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.

Babe in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Wild Out My Door

Winter Storm Harper left its mark in the form of snow and wind upon our little spot in the universe.

And I was certain that any tracks I might encounter in the woods would have been erased by dervishes that whirled across the field yesterday, overnight, and into today.

Consequently, it was a pleasant surprise to discover porcupine tracks leading to and fro our barn and woodlot in their typical pigeon-toed pattern.

As delighted as I was, I was equally dispirited as I noticed that the tips of my favorite hemlock had been nipped to oblivion.

But, the porcupine had moved on from that tree, crossed over a stonewall, and visited several other trees in our woodlot, as noted by the downed twigs that decorated the snow’s surface. Like the tracks, the twigs were freshly cut in the past twenty-four hours or less actually.

Of course, I couldn’t overlook the woody commas amid the debris, much as they break up a sentence such as this, that added to the list of evidence that a porcupine had been present. Some call them scat.

And then, as I continued onward, I followed the tracks of two others that frequent our yard. Even as I delighted in the winter structure of a Queen Anne’s Lace florescent, did I notice the red fox prints on the snow below.

The tracks led me to Stevens Brook, which has a journey of its own to trace.

I went to look because I felt the need to add a bit of color to this wintry day and knew that the local congregation of Mallards would contribute not only that, but sound as well.

And then, as I snowshoed beside the trail that follows the brook, I began to notice tracks made by another–this one a member of the weasel family with tear-drop shaped toes of five on each foot.

The more I followed it, the more I realized it had walked and then loped and appeared to drag something along the way.

Sometimes it chose to slide on the downhills.

And equally left an impression as it journeyed up and over a stonewall.

Meanwhile, within the wall, I surmised another of a different species quivered as silently as possible so as not to attract attention, with the hope of creating hoar frost for another day.

Wherever I went, the weasel had also trekked. And frequently I noticed signs of blood as if something had been dragged and the life dripped out of it.

In some places the frozen vital fluid bespoke a meal perhaps waiting to be cached–the perfect sacrifice of one to nurture another.

So few were the tracks of mankind on the virgin snow and so abundant the weasel.

Soon I found myself beside another brook, this one named Willet, and I glanced about expecting to see evidence of action, but instead found ice and snow and shadows disappearing into the bend.

And then . . . upon the edge of the brook’s high bank, a sudden turn my weasel had made, choosing to not slide downward.

A bit further along, I was following its tracks again when I spied fresh woody debris upon the snow’s surface and knew that a pileated had been at work this day.

Rounding the tree, I discovered a series of holes made over a series of days or weeks or years.

From the woodpecker tree, it took a few minutes, but again I found the tracks of one very busy fisher. I never did find any kill sites, but suspected that it had a cache somewhere and let its fresh groceries dangle from its mouth as it carried them back to the pantry.

Making my way toward home, I didn’t need to rest, but had I intended upon such, it wouldn’t have been at the bench for so deep was the snow.

That was okay, for my movement kept me warm and I knew that I’d soon be stripping off my winter layers once I reached our kitchen. But first, there was a pasture to pass through, and while I seemed to have left the fisher behind, I came upon the tracks of the two red foxes I’d met earlier.


In typical red fox behavior, one of them had paused at the tip of a downed tree and urinated. One of these days perhaps it will finally get lucky.

In the meantime, I felt lucky for I’d seen the prints and tracks of so many on this day when I wondered if I’d see any–including those of the Mallards beside Stevens Brook.

And of all the winter wild out my door, today the ducks were my favorite because I not only got to watch them for a while, but I also appreciated the colorful display they added to the landscape.

Nature’s Larder

(Warning: Some photos in this post may be disturbing.)

A couple of friends and I didn’t let this morning’s brisk air keep us inside and so at the designated time and place we met, strapped on our snowshoes and journeyed forth.

Almost immediately we were greeted with evidence that others had had the same idea. And though we knew they were turkey and fox tracks that intersected on the snow-covered ice, we weren’t positive about the fox ID until a few minutes later. As it was, the prints were muffled in presentation, which led us to red versus gray fox, but the stride seemed a wee bit short.

And then we found the calling card and both friends were thrilled to get down on all fours and take a sniff. Indeed, the skunky scent made us certain that the fox’s color was red.

Everywhere, whether atop a snow-capped rock or sapling or winter weed, we found that calling card–most of it a mere dribble, but enough.

Everywhere we also found the fox tracks and wondered–one or two? It seemed likely that she followed he, but we couldn’t be absolutely certain.

And then something in the distance atop the snow called our attention and we quickly followed the fox tracks to the dark sight.

It turned out to be turkey feathers. And we got to wondering again. There were no turkey tracks nearby, only fox. What had happened?

Toward the shore we tramped and suddenly one of us found a display of feathers and cartilage.

And then another about ten feet away.

And still another.

Beside it all, we found the calling card of the red fox to be even more prominently displayed.

Later, after one of our group departed, two of us revisited the kill sight and realized that there were some black and gray hairs left behind. My assumption was coyote as we had also seen their tracks. And we found a rather robust coyote scat not far away.

So here’s the story as we pieced it together, though we know some pages are missing: The fox(es) stealthily sneaked up on the turkeys who were scratching about for food on the ground under some hemlock trees where the sun had melted the snow. They pounced on one who wasn’t able to fly off quickly enough, for if you’ve ever watched a turkey take off, you know it’s awkward motion in slow speed. We hoped that the kill was quick and the turkey didn’t suffer as its feathers were plucked. The body was dragged here and then there, and the fox urinated to stake his claim. Maybe he shared some meat with his girlfriend. Along came the coyote who didn’t care about the fox’s territory and perhaps he scared them off and helped himself to a tasty treat. We had to think about it as nature’s way and jules of energy being passed on from the insects and birds to plants and seeds to the turkey and on to the canines. They, too, need to eat.

We searched all over for a head and maybe leg remnants or other body parts, but found not much, though we did find a bony structure and wished our veterinarian friend had been with us to perhaps enlighten our understanding.

Finally, we moved on and a few feet away another sight made itself visible.

Tucked into the top of a tree snag was a partial ear of corn. The refrigeration obviously worked for it looked as fresh as one might eat on a summer day.

How did it get there? We know it came from a nearby corn field, but who was responsible for its placement? Perhaps a squirrel? Or a bird? It didn’t seem likely that a raccoon could climb the snag, but then again, in nature the impossible often happens when we aren’t looking.

Today, we looked and even when it wasn’t pleasant, we were excited for we gained a wee better appreciation for and understanding of nature’s larder.