi and so we let her be and walked for a bit on the Presidential Recreation Trail, a 20-mile link to Gorham, New Hampshire.

Along the way, much of the scenery looked more like November than October, given the fact that we were further north than our hometown. But, a few goldenrods still bloomed. And upon some of their stems, the Goldenrod Ball Gallmaker had made itself a home.

Though we’d planned to eat lunch upon the observation deck, we were delightfully surprised to locate a small bench overlooking Cherry Mountain and so down we sat. PB& Strawberry and Peach, we each enjoyed a half of the others intended sandwich.

Eventually, we returned to the observation deck and enjoyed the fruits of Witherod and High Bush Cranberry that outlined the boardwalk leading to Cherry Pond.

The Pliny Range offered a backdrop on this day filled with sun and clouds.

In the distance, Bufflehead Ducks swam.

Returning to the junction, we continued northeast where rail trail joined rail and one could imagine the clackety clack of trains passing by.

A bit further on, we turned left toward Little Cherry Pond, where the natural community began to seriously embrace all sorts of coniferous trees.

At our feet, the trail cover was a bit more golden and much shorter than our native White Pines.

Looking toward the sky, Tamaracks sang their cheery autumn song as their needles turned golden before dropping. I’m forever intrigued by this deciduous conifer. And thrown into the mix of the cathedral ceiling: spruces of colors I need to spend more time with for throughout the refuge grew white, red, and black spruce. My task down the road: get to know each one individually so that I recognize them in new settings.

While I can tell you that there are five needles in a White Pine bundle, three in a Pitch Pine, two longer ones in a Red Pine, and two shorter needles in a Jack Pine, the needles of the Tamarack are produced in clusters of ten to twenty.

They are attached to the twigs in tight spirals around short spur branches. giving the tree a feathery look.

Upon a downed conifer, a jelly fungus offered its own version of a flower.

At last we reached Little Cherry Pond, where more Buffleheads swam.

And then we noticed another swimmer who made us smile. Yes, that’s a beaver. We couldn’t see his destination for it was around a corner and signs warned us not to venture further in order to protect the area.

Backtracking a bit, all the while admiring the plants including Rhodora, Creeping Snowberry, Trailing Arbutus, Pitcher Plants, and so many more (I need to return in the spring), we found our way back to the Mooseway Trail. (Note: “You Are Here” was taken on the way in, but I wanted to give perspective. Look for the Mooseway Trail toward Mud Pond.)

Not long onto the Mooseway Trail, I was thrilled to discover Lungwort growing up a tree trunk. Its ridges and lobes create a leafy lettuce or lung tissue appearance (thus its common name).

Because lungwort’s main photobiont is a green alga, it is also a type of cyanolichen, thus meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When lungworts fall following a storm, they decompose into the forest floor, contributing their nitrogen reserve to the soil.

The Mooseway Trail seemed easy to follow at first, but soon it became more of a bushwhack and we wondered when the last human had ventured forth. We found all of three blue blazes indicating the way.

But after the third, we had a choice to make. Head north or south. We chose south. And within a short distance the trail completely disappeared. Thanks to GPS and occasional glimpses of Cherry Mountain, we persevered. And startled a snowshoe hare that startled us. I couldn’t capture it in a photo for so quick was its hop, but suffice it to say that the hare’s coloration was gray/white, given the next season that had already visited some of the surrounding mountains.

Maybe it only took a half hour, but it sure felt like hours before we finally found the rail again. I actually considered kissing it, but my guy convinced me otherwise.

There was so much more of the refuge to explore, but we followed the trail back, giving thanks to the shape of the mountain that helped give us perspective on our location as we’d bushwhacked.

And a backward look upon the pond brought to light the snow that had fallen upon the Presidentials, previously hidden in the clouds.

As for that darn Mooseway Trail that led us astray . . . it did have much to offer including this Bobcat scat. We also found a specimen of coyote.

And not only Moose scat, but also some prints. We were rather excited by that.

And then the crème de la crème: bear scat filled with berries. Yes, we’d scanned the trees for claw marks, but if they were there, they were difficult to distinguish (cuze, um, we were moving at my guy’s speed). Despite that, this display made us both happier than happy.

I had no idea when I chose most of the places for our Bear to Beer Possibilities, what the trail’s tales might be, but really, our success rate was quite high.

And we topped off our success by sipping some suds at an old fav in Glen, New Hampshire. For him: Moat Mountain’s Matilda’s Red Rage. For me: Tuckerman’s Pale Ale.

For both of us: Bear to Beer–we got this one. Seven miles later, bear scat to beer at Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge and Red Parka Pub.

Ponds #1 and #2 Mondate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words seemed not enough to describe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas from Narramissic

With Christmas rapidly approaching I decided to visit Narramissic, the Peabody-Fitch Farm gifted to the Bridgton Historical Society in 1987 by Mrs. Margaret Monroe of Providence, Rhode Island.

I had the honor of knowing Mrs. Monroe’s daughter, Peg Norman, who essentially grew up in the house having spent all of her summers there. Her mother purchased the house in 1938 after the death of her father. In Peg’s words as recorded in an essay entitled “Narramissic – Hard to Find” that she wrote when the deed was transferred from her mother’s estate to the historical society, she said, “[Mother] was searching for a refuge, a place to heal.” 

Peg continued, “Inside the house I remember only clothes hung everywhere and an unmade bed in the upstairs sitting room. My mother saw beyond. She saw the fans over the doorways, 

the granite hearthed fireplaces, Nancy Fitch’s name engraved in the wavey glass window pane, the sweeping arch of the carriage house entrance . . .

and the mountains, purple massifs unfolding out of the sky. She felt the history and eternity and peace.”

Peg went on to mention that her family spent “many Christmas holidays and ski weekends up there throughout the years — just the way the Peabodys and Fitches had (the original owners of the farm), heated by the kitchen stove and blazing fireplaces — and an old Franklin stove my mother finally allowed to be set in the living room fireplace ‘just for winter.'” 

Peg’s mention of the outbuildings included the barn, “the huge barn with the biggest horse I had ever seen munching contentedly in the front stall.”

Still standing, though its had some help recently to that end, the barn was erected by the Fitches and has come to be known as the Temperance Barn; historical records claim it to be so named “because it was raised without the traditional barrel of rum.”

I chose to explore on this delightfully warm day(45˚ feels like summer given the recent temps), but also to gain a better understanding of the collaboration between the historical society and Loon Echo Land Trust as they raise funds to purchase the 252-acre Peabody-Fitch Woods from the Norman family and place it under conservation easement while adding to a contiguous forest with other protected properties both adjacent and nearby. As I crossed the field, I kept turning back–to admire the farm and the mountains, including the ridge-line of our beloved Pleasant Mountain. Between Loon Echo and The Nature Conservancy, almost 3,000 acres of the mountain is protected and LELT maintains the 10 miles of trails that we frequent. 

It occurred to me that I didn’t realize the blue trail that crossed the field and continued into the woods, as designed by Adam Jones for his Eagle Scout Project in 1999, wasn’t part of the historical society’s property. 

And yet, it’s just as important for many species depend on it. Should the property be developed, the historical and natural features might diminish.

Should it be developed, I won’t be able to return in the future to figure out why the squirrel condominium featured a muddy carpet between doorways. 

Should it be developed, I’d miss out on ice formations along the trail such as this miniature pony — saddle and rider included. 

Should it be developed, new understandings would bypass me, such as the fact that white oaks do indeed grow in Bridgton. Well, at least in South Bridgton. This one was speckled with spring tails on this warm day. 

Should it be developed, the pileated woodpeckers will have fewer trees upon which to excavate. 

And selfishly, I’ll have fewer opportunities to search for their scat — filled with insect body parts. 

Should it be developed, there will be fewer toadskin lichens to admire. Thanks to the melting snow, many of the examples I found today were bright green, making the black-beaded apothecia where its spores are produced stand out in contrast. Toadskin lichen may be indestructible, but should the property be developed I wondered about the lichen’s immortality. 

Should the property be developed, where would the snowshoe hare scat? 

And the same for the ruffed grouse? 

Should it be developed, what would happen to K.F. and T.B.? 

Should the property be developed, would I see sights such as this and come to another new understanding?

I was actually searching for bear claw marks that alluded me (and I know they are there for I’ve seen them before) and instead saw this red bloom decorating some beech bark. It was quite pretty and festive given the season. 

At first look, I thought it was the apothecia of a crustose lichen, but do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among it? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insect. The holes the tiny insect makes in the bark create a perfect entry point for nectria pathogen to make its way into the tree. The pathogen, a type of fungus, kills some areas of the tree at the point of entry. In reaction, the tree develops a canker as a defensive attempt to ward off the invader, but by doing so the canker blocks the vascular tissue of the infected beech by stopping nutrient flow in that one area.

And those red spots, as pretty as they appear, are actually tarry spots which ooze out of the cracks in the bark caused by the canker. Essentially, it appeared the tree was bleeding. 

Should the property be developed, what would become of the quarry and bear trap? 

This is the spot from which the foundations for the buildings were split so long ago.

Should the property be developed, would the plug and feather holes left behind as reminders of an earlier time disappear from the landscape?

The land already has been developed around Bear Trap, which is located at the end of the trail. We used to be able to hike or drive there; now one can only hike and you kinda, sorta need to know where it is.

How did the bear trap come to be? According to an August 17, 1963 article in the Bridgton News, “Enoch Perley, early settler of South Bridgton, built his first house in 1777 and brought his bride to their new home in 1778. [I believe this was at Five Fields Farm.]

As Enoch acquired livestock, he was much troubled by depredations from bears. He built a bear trap on the hill back of his first home . . .

Tradition says that four bears were caught in this trap–not enough! So Mr. Perley later had an iron bear trap made which took care of eight bears. Without a doubt, many were disposed of by him personally. A story is told that in an unarmed encounter with a bear and two cubs beside a wood road at dusk, Mr. Perley allegedly strangled the mother bear with his garters . . .”

The article continues, “The bear trap is built of stone. A large stone door is suspended and as the bear takes the bait, he trips the lever and is caught in the stone enclosure.”

In a December 1954 issue of the Bridgton News, a brief article states: “The old stone bear trap on the mountain in South Bridgton known as ‘Fitch’s Hill,’ unused for more than one hundred years, has been reactivated by Dr. Fred G. Noble and Gerald Palmer and put in readiness to capture a bear.” As the story goes, they never did succeed.

Should the Peabody-Fitch Woods be developed, all of this will be lost.

My hope is that the Bridgton Historical Society and Loon Echo Land Trust will experience a Merry Christmas as they finish out their fund-raising drive to purchase the land.

I think I walked beyond the boundary they are considering, but Bear Trap is one of my favorite historical sites. And with today’s walk I came to the realization of how important it is to protect the land around the farm.

Before I finish, I have one final historical piece of writing to share. In his memoirs, “Ninety Years of Living,” Edwin Peabody Fitch (1840-1931) who grew up in the farmhouse wrote, “Holidays were not much in evidence in those days. Christmas was so far in the shade, we didn’t think much about it. In fact, we felt that it was just a Catholic holiday and not be be observed by us. We went to school on that day and the only notice we took of it was to shout “Merry Christmas!” to the classmates. 

Merry Christmas from and to Narramissic! 

Stepping Out For Others

With the most recent snowstorm now history, I strapped on my snowshoes this morning with a sense of eager anticipation about the possibilities. And then it hit me like the snow plops that fell from the trees and landed on my head or slid down my neck: I could do this while others could not and it was for them that I needed to focus. 

I hadn’t gone far when my first moment of wonder stood before me. Actually, just prior, I’d been looking at some pileated woodpecker works–ever on the search for the bird’s scat, and in the process had noticed other bird scat soiling the snow. But . . . what was all the amber color? 

Had snow collected on mushrooms that decorated the bark? If so, why hadn’t I seen them yesterday or the day before? 

Upon a closer look, I realized it was sap. But why the big clumps? And why so much on a dead snag? 

I poked it with my finger and found it to be of snow consistency. And so . . . the mystery remained. But it was certainly worth a wonder and I knew that those I was intentionally walking for would appreciate the sight. And yes, I did see plenty of other examples of dripping sap at the base of trees, but nothing like this. As usual, if you know what was going on, please enlighten me.

My next moment of wonder was one that always gives me pause–and again I knew that my friends would feel the same. A miniature evergreen world momentarily encapsulated in a droplet of melting snow. 

Everywhere, the meltdown offered a variety of shapes and designs, each worthy of reverence . . . and a photograph, of course. 

One of my favorites was plastered to a tree in such a way that it looked like it was flat against the bark until further study revealed otherwise. As it melted before my eyes, its ever changing formation resembled a series of little flowers scattered here and there. Just maybe you have to see that through my eyes. 

And then I stumbled upon another mystery–a web of sorts like Charlotte might have woven? I studied the shrub and found numerous examples of a similar pattern, but no arachnids in sight. Besides, the silky lines seemed too thick. But, what could it be? It took me a while as I studied the area and then I remembered. Before the snowstorm, I’d taken some photographs of the winter structure of a thistle. The storm had knocked down the fruiting form, but I think my gaze was upon the filaments that had served as parachutes for the thistle’s seeds. 

My journey into the winter wonderland continued, though not all the trees along the way were fortunate to withstand the weight of the snow that was quickly melting. It sounded like a rain storm as I walked under the arched branches. 

At the the other end of the snow tunnel, I emerged into a field with its own offerings. Typically, I pass by, but today I was inspired by those who virtually walked with me to explore. And I don’t think they’ll be  disappointed by the findings. First there was the Goldenrod Ball Gall. The round gall occurred in the middle of a stem, the top of which had broken off. In the spring, the Goldenrod gall fly laid her eggs on the stem. Hatched larvae chewed their way into the stem and the gall started to develop. And from the looks of the hole on the side, it appeared the creator had chewed its way out and flown off. 

Also in the field, a Rose Bedeguar Gall, aka Robin’s Pincushion Gall on Meadowsweet, which happens to be a member of the rose family. Burrowing in to the leaves and stem of the plant was a two-fold offering for the fly larvae it hosted, for the insect benefited from the nutrients while it was simultaneously protected from predators. 

There were also numerous examples of a structure that might baffle the onlooker. Beaded formations of the fertile stalk from a Sensitive Fern poked up through the snow. Typically, the beads or capsules remain intact with their brown dust-like spores waiting inside for the structure to break open during the rains of early spring. 

I moved on from the field and eventually reached a wetland that I couldn’t cross. But, I could stand and listen and so I did. All around me the forest orchestra performed its Plop, Plop, Swish, Plop, Splash symphony. 

 At first, it sounded and looked like I was surrounded by a million wild animals, but really . . . all the sound and sights were a result of snow falling, either gently with a whisper of the wind or harshly with a thud and splash. 

As I stood there looking for the million wild mammals, my eyes focused on the works of something much smaller. Insect egg tunnels on a dead snag’s trunk read like a story on paper. 

The longer tunnels were bored by a female Bark Beetle. From the sides of her tunnels, larval mines radiated outward. The overall design could have been an abstract drawing. 

At last  I started for home, thankful that I was retracing my steps for often new sights are revealed when one does that. And so, I believe it was a crust fungus and perhaps it was an oak curtain crust fungus, but let it remain that I discovered a fungus I don’t think I’ve seen before, with a warty, rust-colored underside and dark upperside. Suffice it to say, it was a mushroom of some sort. 

Along the way was a script lichen, which looked to me like someone had doodled. Commas and apostrophes decorated that page. 

And then, and then, Tetragnatha viridis, a green long-jawed orb weaver. I actually saw two of them. Typically, the translucent green color helps them camouflage amongst pine needles, their usual habitat, but they can frequently be seen on snow, especially if the temperature is in the 25˚-35˚ range as it was this morning. 

The orb weaver’s characteristics: eight eyes in two parallel sets of four; long chelicerae (jaws); enlarged pedipalps; long legs with spines; and that color–oh my! 

It was for eight parallel eyes that I walked today, the eight representing Jinny Mae, Dick, Kate, and Carol. 

Where trees didn’t cover the trail the snow was about fourteen inches deep and as you can see I chose the wrong boots and forgot my gators. But that was okay because I knew that I would eventually wander home and change my sopping wet socks. What mattered more was the fact that I was honored to step out for others when they couldn’t necessarily do the same. Here’s to the four of you–thanks for letting me be your eyes. 

I Spy . . .

This afternoon’s goal: To find a Christmas Tree to decorate for the Christmas at Ladies Delight Walk on December 1st. For the reconnaissance mission, I joined the Coombs family at the GLLT’s Chip Stockford Reserve.

The Coombs children are homeschooled by their amazing mother, Juli, and though they learn many lessons at home, they are also well educated in the outdoors. In fact, they are among my favorite naturalists.

And they belong to a 4-H Homeschool group that will decorate a tree(s) with biodegradable ornaments prior to the December 1st walk.

1

And so we set off on our tour looking for just the right tree. But . . . as is always the case with this family, there was so much more to see.

2

Since Juli is a Maine Master Naturalist Program student, so are her children. And every topic she studies, they study, so it was no surprise to me that six-year-old Wes picked up stick after stick loaded with various forms of lichens.

3

Of course, they are children, ranging in age from six to eleven, and puddles are invitations. The family motto is this: No puddle shall remain unsplashed.

4

But just after the puddle, at the start of an old log landing, we began to notice something else. A mushroom drying on the whorl of a White Pine.

5

As we stood and looked at the first, someone among us spied a second.

6

And then a third, and so it went. We knew that squirrels dried mushrooms in this manner, but never had we seen so many. It dawned on us that we were standing in a squirrel’s pantry. One squirrel? Two squirrel? Gray Squirrel? Red Squirrel? One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

7

For a while we paused by an erratic boulder and looked at the lichens that grew atop it. The kids and their mom also checked the sand under and behind it and I told them that the only critter sign I’d ever noticed was that of a Ruffed Grouse sand bath–and I only recognized it as such because I’d startled the two birds and they startled me as they flew off. In fact, on another hike this morning at the GLLT’s Five Kezar Ponds Reserve, friend Teresa and I had startled a grouse and we talked about how the bird’s explosive behavior makes us feel as if we’ve encountered a moose.

Well, just beyond the boulder, as we all chatted and moved about with quick motion, Caleb spotted something and told us to stop. A Ruffed Grouse!

8

It threw leaves about as it sorted through them in search of seeds and buds and we all watched in silence.

9

As we stood or sat still, the bird moved this way and that, making soft clucking sounds the entire time.

10

Ellie stood in front as the bird moved a few feet ahead of her and crossed the trail. I kept looking back at Juli in wonder. How could this be? Why wasn’t it disturbed by us? I’ve spotted Spruce Grouse in higher elevations and they are much “friendlier” or less wary of people, but I’d never been able to get up close to a Ruffed Grouse.

11

Our fascination continued and we noted its feathered legs, making us think perhaps it had pulled on some long johns for a cold winter night.

12

It eyed us and we eyed it back–our minds filled with awe.

13

Think about this: four children and two adults and we were starting to get fidgety because we’d been still for fifteen or more minutes and we had begun to whisper our questions and still . . . it let us watch.

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And it let Ellie be the Grouse Whisperer for she began to follow it off the trail. Eventually, it climbed up a fallen tree and she knelt down beside, taking photos as it stood less than a foot from her. How cool is that?

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We were all wowed by the experience, but when Ellie finally turned back, we continued on . . . sometimes running and other times pausing to ride imaginary horses.

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Or listen to Birch Polypores! Yes, Juli did listen for it’s part of an assignment for the Maine Master Naturalist class. So what exactly does a Birch Polypore sound like? “I couldn’t hear the ocean,” she said with a smile.

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And what does it smell like? “Wood.”

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The next moment of glee–poking Wolf’s Milk Slime Mold and watching it ooze.

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“It’s cool and gross at the same time,” said Ellie.

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Onward and again, more fungi drying in trees as Aidan pointed out.

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We even found a few stuck on spiky spruces much like ornaments might be and we reminded ourselves that we were on a mission and still hadn’t found the right tree to decorate.

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At last, however, we did. And then we made our way out to the spur and recently opened view of Kezar Lake’s Lower Bay and Cranberry Fen, plus the mountains.

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This became our turn-around point as it was getting cooler by the minute and the sun was setting. We promised Wes we’d look only at our feet as we followed the loop trail down, though occasionally we stopped again to admire more fungi tucked onto tree branches and a set of trees that formed a rainbow arched over the trail.

As for the fungi, we wondered if we were seeing so many because last year’s mast crop of pinecones, beech nuts, and acorns didn’t exist this year. And when the 4-H club returns in a couple of weeks to decorate the tree, will the mushrooms still be there? Will there be more? How long do the squirrels wait before consuming them? So many questions and so many lessons still to be learned.

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And so many things to spy. We were honored with the opportunity to do just that and my heart smiled with the knowledge that the kids appreciated it as much as their mom and I did.

I spy . . . we spied . . . INDEED!

Oh, and  please join the GLLT for Christmas at Ladies Delight. I have the inside word that there will be hot cocoa and cookies somewhere along the trail.

December 1, 9:30 – noon
Christmas at Ladies Delight: The Maine Christmas Tree Hunt is a fun holiday scavenger
hunt to find decorated trees in western Maine. We’ll search for the decorated tree along the Bill Sayles Loop at the Chip Stockford Reserve and may add a few of our own biodegradable ornaments along the way. Location: Chip Stockford Reserve, Ladies Delight Road, Lovell.
Degree of Difficulty: Easy.

Focus on Home Mondate

Some days are meant to be spent at home, especially when there’s yard work to finish up before the snow flies. And so today was just such a day and my guy chose to work on the leaves while I finished putting the gardens to bed and mowed one last time for this year.

1-bird's nest fungi

It was while putting the garden to bed that I made a discovery–a form of bird’s nest fungi, this one being Crucibulum laeve! The structure is so named because it resembles a tiny bird nest. Prior to spore distribution, each “nest” is covered with a yellowish lid. Inside, the little disc-shaped “eggs” are called peridioles, which contain the spores. When a raindrop falls into the nest, the eggs are projected out of the cup. I’ve had the honor or watching that one rainy day, but it was one of those “you had to be there” moments that will live on in my mind’s eye.

2-porcupine tree

In one of the gardens stands a rather decrepit Quaking Aspen. It’s a favorite tree for woodpeckers and porcupines. thus it’s terrible condition. And usually I post photos of bear claw trees, but this particular aspen sports many, many porcupine scratches, some new and others older, such as these.

3-lady bug

As I looked at the bark to notice what else might be about, I spotted a spotted ladybug. We’d had a frost overnight, but she continued to move, however lethargically.

12-bagworm

By the kitchen garden, I found another insect I’d forgotten all about these last few weeks–the caterpillar larvae of the Psychidae or bagworm moths that construct cases out of silk and environmental materials, much the way a caddisfly might. It’s the perfect camouflage from predators such as birds and even other insects.

4-milkweed seed

Everywhere throughout the garden were milkweed seeds, some wearing beaded skirts that will likely keep them in place. That’s fine with me, for I love milkweed. Even if this one does eventually fly away on a whim and voluntarily plant itself in another location, I know that my plants will produce more seeds for they also increase their population via underground tuberous rhizomes. Some call them invasive; I call them welcome.

12-hole in yard?

I’m not so sure the creator of this large hole in the yard is welcome. I know my guy wasn’t impressed. It’s about a foot wide and deep. We suspect one of “our” woodchucks. I’d rather think it was excavated by the beautiful red fox that crosses the yard several times a day, but it’s a bit away from the fox’s route.

5-mealy pixie cup lichen

My wander eventually took me from the garden to the stone walls, where lichens form their own little gardens and support such species as the Mealy Pixie Cups, a fruticose lichen with a stalk or podetia below the cup.

6-Rock Shield

Foliose-styled rock shield lichens grow abundantly on the rock’s surface, their success due to the numerous disk-shaped structures called apothecia. Reproductive spores develop on the rolled edges of the brown berets, awaiting the time when conditions are just right for them to move on and grow into a new lichen.

7-Cinder Lichen

Crustose lichens were the most plentiful with their painted on appearance, like this ash-gray Cinder Lichen that reminded me of a mosaic piece of artwork.

8-Concentric Boulder Lichen

One of my favorite crustoses, however,  was the Concentric Boulder Lichen with its raised blackish-brown apothecia. Each time I saw the pattern created by the little disks, I felt like I was looking at a maze.

9-tent caterpillar egg cases

And then I stepped over the wall and turned my attention to some trees. That’s when I spied numerous tent caterpillar eggs cases. The Eastern Tent Caterpillar overwinters as an egg. Each one is part of a greater mass of anywhere from 150 to 400 eggs. They encircle a branch and are almost impossible to see, until your eye begins to recognize the structure. This was an old one and no longer had the shiny varnish-like coating that will help keep winter at bay.

11-red maple flower and leaf buds

Also keeping winter at bay were the waxy scales of tree leaf and flower buds. The buds formed in the summer and now must wait for February’s warm sun before they begin to swell and ready themselves for next spring’s bloom. In the meantime, they are snug inside their tight structures.

10-tube caterpillar tube

My next great find–tubes or tunnels created by the Pine Tube Moth. Last summer, larvae hatched from eggs deposited on the needles. Though Eastern White Pine needles grow in packets of five (W-H-I-T-E or M-A-I-N-E is a mnemonic we use to remember how many needles on the white pine, spelling “white” for its name or “Maine” because it is the state tree.) Anyway, the tube moth used silk to bind a bunch of  needles together, thus forming a hollow tube. Can you see the silk at the top? Notice the browned tips–that’s due to the larvae feeding on them. Eventually the overwintering larvae will pupate within the tube and in April they’ll emerge. Two generations occur each year and those that overwinter are the second generation. The good news is that Pine Tube Moths are not considered a significant pest.

13-pinesap winter capsules

One of my favorite finds as I headed down the cowpath toward home was actually an old friend–Pinesap in its winter capsule form. Pinesap is similar to Indian Pipe, another Monotropa (once turned speaking to its flower that turns upright after fertilization). The creamy whitish flowers developed into woody capsules. As the capsules mature, the structures become erect. Once ripened, seeds will be released through slits that open from the tip to the base of the capsules.

14-False Tinder Polypore

I was back in the grassy part of our yard when I passed by a tree in the corner and made a new discovery–a false tinder conk or polypore, with its black fissured cap. My very own Phellinus ignarius! While a Tinder Conks pore surface is usually concave, in the false specimen, it’s angled downward from the rim to the tree.

I know my friend Faith will see a smiley face in the upper spore surface; it rather reminds me of a weasel.

We never left home today, my guy and me. Our focus was on the yard, but mine was a wee bit different than his. And for those of you who have been asking–these photographs were all taken with the Canon Rebel T3i. Yep, that’s the one that got wet when I decided to flip off a boardwalk last May.