Because of the Hare

Yesterday’s torrential rain, sleet, torrential rain, snow, sleet, torrential rain, snow, wind, and cold became today’s frozen snow upon which I could walk without sinking.

Or wearing snowshoes, though I did choose micro-spikes because I wasn’t sure what conditions I might encounter as I headed out to the old cowpath and woods beyond.

It was at the far end of the path that a lot of disturbance drew my attention and I realized deer had pawed and pranced in an attempt to gain something upon which to dine.

Empty caps were all that had been left behind during the ungulates search for a meal fueled by Red Oaks.

A wee bit further, I paused by the vernal pool that will soon seek much of my attention. Today, it shared two things; yesterday’s weather had transformed it from a snowy crust to an icy one; and the neighborhood turkeys, which I’ve yet to see, had stopped by.

But my reason for heading out late this afternoon was to cross over the double-wide wall by the pool and disappear into the saplings that fill the space.

It’s a parcel of land that was nearly clearcut in its day, but since then I’ve welcomed the opportunity to watch forest succession and all that it has to offer in action.

Being an early succession forest, Gray Birch fills the landscape with its twigs atop triangular gray beards. Red Maples and White Pines add their own colors to this place.

At the gray birches’ feet, their catkins filled with fleur de lis scales and teeny tiny seeds that remind me of ever so minute insects with transparent wings, littered the snow. Two actual insects also made themselves known. Do you see them? (Faith and Sara–happy looking 😉 )

And then another insect came into my sight. Truth is, a friend introduced me to this pupal form of a ladybeetle in late autumn/early winter. Of course we’d never seen it before, but as happens in the natural world, once you see something and gain a wee bit of understanding about it, you suddenly see it everywhere. Until recently, everywhere for this species had been upon evergreen trees. And then we found it on tree bark. Gray Birch to start.

I had much to think about in terms of the ladybeetle, but really, I’d come to this place because of some downed trees. Here and there in this forest swath, trees are bent over for no apparent reason. I think I know the why for I don’t believe it’s because a storm came through or all the trees would have bent over. I suspect it has to do with the fact that so much of the plot consists of gray birch that topple easily with the weight of snow, such is their cell structure. And as they toppled, they took down some pine saplings in the mix.

The creator of this scat loves the forms that the downed trees created for it’s a great place to hide when predators or old ladies stop by on the hunt. What I wanted the critter to know was that I was only hunting with a camera. You see, last week I actually spied the scatter as it hopped out of the form and leaped away, its fur slightly streaked brown as is its manner in this between-season time, giving rise to one of its common names: varying hare. It was too fast for my camera and so today I went back in hopes of a second sighting.

By the angled cuts of surrounding vegetation, I’d knew where it had dined.

And by its track, I knew its most common name: Lobster Hare. Okay, so it’s a Snowshoe Hare, but each set of prints always reminds me of the crustaceans of Maine fame.

I tried, oh so hard, to stand still and hoped upon hope that the hare would show itself again.

In my standing still, I did see more ladybeetles in their pupating stage–this one upon a dead White Pine.

And near it . . . another set of downed trees creating another Snowshoe Hare form, that place where the lagomorphs rest during the day. Usually that place is located under evergreens as was the case.

Spying a certain set of prints by the form, I realized I wasn’t alone in my quest. Do you see the C-ridge between the toes? And the asymmetrical presentation of the two lead toes? And the impression of two feet, where a foot packed the sloshy snow of yesterday and a second foot landed in almost the same place? I present to you a Bobcat. 😉

It led me to yet another Snowshoe Hare form.

Atop the form were signs of life, much to my delight: prints, scat, and even the orange-red tint of Snowshoe Hare pee.

Still, the Bobcat moved–its track connecting with a run or well-traveled path of a hare.

Following the hare and cat tracks led to yet another “form.”

It was there that I stood for the longest time. And I swear I heard someone munching within. Was it my imagination? Probably. For my imagination also had me hearing all the wild animals of the forest closing in on the hare and me and then I realized that I was the one closing in on the hare and my “fear” was its “fear.” Marcescent leaves that rattled in the breeze and trees that moaned as they bent in the breeze became larger than life creatures of the forest.

As I stood and listened and felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand tall, I spied more ladybird beetles in their larval and pupal stage.

As much as I wanted to understand the life cycle of this beetle and especially how it deals, if it does, with our low winter temperatures, please, please don’t tell me your understanding.

From evergreen to hardwood, I’m in the process of learning the habitat of this species.

Heck, it not only doesn’t just use evergreens upon which to pupate, it also doesn’t depend only upon Gray Birch, given that it can be seen upon plenty of Red Maple tree trunks.

Oh, and as you look, others might surprise you like these puff balls, their spores still ready to pour forth when gently poked.

Over and over again as I waited patiently for the hare, the ladybeetles made themselves known.

Some presentations differed from others and made me wonder about their matter of timing. Were they frozen molts? Were they morphing? If you know the answer, please don’t tell for this is a new learning and I hope to stay on the case.

Still, as first discovered, there were more in the evergreens to spy.

As the sun began to set, I found the Bobcat track once again and it led into the forest beyond.

More importantly, I backtracked its trail and discovered yet another Snowshoe Hare form created by downed trees. In my mind, so many places for the hare to hide. So many places for the cat to explore. And in the mix–me.

I never did see the hare today. Or the deer. Or the turkey. Or the bobcat. But . . . by their signs I knew that we share this space and there were a few others in the mix including porcupines, squirrels and grouse, and I gave great thanks . . . because of the hare.

Today's Mystery Tour

The message arrived in the form of a text: “Meet me at North Fryeburg Fire Station at 10:30. I’ll drive.”

And so we did. Upon our meeting we realized we’d each left some gear home, but between us, much like we share a brain, we shared resources that would benefit us along the trail. The back of the Subaru packed with snowshoes and hiking packs, up the road we rode, one of us driving while the other two anticipated the near future.

Beside two Norwegian Fjord horses named Marta and Kristoff blankety, blank, blank, (cuze one of their owners couldn’t remember his full name), our driver did park.

Before us, a groomed trail presented itself–leading to infinity and beyond or so it seemed.

And within a mailbox, tucked into plastic sleeves, maps and track charts were available.

Rather than take either, we took photos of the map; and knew that we had a set of David Brown’s Trackards for our trail finds.

We were still by the road and farmhouse, when we noticed sap buckets tied to Sugar Maples and realized that the season had begun.

One of our good fortunes, and we had many as the day progressed, was to stumble upon Jim, the owner of the property who explained to us that the sap had only just started to flow and he had 200 trees tapped. Sap season can be fickle, but we hope the good fortune his land shared with us could be returned many times over in the form of gallons of syrupy sweetness.

Up the trail we finally tramped, stopping frequently to take in as many treasures as possible as we tried to gain a better understanding of the world that surrounded us.

One item that drew our attention was the thick twig and dome-shaped bud of an ash. Its corky leaf scar below the buds was filled with a smiley face of dots we knew as bundle scars–where sugar and water had flowed between last year’s leaf and twig/trunk.

By the shape of the leaf scar, its bud dipping into the cup and creating the form of a C, we knew its name: White Ash. Had it been a Green Ash, the bud would have sat directly atop the leaf scar, which would have looked like a D turned on its side.

I keep trying to come up with a mnemonic to remember these two species and may have just discovered such: C = cup = white cup of coffee; D = hmmmm? So much for that thought. Stick with C and if it doesn’t look like that, chances are it’s a D.

We paused beside many buds, examining them all for their idiosyncrasies, but equally prevalent on the trail were the tracks left behind by so many critters. Deer, snowshoe hare, birds of varying sizes, chipmunk, red squirrel, and the list went on. Red fox were part of the forest mix. And coyote as well. We so wanted bobcat and several times tried to convince ourselves that such was the case, but indeed, our further study made us realize it was no more than a wish.

We also wanted porcupine tracks and bear claw trees to make themselves known. We searched and searched for all three: bobcat, porcupine, and bear claw marks, but found none.

What we did discover, however, was the namesake of the trail upon which we tramped. My, what deep impressions it had left.

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

No indeed. Where it had traveled upon the trail we followed before it traversed cross country, it left discernible prints that gave another sense of its size and we talked about the fact that its stomach would have been at our eye level.

By the crescent-shaped halves and dew claw marks, we knew that somewhere in the forest beyond moved a moose. Actually, by the number of tracks we saw on the trail, we thought that at least two had traveled this way.

And directly above we could see that it had dined, for the tags on the Red Maples where buds had once been bespoke its breakfast source.

At last we came to Moose Bog and briefly let our minds slip into seasons to come and offerings yet to be, but quickly pulled ourselves back into the moment and reveled in the fact that beside the sign was a sign left behind by the one for whom the bog was named.

The impressions were so deep that we decided to measure them.

Fifteen inches. We had barely sunk in an inch or two on our snowshoes, so the moose’s prints lead us to realize the immensity of its weight.

While in the same area, an abnormal growth on Speckle Alder gave us pause. At first glance, we recalled the fluffy colonies of Woolly Alder Aphids and wondered if what we saw was somehow related. A bit of white appeared in the structure, but it didn’t quite match anything we’d seen previously or our understanding.

About twenty feet down the trail, we found it again, this time on an American Beech twig. The curious thing, it only grew on one side.

Upon closer examination, we realized it looked a bit like elongated coffee grounds, and within our hands, its brittle structure quickly splintered into tiny specks.

It wasn’t until I contacted Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood several hours later that we realized we were on the right track. Anthony is my go-to entomologist and I bug him (pun intended) frequently for identification or explanation. He never fails to reveal some amazing fact.

Today’s find: The Beech Aphid Poop Eater! What? Yup. A poop-eating fungus. We were thrilled to discover that we were on the right track thinking it was related to aphids, and we knew that ants like to farm them so they’ll secret honeydew, but . . . a poop eater. The natural world just got more otherworldly for us and our wonder will never cease.

Trees continued to attract our attention, but upon the trail were a slew of tracks, the prints of coyote and fox especially decorating the way. And then, and then some coyote scat and pee, the former so full of hair and a selection of the latter at another spot that sent us all staggering from the strong scent.

A bit further on we found an older coyote scat that contained large bone chips. Do you see one in the upper left-hand corner of the specimen?

We also found fox scat filled with hair and seeds, for like coyotes, omnivores are they.

And then, some small, cylindrical shapes within a print.

X marked the spot where the latter scatter crossed its own path.

And then it flew off. Who dat scat? A Ruffed Grouse.

At least five hours after we began our tramp, the farm house finally came into view. And so did Becky, one of the owners. She was actually looking for us for so long had we wandered.

We’d taken a photo of the trail map, as I said earlier, before we set off, but never again did we look at it. No wonder Becky was worried about us. The trail we followed was only eight tenths in length, but because we’d stopped every three steps or so to look at the next best thing, it had taken us five plus hours to complete the loop.

We chuckled again for after meeting up with Becky and reassuring her that we were fine and happy and well (super well and thankful for such was the day and all that her land had offered us), we wondered if she and Jim had made a bet on how long it would take us to travel the last few hundred feet to the road.

There were still things to note, including sap seeping into buckets.

Red maple buds growing more bulbous with age also garnered our focus.

As for our mystery tour: we were treated to the Moose Loop at Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch. That would be in North Chatham, New Hampshire.

As we were greeted, our journey ended, with a smile from Kristoff and grins across our faces for the finds we’d discovered, understandings we’d made, and time spent together exploring.

Many, many thanks to Jim and Becky Knowles for sharing their land with all of us, and for Pam K for discovering this treasure and providing the mystery tour. Well done.

PS. Our last few hundred yards took about 25 minutes–who placed the correct bet on our time–Jim or Becky?

Anyone Home?

A friend recently sent me some photos of a mink resting area and, of course, I just had to see it.

The site is situated by a wetland and brook, but to get there, one must travel through the hundred acre woods. And along the way, the traveler might get distracted by the tracks of squirrels and coyotes galore. And then another traveler might show its prints and voila, though you intended to keep going until you reached a certain point, you suddenly find yourself following where a porcupine had recently waddled.

Across the landscape it will take you, and occasionally you’ll find yourself lifting your hands and swaying your hips and trying to imitate its sashaying motion.

And then, like magic, one track will be come two and then three and you might realize that they represent the path of one who traveled out and back and out again–always connecting the dots of den to food site, but often, given the current snow conditions, not along exactly the same path.

The tracks might lead to the base of a tree and you might instantly feel the pull to draw near and take a closer look.

As you peer, you may notice the stain of porcupine pee leading from the base of the tree.

And within you might see the start of a porcupine latrine where the curve-shaped scat gathers and may grow more prominent in time. Anyone home? We looked up and down, my companion and I, but saw nary a porky among the trees. Nor did one grunt at us, but perhaps it was fast asleep within.

From the porcupine tree, we made our way north and finally found our paths intersecting with a brook that we sought. Our hope was to see otter slides along its edges.

Such was not to be, but we enjoyed the view and did spy some tracks on the other side that we couldn’t define. Neither of us chose to get our feet wet to take a closer look.

Instead, we turned our attention to an old beaver dam and the snow-covered icy formations below it.

And then, right behind the rocks upon which we’d stood to admire the dam, we found the prints of a mink. Knowing that this was the one we sought, we got excited and began checking out the base of trees beside the water in hopes of spying what my friend had seen.

Her first was a photo with a latrine in the foreground and what looked like a well-visited hole to the left of the tree trunk.

We found mink prints leading to what one might assume was the same spot, but recent storms disguised outer appearances.

My friend had also found a pile of scat full of fish scales. Mink eat fish; as do otters.

Today we found several holes and thought about the mink’s activity of checking each one to see if a meal might be available within the confines.

And we found hoar frost making us wonder if a creator was hiding inside.

But our best find of the day was one out on the ice where by the raised snow and sticks sticking out, we wondered if an abandoned attempt at building a beaver lodge had created a resting spot for a mink.

Prints and scat certainly marked the spot. And it wasn’t too far off to think that the mink, which shouldn’t be quite ready to den up yet given that it isn’t birthing season, may have chosen a different space to rest than my friend saw last week. Sometimes they spend only a day using such a space to hide, and other times they may use it repeatedly for several weeks.

Curiously, coyote tracks passed by and in so doing may have added another conclusion to the story for they didn’t take any time to sniff out the mink’s use of space.

Vivid as they were on the wind-blown snow of the wetland, every detail was visible, but the pattern of their track showed mammals on a mission to be concluded somewhere in the future.

As it was, our future included a hike out for we were chilled and the sun was growing lower in the sky. But . . . our best find of the day was that “new” resting spot for the mink. On the back side, I could see a hole and the snow that had been carved out to create it. I wanted to take a closer look, but my friend encouraged me to not go nearer because ice conditions had been funky lately and we knew water flowed below. Was this a resting spot for a mink? Or had an otter actually happened by? The hole seemed rather big. And even the prints on top looked larger than those of a mink?

We may never know, but it sure would have been nice had we asked, “Anyone home?” for the real inhabitant to have stood up.

Scat Happens

The forecast was for temps in the teens, with a wind chill making it feel like single digits. But . . . plenty of sun. And so Greater Lovell Land Trust docent Alice and I decided to go ahead with this morning’s planned Wetland Wonder at John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge West on New Road in Lovell.

After a two day storm that left snow, ice and more snow, we were happy to stretch our legs despite the temps. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, only one other person joined us, the ever adventuresome Hadley Couraud, Sebago Clean Waters Conservation Coordinator for Loon Echo and Western Foothills Land Trusts.

On a pre-hike last week, Alice and I decided it would be best to beeline to the brook and wetland or we’d never have time to enjoy the wonders that both offered. Today’s temp confirmed that that would be best as it would warm us up.

In what seemed like an amazingly short time, because for us it was, we found ourselves beside Bradley Brook and glanced downstream. Of course, we’d passed by some mammal tracks, but promised to look at them on the way out.

As we looked upstream, we noted that though it was a bit chilly, the wind hadn’t picked up yet and all the snow still coated the trees.

And then Alice rattled off a few species she wanted Hadley to look for and the first presented itself immediately. It took me a bit to catch on, but that was Alice’s way–to mention something and bingo, it was right there even though she wasn’t looking at it. That was certainly a fun way to feel like you were the first to make a discovery.

Hadley discovered the lungwort lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, and I pride myself all these hours later in remembering its scientific name.

Of course we had to move in for a closer look. It’s one that we can never resist. Its ridges and lobes create a lettucey look, but many super moons ago it was thought to resemble lung tissue and thus a good remedy for maladies such as tuberculosis.

Its a species that begs a closer look (doesn’t everything?) and so we moved in, Hadley taking the lead.

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but the tiny granules trimming the outer edges of the lobes much like a fancy accent on a winter hat or sweater. Those structures are actually the lungwort’s asexual means of reproduction–and are called soredia.

Just before I performed a magic act with my water bottle, both Hadley and I took a few more photos of the brittle structure.

And then, tada, we watched as the water performed the trick.

It never ceases to amaze me: Once wet, the photosynthesizing green algae in the thallus or main tissue causes the lichen to instantly turn a bright shade and become pliable; once it dries, the color recedes to a duller olive green.

All that wonder, and we still hadn’t reached the actual wetland.

And so we marched on, pausing next beside a member Betulaceae ( Alnus and Betula) family. Alnus includes the speckled alder before our eyes and betula the birches. Scientifically known as Alnus incana ssp. rugosa, we got caught up with the male and female catkins, which both grow at the end of twigs.

The males are the longer catkins that formed in the fall, and just above them the wee females. Pollination is by wind and the fertilized female matures to a cone.

Both alder and lungwort lichen fix nitrogen, the former through a bacteria in its root nodules and decaying leaves and the latter as its structure falls to the forest floor and decays.

Upon one of the shrubs, we noticed what appeared to be cones in flower Actually, it was alder tongue gall–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths were green to begin, but transformed to orange, red and finally the brown we saw. Can you see the curly structures such as the one the black arrow points to?

We were there to look at the little things and the whole picture as it’s a place we only enjoy in this season, being difficult to access at other time of the year. In the midst of the wetland, the sun provided welcome warmth as we enjoyed the spectacular scene before us.

Artwork created by nature’s sketching artist gave proof that the wind was starting to pick up at about 11am.

It was at that point that we knew we were reaching our turn-around point, but still we reveled in the joy of being out there.

That is, until Hadley, as the caboose for some of the journey, found a weak spot in the ice. I gave her a hand to pull her out and we knew we needed to head out.

And so we followed a snowshoe hare back–giving thanks yet again for the snowshoes that we all wore.

What probably should have been a beeline much as we’d done on our way in, however, turned into frequent stops. The first was at a tree that had fallen across our path, which wasn’t really a path, but rather a bushwhack scouted out by Alice.

The fallen tree turned out to offer a lichen form classroom of crustose (appearing flat on the bark like a piece of bread or looking as if it had been spray painted onto the surface); foliose or leaf-like in structure; and fruticose, which reminds me of a bunch of grapes minus the grapes.

It was within the foliose lichen that we spotted the apothecia in the form of brown berets or disks.

And then there was the ice marching up a branch like miniature elephants on parade. We considered its formation and how it was anchored to the branch here and there, but not consistently. Was there warmth in the wood that created such formations?

As we headed back toward Bradley Brook, we spotted a tinderconk or horse’s hoof fungi that could have been a foot at the end of warm snowy white leggings.

The brook again offered a transitioning scene and we rejoiced in the sound of water flowing over rocks and downed trees.

Because we were still looking for the species Alice had suggested when we started, we stopped by well-browsed hobblebush where she shared their idiosyncrasies, including the fact that the buds aren’t covered in waxy scales like most tree and shrub species.

Instead, they are naked. And one of my favorites with their accordian-like design and fuzzy outer coating.

Eventually we made our way back to an old log landing, where evening primrose in its winter form became the subject of focus. Hadley is an apt student of nature and so even if she felt any discomfort from her dip in the water, she continued to ask questions and take notes about everything we encountered.

On the way out we noticed more snowshoe hare tracks, bird and squirrel prints, and then at a well worn deer run with fresh movement, we spotted the X in a print and new that a coyote had followed the deer, predator seeking prey.

One would have expected that with the mammal tracks we did see, we might have found some scat. We did not. But . . . all the same, Hadley really wanted an opportunity to say, “Scat Happens” with meaning. And she found it in her polar bear dip.

Still, the three of us had a wonderful tramp and rejoiced over hot cocoa and tea once back at my truck. I checked in with Hadley tonight and she’s fine, thankfully. But did I say she’s adventuresome? And ever eager to learn?

Still . . . scat happens. And with the right attitude, one can recover.

Tuesday Trackers Track

“Even if the conditions weren’t great for tracking, it was still fun to get out,” said Gilda, one of the newest Greater Lovell Land Trust Trackers as we explored off trail today. Mind you, it was -11˚ at daybreak, and the temperature registered in the single digits when we all met at Lot #1 of Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Not too far along the Chestnut Trail a trough extending from both sides drew our attention. We split up and followed it in either direction trying to determine the creator. Deer? No, not deep enough in the fluffy snow. Coyote? We kinda sorta saw the footprint and perhaps the pattern, but why the trough? Fisher? We were almost certain it was for we convinced ourselves that the vague prints were on a diagonal and the critter had bounded and slide across the landscape. It seemed to be characteristic of a weasel family member. But would a fisher slide that much? We’ve seen occasional slides but this was consistent. Porcupine? Now that didn’t occur to us and as I looked at the first photo I took I thought why didn’t I think of that. I know that the summit of Flat Hill is covered with porcupine tracks and dens. We were at the base. Just maybe what we saw was the trough of a porcupine. As it was, we spent a lot of time questioning our observations and blaming it on the snow for not providing us with the best tracking conditions. Someone mentioned that I should have kept track of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” Perhaps tracking those three words would have provided us with a higher success rate.

What I did know was that when we reached the stream and noted that the mystery trough maker had crossed to the other side and we didn’t like the looks of the ice and running water below and chose not to follow suit, we did spy some prints with a pattern we all knew to be coyote based on the size, X between the foot pads, and nail marks. Actually, we thought a family was on the hunt. Perhaps for a porcupine?

All in all, we did find vole and mouse tracks, and later some that we were 95% sure were fisher, and domestic dog. But like Gilda said, it was fun to be out on a brisk winter day in a beautiful location as we shared a brain and tried to figure out the stories in the snow.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Joan, Bob, Lucy, Ingrid, Pam, Joe, Gilda, and Frank.

These trackers were as intrepid as those I traveled with year ago and the article that appeared in today’s Bangor Daily News was based on a similar adventure last year. Well, let me clarify that. It was similar in that the temp was 4˚, but if I recall correctly it must have been windy for it felt even colder. And the tracking conditions were pristine that day.

Here’s the article: https://bangordailynews.com/2020/01/21/act-out/how-to-track-maine-wildlife-in-the-snow/

Thanks once again to Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News and “Act Out with Aislinn” for giving me the opportunity and making it all happen.

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.

Cranberry Memories

It’s amazing how a simple act such as taking cranberries out of the freezer and transforming them into a relish can take one back in time, but so it did today.

My family knows best that I’m not a foodie, and cook only because we can’t survive on popcorn alone (drats), but one of my favorite flavors brings a burst of tartness to any meal. And as I concocted the simple cranberry orange relish we so enjoy, moments spent picking them kept popping up.

On several occasions last fall, I bushwhacked toward the fen, stopping first to explore the kettle holes that dot the landscape.

And though I love tracking all winter, it’s those unexpected moments in other seasons when I recognize the critters with whom I share the Earth that make my heart quicken.

Especially when I realize that one of my favorites has also passed this way, stomping through the water . . .

and then onto the drier land. Yes, Ursus americanus had been on the hunt as well.

He wasn’t the only one fishing for a meal, though of a much smaller spidery-style scale.

And then there were my winged friends, the meadowhawks.

I remember the mating frenzy occurring as that most ancient of rituals was performed both on the leaf and in the air.

Other winged friends, showing off a tad of teal, dabbled nearby.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the kettle holes and tramped through winterberry shrubs filled with fruits and cinnamon ferns ablaze in their fall fashion.

After all, my destination was the cranberry fen.

And last year was a mighty fine year for those little balls of wonder that hid below their green leaves. I filled my satchel to overflowing before taking my leave, knowing that in the coming months I’d share the foraged fruits with family and friends and remember time well spent.

Not only did the abundant fruit make it so special, but on my way out I stumbled upon another kettle hole and much to my delight spotted two Sandhill Cranes, part of a flock that returns to this area of western Maine on a yearly basis.

While the cranes foraged on the ground, a Great Blue Heron watched them approach.

And then in flew a Bald Eagle who eventually settled in a pine tree beside a crow.

With that, the cranes flew off and a few minutes later so did the heron. And then I left, trying to find my way out, but I’d gotten a bit twisted and turned and ended up cutting through someone’s yard to get back to the road. Because I was a wee bit confused, I couldn’t find my truck right away, and in the process of looking I dropped a few cranberries. It was all worth it! And still is as we’ll enjoy that relish in our chicken salad sandwiches tonight.

Ah, cranberries. And bears. And spiders. And dragonflies. And birds. Ah, cranberry memories.

Book of the March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker

A few weeks ago I’d contacted my friend Parker Veitch of White Mountain Mushrooms, LLC, to make sure he was willing to co-lead a couple of fungi walks this summer and in his response he included this paragraph: “I have a book for you. Should I leave it at the office? The first 20 or so pages are a little slow, but I think you will really like it.”  

Like it? I LOVE it. And I haven’t even finished reading it. So you must be curious by now. As I was when I saw it sitting on the table at the Greater Lovell Land Trust office. You see, I was sure the book would be about fungi because Parker is always trying to help me learn about the principal decomposers of the world. Ah, but one should never assume.

May I present to you the Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker by Tamarack Song.

This book is like no other tracking book that I’ve read. As I wrote back to Parker, “Thank you so much for sharing the book with me. I’m in the midst of reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is about Alexander von Humboldt, and a book of essays by E.B. White (thanks Judy and Bob for gifting me that gem), but right now I’m most captivated by the teaching of Tamarack Song and I am going to have to ask Bridgton Books to order a copy for me. I want to be him and have the understandings and slow down and ask the questions he asks. And teach others to do the same.

At first I couldn’t put the book down. But now I’ve changed my tune a bit because I want to savor it. Typically, when I read a book such as this I underline key phrases, write notes in the margin and turn page corners up. But, because I’m only borrowing this copy I’m not doing that. (Did I have you nervous for a minute there, Parker?) And that’s making me soak it all in and savor each chapter more fully than I might.

You see, Tamarack, according to the back cover blurb, “has spent his life studying the world’s aboriginal peoples, apprenticing to Elders, and learning traditional hunter-gatherer survival skills. He has spent years alone in the woods as well as living with a pack of Wolves. In 1987, he founded the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, where he runs the yearlong Wilderness Guide Program.”

In each of the sixteen chapters, Tamarack plays the role of guide, but not by telling. Rather, he takes the reader along on an exploration with one of his students, and encourages all of us to question what we see. In other words, to never assume, which is what I did when Parker first mentioned the book and what I often do when I’m tracking.

Instead, he wants us to notice and think about why the animal might be behaving in a particular manner, even if we know what it is by its tracks and its sign. What’s the rest of the story?

In fact, why did Opossum suddenly appear toward the tail end of the snowstorm on Sunday night?

And why is he in western Maine? How has he survived this winter with its frigid temps (mind you, it’s finally starting to warm up a tad). Where has he been since I last saw his prints in the snow a few months ago? What brought him to our yard again? Does he live under the barn with the rest of the neighborhood?

And what about last night’s visitor, Raccoon. Where has he been all winter? What brought him out? I have to say I wasn’t surprised to see him as once the temps do begin to rise the slightest bit, he appears. I also know that the bird seed attracted him, though he surprised me by not stealing the suet.

Tamarack encourages us to become the animal, especially if we don’t see it, but do see the signs it left behind. Had there been snow on the deck, I imagine I would have recognized the raccoons prints, but I would have wondered about other lines that probably would have appeared. Having the chance to watch Raccoon as I did, I now know that those lines would have been his nose and tongue as he tried to vacuum the seeds.

But then there was Raccoon’s coloration. Why the mask? Why the striped tail? I have so much to think about and learn.

And then late today, I headed out the door through which I’d taken those photos the previous two nights, and noted the Hemlock tree that Porcupine had denuded this winter. It used to be one of my favorites in the yard. But today it occurred to me that though we pay taxes on this property and try to “maintain” it, it really isn’t ours. It never has been. It belongs to the animals and the trees, and yes, even the fungi. Maybe especially the fungi.

One thing I have noticed is that all of Porcupine’s activity has aided Deer who also stops by daily.

As I continued over the stone wall, noting the six or seven other Hemlocks Porcupine has visited, a shape high up in one tree caught my attention.

I moved under Hemlock for a better look. Well, not all the way under, for I sometimes know better than to stand below such an exhibit.

As I looked with the aid of a telephoto lens, I noticed that Porcupine had apparently dined briefly and then fell asleep. Hmmm. I know some people who do that.

But the sight of Porcupine got me thinking–was this friend who lived under the barn a he and not a she after all?

And how did he/she sleep as the breeze swayed that not so thick Hemlock bough upon which Porcupine was balanced?

I did gain a better appreciation for the various types of hair that cover Porcupine’s body.

But still, so many questions, some that haven’t even formed in my mind yet.

I give thanks to Tamarack and his stories within Entering the Mind of the Tracker for that. Now I must practice the art of slowing down and paying more attention.

And I give special thanks to Parker for the offering of this book. In many ways, he emulates Tamarack Song, for both are hunter-gatherers and Parker understands the ecological systems in a way I will never know. At less than half my age, he has already slowed down and learned to pay attention.

To be attuned to the hidden nature–that is my wish. To that end, I shall purchase a copy of this book. And hope you will consider it as well.

Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature.

Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature, by Tamarack Song, Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International, 2013.

For Whom The Crows Caw

At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.

I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.

That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .

This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.

The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?

The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?

My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?

Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.

And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?

Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.

And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.

It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.

And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.

One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).

There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.

After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.

Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.

As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.

Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.

She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.

As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.

She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?

I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.

As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.

Until finally, it was only a memory.

I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.

But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.

Forest in a Bottle

When Pam and I stepped into the woods this morning, I don’t think either one of us understood the enormity of the task before us. You see, our job was to gather all the pieces of the forest through which we’d pass.

And so we began by collecting a recent beaver masterpiece with fresh wood chips below.

There was a beaver sculpture as well, those tooth grooves deep and distinctive.

And their tracks, which all emerged from a recently frozen-over hole. The tracks were a few days old, but we added them to our findings just the same.

Because we were in beaver territory, to our delight we found otter tracks and slides galore–many of them fresh.

There was even an otter hole that we wondered if the beavers had used as well. We decided we might as well throw it in to our bag.

And we couldn’t resist our favorite otter activity of all–the spot where the infamous slider slid.

Following the trail to a different part of the forest, we spotted a diptera pupa that gave us pause for quite a while as we admired its structure and the perfectly formed circle where the fly had chewed its way out. We were so in awe that it seemed only obvious we would want to include it in the collection.

Further on, we reached a brook and spied a muskrat, that dark body in the center. As it turned out, it was a stone muskrat and we left it behind as we chuckled about our mistaken ID.

By the brook, we did, however, find mink prints in the dust of snow that had settled upon thin ice. Those were certainly worth capturing.

We also gathered more otter slides, and then stumbled upon an apparent otter roll, an area where the playful critter made a lot of fuss and left behind some urine and tarry-looking scat. We were sure we’d hit the jackpot.

Because we were beside running water, the icy baubles were not to be ignored.

Nor was the snow depth, which we determined to be close to four feet deep.

And then we marched onto a wetland, where we were stumped for quite a while about some mystery tracks. Should we take them or leave them, we wondered. The pattern indicated a perfect walker, as in a candid or feline, but the depth was deep and the toes threw us off.

The curious thing was that those tracks and others left behind by a mink and a fox led to a deep hole beside a tree.

I thought the frozen fluid within was blood, but Pam leaned more toward urine. One thing we knew for sure, if it was a kill site, there were no remains. Had the mammals been on the hunt to no avail? Take it or leave it–we put it in the same category as the mystery prints.

The mystery tracks also led to a beaver lodge and it appeared that the mystery track maker had tried to locate another meal. Given that there was no air vent at the top of the lodge, we doubted anyone was at home at the time of its visit, and so we left the lodge behind.

After standing in the middle of the wetland and eating our own lunches, we discovered a set of perfect red fox prints that we just had to include in our collection. The top print in this photo is actually the hind foot and the lower print is the front. Can you see the chevron in the foot pad?

There was another lodge we considered grabbing because the top of it appeared to possibly have a vent, but like the fox, we took a closer look and discovered that it, too, was abandoned so we left it behind.

Instead, we made our way off the wetland and back into the woods where a debarked hemlock tree stopped us in our tracks. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are known to scale trees–removing the outer bark to get at the insects underneath. Can you see the insect holes? And the cinnamon color of the inner bark? This one was a keeper, for sure.

Especially since a section where the inner bark had been removed revealed a polished layer like one might find on a table top.

There was also a huge snow-capped burl to pick.

And a small cross-section of the liverwort Frullania juxtaposed beside script lichen. Everyone should have a sample of those two.

Two old heron nests were well worth adding into the mix. They’d been used in the past until two years ago. If the herons do return to the rookery, we suspect they’ll build new structures so we didn’t feel so bad gathering these.

And then there was a pileated woodpecker hole that would have to represent all woodpecker holes in these woods. Before tossing it into the bag, Pam made sure that no other critter had set up housekeeping within.

Our final finding was one that made us think back to the mystery tracks. The more we studied these and later met the mystery tracks again and followed them for a while, the more we understood that not only did beavers, otters, foxes, deer, mink, and snowshoe hare romp in these woods, but so did coyotes.

The best thing about this coyote was that it made a coyote angel in the snow! We most definitely scooped that up.

For you see, our mission was to put it all together–in a glass jar. Haven’t you always wondered about the magic involved with placing a ship in a bottle? Well, today, we spent six hours amassing various items in the woods and then assembled them–creating a forest in a bottle. Can you see it?

I’m with the TREES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did she get carried away with the cookie cutters?

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

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

That wasn’t all Alanna had created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so up we looked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m with the TREES. Are you?

Mondate Shared with Tom and Ron

Midmorning found us driving down a lane in Stoneham, Maine, made extra narrow by high snowbanks. At the second entrance to the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Five Kezars Reserve we were delighted to discover the driveway had been plowed just enough to allow a vehicle or two to park. And so we did.

Our initial plan had been to wear micro-spikes and carry snowshoes, but as we’d passed by the first entrance, we noted that no one had climbed the Mountain Trail, and the road leading back to it had been well sanded, so we left the spikes behind.

Walking back up the road was easy, but then . . . we had to conquer what was probably the most difficult part of the entire journey–the snowbank between the road and the trail.

Thankfully in northern New England, those who drive plow trucks know to knock the snow back a day or so after a storm, thus leaving room for the next storm. (In this case, there’s one on the horizon for tomorrow night with another 8-12 inches predicted). The result is a shelf that makes the snowbank easier to climb up and over.

We did just that with the utmost grace in our steps.

Once on the other side, where the sign gave an indication of depth, we donned our outer footwear.

And walked up to the kiosk where we stood eye to eye with the roof rather than the map.

We did study if for a moment as my guy had not been on the new spur trail overlooking all five of the Five Kezars.

The trails are incredibly well blazed and blow down wasn’t much given the winds of winter, but . . . we did note one small beech that had fallen off trail and taken the signs with it.

A little further up we found another sign encouraging us to climb even higher–as in skyward. Perhaps it knew something we didn’t know.

For the first half of the trail, we mainly focused on our feet, making sure that the cleats on our snowshoes dug into the slippery surface.

Once the trail leveled off, we started looking around. And being winter with no leaves to distract one’s view, the snow-topped boulders stood out like tiny homes in the woods.

About halfway up the Mountain Trail, where it turns left and joins an old jeep road to the summit, a new path was carved last summer–Tom’s Path so named for the late Tom Henderson, who had long served as the land trust’s executive director.

My guy had walked about on the ledges there with me on previous excursions, but this was his first time actually following the new trail and so he studied the “You Are Here” spot on the map.

Along the way, I wanted to pause just before the trail turned left for I had a suspicion about the area below the rock. My suspicion proved correct; a porcupine had created a den under the ledge.

That was further verified by the downed hemlock twigs.

A bit further up the trail we found even more evidence of porcupine activity for many of the trees showed off the tooth scrape marks left behind as the critter sought the cambium layer below the bark.

Recently I saw bark under a porcupine tree that confused me for I’ve always thought of them as eating the bark completely and leaving no mess–unlike a beaver. But today’s findings indicated that all had been consumed.

Behind all of the porcupine artwork trees stood another much larger that will probably be naked by spring.

The debris was the typical–nipped twigs cut at an angle . . .

and plenty of healthy looking scat. 😉

The bark on the big old hemlock, however, had flaked off revealing its cinnamon color beneath for the porcupine had created a regular climbing route.

From below, I looked up in hopes of seeing the rodent, but realized all the evidence had to be enough. I did wonder–Tom always said he wanted to return as an otter, but just maybe he’s a porcupine right now. He was a forester, after all, and loved anything tree related.

A few minutes beyond the porcupine area we found our way to the termination of the spur and took in the view of four of the Five Kezars below: Little Mud, Mud, Middle and Back.

Being winter, a few more steps to the left revealed the fifth of the Five: Jewett.

Retracing our steps, we returned to the Mountain Trail and followed it to the summit where lunch rock had been graciously cleared . . . just for us.

There was no wind and the sun felt delightful–so we sat for a bit taking in the view of the ponds below and Pleasant Mountain with Shawnee Peak Ski Area in the distance.

When we finally decided to move on, we first stepped out to the north so we could get a glimpse of Mount Washington in the backdrop.

And then we pulled it in with a telephoto lens.

Following the orange connector trail down, we began to notice more mammal activity. We’d left the porcupines behind, but the snowshoe hare always seem to dine in one particular location.

And scat 😉

We also noticed bobcat tracks like these, muted though they were, crossing over the trail, while we followed coyote tracks down the trail.

And twice we encountered engravings in the snow that at first glimpse we thought were wing marks, but changed our story to one of the predators playing with a prey as it dangled from the mouth. Hmmm.

Continuing down, we constantly looked up–at beech trees for we knew many revealed bear claw marks. Sometimes we had to look extra closely because the cankers on the tree hid the possibilities.

Though this wasn’t part of the Christmas present to my guy in the form of Bear to Beer Possibilities, it could have been a contender.

Our eyes scanned many a tree and we know we missed a bunch today, but we’ll save those for another day. I did think about returning and creating waypoints to mark each one on GPS, but then we wouldn’t have the fun of looking.

And because we were doing such, we found a new one today. Chances are the next time we look, it will be new to us all over again–if you know what I mean.

One other tree also drew my attention. Well, really, they all did. But yesterday I was explaining this very pattern to some folks on a guided walk, and wish I’d had such an example: target fungus on red maple. Indeed!

Eventually we reached the bridge crossing at Ron’s Loop, so named for Ron Gestwicki who was the first president of the Five Kezars Watershed Association and driving force behind creating this reserve that we could enjoy upon occasion, but the mammals know best.

While my guy sashayed straight across the bridge, I chose to go forth in a sideways pattern. In the middle, I remembered once slipping down under the rail, but thankfully today I reached the other side without incident.

The mammal activity continued along the half of the loop that we traveled. Other travelers included the coyote that left its mark on a high spot in the middle of the trail and several more crossings by the bobcat.

I was hoping for an otter slide because sometimes we are so blessed, but instead we found a few tracks of fisher passing through, their five tear-drop shaped toes on display.

Though we’d spent several hours on the trail, it seemed we reached the final bridge crossing in no time and my guy performed a chivalrous act of stomping down the snow to make for an easy crossing.

The water below offered a hint of every season as it flowed forth: summer’s blue sky, autumn’s dried leaves, winter’s clear ice, and spring’s fresh greens.

As we passed by the kiosk for Ron’s Loop on the way back to my truck, we gave thanks to the two men for which the trails were named: Tom Henderson and Ron Gestwicki. We were grateful for their leadership and the opportunity to continue to share the trail with them, especially on our Monday Date or Mondate.

Porcupine: Down Low, Up High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrepid Travelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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