Stepping Up A Notch Mondate: Part 2

Last week found us hiking up an old fav, but there’s another way to approach the summit and so today was the day to follow that route.

But first, my guy needed to sleep in for a bit because he’s been working way too hard of late and way too many hours and so he missed some early morning moments spent with our resident doe.

But that didn’t matter. A late morning start found us parking beside a clover patch where the swallowtail butterflies showed off not only their need for nectar, but battle scars as well.

Not long into the hike, we came upon a stone bench where we once shared lunch. It was only for a brief pause that we stopped today because the insects were thick, but still . . . it’s such a pleasant spot.

After conquering some wet spots along the way, we arrived at the wettest of all, that was actually quite dry. And not a dragonfly in sight.

After that we began to climb, encountering more damp seeps along the way.

All the while our eyes scanned the forest floor because on the other trail to the same summit we’d counted 150 lady’s slippers last week. It wasn’t until we were two miles into today’s hike that we finally found one.

At last we reached the start of the ledges, a welcome spot for that meant no more mucky spots and fewer biting insects.

By the time we reached the same spur to the summit that we’d followed last week, we’d counted 13 lady’s slippers. Mind you, as we began the hike I asked my guy how many he thought we’d see. “One hundred,” he replied. And then he turned the question to me. “Seventy-five,” I said.

At the intersection he conceded. “You win because you had the lower number.”

“What do you think we’ll count when the lady’s slippers fade,” I asked.

“Deer Flies,” he said. Funny guy, my guy.

We agreed that we couldn’t count the ladies along the spur since we’d already acknowledged them last week. That is, until we came upon a bouquet we’d completely missed. Eight in a cluster like none we’d seen before.

We did chuckle a bit further on for we knew there were a bunch, but swear more had appeared for today’s display. Though you can’t see them all because some are by the tree line, there were fourteen that we know of. That’s one more than along today’s chosen trail.

Even though we had stopped counting, I have to tell you that we continued to point out old friends to each other, and even found a few others we’d previously missed. Besides the bouquet, my favorite was a wee blossom that hid under a red maple sapling.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge others on display like the huckleberry’s red flowers shaped like bells waiting to ring joyous sounds across the summit.

And then there was the flower beetle atop a mountain ash tree. I was pretty sure it was a flower beetle because . . . um, it was a beetle on a flower. But beyond that my knowledge and research were limited. So as I do in such cases, I reached out to Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood, who said that I’d found an uncommon scarab, Gnorimella maculosa, or Maculated Scarab. Maculate means “mark with a spot.”

And then there were the ants pretending to be part of a flower structure.

Birds also were in on the scene, though we actually heard the songs of many more than we had the honor to see. But this Mourning Dove posed on the trail for us and we could hear a mate call from nearby so we suspected there must be a nest in the vicinity.

Our wonders were many, but the best of all . . . when we reached lunch rock we realized several women who were social distancing had arrived at the overlook before us. Funny thing . . . we knew them. Funnier thing . . . and the best part was that last week along this same mountain we’d met Eleanor on the left and Rachel in the middle. Today, Amy completed their friendship triangle.

Who knew that as we stepped up the notch from a different starting point on this Mondate, we’d find these three amigas. Perfect.

Where will we find you next week, ladies?

Earth Day 2020

Rounding the corner from the stairway to the kitchen at 6am, dark forms in the field garnered my attention before I had a chance to start the coffee.

What to my wondering eyes should appear but three Tom Turkeys in full display and one deer.

Momma deer looked up from browsing, almost as if she was aware of my presence behind the windows and at a bit of a distance, but the turkeys didn’t care.

They had a much more pressing issue to deal with than the fact that I had just arisen and was gawking. The hen of their utmost attention needed to stop her nit (or was it tick?) picking and look up for a change.

Despite her elusive demeanor, the three continued to display, certain she’d notice one of them.

In turkey terms, to display means standing upright with tail feathers fanned out, wings dragging, and fleshy wattles on the neck, throat, and snood above the beak swollen and bright red. So, to the latter, watch their wattles and snoods as Jen the hen moved back and forth across the field like a tease.

The Toms tried lining up as if to say, “Pick me.”

She told them to take a number. And maybe she’d get back to them when she felt like it.

Two of them began to scuffle in the background, their sense of social distancing far outweighed by their desire for Jen. The third, much more mature Tom, took advantage of that moment to strut his stuff without any competition.

When the other two figured out what he was up to, they quickly scurried over and let their wattles and snoods speak for them. Like an officer checking on his brigade, she did do an inspection. It appeared mature Tom just wasn’t turned on.

And then her friend, Skipper, walked out from the edge of the woods and examined the Toms to see if he could offer any tips.

Again, Jen turned back and as she crossed before the trio once more, they again showed off their excitement.

Still she didn’t seem to care and instead moved over to ask Skipper his thoughts.

But all Skipper really wanted to do was play.

And eat. Meanwhile, the Toms turned as if in a huff.

Apparently Skipper then suggested two of the three as possibilities to Jen and they began to skirmish.

Necks locked together, they moved back and forth as mature Tom watched.

And their molting deer friends browsed nonchalantly behind them.

That is, until Skipper decided that what the Toms were doing looked like play and so he wanted to get into the act.

The scuffle continued across the field first to the left.

And then center stage.

And finally to the right. Meanwhile, Jen and the deer disappeared and mature Tom . . .

paced while the other two continued to fight.

Eventually he took it upon himself to try to separate them but the last I knew they were still at it as they scrambled over a stone wall and into the woods a half hour after beginning their show of dominance. Later, after sipping finally brewed coffee, I went up into the field and then through the woods looking for any evidence of their frenzied behavior but found none.

I did make two other great finds today, however. At the vernal pool behind us, life is beginning to take shape within the egg masses.

And at another vernal pool, this one on Greater Lovell Land Trust property, I scooped up a fairy shrimp.

Call it mere luck, I prefer to think of it as bestowed gifts that upon this day that we honor the Earth, the Earth gave back. She always does, thankfully.

Transitioning with my neighbors

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

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

On sunny days, water scavenger beetles swim about in search of a meal to suit their omnivorous appetite.

Preferring decaying plant and other organic matter as the ideal dinner menu are the mayfly larvae. Some call them nymphs, others know them as naiads.

To spot them, one must really focus for they are quite small and blend in well with the bottom debris, but suddenly, they are everywhere.

And then, another enters the scene, this possibly one of the flat-headed mayflies. If you look closely, you may see three naiads, two smaller to the upper far left and lower on the stick to the right. In between is the larger, its paired gills and three tails or caudal filaments easier to spy because of its size.

Switching to a different locale, a winter stonefly, its clear wings handsomely veined, ascends fallen vegetation on its tippy toes and my heart dances for this is probably my last chance to see one of these aquatic insects until next year. Then again, none of us can predict the future.

In the mix, green insects move and I surmise by their minute size, shape and coloration that they are leafhoppers all set to suck sap from grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Who else might live here? Why a caddisfly larva in its DIY case.

Of course, no aquatic exploration is complete without sighting mosquito larvae somersaulting through the water.

And a wee bit away from the watery spots, the pupal stage of a ladybug, a form that has perplexed me for months. It is my understanding that motion stops and so does feeding, the insect scrunches up its body and color changes . . . but the transition should last five to seven days–not since last fall. Or perhaps this species has a lot to teach me about waiting and what is to come.

Another one for the books is a translucent green caterpillar not much more than inch-worm size that I discover clinging to a red maple twig only hours before snow descends upon the setting.

Mind you, I also spotted three crescent or checkerspot butterflies, their small orange and black wings adding a quick flash of color as they flutter across my path.

And then my mind shifts, as it has a lot in the last few weeks, and between patches of snow and a fresh snow fall, I welcome the opportunity to remember others who share this space, including an opossum amidst the turkeys and deer.

Following a Tom turkey who seemed to walk with determined speed, I get to meet another neighbor and note by Tom’s toe print that his path intersected with that of a coyote after the predator had passed by. Phew for the Tom.

After all, he has a job to do. Suddenly, I note a change in his pace, which slows down considerably based on the closeness of his feet. And then I spy wing marks on the outer sides of the prints and know that he is in display mode. The curious thing: on average, he takes ten steps, then displays, takes ten steps, then displays. I know this because I counted, over and over again. But then . . . he must hear his lady friends for he makes an about turn.

And struts his stuff.

I’m not sure they are impressed for they move on and head in the direction of other neighbors, specifically a squirrel and porcupine. Others presenting tracks include chipmunks, snow lobsters, I mean snowshoe hares, moose, and a bobcat.

This is my little space on the Earth and I love spending time trying to understand it and find out more about my neighbors.

Watching over all of this action is a Fox Sparrow, whom I greet as a welcome visitor, knowing he’s on his way north to the boreal forest.

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

My Great Escape

The past two days have found me wandering on and off trail at John A Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell, where spring slowly emerges.

Yesterday’s journey, which began beside New Road, required me to climb up over the snow bank. If you go, don’t worry; I did my best to carve out steps for you.

Do, however, choose your footwear appropriately for I spent a lot of time creating post holes.

My intention was to locate timeless sights I can upload to a Google Map for at the Greater Lovell Land Trust we are working to create virtual hikes for those who can’t get onto the trails right now.

But there were other things that garnered my attention and I’m never one to pass by a White Pine personally decorated by the rain.

And then there was the beech leaf that arced in such a manner its veins mimicked rays of sunshine on a gloomy day.

Speckled Alder catkins poured forth with their own presentation of color as they added more cheer to the landscape.

And Trailing Arbutus (aka Mayflower) buds, like all others, provided a sign of hope that the future will arrive.

Beside Bradley Brook, an Eastern Hemlock held a raindrop-in-waiting, its gift from the sky soon to be transferred back to the place from whence it came.

The brook flowed forth with a rhythm all its own and I rejoiced in its gurgles, temporarily forgetting the world beyond.

Eventually I followed it back, giving thanks for all its meandering curves in hopes that we will all be able to continue to enjoy life around the bend.

Today dawned a new day, and a much brighter one at that, and so my truck made its way to the other trailhead along Farrington Pond Road. The parking lot wasn’t plowed this winter and so I tucked into the edge.

Lost in thought, the sight of a fruit still dangling on a Maple-leaf Viburnum pulled me back to reality.

One of my favorite places on this property isn’t along an actual trail, but rather its one folks can easily find on their own. I prefer to think of it as the secret garden.

It offers views of Sucker Brook Outlet feeding into Kezar Lake’s Northwest Cove. But even more than that, it offers layers and colors and teems with life. Today I startled two Wood Duck couples who quickly flew off “oweeking” all the way.

Life in the secret garden includes three beaver lodges that reflect the mountains beyond.

And flowers like this Rhodora, waiting for their chance to burst into color beyond understanding.

Back on the Blue Trail, I discovered one small feather, so light and delicate and fluffy, and yet barbed, the better for all of its kind to interlock and protect.

At a wet spot, the feather slipped from my mind and I marveled at the thin layer of ice that transformed the watery display.

Within the puddle, a broken Paper Birch trunk showed off the fact that even in death, life continues.

And then I met death. At first, I thought it was a scattering of more feathers.

That is, until I bent down and realized it was deer hair. Had the deer shed its winter coat?

That was my first thought until I spied this. Do you know what it is?

I hope I’m not disgusting you, but I found it fascinating. As best I could tell, it was the contents of the deer’s rumen or first stomach chamber.

And what exactly were the contents? Acorns. Can you see a few shells not quite digested?

Beside all of that was some scat filled with hair and a chunk of something.

And just beyond, more rumen offerings and then an even larger area of deer hair.

As best I could, I tried to piece together the story. Earlier on the trail i’d seen what I thought were bobcat prints until the behavior didn’t quite match for a bobcat wouldn’t follow the entire length of a trail and the presentation seemed to morph into coyote.

I searched high and low for a carcass, but found none. Nor any blood.

What I did find was more deer hair as if something had circled around a tree.

But the curious thing: there were lots of downed branches but none of them were broken. If a coyote had dragged a carcass, surely there would be blood and guts and broken branches. My wondering began to focus on a human. Some of the twigs were on top of the hair so the incident would have occurred at an earlier time? And perhaps all of this had been hidden by snow for a while? And then recent rain events obliterated some signs?

I may never know the answers, though I’ll return to look for more evidence. About a quarter mile away, I did find more proof that a coyote had dined on something quite hairy. It included a big chunk of bone.

For those wishing I’d get back to the prettier scenes, my tramp eventually took me to a lookout point, where the backdrop was provided by the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch.

And the foreground included another beaver lodge.

Eventually I turned around and followed the Green Trail out, stopping to pay reverence to a Bear Claw tree. With the scars being gray/black and at least a half inch wide, I’d say these were created more than seven years ago. In fact, I know that for I’ve been visiting that tree for far more than seven years. But . . . it never gets old.

Nor does the sight of ice as it turns anything into a pleasing-to-my-eyes work of art.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to sneak away and even though I had a work project on my mind, these trails have been my greatest escape so far. May you also find escapes of your own making.

Province of Chat-HAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside us was the dam and outlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of the Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It led me to yet another Snowshoe Hare form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Mystery Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It was a dark and dreary day . . .

I’m working on a challenging article and can’t quite figure out how to introduce the topic. After a bunch of attempts, I suddenly had an inspired idea . . . drop the pen, walk away from the legal pad and head out the door.

And so I did despite the freezing rain that was falling atop this morning’s snow. Heading down a trail I haven’t had a chance to step upon in months, I realized that I was among old friends who had passed by prior to the storm.

In fact, every where I went for the next two plus hours, they had been there before me.

Their tree of choice also gave away their presence and I fear that there won’t be too many red maple leaves in bloom come spring. Imagine this: a moose needs to consume fifty to sixty pounds of vegetation daily–that’s a lot of buds, twigs, and bark.

With their lower incisors and hard toothless upper palate, they grabbed the twigs and yanked to pull the buds off for consumption. Left behind were their calling cards–long dangling tags. Some were at least three feet above my head.

Also think about that moose face–homely and ungainly as it may be with a large upper lip that can wrap around the twig in order to dine, and the bell or dewlap dangling below its mouth.

With utter glee I found some hair stuck to one twig and it wasn’t the hollow shafts of its dense coat, so I wondered if in the process of browsing, hair had come off its face or dewlap.

As I said, the moose had traveled throughout the woods and I began to follow their tracks exclusively, for they always lead to coppiced red maples that are trying to make a comeback in these woods that were logged within the last five to ten years.

It was on one of the trees that I did find the hollow hair shafts, and I’ve used black arrows to try to point them out to you. There were three which seemed to intersect at the point where the twig had been swiped. Notice how straight they are, especially in contrast to the slender, curly hair.

The more I looked, the more soft, curly hairs I found. Hmmm, I have a feeling any of my hunter friends can enlighten me, for now I’m considering belly hair? Is it softer? Or am I correct in thinking about the chin hairs?

It doesn’t matter. Well, it does because I’d like to know.

And maybe the chickadees were trying to tell me as they flew in and landed on maples while singing their “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song. But what mattered most was that I got outside and cleared my brain and came up with an introduction to the challenging article: It was a dark and dreary day . . . oh drats, I can’t use that–especially since despite the snow and rain, I hardly found it dark or dreary.

I think instead, I’ll begin in the middle and see where the article takes me from there. In the meantime, though I didn’t see them, I’m tickled to know that there are still several moose in the woods behind our house.

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.

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.

Rocking the First Mondate

Christmas gifts don’t always have to cost and such was one that my guy cashed in on today. You see, I gave him a card and wrote a message within that read something like this: “Let’s travel to Tin Mountain Conservation Center’s Rockwell Sanctuary in Albany, New Hampshire, one Monday this winter. Your task will be to identify three reasons why I chose this place for us to journey. If you figure out all three, I’ll buy you a beer.”

And so we went. And I wondered how quickly he would figure it out.

At the kiosk, we examined the map and decided we’d start off on the Maple Leaf Loop to the left and stay to the left, thus covering all of the outer trails. That meant we wouldn’t see everything, but in three or four hours we would see enough. Maybe.

From the get-go, he tried to figure out what three things I had in mind. Was it the signage on the trees for he appreciated that they boasted their names?

I liked that as well, but, no, the tree signs weren’t part of the deal.

What about the trail being well marked, he wondered. Yes, that was a good thing and we do sometimes have a tendency to get “fake” lost, but donning snowshoes meant we could always backtrack and find our way out. So that wasn’t it.

Could it be the decorated Christmas tree? Well, that certainly is what introduced me to the trail system a month ago for the tree was decorated as part of the ME/NH Christmas Tree Quest I’d coordinated, but that wasn’t why I wanted to travel these trails with him.

Maybe it was Chase Pond? No again. I did, however, love its layers and really wanted to walk onto it to explore some more, but I’m not ready to trust ice recently formed and then coated with an insulating layer of a foot of snow. Soon, but not yet.

In the meantime, however, the edge of the pond presented the woody structures of Leatherleaf’s former flowers and I rejoiced. He marched on, totally oblivious, but that was okay. I knew these would capture my heart, not his, and the goal was for him to figure out the three things that would appeal to both of us.

“Could it be the beaver works?” he asked as we circled the Beaver Loop.

No, but the high ridge of an old beaver dam in the mid portion of this photo made me wish we’d seen more recent works. It appeared the beavers had done their work and moved on a few years ago.

Was it the canoe half hidden in the snow? That surely was fun to stumble upon and reminded us both of canoes at LEA’s Holt Pond in Bridgton. This looked like another case of bring your own PFD and paddles. You might throw in some duck tape, just in case. But, no, it wasn’t the canoe.

We followed Stoney’s Spur down to the water’s edge and again a question: Perhaps it was that we could be the first to make tracks in the snow? Well, sorta the first, for a fox and mink had been there before us. I reminded him that when I wrote the message on the card I had no idea exactly when we would visit the sanctuary or what the trail conditions would be so again, that wasn’t one of the thoughts on my mind.

The spur did lead us to a boardwalk and we broke trail on it before heading back around to the Laurel Loop.

A sudden stop by me and he knew that this wasn’t part of the equation for he had no idea what the structure was that drew my attention. We find these occasionally and they always make me happy. This was the capsule of a Lady’s Slipper and while I suspected that there are more such plants in these woods, we’ll have to return in the spring to verify that assumption.

The Laurel Trail lead us across Bald Hill Road and it was there that the great signage we’d enjoyed came to an abrupt end. And so we moved about searching left and right to figure out where to go next.

No blaze led diagonally behind us, but down through the trees my guy spied some yellow paint and so he checked it out before beckoning me to join him.

It was that way for much of the trail and though we enjoyed the lay of the land, we had a difficult time determining where to go next.

The glacial boulders, however, were a sight to see.

And upon one I discovered an act of gravity I didn’t understand: icicles extending outward and growing parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular to it.

Was this some sort of magnetic hill? My guy never saw these so he couldn’t add his two cents, which I would have gladly welcomed. Sometimes he sees things that make sense of what I spy.

The thing about the trail, however, was that neither of us could spy the blazes most of the time, unless we turned around and looked back. We were supposed to be exploring a loop and crossing back over the road, but suddenly found ourselves traveling back toward whence we’d come. Even with GPS, which didn’t pick up the actual trail, we could see our movement but couldn’t determine where we were supposed to be since the map wasn’t geo-referenced.

That was okay because our wander found us traveling through a Mountain Laurel field we would have otherwise missed.

My guy was rather certain the plant was not for his focus and so he moved on while I paused for the old Kodak moment.

Finally crossing back over the road by backtracking our steps for a bit, he wondered if the Owl Prowl Trail was one of the three reasons I’d chosen this place. No, though we both love owl encounters.

Crossing a bridge, he didn’t realize that he was suddenly getting hotter.

The bridge marked the outlet of Chase Pond and huge boulders formed its old damming point.

Our next left hand turn took us on to the Quarry Trail.

As we traversed it, a lightbulb went off and he asked, “The quarry?” YES! Quarries fascinate both of us and I knew he’d enjoy finding and exploring this one. He was feeling rather successful and grateful that he wouldn’t be the victim of a shut out.

At the next intersection he had his second answer: Bear Trees. Bingo. But, would we be able to actually see any?

Indeed we would. We both love the discovery of scratches left behind by the big mammals.

And so, as we climbed about through the quarry, we continued to look for beech trees with marks showing the way of the climber.

The rocks left behind offered their own interesting forms.

And the trees, lots of evidence.

There was more on the trees as well, and not all of it worth celebrating: do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among the red bloom? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insects. 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.

We preferred to focus on the scratches, some indicating a more recent visit than others, based on the width of the marks.

We kept finding them and wondered how many more there must be within the sanctuary and beyond.

It was no wonder for many of the trees are mature and, as evidenced by the husks left scattered on the snow, they’ve been producing fruits, aka beech nuts, for a long time.

After almost four miles in three hours, my guy and I finished up our trip and he was thrilled to have figured out that I chose this place for the quarry and the bear trees. But the third reason alluded him.

That’s okay. It just means we’ll have to return again so he can figure it out. Of course, that also meant no stop for a beer on the way home.

Perhaps the next time. In the meantime, we’re both still thrilled with the finds we did make as we rocked this first Mondate of the new year.

First Day 2020

We never know how many to expect for any event, but the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s First Day hikes typically attract a maximum of nine. Today, however, we were wowed as eighteen gathered.

Before leaving parking lot #2 on Slab City Road to reach the trailhead for our loop up and down Whiting Hill at the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, we all donned snowshoes and marveled at the mix of styles and colors.

Why snowshoes? Because Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow over the past two days and finally it felt like winter.

In single file, we marched along, but paused periodically, including to practice shouting. The phrase that bore repeating: Happy New Year.

Occasionally mammal prints made us stop in our tracks and for one we noted signs of urine. Hmmm, who exactly was the four-footed explorer? A red fox. And how could we be so certain? Because its pee smelled rather acrid and skunky. We initiated a few of our trekkers for they got down on all fours to take a whiff.

Other things also drew our attention along the way, including Mother Nature’s Snowball Tournament.

At last we reached the summit of Whiting, where the view encompassed Kezar Lake, but not so much the mountains for it was snowing.

While there, we shared hot cocoa and tea, pumpkin bread and scones, and lots of conversation. And again, we shouted, “Happy New Year.”

The temperature was just right and the snow the right consistency, that soon a few of us got creative.

Snow sculptures and a snowman became the focus of our intentions.

This snowman was extra classy for he chose to sport a mustache.

At first, he wanted to look into the woods, but eventually he decided to change his orientation and take in the vista of the lake and beyond.

Because we were in a festive mood, or maybe just because, a juggling act began to take shape.

In the form of snowballs.

Perhaps next year we’ll add a talent show to the day’s offerings.

In the midst of all the fun, conversations continued and old acquaintances were renewed while new friendships formed. What we love about any of our hikes is that by the end, whether you come as a frequent traveler or a newbie, you leave feeling like part of the crowd.

A couple have traveled this particular hike with us since its inception: Kitty and Dale Nelson. Kitty has been with us for three of the four years that we’ve offered a First Day hike and Dale hasn’t missed one yet.

Finally, we decided to call our time at the summit to a close. But first we needed to hear from those gathered. Mr. GLLT began by shouting: “Happy!”

To which the Mrs. added, “New!”

And the rest of us completed the phrase, “Year!” Additionally we shouted out the names of the towns we serve: “Stow, Stoneham, Sweden, Lovell, and even Chatham.”

Best wishes from all of us for a Happy New Year!

New Year's Eve Lessons 2019

When the snow falls on the last day of the year, embrace all that it has to offer.

And there’s no better way to do such than by strapping on the old snowshoes and taking a selfie. My style of selfie, that is.

As you head into the woods, the first thing you should do is locate a treasure map. You never know where it might lead. Sometimes, you’ll discover you’re traveling in circles, as I did a couple of times today.

If the map leads you under archways, be sure to duck.

Or if it presents a field of pine saplings, find your way around them. Do be sure to look for insects and spiders as you pass by.

Today, all I saw were needle-like snowflakes.

You might soon discover that you aren’t the only one on a quest: the batman-shape of prints may indicate other travelers on the snow–in this case a squirrel.

At some point, you may come to realize that others followed the directions on the map, but at an earlier time. By the muted hour-glass shape and depth of the track, you should recognize it as a white-tailed deer.

If you are really fortunate, the map will lead you to deer beds, the rounded part of each large indentation indicating the back of the mammal.

When you look up, you’ll understand why they chose this location to bed down during the night–the huge hemlock above provided some protection from the weather.

Take a few more steps and suddenly you may discover that fresh tracks had been left behind probably moments before you approached.

And though your brain may trick you into thinking the deer had gotten a head start on a New Year’s Eve party, reality will sink in when you remember that they have two basic needs: food and safety from prey.

Fresh beds may also make themselves visible and by the shape you might begin to envision a head on the snow just right of the center, the rounded back side on the left and extended legs toward the bottom right of the impression.

As you continue your journey more treasures will be revealed, like the “naked,” yet hairy buds of hobblebush keeping winter’s weather at bay.

And the waxy scales of beech buds doing the same. For some, such a sight will provide a measure of hope that spring will come again.

Be sure to enjoy all the messages on the map, such as this one: be proud of your roots and don’t be afraid to let them show.

Or this: interruptions happen and that’s probably a good thing.

Always do you best to be as transparent as possible.

Listen to you mama and dress in layers.

Don’t be afraid to cross boundaries (even if they’re marked).

Recognize that you may have some prickly moments.

And in the end, check in on old friends and make new ones.

When the last day of the year, in fact, of the decade, gives you snow . . . make a snow person.

The heartiest lesson of all: take time to laugh with it and at yourself. Ho Ho Ho!

Happy New Year, dear readers. I truly appreciate having you along for each wonder-filled wander.

Something to Pine Over

I set off on a mission this afternoon: to spy another Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. I last spied one on December 17th, and was sure the task would be a piece of cake today.

On the plot of land that I roamed, which had been owned by a paper company until about thirty years ago, stood towering pines, but also some that were about 20 years old and others mere saplings. I’d love to say each one captured my attention, and really, they all did, but there are still a million more to examine.

In the process, I began to notice that it wasn’t just the spider that would give me reason to wonder. First there was the ichneumon wasp cocoon. In size it was the same as another that I’ll share later in this post, but the metallic color and spotted pattern made it stand out. Presumably the larva that created it is a parasitoid of some caterpillars that feed on conifers.

Mind you, I was in the woods and there were patches of snow and certainly other patterns to pay attention to so I let my mind wander in the moment. And rejoiced with this find: an opossum track.

An opposable inner toe on each hind foot looks like a human thumb. In a shuffling motion as it waddles along, an opossum places its back feet just behind the front feet.

I followed this guy’s track for a bit until it disappeared into leaf cover and I suspected it might be up a tree.

And so my spider expedition continued. My next find: a tiny clump of bird feathers. But no spider in sight.

Again, I digressed, however, for on an old snag, I found lungwort growing over a burl in a formation I’ve not seen before. I’m used to finding it on the trunk of a tree, but wrapped around the rounded growth was a new presentation.

Back to the task at hand, and I suspected this was a molt of what may have been a tiger moth caterpillar. No spider yet, but I was getting more and more excited with each find.

Practically tripping over a downed tree I came upon another sight new to me. Here’s how I’m reading this story: the green capped mushrooms, violet-tooth polypore, had begun life when the tree was standing. Once it toppled, new fungi grew perpendicular to their parents so that their spores might drop downward. While I’ve seen this with other mushrooms, where new growth emerges from old, I’ve never encountered it with this species before.

Certainly that called for the reward of a spider. A dried up caterpillar molt would have to suffice in the meantime.

And then, in another patch of snow, another waddler had shuffled through. Remember the opossum pattern of the hind foot overlapping the front? Well, a raccoon’s pattern is offered in a series of alternating diagonals. One front foot and hind on the first angle, the other front and hind the opposite. And so it continues.

What made me chuckle about the raccoon was that it chose to walk on a downed tree rather than the more stable ground. Why not?

Refocusing my attention, upon another pine was a pupating ladybug beetle. Its structure strikes me as unique until I realize all insects are idiosyncratic in any stage of life. Still no spider.

Traveling through the woods was a bit difficult at times as there was no path and there were either clumps of trees growing in each others space or downed and rotting trunks. It was upon the later that I spied a bit of color from a thin-maze flat polypore, Daedaleopsis confragosa.

Its underside gave the name meaning. Can you follow the maze?

At last I turned my attention solely to the pines for the hour was getting late and the sun sinking lower and I still had to find my way out and walk home. It was then that I met an old friend in a new form. Remember the ichneumon wasp cocoon at the start of this story? Well, the pine sawfly cocoon is similar in size and shape. This one I refer to as an old friend for I encounter these on any type of tree or shrub all the time, but given that there was no opening, I knew that within the sawfly was pupating. Still no spider.

Then I found examples of those that had been sawed open. Given that the cut is always uniform, a few friends and I have taken to calling it the circular-saw fly. The fly would have emerged in the spring. Still no spider.

Finally, I found another sight new to me: double sawfly cocoons. Surely a two-seater.

I never did find the spiders I sought. But there was certainly plenty to pine over as I tramped the woods. And all of it was worth a wonder.

Stars in the Circle

I never had the good fortune to meet John A. Segur, but I’ve given him thanks repeatedly over the years. You see, Mr. Segur left a bequest to the Greater Lovell Land Trust to preserve habitat so that native wildlife might thrive.

It was my choice today to check on how that was playing out as I circumnavigated the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge from Farrington Pond Road. Since the parking lot isn’t plowed for the winter, I pulled off at the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, which actually was a better spot because I didn’t want to be enticed to follow the trails.

A wise decision it was, for as I tramped along the property line on a northeasterly route to start, a grin immediately emerged. It was the downhill slide that made me instantly happy for I knew that rather recently an otter had also visited the refuge. As it should.

The bottom of the slide ended at the shore of Farrington Pond, a view those of us who visit the refuge rarely see for there is no path to it. But I rather like it that way for bushwhacking allows for new discoveries that aren’t as sterile as a maintained trail. And I suspected Mr. Segur would have felt the same. Plus, his vision was all about a wildlife corridor.

He also would have smiled when he realized that the beavers by Farrington had been active at some point in the fall. Unfortunately, (or as I’m sure some neighbors feel: fortunately) I didn’t see any other “fresh” beaver works, though I didn’t walk all the way around the pond, so I’m not sure of their status in this locale.

But, they had visited in the past including at least ten years ago, based on the growth rings on display around the wound. It’s my understanding that Eastern Hemlock is not a favorite species of beavers and they will often girdle a tree by eating the bark and cambium layer all the way around the trunk, perhaps in hopes it will die. I’ve heard a few theories on this including that beavers do such so that their preferred species will have a chance to grow where the hemlock once provided so much shade that no other trees could set root. But here’s another to throw onto the table: what if the beaver starts to dine and then realizes the flavor is not to his liking? And so he moves on to another tree. Hey, it’s just a theory.

Another thing about beavers is that sometimes they chop down trees that don’t exactly fall as planned. In this case, the entire upper portion dangles from another in the form of a widow maker–as in, don’t stand, or in this case sit, below it.

While studying the tree and thinking about the beaver, I looked down to the pond and saw more mammal sign. Can you spot the otter slide?

Eventually my bushwhack led me toward a stream crossing where the ice wasn’t exactly solid. But the bubbles that had formed within it were like little round spirals that reminded me of the inside of abalone shells. Or perhaps snails.

Suddenly, leaf cracklings filled the air that had been silent except for the sound of wind whooshing at a higher elevation. It took my eyes a few moments to discover the source of the noise, and then I realized I was near a flock of robins. My movement disturbed them, but they didn’t fly far and so we each spent a few moments contemplating our next moves.

As I stood there, I noticed a small tuft of feathers stuck to a hemlock branch, which reminded me that I need to stand still more often for it’s in those moments that things make themselves visible.

Finally I carried on, pausing again, however, when an old, old Yellow Birch showed off the stilts upon which it grew. From their height, I could just imagine the long rotted trunk that once served as its nurse tree, allowing its seed to germinate and set down roots.

Nearby was another ancient, this one a hemlock that preferred to begin life in the same manner as the Yellow Birch. I was sure it had stories to tell and know I’ll return one day soon to spend some time enwrapped by those roots as I listen.

The trees led the way to the wetland and I really, really wanted to explore it, but because I was alone (well, not exactly alone for Mr. Segur was with me kinda sorta, not really) I thought that that too should wait for another day.

If you peer closely at the snow-covered ice beginning from the lower right hand corner and moving toward the shrubs, you may spy the track of another mammal. Do you recognize the pattern? Once you learn patterns, you don’t always have to see the prints up close to know the creators.

Finally, I decided to turn away from Farrington Pond for there was another wetland on the property that I wanted to visit. But first, I found an old beaver dam. Given the lower level of water behind it, I knew that it was not in use, but it looked like a mighty sturdy structure.

Across the landscape I made my way, noting tracks of a million wild animals. Well, maybe not a million, but certainly many including coyote, fox, deer, raccoon, squirrel, vole, mouse, hare, weasel, and fisher. Some were fresh, while others a bit diluted from fluctuating temperatures. This was a place where the mammals wander freely as Mr. Segur intended.

In so doing, I also spied some puff balls that reminded me of applehead dolls with their weathered faces.

There were others who also offered a different take on their natural form–one might call this the star steeple for aster seeds had landed upon the woody structure of steeplebush capsules.

And then in a field I made a “new to the property” discovery: Tamarack trees. I love the nubs that once supported their leaves (aka needles) and the upright cones. Cones remain on the trees for about two years. I wondered about them being upright, but I suppose that as the scales open to release the winged seeds, they catch the breeze and rather than merely rain down below their parent, they are uplifted to a new location.

Continuing my bushwhack, I also continued to keep a keen eye on the world.

But there were a couple of locations I wanted to check on before my time with Mr. Segur ended. At last I reached Sucker Brook and again I chose not to venture onto the ice. One of these days.

From there, it was on to another place more secret than the last that I had my sights set upon. First, however, I stopped to look at the marcescent beech leaves, some like this one that were mere skeletons of themselves so thoroughly had they been munched. It was almost like all that was left was the backbone and rib cage.

Seeing this reminded me of a spring day on this property about four years ago: A Perfect Beech Day. On that day I’d been wowed by the unfurling beech leaves and noticed how hairy they were. In my book, the hairs are meant to keep insects at bay, and yet beech leaves are attacked by many, many little bugs. On that day I also made a bunch of other cool discoveries. You really should click the link above and read about it.

Speaking of little bugs, I also found a pupating ladybug beetle, its form so unique. If I hadn’t known, I never would have guessed it was a ladybug.

At last I reached that spot that I think of as the secret garden. There isn’t an official trail to it, but over the years many have had the opportunity to discover it on their own and been wowed. That’s how I think Mr. Segur would have liked it. We don’t need trails bisecting every inch of a property. We just need more curious people.

This is a spot where three beaver lodges are located as one gazes north.

In the distance to the south there are two more, but you’ll have to visit the secret spot in order to see them.

While you are there, don’t forget to honor the Rhodora, which is slowly preparing to wow all of us in the spring.

And if you choose to bushwhack out, eventually you might stumble upon the inflated capsule of Indian Tobacco. (Hint: it’s near the edge of an opening)

A little more than three hours and over three miles after beginning, my time wandering the property with Mr. Segur had drawn to a close.

I gave thanks to him for showing me all the stars within and surrounding the circle.

On the Fringe

When Pam and I decided to meet this morning we knew it was going to be the coldest day of the season and so we’d need to dress accordingly. For me, it was six layers on top, two on my legs, wool socks, a hat and buff, plus mittens and hand warmers. Her ensemble was similar.

We met on the side of a road by an old stomping ground we’ve been eager to revisit for there was a certain porcupine that had been calling our names since last winter.

He didn’t let us down. Almost immediately we spotted his track pattern and the hole that serves as an entrance to his home.

His prints weren’t super clear, but I suspected some snow had blown into them after he’d made his way home about sunrise this morning. We could also see more muted prints that led away from the hole and decided that those were made just prior to last night’s snow squalls.

We looked around the area for other signs of his presence and found a vent hole or two above his underground home.

Outlined with hoar frost, we knew this guy was snug within his living quarters.

But, the question remained: where had last night’s adventure taken him? His track passed by the hemlock he spent last winter in and we noted that all the twigs he’d snipped off now decorated the ground as skeletons of their past, needleless as they were.

He led us to another hemlock tree that he seemed to pause beside and perhaps climb, but he didn’t do any dining there. A chipmunk had also raced around a wee bit later than the porcupine.

Sometimes he waddled over downed trees.

Other times he went under them and we had to find an easier way around, all the while making sure that in wet spots, we didn’t fall through any ice. It was a bit tricky to say the least, but we were determined.

At last our question was answered when we saw disturbance in the snow and oak leaves. Mr. Porcupine had come to forage for acorns.

We even found a spot where it appeared he’d paused to dine. And the track of a vole. One of the things I love about snow is the information it gives us and the fact that it makes us think about the story. The porcupine’s story ends there for our adventure, as the acorn feast was his turn around point. From there, his track returned to his den.

We, on the other hand, went looking for more and on our way to a brook that slices through the property, we discovered many ornamental icicles decorating the trees, each with its own interpretation of form and structure.

Our hope was to get as close to the water as possible, for there we were sure we’d spot others who had passed through the landscape. To keep from falling through the thin ice, however, we had to cross from one Cousin Itt clump to another.

If anyone tracked us later in the day, they must have thought, “Hmmm, human paused here for .minute, then took a giant step to get to the next Cousin Itt.” And they would have been correct in their assumption.

It was closer to the edge, where the winterberries and sweetgale grew, that Pam spied another ornament to add to nature’s Christmas tree.

The remains of a small bald-faced wasp nest dangled from the shrub. One cannot view such without wondering about the fact that the wasps had collected plant and wood fiber, mixed it with saliva, and chewed it into a papier-mâché of their own form. And in so doing, though this nest was smaller than some we’ve encountered, its structure was the same. This happens over and over again in nature and my awe never ends.

Eventually, we left that spot and journeyed to another. Not far along, we recognized another old friend, a snow lobster, I mean snowshoe hare.

Typically with hoppers, leapers, and bounders, I don’t take time to measure the stride because it can vary so much, stride being the length from one set of prints to the next. But, this was one huge hop and so out came my tape measure. Mind you, it’s a six foot measure. And by the black lines you can see that the hare flew through the air and landed almost seven feet from his jumping off point.

We followed him for a few minutes and then got distracted by the bird prints that were everywhere . . . as were the hemlock and birch seeds. Tis the season, and while folks aren’t necessarily finding birds at their feeders, I hear and/or see them every time I step into the woods. Let’s hope the same holds true for next week’s Christmas Bird Count. BTW: these are junco tracks.

A ruffed grouse had also wandered through and we laughed as we followed his track for he made some abrupt turns.

Again, making our way to the brook that crossed through this property, we found other cool things to admire and wonder about, including the Blackberry Knot Gall. Of course, we didn’t know it’s exact name at the time, but some homework helped with the ID. Apparently, the Blackberry Knot Gall Wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) laid numerous eggs in the plants cane and the plant accommodated such by creating an abnormal growth. Being colonial, there’s a group of larval wasps wintering inside. I did wonder, however, if the hole was created by a very hungry woodpecker or some other bird. This one will need repeat visits so we can keep track of any ongoing activity.

Besides more bird tracks, lots of bird tracks, we found a set of gray squirrel tracks and chuckled as we noticed his attempt to climb to the top of the tree, at which point it appeared that he decided not to jump to the other side of the brook, but rather to run back down and cross via the ice. The brook isn’t entirely frozen, so his journey was precarious at best.

For a bit, we followed the brook to the wetland, a wetland that we love to explore in winter, but again, the conditions were such and I did break through some ice, that we finally turned around. But really, we may have continued if it hadn’t been for the temperature and wind.

When she arrived home, Pam sent me this image. I think saying it “feels like 2˚” may have been an understatement. It was our feet that proved to be the coldest. Later, we each admitted that it took a hot bath/shower to finally warm up. A cup of tea also helped do the trick.

Despite that, we were grateful for the opportunity to travel the fringes of the wetlands during the fringe season as fall turns to winter in western Maine.

Laughing All The Way, Ho, Ho, Ho

It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.

And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.

Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.

Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.

Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.

Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).

Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.

The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.

It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)

Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.

Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.

We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.

And so Joe did.

And Dawn followed suit.

It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.

I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.

At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.

Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.

Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.

And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?

There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.

This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.

And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.

One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.

Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.

I bet you can see it now.

I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.

Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.

We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.