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?

Porcupine: Down Low, Up High

While the ground hog won’t see his shadow in Maine tomorrow because he’s a true hibernator, his rodent cousin the porcupine may have to serve as a stand in. And ’round these parts, there are plenty of stand ins available.

A couple of friends and I searched for one today. We had barely begun tramping when we recognized its telltale sign of discolored snow.

Truth be told, we knew the porcupine lived there, but weren’t sure how this past week’s snow storm had affected it. And so we journeyed closer to take a better look. The hole is actually an old bank burrow that had once belonged to a beaver. Porcupines are known to take advantage of such if it’s high and dry.

One of the things that always grabs my attention is the action of the animal as evidenced by its means of entry and departure. Standing there, I could envision it emerging from the hole, using its long claws to get a grip, turning to the left and then swaying to the right. The waddling motion of its hair and quill covered body adds a dimension to the story for if you look carefully you’ll see the wavy impression left behind.

Because its a frequent traveler from den to preferred trees, the entire body, that weighs anywhere from seven to forty pounds, can form quite a trough. Typically the trough is up to nine inches wide in the snow. Within those we saw today, recently cast prints showed the bumpy bottom surface of the foot pad and the five nail marks that extended across the front.

The mammal’s identification was further enhanced by other evidence–quills. The hollow structures were tipped with black barbs. Paul Rezendes, in his book Tracking and the Art of Seeing, states that “the porcupine’s scientific name [Erethizon dorsatum] can be loosely translated as ‘the animal with the irritating back.'” Indeed, many domesticate dogs and their owners would agree with that description.

Because we were on our hands and knees looking, we also noticed soft, wavy hair on the snow. A porcupine’s body is covered with at least 30,000 quills on its back, shoulders and the upper surface of its tail, but it’s not only those large stiff hairs that complete the animal’s coat. Their fur also includes fine hair found on the face, belly, and insides of its legs. In deep snow it’s easy to find the delicate hairs within the trough. Oh, and do you see the little yellow birch seed that looks like a teeny, tiny, brown insect?

We followed one of several troughs that led from the hole and kept looking up into the hemlocks in search of the critter. We never saw it, but we did see some recently nipped branches dangling from above.

Our search led us to a second hole that we’ve watched transform over the last couple of months. And again, we could see the action of the animal as portrayed in its journey.

We wondered about the tunnel from the wider opening in the woods to the smaller opening at the brook bank. Though both had seen recent action, we didn’t see any major amount of scat, which was a surprise. Then again, we didn’t climb in and search further. Perhaps it had moved toward the center of the tunnel during the storm.

Another sign of porcupine’s activity was the dribble of urine that marked the trail. That made me realize that I often refer to them as the pigpens of the woods for they scat and urinate with abandon, but . . . all mammals pee, some with more purpose than others.

We followed the porcupine’s pathways for a bit and noted that they led to the nearby hemlocks and beyond.

But as often happens, we were distracted and stepped back out onto the brook where we followed deer tracks for a while.

Eventually, our curiosity about the porcupine gave us a reason to get out of the wind and we headed back into the woods, where we soon discovered another one of its trails. Curiously, the porky had ventured out toward the frozen, snow-covered brook, but turned and retraced its steps. Why?

Perhaps it smelled a coyote in the area. A porcupine has poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. And coyotes will go after a porcupine, but they prefers other food sources. Fishers are the porcupines least favorite predator. A fisher will grab the porcupine by the nose. Once it dies, the fisher will flip it and expose the stomach. Remember that the stomach is covered with that soft wavy hair–and therefore unprotected.

The coyote didn’t appear to go near the porcupine. Our porcupine study, however, led us to what was probably a bear bait barrel. With no bears to worry about at this time of year, the barrel had been repurposed as evidenced by the tracks that led into and out of it.

And the pile of comma-shaped scat within. Was this where our porcupine weathered out the latest storm? It certainly got me thinking about those two holes to the beaver burrow and how the porcupine must have had to plow the snow out with its body. The barrel was a much better choice. And with the scat as an insulator, what a great place to wait out a winter storm.

Not far away, but perhaps with more luxurious digs, either a mate, or relative had apparently set up home under a barn.

While the porcupine by the brook traveled between an underground tunnel and a barrel buried in the snow, the one up the road preferred the high road. Wouldn’t you like to be there to witness its journey? I know I would.

Porcupine: down low, up high–worth a wandering wonder.

Intrepid Travelers

When we gathered at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Fairburn parking lot on Slab City Road at 9:30 this morning, the thermometer registered 4˚. But the good news–no wind. And . . . the six Tuesday Trackers who decided to join me and brave the elements were dressed for the occasion.

First though, it seemed I wanted to test their endurance so we circled up for a few minutes and they used mirrors to see how a deer might see (and I should have taken a photo, but didn’t) and then I shared some casts I’d made of track prints. This one was a red fox and not only was the hair a bit visible, but so was the shape of a chevron, which some see as a boomerang in the heel pad of the front foot. I should note that this particular cast was made from a road kill specimen, so the toes and nails aren’t exactly as close together as they typically would be, especially on a cold morning in January.

The next cast to view–a coyote in mud. I love this one because it demonstrates the direct registration of a back foot stepping into the impression made by the front foot. And the X we always associate with the canines, including Eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, was visible. Notice the parallel toes close together and nails that point inward–all for the sake of retaining heat.

And finally in this morning’s demonstration, a bobcat cast with more of a C shape between the toes and heel pad.

At last we walked down the road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

I chose this trail for today’s adventure because I had a feeling we might see what we saw–an otter slide! It’s a rare winter day when such activity isn’t visible there.

I was thrilled to note that a few people had beat us to the sight and observed the same. As we stood above the dam, we spied where the otter had come up out of the water, made its way around several trees . . .

then slide down into Mill Brook below. By the tracks and impressions in the trail we could envision his motion. And if folks had wanted to quit then, it would have been okay because we’d been so honored already.

But they are a hardy group and right near the otter slide, prints of another were noted and based on their wee size and the diagonal angle of their presentation we knew we were looking at the track of either an ermine or long-tailed weasel. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two by the print size. But the cool thing was that though they appear light in the photograph, the prints that we saw were a mirror image of what David Brown drew on his Trackards. (I think I should get a commission for promoting his cards, but really, they are the best.)

Following the weasel prints, Tom found a hole by a tree and got down to check on any activity within. His report came with a grin: “It’s deep.” Was the weasel successful in finding a meal? We don’t know. But we do know that it’s typical of them to check out every little hole and make some of their own.

Continuing our journey, we’d hardly gone far from the dam when we happened upon another creator of fine tracks. Bingo! A red fox by its shape, size, and chevron.

And then. And then we found prints left behind by a mink, their size a bit larger than the weasel. By now, we were in seventh heaven. Or so we thought. For there was more.

I’d just said to one of the group that we’d seen otter, weasel and mink–all members of the Mustelid family. It was due time for a fisher . . . and what to our wondering eyes should appear?

Tell-tale prints left behind by a fisher that had loped through the woods. Do you see the five tear-drop shaped toes?

Being good trackers, we decided to back track it, for one shouldn’t follow an animal and put stress on it. And so we headed toward the pond.

One in our group had gone ahead and under a hemlock Heinrich discovered a meal partially eaten. The fisher prints led directly to and from it. A mushroom? That was my first thought until I took off my mitten and played with it. A roll? Whole wheat? Had the fisher stopped at Burger King or raided someone’s ice fishing party? Did he eat the meat and discard the roll? Not into whole wheat? Certainly he prefers a gluten-free diet.

Behind the hemlock, we followed his tracks and noted a spot where he’d sat and fussed about for a bit. Was this his lunch site? If so, he’d at least not left any wrappers behind.

As the morning went on, one set of tracks led us to those made by another and near the fisher we found more red fox impressions.

Astute eyes for we’re all so trained, also noted a dash of pee by a broken branch. Typical red fox behavior, especially given that this is mating season. But . . . in the air we couldn’t smell that delightfully skunky scent we associate with fox pee.

That is . . . until Pam got down. It was not as strong as we sometimes notice so we wondered if it was because of the cold air.

Despite that, Tuesday Tracker initiation involves getting down on all fours like Bob did. . .

and sniffing just like Paula. Come on–you know you want to join us and gain some bragging rights.

We decided to follow the fox for a while doing what we shouldn’t have done as we followed its forward motion rather than back, but suspected it was long out of range. We weren’t sure if it was one or a pair. At a tree, rather than pee, it or they seemed to dance around and possibly poke a nose into the snow. By now, the cold could have been getting to us and we were making up the story we read on the powdery page.

Eventually we did come to two sets of fox tracks and split our group in half, each following one set to see if they’d intersect again.

Well, the fox tracks led us back to the fisher and suddenly to the snowmobile trail. We saw that the fisher had headed up hill and thought we might spy it again if we followed the trail that leads toward Whiting Hill, so up we did climb. In no time at all, we found a pattern left behind by a little brown thing (LBT by tracking standards) and knew it was either a deer mouse or white-footed mouse out on a risky mission in search of seeds.

Next, a snowshoe hare had crossed the trail and we recognized it by its snow lobster shape. If you look at the second set of prints in this photograph, you’ll note that the animal was moving toward me and the two larger prints in the front were of its hind feet which had wrapped around and landed as the two smaller front feet leaped forward. Thus the overall impression looks like a lobster–at least in our minds.

Just beyond the hare, we met what we’d been looking for, the fisher. And then on a stone wall, Paula discovered two holes where it must have dug down looking for a meal. Was it successful? We so wanted a kill site to know what the critters had been eating, but saw no signs of blood or hair or bones or carcasses.

What we did see–a dribble of fisher pee that Pam checked out.

In the midst of fisher tracking, we came upon intersections, including one of a coyote and red fox. What kept us guessing was the apparent foot drag of the coyote. Was some of it tail drag? The snow under the powder was quite crusty so most of the fresh prints we found today didn’t require the mammals to break through the snow. But . . . had this coyote injured a foot on a previous journey when it was breaking through?

As the morning went on, the Trackers had to leave one by one and two by two until it was only Pam and me still on the prowl. We followed the fisher for a long way, and noted where it paused momentarily upon humps, but never discovered any sign of eating.

Eventually, we too, had to find our way out of the woods. It was rather easy for we followed the tracks the others had left behind. And chuckled at the patterns we all left in the snow. Not exactly discernible. What will the mammals say when they pause and study our prints?

Crazy humans! Ah, but I think they’ll also call us intrepid travelers, for like them, we prowled about on a frigid winter day.

We all left thrilled for we’d seen the tracks of so many in this mammal corridor. And curiously we noted those we hadn’t seen: deer and squirrel in particular, as well as moose and bobcat. Another day perhaps.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Pam, Heinrich, Nancy, Paula, Bob, Tom, and yours truly. Intrepid indeed.

Babe in the Woods

This morning dawned bright and brisk and offered a brilliant background for a journey through the almost Peabody-Fitch Woods that Loon Echo Land Trust hopes to add to their holdings. The 252 acres of the proposed project surrounds Bridgton Historical Society‘s Narramissic Farm.

Jon Evans, Loon Echo’s Stewardship Manager and board member of the historical society had asked me to join the walk that would highlight the Peabody-Fitch Homestead built in 1797 and introduce Loon Echo’s new executive director Matt Markot. In the morning light, we circled the house as Jon shared some of the farm’s story.

On the northern side of the house, we paused to enjoy the view, including Pleasant Mountain just beyond the trees to the left of the field. The land trust also owns and protects over 2,000 acres of the mountain that defines this area of western Maine.

Measuring the effect of the cold on the hike’s participants, Jon chose his stop points, where he shared his keen knowledge of the farm and the lands that surround it. For me, it’s always a joy to tramp with him because his connection to the land is personal, and this particular piece even more than most for Jon’s family long ago farmed an adjacent acreage and he grew up traipsing through the very woods we snowshoed today. (And this photo includes Margaret Lindsay Sanborn, mother of Matt Markot, LELT’s new ED who stands to his mom’s right.)

As we circled behind the barn I shared with Jon a bit of knowledge that adds to the lore of what’s always been known as the Temperance Barn, supposedly constructed during prohibition without the usual swigs of rum for all who helped in the building process. Following a blog post I wrote in December 2018 about this very property, a granddaughter of Margaret Monroe who gifted the property to the historical society in 1987 wrote the following message: Hi – I am glad you enjoy my grandmother’s property. A heads up that there is no written documentation from the period re: the barn actually being built without alcohol. My grandmother was prone to making up history. I want to give respect to hardy native Mainers: Monroes were largely summer people. My grandmother also said sherry wasn’t alcoholic and would drink a big glass of it every night before dinner, Lark cigarette in her other hand. Happy Holidays! Rebecca Monroe

It turns out that wasn’t the only story that had more to offer than I’d originally thought to be true. As we were about to pass through a stonewall behind the barn, my eyes cued in on debris below some trees. Certainly it was the work of woodpeckers and I stepped onto the wall in search of scat. Nada.

Looking up at the pin cherry tree, I found not pileated works, but the incisors of another that gave a clue.

And below, pigeon-toed tracks. Between the incisor marks and tracks I knew the creator, but it didn’t make sense to me, for though I find hemlock twigs below such a tree when a porcupine has clipped them, I couldn’t recall ever seeing bark chips below a porky tree. In my brain, the rodent ate the bark as it sought the cambium layer within. I dismissed it as a lesson to be considered and we moved on.

Jon led us along a colonial road from the historical society’s property to a stonewall that delineated the Peabody-Fitch Woods. We turned onto a trail I’d never traveled before and made our way along another farm road. Periodically, Jon, Matt, and I bounced off of each other as we shared our knowledge about the trees and forest succession that had occurred since the farm was last a working land. We also spied a few mammal tracks, including those of a bobcat.

At last, we circled around and found our way back toward the border between the P-F Woods and farm.

Close to the Temperance Barn again, porcupine tracks crisscrossed to the stonewall where we’d seen their activity at the start of our journey.

Near the parking lot and Blacksmith Shop, more porcupine works made themselves evident–by their tracks and the debarked trees.

Incredibly debarked trees. I’m always amazed by the fact that porcupines, given their size, can find support on trees and limbs that seem so flimsy. I’ve been told that they’re known to have many broken bones and it makes sense given the precarious choices they make to seek winter nutrients.

Once again, there was bark debris. In the past I’ve always said that beavers leave wood chips, but porcupines eat the bark and cambium layer.

The evidence was obvious given the prints and comma-shaped scat. But the bark debris proved me wrong today.

And I loved that. When Jon first introduced me as a Maine Master Naturalist, he asked how long I’ve been such. “Six years,” I said. And though I’ve spent my sixty years wandering and wondering in the woods and along the coast of southern and northern New England, it was the Master Naturalist class that taught me how to take a closer look.

Do you see the green of the cambium layer? And those incisor marks–how they are at opposing angles? Those I recognized.

But . . . the porcupines taught me something new today.

Six years–I’m still a babe in the woods.

Book of December: Rewilding Our Hearts

It all started with an email message from my long-time mentor and former education director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, Kevin Harding.

Wrote Kevin, “I rarely find a book that I’m willing to recommend to friends and colleagues. I rarely read books on saving the environment because I find them too depressing. I am guilty of feeling totally overwhelmed by the chaos and daily news of political disfunction that makes any kind of progress toward “saving the environment” seem impossible. Despite these feelings, I would like you to consider reading Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff. No doubt many of you know this author and you may have already read some of his work. Bekoff can help us understand that the work we do in Lovell is in fact meaningful and productive.

Book of December

And so I added Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff to my Christmas list and a few days ago my guy handed me this copy, which he’d ordered from Bridgton Books.

A professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Colorado, Boulder, (our youngest son’s alma mater), Bekoff is the author or editor of twenty-five books.

Since receiving the book, I’ve turned up the bottom corner of pages in the foreword and introduction that I want to reread and taken copious pages of notes.

In this book, Bekoff’s intention is to use the big picture challenges of “climate change, population explosion and constant damage to Earth’s ecosystems and loss of diversity” as the backdrop to encourage us all to change how we think and act–especially as it pertains to nonhuman animals.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming re-enchanted with nature. It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism,” writes Bekoff.

In the first chapter, he states, “Our effects on other species are wide-ranging and far-reaching, and we most likely understate the extent of our destructive ways. As with climate change, we often don’t know or fully understand what we’ve done or the extent of our negative impacts. Even worse, we have no idea how to fix the ecological problems confronting us, whether we are at fault for them or not.”

A live and dead spider within a pitcher plant leaf.

He encourages us to open our hearts and form a compassionate connection with nature–even in those moments when we don’t understand. For instance, in November a friend and I discovered two spiders in the water-filled “urn” of a pitcher plant on a land trust property. The larger spider was alive, while it seemed to play with the smaller dead spider that it kept moving with its hind legs. Was it trying to revive the youngster? Would the two or even the one be able to escape the carnivorous pitcher plant?

Great Blue Heron youngsters waiting for a meal

Watching something as small as the spiders or as large as young great blue herons is something some of us could easily take for granted, for we are fortunate to spend many hours as observers. Thankfully, we are constantly filled with awe and wonder.

ArGee as last seen a few weeks ago. A ruffed grouse startled me in the same area yesterday. Was it him? Or another? I’m not sure, but I am grateful that it behaved as a ruffed grouse should by flying off.

As I read Bekoff’s book, numerous visions flashed through my mind and I thought of the corridors that our local land trusts have worked diligently to create. And with that came the memory of an article I wrote for Lake Living magazine in 2015 entitled “Land That We Trust”:

My happy moments are spent wandering and wondering in the woods of the lakes region. And photographing and sketching what I see. And writing about the experience. And trying to find out the answers. Honestly though, I don’t want to know all of the answers. For the most part, I just like the wandering and wondering.

Passing through a stonewall, I’m suddenly embraced by the fragrance of white pines that form the canopy over what was once an agricultural field. Beech and hemlock trees grow in the understory. Lowbush blueberries, Canada mayflowers, bracken ferns, Indian pipe, partridgeberry, sessile-leaf bellwort, Indian cucumber root and a variety of mosses and lichens add to the picture.

I follow a former cowpath that opens to the power line. At the edge, taller hemlocks and northern red oaks stand high, with a few beech trees in the mix. But my eye is drawn to the ground cover, varied in color and texture. Sphagnum moss, several species of reindeer lichen, British soldier lichen, wintergreen, bunchberries, junipers and sheep laurel appreciate the bogginess and sunshine of this space.

To the right of another opening in the wall, the neighborhood changes. This time it’s gray and paper birch that grow side by side. Nearby, a vernal pool teems with life.

In each space, I encounter evidence of animals, amphibians, birds and insects. Sometimes I even get to see these neighbors with whom I share the land. Gray squirrels build their dreys up high in the hardwood trees, while red squirrels prefer the white pine forest. Deer bed under the hemlocks. Snowshoe hare browse among the birch grove and its vegetative undergrowth. Yellow-spotted salamanders and wood frogs lay egg masses in the vernal pool. Snakes slither nearby. Frequent visitors to each area include porcupines, raccoons, skunks, turkeys, gray and red foxes, deer, woodpeckers, thrushes, chickadees, nuthatches and warblers. Occasionally, I’m treated to moose and bear evidence and sitings.

People, too, are part of this habitat. They recreate along the snowmobile trail that follows the power line. The stonewalls, dug wells and rusty equipment speak to the area’s history.

It’s land like this that our local land trusts work diligently to preserve.

A wee disclaimer: I’ve been a volunteer docent for about eight years and am now education director for the Greater Lovell Land Trust. My involvement stems from my desire to learn about what makes up the landscape that surrounds me.

Sometimes alone, sometimes with my husband or friends, I hike all of the GLLT properties on a regular basis. Trekking along trails with like-minded people who pause frequently to identify and appreciate what they see in any season puts a smile on my face. Something stops us in our tracks every time we explore and we gain a better understanding of ourselves and this place we inhabit.

This past winter, I started recording my outdoor adventures, wonders and questions in a blog entitled wondermyway.com. Sometimes those hikes on land trust properties became the subject for a post.

Bear print and deer print in a kettle bog in Lovell

February 23, 2015: Bishop’s Cardinal Reserve, I’m fascinated by bear sign and love to find claw marks on beech trees. Oh, they climb other trees, but beech show off the scars with dignity for years to come. While bark on most trees changes as it ages, beech bark is known for retaining the same characteristics throughout its life . . . Seeing all the animal tracks and sign, some decipherable, others not so, makes me thankful for those who have worked hard to preserve this land and create corridors for the animals to move through.

March 31, 2015: John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge, It’s one of those places that I could spend hours upon hours exploring and still only see a smidgeon of what is there. I’m overwhelmed when I walk into a store filled with stuff, but completely at home in a place like this where life and death happen and the “merchandise” changes daily.

April 15, 2015: Otter Rocks, A princess pine club moss shows off its upright spore-producing candelabra or strobili. Funny thing about club mosses–they aren’t mosses. I guess they were considered moss-like when named. Just as the mills take us back in time, so do these–only much further back when their ancestors grew to 100 feet tall during the Devonian Period. They make me feel so small and insignificant. And yet, I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in awe of them.

Middle school students from Molly Ockett’s MESA program picking cranberries in the GLLT fen

May 3, 2015: Chip Stockford Reserve, There’s something about the Chip Stockford Reserve on Ladies Delight Road in Lovell that keeps pulling me back. I think it’s the history associated with this property that fascinates me. And the questions it raises. From the start, there is a cellar hole and barn foundation. Eldridge Gerry Kimball had purchased 200 acres on January 31, 1880 from Abraham E. Gray. Various journals from that time period include entries about driving cattle over to the Ladies Delight pasture, picking cranberries over by The Pond, as they called Kezar Lake, picking apples, driving sheep to pasture, picking pears, mowing oats and trimming pines. Today, it’s the huge pasture pines, stonewalls and a couple of foundations that tell part of the story. I’ve also heard that this area was used as a cattle infirmary. According to local lore, diseased cattle were brought to Ladies Delight to roam and die, thus preventing disease from spreading to healthy cattle. . . Another story about Ladies Delight hill is that this is the place where people would come to picnic in the 1800s. Did the women get dressed up to enjoy a day out, a break from their farming duties? I have visions of them wearing long dresses and bonnets and carrying picnic baskets. But could they really afford a day away from their chores?

May 10, 2015: Bald Pate Mountain, The “bald” mountain top is the reason I am who I have become. Being outside and hiking have always been part of my makeup, but when our oldest was in fifth grade, I chaperoned a field trip up this mountain that changed everything. The focus was the soils. And along the way, Bridie McGreavy, who at the time was the watershed educator for Lakes Environmental Association, sat on the granite surrounded by a group of kids and me, and told us about the age of the lichens and their relationship to the granite and I wanted to know more. I needed to know more.

June 16, 2015: Bishop Cardinal Reserve, Though we never plan it that way, our journey lasted three hours. Suddenly, we emerged from the wet woodland onto Horseshoe Pond Road–all the richer for having spent time in the land of the slugs, bears and caterpillar clubs. Oh my!

We are fortunate to live in an area where five trusts protect land for us and the species with whom we share the Earth: Greater Lovell, Loon Echo, Western Maine Foothills, Mahoosuc and Upper Saco Valley. This strikes me as a valuable reflection of who we are and where we live.

Land trusts work with community members to acquire land for permanent conservation through purchases and donations. They also create legal and binding conservation easements that allow residents to protect land holdings in perpetuity, while retaining private ownership. Scenic views, wildlife corridors, flora and fauna, and topography remain, subject only to the whims of nature itself, which is ever-changing.

Conserving the land doesn’t mean it can’t be touched. The organizations develop management plans and steward the land. Timber harvesting, farming, residency and recreation continue, while specific wildlife habitat, wetlands, unique natural resources and endangered or rare species are protected. And in the process, they strengthen our towns. Ultimately, they give us a better sense of our place in Maine and opportunities to interact with the wild.

The service area of each of the local trusts include watersheds and wildlife corridors. Greater Lovell Land Trust is committed to the protection of the Kezar Lake, Kezar River and Cold River and adjacent watersheds located in Lovell, Stow and Stoneham.

Loon Echo Land Trust serves seven towns: Bridgton, Casco, Denmark, Naples, Harrison, Sebago and Raymond, and their efforts actually reach beyond to the 200,000 residents of Greater Portland for whom Sebago Lake is the public drinking water source.

Western Foothills Land Trust serves the Greater Oxford Hills towns of Buckfield, Harrison, Norway, Otisfield, Oxford, Paris, Sumner, Waterford and West Paris. The watersheds they protect include Lake Pennesseewassee, Thompson Lake, Crooked River and Little Androscoggin River.

The Mahoosuc Land Trust works in central Oxford County, Maine, and eastern Coos County, New Hampshire. It strives to protect the watersheds and natural communities of Albany Township, Andover, Bethel, Gilead, Greenwood, Hanover, Milton Plantation, Newry, Rumford, Shelburne, Upton and Woodstock.

Likewise, the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust crosses the border and includes the communities of western Maine and northern New Hampshire that make up the upper watershed of the Saco River. Its service area flows from the source of the Saco in Crawford Notch toward the Hiram Dam and includes Harts Location, Jackson, Bartlett, Chatham, Conway, Albany, Madison and Eaton, New Hampshire and Fryeburg, Denmark and Brownfield, Maine.

In addition to their service areas, the land trusts collaborate with each other and local lake associations. Most recently, the GLLT, LELT, WMFLT and USVLT, plus the Portland Water District have joined forces to protect the fifty-mile Crooked River. The river is the largest tributary flowing into Sebago Lake and it provides primary spawning and nursing area for one of four known indigenous populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon in Maine.

Lovell Girl Scout Cadette Troop 67 up close and personal with tree cookies

Protection is key. So is education, which develops understanding and appreciation. I know for myself, my relationship with the landscape continues to evolve. The mentors I’ve met along the way have played an important part in my involvement and caring for the environment.

All five land trusts offer numerous hikes open to everyone, providing a great way to explore and learn more about the diversity of the natural communities. Staff and volunteers lead walks, stopping frequently to share a bit of knowledge, ask questions and wonder along with the participants. These organizations also offer indoor programs featuring knowledgeable guest speakers.

I’m thankful for the work being done to protect the ecosystem. There’s so much I still don’t understand, but with each nugget of knowledge gained, the layers build. Maybe someday I’ll get it. Maybe I never will. Either way, I’m happy for the chance to journey and wonder on land trust properties.

Even though we can’t all endow the future of our properties, we can get involved to ensure that these organizations continue to protect land for future generations of humans and wildlife so it will remain in its natural state for the benefit of all.

Water snake at the GLLT Otter Rock

So back to Bekoff’s book, he quotes many biologists and others as he makes the point that when we experience alienation from nature we make bad decisions including “wanton killing of wild species, clear cutting, pollution and other human impacts, and caging of nonhuman animals.”

“What we do,” writes Bekoff, “does make a difference and rewilding our hearts is about fostering and honoring our connections to one another and all life.”

My daily fox–12/30/18

After all, as evidenced in our yard each day and night when the visitors are many, we share this place with and in fact live in the world of our nonhuman neighbors. We need to figure out how to live together–and that premise is at both nonhuman and human levels since we are all interconnected in the web of life.

Inside structure of an oak apple gall

Though Bekoff’s focus is on nonhuman animals, I do wish he’d also addressed other forms of life, such as fungi, insects, plants, and the like.

He does list what he calls the “8 Ps of Rewilding” as a guide for action: Proactive, Positive, Persistent, Patient, Peaceful, Practical, Powerful, and Passionate. “If we keep these eight principles in mind as we engage one another and wrestle with difficult problems, no one should feel threatened or left out,” says Bekoff.

As the book continues, there are definitions provided for catch phrases such as compassionate conservation and stories of unsung heroes who have made it their life’s work to “rewild our hearts and to expand our compassionate footprint.”

GLLT/Lovell Recreation Trailblazers created a woodland map

Bekoff is a realist and so am I. He would love to see us all become vegetarians or vegans, but realizes we will not. He knows that it will take people time to unlearn preconceived notions, especially given that the media thrives on misrepresenting animals. He knows that his rewilding our hearts is a concept with a broad agenda.

One of my take-away thoughts was that all of local environmental organizations are working hard to create corridors and raise awareness and awe about the natural world. Of course, we could all do better. But, we’ve already got a good start on doing what Bekoff suggests: “Figure out how to foster a love of nature and other animals so that every generation sees this connection as precious and vital and worth nurturing.”

But . . . he concludes that “if we all made some simple changes to our lives, the world would soon become a more compassionate place for all beings and landscapes.

Great Horned Owl Plastica species

And he reminds us to be humble and able to laugh at ourselves. Yeah, so um, I was the one who stopped a small group of friends as we moved along a trail on private property because I was the first to spot a great horned owl this fall. Yeah, um. It was plastic. And a set up. I’m still laughing.

Dear readers, if you’ve read this far, you deserve a reward. I know I got a bit off track by including my own article, but I do believe that we’ve got a start on rewilding our hearts in western Maine. Yes, we have a long way to go. Let’s do this. Together!

And remember, my guy purchased this copy of Rewilding Our Hearts at Bridgton Books.

Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence by Marc Bekoff, 2014, New World Library.

Happy Bird-day Bird Count

Established in 1900 by an officer of the Audubon Society, the intention of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations.

Our local count, known as the Sweden Circle CBC, typically takes place two days after Christmas, unless, of course it snows. Within several weeks prior to the event, organizer Jean Preis rallies volunteers and assigns sections within the circle to leaders and their assistant birders.

I had the good fortune to lead the southeastern section and so at 8am I headed off to begin searching for birds along the road, at backyard or front yard feeders, and just about anywhere within the assigned section. For the first 45 minutes I was alone as planned, and kept blaming my limited sightings on that fact, as well as the brisk morning temperature.

Other than the temp in the teens, I couldn’t say the weather was at fault for it wasn’t all that windy and there was nary a cloud in the sky.

By 9am, I was joined by the rest of my team, Maine Master Naturalist student Juli, and her oldest children, who are naturalists in their own right, Caleb and Ellie.

Juli took over the challenging task of driving, all the while searching for movement. Caleb, Ellie, and I had a much easier task–we just needed to search high and low and if we spotted something, to let Juli know in as gentle a manner as possible so we wouldn’t cause her to jam on the breaks.

At Plummer’s Landing on Long Lake, we got out of the vehicle, as would be our custom for the rest of the day. Down to the ice we walked, our eyes scanning the surrounding scene as we listened. The only sounds we heard–the wailing of the ice. If you’ve never heard that, it’s almost as good as birding! As for birds near the lake . . . not a one.

But there was a beautiful red maple tree by the landing that made for a perfect teaching moment–the clock face that helps birders locate a bird someone spies. I pointed to 12:00 at the top, then 3:00 to the right side, 6:00 at the bottom, and 9:00 to the left. Instantly, the kids caught on and for the rest of the day they were able to direct us–that is, when we did spy a bird.

Ever so slowly, we made our way along main roads and back roads and noticed few birds. In a way, I wasn’t surprised for my feeders have had only a few regular visitors this year. And when I’m in the woods, or even on the edge of a field, I’ve seldom seen or heard a bird since November when the snow fell. Before that, juncos were extremely common sights no matter where or how I traveled. Where have they gone?

Despite the lower than usual numbers, I was sure we would see something by the old Central Maine Power dam not far from the Stevens Brook Outlet. But . . . all we heard was the roar of the water.

And all we saw . . .

was water racing toward the lake and . . .

the dancing legs of icicle formations. That was OK because we enjoyed admiring them. Still, we wanted birds to count. To that point, our tally included a few chickadees and a couple of tufted titmice.

Onward we moved, toward the outlet of Stevens Brook into Long Lake where we were certain the open water would provide us with something worth reporting.

All was quite quiet, however, and we didn’t see any waterfowl to note. But then . . . the biggest find of our day let itself be known.

High up in a white pine above the opposite bank of the outlet, a bald eagle sat in wait. We practically danced in the icy parking lot–and knew that no matter what else we might see, we were golden with this discovery.

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the eagle, and continued on while looking left and right, up and down. At last, a front yard feeder yielded some more chickadees, a white breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker. Things were picking up. Sorta.

And then as Juli drove down one back road, we spotted five crows in an unplowed driveway. They flew off when we paused, so we continued on down the road. Returning a few minutes later, we again spied the five crows in the same spot. And Caleb, who as a youth hunter has learned the ways of the woods from his dad, knew that where the crows were gathered there must be a carcass. He asked his mom to stop the vehicle while he crossed the road to check the area. Bingo! He encouraged us to join him. Just off the clearing he’d discovered a deer carcass. We weren’t certain how it had come to perish, or why its head was missing, though we had some thoughts on both, but we did notice that many had come to dine. If we’d been more into our tracking mode than our birding mode, we might have been able to write the first two chapters about the manner of death and loss of the head, but we had a different mission on this day.

Another body of water called our names. Last year, I’d seen robins and various other birds in a wetland associated with Woods Pond, so we jumped out at the town beach and stood still to listen and watch. Nada. The ice on the pond, however, was enticing. And though they didn’t have skates, Ellie and Caleb found the conditions to be much to their liking.

Even the clipboard with the field tally didn’t pose a problem as they slid to and fro across the frozen wonder.

Eventually we moved on and added a couple more chickadees to the list. And then we saw one who was not on the list and though he is native to this land, he’s not typically seen here in winter. So we filled out the Rare Bird Form for the Great Horned Owl Plastica species.

One of our final stops as a group was on what we fondly refer to as the Dump Road. At a swampy area, we thought for sure we’d have some luck. And we did. In the form of beaver works.

Peering across the road in search of birds near the open water, we noticed more beaver works.

And our luck turned to awe as we admired a beech tree that still stood despite its hourglass shape. Why hadn’t it fallen?

The lodge looked well maintained and we rejoiced to think that it was located close to town and yet we’d never spied it before. Because of the CBC, we’d been given the opportunity to get to know our town just a wee bit more intimately.

After the beaver lodge sighting, Juli and her kids headed home, and so did I . . . for a quick lunch break. And then I journeyed down several more roads, adding a few more dashes to the tally. I found more chickadees, a few more white-breasted nuthatches, and some mourning doves.

Toward the end of the day, I decided to return to the dam, but still . . . stillness in the bird world despite all the sound and movement.

And ice-encrusted needles that looked so featherlike.

By 4pm the CBC had drawn to a close and our offerings seemed so skimpy. I was almost embarrassed to turn in the form, only to discover that most of the other birders in the Sweden Circle had had a similar experience. The Denmark and Fryeburg sections had the most sightings to report, but all in all, the numbers were down significantly. A few of us gathered around Jean’s table to compute the final numbers and wonder why they were so low. Too cold in November? When the snow and cold snap occurred early, did the birds fly elsewhere? Was there not enough food this season? One among us has spent the last few weeks joining the CBC in various locations around Maine, and he said that our experience was not unique.

Despite that, Juli, Caleb, Ellie, and I finished up the day smiling because we had seen an eagle. And today was Juli’s birthday–so it was certainly a wonder-filled present for her on this year’s Christmas Bird Count. Happy Bird-day, Juli!

Bird Brain

Wrote Aldo Leopold, “Everyone knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

And so it was that I tramped with a couple of friends today who had the delightful pleasure of meeting ArGee (R. G. for Ruffed Grouse). We’d been chatting and searching for a few red blooms on a tall staghorn sumac when suddenly we spied him crossing over a stone wall and approaching us. 

He circled and circled for a while as we stood still yet continued to talk–sharing admiration and awe at the opportunity to be in his presence. 

We watched him forage for seeds and wondered about his behavior. Typically, Ruffed Grouse are loners, except for mating season. But this one seems to greet visitors to its territory with somewhat regular frequency. 

When we moved, he did likewise–usually a few feet to either side of us. 

And when we stopped, he did the same, seeming as curious as us. 

It was a brisk morning, so periodically he did what birds do to warm up–turned into a football of sorts as he fluffed up his feathers to trap warmer air. A bird’s body heat warms the air between its feathers and the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. After all, he didn’t have the luxury of hand warmers. But then again, we didn’t have the luxury of trapping air within our feathers. 

While we watched, I couldn’t help but notice the auricular feathers–those stiff feathers that cover the bird’s ear and form a triangular patch that extends back from the bill and the middle of the eye. 

Do you see what I mean as they fan out below ArGee’s eye? 

Here’s another look. And notice that beak–sturdy and down-curved for eating buds and twigs, the bird’s staple in winter. 

Survival isn’t easy for a Ruffed Grouse, but despite his affinity for people, ArGee knew to take cover occasionally and perhaps that is why he is still among us. That and maybe the fact that we’re honored to be in his presence and learn more about his species as we have the ability to study him. 

While I’d previously noted the comb-like scales on his feet that act as snowshoes and perhaps add stability somewhat like a porcupine as he’ll search for buds in trees once winter advances, today’s understanding included noting how ArGee moved–with one foot placed in front of the other. 

 I’ve seen it displayed in the tracks left behind including this old set we found further along, but watching the proximity of one foot to another as ArGee moved added a vision and understanding to the signs left behind. 

Sometimes it seemed the feet were practically touching and other times there was a bit of space between them. Then again, at times ArGee paused and that seemed to be when his feet where closer together and other times he marched or ran beside us and there was a bit of distance between the two feet. 

Our time with ArGee lasted maybe a half hour or less. And he wasn’t always puffed up to stay warm. When he returned to his original size, his chicken-like form seemed more apparent.

Always, he searched for buds to consume. Ruffed Grouse have a special internal adaptation, most helpful for their winter diet–similar to that of deer and moose, which is rather funny when you think about the fact that most Ruffed Grouse burst out of the snowpack and scare the daylights out of us as we approach and make our hearts beat rapidly as we’re certain we’ve encountered a moose. Maybe they should be named Ruffed Moose instead.

So back to that internal winter adaptation: they store food in their crops (esophagus) until later and then within their bodies are two offshoots of their intestines, called caeca, which grow enormous each autumn and allow them to break down cellulose so they can get nourishment from the woody aspen and birch buds that they prefer. Come spring, the caeca atrophy for the warmer months.

Our lesson from ArGee ended in much the same time frame as it usually does, but he left us wondering all the same. After we’d spent time moving and stopping together, suddenly he started to gently attack the backs of our legs. It was at a spot that seemed to delineate his territory given past experiences, but why the attacks? Did he want us to leave? Not leave? Were we suddenly seen as the aggressor? All along he’d seemed as curious about us as we him and so we were left to ask questions which we did for the rest of our journey. But wow. We were given the opportunity to wonder. 

And wonder we did. What did ArGee see in us? 

And what was he thinking? 

Bird brain? What passes through it? We may never know, but we do know that our lives were enriched and the landscape is alive. 

P.S. Pam and Bob–this one is for you! Wow!