Distracted by Nature

A morning message from my dear friend Carissa set the tone for today. Her Lenten devotional is based on the poetry of Mary Oliver and she thought of me when she read “The Summer Day.”

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~Mary Oliver

A perfect beginning, indeed.

w-Horseshoe Pond

A short time later I joined a couple of other friends and we traveled together to the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve. Our snowshoe journey began beside Horseshoe Pond where we paused to enjoy its beauty and recall trips up Lord Hill, whose face was obscured to the left.

w-hemlock cones and seed below

Once we got onto the trail, it was the little things that we noticed, like the hemlock cones with partially opened scales, their seeds all released. One tiny seed sits atop my name in this photo, but we wondered together why we’ve always seen the cones only in their closed up formation, whether fresh or old. Had they always looked like this one in late winter and we just never realized it previously?

w-frullania liverwort with new growth

And then we paused beside yellow birches where the liverwort Frullania eboracensis grew in abundance. Again, a new realization for us. We knew it to have brown stems, but today spied the green. As it turns out, in his book, Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts, author Ralph Pope begins his description with this: “Plant dark green to brown . . .” Our eyes were opened.

w-crowded parchment laterally fused

Next there was the Crowded Parchment fungus that threw us off momentarily. We recognized the cap, but were unsure about the part of the fungus that was spread out flat like a crust. It turns out, the flat parts or fertile surfaces of this mushroom laterally fuse or join together at the dark ridges. This behavior certainly spoke to its name of crowded. In Fascinating Fungi of New England, Lawrence Millman refers to it as “One of the most common fungi as well as one of the most crowded in New England . . . It’s not unusual to see several hundred gregarious fruiting bodies laterally fused or in dense clusters on a single branch.” Common or not, we were wowed.

w-script lichen

And because we stopped to gain a better understanding of the Crowded Parchment, another gift was offered in the form of script lichen writing its own story on an adjoining branch.

w-nectria fruiting bodies?

Nearby, there was a similar cinnamonish color on beech bark. This particular beech was dotted with the waxy exterior winter coating of the beech scale insect. As I’ve noted before, the scale insect or more technically, Cryptococcus fagisuga, is a tiny insect that sucks sugar and other nutrients from beech trees only.

Soon, the beech scale insect will molt into its second, legless nymph stage and emerge. Immediately, it will start sucking sap through its tubular mouthpart or stylet. That instar stage doesn’t last long, and quickly it will become a mature female. For the rest of its life it will remain sedentary, but repeatedly remove and reinsert its piercing stylet, wounding the tree and providing entry points for fungi to enter. An interesting fact about beech scale insects–its a world of females who reproduce by parthenogenesis; there are no known males.

w-closer look

But what about that cinnamon color? Was it a fungus? Or was it related to the insects? Yes and yes. As some further research revealed, two species of nectria fungi are associated with beech bark disease, Nectria coccinea var. faginata and Nectria gallengiaIt is now my understanding that what we examined was a large area of the former’s fruiting bodies. Oh my.

w-lichen garden1

We also paused frequently beside gardens dominated by lichens. Crustose, foliose and fruticose varieties completely enveloped the bark of this toppled tree, their individual colors and textures adding to the visual display.

w-mink 1

And then . . . and then . .  . as we looked, a motion captured the attention of one in our group. I only wish my focus had been better, but still, it was enough.

w-mink 2

We were blessed with the opportunity to spend a few moments with a mink as it bounded down the hill before realizing it had an audience.

w-mink measurements

Of course, after it disappeared down a hole into a stream and we’d waited a bit, we checked out the tracks it left behind. The size of the prints and length of the straddle or measurement from the outside of one print to the outside of the other confirmed our ID.

w-mink prints

From that point on, we continued to find evidence that the mink had traveled to and fro over the course of several days. Our hearts were grateful to have shared such a moment.

w-hairy, bony find

And as we took measurements, we spotted something else on the snow. Something hairy and bony found about three or four inches from the fresh mink tracks.

w-hairy, bony--scapula

A scapula from a little brown thing, possibly a vole. Dropped from the mink or from above by a bird? We’ll never know. But we do know that someone consumed someone else–as it is in the natural world.

w-Sucker Brook

Seeing the mink made perfect sense because we traveled on and off trail beside Sucker Brook.

w-hobblebush flower and leaf buds

It was there that the naked but hairy hobblebush leaves and flower buds reminded us that spring isn’t far off. The three of us don’t necessarily want winter to end for we love how it forces us to notice other things such as the nectria’s fruiting bodies. And we love to track. But . . . we also love the other seasons, so we’re happy exploring at any time of the year.

w-suds

Beside the water, the icy formations kept calling my name and I honored many by snapping a photograph. But, then we met the suds. Water foam is caused by the decay of twigs and plants and occurs naturally in streams and brooks. As they release compounds, the interaction breaks the surface tension, allowing air to mix in and create bubbles. And just as we found the Crowded Parchment living in a large community, we also found this congregation of bubbles–creating a design all its own.

w-Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog

Despite the short trail, it took us forever to reach the point where the brook becomes Moose Pond Bog, but we did.

w-stream with rattlesnake liverwort

And then we beelined (sort of, for still we kept stopping) to the final stream crossing on the trail for we wanted a glimpse of the rattlesnake liverwort we’d discovered growing there last year. Alas, it was buried under snow. And that means we’ll have to return again. Darn.

w-sucker brook reflections

In the end, it was a morning well spent as we dillied and dallied over the littlest of things. And watched a mink. We got to see a mink!

No, it wasn’t a summer day. But . . . we were distracted by nature. As Mary Oliver asked, “What else should we have done?”

 

 

 

 

The Books of February: The HIDDEN LIVES of OWLS & OWLS of the NORTH

“Who cooks for you?” was the question I heard being asked as I fell asleep last night. And “Who cooks for you all?” the response I awoke to this morning.

‘Tis the season for owl mating calls, in this case Barred Owls, and therefore the season to promote two books about some species that hoot in our neighborhoods.

o-The Hidden Lives of Owls

The first, The HIDDEN LIVES of OWLS: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez, provides a fun and informative read. Perhaps I like it so much because we share a name and an interest in nature. But really, it’s the stories she tells about her experiences in the night world that make me feel as if I’m sitting on a tree stump or rock wall beside her–waiting and watching.  Listening and learning.

Calvez begins her book with silhouettes for eleven owls and a list that includes the scientific name of each, overall length, and wingspan.

s-screech owl 2

The first chapter is about Northern Saw-whet Owls, a new favorite for me since I was honored with the opportunity to meet one at the end of 2017 as I snapped my way through a thicket of hemlock trees, twigs breaking with each movement. Despite all the noise, this owl flew in and our eyes connected. Like Calvez, that sighting quivered in my mind and heart as I tried to remain calm and maintain my focus. I felt like a little kid wearing big girl boots, such was my excitement.

It’s through Calvez that I learned the origin of this bird’s name: the rasping call reminding those who named it of the sound made when “whetting” or sharpening a saw against a file.

And did you know that within mated pairs of these little birds, minute members of the owl family as they aren’t much bigger than a robin, the female sits on the nest for an almost one-month incubation period, while the male dutifully brings food? He actually continues this process even after the young’uns fledge, while momma goes off to the spa in order to regain her strength (or start another brood).

Since she first became fascinated by owls, Calvez had the good fortune to travel to a variety of locations and learn from others–as well as from the owls. She delved into the science of the species and the spirit of some individual birds; her stories are all tucked into this 205-page book. While some are species we may not see in the Northeast, for she writes about those she most familiar with in the Northwest, there’s still plenty to be gained from reading this book.

The book ends with the following: “Notes from the Field: Insights from an Owl.” I wish I could share it with you, but don’t have permission to do so. Let me just say–this list and the silhouettes and comparisons at the beginning make the book well worth the purchase. And the stories in between, filled with wit and wisdom, make it well worth the read.

o-Owls of the North

The second book, which I purchased the same day, is OWLS of the NORTH: a naturalist’s handbook by David Benson.

This book is more of a guide, filled to the brink as it is with photographs and facts about ten owls. For each species, Benson includes a global map and quick list of the following: description, range, size, wingspan, other names, diet, a brief personal story about an experience with the particular owl, identification, sounds, habitat, food, hunting, courtship and nesting, juveniles, and behavior. Almost every page features one or two action shots.

And then there are the sidebars, highlighted within an orange box on each of the odd-numbered pages. One included information about pellets, whitewash and skulls.

o-owl pellet

Of course, that reminded me that I have an owl pellet in my collection of all things natural. I found it in March 2016 at Brownfield Bog. According to Benson’s sidebar: “Owls usually swallow their prey whole. An owl catches a mouse, kills it with its talons or by biting its neck and then bolts the whole thing down. Much of the mouse is not very digestible though–the bones, fur and other tough parts don’t provide much nutrition. These are compacted together in the owl’s digestive tract. Then, about six hours after the meal, a pellet of these indigestible parts is coughed up and it drops to the ground beneath where the owl is roosting.”

o-pellet critters--voles

I’ll probably never dissect the pellet I found, but did dissect one for the Maine Master Naturalist Course–and determined that the owl had consumed two voles. (Don’t look too closely for I know that I put a couple of bones in the wrong place–nobody’s perfect.)

We have an Owl Prowl coming up at the Greater Lovell Land Trust and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. The two books, The HIDDEN LIVES of OWLS by Leigh Calvez and OWLS of the NORTH by David Benson, have proven to be valuable resources. I purchased both at Bridgton Books, an independent book store.

If you want to learn more, I encourage you to check out these books, join us for the Owl Prowl, or step outside–tis mating season and the calls can be heard. You might even think about responding. Go ahead–give a hoot.

The HIDDEN LIVES of OWLS: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez, published 2016, Sasquatch Books.

OWLS of the NORTH: a naturalist’s handbook by David Benson, published 2008, Stone Ridge Press.

Make Your Own Impressions

A couple of us were honored this morning to share the trail with ten homeschooled kids ranging in age from about four to teenagers. There was even a babe in his mom’s arms, but he choose to sleep through most of our journey as we looked for tracks at Western Foothills Land Trust’s Shepard’s Farm Preserve.

s1-into shepard's farm family preserve

I was wowed by these kids for their knowledge about the natural world was impressive. It was obvious that they’ve spent a lot of time outside not only due to all they had observed and the stories they told me, but also because it was quite cold and they never complained.

s2-the bog and deer tracks

Through a mixed forest and into the bog we searched for and followed tracks–of mice and deer.

s3-into the bog

We so wanted to see those left behind by a predator and thought for sure we would since the deer tracks were plentiful, but today that wasn’t meant to be. We did find where the deer had browsed, peed, scatted and slept.

s4-curious kids

The kids’ curiosity was for more than just tracks and so we stood in awe of a pileated woodpecker tree.

s8-hornet's nest

And a hornet’s nest.

s9-hornest nest in flight

The nest was flying high–on the underwing of a bird sculpture–reminiscent of a certain Tesla Roadster on a rocket.

s10-flying squirrel tracks

After showing them some plaster casts of prints and my scat collection back in the parking lot, we said our goodbyes and I drove on to meet my friend, Jinny Mae.

Not long into our time together, we squealed with delight when we thought we’d made a new discovery. We found squirrel tracks that started about ten feet from any tree and as we looked at the overall pattern we noticed that there were arced lines between the sets of prints that appeared different from the lines behind the sets that we typically encounter. Our brains and hearts worked in unison and we determined that we’d found a trail left behind by a flying squirrel. It was a first for both of us. But . . . as we continued on we began to question our conclusion and we switched back to red squirrel. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was a squirrel. And maybe that’s enough.

s13-beaver dam

We made our way to a beaver pond, again hopeful for interesting tracks, but our best finds were squirrel and mice. Oh, and a domestic dog and its skiing partner.

s22-beaver lodge

We did spy a lodge that we thought might be active, but didn’t risk the journey to check on it for we found ourselves sinking deeper than our comfort zone.

s12-steeple bush gone awry

As we made our way off of the pond, a steeple bush came to our attention–its erect structure gone awry. Uh oh. Had it done something wrong?

s14-pileated woodpecker

And then we heard a pileated woodpecker that we finally spied on a distant tree. Though we both have the good fortune to see them often, we were still thrilled and amazed at its size.

s15-brook

Our next stop was beside the brook that flows out of the pond. I was with Jinny Mae so it was no surprise that we stood for a long time, listening and admiring.

s17-ice

Ice and water always fill us with wonder . . .

s23-ice 3

and awe.

s20-shadows

Shadows and textures do as well.

s19-lungwort

And not to be left out, lungwort.

s5-creating a snow angel

The tracking wasn’t so great, but at the end of the day we’d all delighted in the discoveries and questions and understandings and connections we’d made. And the fun we’d had in doing so.

s7-snow angel

When life gives you snow–make your own impressions.

Satiating Our Curiosity at Long Meadow Brook Reserve

Two weeks ago I traveled the trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook with several friends and much of our wonder was captured by intermingling lines.

l-ice lines

All felt quite magical on that crisp January day as the encrusted twigs and buds offered a brilliant display.

l-snowbirds in the ice castle

It was made even more special because two of the three with whom I tramped were snowbirds who experienced the awe of our winter world. Despite all their layers, they  felt like royalty living in an ice castle, glass slippers and all. (Don’t be fooled into thinking those are snowshoes strapped to their boots or winter hats rather than crowns.)

l-Long Meadow Brook 2

We made our way to the dam by the brook as the sun shifted lower and shadows lengthened. It didn’t matter for the sky was clear and we celebrated exploring the winter world of Lovell.

l-porky den 1:25:18

And then we backtracked a bit before crossing a property under conservation easement with the land trust and visited a porcupine condominium located in a large stump dump. The porkys didn’t let us down and we found prints leading into and out of seven or eight entry ways, along with downed hemlock twigs and scat. All perfect porcupine sign.

l-squirrel 1

Since then, we’ve experienced a variety of mixed winter weather, but this past weekend a couple of inches of snow fell, making for great tracking conditions, such as this group made by a red squirrel, the two smaller feet being its front feet, which landed first, before the larger hind feet swung around and landed in front–the typical pattern left behind by a hopper or leaper. Its toes pointed toward my ruler, thus indicating the direction of travel.

l-chipmunk prints 1

Because it had been warm over the weekend, chipmunks made a brief appearance–rather than being true hibernators, they are light sleepers and will move about in the chambers within their tunnels. Occasionally, during a thaw, they’ll even venture out to forage for fresh seeds.

l-chipmunk prints 2

Notice how the straddle is about two inches, while the red squirrel above exhibited a straddle of about three inches. Straddle being the measurement from the outside of the left hind foot to the outside of the right hind foot. In case you are wondering, the measurement for gray squirrels is about four inches.

l-coyote track

And then I came upon tracks so fresh that I was certain I might spy the two coyotes who traveled before me, but as is most often the case, I didn’t see them.

Following the snow, we had another downpour and everything changed. But then the temperature dipped again.

l-few Tuesday Trackers

And so today when the GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers took to the trail at Long Meadow Brook Reserve, we were sure we’d find a plethora of well-made tracks. Only two problems. One: by the time Kathy, Dick, Mary, Russ, and I arrived, it was snowing lightly. And two: not too many mammals had been on the move in the last day or so. At least not in that neck of the woods.

l-Long Meadow Brook 1

We beelined (sort of, for we did stop to look at deer tracks) down to the old beaver dam hoping for otter sign or that of other weasels. Nada. Instead, we took in the view to the north.

l-Long Meadow Brook south

And then to the south.

l-beech leaf 2

And headed toward the porcupine condo. But along the way, a couple of other things caught our attention, including a beech tree getting a head start on the next season.

l-pitch pine 3

And a pitch pine that was the gnarliest any of us had ever seen. Pitch pine needles, in bundles of three, grow on the branches but may also sprout on the trunk–a unique feature making for easy identification among the evergreens. But so many? On branches?

l-junco

At last we reached a field where we welcomed sunshine to warm us up and noticed a few feathered friends. More than one junco scratched some bare ground in search of seeds.

l-squirrel pattern

As we crossed the field we rejoiced to have the track pattern of a gray squirrel to admire. Small things made us happy.

l-lorax tree

And then, at the top of one of the stump dumps we stood in awe of the Lorax tree. Only several branches had small fans of needles left; all the rest having been devoured by the local residents living below.

l-porky hemlock twigs

As we made our way into the hemlock grove to take a closer look, we spied what we believed to be a bobcat track based on straddle and stride, the latter being the distance from the toes of one print to the toes of the next print in the zigzag line. The overall impressions were a bit diluted indicating they were a few days old, but we’ve seen the same in this area before and the measurements led us to that conclusion. We also spotted downed hemlock twigs featuring the characteristic 45˚angled cut made by a porcupine.

l-porky tracks?

By this time, our group had increased by two when Alice and Saranne joined us for the trip into the porcupine haven.

l-porky den:stump dump

We peeked into holes, but suspected the homemakers had entered inner chambers.

l-porky tracks 2

We did find telltale tracks filled with the morning’s flurries, but still demonstrating their pigeon-toed pattern. And we saw that the bobcat had checked the holes as well before it moved on.

l-porky hole:hoar frost

We decided to move on as well, climbing up onto the stump dump, but with a word of caution to watch out for steam holes. Hoar frost surrounded the holes and gave us further reason to believe that indeed the condo was occupied.

l-porky tracks around downed limb

The very branch under which we saw one hole had fallen from a white pine. All around it were more porcupine prints.

l-porky chews

As for the white pine’s needles–think of them as dinner. The same was true of a bent red oak branch and its buds. A little variety in the diet.

l-bench

We too were ready to eat and so we headed out.

Another three hour tour and our curiosity was satiated at Long Meadow Brook Reserve and the adjacent property.  A couple of benches await at Long Meadow Brook should you want to pause and take in the wonders yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Forever Green

According to a Cherokee legend, one cold season an injured sparrow knew he could not fly south with his family, so he bid them farewell and went in search of a place to survive.

Sparrow asked Oak to shelter him among its leaves so he might heal and greet his family upon their return in the spring.

But being a crusty old tree, Oak didn’t wish to have a winter house guest and so he turned Sparrow away.

Downtrodden, Sparrow approached Maple. Sweet as she might be, Maple also turned Sparrow away.

And so it went. Sparrow was turned down by each tree he visited, until there was only Pine left to ask for help.

Pine listened to Sparrow’s pleas and his heart heard Sparrow’s plight. And though Pine knew his leaves were tiny and more like needles, and his branches not as many as the others, he welcomed Sparrow to join him for the cold season.

As hoped, Sparrow healed and greeted his family the following spring.

Creator heard and saw all that had happened and called a great council of the Trees. In his address, he rebuked them for they’d been given so much and would not share the least of what they had with Sparrow in his time of need. Therefore, from that day forward, when cold came upon the land, their leaves would wither, die and blow away.

Creator then spoke to Pine, praising him for being the least among the trees, and yet giving so much. And so, Pine was honored to remain forever green.

e-eastern white pine magestic.jpg

The Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), strikes me as the majestic tree of our forest. Of course, it was once even more majestic. In the 1600s, the British Royal Navy blazed all of those two feet or more in diameter and within three miles of water with the broad arrow indicating they were to be cut, harvested and sent to England for ship masts. The blaze became known as the King’s Arrow in honor of King George I. At that time, the trees may have been 300-400 years old and over 200 feet tall. The oldest and tallest white pines in our current landscape are 80-100 years old and maybe about 100 feet tall.

v-white pine

The three to five-inch white pine needles are blueish-green and bound in bundles of five. That’s easy to remember for you can spell both the tree’s name W-H-I-T-E with each needle or M-A-I-N-E for the white pine is our state tree.

e-pine tube insect

Occasionally, I’ve spotted trees with clumps of needles stuck together in such a way that they formed tubes. Actually, they were the tunnels created by the pine tube moth. Larvae hatched from eggs deposited on the needles during the summer. They used silk to bind the needles together, thus forming a hollow tube. Notice the browned tips–that’s due to the larvae feeding on them. Eventually the overwintering larvae pupate within the tube and emerge in April. Two generations occur each year and those that overwinter are the second generation. Fortunately, they don’t seem to harm the trees.

e-pine whorls

In addition, the arrangement of branches is another important feature of this white pines for they are arranged in whorls radiating from the tree’s trunk like spokes on a bicycle wheel, with each whorl representing one year’s growth. Sometimes on older trees that grew beside stone walls in pastures, the older branches remain and when topped with snow look like a spiral stairway to heaven.

e-lines in white pine bark

On younger white pines, the bark has a greenish hue, but as the trees mature the bark turns dark gray to reddish-brown and forms into thick, vertical scales with furrows between. Upon the flattened ridges of the scales, look for a pattern of horizontal lines reminiscent of the lines on notebook paper.

e-red pine bark

Red pine (Pinus resinosa) is a favorite of mine because of its bark, which reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle. Ranging in colors from faded orange to mottled red and grayish brown, its flaky flat scales hug the tree.

e-red pine needles, chimney sweep

In a perfect world, red pine would produce three needles/bundle to spell R-E-D. Alas, the world isn’t perfect, nor is that the case with this tree. Instead, it has two dark green needles that are twice as long as those on a white pine and quite stiff. In fact, while a white pine’s needles are soft and flexible, bend a red pine needle and it will snap in half. Because of the needle arrangement on these two members of the Pinus family, from a distance I can name them. To my eyes, a white pine’s branch tips look like bottle brushes, while a red pine’s remind me of the brush Bert used to sweep chimney’s in Disney’s Mary Poppins.

e-pitch pine needles on trunk

Another common pine in our area of Maine is pitch pine (Pinus rigida). This one is easy to confuse with red pine because the bark looks similar in color, though it strikes me as forming thicker plates. The name, pitch, refers to the high amount of resin within this tree.

It’s the needles of pitch pine that also add to its identification for they grow in bundles of three, like a pitchfork’s tines. The unique thing about this tree is that not only do the stiff, dark yellow-green needles grow on the branches, but they also grow on the trunk. If you spy a tree that you think may be a Red Pine, scan upward and if you see green needles along the trunk, then you’ve discovered a Pitch Pine.

Pitch pine is an important species for it is the only pine that is well adapted to fire and can even resprout.

e-jack pine

Finally, for our native pines, and I can only think of a few local places where I’ve seen these, including along the Foster Pond Outlook Trail at Bald Pate Mountain in South Bridgton, is Jack pine (Pinus banksiana). It seems to prefer the coast and central northern Maine. But . . . walk Loon Echo Land Trust’s trail at Bald Pate, and see if you can spot them.

Jack pine has two yellow-green to dark green needles in each bundle so an easy way to remember its name: Jack and Jill. I don’t know about you, but I love mnemonic devices.

e-white pine cone, red pine cone, hemlock cone

One last way to differentiate the pine trees is by their cones. Cones are the fruits of the trees and they consist of scales that protect seeds. When conditions are right, the scales will open to release the seeds, which have wings much like a maple samara, allowing them to flutter off in the wind and find their own spot upon which to grow. The line-up in this photo from left to right: white pine, red pine, hemlock.

e-white pine with two year old cones

White pine is easy to ID for it produces long, narrow cones, often coated with white sap. It takes two years for a white pine cone to mature.

e-pine cone midden

Red squirrels are known to gather mature cones and store them in a cache for winter consumption. During the winter, the squirrels tunnel under the snow to access the cache, then climb up to a high spot and remove each scale to reach the seeds. Left behind is a midden or garbage pile of scales and center cob of the cone.

e-red pine cone and needles

Red pine cones are about two inches long and egg-shaped on short stalks.

e-pitch pine cone 1

You can barely see the stalk of pitch pine cones that tend to be clustered together, but their key feature is the rigid prickle atop each scale tip. On Jack pines, the cones are about two inches long and slightly curved like a comma.

Before I move on to the other evergreens, I need to make one point. Members of the Pinus family produce pinecones. All other evergreens produce cones, but they aren’t pinecones because they don’t grow on pine trees.

e-mixed forest 2

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) grows almost as abundantly as white pine. Often white pine, hemlock, balsam fir and spruce saplings can be observed growing together, and a perfect classroom situation evolves.

e1-drooping hemlock

The hemlock is easy to ID once you realize its characteristics. To begin with, and especially noticeable in younger trees, is the drooping terminal shoot. In fact, all of the branches droop, providing the overall effect of a graceful tree.

e-hemlock gathering snow

Those sturdy, down-sweeping boughs also hold snow, thus creating the perfect spot for deer to hunker down under on a winter night.

e-hemlock porcupine evidence below hemlocks

Another mammal that takes advantage of the hemlock is the porcupine. If you spy nipped twigs on the ground surrounding a hemlock, then it’s best to look up and make sure you won’t become a pin cushion should the animal fall.

e-hemlock porcupine

Typically, the downed hemlock twig features a cut made at a 45˚ angle.

e-hemlock petioles (stems) and stomata lines

The half-inch hemlock needles taper to a dull point. You may only see this with a hand lens, but each needle is attached to the twig by a short stem, aka petiole. And the needles extend outwards from both sides of a twig, thus giving it an overall flat appearance.

e-inner bark of hemlock

The bark on a hemlock, initially grayish and smooth, becomes cinnamon brown and scaly with age. I also enjoy looking at the inner bark that might be exposed by an injury, for its features various shades of reddish purple.

e-hemlock cones

Hemlock cones are petite in comparison to pinecones, at only .75 inch in length. In the spring, their scales are blue-green, maturing to a tan by autumn.

e-balsam fir standing upright

While the hemlock droops, a balsam fir (Albies balsamea) stands straight and tall as it forms a spire with a symmetrical crown.

e-balsam fir needles

Like the hemlock, the needles are flat, but they differ in that they attach directly to the twig, are about an inch in length and some have a notch at the blunt end. The upper side is a shiny dark green, while the underside is silvery-blue.

e1-balsam bark

The pale gray to green-brown bark of balsam fir is also different than the other evergreens. It has raised dashes, aka lenticels. All trees have lenticels that allow for the exchange of gases. On some trees, however, the lenticels are more noticeable. Balsam fir bark also is riddled with bumps or resin-filled blisters. Poke one with a stick and watch the pitch ooze out. Beware, it’s very sticky. And it smells like Christmas.

e-balsam fir cones

One other unique characteristic of a fir tree is that the cones point upward rather than dangling down. That, in itself, offers an easy ID.

e-spruce

The next family, the Picea or spruces, I find more difficult to distinguish in a crowd. Like balsam fir, the leaders or top sections point skyward giving it an overall pyramid shape, but its the idiosyncrasies within the family that sometimes stump me.

e-spiky spruce

The one thing I am certain of is that they are spruces if their needles are sharp and pointed. Shake hands with a branch and if it hurts, it’s a spruce.

e1-spruce bark

Spruce bark is broken into irregularly-shaped scales in general, and white spruce bark is gray to reddish-brown.

Again, I’m brought to things to remember when trying to determine whether I am looking at a fir or spruce—firs are friendly, spruces are spiky. Fir needles are flat, spruce needles are square.

The only cedar tree native to western Maine is the Northern white cedar. Whenever I sniff its fragrant scent, I’m reminded of my mother’s cedar chest and the treasures it stored.

e-Northern white cedar leaves and cones

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is also known as Eastern arborvitae. Its scale-like leaves appear opposite each other along the twig and have short, blunt points.

The cones are about a half inch long, oblong in shape and borne upright on the branches. Their scales are leathery, red-brown and notched. They also have a small spine on the tip.

e-Northern white cedar bark 2

Again, the bark is fibrous, red-brown, which weathers to gray and features a diamond-shaped pattern. This small to medium-sized tree looks like a pyramid with a broad base and rounded top. It often features several main trunks.

And then there’s the tamarack.

e-tamarack in fall

A tamarack or Larix laricina is a native deciduous conifer because it sheds its needles each fall, after they’ve turned a golden yellow, therefore it’s not really an evergreen.

e-winter

I know how easy it is to look at the winterscape and think that everything looks the same in the almost monochromatic mosaic we call the woods.

e-spring 1

But even in spring, as buds give way to leaves,

e-summer evergreens

summer when so many greens dominate our world,

e-fall 2

fall, when evergreens provide a contrast for autumn’s foliage,

e-fall 3

and late fall, when the evergreens continue to be green as the broad leaves drop, these trees make a statement in the landscape.

Thanks to Creator, they are forever green.

 

Land Trust Trailblazers

This morning found me joining two fellow Maine Master Naturalists for a reconnaissance mission along a property I’d never explored before–nor heard of until about a month ago.

r0-Robie's Meadow

Robie’s Meadow is located on Scribner’s Mill Road in Harrison and owned by the Western Foothills Land Trust.  Our plan was to explore the meadow in preparation for an upcoming WFLT/GLLT guided hike planned for Saturday, January 27 from 9:30-12:30. For the GLLT, it’s rather like a pop-up event, since we had planned it after our regular winter schedule was published. But, that’ll make it more fun because it will be an unexpected opportunity to explore in a neighboring town.

r1-trailhead tracks

Once we climbed up over the snowbank this morning, we were immediately greeted with tracks. And then, we spied something else on the snow.

r2-scat

Scat! Rather large scat. By the size of it, we surmised coyote. But . . . a few measurements of prints and . . .

r3-sniffing red fox pee

a sniff that consisted of a musky, skunky odor made us rethink our conclusion. A red fox had most definitely left its calling card behind.

r4-fox pee everywhere

In fact, as we continued on, we realized that it had left many calling cards–in hopes of attracting some attention. The size of that scat, however, continued to haunt us for it was much larger than fox scat should have been. Perhaps we misread some of the fox tracks, for we thought two had traveled the same route, but was it really fox and coyote? We do know that they were made about the same time, given the snow conditions. And so, our best guess was that the deposit was made by a member of the Canidae family. With that conclusion we felt safe.

r5-western foothills sign

We were so distracted by the tracks we kept finding and following, that it took us a while to cross the right-of-way to the actual land trust property, but at last–success.

r7-Robie's Meadow 1

The meadow opened before us, covered as it was with morning shadows.

r8-Meadow and Russell Brook

As much as we wanted to explore it, Russell Brook was open in spots and the snow deep, and so we decided to follow the brook for a bit instead.

r9-following Alice

Breaking trail wasn’t always easy, given the depth of the snow, but Alice persevered for she knew the way, and Joan and I followed.

r10-tracks across the brook

Finally, we reached a point where we could cross and just beyond our reach we spied tracks. How we wanted them to be otter or some other member of the weasel family. Alas, when we reached the other side, we discovered it was the red fox yet again. It always amuses me how a critter becomes “our” critter when we begin to encounter signs of it with frequency and so this was “our red fox.”

r11-squirrel tracks

We were a bit disappointed that though we’d seen weasel tracks toward the beginning of our adventure, no other members of the mustelid family shared their presence. Instead, it was to red squirrels that we next turned our attention.

r12-batman 1

And Alice gave us a new insight. I’ve always said that snowshoe hare prints remind me of  lobsters. Well, today she pointed out the fact that squirrel tracks look like Batman’s mask. I will never look at squirrel tracks the same again.

r13-batman 2

Batman indeed.

r14-squirrel home

We found squirrel homes tucked under logs and trees.

r15--squirrel condo

And one very fancy squirrel condo with plenty of openings on different levels. It reminded Joan and me of a certain porcupine condominium (aka stump dump) on a property under conservation easement in Lovell.

r16-porcupine trough

Speaking of porcupines, I kept commenting that we were in porcupine habitat and hadn’t seen any signs. Until . . . we did. And when we return, we’ll do some backtracking in search of its den or feeding tree(s).

r17-turkey tracks

We continued our journey, seeing much the same along the way. At last, we turned right onto a snowmobile trail where we followed turkey tracks out to the road. Our time together had drawn to a close, but we’re excited about the possibilities for the hike on January 27th. Check out both land trusts’ websites soon for more details.

r18-pinecone bird feeders

After saying goodbye to Joan and Alice, my outdoor experience continued, this time with an after-school nature program the Greater Lovell Land Trust offers to kids at the New Suncook School. Today, Kathy M. joined me and showed the kids how to create pinecone bird feeders using pinecones, peanut butter and bird seed. Both Meg, the Lovell Recreation Director, and I were excited because our group had swelled to nine. And the next time we meet, we believe we’ll have one more young naturalist join us, bringing our number to its limit.

r19-got peanut butter?

O. smiled as he showed off the peanut butter he’d slathered onto the cone.

r20-finishing their creations

C. looked ready to eat hers, while Kathy patiently helped tied string around D.’s cone.

r21-pinecone birdfeeder by K

K. proudly showed off a finished creation.

r22-heading out to the trail

And then we headed off into the sunset via snowshoes and skis.

r23-walking beside deer tracks

And on a trail behind the school playground, fresh deer tracks made us happy. We showed the kids how to look at the heart-shape of the cloven toes and know that the bottom of the heart indicated the direction of travel.

r24-hanging pinecones

As we tramped along the trail examining tracks, we took time to hang the bird feeders. We’ll be curious to look at them when we meet again in two weeks. Today we wondered about who, besides birds, might visit them. Many bets were on deer and squirrels.

r26-exploring

The trail behind the school leads out to the power line and snowmobile trail, where again, we found many deer tracks.

r26-happy trailblazers

We’d gone a ways when we realized we needed to turn around and head back to school. But first, it was time for a group photo of happy campers.

r27-dramatic trailblazers

With smiles from all levels.

r28-Trailblazer Sign

Our after school group is called the Trailblazers. And K. took the time to illustrate what we’d done last week. Note the square with the tall person standing up and two smaller people on the ground with their snowshoes in the air. Last week, snowshoeing was a bit of a challenge for them, but this week they embraced the concept.

From beginning to end, my day was bookmarked by land trust trailblazers. How happy am I? Extremely. Perhaps the happiest camper of all.

 

 

 

 

 

Tracker Tales

When I pulled into the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library parking lot this morning I didn’t expect any of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers to be waiting for me given that the temperature was at least -20˚. But, Jo Radner was ready and waiting. She joined me for the drive to the John A. Segur West property on New Road.

Standing in the small parking lot was Stephen Lewis, another diehard participant. And as  Jo and I fiddled with our snowshoes, Heinrich Wurm pulled in.

And so, we four intrepid trampers took off over the snowbank and immediately met some tracks. A little back tracking and attention to details helped us determine a bobcat had crossed the trail. There were red and later gray squirrel tracks, deer, and mice. Most were old for the animals, especially the squirrels and mice seemed to be hunkered down in their holes–certainly a good choice.

j-junco tracks and wing marks

By the time we reached the old log landing at the end of the trail, we noticed lots of junco tracks and their small wing impressions. Seeds aplenty were scattered across the snow. Our conversation soon turned from the little birds to an experience I had this past week when a saw-whet owl flew into a thick stand of hemlocks I was crashing through like a bull in a china shop. I had just finished saying that much to my surprise the bird flew in as I broke through the branches when one would expect a bird to quickly depart, when Steve pointed at something in our midst.

j-mouse discovery 1a

We all moved in for a closer look.

j-mouse discovery 2

A dead mouse splayed on the branch of a gray birch. My brain played with that sight over and over again. Yes, we’d seen numerous crazy mouse tracks left behind by either deer or white-footed mice–it’s difficult to determine which, for both have long tails that leave drag marks between their footprints. Jumping mice hibernate so they could be ruled out.  Jo asked if I could tell which of the other two it might be. I’m happy to say that even well-respected tracker Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing, has this to say, “There are more than 120 different species of North American mice, and about half of them fall under the general rubric ‘white-footed mouse.’ The deer mouse is a type of white-footed mouse, and to me there is not perceptible difference in tracks. There are several anatomical differences, but these change from habitat to habitat. The white-footed mouse measures up to about seven and a half inches long (including its three-and-a-half inch tail) and weighs one-half to one ounce. Its color is gray or light brown to dull orange-brown above, with a white belly, throat, and, as its name implies, feet. The deer mouse is gray to reddish brown on its upper parts, including its tail, and white below, with longer hind feet and a tail usually longer than its body. Both animals have bicolored a bicolored tail.”

j1-mouse 1

Our next question was, “How did it get there?” My mind immediately went to a December 13 entry on page 419 in Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day about butcher birds overwintering. Mary discusses how northern shrikes preferred food sources are other birds, mammals and insects. “This tundra-nesting bird comes as far south as New England in the winter, where it preys mainly on mice, voles, and small birds.” She goes on to explain that the bird often kills more than it can consume and leaves some food in the freezer for future feeding adventures. “The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gives it the nickname ‘butcher bird.’ It often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch, or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where it hangs until reclaimed by the shrike.”

Bingo! I think we figured out what we were seeing and in Mary Holland’s book we have my dear friend, mentor and former LEA and GLLT Education Director, Bridie McGreavy, PhD, to thank for the photo.

We could have turned around then, so thrilled were we, but we hadn’t even reached the wetland. And so, a quick check to make sure everyone was comfortable and on we trekked.

j-deer crossing Bradley Brook

When we found more deer tracks, we decided to follow them in search of beds. At that point we found no bedding areas, but did see that the deer had crossed Bradley Brook.

j-Bradley Brook frozen

It was the first time I’d ever seen the brook frozen over and we took advantage by making our way to the other side.

j-water on lungwort 1

We continued looking for tracks, but found other things as well, including dried lungwort. I mentioned that lungwort, like other bryophytes, will immediately photosynthesize when water is added. Jo wanted proof and so I had her pull out my water bottle and pour it over the leafy structure.

j-lungwort turning green

Within minutes . . .

j-lungwort magic

magic.

j-beaver works 1

As we crossed the wetland, we searched high and low for evidence of wildlife. Up high, chickadees and goldfinches sang from treetops. Down low–not a single track. We did find a few examples of beaver works.

j-beaver works 2

And we thought perhaps the lodges were active.

j-beaver works 3

We hoped.

j-checking the beaver lodge1

But our hope was dashed.

j-beaver lodge 2

No vent hole above and no evidence of life anywhere nearby. Perhaps they’d abandoned this for a second one we spied.

j-stone lodge

Only thing is that the second one also supported no mammal life at the moment, for it turned out not to be a lodge after all, but a boulder covered with snow.

j-beaver dam

Just beyond the boulder lodge, however, we found the old dam, which still stood strong.

j-sharing smiles at the dam

Our smiles were equally strong as we acknowledge what a fine day it had been and this would make the perfect turn around point.

j-Heinrich looking skyward

Jo and Steve took one last look at the brook below and Heiner turned his eyes skyward.

j-heading back

Heading back, we all did the same for we heard military planes flying overhead and could see their contrails.

j-looking north

But it was the cloud formation that really drew our attention.

j-clouds 2

Steve mentioned lenticular clouds and it seemed the perfect explanation given that these lens-shaped structures probably formed after the flow of air encountered Mount Washington.

j-mouse in tree crotch

Our journey back found us going off trail again, and we did find a couple of deer beds, but what will stand out in our brains for this day’s tramp–the mouse with the very long tail and tiny white feet. How it got there, we don’t know for sure, though the shrike story does make sense. What I am sure of is that it will become part of our tracker tales.