Quill You Be Mine?

It’s not even Valentine’s Day and already I’m thinking of love. Don’t tell My Guy, but this is love of a different sort. And the story all began while tracking with friends earlier this week.

Just as we were about to finish up the program, we spotted the signs of a resident rodent, including downed hemlock twigs and then a den. The den did not entirely make sense due to its placement in what seemed like a wet area, but we decided the critter must have found a dry place above the moisture, for indeed there was scat.

Once spotted, I knew I needed to return, for almost nothing makes me happier than to spot sign left behind by this mammal.

And so I did yesterday afternoon and while taking a different route to the den, I noticed the sashay of said critter as it had waddled through fluffy snow.

Next, I did what I do, and followed the tracks in a different direction than originally intended. And that’s when I saw these, the resident’s name carved on several wooden shingles. It’s an agile critter given that the shingles were posted all the way to the tip top of these pole trees.

Can you read it? Porcupine Lives Here is the inscription engraved on the tree. Actually, it’s a sign of winter feeding for porcupines, like beavers and deer, seek the cambium layer as one of their food sources. Each line shows where the porcupine’s incisors came together as it scraped away to obtain a meal.

And just beyond those pole trees, I spotted a hole that I suspected could only be one thing. A den with tracks leading in and out and the required pee, for such is this mammal’s habit.

A closer look at the dooryard and I spotted a barbed quill and hair. Actually, quills are a modified form of hair.

Did you know that porcupines have a variety of hair? For winter insulation, they have dark, wooly underfur. In addition, there are long guard hairs, short, soft bristles on the tail’s underside, stout whiskers, and then there are those pesky quills.

They aren’t pesky to the porcupine; just us and our pets and any animal that might choose to or accidentally encounter a porcupine.

The quills are 1 – 4 inches in length and lined with a foam-like material composed of many tiny air cells, thus their round, hollow look. There are no quills on the porcupine’s face, belly, or inside its legs.

But on the upper portion of its head, down its back and along the top of its tail, oh my. Within one square inch, there are approximately one hundred quills.

All told, there are over 30,000 quills. But who is counting. Not me. Though I did count these fancy toothpicks, 100 in all, to represent the quills in a square inch.

Despite the myth, porcupines cannot throw their quills. Because the quills are loosely attached, they dislodge easily on contact and stick into a victim’s flesh. And because they are barbed, they are difficult to remove. Talk about a formidable defense!

Returning to the den, which was located within a hollowed tree, I knew the porcupine had visited within the last twenty-four hours but wasn’t so sure it was home at the hour I stopped by.

As I often say, “Scat happens.” And in the case of a porcupine, it happens a LOT! One porcupine evacuates 75 – 200 scats a day. And though this happens as it dines, most of the scat is deposited in the den. Why? Warm insulation on a night as cold as tonight will be with temperatures already in the negatives and wind chills expected to reach -45˚? Or a detractor for predators–do they get a whiff and realize its one they don’t want to visit?

I’m not sure, but this is an example of a winter scat–fibrous from that woody diet of bark and twigs. It’s comma shaped. And often there is a groove down the inside curve.

By spring, it may come as linked pieces, much like a necklace, for grass fibers from a change in diet help create the connection.

Having discovered this den, I decided to follow the tracks, which indicated the mammal had traveled in two directions. Where would it lead me?

Within a tenth or two of a mile, I realized I’d snowshoed back to the spot my fellow trackers and I had discovered two days prior. You can see our snowshoe tracks. But since our visit, the porcupine had happened along, climbed over the downed log and peed.

Did you know that pee plays an important role in a porcupine’s courting ritual. These critters are solitary most of the year, but between September and November they seek a mate. The male, in a bid to woe a female, often approaches and sprays her with his urine. Are you feeling the love? She apparently does, for if she likes the scent of his urine, they might rub noses, or walk on their hind feet before canoodling begins.

Right above the peed-upon log was the entrance to the den and by the sight of the pigpen approach, browner even that it had been previously, I knew this really was active. The soiled snow is from the porcupine walking across its scat to exit the den.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the camera lighting right, but believe me that this one is full of scat as well. And I suspect, though I couldn’t see it, that a porcupine was sleeping somewhere in there, with its tail facing the entrance just in case a predator happened along.

Another indicator of a resident in the house–hoar frost created by breath on a cold winter day.

Right above the den I discovered the tracks of another–enemy number one in a porcupine’s world view. A fisher will kill a porcupine with repeated bites to the face and head.

Coyotes have also been known to work in pairs to maneuver a porcupine onto its back, thus going for the belly, where the hair is wooly.

So the curious story to me was that the fisher passed through after the porcupine was already back in the den, but it didn’t approach the den. Perhaps it had hoped to find the porcupine out in the open and didn’t want to face a tail lashing if it stuck its nose into the house.

Since the pervious visit, there were also more hemlock twigs on the ground and lots more evidence of scat-dirty feet and pee.

Because a porcupine is a rodent, and a large one at that, only exceeded by a beaver in size, it has prominent top and bottom incisors and twig nips are at a 45˚ angle. Can you also spot the scat and hair?

The winter diet consists of needles and bark–favorite trees being hemlock, birch, beech, aspen, elm, oak, willow, fir, and pine.

In spring and summer, a porcupine seeks out grasses and other green plants. And then in the fall, it looks for acorns, tearing into them in a rather messy manner.

In fact, a squirrel’s midden of opened acorns shows that it cuts the hard shell into much neater strips.

A porcupine’s cheek tooth pattern consists of one premolar and 3 molars on each side top and bottom. As you can see, the cheek teeth are modified for grinding since they are strict herbivores.

It’s those prominent incisors that are to be admired. A porcupine uses its large two front teeth for gnawing off bites of food. The incisors continue to grow throughout the porcupine’s life at a rate of twelve inches/year, and the constant gnawing keeps them worn down to the perfect size.

I did not actually see a porcupine yesterday, despite my best hopes, but sometimes it happens when I’m not looking intentionally so there may be a sequel to this story.

A porcupine has poor eyesight, so I’m not sure if it ever actually sees me when it’s up in a tree, especially if I’m standing sorta still, but it does have a good sense of hearing and smell, so I’m sure its aware of my presence. And the tail always faces the trunk in case I decide to climb up–it’s a great defense mechanism–having the tail at the ready to thwart a predator.

I will end this long story with a drawing by a dear friend and fellow naturalist, 8-year-old Aurora. She’s done her homework and I hope one day soon she’ll be able to answer the question: Quill You Be Mine? with a yes!

Mondate with a View

I’ve been wanting to take My Guy to a certain place in North Chatham, New Hampshire, for the last few years and today was the day that the stars lined up.

Though it appeared we were the second and third humans to head out on the trails this morning, for at the start we spotted only one set of snowshoe tracks, it was obvious that so many others had followed or crossed before us–such as this vole, who tunneled through the fresh inch or two of snow that fell yesterday and then changed its gait.

And then I spotted a sign that always brings me to my knees–fox prints and a dash of urine, probably that of a male in search of a date. Confirmation that it was a fox, and a red one at that, came in the form of the urine’s scent–rather skunk-like. I asked My Guy if he wanted to take a sniff, but he passed on the opportunity.

A wee bit farther and we came upon a smattering of activity, where two foxes had left their dancing cards and I think at least announced their intentions for each other as a date.

These classified ads could be that of the male stating his desire, while the vixen left her own marks of estrus blood as she perhaps investigated his intentions and decided to say yes. The scat? It came from one of them. Another advertisement of health and age and vitality.

While I suspected a meal was not on their minds as she’s only ready to mate for about a week or less, by the amount of snowshoe hare tracks we spotted, we knew that there was plenty of food available. Other offerings on the pantry shelf included ruffed grouse and red squirrel.

Most of the trails at this place are well-groomed by the owners, but we also tried one or two that weren’t.

For the first time in the four or five years that I’ve traveled this way, I finally found the Old Sap House. The owners still tap trees, but obviously this is not where they boil the sap to make maple syrup.

So . . . this was my first journey on the network of trails with My Guy as I mentioned. And I had no idea that it is possible to circle Moose Alley in under an hour. In the past, when I’ve gone with a couple of friends, it has taken us hours and hours because we stop to look at every little thing. And go off trail to follow tracks. And make all kinds of discoveries. But today was different, and that was fine.

I’d also never been on the Sugarbush Trail, which brought us back to the Route 113 and an intersection with Snowmobile Corridor 19. It was here that we heard Chickadees and Red Crossbills singing and I finally located one of the latter in a maple tree.

Crossbills are finches with specialized bills that let them break into unopened cones. Can you see how the top of the bill cross over the bottom?

My intention was that we would eat lunch at one of the benches along the trail system, but we’d hiked most of the system before I knew it and so we sat on the back of my truck and ate. And then we headed back out on Corridor 19, a super highway through Evans Notch.

Only about a quarter mile from the farm boundary, we spotted moose tracks showing two had passed this way recently. We knew they’d been seen on the farm and hoped we might get to spy them, but just seeing their tracks and knowing they were still in the area was enough.

Can you imagine sinking two feet down with each step? Well, actually I can, because I’ve post-holed through snow many a time, but moose and deer must do this daily. For them, it’s routine.

Our reason for continuing on the snowmobile trail was that we had a destination we wanted to reach, that we hadn’t even thought about before reaching the intersection of Corridor 19 just prior to lunch. Eventually, we had to break trail again, and this time it was all uphill, and rather steep at that.

But our real plan was to climb to the Millard Chandler Feldspar Mine (aka North Star Mine) in Evans Notch.

Millard Chandler was a descendent of one of the founding families of Chatham. Originally, mica was mined from the pegmatites but prior to World War II, Whitehall Company, Inc, focused on feldspar.

From the top of the cavern, where life on a rock was evident as the trees continued to grow up there, the water flowed and froze and formed stalactites of sorts. Icicle sorts.

StalacTites grow down from the ceiling of the cavern–think T for Top.

StalaGmites, on the other hand, grow up from the floor–Think G for ground.

In this case, they looked like little fingers reaching up.

This was definitely a Mondate with a view, including Evans Notch from the mine . . .

Norwegian Fjord horses Kristoff and Marta at the farm . . .

and a window that caught my fancy at the sap house.

Our many, many thanks to Becky and Jim for sharing Notch View Farm with all of us. And thank you to Jim for chatting with us twice today. I’m still chuckling about the story of the women from Lovell who visit several times a year and spend hours upon hours on the trail. And then one of them writes long prose and includes pictures of every little thing spotted along the way. Yes, that would be Pam, and Pam, and me! Once, Becky even came looking for us on the snowmobile because we’d been out there for so many hours.

Today, with My Guy, it was a different adventure, but still a fun one and we appreciate that both of you work so hard to share your land with the rest of us.

Tracking Glee

We finally have a decent amount of snow on the ground after Friday’s storm and another storm is expected to begin in a couple of hours. That meant it was time to don the snowshoes. And so I did. And headed into the woods behind our house.

Immediately I was greeted with nature’s art work, and seeing snowflakes dangle like this will always capture my fancy.

But that wasn’t all that captured said fancy, for at a point where I’d been dealing with trying not to fall into water since it’s quite a wetland out there, I suddenly spotted bobcat prints. And knew I had to follow them.

I hadn’t bothered with my tracking bag full of gear, but did think to stick this little card into my pocket for reference. Can you see the C-shaped ridge between the toe pads and metacarpal pad? And the lead toe–making the overall print asymmetrical. Take a look at your hand. It’s also asymmetrical with a lead finger.

The snow is such a depth that there was foot drag. I got thinking about what the bobcat was hunting for and had seen plenty of snowshoe hare and deer runs so knew there was food available. Where would this cat lead me, I wondered.

It was at that point, however, that I thought about a tracking lesson I taught to future Maine Master Naturalists yesterday–if the prints look fresh, backtrack rather than follow them forward, so you don’t put pressure on the animal. I heeded my own words and turned around.

Of course, there was more art work to spy, like this candy cane dangling from a branch.

In my backtrack exploration, I spotted where the bobcat had climbed over a fallen tree. There were other spots where it went under trees and I had to find a different way around.

Back on track, there were more intersections with deer and even mice. But all continued to live for the moment.

And then my journey led me to another I’ve been looking for all winter because usually I see so much evidence of this critter–a porcupine had sashayed through the snow over night.

I found what I think is its den, given the amount of scat, and a hole. And I’m just now making sense of the story. The hole was not large due to snow in front of it and the scat was a bit frosted. BUT . . . what might have happened is that as the day warmed up, snow fell from the limbs above and the porcupine will dig its way out–in fact, it probably already did about an hour ago, for they emerge during twilight.

I followed the tracks, which led to a hemlock tree where there were a couple of twigs below.

And the bark and cambium layer had been chewed on the main trunk and another branch above.

So at some point in my journey, while I was following the bobcat and off my regular trail, I decided to turn on my GPS until I knew where I was. What surprised me is the circle I made as I followed the porcupine’s trail. I need to make time to visit it again, for it seemed to be a new resident to this spot and there wasn’t any more evidence that it had dined in the area.

It took a few minutes, but eventually I found the bobcat tracks again. Only . . . this time I was following the cat forward. What?

They led me to a spot at the base of a tree where the bobcat took a break and must have curled up. And then it turned around.

And it suddenly became apparent to me: I’d followed the forward track on the left to the turnaround point and on the way back I noticed the backtrack trail I’d previously been following. I never did find the bobcat or the porcupine, but seeing evidence of their activity was enough and it was getting late so I followed an old logging road home.

There were still more baubles to spy, including this one upon a Red Maple that had provided food last winter in the form of buds–a fav of the deer.

And when I returned to our woods, I discovered that four deer had bedded down last night under a raised sleeping platform our youngest son had built about eleven years ago when he was in high school. Look for the smooth edges and you’ll realize each one is oriented in a bit of a different direction, the better to see that bobcat, or even the coyotes, whose tracks I also saw today.

Just for fun, I’ve added these photos of the MMNP students channeling their inner child–each mentor group was assigned a mammal. This group needed to become a bobcat and though you may not quite see it, the bobcat was walking in the zigzag pattern with the hind foot landing where the front foot had packed down the snow, thus each print representing two feet, and conserving energy. And those fingers on the bobcat’s head–ear tufts. Plus the “person” in the back was holding a mitten to serve as the bobcat’s tail.

There was a pigeon-toed porcupine as well that waddled through the snow.

And then it gnawed on the branches of a tree.

They had fun with the assignment. My hope is that these students will get a sense of the tracking glee that I feel every time I follow a trail. Even if I don’t get to see the critter, which is most of the time, just developing an understanding of their behavior makes me so happy.

Sworn to Secrecy

I’ll let you in on a tad bit of a secret . . . eventually.

But first, today was a tracking day and so five of us did just that. When we arrived at the intended location, due to snow conditions, I think we had low expectations. I know I did.

We had just stepped off trail to begin our bushwhack excursion when we spotted this Ruffed Grouse scat. So the curious thing about this is that there are two kinds of grouse scat, the typical cylindrical packets coated with white uric acid, but also a juicier, brown dropping. And I regret that I didn’t take a photo of the juicier, yet slightly frozen stuff we saw dripping from some twigs above. At the time, I knew the brown stuff was significant because I’ve looked it up before, but couldn’t bring it to mind. Thanks to Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks, I found an explanation in Bird Tracks and Sign: “Interestingly, after producing these lower-gut-generated solid evacuations, some game birds, such as a grouse, often then evacuate a semi-liquid brownish mass from the upper gut, or cecum, with the two types of droppings coming out sequentially; the more liquid, almost liver-colored scat comes out second and is spread on top of the solid matter. In Ruffed Grouse, it is common to find the hard, fibrous scats at one roost and the soft, brown cecal droppings at another.”

But not uncommon to find them together!

We stood for a long time discussing the grouse scat and when we finally moved on, it wasn’t too far that we discovered bobcat prints. Given that the prints were not super fresh because there was some debris in them, we decided to follow the track forward. Had they been fresh, we would have backtracked so as not to put pressure on the animal. Though secretly, we all love it when we do actually get to spot a mammal. Or a grouse, for that matter.

Eventually, we lost track of the bobcat, because as you can see, there were spots with no snow. But then we stumbled across a sighting that confused us. White-tail Deer scat on the edge of a boulder. Dawn has some new tools she was gifted for Christmas, and so she was excited to pull them out. Our confusion, despite the fact that it looked exactly like deer scat, was caused by the location. On top of a boulder. On the edge of said rock. We came up with a few stories, but will let you try to interpret this on your own.

Back in the snow, we found canine rather than the feline prints we’d been looking for and so out came the tape measure to determine species. Based on the fact that the print measured less than two inches at the widest point and that the stride, or space between where two feet touched the snow (toe to toe), we determined it was a Red Fox.

Everywhere, we spotted Red Squirrel holes and middens, indicating the squirrel had cached a bunch of hemlock cones in numerous pantries and returned since the snow fell to dig them up and dine, leaving behind the cone cobs and scales in trash piles. What struck us was that for all the middens we saw, we never heard or caught sight of any squirrels. In fact, we didn’t see any animals . . . until we did. Huh? You’ll have to read on.

Our next great find close to the pond we walked beside, was more scat! Of course, it was. This being the works of a River Otter and filled with fish scales, all those whitish ovals embedded in it. Like a small pile of Raccoon scat we’d spotted earlier, but again, I forgot to photograph (the sign that we were having fun making all these discoveries), otters tend to defecate in latrines, using the same places over and over again.

Our movement was slow, and every once in a while we’d spread out until someone made a discovery and then we’d all gather again.

Which was exactly what happened when this Snowshoe Hare scat was discovered. Three little malt balls.

After the hare find, we followed a couple of canine trails that took us back to the water. Domestic dog or Coyote? We kept questioning this, but never saw human prints. And the animals did seem to be moving in a direct line on a mission. The warm weather we’ve been experiencing may have been enough to make their prints look larger than they typically would so I think I’m leaning toward Coyote.

But in following those, we discovered a sign from another critter by the water’s edge: Mink scat!

When our time was nearing an end and we bushwhacked back to a road near the trailhead, we were all exclaiming about our cool finds. And then a little birdie we encountered asked, “Do you want to see a bear?”

We don’t need to be asked that question twice, though now that I think back, I’m pretty sure we asked the birdie to repeat the question. YES! She gave us directions and we decided we needed to take an immediate field trip. We each hopped into our vehicles, drove almost to the destination, parked, and walked as quietly as we could toward the den site.

We got us a bear! A Black Bear! The birdie said it has been there since sometime in December.

Now that I’ve shared it with you, I’ll say no more for the five of us are sworn to secrecy about its location.

Making a Happy Face

Earthward they fell
So many flakes of white.
The forest enhanced
with accents to delight.
Even trees long dead
whorled with new light.
Pine saplings bent over
shortening their height . . . 
Mimicking hemlocks,
who were ever so slight.
Flakes piled upon shrubs
in a manner upright,
While others dangled
defying gravity's might. 
Meanwhile, the flying snag
prepared to take flight,
Just as the oak leaf
grabbed a blanket for tonight.
In the midst of it all,
calm water reflected varying light,
While flowing water
offered a beautiful sight. 
Feeling giddy about this snowstorm
I made a tree sprite.
In fact, I made two
with the intention to make others' days bright. 

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.

s-bracken1

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.

s-beech

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

s-sweet-fern-1

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.”

s-violet-toothed-fungi

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.”

s-stockings

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.”

s-dove

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.

s-snow-tree

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.

s-stonewall

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.

s-heart

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

s-santa-hat

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.