Dear Mr. Pileated

Dear Mr. Pileated,

I’ve been meaning to thank you for serving as our morning rooster all these years. In a couple of months, as the days dawn earlier than on the cusp of this vernal equinox, I know my guy will curse your call, but I admire your tenacity to return morning after morning and practice your drum roll on a snag by the stone wall closest to our bedroom.

Your sounding board of choice resonates with each strike of your beak and I’m sure the volley of taps, sounding like someone is rapping on the back door, can be heard at least a half mile away.

What is amazing to me is that you have the ability to tap at all. But I’ve learned that your tongue actually wraps around your skull, thus dissipating and directing the energy around the brain. Plus, you have a sponge-like bone positioned in the fore and back of your skull to absorb much of the force from the repeated impact of constantly hammering against wood. 

After several rounds of repetition, you take a break and stretch your neck away from the snag . . .

and sway your head . . .

in a 45˚ arc, a movement known as a bill wave. It seems to serve two purposes: as an announcement of your territory to another of your kind; or a message to the one you are trying to woo with hopes she’ll accept a date.

Of course, in the mix of all this action, you also make time to preen. After all, should a mistress fly in, you need to look handsome–an easy task on your part.

I’ve read that your territory ranges from 150 – 200 acres and give thanks that we live in an area that satisfies your needs and those of your kin.

In winter, your feeding trees are easy to spot, either by the oblong holes chiseled into the tree trunks . . .

or piles of wood chips at the base of a tree, providing a contrast with the snow.

I love it when you even rework a hole you’d started when the tree was standing. So many don’t realize that it’s not unlike you to use your tail as a third leg like a stool and stand on the ground to seek the goodness within.

When the opportunity to watch you work presents itself, I take it and stand silently below while you chip away.

What I can’t see is your method of feeding, as you pursue the tunnels of carpenter ants and snag them with your long, barbed tongue covered as it is with a sticky solution that works rather like tacky glue.

BUT, one of my great joys, as some know, is searching among the chips you’ve excavated to discover if your feeding efforts were successful. Yes, Mr. Pileated, I actually feel well rewarded when I discover packets of scat you defecated. While we humans get rid of waste nitrogen as urea in our urine, which is diluted with water, I have come to realize that you cannot fly with a full bladder and therefore must dispose of uric acid, plus the indigestible parts of your meals in combination via the cloaca or vent located under your tail. Knowing this helps me locate your scat because I first look for the white coating, which is the uric acid, and then I spy the exoskeletons of the ants that you feed upon in winter located inside the cylinder.

Sometimes, your scat doesn’t make it all the way to the ground, but rather lands on a branch below your foraging site.

Of course, it’s great fun when others are present, to whip out my scat shovel and scoop some up so they may take a closer look.

I did that just yesterday with a group of students, some of whom fully embraced the experience, which also gladdened my heart.

Another thing I love to spot as a result of your foraging efforts, sir, is the winter coloration of sap that flows from Eastern White Pine trees you’ve excavated. In warmer weather, the sap is amber in color, but there must be some winter chemistry that I do not understand, which turns it shades of violet and blue.

Oh so many shades of blue. And once blue, it doesn’t seem to regain the amber hue, at least from what I’ve seen. But then again, somewhere in this world, there’s one that does. Or many more than one.

Noticing the droplets of fresh sap yesterday, I decided to take a closer look, and spied not only spring tails stuck to its sticky surface, but also a small winter crane fly that will be forever suspended . . . unless something comes along for a snack.

When I checked this morning, it was still stuck in place.

As I complete this letter to you, Mr. Pileated, I once again want to express my appreciation for your part in this world, for creating nesting sites that others, such as small songbirds, may use, and how you help the trees in the forest by contributing to their decomposition, for as much as some think that you and your kin are killing the trees, the trees are already dying due to insect infestations, and your work will eventually help them fall to the ground, add nutrients to replace what they had used, and provide a nursery upon which other trees may grown.

And I want my readers to know that your bill waving has paid off for this morning as I watched and listened to you, in a quick turn you flew off giving your Woody Woodpecker call as you sailed away and in flew your date. She landed on the same snag you always use, gave a few taps of her own, preened for a moment or two, and then she also turned and headed in the direction you had taken, and I can only hope that the two of you have been foraging together ever since.

Oh, and that if there are any offspring from this relationship, you’ll name your first born for me.

Sincerely yours,

wondermyway.com

P.S. BP, this post is dedicated to you. Hugs from your non-hugging friend.

Where the Bobcat led us

When GLLT Tuesday Trackers meet at a property, we never know what animal sign we’ll need to interpret or what greater understanding we’ll gain. Today was no different and we had a few surprises along the way.

What we’ve all learned is that we need to take a bird’s eye view and consider where we are, whether it be forest or field or wetland, look at how the mammal is moving and what type of pattern it is creating as it moves, get down and count toes, look for nail marks and notice other idiosyncrasies, and then follow the trail for a ways, looking at the prints in different light, or under different trees. Often under hemlock trees we find the best prints because there’s not as much snow since the boughs hold it.

And so today’s adventure began with us following this particular animal and debating—do we see claw marks, is the overall shape round or oval, is there a lead toe, is the ridge creating a C on its side or an X between the toes and heel pad? It took some time, but we finally found a few prints that gave us confidence it was a bobcat we were following. So, where did the bobcat lead us?

Our first stop was along a stream where he walked beside the edge—about two or three feet above the open water for such is the snow height—but then paused for a moment and seemed to step down because he was curious about something. And so were these three, Pam, Dawn, and Emily, for they spied something in the water below.

From our position on the opposite bank, a few of us saw what we thought they were looking at. “It’s furry,” Dawn told us.

She wanted to go down into the water because it didn’t appear to be all that deep, but still that would have meant she’d be wet and so Emily hunted around and found a branch to use as a poker instead.

As Dawn wiggled the stick, all the time exclaiming that it was big, whatever it was, and trying to turn it over, Emily and Pam grabbed her to make sure she didn’t turn into an otter and slide down, though I suspected she would have laughed about the experience.

We all watched intently, making suggestions about the critter’s identity while Dawn continued to poke at it and move it. Mammal? Skull? Full body?

The coloration was definitely unique, but it is winter after all, so the freezing temperatures and fact that it was in water may have altered its appearance.

Those were our thoughts anyway, and we voiced our opinions, until . . . Dawn flipped it over and saw . . . a tag.

So hoping for a kill site where the bobcat may have dined, instead we found ourselves looking at . . . a stuffed owl.

Peter took Pippi’s hiking pole and aided Dawn in rescuing the sopping wet bird and if you look closely you may see water dripping from it.

Our chuckles must have rippled through the forest as we laughed at our great find. Mighty trackers are we. But . . . we think the bobcat was almost fooled as well. Almost.

The owl then flew from Peter’s hands to a perch and there it shall remain, or so we think.

For a few minutes we returned to and continued upon a logging road, and then the bobcat called for our attention again and so we did follow it. As I said to the group, normally I’d insist that we backtrack the animal so we don’t put stress on it, but the tracks were at least a day old.

This time the bobcat led us to a hemlock tree. Do you see the debris under the tree?

How about now? And stained snow by the trunk?

There were even little brown commas atop the snow that could easily be mistaken for hemlock cones. But rather, they were a form of scat.

Like us, the bobcat had been here, but for some reason he chose to pass by.

Whenever we spy downed hemlock branches, comma-shaped scat, and lots of urine at the base of a tree, we know to look up and so we did. High above sat a male porcupine. Males are known to stay in a tree during the day while females typically return to the den each morning and head back to the tree of dining choice at twilight. Here’s are two curious things: 1. the bobcat passed by—they will go after a porcupine, but perhaps this one was too high up. (Fishers are a porcupine’s #1 enemy.) 2. we looked all around and couldn’t find any porcupine tracks. If we had, we might have followed them to see if we could locate the den. But, since we couldn’t we came to the assumption that this porcupine has been up in the tree since at least our last major snowstorm on Friday, February 25.

Back on the bobcat’s trail we did go, being stymied occasionally because though we knew it was a bobcat, there were a few prints that resembled a deer and we came up with all kinds of stories about flying deer and other critters of our imaginations.

But always, we’d find a few classic prints and again feel 100% confident of our ID. Well, not ours, but the bobcat’s.

So where would it lead us next? To a spruce tree all covered with sap . . . and fur.

Some of the hair was dark and coarse.

In other spots it was redder and softer. After much debate, and noting that it was all up and down the tree from just above snow level to at eye sight and maybe a bit above, I think we all agreed it was a bear marking tree. Bears sometimes nip and bit trees and rub their backs on them and their hair gets stuck on splinters or in this case also sap.

According to North American Bear Center: “Favorite trees have little ground vegetation to prevent a bear from approaching them, and they often lean slightly toward the trail.  Look for hair caught in the bark or wood 2 to 5 feet high and look for bites 5½ to 6½ feet high.

The hair often bleaches to brown or blond after a few months but can still be distinguished as bear hair from its length and appearance.  Guard hairs are typically coarse and 3-4 inches long and have a narrow base that may be wavy.  Bears are shedding their winter fur when much of the marking is done in spring or early summer, so the bark may also catch underfur, which is thin, wavy and shorter.”

Two feet up made sense given the snow’s depth.

You’d think that would have been enough, but again we wondered: where will the bobcat lead us?

This time it was a snapped snag and we noticed he’d walked along the top of it.

And then one among us spotted this. Brown snow and more hair. We were sure it was a kill site. Yes, as trackers we really like kill sites because they are fun to interpret and we appreciate the energy passed from one animal to another via the predator/prey relationship.

For a few minutes we took turns walking around the site trying to take in everything presented to us, including some hair that had fallen into the snag’s hollow.

I think it was the two=toned hair that helped us figure this one out. Plus the fact that there was no blood. This was a spot where the bobcat sat down, thus the rather tamped down snow that had turned brown. The warmth of his body helped to flatten it and in so sitting, some of his hair, which is black and white, got stuck, similar to what we see in deer beds at this time of freezing and warming temps. The mammals are beginning to shed their winter coats and last week we had an unusually warm day so change is in the air.

We admired his hunting spot and balance beam. And then it was time for us to leave.

But those grins remained on our faces for we were grateful we’d taken the time to see where the bobcat might lead us at GLLT’s Charles Pond Reserve today.

The Tale of the Squirrel’s Tail?

The forest behind our home has long served as my classroom and this past week has been no different.

Upon several occasions, through the doorway I stepped. My intention initially was to stalk some porcupines I’d tracked previously in hopes of finding at least one of them in a tree. But the three dens that had been active two weeks ago were empty.

Near one located almost a mile from home, however, I spied squirrel middens dotting the landscape. This was in the late afternoon of Wednesday, February 23, a day when the high temperature broke records and reached 62˚ in western Maine.

For a brief second I spied the squirrel responsible for the middens, but then it scrambled up a hemlock and disappeared from my sight.

And so I . . . I decided to try to examine its territory and exclaimed when I realized that because of the warm temperature, its tunnels had been exposed. This particular one led to one of its food storage units, a cache of hemlock cones stored under a downed tree.

Into the mix it was more than the squirrel, for I spied vole tunnels and deer prints. So here’s the thing, red squirrels tunnel through the deep snow to get to their caches. Of course, they also leap across the snow. Voles, on the other hand, are much shier of sky space because they are everyone’s favorite food. They tunnel between the ground and the snow in what’s technically called the subnivean zone and typically we don’t see their exposed runways until spring. But 62˚is like an early summer day ’round these parts. Oh, and do you see that same downed tree from the last photo? Keep it in mind, for it plays an important role in this story.

A vole’s tunnel is about an inch across and the only thing I had for a reference point was a set of keys. I was traveling light that day.

Likewise, the squirrel’s tunnel was about three inches in width.

My next move was to walk the perimeter of the squirrel activity in order to gain a better understanding of its territory. All told, it is about 30′ x 50′, and located under several tall pines and hemlocks that create a substantial canopy. On the fringe of this particular neighborhood live a few red maple and balsam fir saplings.

I had to wonder if the squirrel was still in the hemlock or had moved to a different location via its tree limb highway while I was looking down and all around.

Having figured that out, I returned to the downed tree, for not only did it serve as a food storage or cache below, but the top side was the dining table/refuse pile, aka midden. Obviously the hemlock had provided a great source of food–a good thing given that it seemed to be the only hard mast available this year.

There were other middens scattered about, but I really liked this one upon a stump, which showed the pines had at least offered a few treats not yet devoured. The thing is, red squirrels like to dine on high places, whether it be upon a downed tree, stump, or even up on a limb. That way they can see their predators approach and make a mad dash to a tunnel or up a tree trunk.

Two days later, on Friday, February 25, seven or eight inches of snow fell and again in the later afternoon I ventured into the woods to check on the squirrel’s activity. Sometimes during storms mammals hunker down but by the number of prints visible, I knew that this one hadn’t. Its tunnels had some snow in them, but the boughs above kept much of the snow from landing on the ground.

The curious thing for me was that though there was a lot of activity by the downed tree, I couldn’t locate a single midden. Even if the squirrel had been dining on a tree limb, surely some cone scales and cobs would have fallen.

It had also climbed its favorite tree, the one where I spied it on Wednesday, but again, no sign of food devoured.

After my guy and I spent the morning and early afternoon tramping four miles from home to a swamp and back, I decided to head back out to check on the squirrel while my guy went for a run. Speaking of running, as I approached the squirrel’s territory, I watched it run across the snow and zoom up the hemlock and never spied it again.

So I turned to the tree stump–it was covered with Friday’s snow, though there were tracks around the base of it. What I loved is what I’d missed on Friday–barbed wire. This was all once farmland and obviously I was standing on a boundary. It was actually a boundary for the squirrel as well, since this marked an edge of its territory.

Near the red maple saplings I found evidence of some fresh tunneling, albeit not under the snow, but through it, which is also typical. Perhaps the squirrel was dining within and had hidden its middens.

I stepped over to the downed tree and looked under in a southerly direction, curious to see barely a sign of the cache that had been so evident on the first day.

Looking north, it was more of the same.

That is . . . until it wasn’t. A hint of color captured my attention. Feathers?

No. Hair. From a red squirrel, whose hair hues can range from gray to brown to red. A fluffy tail no more. The thing is that squirrels sometimes loose their tails to predators, or even parts of the tail from a fracas during a territorial fight with one of its own. Another cause may be a tree trying to snag the tail just as speckled alder and winterberries and balsam fir tried to snag my hat repeatedly on our tramp this morning.

Even upon the downed tree . . . a little tuft. No tracks atop the tree. And no signs of feeding.

I looked around, searching for predator tracks and instead found the snow lobster instead. This was a place of squirrel and vole and deer and hare. But not a predator in sight.

And so I looked up, thinking that the hair was the result of an avian predator. My hope was to find a few strands dangling from a tree. Or some other evidence. Nothing. Oh, how I wished GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers were with me, for they are an inquisitive group and ask great questions and process the whole picture in a complete manner. Together we share a brain and I needed that sharing.

Alas, they were not, but I snatched some of the hair and will certainly share it with them in the morn.

In the meantime, that’s my tale of the squirrel’s tail. And if you have ideas or considerations, please let me know.

Happy 7th Birthday to you, wondermyway!

Seven years ago today I gave birth–rather a record at my age. It was February 21, 2015, when I welcomed wondermyway into the world. It’s been quite an adventure that we’ve shared together and one of my favorite things to do each year to celebrate is to take a look back.

As I reviewed this past year, the reality hit home. I’ve written less than half the number of posts of any other year. That all boils down to one thing. Time. There’s never enough. Oh, I’ve taken the photos, and had the adventures, but I haven’t made the time to write about all of them. Sometimes, they sit off to the side in my brain and I think I’ll use some of them together in a cumulative post, and there they sit.

That all said, I’ve had more views and visitors this past year than any other. Views = 24,955; Visitors = 16,994. Followers = 701. And over the course of wondermyway’s lifespan, the blog has received 121,765 hits.

An enormous heart-felt thanks to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. I get excited to share with you and love hearing from you.

In case you are wondering, my guy and I did have a Mondate this afternoon–along Bemis River and then up to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.

It was here at the falls that we celebrated wondermyway.com with a couple of those Bavarian Haus chocolates we purchased last Monday.

And now for a look at a few excerpts from posts I made during the past year, beginning with March 2021. To read or re-read the entire post, click on the link below each photo.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons. Somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

But . . . this spring will be different.

How so? And what invitation still stands? Click on the link under the beetle’s photo to find the answers.

Whispers Along The Trail

“The way to be heard isn’t to shout,” said the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells of St. Martins in the Fields, London. “It’s to whisper.” But who are the whisperers?

Listen for the slightest murmur of Trailing Arbutus’s delicate blossoms beneath its leathery leaves.

Hear also the soft words of a rattlesnake-plantain explaining that its striking veins may suggest “checkered,” but it actually goes by “downy” in common speak.

You’ll have to click on the link under the photo of the Trailing Arbutus flowers to hear what other species had to say.

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond. I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space.

But . . . you’ll have to click on the link under the Bald Eagle photo to figure out what our best sighting was.

The Saga of a Vernal Pool

Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all,  about the circle of life. 

A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool. 

Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days. 

Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed.

And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool. 

The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner. 

Ah, but how does the story end? Click on the link under the photo to find out.

Consumed by Cicadas

I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.

Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.

Click on the link under the photo to see the story of the Cicadas unfold.

Not Just An Insect

Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.

There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.

But why the title, “Not Just An Insect”? Ahhh, you know what you’ll need to do to find the answer.

A Collection of Mondates

Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”

The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”

The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”

We did figure it out. Over and over again. This collection happens to include places that make us happy and many of our family members and just looking back puts a smile on my face. Oh, and the selfie–taken at the same place where we went today–only in September 2021.

Beautiful Maine

A vacation loomed in front of us. Where to go? What to do?

Click on the link, Beautiful Maine, to see what surprises awaited us as we got to know our state a wee bit better.

Pondering the Past at Pondicherry Park

Before today’s deluge began, I slipped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, Maine, to fill the innermost recesses of my lungs with November air, and at the same time my brain with memories of so many people who have traveled these trails with me from Ned Allen, former executive director of Bridgton Historical Society, to Loon Echo’s Jon Evans, and Lakes Environmental Association’s Alanna Yanelli and Mary Jewett, and friends and friends and friends, including the late JoAnne Diller, Sue Black, and Jinny Mae. But today’s journey also included memories of one I took two years ago with Becky Cook, who shared her remembrances of growing up along South High Street and romping through these trails as they were part of her backyard. If anyone ever had a sense of this place, it is Becky.

This post is full of information of an historic and natural nature. Go ahead, click on the link above to learn more.

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

Click on the link to find out more about the pattern.

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

But what could good hair possibly have to do with this Mondate? You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

So how is this stuffed beaver connected to a gory story?

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Finally, settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope you’ll continue to wonder along with me as I wander through the woods.

Knowing My Place

I planned to accomplish so many things since I had time off this past week. And I did check a couple of items off my list, but . . . most of my time was spent wandering and wondering in the woods behind our house.

Sometimes I followed trails known only by those who like to zoom through this space and never really see.

Other days I bushwhacked, eager to discover what might present itself.

Always I was reminded that this has long been my classroom and its taught me many a lesson, including that the bracts of the Witch Hazel flower persist in the winter and offer a dash of color in the landscape. Notice how each flower consisted of four bracts that curl back. The ribbony flowers fell off in the fall. And I have to admit that there was a time when I thought these were the flowers.

While bushwhacking, debris on the snow drew my attention and of course I had to investigate.

Much to my delight, I found a couple of Pileated Woodpecker scats filled with insect bodies. And notice all the chiseled wood–it’s a lot of work, but I’m always happy to note via the scat that the attempt was successful.

Equally successful was the digging of a Red Squirrel who had cached a pile of hemlock cones and returned within the last few days to dine and leave behind a midden of cone scales–its garbage pile.

This is a truly wild place that serves as home to so many mammals and birds and I give thanks to them for leaving behind prints and other signs of their presence. Of course, I was looking for the resident Moose, who has eluded me so far, but the White-tailed Deer are everywhere, including sucking seed from our bird feeders every night.

The Turkeys haven’t discovered our feeders yet, but by their prolific tracks I know they are nearby.

I’ve also been noting many, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, some in places I don’t recall seeing them previously and methinks there is plenty of prey available for predators. One of the learnings these woods have offered is that the hare’s prints can throw one off on ID, especially when the snow is soft and its hind feet (top of photo as they always land in front of where the front feet landed and lifted off) spread out and leave more toe impressions than one typically sees.

Of course, no visit to these woods is complete without a check-in at the vernal pool. And this week I discovered two other pools to check on in the spring. But those are for another day three months away.

For all my wandering, actually spying wildlife is rather rare, but from inside our kitchen door sometimes we see so much. Every few nights a porcupine pays us a visit. And every night four healthy looking deer stop by as I said earlier. But on these stormy days, the feeders see the most action and today’s visitors included Tufted Titmice,

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

Eventually, this male flew to the ground and dug in, much like the Red Squirrel in the woods.

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

And his Mrs. came by as well. One day we actually spotted two Cardinal couples in the yard.

One of the joys of the feeders is that those who visit add color to the scene and it soon became apparent that red was the color of the day, this time with the spots on the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head indicating it was a male.

Another male of another species also showed off his red coloration.

I was tickled to welcome a couple of House Finches. And do you see the deer hair on the snow to the upper right of his beak?

It’s that time of year when the Juncos also pay a visit and keep the red theme going with their pink beaks.

Not all birds are created equal or don’t tell the Gray Squirrel he’s not a bird because like the deer and porcupine, he’s sure that the seed and nuts are meant for his pleasure. Certainly.

This was my week, a week spent happily dilly-dallying in my place and giving thanks for past and present and future lessons. A week spent wondering and wandering alone. And it was topped off with this icy sculpture in the woods that reminded me of a bird’s head–it seemed apropos, but I did have to wonder how it formed. Ahhhh, not all is meant to be understood in this school of choice.

How well do you know your place?

Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.

Mary

Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.

My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.

And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.

Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:

  • Gap in the overstory
  • Trees over 30 feet tall
  • Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
  • Water
  • Some age variety
  • Snags over 6 feet tall
  • Large downed wood

I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.

But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.

I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.

There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.

Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.

I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.

After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.

But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.

In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.

A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.

And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.

Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?

In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.

My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.

Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.

And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.

Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?

But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.

Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!

Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.

And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.

Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.

It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.

Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.

With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.

The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.

As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!

Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

And so I began by walking slowly and breathing deeply as I followed the labyrinth in and out.

Eventually I met an old friend who shouted with glee that I had stopped by.

Behind said friend, her age lines were revealed and it was obvious that from time to time she’d hosted a variety of others who ate at her inner core in such a manner that her death provided a means for their life.

Similarly, her sibling showed off his own marks of healing and growing.

And then I moved into a different neighborhood, this one a conifer stand, where an obvious meal had been interrupted and I wondered why.

Upon another rock, another midden indicated an earlier meal consumed, perhaps in a safer place as maybe the barbed wire added some safety.

And then I saw them. Prints that is. Impressions in the snow. Created by not one, but two coyotes. Why did they change direction?

By the hair-filled scat one of them had left not long ago on another rock along the wall it was obvious they’d been here before.

A few steps more and I knew why. I’d discovered the crossroads–that intersection of life where red squirrel headed left, snowshoe hare in the same direction as my boots, and the coyotes circled about.

The red squirrel survived. This I know because it left fresh prints that led to a hemlock stand where, though I couldn’t see it, it scolded me from high above. Or perhaps it was telling me a tale of its heroic adventures to outwit the coyotes.

The coyotes’ trail indicated they’d moved north. The snowshoe hare? I’m not sure where it went.

As for me? I returned home to enjoy this gift I received from dear friends that now graces our kitchen wall. It was fun naming all the ornaments they’d bestowed upon the wreath from Northern White Cedar leaves to Evening Primrose, lichens, sensitive fern spores, an acorn, a hemlock cone, and Queen Anne’s lace in its winter form.

Taken all together, today’s adventure followed the circle of life and the circle of friends from trees to woodland critters to givers of the wreath. I am grateful for all.

Messages in the Snow

Dedication: This one is for Kimmy, aka Lt. Col. Kimberly Jennings, Chief of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility on the Executive Leadership team for the USAF; a former student of mine, babysitter of our sons a hundred years ago, and very dear friend, who is dealing with Melanoma.

May the snow embrace you as it does the hemlock trees over the forest path.

Express your true form like the dancing winter structure of pinesap.

Let your uniqueness shine forth as those of individual snowflakes.

Occasionally defy gravity and rules like snow clinging to vertical beech leaves.

Continue to seed the minds of those who follow in your footsteps.

Forever provide a place for others to gather.

Turn an uprooting into an opportunity to fly in different directions.

Build dams and occasionally breach them.

Dabble about and quack your desires incessantly because you can.

When you spot a standing tree, gnaw at its base in hopes of defining future goodness.

When stonewalls block the way, call upon your superpowers to create openings.

Find universal hearts in everyday places.

And always, no matter the snow depth, channel your inner child and make snow angels.

You got this, Kimmy. And we’ve got you.

Lake Living magazine: fall/winter 2021

I always get excited when an issue of Lake Living hits the shelves and the fall/winter one is now being distributed. If you are able to pick up a copy, please do so. And if you aren’t local, you can find a link to it here and below. 

The first article, written by Laurie LaMountain, is “Finding Center” about an artist who purchased a building that began its life as a Roman Catholic Church, whose congregation outgrew it, and then for decades as Craftworks, a highly successful retail clothing and homewares store until it closed in March 2020. And now it is transforming into Factor Fine Art Center for the Arts and the story is as much about the building as it is about the man who is behind this repurposing project. 

As always, in the fall issue, there is an article about a house renovation, this one entitled “Big Pine Farm,” also written by Laurie. The color scheme reminds me so much of our own kitchen renovation. 

Next inside the cover is an article I wrote about a large barn that isn’t undergoing a renovation, but rather is being rescued from listing to the west and possibly toppling over, thus I titled it “Rescue Mission.” I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing a young man who is overseeing the project. Keeno Legare grew up looking at (and sometimes exploring) the barn and has a strong desire to continue to preserve the structure. 

One of my favorite parts of the building is the silo—located inside rather than out. The article includes some of the history of the barn and the passion its owner, David McGrath, has for it. 

“The Home Sauna: Active Relaxation” is Laurie’s third article. This is about one man’s COVID project that resulted in a small building where he can reap health benefits while letting the world wash away.

Laurie’s final article is entitled “Light Breaking.” This is about Laurie Downey, a woman who transformed her artistic direction after working as the set designer for her daughter’s school drama club. “Taking her cue from nature, she initially created a dozen lyos lightscreen patterns from drawings and photographs, or a combination of the two, that mimic rippling water, sun dappled foliage, forsythia in bloom, stands of saplings, and bare branches.” As you can see in the title photograph, ice also informs her art. 

My second article is about Forest Therapy in the winter. Maine Master Naturalist and Forest Therapy Guide Jeanne Christie shared with me information about how a forest therapy session works, the values of participating in such a walk, and ways to make sure you stay warm while doing this in the cold season. I’ve participated in a few of Jeanne’s forest therapy walks and highly recommend that if you learn of one of these in your area, you strap on your snowshoes and head into the woods with a guide. 

“Night Show” is my final article. The essence of this article is about light pollution from artificial light. “The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) defines light pollution  as ‘inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light,’ and goes on to stay that ‘it can have serious environmental consequences for humans, wildlife, and our environment.’” Since writing this article, my guy and I had the opportunity to visit Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, designated an International Dark Sky Place. It’s the first place on the eastern seaboard to receive this designation and only places as remote as Antartica have darker skies. 

The article includes information about light trespass and ways we can improve our own indoor/outdoor lighting for the benefit of all. Just imagine—if we all jumped on the bandwagon and turned off or down our lights, the stars would surely amaze us. 

The magazine concludes with everyone’s favorite: the bookshelf with book reviews from the owners and staff of Bridgton Books. 

That’s a summary. I do hope you’ll either pick up a copy and read the articles and let the advertisers know that you saw their ads . . . cuze the magazine is free to you. And if you can’t pick up a copy, please click on the link here: lake living fall/winter 2021

Spring In Our Steps

Early spring, that time of transition when it feels as if the world has slowed down, is one of my favorite times of the year. Oh, besides all my other favorite times that is–like tracking time and dragonfly time and stalking insect time and . . . and . . . and.

These days it seems my day often begins with a certain male visitor.

No, it’s not my guy, but another handsome fellow named Jake. At least I think that’s his name, based on the length of his beard, short conical spurs on the backs of his legs, and light red and blue head, which would be much brighter for his elder named Tom. It doesn’t matter for in the morning sunlight he gleams and makes me realize that he embodies every color of the rainbow.

We typically spend a few minutes together before he departs and I know that means it’s time for me to do the same.

To ensure there will be more of these little water tigers, I discover two adults canoodling.

In its adult form, the beetle backs up to the water’s surface and captures air under the elytra, or firm front pair of wings where the spiracles or respiratory openings are located. (Think external pores) The challenge is to carry enough air to breath, but not too much that might cause them to sink. That said, I frequently watch them surface and then swim off after an oxygen grab, but storing that air for at least ten minutes serves them well while mating for they certainly don’t have a plan to rise for a refill.

If you’ve never watched a pair of Predacious Diving Beetles mate, this is worth the eleven-second clip. It was a first for me, and what a frenzied time it was.

Ah, but there are other things to look at in a pool and so I pull myself away from the canoodlers and begin to focus on the result of some other interaction, this being egg masses of Spotted Salamanders. One evening in the past week, a male Spotted Salamander deposited spermatophores that look like tiny pieces of cauliflower on the pool floor. A few nights later a female picked up sperm from the small structures and internally fertilized her eggs, which she later attached to the small branch in the water. If you look closely, you might see the gelatinous matrix that surrounds the mass.

Likewise, Wood Frog egg masses have also been deposited and their overall structure reminds me of tapioca. In no time at all, the embryos began to develop, but it will still be about three weeks before the larval tadpoles hatch.

Because I was looking, I had the good fortune this week of spying another tiny, but significant critter swimming upside down as is its manner–a fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp don’t feed on the embryos but rather filter algae and plankton with eleven pairs of appendages, which they also use for swimming and breathing.

Similar to the Predacious Diving Beetle, in order to digest food, a Fairy Shrimp produces a thick, glue-like substance to mix with a meal. My awe with Fairy Shrimp remains in the fact that after a female produces broods of hardy eggs called cysts, they lay dormant once the pool dries up and don’t hatch until it rains again the following spring or even years later.

I could spend hours searching for Fairy Shrimp and other insects and in fact, do even marvel at the Mosquito wrigglers as they flip and flop their way around.

You, too, may watch them by clicking on this short video. And remember–they eventually become great bird and insect food.

By now, I suppose it’s time to honor other more beautiful sights of spring, including my favorite first flower of the season, the tiny spray of magenta styles at the tip of Beaked Hazelnut flowers waiting for some action from the male catkins.

And yesterday’s most delightful surprise, the first blooms of Trailing Arbutus on the forest floor. Known as Mayflowers, they usually open in April. Just to confuse us.

Standing for a while beside a river rather than a pool, another of my favorite sites was an abundance of Painted Turtles basking. No, they aren’t sunbathing to get a tan, but rather to raise their internal body temperature. Being cold-blooded, their body temperature is determined solely by the temperature of the surrounding environment.

In the same neighborhood a pair of Belted Kingfishers could be heard rattling as they do in flight and then seen preening and it seems that love is not only in the water, but in the air as well.

Likewise, a Song Sparrow or two or three trilled their lovely notes to announce their intentions to any who would listen.

And then today dawned–and with it a spring snowstorm graced this part of the world and all who live here, like this Sheep Laurel with buds still tiny.

Back to the pool went I, where the only action seemed to be snow striking its surface and creating rippled patterns in constant flux.

Some of the snow drops were so large that bubbles reflecting the canopy above formed. Under water, I couldn’t see any action and finally turned toward home, trusting all the swimming critters were tucked under the leaves in an attempt to avoid the rawness of the day.

There was one more stop to make, however, before I headed in. On December 1st, 2020, upon this very same tree, I watched slugs for the last time last year as documented in a post entitled “My Heart Pines.” It was a squirrel midden that had attracted me to the tree, but so much more did it have to offer on that day.

Today, as I searched for slugs, I was equally surprised for just as I found last year, once again the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Even in snow, I learned, it can occur. Plus there was a subtle rainbow of colors.

Ah, but it certainly didn’t match the colors Jake displayed.

Today’s snowfall will melt by tomorrow and only be a memory of that year it snowed on April 16. We’ve had much bigger April storms than this one turned out to be and henceforth Jake and I will walk with a spring in our steps.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.

But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.

The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.

And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.

But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.

I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.

I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.

I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .

and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .

and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.

But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.

The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.

“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.

Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.

As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.

Ice on the Rocks Mondate

This past weekend’s January thaw was a doozy. First the temperature reached 61˚ on Saturday and then 56˚ on Sunday with a downpour in the mix and most of our 12+-inch snowpack disappeared.

And so after my guy and I finished some errands in North Conway, New Hampshire, we decided to walk along the Saco River to check on the conditions.

Our starting point was at the Smith-Eastman Landing on Meeting House Road. A look at the old bridge stanchions brought childhood and teenage memories of the covered bridge that once stood there back to my guy.

According to an article in the September 23, 2015 issue of the Conway Daily Sun:

The bridge between Redstone and Center Conway — the Smith-Eastman Bridge — was built in 1845-46. It was the longest, historically. Animosity developed among townfolk over where it should be located. Many wanted the Chataque site in Conway, as it would allow them to get to Dover more easily. Those living eastward toward Center Conway wanted it there in order to get to Portland.

Judge Joel Eastman, with his farm located at the latter site, won out. His neighbor was John Smith, who delivered the stage line to Portland. Tolls would be necessary. In December 1844, articles were drawn up between the two men, and they were ultimately reimbursed by the town. Many called this bridge the Joel Eastman; others the Smith-Eastman.

This bridge was repaired in the 1930s by members of the Broughton family. Sadly, arsonists — partying youths — destroyed the 130-year-old structure in July 1975. A plaque was erected at the site a year later as part of local observances of the nation’s bicentennial.

To the south, though not currently in use, the train trestle bespoke a time of prosperous productivity based upon action at the Redstone Quarry

Our journey began at the south side of the Smith-Eastman Park and after crossing a small footbridge, we followed the trail beside the river. Notice the snow deficit. But . . . there was ice as today’s temp was in the more seasonal low 20s, though it felt more like the teens, perhaps because we’d been spoiled over the weekend. Anyway, I wore my micro-spikes; my guy shoved his into a pocket. At least he had them with him. We climbed a mountain a month and a half ago, and he intentionally left them behind. Let’s suffice it to say he regretted that decision on more than one occasion when his feet left the Earth.

As we walked along today, our Beech tree vision found us looking for bear claw marks. We never did see any, but an elbow did manifest before our eyes. So . . . what’s its story? Someone marked the trail by bending the tree? Another tree landed atop it in its younger days and caused it to reform? Your thoughts?

Continuing on, we came to a stump where you know who decided to sit and don those micro-spikes. He was behind me as I took this photo and acknowledged the fact that he’d made the right choice.

As you can see, it’s a well traveled trail that offers recreational opportunities for both man and his best furry friend.

Despite the fact that this is a well-frequented doggie walk, we also found evidence that wild mammals are familiar with the territory as evidenced in deer prints and fresh beaver works.

We looked for a lodge, but found none. Perhaps theirs was a bankside lodge located in a place we couldn’t reach.

And where humans were warned not to fish, another mammal whose name shall be forever muted by the conditions, went across an ice covered swamp to get to the other side.

Side trails frequently departed the main drag and led to the water. This was the only one with such an artistic sign and we gave thanks to the Cato Trust for the creation–of sign and trail.

We checked out their beach. It wasn’t exactly a beach day, but . . . when in Rome.

Not long after that a strange structure greets all those who travel this way. It’s a shed with mini solar panels above and cables and other forms of technology, all bedecked with a dark moss I couldn’t identify. As a gauge station for the USGS Maine Water Science Center and provides data National Water Quality Monitoring Council.

From the beach below it, we looked back toward Route 302 as the day darkened and a fine sleety mist greeted the only exposed part of our bodies, our cheeks. I probably should have had us pose for a selfie for we both would have added a rosy color to the landscape.

Because of the melting and rain, the water level was high, but not at its highest. Still, we wondered if there was any ice left.

Eventually, we began to find it offering a contrast to lichen covered rocks.

And thick sheets sitting upon the shore like beached whales.

We found frozen ground, ripple marks created by the water’s motion, and thin layers recreating the work of line artists.

Then there was a stream that flowed innoculously below our feet until it met the riverbank and added various sculptures to those who ventured near.

We enjoyed the view offered from either side of a downed tree, but chose not to climb down and taken in the scene from below. I know we missed something, but it was rather steep and as great as our micro-spikes were in giving us a feeling of security, we didn’t feel like going swimming.

In the end, and after a couple of hours and three or four miles our journey did come to an end because it was sleeting by the time we finished, it was the configuration of rocks and ice, ice and rocks, and all the lines and textures they offered that intrigued us most on this Mondate.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this in 2016, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

s-barn

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-waiting-for-santa

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-tree-hole

Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-cocoon

Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes something like this . . .

s-snow-limbs

The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

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Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

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Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bear for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

Otter Delight

Once upon a time in a land close, close at hand, there lived a family of Otters who were mothered by a Snowshoe Hare.

They spent most of their days and nights exploding through the ice and sliding up and down the mill pond’s edge.

But one day their momma rounded up some snowshoes large and small and strapped them on to all.

The family headed off through the woods where moments of wonder captured their attention.

It wasn’t long into their journey when a winter firefly upon the snowy surface stopped them in their tracks.

E. Otter took the firefly that overwinters as an adult and looked for a safe place to deposit it.

She found such in an old beetle hole upon a dead snag and wished it well before she hopped away.

W. Otter found another tree that he quickly identified as a yellow birch and then honored with a hug.

C. Otter looked upon the bark of a beech tree and was thrilled to spy a fungi.

On the tree’s back side he spied another and posed above the false tinder conk.

Soon, the little Otters convinced their momma that they didn’t want to try to be hares any more and so they shed their snowshoes.

Within moments, A. Otter decided to instead try his feet at being a frog.

Catching some air, he leapt up the trail.

By a vernal pool he revealed his true identity–a tree frog.

Soon, his siblings joined him as they channeled their inner tree frogs.

A short distance later, momma couldn’t help but smile when her young’uns displayed their angelic nature.

Those angelic Otters eventually found their way to the top of a huge boulder.

And then they began to do what Otters do.

They slid.

And climbed back up.

To slide some more.

Sometimes, it seemed as if they flew down the boulder’s face.

Other times they bounded.

In true Otter rhythm, one foot landed diagonally in front of the other.

After creating a series of troughs in the snow, they begged their momma to join them.

Being a Snowshoe Hare, she wasn’t sure she would be able to slide quite the way they did.

But she shed her inhibitions and climbed up to join her children.

After noting how scary it was, she smiled and slid down in one of the troughs the children had created.

Once was not enough and up and down she went again.

At last it was time to head for home. Being Otters, the children thought they might just den up below their favorite boulder. The youngest, of course, pouted for he wanted to slide some more.

But moments later, he showed his momma how much he loved her by presenting her with a snowheart.

What an otterly delightful family and equally otterly delightful way to spend the day!

Prehistoric Creatures of western Maine

I heard it before I saw it as I reached the summit of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Flat Hill this afternoon. The rhythmic tapping sounded as if a structure was being built and so I looked upward expecting to see a treehouse under construction. Scanning all the trees in the mixed forest, I saw only their crowns.

And then I smartened up and looked at the snow. Bingo! Fresh debris atop this week’s layers of snow from two storms and I had a better idea of the construction worker’s location.

Sure enough, high up in a deteriorating yet live red oak stood the one with a crown all his own–brilliant red as it was in the afternoon sun. By the red mustache on its cheeks, I knew the pileated woodpecker was a he. Call him either PILL-ee-ated or PIE-lee-ated; the word means “crested.”

Sometimes, when these birds are intent on their work, I find I’m able to quietly move in a wee bit closer. Mind you, he was up quite high (at least 25 feet above me) and there were other trees between us. I hoped if he was aware of me that he knew I meant no harm. I just wanted to observe.

And so I did for a good while. Check out that chisel-like bill.

In a seemingly effortless manner, he pounded away. Did you know that a pileated can peck up to 12,000 times a day? Not all on the same tree, of course.

Thank goodness for extra-dense neck muscles and a compressible skull bone. Between hammering, this guy paused periodically. To admire his work? To check on the food supply? Or just to take a break?

Can you see one of his four-toed talons grip the edge of the excavation site?

One cool thing about woodpeckers is how they use their tail feathers for support–as if the third leg on a three-legged stool.

As I watched, I noted that Woody Woodpecker, a name I give all pileateds because their rattling call reminds me of the television cartoon I grew up with, kept digging a bit deeper.

And deeper still.

Then he’d take a break and turn his head away from the tree and I finally realized that the tree was at such an angle that to remove debris he needed to drop it below.

Eventually, he flew off and so I checked on the woodchips in hopes of finding scat filled with insect body parts. There was none. For all of his work gouging the oak, he didn’t seem to have found any carpenter ants or wood-boring beetles. Maybe that’s why he moved on. And so I did as well.

About halfway down the trail, I came upon a sight that might have delighted the woodpecker. I know I was thrilled.

Within a few feet I spotted a second one. They were snow scorpionflies. Much like the fact that Flat Hill isn’t actually flat, nor can the snow scorpionflies fly!

On his website “Bug of the Week,” entomologist Dr. Michael J. Raupp explains, “They belong to a small order of insects known as Mecoptera. The “scorpion” moniker derives from the fact that males in this group have unusually large and upward curving genitalia that resemble the stinger of a scorpion. The “fly” part of the name comes from the fact many species of Mecoptera have wings and can, well, fly.”

To fly and not to fly. Predator and prey. Despite their extreme differences, both finds today certainly struck me as being prehistoric creatures of western Maine.

I’m with the TREES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did she get carried away with the cookie cutters?

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

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

That wasn’t all Alanna had created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so up we looked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m with the TREES. Are you?

Bear to Beer: Middle and Peaked Mountains

My guy opened his Christmas Bear to Beer box and considered the possibilities. The winner was . . .

Middle to Peaked Mountains in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The day had dawned warm after the recent deep freeze and so we had to consider how to dress and what to use for footwear.

Given that our route would take us uphill as we ascended via the Middle Mountain Trail to Middle Mountain, retrace our steps to the connector before summiting Peaked Mountain and then follow the Peaked Mountain Trail down, we knew we needed to dress in layers, but not quite so many and not quite so heavy.

We also weren’t sure of our footwear until we arrived at the parking area and saw the well-packed trail. Our choice–micro-spikes over snowshoes. We only hoped that when we reached the intersection of the Middle Mountain Trail and the Connector Trail, we wouldn’t regret our decision. But time would tell.

In the meantime, after we climbed over the snowbanks to get to the trailhead, we had to conquer the gate. We’ve climbed Peaked in the past, as well as walked the Pudding Pond Trail, both part of the Green Hills Preserve, so we knew that typically one walks around the gate. Today, we merely stepped over it–which tells you something about the snow depth.

At .2 miles, the trail comes to a T. The right hand route leads to Pudding Pond, while the left requires a brook crossing before continuing on to the mountain trails.

A bit further along, we came to one set of several that denote the trail system. In terms of following it via the signs, trail blazes, and well worn path, it was easy. Given the soft snow conditions and contour, we’d rank it a moderate hike.

It was one that got the hearts pumping, which is always a good thing. And when one of us needed a rest, we pretended that we just wanted to admire the sound and sight of the gurgling brook.

We passed through a few natural communities, including hemlock groves, and mixed forest. But our focus was really on any beech trees and by the leaves that littered the path, we knew there were plenty.

We scanned the bark every time we spied a beech, and saw not a nail scrape anywhere. But . . . sad to say we did notice tarry spots which oozed out of the cracks in the bark caused by cankers a tree develops as a defensive attempt to ward off beech scale insects and the nectria pathogens that follow their entry points.

The community changed again as we approached the summit of Middle Mountain, where red pines dominated the scenery. And in the warm sun, the snow became softer.

Two miles and some sweat equity later, we’d shed some clothes and reached the top.

From there, my guy went in search of lunch rock and I eventually followed.

It was actually more of lunch ledge and we set up camp, using the jackets we weren’t wearing as our seating area.

The view beyond our feet included Conway Lake in the distance. Lunch consisted of chicken salad sandwiches made with our own cranberry orange relish offering a taste of day in the fen picking berries, a Lindt peppermint dark chocolate ball, and an orange, topped off with frequent sips of water.

While we sat there, I did what I do. There were no beech trees to look at and so I focused in on the bonsai red pine in front of us. Its form, unlike its relatives who stood tall behind us, was the result of growing on the edge of the ledge where it took the brunt of the weather.

I took the liberty of turning a photo of a lower branch 90 degrees because I could see the face of the tree spirit reaching out as it formed a heart. It is February after all.

But enough of that. We were on a mission to find a bear paw tree. When I chose this trail, I had no idea if we’d see one. Yes, we’d climbed Peaked in the past, but never had we noticed any trees with such marks left behind.

So, down we slid, I mean climbed, off Middle Mountain until we reached the connector and could see Peaked’s summit in the background.

We weren’t too far along when our constant scanning paid off! Bingo. A bear paw tree. Some people bag peaks. We bag bear paw trees.

Our mission accomplished, though we continued to look, we journeyed on to the second summit.

From there, we had more of a view of North Conway below, the Moats forming the immediate backdrop, and Mount Chocorua behind.

In front of us, we looked across to Middle Mountain from whence we’d just come.

And behind, Cranmore Mountain Ski Area and Kearsarge North in the background.

With my telephoto lens I could pull in the fire tower atop Kearsarge. It’s among our favorite hiking destinations.

We didn’t stay atop Peaked as long as we had on Middle because the wind was picking up. On our journey down, the mountain views included Washington.

We continued to look for bear trees but found no others. That being said, there were plenty of beech trees on the Peaked Mountain Trail, but the sun was in our eyes for much of the journey, and we had to pay attention to where we placed our feet because traveling was a bit slippery given the soft snow. Maybe there were others after all, and we just didn’t notice.

We completed the 5.5 mile hike about four hours after beginning, ran a few errands, and finally found our way to the finish of today’s bear to beer possibility at the Sea Dog Brewing Company. Black bears like to sip too!

Porcupine: Down Low, Up High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrepid Travelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babe in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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