New Year's Eve Lessons 2019

When the snow falls on the last day of the year, embrace all that it has to offer.

And there’s no better way to do such than by strapping on the old snowshoes and taking a selfie. My style of selfie, that is.

As you head into the woods, the first thing you should do is locate a treasure map. You never know where it might lead. Sometimes, you’ll discover you’re traveling in circles, as I did a couple of times today.

If the map leads you under archways, be sure to duck.

Or if it presents a field of pine saplings, find your way around them. Do be sure to look for insects and spiders as you pass by.

Today, all I saw were needle-like snowflakes.

You might soon discover that you aren’t the only one on a quest: the batman-shape of prints may indicate other travelers on the snow–in this case a squirrel.

At some point, you may come to realize that others followed the directions on the map, but at an earlier time. By the muted hour-glass shape and depth of the track, you should recognize it as a white-tailed deer.

If you are really fortunate, the map will lead you to deer beds, the rounded part of each large indentation indicating the back of the mammal.

When you look up, you’ll understand why they chose this location to bed down during the night–the huge hemlock above provided some protection from the weather.

Take a few more steps and suddenly you may discover that fresh tracks had been left behind probably moments before you approached.

And though your brain may trick you into thinking the deer had gotten a head start on a New Year’s Eve party, reality will sink in when you remember that they have two basic needs: food and safety from prey.

Fresh beds may also make themselves visible and by the shape you might begin to envision a head on the snow just right of the center, the rounded back side on the left and extended legs toward the bottom right of the impression.

As you continue your journey more treasures will be revealed, like the “naked,” yet hairy buds of hobblebush keeping winter’s weather at bay.

And the waxy scales of beech buds doing the same. For some, such a sight will provide a measure of hope that spring will come again.

Be sure to enjoy all the messages on the map, such as this one: be proud of your roots and don’t be afraid to let them show.

Or this: interruptions happen and that’s probably a good thing.

Always do you best to be as transparent as possible.

Listen to you mama and dress in layers.

Don’t be afraid to cross boundaries (even if they’re marked).

Recognize that you may have some prickly moments.

And in the end, check in on old friends and make new ones.

When the last day of the year, in fact, of the decade, gives you snow . . . make a snow person.

The heartiest lesson of all: take time to laugh with it and at yourself. Ho Ho Ho!

Happy New Year, dear readers. I truly appreciate having you along for each wonder-filled wander.

Something to Pine Over

I set off on a mission this afternoon: to spy another Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. I last spied one on December 17th, and was sure the task would be a piece of cake today.

On the plot of land that I roamed, which had been owned by a paper company until about thirty years ago, stood towering pines, but also some that were about 20 years old and others mere saplings. I’d love to say each one captured my attention, and really, they all did, but there are still a million more to examine.

In the process, I began to notice that it wasn’t just the spider that would give me reason to wonder. First there was the ichneumon wasp cocoon. In size it was the same as another that I’ll share later in this post, but the metallic color and spotted pattern made it stand out. Presumably the larva that created it is a parasitoid of some caterpillars that feed on conifers.

Mind you, I was in the woods and there were patches of snow and certainly other patterns to pay attention to so I let my mind wander in the moment. And rejoiced with this find: an opossum track.

An opposable inner toe on each hind foot looks like a human thumb. In a shuffling motion as it waddles along, an opossum places its back feet just behind the front feet.

I followed this guy’s track for a bit until it disappeared into leaf cover and I suspected it might be up a tree.

And so my spider expedition continued. My next find: a tiny clump of bird feathers. But no spider in sight.

Again, I digressed, however, for on an old snag, I found lungwort growing over a burl in a formation I’ve not seen before. I’m used to finding it on the trunk of a tree, but wrapped around the rounded growth was a new presentation.

Back to the task at hand, and I suspected this was a molt of what may have been a tiger moth caterpillar. No spider yet, but I was getting more and more excited with each find.

Practically tripping over a downed tree I came upon another sight new to me. Here’s how I’m reading this story: the green capped mushrooms, violet-tooth polypore, had begun life when the tree was standing. Once it toppled, new fungi grew perpendicular to their parents so that their spores might drop downward. While I’ve seen this with other mushrooms, where new growth emerges from old, I’ve never encountered it with this species before.

Certainly that called for the reward of a spider. A dried up caterpillar molt would have to suffice in the meantime.

And then, in another patch of snow, another waddler had shuffled through. Remember the opossum pattern of the hind foot overlapping the front? Well, a raccoon’s pattern is offered in a series of alternating diagonals. One front foot and hind on the first angle, the other front and hind the opposite. And so it continues.

What made me chuckle about the raccoon was that it chose to walk on a downed tree rather than the more stable ground. Why not?

Refocusing my attention, upon another pine was a pupating ladybug beetle. Its structure strikes me as unique until I realize all insects are idiosyncratic in any stage of life. Still no spider.

Traveling through the woods was a bit difficult at times as there was no path and there were either clumps of trees growing in each others space or downed and rotting trunks. It was upon the later that I spied a bit of color from a thin-maze flat polypore, Daedaleopsis confragosa.

Its underside gave the name meaning. Can you follow the maze?

At last I turned my attention solely to the pines for the hour was getting late and the sun sinking lower and I still had to find my way out and walk home. It was then that I met an old friend in a new form. Remember the ichneumon wasp cocoon at the start of this story? Well, the pine sawfly cocoon is similar in size and shape. This one I refer to as an old friend for I encounter these on any type of tree or shrub all the time, but given that there was no opening, I knew that within the sawfly was pupating. Still no spider.

Then I found examples of those that had been sawed open. Given that the cut is always uniform, a few friends and I have taken to calling it the circular-saw fly. The fly would have emerged in the spring. Still no spider.

Finally, I found another sight new to me: double sawfly cocoons. Surely a two-seater.

I never did find the spiders I sought. But there was certainly plenty to pine over as I tramped the woods. And all of it was worth a wonder.

On the Fringe

When Pam and I decided to meet this morning we knew it was going to be the coldest day of the season and so we’d need to dress accordingly. For me, it was six layers on top, two on my legs, wool socks, a hat and buff, plus mittens and hand warmers. Her ensemble was similar.

We met on the side of a road by an old stomping ground we’ve been eager to revisit for there was a certain porcupine that had been calling our names since last winter.

He didn’t let us down. Almost immediately we spotted his track pattern and the hole that serves as an entrance to his home.

His prints weren’t super clear, but I suspected some snow had blown into them after he’d made his way home about sunrise this morning. We could also see more muted prints that led away from the hole and decided that those were made just prior to last night’s snow squalls.

We looked around the area for other signs of his presence and found a vent hole or two above his underground home.

Outlined with hoar frost, we knew this guy was snug within his living quarters.

But, the question remained: where had last night’s adventure taken him? His track passed by the hemlock he spent last winter in and we noted that all the twigs he’d snipped off now decorated the ground as skeletons of their past, needleless as they were.

He led us to another hemlock tree that he seemed to pause beside and perhaps climb, but he didn’t do any dining there. A chipmunk had also raced around a wee bit later than the porcupine.

Sometimes he waddled over downed trees.

Other times he went under them and we had to find an easier way around, all the while making sure that in wet spots, we didn’t fall through any ice. It was a bit tricky to say the least, but we were determined.

At last our question was answered when we saw disturbance in the snow and oak leaves. Mr. Porcupine had come to forage for acorns.

We even found a spot where it appeared he’d paused to dine. And the track of a vole. One of the things I love about snow is the information it gives us and the fact that it makes us think about the story. The porcupine’s story ends there for our adventure, as the acorn feast was his turn around point. From there, his track returned to his den.

We, on the other hand, went looking for more and on our way to a brook that slices through the property, we discovered many ornamental icicles decorating the trees, each with its own interpretation of form and structure.

Our hope was to get as close to the water as possible, for there we were sure we’d spot others who had passed through the landscape. To keep from falling through the thin ice, however, we had to cross from one Cousin Itt clump to another.

If anyone tracked us later in the day, they must have thought, “Hmmm, human paused here for .minute, then took a giant step to get to the next Cousin Itt.” And they would have been correct in their assumption.

It was closer to the edge, where the winterberries and sweetgale grew, that Pam spied another ornament to add to nature’s Christmas tree.

The remains of a small bald-faced wasp nest dangled from the shrub. One cannot view such without wondering about the fact that the wasps had collected plant and wood fiber, mixed it with saliva, and chewed it into a papier-mâché of their own form. And in so doing, though this nest was smaller than some we’ve encountered, its structure was the same. This happens over and over again in nature and my awe never ends.

Eventually, we left that spot and journeyed to another. Not far along, we recognized another old friend, a snow lobster, I mean snowshoe hare.

Typically with hoppers, leapers, and bounders, I don’t take time to measure the stride because it can vary so much, stride being the length from one set of prints to the next. But, this was one huge hop and so out came my tape measure. Mind you, it’s a six foot measure. And by the black lines you can see that the hare flew through the air and landed almost seven feet from his jumping off point.

We followed him for a few minutes and then got distracted by the bird prints that were everywhere . . . as were the hemlock and birch seeds. Tis the season, and while folks aren’t necessarily finding birds at their feeders, I hear and/or see them every time I step into the woods. Let’s hope the same holds true for next week’s Christmas Bird Count. BTW: these are junco tracks.

A ruffed grouse had also wandered through and we laughed as we followed his track for he made some abrupt turns.

Again, making our way to the brook that crossed through this property, we found other cool things to admire and wonder about, including the Blackberry Knot Gall. Of course, we didn’t know it’s exact name at the time, but some homework helped with the ID. Apparently, the Blackberry Knot Gall Wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) laid numerous eggs in the plants cane and the plant accommodated such by creating an abnormal growth. Being colonial, there’s a group of larval wasps wintering inside. I did wonder, however, if the hole was created by a very hungry woodpecker or some other bird. This one will need repeat visits so we can keep track of any ongoing activity.

Besides more bird tracks, lots of bird tracks, we found a set of gray squirrel tracks and chuckled as we noticed his attempt to climb to the top of the tree, at which point it appeared that he decided not to jump to the other side of the brook, but rather to run back down and cross via the ice. The brook isn’t entirely frozen, so his journey was precarious at best.

For a bit, we followed the brook to the wetland, a wetland that we love to explore in winter, but again, the conditions were such and I did break through some ice, that we finally turned around. But really, we may have continued if it hadn’t been for the temperature and wind.

When she arrived home, Pam sent me this image. I think saying it “feels like 2˚” may have been an understatement. It was our feet that proved to be the coldest. Later, we each admitted that it took a hot bath/shower to finally warm up. A cup of tea also helped do the trick.

Despite that, we were grateful for the opportunity to travel the fringes of the wetlands during the fringe season as fall turns to winter in western Maine.

Laughing All The Way, Ho, Ho, Ho

It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.

And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.

Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.

Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.

Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.

Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).

Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.

The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.

It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)

Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.

Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.

We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.

And so Joe did.

And Dawn followed suit.

It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.

I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.

At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.

Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.

Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.

And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?

There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.

This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.

And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.

One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.

Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.

I bet you can see it now.

I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.

Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.

We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.

Matter of Nature

Mid-morning this email message arrived: “Hi Leigh,
I just returned from Heald Pond Road GLLT trail with this sample. There are other white hair clumps on several rocks along the path about 8 blue signs in.
” The attached photo was of a clump of deer hair. Why the clump? Why the location? Was there more? Was it a mammal versus mammal kill site?

I had to know. And so when another friend contacted me about a hike later this weekend, I asked what her afternoon plans were for today. She’d be free by one. Perfect. We agreed to meet just after that at parking lot #1 for Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

We weren’t exactly sure which trail to follow as two headed off from the lot, but placed our bets on the Chestnut Trail. As we started, I began to count trail blazes, but soon lost track.

Heck. There were other things to notice, including the minute blue stain fungus still holding court in its fruiting form. I’m enamored by so many different fruiting forms, but I think if someone asked which is my favorite, it would be this one. The color. The teeny structure. The fact that when it’s not fruiting, one can easily mistake it for a painted trail blaze.

It appeared that I wasn’t the only one who felt such love. Do you see the Springtail, aka snow flea? The size of the snow flea should provide perspective on the size of the fruiting body–lilliputian at best.

And then on a white pine sapling another structure captured our attention. Who was the creator?

By all the hairs in the structure, we suspected a tussock moth caterpillar. We also wondered if there is a good guide to cocoons. If you know of one, please enlighten us for we see them everywhere in every form and desire to know more. As much as we pay attention, we realized we need to watch even more closely and perhaps one day we’ll be honored by discovering the creator.

So, truth be told, we left the cocoon behind and continued along the trail searching for deer hair, but suddenly realized we’d lost track of the number of trail blazes. At a fork in the trail, we figured we’d gone too far, so we walked back to the start, turned around and tried to be present in the moment as we counted blazes. Of course, we got distracted, but had a general idea and still no deer hair. We again reached the fork and decided to split up. Along the route I explored, a female Hairy Woodpecker made her presence known by tapping at the tree trunks in hopes of detecting an insect tunnel.

At last I found the hair, a few more than eight blazes out. I went back to find my companion, Pam, and as we regrouped, the woodpecker worked other trees. And because we paused to admire her, we spied a Bald-faced Wasp nest dangling, much of its papery structure still intact. Why? Why? Why? Why are all wasp nests similarly shaped. It’s the same for so many other aspects of nature and internalizing the innate nature of it all is beyond our understanding.

Finally, I showed Pam the hair, rod-like in structure for such is its winter insulating form. Softer, curlier hairs were also in the mix. Had these tufts been pulled out? We wondered what had happened while the teeny, tiny Springtails made themselves at home on the shafts, their preference for moist conditions met by the location.

Channeling Sherlock Holmes, we searched for more hair and found clumps and tufts and even pieces of pelt.

Flipping one over, we wondered how it had come to be on the trail. Was the deer attacked by another animal? But . . . there was no blood.We eventually searched off trail, expecting to find a carcass or other signs of a confrontation. Nada.

But, we did find other things to make note of like an open catkin of a Yellow Birch resembling a cone, some of its babes already sent off to make their way in the world and others awaiting a moment to fly the coop.

There was also some handsome Lungwort Lichen to admire, its ridges and valleys reading like a topographical map.

Back on the trail, we continued forward and found more clumps, determining that it was spread about in a thirty foot section. Near some clumps we found that moss on rocks in the path had been disturbed. What was going on?

Over and over again, we got down to examine and photograph our finds.

At the next Y in the trail, where the grape ferns grow, we turned to the right. And found another clump of hair a wee bit along.

We also discovered a beautiful scalloped fungi with gills that we couldn’t recall ever meeting before.

And we made a really cool discovery that took us some time to understand because neither of us recalled making its acquaintance previously. Or at least we think we understand it. Soft in form and many veined, we wondered if it was the cellulose of a leaf, perhaps a maple. Once we found one specimen, we began to see many, some possibly maple and others from flower leaves gone by.

Speaking of flowers, we recognized one of a most unique structure: an American Basswood. The hairy, nutlike fruit was once a small greenish flower uniquely attached and hanging under a pale, leaflike bract.

As we looked at the basswood bark, a Winter Firefly caught our attention. How can a firefly glow in the winter? Do they? Adults don’t emit light and do hide in the bark of trees, so unless we pause to look for other things such as rubbing our hands along the smoothish bark today, they largely go unnoticed.

It was getting dark as we made our way back to the parking lot, when we spotted one more find–that of another caterpillar cocoon. Was it a Promethea Moth? I almost don’t think so, but seeing so many cocoons makes me want to better understand their structures. Do you see the guideline attaching the cocoon to the tree? Maybe it wasn’t even a moth. But if not, then who?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Indeed.

As for the deer, we ended up suspecting that a hunter had shot it and carried it out, perhaps pausing to drop and drag it for a few minutes. It didn’t all make sense, but it was the best we could determine.

Everything else was a matter of nature.

Desire to Learn

Maybe it’s my teacher blood. Maybe it’s just because I love sharing the trail with others who want to know. Maybe it’s because I realize how much I don’t know, but love the process of figuring things out.

Whatever it is, I had the joy of sharing the trail with this delightful young woman who kept pulling her phone out to take photographs and notebook out to jot down notes about our finds along the trail, that is . . . when her fingers weren’t frozen for such was today’s temperature.

Among our great finds, a Red-belted Polypore capped with a winter hat as is the custom this week.

I was really excited about our opportunity to share the trail for I wanted to learn more about her work with Western Foothills Land Trust and Loon Echo Land Trust, and her roll as the Sebago Clean Waters Conservation Coordinator.

But, I was also excited to walk among White Cedars for though I was only twenty minutes from home, I felt like I was in a completely different community. Um . . . I was.

Shreddy and fibrous, the bark appeared as vertical strips.

We paused beside one of the trees where a large burl that could have served as a tree spirit’s craggy old face, begged to be noticed. We wondered about what caused the tree’s hormones to create such a switch from straight grains to twisted and turned. Obviously some sort of stress was involved, but we couldn’t determine if it occurred because of a virus, fungus, injury, or insect infestation.

And then there were the leaves to focus in on for their presentation was like no other. (Unless it’s another cedar species, that is.) I loved the overlapping scales that gave it a braided look. And if turned right side up, it might have passed as a miniature tree or even a fern.

Lungwort Lichen drew our attention next. My ever-curious companion asked if it was tree specific. Found in humid forested areas, this lichen grows on both conifers and hardwood trees.

Having found the lichen, I knew it was time for a magic trick and so out of my mini-pack came a water bottle. Within seconds, the grayish color turned bright green due to its algal component. It’s an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Where the water didn’t drip, it retained its grayish-green tone, and the contrast stood out. Curiously, snow sat atop some of the lichen’s structure, and one might have thought that all the lettuce-like leaves would have the brighter appearance, but today’s cold temp kept the snow from melting and coloration from changing.

Our next great find: a reddish-brown liverwort known as Frullania. It doesn’t have a common name, and truth be known, I can never remember if the dense mat is asagrayana or its counterpart: eboracensis.

Three dimensional in form, it reminded me of a snarl of worms vying for the same food. Oh, and the dense form: asagrayana in case you wondered.

Over and over again as we walked, we kept looking at the variety of trees and my companion indicated an interest in learning about them by their winter presentation, including the bark. I reminded her that once she has a species in mind, she needs to use a mnemonic that she’ll remember, not necessarily one that I might share. In this case, I saw diamonds in the pattern, and sometimes cantaloupe rind. Others see the letter A for Ash, such as it was. She saw ski trails. The important thing was that we both knew to poke our finger nails into its corky bark. And that its twigs had an opposite orientation.

One of the other idiosyncrasies we studied occurred on the ridges of Eastern White Pines, where horizontal lines appeared as the paper my companion jotted notes upon. It’s the little things that help in ID.

Sadly, our time had to end early as she needed to return to the office, but I decided to complete the loop trail and see what else the trail might offer.

Vicariously, I took her along, for so many things presented themselves and I knew she’d either be curious or add to my understandings. Along a boardwalk I tramped and upon another cedar was a snow-covered burl.

A wee bit further, and yet another peeked out from between two trunks, stacked as it was like a bunch of cinnamon buns. Curiously, the center bun formed a heart. Do you see it?

It was upon this trail that I began to see more than the bark of trees. At my feet, tracks indicated that not only had a few humans walked the path, but so had mammals crossed it. And one of my first finds was the illustrious snow lobster, aka Snowshoe Hare.

It had tamped the snow down among some greens and I knew it was time to stoop for a closer look.

Each piece of vegetation that had been cut, had been cut diagonally–Snowshoe hare-style, that is.

Moving along, some winter weeds presented themselves as former asters and others, but my favorites were the capsules of Indian Tobacco.

In my book of life, one can have more than one favorite, and so I rejoiced each time I saw a birch catkin upon the snow carpet, its fleur di lis scales and tiny seeds spread out. The seeds always remind me of tiny insects, their main structure featuring a dark body with translucent wings to carry it in a breeze, unless it drops right below its parent and takes up residence in that locale.

Further along, scrawled scratching in the snow and leaves indicated another mammal lived in the woodland, conserved as it was by Western Foothills Land Trust. With this sight, my mind stretched to the fact that a corridor had been created and the more I followed the trail, the more I realized others crossed over it because this was their home. And they were still at home here.

The scratcher had left a signature in its prints.

And the source of its food: fallen nuts that about a month ago rained down like the sky was falling. Northern Red Oak Acorns. This one had been half consumed by a White-tailed Deer.

While traveling earlier with my companion, we’d talked about the tree that produced the deer food, but it wasn’t till I followed the loop that I found it. To me, the ridges of the Northern Red Oak looked like ski trails, with a reddish tinge in the furrows.

Oh, and that deer; it seemed to have dined on the bark of a Red Maple in the recent past–probably as recent as last winter or spring.

After a three hour tour, I delighted in traveling the Half Witt Trail three times (out and back with my companion and then again as I completed the loop) and Witt’s End.

They are new additions to Western Foothills Witt Swamp & Shepard’s Farm Preserve, and the journey . . . ah the journey.

Along the way, this young woman wanted to know what questions to ask and where to seek answers. I helped as much as I could, but noted that there are others who understand much more than I do.

Thank you, Hadley Couraud, for today’s journey. When it’s shared either actually or virtually with one who has a desire to learn, it’s always special.

Learning in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

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

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

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

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

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

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

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

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