Making Everything Count

On May 21, 2022, My Guy and I hiked Albany Mountain Trail in the White Mountain National Forest on a reconnaissance mission. Ours was to note the number of Lady’s Slippers either in bloom or prepping to do so because it was May 24, 2021 that we last counted blossoms. On the 21st of this year none were in bloom, and honestly, we only spotted 21 plants.

And so we returned this afternoon, which found us enjoying Raspberry Bars baked by Fly Away Farm while sitting upon dessert bench at the summit.

On the way up, however, we did keep track of the Pink Lady’s Slippers, including this one that featured last year’s seed capsule.

Occasionally there were spots such as this, where a bunch showed off their lovely moccasins.

But our perennial favorite is the bunch of ten. It’s such a favorite that when we encountered another making his descent, My Guy suggested he hike back up about a quarter mile with us to see this display. He was grateful that we’d shared this special find with him.

But it wasn’t just Lady’s Slippers to note for when we last climbed up two weeks ago, the mosquitoes and black flies were thicker than thick and we practically ran down to finish the route as quickly as possible. Today, there were a few, but it was hardly notable and we gave great thanks to dragonflies such as this male Common Whitetail Skimmer for patrolling the territory.

We found two others on patrol, these being Garter Snakes. I really wanted to stay and watch their movements, for I suspected that the one toward the top was the larger female and the lower one might be a male, but My Guy had Lady’s Slippers on his mind and standing to watch a couple of snakes didn’t tickle his fancy.

And so we moved on, leaving the slitherers to their own intentions without interruption.

But the real star of the show (don’t tell the Lady’s Slippers) was the beaver. You see, there is a dam about a half mile in that hikers must cross to access the rest of the trail and the last few years it has been a bit easier. But this year . . . things have been different and today we met the engineer who made it so.

He was hard at work making repairs when we first came to the dam and we had to time our crossing accordingly.

We watched him as he watched us, sure that he’d slap the surface with his tail in an effort to tell us to move on. Surprised were we when he did not.

Once on the other side, when we encountered the first group of hikers making their way down, we mentioned the beaver. They hadn’t seen it upon their ascent but their group of seven said they may have been the reason for its need to work for apparently they’d messed the dam up a bit as they crossed. It’s not an easy thing to do–the crossing that is.

Upon our own descent we looked about as we reached the dam and tada, there he was swimming away.

And then we got the message–a tail slap! A statement, indeed.

A bit muddier for the experience, we both made it back across as quickly as possible.

And gave great thanks for the opportunity to make everything count.

Lady’s Slippers: 2020: 150; 2021: 47; 2022: 266!!!!

Dragonflies: Never enough, but love how many we saw.

Garter Snakes: 2

Beaver: 1

And as My Guy noted: 266 Lady’s Slippers today + 286 Lady’s Slippers at Overset Mountain on Monday = 552 this week!

But who’s counting?

A Whisperer’s Mondate

Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning? Or better yet, half way through. And so that’s where today’s story starts.

My Guy and I had some errands to run, but then it was time to have fun. To that end, we chose the Weeks Brook Trail up the backside (or maybe it’s the front side depending on your perspective) of Mount Kearsarge North in New Hampshire. We last climbed Kearsarge in November, which I recorded in What’s To Come Mondate, via the Kearsarge Trail that starts on Hurricane Mountain Road. We knew we didn’t have time to go to the summit today, but Shingle Pond, halfway up the trail offered a fine lunch log date and turn-around point.

Along the way we had many to honor and so we did, beginning with a colony of Clintonia showing off bright yellow blossoms.

Each cheery bloom offered an explosion of sunshine radiating from its flaring bell shape and six long stamens with yellow tips and a long style.

Sharing the trail were Pink Lady’s Slippers offering a variation of hues sharing a color scheme.

Since My Guy loves to count slippers, an activity that forever surprises me, he noted only eight in bloom today, but this one was extra special because it featured not only today’s blossom, but also last year’s fruit in the shape of a capsule that once contained thousands of tiny seeds.

And then there was Wild Sarsapirilla with its whorl of three compound leaves at the tip of a long stem.

The globe-shaped flowers that grow upon a stem of their own below the umbrella teemed with pollinators of all shapes and sizes.

My joyous heart kept growing larger and larger with each wonder-filled find enhanced in a few cases by being the first of the species I’ve spotted this year. Indian Cucumber Root topped that list with several in flower. To some, the flowers are inconspicuous as they nod below the plant’s second tier, but to me they are among nature’s most amazing constructions as the petal-like segments turn backward and the stamens stand out in reddish purple offering a contrast to the yellow pistils.

By the time we reached the Swamp Beacon Fungi, my heart was full, but like any sweet treats, there’s always room for more. These little yellow mushrooms love a wet seep and there were a few along today’s trail. I was reminded of my first encounter with this species in 2015 when I posted Slugs, Bears and Caterpillar Clubs, Oh My! (RIP PV. I’ll miss you forever)

At last we reached the pond and immediately my focus changed from flowers to other structures all belonging to the Odonata family, this one in particular being the left-behind exuviae of a Skimmer Dragonfly. I found it at eye level–my eyes that is and not My Guy’s.

I really wanted to introduce him to a dragonfly eclosing and the best I could find today was one that had already split out of its aquatic form and was still pumping hemolymph (bug blood) from its wings back into its expanding body. “Isn’t that cool?” I asked. His response somehow turned a basketball move he expected to see on tonight’s Celtics game into a cooler situation. Hmmm. I’ll win him over yet.

Despite that, I did win another one over. It was an immature Skimmer Dragonfly who had recently emerged for a wee bit cloudy were its wings still.

I knew it to species as a Whiteface for such was the color of . . . its face.

Whether it was a Belted Whiteface Skimmer or a Crimson Whiteface Skimmer, the jury is still out and based upon wing venation. My gut leans toward the former, but I’m open to learning so if you think otherwise, please explain.

That said, it was the first dragonfly that easily climbed upon my offered hand this year and I rejoiced that the Dragonfly Whisperer had joined today’s Mondate. Even My Guy was impressed.

A Wonder-filled Easter Parade

While bonnets are on display each Easter in New York City, the parade takes a different form in the wilds of Maine. This year’s festivities began in the late afternoon of Good Friday.

It was then that this handsome Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapped an announcement inviting everyone to the avenue.

A River Otter was one of the first to arrive, pausing in the midst of playing with a relative.

From a branch above, a Grackle showed off its iridescent spring finery as it viewed the procession below.

Fluttery marchers moved along, pausing in their routines before flying high and then dancing toward the ground again.

Willows stood along the way, waving flowery flags to the tap of the music.

And Ring-necked Ducks wondered what all the frivolity was about.

The route changed over the course of the weekend, and Saturday night found it along a backroad where Wood Frogs showed off their float techniques and sang love songs as rain drops fell.

A female heard the band and hurried across the road to get to the other side. (She may have had some help)

Spring Peepers high-pitched notes filled the air and all felt a sense of excitement despite the weather.

As the night went on, the grand marshal, a Spotted Salamander, finally arrived.

Actually, there was more than one grand marshal and some needed a little help to get to the grand stand so they could watch and participate in the action.

And then Easter Day dawned and after a festive church service, the parade resumed, this time along a gated Forest Road where Beavers had created sculptures to decorate the way.

Those Beavers had completed other work and due to the footwear of some of the onlookers, the route had to be changed for crossing the beaver dam proved a challenge.

Instead, it followed miles and miles of Forest Roads, where brooks contributed happy babbling songs to compliment the local Wood Frog and Spring Peeper chorus.

It wasn’t just music, though. Balsam Fir natural essence rainbows reflected bird balloons for everyone to enjoy.

As the parade neared its end, an early spring flower known as a Coltsfoot, appeared along the way.

And suddenly there were three, a trinity. Faith, Hope, and Love. Sunshiny faces for all to see.

Then a Sapsucker tapped the final announcement. This may not be New York, but the weekend’s Easter Parade has drawn to a close and hope, and awe and wonder are in the air.

Recipe for Early Spring Pie

Preheat your outdoor oven to 55˚ Fahrenheit or so.

Prepare several mixing bowls that include wetland scenes.

It might be best to include a vernal pool for one.

A brook for another.

And maybe even a stream.

Locate a butterfly that overwinters as a mature adult, such as this Eastern Comma.

To be sure you’ve chosen this species and not its anglewing cousin, the Question Mark, look for the punctuation mark on its outer hind wing. Drizzle it with sunshine.

Toss in the most minute and earliest blooming flower you can find, probably that of a Beaked Hazelnut with its spray of magenta styles.

Pour in some water from the Pitcher (plant) and in the process, let the sugars that are currently moving into new leaves as evidenced by the red color from pigments called anthocyanins sweeten the recipe and add some energy.

Taste the mixture and decide if you need to add more sap the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker will gladly supply.

Season the mixture with the conk-la-ree of the male Red-winged Blackbird.

Top with the sky blue reflection of a local river.

Use a Painted Turtle shell to store your concoction.

When you are ready to taste, be like a Garter Snake . . .

and dive in quickly with forked tongue.

Enjoy every bit of the wonderful flavor and embrace the texture and scent for this early spring pie won’t last long.

Bon Appétit!

May the Best Wruck Win

Rainy days that turn into sunny days are the best days of spring. And today was one such. That meant, of course, that I needed to visit one of my favorite wet spots.

Along the way, because it was raining, I noticed the White Pines were foaming at the mouth! What really occurred: sap salts and acids that had accumulated on the bark’s surface mixed together in the rain and formed soapy suds. The rainbow colors and hexagonal forms–worth a natural engineering wonder.

And upon a moss covered tree stump . . . a million more tiny bubbles dangling from reproductive capsules creating a hint of the future.

At the pool, one might say raindrops distorted the reflections captured on the surface. Or perhaps they enhanced it with a design that was ever evolving.

Bubbles kept forming as the raindrops fell . . . and then they’d burst. Just prior to their disappearance, however, they mirrored the canopy above the pool.

Oh, and do you spy what I spied? Wood Frog eggs . . . tadpoles in the making. But all the while that I stood there, and it was a while as the rain fell, not a frog did I spot.

As the skies cleared late in the afternoon, again I headed to the pool. Click on the arrow above and you should hear what I heard. A chorus of wrucks.

Of course, once I stood beside the pool, the frogs had all disappeared. But, with a bit of sun shining, I suddenly could see that in the last week numerous egg masses had been laid in communal style, as is the Wood Frog manner.

Some even exhibited the green hue indicating that mutualistic symbiosis, or a relationship between algae and developing embryos, was already underway. Shallow, ephemeral ponds such as this one, experience severe oxygen depletion during periods of high sunlight and warmth. The algae provides oxygen for the tadpoles, allowing them to survive longer and grow larger before metamorphosis, while the algae receive carbon dioxide from the tadpoles, which aids algal growth.

And then, ever so slowly, frogs silently floated to the surface, and waited . . . for that special woman to happen along. The fact that I had happened along, didn’t turn out to be special enough and so most were silent rather than wrucking as they waited . . . for me to disappear.

And then . . . and then the water began to boil. It took me a moment to realize what I was witnessing.

That moment expanded into about ten minutes as several male frogs tried to outwit each other and grab one female in amplexus.

She occasionally chirped her discontent, but that didn’t stop the good old boys from trying to do their thing.

Around and around they went, this threesome or foursome or fivesome, for it seemed to be an ever evolving grouping.

Her swollen belly betold the fact that she had eggs that needed to be fertilized, but which of these Romeos would win the right to externally fertilize her bounty?

They tumbled and tussled. She chirped. They tumbled and tussled some more.

They calmed down for a moment, but still no decision had been made.

And then, if you click on the arrow above and listen, you’ll hear what the frogs and I heard . . . as a Barred Owl called its “Who Cooks For You?” phrase several times. The frogs split up and I’ll never know which of the best wrucks one, but I suspect one of them finally succeeded in its quest to sire the next generation.

Dedication: This post is for Patti and Kate and Billy and Rob (Howie) and Johnny, in honor of your mom, Bobbie, who passed from this world to the next today. At the sight of each bubble that the day offered, it seemed another memory popped up. And I’m pretty sure we are all living proof that eating her raw Congo Bar dough adds years to ones life. Virtual hugs to all of you. And Tommy too.

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.

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 located in the woods behind our house. 

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 what’s not to love about the unique tapestry, a pattern never repeated. 

With keen eyes I’d gaze in, but at first my focus was only upon the reflection offered by the bare-limbed trees above. 

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. 

A day or two later, her deposited eggs already swelled with water, presented themselves like a tapioca pudding popsicle. 

Soon they were joined by so many other globular masses making a statement that living in community is safer than upon your own and might provide warmth when the temperature dips. 

Inevitably it did dip, and one day snowflakes frosted the rocks and ground, sugar-coated the tree branches, and plopped like leaden raindrops, rippling the water’s surface. 

But . . . the embryos still formed.

With each visit it became more and more apparent that a vernal pool isn’t just about Wood Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and midges and beetles and mites and water striders and squirrels and deer and raccoons and snakes and so many others benefited regularly from its nourishment. Even the resident Barred Owl liked to call occasionally. But perhaps the most prolific residents were the mosquito larvae who wriggled and tumbled through the water column. 

Predacious Diving Beetles intent upon creating more of their own, lived there as well. 

One of the curious wonders about those who use a vernal pool as a breeding ground is that they don’t stay around to parent their offspring. If fact, once canoodling is done, they either hop, climb, or fly out and spend the rest of their lives in the forest.  

Despite the lack of nurturing, within two weeks tadpoles emerged. Hundreds at first. And then . . . thousands. 

A month later, as the pool began to shrink significantly because it is vernal, and fed only by rain or snow melt, my tadpoles, so claimed since I’m about the only one who checks on them regularly, started to show off their more adult form in the making.

Suddenly . . . a few sweltering days later and all the water had evaporated. 

Stepping toward the center with hope, I was instead greeted with the horrific odor of decaying bodies and a Flesh Fly confirmed my suspicions. 

Also buzzing all about were Green Bottle Flies and the reason for so much frantic activity: carnage by my feet. 

But I soon came to realize that while not all the frogs had transformed in time to leave the pool, many must have and it still teemed with life–of a different kind.

American Carrion Beetles also stalked this place of death. 

Over and under leaves, the Carrion Beetles moved as they mated. The rotting tadpoles provided a place for them to lay their eggs and a food source for their future larvae. This was true for the flies and even little mites who live in a symbiotic relationship with the beetles and eat fly eggs so the beetle larvae have the carrion to themselves. 

As I watched, one canoodling pair of beetles flipped over and if you look closely, you might see he was on top (or the bottom in this case) and biting one of her antennae as part of their mating ritual. 

At last it was with great sadness that I said goodby to those who could not, but leaving the stench and frantic activity behind, I reminded myself that this happens each year and there’s a reason why frogs lay so many eggs. Without my witnessing it, some, possibly many, did hop away from the pool. And next year they’ll return to carry on the ritual. Until then, the flies and beetles and so many others will bring new life and by November the depression will fill again waiting for the saga of the vernal pool to continue. 

In parting, here’s  a quick video of the sights and sounds. 

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.

Take notice of an old beaver wound upon a hemlock healed in such a way that it could be a snake embracing the trunk.

Be attentive to hobblebush no matter how much it makes you hobble for it always has more to offer including corrugated leaves unfurling and a flowerhead silently forming.

Give audience to Rhodora’s woody structure of last year before her magenta flowers soon distract.

Concentrate on the red back of the Red-backed Salamander before it goes back into hiding beneath a flipped log.

Heed the ruby red lips and hairy lining of a Pitcher Plant’s leaves as they invite all to enter . . . and never leave.

Pay attention to the male Hairy Woodpecker who speaks in hushed pecks as two females squabble for his attention.

Give ear to otter scat full of scales that mutter the name of its last meal.

Tune in to the secret hieroglyphic message a beaver leaves in chew sticks left behind.

Remember to keep your voice low as you spy the first crosiers of those most sensitive.

Walk in silence through the forest and wetlands while listening intently to all who whisper along the trail. May their hushed voices shout from every corner and uplift your spirits now and forever.

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.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on.

The ice went out only a few days ago in western Maine, but as is their tradition, the frogs took no time in making their presence known. Have you heard them? The wruck wruck wruck of the wood frogs?

Over the years wood frogs have taught me so many lessons, the major one being patience–to stand still beside the pond and wait because eventually they will resurface. What strikes me is that there is more action this year than last year and last year there was more action that the previous five years. Why is that given that the pool seems to dry up so soon and I always worry that the tadpoles don’t have time to finish morphing into adults and hopping toward upland habitats. Do some mature before I realize it? That would be great news.

Otherwise I have to wonder how so many return each year and within a day or two of the ice melting, lay masses of eggs in colonial form.

Of course, as I watch, mistakes are made and males so eager grab others of the same sex only to realize moments later that it’s not worth the effort.

And then there’s that ear-shattering harmonic symphony produced by the spring peepers, one which typically comes to a complete rest when I approach. But late this afternoon there was just enough breeze to disguise my footsteps and sing on they did.

I couldn’t believe my good luck in spying the peeper on the stalk, but to notice the one below added icing to the cake.

As I watched, the second tiny frog began to climb onto the first.

Theirs was one of frog versus frog as they volleyed for the highest spot on the stem.

Occasionally for a mere second they paused.

But really, there was no break in their behavior as they sang on and on in a manner more aggressive and vied for superior achievement.

One must remember that spring peepers are much tinier that their wood frog cousins and measure about the size of a quarter all told.

The X on their backs provides for their scientific name: Pseudacris crucifer, or cross bearer.

And bear a cross did they as they competed for that best spot.

Like brothers they tangled, each in hopes of gaining the upper frog leg.

Really though, it’s the male peeper’s ability to generate his seductive and ear-splitting peep by closing his nostrils, and pushing air over his vocal chords into that amazing throat sac, that acts as a resonator at vernal pools each spring and gains him an upper position in the pool heirarchy.

The frogs that chirp the fastest are the ones with the greatest stamina and so chirp quickly they do in hopes of achieving a mate.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on. The season has begun. There’s such competition and what I don’t understand is how a vernal pool that dries up so soon these past few years continues to produce but it does. The mystery of life continues.

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.

Nothing False About This Celebration

With a mission
to check upon
a heron rookery,
I invited
a friend
to join me.

The young’uns
sat upon their
nests of sticks
waiting for
the next meal
to arrive.

With the flap
of wings
slowed in rhythm,
landing gear
was extended
in the form
of long legs
and feet.
Within minutes,
a meal of fish
was regurgitated
and
passed
from
parent
to
child.
Because of 
our location
beside
a slow-flowing river,
many other sights
caught our
attention.
But it was one
with a
penchant for moisture
who stood
as tall
as my chin
that garnered
the most attention.
I've oft 
relished its
pleated leaves
of green,
their manner
that of the
lily family.
In a 
clasping formation,
they attach
to the main stem,
spirally arranged
from bottom
to top.
I've seen 
the plant often
in its leafy rendition,
but today
was the first time
its star-shaped flowers
atop the plant
revealed themselves.
With
petals and sepals
combined
as tepals,
my friend noted
their resemblance
to the leaves below.
The more we looked, 
the more we realized
there were others
who also
revered
such a unique structure,
in particular
the nectar-producing glands
at each flower's base.
The plant
took advantage,
or so it seemed,
of allowing those
who ventured
into its sweetness
with a dash,
or perhaps
a dollop,
of pollen
to pass on
for future reference.
Because of its location
in the moist habitat,
insects formerly aquatic,
such as
the Alderfly,
did walk
with sluggish movements.
Up its stout stalk
one rose,
the fuzzy structure
perhaps providing
it texture
upon which to climb.
Did it seek
the bright yellow anthers?
Or the nectar below?
With wings
delicately veined
and folded over
like a tent,
the Alderfly
paused
and hardly pondered
its next move.
The flower
mattered not
for this
weak flyer.
At last
it reached
the tip
of the
long, upright
inflorescence,
conical in form,
and I wondered:
would it pierce
the unopened flowers
for a bit
of nutrition?
Perhaps not,
for adults
of this species
have a need
more important
than eating.
Theirs is to
mate,
particularly at night.
Maybe it was
a he,
looking for a sight
to meet
a she.
As it 
turned out,
not all
who had
canoodling
on their minds
could wait
until the day
darkened
to
night.
Meanwhile,
there were others
who sought
the sweet satisfaction
of nectar
for their needs.
And in 
the process
of seeking,
tads of pollen
decorated
their backs,
in this case
where X
marks the spot.
It was 
a place
for many
to gather
and garner
including
Lady Beetles
of many colors.
And upon 
those pleated leaves,
were Mayflies
who had
lived out
their short lives,
and Craneflies
taking a break,
while showing off
their wings
reminiscent
of stained glass.
After such 
an up-close greeting
of the delicate flowers,
and recognizing
for the first time
their immense splendor,
June 15
will forevermore be
the day
to celebrate
False Hellebore.

Heaven on Heath

When Alanna Doughty, of Lakes Environmental Association fame, and I pulled into the parking lot of Saco Heath this morning, we had no idea what to expect. It is described as the southern-most coalesced domed bog in Maine. I have to admit, I need to learn so much more to understand the real meaning of that. According to The Nature Conservancy, for this is one of their preserves, “the heath formed when two adjacent ponds filled with decaying plant material called peat. Eventually, the two ponds filled completely and grew together to form a raised coalesced bog, where the surface of the peat is perched above the level of the groundwater.”

Our first steps found us walking through a forested bog rich with wetland plants including Cinnamon and Royal Ferns.

And then we entered the peatland through the pearly gates.

It was a place where one could disappear for a few lifetimes and eventually emerge completely preserved. With Pitch Pines and Black Spruce towering above, the colors gave us our first pause for the Rhodora was in full bloom and neither of us could remember ever seeing so much of it before.

As it was, we seemed to have been transported into a still-life painting of spring where even the toppled Gray Birch might have been intentionally placed for such a contrast it provided.

Taking a closer look, it was suddenly obvious that life was not still at all and the flower drew our eyes in and out and in and out again with all of its lines.

We even found a few with brand new hairy leaves complementing the presentation.

This was a place where old friends live and greeting them again with a friendly handshake seemed only natural.

The Tamarack’s needles so soft and bright green graced the tree with a feathery appearance.

The flowers of the Black Chokeberry gave us pause for a few minutes for we had to get our shrub eyes adjusted to the brightness that surrounded us.

We weren’t the only ones with large eyes noticing all the goodness in our midst.

Being in a heath, members of the heath family made their presence known, such as the Bog Laurel. Some of the flowers had fallen to the sphagnum moss floor below the boardwalk, so we sat down to take a closer look at the flower, its petals fused into a shallow, five-lobed bowl. The interior of the bowl was interrupted by ten indentations where the pollen-bearing anthers snuggled as if in individual pockets. Each awaited a pollinator to trigger the spring-like tension and thus get showered with pollen. We may have unintentionally aided in sharing the goodness.

Because we were looking and trying to gain a better understanding, Alanna ran her fingers down the Bog Laurel’s stem, reveling in the recognition of the longitudinal ridges between each pair of leaves. From one set of leaves to the next, the ridge orientation and next set of leaves shifted 90˚. In the land of wonder, we were definitely wallowing in awe.

Another member of the heath family stumped us for a few minutes until it reminded us that its “pineapple” form atop the rhododendrum-like leaves was not the fruit, but rather the start of the flower.

It was a few plants later, that we noticed the flowers beginning to burst.

While we watched, a male Painted Lady paused atop one of the laurels as if it was a pedestal, the better place from which to possibly entice a mate.

Shortly thereafter we made a new acquaintance. By its shiny, parallel-veined leaves we thought we knew it, but then we spied the tiny white flowers. We know False Solomon’s Seal, but join us in greeting Three-leaved False Solomon’s Seal. Ronald B. Davis writes in Bog & Fens, “In bogs, it commonly occurs on a peat moss mat at the transition between a mineorotrophic black-spruce wooded area and a more open ombrotrophic area.”

Indeed, I have a lot to learn, but the natural community was transitioning again.

And within the transition zone, we met another new friend: Mountain Holly. In retrospect, we may have met in a past life, but it’s always good to spend some time getting reacquainted with the finer details such as the tiny flowers at the end of long, fine petioles.

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail loops around through a forest of pines and oaks.

At the shrub level, Bumblebees acted as bell ringers while they flew from one flower of the Highbush Blueberry to the next, making sure that all were in tune.

It was in this same neighborhood that we met another for the first time. Velvet-leaved Blueberry’s leaves and stems were as soft as any robe an angel might wear.

Below, her bell-shaped skirts dangled.

A surprise along the loop trail was a spur to an outlook where a sturdy bench offered time for contemplation and meditation.

Several signs beyond our reach warned us not to step off the platform and into the bog, but . . . it was soooo tempting. And weren’t we in the garden?

As we stood and wondered about what we might be missing, we spied several Pitcher Plants with their urn-like leaves.

And directly behind the bench stood one of the rare species for which this place is known: Atlantic White Cedar

Though we never did see the Hessel’s Hairstreak Butterfly, another rare species associated with Atlantic White Cedar, we honored the tree by taking a closer look at its foliage.

And then it was time to return back across the boardwalk, upon which we immediately noticed a huge Pitcher Plant we’d missed on our previous pass. In its center the bulbous red flowers posed as cranberries.

We also spotted a couple of Pink Lady’s Slippers in bloom that we’d previously walked past, giving thanks that we’d had to follow the same route and because of that made some new observations.

At the end of our time we knew we’d visited a very special place that allowed us to come to a better understanding of old friends and make new acquaintances. It certainly felt like we’d spent the morning at Heaven on Heath.

Bear to Beer: Rumford Whitecap on Memorial Day

It had been a couple of years since we’d hiked Rumford Whitecap together. As we drove north we recalled summer, fall and winter adventures on the loop trail, but never spring. And so today, we rectified that.

The 761-acre Rumford Whitecap Mountain Preserve was purchased by the Mahoosuc Land Trust in 2007. Our preferred route is to hike up the Orange/Red Trail and descend via the Starr Trail denoted by yellow blazes.

As we ascended, we chatted about our relatives and friends who had and do serve in the Armed Forces, including grandparents, dads, uncles, my brother-in-law, cousins, friends, and classmates.

Memorial Day was always special in our home growing up as my hometown celebrated with a parade that sometimes featured my siblings, neighbors, and me. Before it became a Monday holiday, it was celebrated the day before my mom’s birthday, so we always noted that the parade was held in her honor. And furthermore, her younger brother died in WWII, so it was a celebration of his service and life. I noted today that I only have known him all these years through photographs of a handsome young man, and stories of his youthful adventures.

Because we were chatting and spending much of our time looking at the ground to avoid tripping on rocks or roots, the trail passed quickly under our feet. Suddenly, I realized we were in an area of mature American Beech trees and so I started to search the bark on our never ending quest of bear claw marks. Two seconds later and bingo–I spotted one tree with a couple and then together we found another with many scars made by the bear’s long, sharp claws.

Some were older than others, and it appeared that during the mast beechnut year we had two and three years ago, this tree had been climbed several times.

We felt instant satisfaction for our efforts and continued to look as we followed the trail to the summit. But . . . we never found another.

That was okay as there was much more to see including the fluttering petals of Serviceberry or Eastern Shadbush, a shrub that loves the understory. According to Dr. Michael L. Cline’s Shrubs of the Northern New England Forest, the names Serviceberry and Shadbush “refers to early flowering corresponding to the time that those departed in winter could be interred and when anadromous shad returned to major rivers in spring.”

The natural community changes several times on this mountain, like many, and eventually it thins into a bald with islands of lichens, Black Crowberry, Alpine Bilberry, Lowbush Blueberry, Leatherleaf, Sheep Laurel, and . . . Red Pines. The summit is host to one of the largest Red Pine communities in the state–some dwarfed by the wind that flows across the granite daily.

Others standing tall in their military stature.

The wind was welcome as we continued up the granite pegmatite, and then a deposit appeared before our eyes and we knew we were indeed in the right place for this Mondate–Black Bear scat. By its color and texture, it was obvious that Ursus americanus had dined on the organ meat of a hairy critter. Too much information, I’m sure, but consider the wildness of it all.

Given all the blueberry blossoms, we suspect Ursus will return. Be ye forewarned.

At the summit, it’s always fun to find a survey monument-–the bronze disks used by surveyors since 1879 for mapping purposes.

From there (lunch rock–why does PB&J always taste so good when one hikes?) we took in the view toward Black Mountain in the near beyond,

Rumford in the valley below,

and several ridges covered with wind turbines. I’m of two minds on this topic–the old wishy-washy self that I am. In Canada, wind turbines are located across the landscape and even as we hiked the Cape Mabou trails on Cape Breton Island a few years ago, we stood below one and listened to its airplane engine-like sound, but we didn’t hear it until we were quite close. I actually think they are quite beautiful as they turn–ballet of a sort.

At last it was time to get out of the chilly wind and begin our descent. If you look closely, you might spot Sunday River with a wee bit of snow still on the ski trails. But . . . you have to look closely (Faith–I’m talking to you!)

It was on the way down the bald peak that I noticed the pompoms of several Tamarack (Larch) trees–because we don’t meet on an every day basis, they always bring a smile to my face.

We slipped from the Orange/Red trail to the Starr and found Rhodora beginning to bloom–its magenta buds bursting with pride prior to its leaves.

Pollination was happening everywhere we turned, including by Hover Flies becoming familiar with Pin Cherries.

The trail down was sometimes wooded and other times granite. As I was about to step up onto one slab, a mottled design captured my attention. It would have been easy to overlook for so well did it blend in–even seeming to mimic green lichen. But . . . it was a moth that hugged the stone face.

Soon after I made a curious observation. Colonies of Painted Trillium greeted us several times, but always at a higher elevation. I know they grow low, for I’ve encountered them many times, but it had to be a soil consideration that I don’t yet understand that caused such behavior.

Those that we saw had not yet been pollinated for their petals were not translucent . . . a give-away trait.

Further down the trail, we began to meet patches of Stinking Ben, aka Red Trillium.

There were also selections of White Quartz to admire.

And tiny Bluets that edged the lower pathway. Red, White, and Blue.

Being a Bear to Beer, we honored the hike and the day with a few sips at Sunday River Brewing Company in Bethel before heading home.

But really, the sight that best represented the day was the Red Admiral–red, white, and blue all in one. And an admiral to boot.

Thank you to all who have sacrificed your lives for our country. I did spend much of the day thinking about the peace and freedom that my guy and I enjoy. And the fact that we were surrounded by a variety of colors other than those of the American flag, which made me think of how the American Flag represents so many no matter their color or creed. And wondering why we can’t all agree to get along. We don’t have to like each other, but why can’t we agree to disagree and leave it at that?

Bear to Beer possibilities: Rumford Whitecap on Memorial Day.

Peace be with you.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

It rained. The sun came it. Rain drops continued to fall. Until they didn’t. Then the temperature rose to a degree we haven’t seen in over eight months here in western Maine. And we melted.

But, with the heat wave came some new visitors, including this male Baltimore Oriole, so named because his coloration resembled the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

The funny thing about Lord Oriole: he’d stopped by a few days ago when I had a sturdy chunk of suet in the feeder. After seeing him, I immediately added orange slices to the offering in hopes of enticing him to return.

And so when he did this morning, I marveled at the fact that he ignored the oranges and chose instead a small bite of the suet.

Adding more color to the yard was a male House Finch. He tarried not long for his gal paused in the lilac bush and then flew past and he followed in hot pursuit.

But I gave thanks to the finch for as I looked for him to return, I noticed movement on the outer edge of the garden below the back deck. Shuffling about the dried leaves looking to glean a meal was a Common Yellowthroat. My very own Common Yellowthroat. Certainly another reason to rejoice.

There was more rejoicing to be done for I eventually found my way to the vernal pool. I realized I’ve been avoiding it lately, ever fearful after discovering a few dead frogs that life had taken a turn for the worse within that small body of water.

But the surprise was all mine when I discovered recently hatched tadpoles resting atop an egg mass. The green color is an algae with which they share a symbiotic relationship. The algae colonize the egg mass and produces oxygen. Being symbiotic, it’s a two-way street and the algae benefits from the eggs by gaining carbon dioxide produced by the embryos. The carbon dioxide is needed for the photosynthetic process. For a few days after hatching, the tadpoles feed on the alga.

Salamander embryos within their own gelatinous also took on that greenish hue due to the same symbiotic alga. My heart was filled with joy for there were numerous masses within the pool, most of them spotted salamander. And now I can only hope that the pool stays wet enough for them to mature and crawl out as their parents did.

Leaving the pool behind, I wandered toward home, but a familiar call beckoned. It took a few minutes for me to locate the creator, but eventually I saw him.

On a sturdy branch parallel to the ground, the Broad-winged Hawk did dine. He also frequently announced his presence with his high-pitched voice.

As a true carnivore, he’s known to eat reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals and even large insects. From my stance, I thought I saw a long tail that didn’t seem right for a vole. Instead, I wondered if it was a snake. I kept expecting to be greeted by one beside the vernal pool and the hawk wasn’t all that far away. I suppose that means that if the salamanders and frogs are able to crawl and leap out of the water, they’d better find good hiding places because this guy and a possible mate have been soaring above for a couple of weeks and probably have a nest nearby.

In the end, it seemed that whatever his meal was, it was lip-licking good. Upon finishing it, he flew south while I trudged across the field to the east. But I suspect our paths will cross again going forward.

All of those finds were spectacular, but . . . one of the best parts of the day–watching Eastern Bluebirds in the yard. I first spied the male in this morning’s rain.

And then late this afternoon, I was surprised to discover that they were both here, the she and the he. For the most part, they stayed out by the stone wall, perched on branches above before flying down to catch a meal.

Then they flew closer to the house and landed atop the feeders where I don’t have any mealy worms that are much to their liking. I hadn’t even planned to still have the feeders out, but with each new day bringing new visitors, I’ve delayed taking them in for the season. That is, until a Black Bear arrives.

But no Black Bears yet. (Just wait, one will probably show up overnight or tomorrow.)

And so . . . Bluebird, Bluebird, through my focus. Thanks for taping me on the shoulder. 😉 And sharing this day with me.

Lessons from Muskrats and Beavers

Cousins they are, but the semi-aquatic rodents are often confused. Muskrats and Beavers are easiest to identify by their tails, but those aren’t always visible when they are swimming. Typically, a Muskrat’s whole body is visible as it swims, its long, skinny tail sticking out behind. With a Beaver, though its tail is wide, flat, and paddle-shaped, it’s usually only the large wedge-shaped head that we spy.

Today, I had the good fortune to search a friend’s property for both. My journey began at an old beaver pond that’s been devoid of water in recent years, but this year’s snowmelt and rain water have filled the space where an old, yet substantial dam does stand. The curious thing about the dam is that the Beavers built it just above an old man-made dam, or did they? I had to wonder: who came first?

For close to an hour I stood and reflected . . . on the reflections before me and past memories of times spent observing this space. All the while I hoped to see two Muskrats my friend had observed mating last week, but they were a no show.

About twenty-five feet to the left, however, I did note a well-worn hole in a tree.

It must have been a flash of action that first drew my attention to it and so in between moments of Muskrat surveillance, I turned my attention to the snag where a Chickadee did pause.

All the while “Hey sweetie, sweetie” Chickadee songs reverberated through the woodland, and then . . . the bird slipped into the hole and a minute or two later flew out. Hey Sweetie, indeed.

When I finally pulled myself away from the beaver pond, my sense of disappointment for not spying the Muskrats thankfully displaced by the thrill of seeing the Chickadee nest snag, I started to hear a certain high-pitched whistle. I looked and looked but couldn’t locate the whistler, though I did spy a nest in the lower third of the canopy.

And then . . . movement caught my attention and it settled on a snag. A Broad-winged Hawk stayed high, but let me know that this was its territory and I was an intruder.

Not too much further along, it was movement rather than song that drew my attention. I knew I was looking at a thrush, and suspected a Hermit Thrush, but I’ve been wrong before. If you know better, please teach me. What I did note was the eye ring and smudges of brown on the lower breast. Again, I’m open to interpretation.

Eventually I reached another beaver pond of sorts.

There, the Hobblebush bouquet shown its sweet face. In reality, it’s an inflorescence or lacy cluster of tiny fertile flowers surrounded by a halo of showy, yet sterile bracts. Those larger, sterile flowers attract insects while the tiny fertile flowers do all the work of seed production. Nature has its way.

And so do the Beavers. As I moved along the wetland, I noted numerous scent mounds and knew that somewhere out there the rodents were active and making their claim on the place.

Everywhere, their works old . . .

and new . . .

and new again were on display.

In the water, a raft of winter chew sticks provided another indication that the lodge had been active.

But even more evident were the birds, their songs and calls filling the air space.

My favorites were the Yellow-rumped Warblers that flew from tree to tree along the water’s edge.

That yellow. White throat. Black mask. And black and white stripes. What’s not to love?

As I walked out, a Song Sparrow didn’t sing for me, but I loved its contrasting colors among deciduous needles.

And finally a Veery.

So, I went in search of two Muskrats and the Beavers. Perhaps I was too late in the morning to see them. But because of them I was treated to a variety of birds and appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with them and learn a little more about their habitats and habits.

My gracious thanks to M.Y. for the opportunity yet again. I have to admit that I covet your property.

Peeking with my Peeps

As has been our custom for the past six years, on a quarterly basis an email is sent out with a date and location and at the agreed upon time any number of grads, teachers, and mentors from the Maine Master Naturalist Lewiston 2013 class gather. Today was one of those days.

The plan was to explore a vernal pool or two at the Cornwall Nature Preserve on historic Paris Hill, but . . . it didn’t take us (Pam, Beth, Alan, Dorcas, and yours truly hiding behind the lens) long to get distracted when we saw green poking through the many shades of brown on the forest floor.

Together, we scrambled through our brains searching for the name. With the season finally feeling like it’s transitioning, we realized we have to dust off the floral flashcards in our minds and start reviewing them. And then it came to us. One year ago, on May 5, we had seen the same at Smithfield Plantation as we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Naturally. Then, however, we had keyed it out minus the flower. Today, the memory of last year’s ID slowly sifted to the forefront and by its leaves and colonial habit, we felt safe to call it Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily.

A few more steps and we started dipping containers into a potential vernal pool that was really too shallow and offered no apparent key characteristics. But . . . there was an owl pellet filled to the brim with hair and bones, the one sticking out by central vein of the leaf a hip bone. (Yeah, so I may sound like a smarty pants, but Dorcas pulled it out and quickly identified the bone by its structure.) Some little mammal, or two, or three, had provided a bird with a meal.

Stair-step Moss (Hylocomium splendens) was the next great find. I would have dismissed it as Big Red Stem or Pleurozium schreberi, and in so doing missed its finer points. Do you see how each year’s new growth rises from the previous, rather like ascending stair steps?

And then there was another new learning, for I’m always referring to this species of fungi as jelly ear or wood ear. But, with Alan the fungi fun guy in our midst, we learned that it’s really Brown Witch’s Butter or Exidia recisa. (Drats–it’s so much more fun to say Auricularia auricula.)

As we admired the Exidia recisa, we realized others were doing the same for we’d interrupted a slug fest. If you bump into Alan Seamans sometime, do ask him about the numbing qualities of slugs. 😉

A few more steps and we began to notice trilliums, especially the reds with their leaves of three so big and blossoms hiding. All of a sudden we know the flowers are going to burst open and we can’t wait to witness such glory.

At last we reached the pool of choice, located maybe a half mile from the parking area. Two years ago, MMNP students from the South Paris class discovered Fairy Shrimp in this pool.

Our best finds today were log cabin caddisflies! At this point in time, the caddisflies are in their larval stage and as such, they construct their temporary shelters from available materials. Think of them as the original recyclers.

Should a predator be about, like a hermit crab, the caddisfly can retreat into the house of needles or leaves or stones or whatever its preferred building material might be. Apparently, it didn’t mind us and we were honored to watch as the elongated body extended forth while it searched for food. In its larval form, these aquatic insects have a hardened head and first thoracic segment, while the abdomen remains pale and soft. Can you see the three pairs of legs?

The cool thing about caddisflies is that though they may use similar construction materials, no two are alike. Beth called them works of art.

I referred to this one as a she for the case included a Red Maple bouquet.

If you look closely, you might also note some filmy gills on the abdomen. And the grayish thing the Mrs. approached and a second later ignored. It seemed rather leech-like in its behavior, but I think it may have been a Planaria, which is a tiny unsegmented flat worm.

As we dipped for insects, we also noted plenty of Spotted Salamander spermatophores sticking up from leaves and twigs. But we could find none of their milky egg masses and wondered why.

We did, however, spy plenty of Wood Frog masses, some with their tapioca structures bubbling upon the surface, but most attached to the stems below.

And then a chiseled tree section across the pool called to us and so we made our way over to check the wood chips below. Of course, we searched for Pileated Woodpecker scat, but found none. Instead, we spotted a dead frog in the water. And just beyond it, a dead salamander.

It wasn’t pretty, but did make us question what had happened. Were the two amphibian deaths related? We don’t know, but we did note puncture marks on the Spotted Salamander’s underside, and even a nip of the end of its tail. Plus it had one slightly deformed front foot. And we learned that salamanders have poison glands in their skin, mostly on their backs and tails. Did the frog go after the salamander and both died from the experience? Or had another predator entered the pool? And then realized it had made the wrong decision?

We never did figure it out, but had fun asking questions. And as we stood there, our eyes keyed in on a bit of color at the end of a downed branch. Again, more questions and the use of our loupes as we tried to take a closer look. We debated: slime mold or insect eggs?

After looking closely and continuing to ask question, a quick poke with a twig provided the actual answer as we watched the spores puff out in a tiny cloud. Slime mold it was. Should we have poked it first? No, for that would have been too easy and we wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the possibilities.

On our way out, there was still one more discovery to make. I could have dismissed this one as a moss.

But, again Alan knew and he explained to us that it was a liverwort known as Porella platyphylloidea. And upon closer examination we could all see its three-dimensional structure as it curled out from the tree trunk.

Almost three hours later, our brains were full as we’d also examined trees, lichens, and other fungi, but our hearts were happy for the time spent in each others company sharing a collective brain.

I’m always grateful for an opportunity to peek with these peeps, even at something as common as a caddisfly because really . . . there’s nothing common about it.

Doubting Spring?

Finicky weather–rain one day and then another, sunshine the next, and then snow in the forecast as it is for Tuesday morning. But still, all the signs are there.

Take for instance the clumps of deer hair that have been shed and now decorate areas where the ungulates do bed.

And the masses of eggs attached to twigs and vegetation within vernal pools, the Spotted Salamander’s a milky white contrasting the Wood Frogs tapioca presentation.

Then there’s the winter firefly in one of his favorite habitats where the water stands still . . . until a breeze ripples across.

And within the water column, the wriggling Larval Mosquitoes continuously somersault, while the Phantom Midge floats as it waits for a meal to pass by.

Drone flies do just that–fly, their compound eyes announcing alarm as they take in every teensy bit of movement in the surrounds.

The sight of a wooly caterpillar might make one think the season is six months out, but a cryoprotectant in its tissues so it can literally freeze solid, has thawed and the fuzzy little bear crawls.

The Saco River with Mount Tom behind was another sign, for over its banks had it flowed.

And then, where previously I’d spotted only the vixen, not one or two, but five kits frolicked.

Mom was nowhere in sight, but I trusted she had sent them out to get some fresh air while she cleaned the den.

A move to another location, brought more sights and scents and sounds, but one of the most delightful was that of the sweet-fern–its spicy aroma suddenly filling the air.

And at a semipermanent pool, a few wrucks chorused by distant Wood Frogs.

But by my feet, Eastern Red-spotted Newts swam about camouflaged by last year’s foliage.

One climbed another, and then slide off, any mating waiting for another time. Curiously it also mounted a Bull Frog tadpole, but quickly moved on when it wasn’t well received.

The chunky Bull Frog larvae had overwintered as tadpoles, but their metamorphosis into adult form probably won’t be completed by the end of this season or the next.

In fact, it can take several years for them to completely develop. In the meantime, they sat motionless basking in the diluted sunlight offered.

There was so much to see on this day and only so much time, but from the Red Maple flowers falling to the ground to the Tamarack needles growing with new life, I knew that every moment was fleeting.

This is a time to not let life pass you by. Rather–be like the Bull Frog tadpoles and slow down.

Make time to watch. Every. Single. Subtle. Change. For even though the temperature may still feel raw at times and snow is in the forecast, it really is spring in western Maine. Don’t be a doubting Thomas or you’ll miss the transformation.

This Wild Place

There’s no music quite like the Wood Frog’s defiant chorus, sung when the ice is barely off the vernal pool and the ground still covered with patches of snow. Singing together, they sound like dozens of quaking ducks. Wood Frogs are often the first Maine frogs to break winter’s quiet, beating Spring Peepers by a few days or even a week.

Their vocal prowess extends to silence. Once we approach a vernal pool and they sense danger (perhaps through vibrations), they cut off their song altogether, as though timed by some unseen conductor. The purpose of all this calling is finding a mate, of course. Male Wood Frogs, once they’ve called in some unwitting females, can be tenacious in the extreme–even if their suitor happens to be the wrong species.

This morning, as Greater Lovell Land Trust Docent Linda Wurm and I approached a pool on the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, the symphony was eerily still.

And so we began to circle around, our eyes scanning the watery surface for clumps of eggs. Our hope was to either see a male hug a female in an iron-lock grasp, forming the mating embrace called amplexus, or evidence of their date.

And we were rewarded. At least one female had laid eggs fertilized by a male. As is their habit, the female attached the mass to a twig and the tiny black embryo of each egg was surrounded by a perfectly round, clear envelope about one-third inch in diameter. These gelatinous blobs can consist of up to 1,500 individual eggs. Egg-mazing indeed.

The embryos will hatch into small brownish-black tadpoles in a week or two, or longer given how chilly the water was today. As they grow, their rounded tail fins will become translucent–almost mottled with gold and blackish flecks.

Wood Frog tadpoles grow at varying rates depending on water temperature, tadpole density, and available food resources, but tend to develop within about two months to become adults. Unfortunately for them, but in the web of life good for others, tadpoles often succumb to cannibalism, especially to their larger relatives. They are also eaten by predacious diving beetles, salamanders, turtles, and birds.

We only found one, maybe two egg masses, but this pool isn’t known for many. What it is known for is its Fairy Shrimp population and I’m sorry to report that we found not a one. But, we did spy a few handsome hemlock varnish shelf fungi.

And by them some red squirrel middens that made us happy for we saw few of these all winter.

Right behind the fungi and midden, something else in the water caught our attention and Linda focused with a keen eye.

My photo wasn’t the clearest, but upon some leaves and twigs we spotted spermatophores left behind by male Spotted Salamanders. They remind me of cauliflower, their structures consisting of pedestals topped with sperm. Though we couldn’t see any milky masses of salamander eggs, we hope that on future visits we will.

Spotting a Spotted Salamander is a rare treat. With their bright yellow spots on a sleek, shiny black back, they are even more nocturnal and elusive than the Wood Frogs. They are actually mole salamanders and spend most of their time burrowed underground.

As we circled back around the pool, a White-breasted Nuthatch mimicked our searching eyes and probed under some bark, its long narrow beak seeking beetles.

Every few seconds it took a break and surveyed the world that included us.

We, too, surveyed the world, and suddenly at our feet we discovered eggs we’d not seen previously. What were they doing about a foot out of the water?

And to whom did they belong? At first I considered Pickerel Frog, but on closer examination I thought they might be Wood Frog.

And then Linda shifted one clump a wee bit with a stick and we found what may have been the entrails. Life happens in vernal pools and this one was no different. Had a predator stopped by? Perhaps a raccoon or skunk or chipmunk or raccoon? But, why didn’t it eat the eggs? Again, so many questions.

With the field microscope, we looked at the eggs again and were almost one hundred percent certain that they were Wood Frog.* We did place some of them back in the water, but wondered if they were viable.

For all the eggs that are laid, it’s hard to believe that only 10% will survive. But the truth is that most die before transforming into adults and leaving their pools. The reasons are varied: the ponds dry up; or they are hunted down by predators: or they die of diseases.

After a few hours, we pull ourselves away, grateful for the time to explore this wild place–full of life . . . and death.

*I’ve reached out to Dr. Rick Van de Poll about the eggs out of water–if, by chance, he responds, I’ll update this post so stay tuned.

And now from Rick:

Hi Leigh!

Fascinating find! Having just seen a few predated egg masses today I can definitively say they are spotted salamander eggs. The blackish coloration is likely imparted by the stomach acids of a raccoon, who apparently gorged and threw them back up, along with a few frog parts. Again, while its not too common to see this kind of things around vernal pools, it does make for for a pretty good ‘who-dunnit’!

Rick

Shrouded By Fog

“It was a dark and dreary day.”

Like a thin veil, this morning’s fog attempted to hide Miss Spring.

But instead, it revealed her nuances and enhanced her being as the birds sang and amphibians added their voices to the chorus.

As I listened, I peeked through the thinnest of openings to see what the world wanted to reveal.

Weaving all of life together were the silken lines of spider webs.

Beads of water enhancing their forms.

And the creator turned out to be the most minute of beings.

Flowing forth the remains of melting snow, the stream spoke of nourishment.

Its action creating frothy suds that cleansed.

And within its bubbles the world above was reflected.

The surrounding landscape was mirrored in the drips of raindrops.

Everywhere, there were treasures indicating what is to come . . . in the form of Hobblebush buds growing more global;

Trailing Arbutus showing a glimmer of new life;

And Beaked Hazelnut presenting its most subtle, yet exquisite floral presentation.

As I continued to look about, something different caught my eye.

A moth recently emerged from its cocoon* spoke to another form of new life.

What I learned today is that one needs to watch.

Wait.

And be ready.

Though she has been shrouded, her veil is slipping away. I was grateful to discover that Miss Spring surrounds us when we make the time to look–even on dark and dreary days.

*The moth–I knew it was such, but didn’t know what kind. Upon arriving home, I did some research and the best I could come up with was the worst–Operophtera brumata, or the invasive Winter moth. But . . . I wasn’t 100% convinced of my ID so I reached out to fellow Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood. This was his response: “Don’t panic yet, Leigh. I’ve seen this before. It’s a newly eclosed moth, yes, eclosed. Probably a Sphinx moth. I wasn’t familiar with the term until I encountered one for myself a while ago. Your vocabulary is likely more extensive than mine but just in case I’ll clarify by explaining that it means that it has emerged from its winter cocoon and is looking for a place to pump its blood into those wings and expand them for first flight. Good find!