Tuesday Tracking is ON

I promised the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s Tuesday Trackers that I’d let them know by 7am today if our adventure would actually take place because the forecasters were predicting a snow storm. We LOVE snow, but not when it ruins our plans.

And so at 6:43am, after checking various weather reports and TV stations for cancellations, whereupon I discovered that no school’s had cancelled, which seemed a sign that meant if the kids could go to school, we could go tracking, until I remembered that this is school vacation week and the kids weren’t going to school today anyway, I wrote to the 54-member group: “Weather reports state that the snow will start at 1pm in both Cumberland and Oxford Counties today, but in the hourly listing it shows snow showers at 10 and snow at 11.

I’m going to go for it in hopes that we can at least find some evidence of the porcupine and its visitors, but trust those of you who had intended to join me to make that old judgement call. Please don’t be afraid to back out.”

As usual, I told them that the plan would stay the same for those who had already told me they’d attend, unless, of course, they did decided to back out. None wrote to say they could not come. Three sent messages that they would join us.

Much to my delighted surprise, seventeen met at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve parking lot #1 at the far end of Heald Pond Road in Lovell as the snowflakes fell. It was 9:30am. Actually, I met some to carpool from the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, and it was there that a few of us first noticed the flakes were falling–just after 9. Hmmm. 1:00pm?

But, this hearty crew didn’t care and after donning our snowshoes, onward we charged. Well, not exactly, for we pride ourselves in not getting far from the parking lot and then spending an hour looking and wondering. First, it was fox prints, and then a fisher that took us a while to figure out based on the clues because snow had filled in the indentations, but the pattern of the track and a few glimpses of toes helped us make a determination that was confirmed after we crossed the path of a more recent snowshoe hare, and seemed to follow the activity of a porcupine.

Like the scouts that we are, we spread out at times, each one or pair trying to notice the finer details. We were in a mixed forest in Maine, close to a summit with rocky ledges, yet near a wetland, stream and between two ponds. The overall pattern was important to notice. How was the critter moving across the landscape? And did its action change at some point? Were any finer details visible in a single print? Or a combination of prints?

Taking measurements was also important–extremely so for those prints that were a couple of days old and muted. Their shape and size and the pattern of their overall track helped, but the measurements cinched the case as we noted stride, especially for the direct walkers such as a red fox.

Ah, how did we know it was red and not gray? The measurement of its stride and straddle were spot on, but also by the scent it had left behind on saplings and rocks did we know it. A few of us got down to sniff–and we were not disappointed. Skunky musky is the odor of some fox urine, especially at this time of year when leaving a calling card with ones age, sex, and telephone number is of utmost importance.

Once you take a sniff, you never forget and know that the next time you smell that skunk in the middle of winter, you are actually in the presence, past or maybe present but watching you from a distant point, of a red fox.

We spent at least an hour with the parking lot still in view as we noted other tracks including squirrel, snowshoe hare and deer. And then we challenged ourselves–a climb to the summit to check on the porcupine den below. The snow was getting heavier and accumulating on our hats, but no one wanted to turn around.

Occasionally, we paused to catch our collective breath, happy were we to be out for this adventure. I did, of course, tell a few who were unfamiliar with the trail, that the summit was just up ahead. Um, I said that more than once. Twice. Three times. Maybe four.

But . . . it was soooo worth it. At the summit, we could see more porcupine tracks that were fresh either last night or the night before and a smattering of pine twigs that had been cut and dropped.

The angled cut of the twigs added to our knowledge bank: rodents make such cuts, called nip twigs. The twig is snipped then turned so the nutritious tender buds can be accessed; and then it is cast off, creating a “trash” pile below the feeding tree.

Bark had also been a point of the porky’s focus and we paused by saplings to wonder about the rodent’s ability to climb what struck us as the scampiest of trunks, but also to appreciate the indentations of its teeth.

While some stayed at the summit, others descended below in hopes of finding a den.

We knew we’d entered a Disney World of sorts, for everywhere we looked below the summit we saw signs of the porcupine’s adventures, including troughs leading from one potential feeding or den site to another.

Getting down wasn’t pretty, especially in one spot, but still no one gave up. Remember, this is a determined group.

Under the ledges, we stopped to check for mammal sign, curious to learn more about the story of these woods and rocks.

We weren’t disappointed. We never are. That may sound pompous, but it’s really one of wonder. When we focus, things are revealed and we are wowed. One of today’s wonders, bobcat scat. Three times over. Do you see the arrows that point to the deposits? And their segmented structure?

But . . . that wasn’t all. Despite the tricky climbing we had more to see.

It was a spot, however, where we needed to take turns given the conditions, and so while we waited, we noticed other things of interest, like the curled form of Common Polypody ferns curled up like Rhododendron leaves to indicate the cold temps–nature’s thermometers. Did I say the name of the shrub began with an M? R? M? They’re close in the alphabet. 😉 (Some of you will chuckle to know that it was my guy I turned to for the shrub’s name–I was still stuck on M)

R or M? In the end it doesn’t matter. But do check out those double rows of orange sori, clusters of spore-producing organs on the fern’s underside.

Rock tripe (which for once I didn’t pour water upon to perform a magic trick) and icicles also garnered our attention.

But . . . it was the actual porcupine den and its juxtaposition with granite and evergreen ferns and snow that tickled our fancy.

Can you see the scat, prolific in nature?

With so much, including lots of fresh deposits, we wondered if we might be disturbing the local resident. And so when our friends who’d stay at the summit yelled down to ask if we when we were going to ascend, we knew the time had come.

Back at the summit, most of us posed. Can you see Mount Washington in the background? No, we couldn’t either.

Closer to the parking lot, we posed again, before heading off on snow-covered roads to reach our homes.

It’s my job to worry and so I did: that the road conditions wouldn’t bite us. That was why I hesitated about going forth with today’s journey, but the forecasters all seemed to think doing such would be fine. Thankfully, though the predictions for the storms start were incorrect, all was fine and I was jazzed by the time we spent together, watching this engaged group in action, asking questions and making observations and asking more questions, before coming to sound conclusions.

These are the Tuesday Trackers of today. The subject of my email message this morning was this: Tuesday Tracking is ON. And they were all totally ON for today’s adventure.

P.S. The mom in me had to check on them after we’d all departed from the trailhead. Thankfully, though a few of us saw cars off the road and/or accidents as we drove home, we each took our time and everyone made it home safely. ‘

The Magic of Holt Pond

I’ve recently felt like the wonder disappeared from my wanders. And so I hoped a tramp late this afternoon around Lakes Environmental Association’s Holt Pond Preserve held the tonic.

We parked at the corner of Perley and Chaplin’s Mill Road, and hauled our snowshoes to the trailhead about a half mile down Chaplin. A few steps in and we decided to stash the shoes and proceed, sure that the snow depth would be on our side and we wouldn’t posthole too much. Until we did. And abruptly turned around to fetch the snowshoes, proving time and again how wise we are.

I was following my guy, so of course it didn’t take us long to get down to the pond, where love was written across the sky in the form of a squished heart and I knew my sense of wonder was about to kick back into gear.

Back on the trail, it was a pileated hole that stopped me in my tracks. Okay, so that happens on a regular basis, but take a closer look with me.

First there was the inner bark, call it cinnamon or mauve, or some crayola color between, with a delightfully bumpy texture, and I knew I had a winner. But there was more. Take a closer look. Do you see the horizontal lines where the woodpecker must have scraped its beak against the bark? And the fibers of the wood? And the depth of the hole? Certainly, this woodpecker must have found something worth drilling for in the depths of this hemlock.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that once I spy a pileated woodpecker’s excavation hole, the debris below becomes a focus of my attention.

I was not disappointed. What some may see as a silver caterpillar, I knew to be the cylindrical scat of the Woody Woodpecker of the woods. The compact package was coated with the bird’s uric acid, but it was the contents that really mattered. While I looked, so did a few others–do you see a couple of springtails, aka snow fleas–at least one on the wood chips and another on the snow?

With my continued perusal, a second scat appeared. Look closely at the darker sections and you may see some body parts of the carpenter ants and tree beetles that the pileated woodpecker sought from the inner confines of the hemlock tree.

My guy was patient as I looked and then we continued our journey. At the first stream crossing, where a bog bridge seemed to have disappeared, he practiced his inner ballerina (don’t tell him I said that) and leaped to the other side, landing a jeté: a leap taking off from one foot and landing on the other.

Since the pileated’s scat leant itself to my insect quest, I continued to look and smiled each time I spied a funnel spider’s holey web no longer in use. Check out all the points of attachment that strengthened the structure when it was in use.

In what seem like no time we reached a former log landing where he was astonished by the fact that pine saplings had grown into teens. And then he looked at one and asked, “Is that a red pine?”

“Yes,” I replied as I took a closer look and spied the tiniest of tiny homes among its needles. Do you see the circular cut in the center? It was the former home of a pupating pine “circular” sawfly. Their cocoons are everywhere and once you see one, you’ll see a million. If cut like this one, the insect departed when conditions were right, but if completely intact then life grows within.

At places along the trail, it was other compositions that bore witness to the nature of the community, such as this icy ornament that dangled like a stocking from one hemlock twig to another.

Another hemlock offered the vision of a forest wizard, his face, albeit, rather long and gnarly. His lips, pursed. His eyes, narrow. Certainly he had a lot to contemplate.

Throughout much of the preserve, which made sense given that it was a wetland habitat, fisher prints prevailed, its five tear-drop shaped toes adding a clue to its identification.

Check out that diagonal orientation that trackers look for because it tells them that the mammal who bounded across the landscape was a member of the weasel family.

Reading tracks isn’t easy, but learning the idiosyncrasies of family patterns, preferred community, and finer details such as number of toes and measurement of prints adds to the knowledge bank and enhances the trek for suddenly, even though you may not see the mammals that have left behind their calling cards, you can still get a sense of those with whom you share a presence in the woods.

The more we tramped today, the more I realized that there were sweet things to notice, like a snow-plop spotted hemlock twig that offered a suggestion of winter’s Swiss cheese.

An enlarged yellow birch catkin, formed by the tree to protect its seeds held tightly within, mimicked a wreath on the snow, and reminded me of the circle of life it represented.

And then I spotted one who perhaps best represented life. Foremost in consideration was the fact that it was alive. And second, that an antifreeze we can hardly comprehend allows it to remain active throughout the winter. Spiders on snow? Worth a wonder.

Our journey progressed as the lighting changed given the late hour of the day and our position on the globe. At times it seemed night would descend any minute.

And into the night tramped my guy, crossing a bog bridge he built several years ago. But . . . slow yourself down rather than try to keep up with him. What do you notice? Clue: to the left of his bridge?

Do you see the muddy line extending upward from the water? And the finger-like prints left on the snow. Yup. The signature of a local raccoon left behind like a done deal on a piece of property.

At last we reached my nemesis, the very spot where almost two years ago my feet flew out from under me, my wrist hit the edge of the boardwalk with a wallop, and suddenly I was a southpaw. It’s become my place of pause and contemplation. To go or not to go. Today, my guy did the same.

And then he went, assuring me from the other side that all was well. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard those words before.

I followed as I often do and gave thanks that I safely made it to the other side, where the snowy mounds and reflections offered a taste of mid-winter reflection.

Our journey across the snow-covered boardwalks through the wetland showed off the fruiting structures of many wetland shrubs, but surprisingly, winterberry offered the most brilliant form.

Eventually, we found our way out to the pond again via the quaking bog, following a fox track that we’d encountered during much of our journey.

Given that there were no dragonflies to spy at the pond’s edge, after a few moments we headed back into the woods.

At the next spur choice, we took it, and headed out to Muddy River, where the beaver resort included its big house, little house structure, bespeaking the New England tradition of home construction.

A bit of open water prevented us from taking a personal look.

But, freshly carved logs at the peak of the lodge bespoke recent activity. Similar activity below was questionable, but my whimsical mind wondered if they’d tried to set up a fire pit.

Our journey was coming to a close as we continued across the boardwalks through the wetlands, where within blueberry stems a baker’s dozen of wasp larvae pupate. The gall’s kidney-shaped form is easy to spy.

Following the Muddy River out, we couldn’t resist its late afternoon relections.

Beside the river another weasel showed its form in the prints of a mink.

Diagonal, diagonal, diagonal, so is a weasel pattern.

At last, before climbing up to the Emerald Field that would lead us back to our starting point, we paused beside the brook and let it work it’s magic in the sound of flowing water, but also the forms and reflection and colors and wonder. Moments of wonder. I gave great thanks for yet again Holt Pond had worked its magic.

From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Recipe for Forest Friday

Preparation time: hours and hours. Baking time: two hours.

Note: Recipe has various stages of development.

Ingredients:

  • Maine Master Naturalist Sarah Otterson and her team of three volunteers
  • Ms. B, grade 2 teacher
  • 19 interested and interesting second graders
  • Pond by Jim LaMarche
  • string, clothes pins and towels
  • school nature trail
  • recycled containers
  • air, sand, dirt, rocks, boulders, warm water, found materials
  • surprise ingredient

Directions: Part 1

At 1 pm, meet the students and listen to an introduction to the landforms/erosion “field trip.”

Break the students into four pre-assigned groups.

After donning coats, hats, and mittens, head outside.

Discover a book strung throughout the woods.

Stop to read it and wonder about the action as well as the illustrations.

While walking, pay attention to the lay of the land. Use hands and arms when appropriate to mimic mini ravines, hills, etc.

Repeat above action when the landforms appear in the illustrations.

Directions: Part 2

Once everyone has finished reading the story, gather by the large boulder in the school yard and review some of the story action. Again, use hands to mimic landforms, including weaving fingers together to form a dam, which was the key ingredient to form the pond in the story.

Recall that the characters exclaimed about running up a mountain by placing hands high over head. But really, they were on a hill as demonstrated by the student with the green soles.

Directions: Part 3

Introduce the concept of a model as a three-dimensional representation of something, but on a much smaller scale.

Ask for examples of models the students have made or seen.

Using recycled containers, add sand and then water to create a model of a mountain.

Once the two mix, gently tip the mixing container onto a cover.

With care, set both down on the frozen ground.

A mini mountain is born.

Pour rain (warm water) through clouds (wiggling fingers) to create a weathering situation.

Watch the mountain change as the water strikes it.

Slowly it “melts.”

Directions: Part 4

Review words to the erosion song the students have learned and show off various components that create a mountain.

Have student pour top soil into container.

Add to it some seeds from hemlock and pine cones. Use the moment as a teachable one to note the differences between the two types of cones. (Not all cones are pinecones since they don’t all grow on pine trees.)

Stir in a crushed leaf, acorn, and the surprise ingredient.

Give many students an opportunity to add rocks to the mixture.

And then pour in a couple of bigger boulders.

Top off with a pinch of sand.

Pour in some water.

Replace a big boulder with a slightly smaller one.

Again, add some more water until mixture is moist.

Flip structure onto cover.

Give it a tap for good measure.

Ask the kids to share their thoughts.

And then, ever . . .

so . . .

slowly . . .

lift . . .

and release.

Smile as everyone exclaims.

A mountain is born.

Let students move in to admire (and covet the surprise ingredient).

And then . . . watch it rain again.

And the mountain quickly erode.

Two hours from start to finish: the final product.

Despite the mud and rocks and leaves and acorn and cones, I think the students would have fought over the coveted ingredient: gummy worms. Every mountain should have gummy worms.

Notes written in cookbook margin: Thanks to Sarah for letting me be a part of her lesson for Ms. B’s Forest Friday. I was blown away by the kids knowledge both as I walked the trail with my group of four and as a larger group. I was also blown away by Sarah’s demonstration. She’s one of my favorite role models when it comes to elementary environmental education.

Learning in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

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

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

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

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

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

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

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

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

Scavenger Hunt at Kezar River Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Position the cap so the inside faces you. 

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

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

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

5. Watch your friends and family run for cover. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a needle off and snap it in half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Ette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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