Learning in the Forest

Today was field trip day. Well, actually, every day is field trip day. This week’s trips have included Kezar Lake and the Kezar River Reserve in Lovell, as well as Holt Pond in Bridgton. But today, it was further afield as I drove north to China, Maine, to introduce Erika Rowland, Executive Director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and Alanna Doughty, Education Director of Lakes Environmental Association to a special person and a special place.

The special place is one that allows children young and old to use natural materials to build faerie houses. I’ve been entranced by such since my youth–thanks be to my father and his Scottish ancestry, and our “Aunt” Betsy, (she isn’t related, but she’s always been a wonderful aunt) who often took us on a picnic to the fairy table in her woods.

Faeries (fairies) love quiet places and their homes come in many forms. They’re best made from scavenged materials. Imagination rules and nature provides all the things needed for such creative architecture.

This particular village is identified by a sign that provides a list of materials both appropriate and inappropriate.

A wee bit further along the trail, we happened upon another spot that hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s a collaborative effort between our hostess and last year’s fifth grade class.

The kiddos studied Maine mammals and then created a scavenger hunt. Erika, Alanna, and I continued to channel our inner kid and looked left, right, high, and low to spy the critters that share these woods. From coyotes to . . .

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

a moose, they were a pleasant surprise all along the way. If you have a smartphone available, you can learn more about them.

And if there are mammals, then there must be tracks.

We checked the gravely mammal “pit” and discovered pointed toenail prints leading us to think coyote. Had the silhouette come alive?

Continuing on, we came to an old log landing, where pine saplings happily inhabited the clearing. Our hostess, Anita, showed off the recent crazy growth years. Each year, a White Pine produces a whorl of branches, thus allowing one to age the tree by counting from one whorl to the next. And in between–well, the tree grows. Some years, the growth is extensive if conditions are right, such as this 18″ spurt one year and a similar one above the next.

A couple of trees, however, showed off the efforts of a White Pine Weevil. Brown, wilted main shoots (terminal leaders) featured tips curved into a shepherd’s crook. More on that later.

In the midst of all the pines, I was wowed by another tree with needles. It’s one that begs a handshake every time.

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

Even upon its trunk, the needles do splay . . . like an aster, but they won’t last long for a Tamarack (aka Larch, Hackmatack) is a deciduous conifer and already they are turning their golden autumnal color.

The Tamarack wasn’t the only star, for cedars also added a different texture to the woods.

And then . . . and then . . . we came upon the Treehouse. A handicap accessible treehouse.

It’s known as the Reading Tree, but it’s more than that, which the interpretive sign explains. Remember that White Pine Weevil damage we saw at the log landing? Well, the White Pine that the treehouse surrounds was a long-ago weeviled tree. When a pine is weeviled, the leader shoot dies and the whorl from the previous year take on the task of growing skyward.

The treehouse is built to accommodate its growth and let the sun in.

It also provides a fantastic place for all to blend in to its structure.

Of course, if you climb the tree, you might have to spend a bit of time in “Timeout.” But really, what a pleasure to do both.

We didn’t want to leave the treehouse behind and actually considered moving in, but onward our journey continued to a spot where the story transitions to mathematical computations. A cord of wood in the background, a chance to measure board feet in the foreground. It’s all a part of this special place, where classrooms abound . . . in the forest.

It didn’t stop there. A fence with cut-outs high and low let us peek at more local wildlife. Had we been with a class of twenty or more elementary school children, we surely would have scared the birds away. But . . .

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

At the end of the wall, the interpretive sign offers clues of those one might see.

Leaving the wall, as we walked toward a wetland, movement at our feet led to the realization that we’d disturbed two garter snakes trying to grasp the rays of today’s limited sun.

Onto a bridge originally built by students twenty plus years ago in the man-made wetland, we paused to covet the outdoor classroom.

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

And they were all possible because of our incredible hostess, Anita Smith. Anita is a retired teacher, Maine Master Naturalist, and Project Learning Tree Advocate.

Her community close to home appreciates her, but so do the rest of us for as I’ve learned, Anita is alway happy to share what she and others have created to educate all ages.

Before we drove back to western Maine, we had one last wonder to fill our day–the woody capsules of Lady’s Slippers gone by that grow in clumps like we typically don’t see anywhere else.

Thanks to Anita and all her volunteers, we spent today wandering the China School’s Working Forest in China, Maine, and loved exploring the twenty or so learning stations set up on the fifty-plus acre forest. Neither Greater Lovell Lovell Land Trust or Lakes Environmental Association can replicate the China School Forest, but our take-away was immense and we loved the opportunities to learn in the forest.

Scavenger Hunt at Kezar River Reserve

As I walked along the trails of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Kezar River Reserve on Route 5 across from the Wicked Good Store today and thought about the fact that the Storybook Trail featuring Pond by Jim LaMarche will come down in another week or so, a brainstorm struck me. Why not create a scavenger hunt that you can download on your Smartphone and look for as you walk along the trail? Why not, indeed.

Give yourself 1 point for every successful find. Subtract 2 points for any that you miss. At the end, a special prize awaits all who complete the hunt.

So, let’s get started. The route will take us from the kiosk to the beginning of the orange-blazed trail on the left (currently this part of the loop is the Storybook Trail). Look up and down and see if you can locate an example of each of these items.

With Halloween just around the corner, the witches must find their brooms–in this case: Witch’s Broom (a deformity caused by anything from mites, aphids, and nematodes to fungi, viruses, and bacterial organisms.)

When the flower of this translucent plant turns upright, it has been fertilized and a woody capsule containing its seeds will form: Indian Pipe.

Decorating the ground, this leafy foliage with its brown fruiting structures is soft and pliable when wet, but crisp when dry: Wrinkle Lichen.

Though this tree has vertical strips of dark gray to black ridges that intersect like ski trails on a mountain, the inner bark in the furrows provide its name: Northern Red Oak.

This plant may lack flashy flowers and height, but the berries are worth noting. Tiny white blooms occur in pairs and both flowers must be pollinated to produce a single viable fruit. After fertilization, the two flowers’ ovaries fuse and mature into a solitary scarlet berry: Partridge-berry.

In case you haven’t heard, the sky has been falling in loud KERPLUNKS for several weeks. Look for this structure upon the forest floor: the cap of a Northern Red Oak Acorn.

How to make an acorn cap whistle (and drive the world crazy with the shrill sound).

1. Position the cap so the inside faces you. 

2. Place your thumb knuckles over the acorn in a V shape, with a triangle of the cap showing between your thumbs.

3. Put your upper lip on top of your knuckles. Position your lips so that when you blow no, air will escape out of your bottom lip.

4. Blow through your top lip right into the triangle that you made in step 3. 

5. Watch your friends and family run for cover. 

So move on to quieter things and look for another foliose (leafy structure) lichen you should be able to identify even as you ride down the road because its common form is easy to spot: a Shield Lichen.

Actually, by now you should have reached the road to the boat launch. Turn left and head downhill. Your next treasure will be located closer to the water because it likes damp feet.

While most trees and shrubs bloomed months ago, this species is only just displaying its ribbony yellow flower: Witch Hazel.

And if you find the right shrub, you may notice some twirled ribbons hanging from it–each bears a wish written by the GLLT’s After-school Trailblazers last year. We fondly refer to it as Wish Hazel.

Another who loves water also grows here and is actually a member of the Cattail family. Notice its beaked fruits and the spider web connecting all parts: American Bur-weed.

As you walk back up the road to the second and longer section of the orange-blazed trail on your left, look at the foliage by your feet, set before you like a colorful tapestry. Can you locate the tree where these two species met: Red Maple on Paper Birch bark?

Once on the trail again, look down at your feet and eventually you’ll find a castle under the pine needles–why this funny formation? Rather than me telling you what it is, I’ll let you tell me what happened here. Five extra points if you can explain it.

A certain insect attaches its 5/8-inch cocoon lengthwise on a tree branch. After overwintering last year, the flying insect emerged in the spring as evidenced by the hole at the left end. Look for these and if you see one that is capped, you’ll know that the insect is pupating inside: Sawfly Cocoon.

This one is my favorite and I always conjure up an image of it when I want to remember which trees rot from the outside in. The answer is conifers for they heartwood is not porous and does contain resins that are toxic to insects. But . . . this tree is a wee bit different than its relatives for its bark is the most rot resistant. It’s long been a shell of itself, but is starting to fall apart at last: Eastern Hemlock.

As you continue on, pay attention to the orange blazes. Can you find the diamond and arrow that decorate this tree? Five extra points if you can identify the tree species upon which they are nailed.

Maybe you’ll see the real deal or another critter as you make your way along the trail. But if not, there’s always this fine artwork: Eastern Chipmunk.

And then nature’s classroom opens up and beckons you to touch and practice some dramatic role playing.

Greet each type of evergreen with a handshake as you get to know it better. Does it feel like you’re touching spikes? Can you take a needle off and roll it in your hand? Does the needle have four sides? If you answered yes to all, you’ve found a spiky Spruce.

Did you notice with the spruce that each needle grew singly from the twig? This one is similar. And both stand up straight and tall as if they were in the military. Can you roll the needle in your hand? If not, then you’ve met: Balsam Fir.

Be like a balsam and stand up straight–believe me, it will help you remember who you are greeting the next time you meet.

A third who also holds its needles in singular fashion, provides a lacier look than the other two evergreens. Again, shake its hand. Can you roll the needles or are they flat? Does the terminal leader stand up straight like the spruce and fir, or does it bend over as if in a dancing motion? Raise a hand high and lean it over the top of your head: be like an Eastern Hemlock.

Two other conifers that call the Kezar River Reserve home feature needles in bundles. The first has flexible needles in a bunches of five, which you can use to spell two words; W-H-I-T-E or M-A-I-N-E for it is the state tree of Maine: Eastern White Pine.

Another way to remember this tree is to stick out your arms for its branches grow in whorls, one whorl/year; and shake your five fingers at the end of your branches.

The second has much stiffer and longer needles in bundles of two, which don’t spell its name of three letters: Red Pine.

Take a needle off and snap it in half.

You’re nearing the end of the trail and the last item on your hunt. Did you pass by this flower that is perennially in bloom–at least in this painting created by a local student about ten years ago. You probably noticed that the paintings decorate the entire trail system. They are all sweet and some require more interpretation than others.

And though this flower doesn’t bloom here, we do have it on or near another trail at a different GLLT property–Yellow Lady’s Slipper.

Remember, it was 1 point for each correct find. And minus 2 for any you missed. But plus 5 for a couple of items. If you found them all, you should have a total of 31.

If you need a bonus worth 5 points, look for an interesting insect marching about on leaves, the ground, or tree bark. I found one today: a Green Assassin Bug.

By now, you should have completed the Scavenger Hunt and reached the road to the boat launch again. Rather than turning left toward your car parked by the kiosk, turn right and head back down to the bench overlooking Kezar River to receive your prize.

Drum roll please . . . as winner of the Scavenger Hunt at Kezar River Reserve, you have earned bragging rights and a chance to sit by the river and take in the view. It’s a lovely place to spend a few moments or hours. Congratulations.

OK, so you already know what the prize will be, but still, head on out there and see what you might discover along the path. And let me know how you did.

Celebrating the Ette

Having a tendency to be a bit prickly in certain situations, I can relate to one who exudes this characteristic.

And today was even more special because I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes in the presence of the immature form of my prickly friend whose “English name, ‘porcupine,’ comes from the Latin for quill and pig (porcus = pig and spina = quill). The scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum translates loosely as ‘creature with an aroused back.'” (Thanks PM)

Yes, it was a young porcupine that I met upon a gravel driveway. And the pleasure was all mine. For a moment, however, I did wonder about its daytime foraging habit. Was there something wrong with this critter, e.g. rabies, for he and his parents are generally nocturnal? But, as I watched, I was reassured that it was just out enjoying a mid-afternoon snack.

And in watching, I actually got to see the motion that I know so well through its parents’ winter footprints left in the snow. Notice how the feet on the right side are both in motion and the left side supports the rodent’s weight for a quick second, before it all switches to the opposite side? All with the toes turned in, of course. And nails extended out front. You know who else waddles in such a manner? A bear. And minus the quills, who does the porcupine remind you of?

Periodically, as he crossed the drive, he stopped and stood on two feet. I wanted to think he was checking me out as I checked him out, but really, a porcupine’s eyesight is rather poor. Instead, as he develops so do his two best senses: sound and smell. Did he perhaps sniff me?

I don’t think so. What he was really intent upon were the acorns that had fallen from a Northern Red Oak that towered above.

Lately, it seems, no matter where I am in the woods, I realize that the sky is falling as acorns land with kerplunks. And porcupines, after all, are herbivores, feasting as they do on all that our forests and fields have to offer in the spring and summer, and then bark and twigs and the underpinnings of our barns in the winter.

Every once in a while, this little guy turned his back on me. Had he been an adult, I would have seen the action as a defensive mode for they are known to spin around so that their tails face the predator during a confrontation. If attacked, an adult will use the tail to strike its assailant. And those quills—they detach easily and with their barbed ends become embedded in the skin of the attacker. But . . . it’s a misconception to think that a porcupine can eject or throw its quills.

This babe was born in the spring, somewhere between April and June. I’m assuming (never assume—if you know what I mean) he was an early babe and is now independent since he appeared to be moving about with no parents watching anxiously. He won’t reach sexually maturity until next September. Until then, he’ll enjoy life on his own.

Our time together, wasn’t long as I said, but I was grateful for a few moments to celebrate the porcup-ette, as a young one is known. Here’s to you, little prickly pig.

Making a New Friend, Naturally

I don’t always find it easy to get to know someone upon our first greeting, especially if our time together is brief. And sometimes it takes me a year or even longer to feel comfortable in the presence of another. But there was something a wee bit different about today’s encounter that encouraged me to break down any false barriers.

Maybe it was because at first glance I thought an old friend had stopped by for the clothing it wore on its back looked familiar.

But my old friend, Ashy, wears a cloak with a yellow triangular spot on segment eight on the coat tails and segments nine and ten have no coloration above.

If you look back at my new acquaintance, you’ll realize that the pattern is quite different all the way to the hem line.

That’s when I began to realize I was in the presence of someone I hadn’t had the pleasure to meet before. Or, if I had, perhaps I hadn’t taken the time to notice the idiosyncrasies that earned it a name. To really get to know him.

Notice, for instance, the wide black shoulder stripe on the side of his thorax.

And the spines along the thigh of his hind leg.

Those two features were key, but there was more to see: look at the thorax again. Can you see two long, thin bluish-green ovals and the “I” that separates them?

Because he looked similar in some ways to Ashy and another friend I know as Sir Lancelot, I wondered if he’d be comfortable with an up close and personal meeting.

It appeared he didn’t mind as my steel-gray-blue eyes peered into his of vivid green.

He didn’t stay on my finger long and despite the fact that he was at least a half inch longer than his cousins, he felt like a lightweight.

I, of course, could not let the chance encounter pass without another opportunity to gain a closer perspective.

He seemed to feel the same . . .

and ever so slowly climbed aboard again. Three times we stared at each other, but each time it was only for a brief period.

At last he flew off and I could only hope that he felt as excited about our meeting as I did.

My only other hope is that the next time we meet, I remember his name: Black-shouldered Spinyleg Clubtail Dragonfly or Dromogomphus spinosus.

Today, I made a new friend, naturally. And it wasn’t so hard after all.

Echos of Hey YOU!

It’s not every day one gets to board a replica of the famed Mississippi River Paddle Wheelers. And especially not in western Maine.

But so I did, along with a slew of other adults and sixth graders today. And before our eyes, the Songo River Queen II transformed into an outdoor classroom.

For more than twenty years, Lakes Environmental Association has offered an educational cruise to those students who have completed the Living Connections Program in Lake Region Schools.

Each year, the weather differs from hot to cold to windy to calm to sunny to cloudy on cruise day. Today–on the chilly side, but calm and overcast.

Our cruise activity coordinator, the one and only Mary Jewett of Lakes Environmental Association fame, once sat in the very seats the students occupied. Mary is a naturalist/educator for LEA and spends the school year teaching classes about the watershed. Her job today, despite a hoarse voice and germs, was to quiz the kids about the knowledge they’ve gained. I’m always impressed with the understanding these kids have of their place.

Of course, no cruise is complete without someone at the helm and as always it was Captain Kent blowing the departure horn and steering the boat. While Mary asked questions and awarded prizes of seed bombs, LEA pencils and stickers, and track cards, Captain Kent took us on a tour of the lake. Every once in a while, he slowed the boat down and announced some odd behavior along the shore line.

His first spotting was of two women throwing sand from a wheel barrow onto a beach. Adding sand to replenish or enhance an existing beach can have a huge impact on water quality because it contains the nutrient phosphorus, which feeds algae. When sand washes into the lake during a rain event, the phosphorus is carried along and essentially fertilizes the waterbody. Phosphorus occurs naturally, but think of it as junk food for the algae. Too much is too much and the algae will grow out of control and turn the water green, thus decreasing water clarity. Point blank: in Maine it is illegal to add sand to a beach.

To get the ladies to stop, the kids stood up and shouted, “Hey YOU!”

And the ladies responding by hiding. Sorta.

More questions from Mary, such as, “What is phosphorus and how do you spell it?” And then Captain Kent announced the sighting of another infraction. Fertilizer was being spread at random.

On the same property, someone was spraying a weed killer, while another person mowed the lawn too short.

Again: a Hey YOU! chorus greeted the folks on land.

“Who me?”

Yes, you because the fertilizer and herbicide will wash into the water during a rainstorm. And by cutting the grass so short, there is nothing to stop the rain from flowing across the well manicured lawn, picking up those pollutants and more before dumping them into the lake.

Still Mary’s questions continued and prizes were awarded. And then Captain Kent spied more illegal work being done along the shoreline. A crew was loping the vegetative buffer, which should be left in place to filter the water that does flow from the house toward the lake.

Again: a Hey YOU! chorus greeted the folks on land.

And again, the people ran.

And hid. Sorta.

At last it was time for Captain Kent to turn the boat to the port side and we passed by an LEA Test Site. Below the bouy, a floating line holds in-lake data loggers that acquire high resolution temperature measurements. The loggers, which are also referred to as HOBO sensors, provide a detailed record of temperature fluctuations within the water column. They remain in place from ice-out until late fall. From these, LEA staff gain a better understanding of the thermal structure, water quality, and extent and impact of climate change and weather patterns on the waterbody tested.

Just beyond the bouy, Mary announced that it was time for half of the group to each lunch on the lower deck, and the other half to split into their four pre-assigned groups and make their way through four stations. My station was the Secchi Disk.

I showed the kids the eight-inch disk painted with four quadrants. We talked about how the disk is slowly lowered into the water on a metered tape.

On deck, the kids looked at the disk through the Aqua-Scope, similar to how a monitor watches it closely when actually on the water. When I asked why the black cup at the top of the view scope, in each group at least one figured out that it cuts out glare.

We did toss the disk into the water, but we couldn’t use the scope since we were several feet above. Still, they got the idea. When the white quadrant on the disk completely disappear, a depth reading is taken.

Our conversation also included factors that make the water turbid or difficult to see through like erosion, sediment, gasoline and oil.

And they learned to spell Secchi.

After completing quick lessons at each of the stations, which also included a core sampler, temperature and oxygen profile, and Van-Dorn style sampler, the two groups switched places and we offered the same information four more times.

And then everyone returned to the upper deck, and Mary’s quiz questions changed from information she’d reviewed with them in class to specific questions about each station (which was really a review also of their class material).

But . . . what to Captain Kent’s wondering eyes should suddenly appear? A team about to cut trees beside the water.

Just before the chain saw connected with the tree . . . the Hey YOU! chorus shouted.

Again, the reaction was similar. Who me?

Yes, you.

The state has guidelines limiting the amount of vegetation that can be cut within 100 feet of the high-water mark.

The tree crew got the message. And ran.

Can you find both hiding spots?

By now the kids were really into their shoreland zoning enforcement job and Mary had to remind them that some people were out on the lake doing legal things such as installing docks.

One student did point out a silt fence that surrounding a building project, but the project itself brought up the question of whether or not it was legal to add on to a structure located so close to the lake. Thankfully, Captain Kent knows each and every property along the shoreline since he’s travelled this route many times a day during the cruise season. He informed the group that this project was not an addition, but rather a replacement.

By the Naples Town Beach, the kids realized that a group of women were dancing and tossing cans into the water.

Again: a Hey YOU! chorus greeted the folks on land.

And again they ran to hide.

Just beyond the town dock, however, a man was bathing.

By now you know what they said and what he did.

At last it was time to return to the dock, but all around Long Lake in Naples, I suspect people can still hear “Hey YOU! Hey YOU! Hey YOU!” reverberating.

Looking for Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a fungi that next attracted the group.

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

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

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

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

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

They did. And then they slid.

And looked.

And spotted.

And wondered.

And wondered some more.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m with the TREES

When Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association asked me to join her in co-leading and co-sponsoring a tree identification walk during Great Maine Outdoor Week(end) at LEA’s Highland Research Forest in Bridgton, I jumped at the opportunity. Alanna, you see, is a great joy to be in the presence of and I knew she’d make it a fun and unique experience.

I wasn’t disappointed; nor were the thirteen others who joined us this morning for a two-hour hike that turned into two and a half and even a little bit more.

Alanna had gone out ahead of us and placed hearts with tree-related information along the trail we’d travel. Our crew was a delightful mix that included young and old, with members of LEA and the Greater Lovell Land Trust, which I was representing, as well as a woman from North Conway and man from Portland. Yes, Linda and Henri–that would be the two of you.

The first heart provided information about hemlock trees and after she read it, we encouraged everyone to channel their inner hemlock and so they leaned as this particular evergreen does. Check out those smiles. Don’t you want to be a hemlock too?

Of course, because we were among the trees on this property that the David and Carol Hancock Charitable Trust donated to LEA several years ago, and the snow was super soft from yesterday’s storm, the mammal tracks were outstanding.

One of the favorites of the day–that of the snowshoe hare. It’s not often that one can see the hare’s toes so clearly, but today was the day. And as David Brown’s Trackards indicated, the footprint size depends upon the conditions.

When it came to demonstrating and identifying the action of the mammal there were two rock stars among our group. Alanna was one for she got down on all fours and demonstrated how a hare moves (before she sorta fell). And Pam Marshall was the other for she correctly identified and shared information about how to recognize all of the track and print patterns that we saw. Pam only began tracking this year with the GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers, but she’s a quick study.

Onward we trekked, pausing whenever we saw a heart of red. And each time, Alanna’s voice came through in the message. Love at first bite! Indeed.

At a beech tree, we paused for a bit longer as we noted not only the twigs and buds that are beginning to swell, but also talked about how bear claw marks are most visible on them and how the beech scale insect has altered the once smooth look of the bark. The word marcescent, meaning withering but remaining attached to the stem, also entered the conversation.

After a bit of time, we emerged onto a wetland where only last week Alanna and a couple of people including one in our midst, Anne, had spotted a hole and lots of tracks and scat left behind by an otter. Today, no sign of that member of the weasel family, but still . . . we enjoyed the warmth of the sun.

And I took advantage of the time to dress Alanna as a twig. She was the perfect Miss Twiggy model and Henri took time to pose with her.

Back in the woods, we were stopped in our tracks by the tracks of another weasel–a mink.

And then as we retraced out steps and paused by a speckled alder to admire its male and female catkins and last year’s cones, someone honed in on something that wasn’t a remnant of yesterday’s snowstorm.

The cottony white masses of wooly alder aphids decorated a couple of branches. As Alanna explained, in a symbiotic relationship, during the warmer months, ants stroke the aphid with their antennae, while the aphid releases a drop of honeydew, much like a cow being milked. It’s actually rather creepy. Today, there were no ant farmers about, but a few like Justin, did step forward to take a closer look.

After that, we were confronted with a math problem. And you thought we were just out for a walk in the woods.

Finally, well sorta, we made our way back to an opening and stood around enjoying hot cocoa and tea, plus some goodies, and each others company.

Sherpa Anne had been kind enough to haul the supplies to the opening for us as our trek began. I know she was thankful she didn’t have to pull the sled all the way out to the wetland. And we were thankful for the good tidings it bore.

You see, Alanna is a woman of many, many talents, and baking is one of them.

Did she get carried away with the cookie cutters?

We didn’t think so for we all love Maine.

And we also love trees, including red oaks with their bristly-tipped leaves and acorns.

That wasn’t all Alanna had created.

Her tree model was to be envied (at least by me). And she explained the different functions, from roots to leaves and outer bark to inner workings.

And just in case you are interested, I’ve come up with a new mnemonic, because we love memory aids.

Xylem is the vascular tissue in plants that conducts water and dissolved nutrients upward from the root and also helps to form the woody element in the stem.

Phloem is the vascular tissue in plants that conducts sugars and other metabolic products downward from the leaves.

My mnemonic: Xy high (think upward); Phlo low (think downward).

Of course, that didn’t occur to me until several hours later.

Before we finished off our delightful morning, there was one last heart with tree information to read. Hmmm. Porcupines, bark, needles, scat, look up? “You might spot one dining!”

And so up we looked.

And down as well. We found some tracks and even took a closer look at some comma-shaped scat.

Because . . . the resident male was high up in the tree! Look at that handsome fella! We did. Over and over again. Henri was sure we had planted him and that he wasn’t real.

But he was. And if you look closely, you might see his orange teeth which one (like me) could almost mistake for a Valentine heart. Check out those toe nails. And can you see the rough soles of his feet, the better to grip the tree with?

Male porcupines are known to hang out on a tree during the day. I know we’re particularly thrilled about this one because he hasn’t let us down yet.

Think about this–while the male was hanging out in the sun, porcupines (like the one that lives under our barn) typically stay in their dens until dusk and then head off to munch on bark and needles in the darkest and coldest hours of a day. That’s to be admired.

So is the work of our two organizations, Lakes Environmental Association and the Greater Lovell Land Trust. Both of us are with the Trees and we loved sharing the trail together this day.

We’re doing the same again on Sunday at 12:30 in Lovell, where we’ll go on a Porcupine Prowl–will we actually see the rodent as we did today? Who knows, but we’ll have fun as we join together again to celebrate Great Maine Outdoor Week(end).

I’m with the TREES. Are you?