Mondate with a View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Food Is The Name of the Game

Winter finally arrived in western Maine this past week in the form of three snowstorms, the last ending with a coating of ice. Between storms, I’ve been teaching others the art of tracking mammals and birds through my work at Greater Lovell Land Trust, as well as a two-day class I taught for a local Senior College, and a day-long class for Maine Master Naturalists.

I love, love, love watching others experience joy as they begin to notice the nuances of print and patterns and scat and sign.

This being the work of a White-tail Deer who scraped its lower incisors up the bark of a tree to get at the cambium layer where the sugars and starches flow. The tags at the top of the scrape are a tell-tale sign because ungulates like deer and moose do not have upper incisors or canines, but rather a hard palate, and yank at the wood as they press their lower incisors against the palate to pull the bark off a tree–mostly Eastern Hemlock or Red Maple.

It wasn’t long after the Senior College outing on Wednesday that snowflakes announcing the third storm began to fly and one of our resident Red Squirrels stopped by to check out the offerings at the bird feeders.

This hearty sole is Ed and as you can see, he’s lost an eye–probably in a disagreement with a sibling, but that doesn’t stop him. He’s perfectly capable of finding food, seeking cover when necessary, and fighting off his brothers.

Ed wasn’t the only one out in the snow, for a male Downy Woodpecker made frequent trips to the suet feeder.

And then, just before twilight the Deer began to appear. The first walked to a Squirrel feeder I was gifted recently, with some peanut butter added to the corn as an enticement. She didn’t seem impressed. I thought that was weird because if you’ve ever made a bird feeder out of pinecones smothered with peanut butter and sunflower seeds, you might notice that the Deer lick everything off within hours of hanging the cones from a branch.

Following the arrival of the first Deer, a sibling came in with mom, but they too, were not impressed.

So the thing about watching the Deer, was that they provided a photographic lesson–beginning with the two cloven toes that form the heart-shape of the impression they leave in the snow–with the pointed end of the heart always indicating the direction of travel. And further up the foot are the dew claws, which sometimes show in a print. If you look at the two hind legs, you can see the dew claws just above the snow. I’ve been told that if the dew claws appear, then it is a buck. I’m not 100% convinced of that. I think it has more to do with snow conditions.

And sunflower seed is not their only form of nutrition, for one of the Hemlocks by the stonewall between our yard and woodlot offered some delectable needles full of vitamin C. Do the Deer know that?

Following the storm, a coat of ice covered the tree branches and even the corn, but that didn’t stop Ed’s brother, Fred, from grabbing a kernel. Actually, the corn had originally been placed about two feet off the ground in an area we’d shoveled, but the snow had piled up again, making the meal easy to reach.

I spent yesterday shoveling what felt like cement. The first two storms offered a much fluffier take on snow consistency. Periodically, like Ted, another brother of Ed, I’d duck into the house. His home is a network of tunnels near the feeders, and so far it has provided good protection.

This morning dawned brighter, and a bit frosty to start. While Fred, Ted, and Ed, ate birdseed and chased each other round and round, a Gray Squirrel stopped by to get a handle on things.

The perfect meal was garnered.

As it turned out, today was a super busy day at the feeders, which Black-cap Chickadees and Nuthatches making frequent visits.

And the puffed up feathers of a male Downy bespoke the temp in the teens. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible. The more trapped air, the warmer the bird.

A couple of American Goldfinches were early morning visitors as well, and I love that unlike the Chickadees, Finches are much calmer and stay in one spot for a bit.

Probably my favorite visitor was a surprise for as I was watching the Hairy Woodpeckers, in flew a Red-bellied who worked at a chunk of suet and finally flew off with it.

When I finally headed outside this afternoon, donning my snowshoes to stay atop the 2.5+ feet of snow, I couldn’t believe that for the most part I could stay on top of it, for such was the crusty coating from yesterday’s rain finale. And with each step I took, I heard the crunch below–sounding much like breaking glass.

Much to my surprise, I found the track of a Ruffed Grouse, who did break through the snow.

Of course, it was no surprise to find the figure eight of a deer print, with the foot impression about two feet down. This is a difficult time of travel for them. And I suspect mine will be back by the feeders during the night looking for an easy meal.

And then I discovered a disturbance that I had to investigate. A deep hole had been excavated.

A look at the size and X between the toe and metacarpal pads and I knew who had done the job: an Eastern Coyote.

What it consumed I could not say, but there were some drops and I wonder if they were blood that had darkened a bit as they aged. It’s funny, because I was so sure that I’d come upon a Ruffed Grouse’s snow cave and totally expected to see the bird’s scat in the hole. That was not the case at all, but I don’t know who the victim was that provided the Coyote with a meal. Or at least a snack.

Back in our woods, I met an old friend who has graced these woods for years–or at least members of his family have done so.

He, too, was looking for food. And so intent upon his job was he, that I stood only about fifteen feet away while he worked.

I didn’t step under to check the scat because I didn’t want to scare him off, so I’m not sure if the Pileated Woodpecker’s needs were fulfilled, but given that he had worked on the tree for a while and some of the holes were quite deep, I suspect he had dined on his favorite meal of Carpenter Ants.

Finding food is the name of the game, though it’s hardly a game at all–especially when it’s cold, the snow is deep, and there’s a crust of ice atop it. And that’s just for the critters. Never mind people who have to deal with the elements on a daily and nightly basis.

Support your local food pantry,

Tracking Glee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it gnawed on the branches of a tree.

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

The Beaver’s Tale

Once upon a time . . . no wait. This isn’t a fairy tale.

Rather, it’s about changes in the landscape that one might observe, such as a brook suddenly overspilling its banks as was the case in this location upon a December visit. We’d had rain, but that much?

It wasn’t long before a friend and I spotted the reason for the high water. Some new residents had moved into the area and built a lodge of sticks. Unlike the story of the three little pigs, one of whom built a house of sticks that the big bad wolf came in and blew down, the makers of this structure took special care to make it solid and strong and weatherproof. Yes, a beaver or two or six had taken up residence with the intention of spending the winter. Beaver families usually consist of a monogamous couple, plus their two-year-old (almost adult) kids, and yearlings. Mating occurs in the water during the winter and kits are born inside the lodge in the spring.

In order to move into the lodge, a dam needed to be constructed as well. If you look closely, you’ll see that above it there was a bit of an infinity pool with the ice at level with the dam, while below it some water flowed at a much lower level. Though we couldn’t walk along the ice to measure the length of the dam, it was quite long. and made of sticks and leaves and mud. Typically, the family works on this project by creating a ridge of mud and probably the herbaceous plants of the meadow, and then they use the mud and sticks to stabilize it. Maintenance is a constant as water or other critters or humans have a way of breaching the dam.

We, too, build dams to serve similar purposes, such as this one originally constructed to operate a saw mill. Hmmm.

Getting back to the lodge: it also needs nightly work as long as conditions allow and this has been a winter of despair for those of us who love cold temperatures and snow and even ice if it’s in the right place, like on a pond or lake and not in the driveway.

Take a look at how the beaver is holding the small twig.

A beaver’s dental formula is this: 2 incisors on top, 2 incisors on bottom, 0 canines on top, 0 canines on bottom, 2 premolars on top, 2 premolars on bottom (that look like molars), 6 molars on top and 6 molars on bottom, for a total of 20 teeth. Recently, I was able to sketch the upper part of the skull of an older family member, who’d lost some of its molars.

These large, semi-aquatic rodents are gnawers like their relatives. To that end, their incisors are highly specialized for chewing through really, really tough things and they grow continually throughout the critter’s life.

And like all rodents, the front surface of their incisors is coated in enamel reinforced with iron (hence the orange color), which makes it resistant to wear and tear from gnawing. When the chisel-like teeth chew and fell trees, the much softer white dentine layer (the section behind the enamel) is ground down quicker than the enamel, thus creating a sharp chisel surface.

But to me the coolest aspect is that their lips close behind the incisors, thus permitting them to gnaw and carry sticks underwater without choking.

And bingo, you can see the stick being carried in that gap between the incisors and molars. Food sticks become lodge or dam sticks once their nutritional value has been consumed: a true plan of repurposing.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only beaver family at work in town. This next family, however, chose to park their tree in a spot the fire department lay claim to for filling a water tank. But . . . reading is not on a beaver’s talent list.

In this other place, so many trees have been felled, but not all have fallen as intended, getting hung up on other trees instead. Not wanting to anthropomorphize, but I have to wonder what expletives flash through a beaver’s brain when trees don’t hit the ground as planned.

As strict herbivores, a beaver’s diet varies with changes in the season. During spring and summer, they are drawn to waterlilies, algae, grasses, sedges, herbs, ferns, shrub leaves and shoots. By late summer, however, tree cutting begins as they gradually change their dietary habits from herbaceous to woody materials. Twigs, roots, bark and especially inner bark become the source of nutrition. Aspen, birch, alder, and willow are favored species, but beavers will cut almost anything including conifers.

Imagine this. A beaver cocks its head to the side as it gnaws, thus the consistent angle of the half inch groove as the upper and lower incisors come together.

Likewise, porcupines gnaw, but their incisors are much narrower and the pattern more random.

So, the question remains. Where were the parking lot beavers living? In the past, a family has inhabited the northern most reaches of this pond, but in this case, they had built a lodge on a point not far from the southern end.

The top of the lodge is the only section not covered with mud, for it serves as a “smoke stack” of sorts, a place for beaver breath to escape. Visit a lodge on a cold winter day and you might observe the vapors rising.

And then it was on to another locale, where beavers have inhabited the same lodge for a number of years. When beavers choose to live in a pond or lake or sometimes even a river, there’s no need to build a dam for the water is usually deep enough for their underwater movement.

I often tell people that beaver prints are a rare find because they are either wiped over by the tail or by trees being hauled to the water. Once in a while, however, I’m proven wrong and the sleety snow on a recent day awarded just the right conditions for the webbed feet to be observed.

Tree work and broken ice added to the story of the critters’ journey to and fro the pond. While quite adept at time spent in the water, they are rather clumsy on land and most of their work is within a hundred feet of the edge.

Winter food is cached close by the lodge entrance so that they can swim under the ice to retrieve a stick. A beaver’s ears and nose have a valve that closes when it is submerged and they can stay underwater for up to fifteen minutes. Back at the lodge, there is a raised chamber surrounded by a moat that leads to the entrance tunnel. It’s upon the raised area that they dine, and groom, and even give birth.

At this particular pond, My Guy and I noted two lodges connected by an open channel between. Given the number of tail slaps that announced our presence near both lodges, we thought perhaps both were active and inhabited by the same family.

And then, and then . . . finally, we spotted a beaver that spotted us. We kept expecting it to slap the water with its tail in a manner of warning so other family members would seek deeper water or cover. Instead, it swam past us.

The thing is that a rodent relative, namely the muskrat, exhibits many similarities, but also differences, including a skinny, snake-like tail.

The beaver’s tail is a source of wonder. While its furry body consists of long, shiny guard hairs covering dense and softer hair that traps air and helps protect the critter from the cold, the tail is broad and flat and scaly. It’s used for a variety of reasons including stability when standing upright on land (think tripod), as a rudder for propulsion in water, as fat storage and thermal regulation, and how we are most familiar, as a warning device.

A beaver’s tale indeed.

Sworn to Secrecy

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

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

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

But not uncommon to find them together!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Tracks Mondate

A dash of snow and an opening in our afternoon. What better way to spend it than hiking? And so we did. On Bald Pate Mountain. We followed the Moose Trail to South Face Loop to the summit to Bob Chase to Foster Pond Lookout. And tucked in a few miles.

Though there were tire tracks in the parking lot, we soon realized we were the only ones who had ventured onto the trails today. Or were we?

Within seconds, we encountered Red Fox prints, that chevron. on the back of the feet appearing in the snow if you really look. And remember, a fox is a perfect stepper so typically one foot falls onto or almost onto the spot where another foot had been.

The pattern left behind indicates that like us, this mammal was walking and following the man-made trail. Or did it? Perhaps we followed the critter’s trail.

In a wet spot, we discovered the prints of another who chose the high road to avoid the ice and water–certainly a smart Red Squirrel decision, unlike those poor decisions made when trying to cross one of our roads.

Climbing up the South Face Loop toward the Bob Chase Trail was new for us, as we usually continue along the base of the mountain toward the eastern side before heading up to the summit. We struggled with slippery conditions on a few rocks and soon discovered we weren’t alone for this coyote had also slipped a few times.

Approaching the summit, we were still surprised to find that our prints were the first on this beautiful autumn day.

We enjoyed the view toward Foster Pond . . .

and the same toward Hancock (and yes Faith, we waved to your camp).

It was up there that we spotted not only more Red Squirrel tracks, but also these Chipmunk prints. And you thought the little ones had snuggled in for a long winter’s nap, but truth be told, they don’t go into true torpor and we’ve spotted them or their prints occasionally in winter. Plus, despite today’s chill, it’s been such a mild fall and we haven’t had a decent snowfall yet, so there’s still plenty of opportunity to gather food for a cache.

Finally heading out to the Foster Pond Lookout, we found Snowshoe Hare prints and a very classic track left behind by a Meadow Vole.

Meadow Voles intrigue me because they can hop like a squirrel or hare, or walk with the zigzag pattern of a perfect walker like a fox.

And furthermore, Meadow Voles tunnel! We usually don’t see the tunnel, which tends to be in that subnivean zone between the snow and the ground until spring melt, but with last night’s dumping of maybe an inch of snow, it was quite visible.

Continuing toward the lookout, we spotted more Coyote tracks intersecting with those left behind by a squirrel. Up to that point, the squirrel was still alive since their tracks were headed in opposite directions. Good luck, Red!

And then on a ledge just before the lookout, we spotted feather and foot prints. A bird had landed and then it went for a walk.

And turned and went the other way before lifting off again. Based on size, we agreed it was a Crow rather than a Raven, though we often hear Ravens, especially on the other side of the mountain.

Finally, we reached Foster Pond Lookout, where the setting sun behind us made it look like the forest beyond was washed with color.

We had reached Trail End, but it wasn’t the end of the trail. Not for us anyway. Turning 180˚, we retraced our steps and headed back toward the parking lot.

As the sign indicated, it was time to go home. But we rejoiced–for we were back in tracking mode on this Mondate and grateful for this opportunity to head out on a slightly snow covered trail and embrace the brisk air, which made us feel so alive.

Celebrating My Daily Wonders

Every day this week found me wandering a different trail, or even sometimes the same trail on multiple days.

To that end, on May 24th, I celebrated a full-fledged dragonfly emergence.

Though I wasn’t there at the time of eclosure, many of the dragonflies I spotted, and there were hundreds, were either still pumping hemolymph from their wings back into their bodies, gaining their color patterns, or letting their shiny wings dry in the breeze as they slowly began to expand them. A few had wings that seemed stuck together, but then in an unexpected moment they flew and I whispered farewell in hopes that we might meet again.

On May 25th, there were other species to behold.

It was that day that I knew the Highbush Blueberry crop will be significant this year for so many were the robust Bumble Bees that worked the pollen route. I even managed to capture one doing a happy dance with pollen on its feet. And this is canoodling season, after all, so it was fun to find a pair of flower bugs enjoying a tender moment upon Chokeberry flowers. The Mayfly did not have such a happy ending for before maturing to its adult form, it landed in a sticky web, but . . . alas, the spider must eat, so it was a good day after all.

On May 26th, my travels were more varied, as were the sightings.

For a few moments, I watched as ants, both winged and not, farmed aphids upon the stem of a Maple-leaf Viburnum. Along a trail or two that day, a melodious Song Sparrow serenaded me with its happy tune. And a quick trip to the vernal pool out back found me looking into the eyes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Wood Frog tadpoles. But the best find of all, a fairy ring along a trail.

On May 27th, I was one of a bunch who arrived at a certain locale to bird at 6:30am.

Though I couldn’t stay for the entire trip, which yielded 38 species, I did have the joy of watching a small flock of Cedar Waxwings land and fly, land and fly. And then there was the Indigo Bunting. It’s blue coloration reminded me of Clintonia’s Blue Bead fruits we’ll spot in the summer if the birds don’t eat them all first. And I’m never sure why I’m surprised to find a House Wren on these journeys, but perhaps its because for so many years I didn’t see them (or didn’t realize I was seeing them) and thought of them more as a childhood bird from my beginnings in southern New England. The best find of all, on this day, however, was an Eastern Phoebe sitting on her nest.

On May 28th, I met some old friends, though for the first three I had to jog my memory for their names.

The first was a female Common Whitetail Skimmer dragonfly. It’s her guy who has the whitish “tail,” and I believe that she received the better strokes of nature’s paintbrush. Then there were the Hudsonian Whiteface Skimmers, she with yellow marks and his defined in red. Soon, the Calico Pennants will emerge, and we’ll see she also dons a yellow coat while he sports red. But as much as you know I love dragonflies, a fresh moose track also makes my heart sing.

On May 29th, I wondered how I could possibly top all of that.

And yet I did. First there were more ants farming aphids, this time Wooly Alder Aphids on Speckled Alders. After that, a Bluet Damselfly that didn’t seem to mind that I rustled around in some shrubs trying to get better photos of other species. For its patience, I thought I should honor it in this post. One of those other species, a small Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer dragonfly, drew my attention to a Pitcher Plant Flower preparing to open. I was surprised by its presence because though I knew I was in the land where Pitcher Plants are abundant, I couldn’t recall spying one in this particular spot before. But the best find of the day, an Assassin Bug, Pselliopus cinctus, finishing a meal. I had never met this species of Assassin Bug before as usually it is the slender green Zelus luridus that I encounter. The black and white legs were to be admired, by me, not its poor victim who had just had the juices sucked out of it.

It certainly has been a week to celebrate my daily wonders as I wander. And though the Assassin Bug was the best of today, the actual best I did not capture a photo of this afternoon. A River Otter popped up and stared at me briefly, chirped, and before I could reach for the camera, disappeared. But I will remember that moment and that spot in my mind’s eye.

Where the Bobcat led us

When GLLT Tuesday Trackers meet at a property, we never know what animal sign we’ll need to interpret or what greater understanding we’ll gain. Today was no different and we had a few surprises along the way.

What we’ve all learned is that we need to take a bird’s eye view and consider where we are, whether it be forest or field or wetland, look at how the mammal is moving and what type of pattern it is creating as it moves, get down and count toes, look for nail marks and notice other idiosyncrasies, and then follow the trail for a ways, looking at the prints in different light, or under different trees. Often under hemlock trees we find the best prints because there’s not as much snow since the boughs hold it.

And so today’s adventure began with us following this particular animal and debating—do we see claw marks, is the overall shape round or oval, is there a lead toe, is the ridge creating a C on its side or an X between the toes and heel pad? It took some time, but we finally found a few prints that gave us confidence it was a bobcat we were following. So, where did the bobcat lead us?

Our first stop was along a stream where he walked beside the edge—about two or three feet above the open water for such is the snow height—but then paused for a moment and seemed to step down because he was curious about something. And so were these three, Pam, Dawn, and Emily, for they spied something in the water below.

From our position on the opposite bank, a few of us saw what we thought they were looking at. “It’s furry,” Dawn told us.

She wanted to go down into the water because it didn’t appear to be all that deep, but still that would have meant she’d be wet and so Emily hunted around and found a branch to use as a poker instead.

As Dawn wiggled the stick, all the time exclaiming that it was big, whatever it was, and trying to turn it over, Emily and Pam grabbed her to make sure she didn’t turn into an otter and slide down, though I suspected she would have laughed about the experience.

We all watched intently, making suggestions about the critter’s identity while Dawn continued to poke at it and move it. Mammal? Skull? Full body?

The coloration was definitely unique, but it is winter after all, so the freezing temperatures and fact that it was in water may have altered its appearance.

Those were our thoughts anyway, and we voiced our opinions, until . . . Dawn flipped it over and saw . . . a tag.

So hoping for a kill site where the bobcat may have dined, instead we found ourselves looking at . . . a stuffed owl.

Peter took Pippi’s hiking pole and aided Dawn in rescuing the sopping wet bird and if you look closely you may see water dripping from it.

Our chuckles must have rippled through the forest as we laughed at our great find. Mighty trackers are we. But . . . we think the bobcat was almost fooled as well. Almost.

The owl then flew from Peter’s hands to a perch and there it shall remain, or so we think.

For a few minutes we returned to and continued upon a logging road, and then the bobcat called for our attention again and so we did follow it. As I said to the group, normally I’d insist that we backtrack the animal so we don’t put stress on it, but the tracks were at least a day old.

This time the bobcat led us to a hemlock tree. Do you see the debris under the tree?

How about now? And stained snow by the trunk?

There were even little brown commas atop the snow that could easily be mistaken for hemlock cones. But rather, they were a form of scat.

Like us, the bobcat had been here, but for some reason he chose to pass by.

Whenever we spy downed hemlock branches, comma-shaped scat, and lots of urine at the base of a tree, we know to look up and so we did. High above sat a male porcupine. Males are known to stay in a tree during the day while females typically return to the den each morning and head back to the tree of dining choice at twilight. Here’s are two curious things: 1. the bobcat passed by—they will go after a porcupine, but perhaps this one was too high up. (Fishers are a porcupine’s #1 enemy.) 2. we looked all around and couldn’t find any porcupine tracks. If we had, we might have followed them to see if we could locate the den. But, since we couldn’t we came to the assumption that this porcupine has been up in the tree since at least our last major snowstorm on Friday, February 25.

Back on the bobcat’s trail we did go, being stymied occasionally because though we knew it was a bobcat, there were a few prints that resembled a deer and we came up with all kinds of stories about flying deer and other critters of our imaginations.

But always, we’d find a few classic prints and again feel 100% confident of our ID. Well, not ours, but the bobcat’s.

So where would it lead us next? To a spruce tree all covered with sap . . . and fur.

Some of the hair was dark and coarse.

In other spots it was redder and softer. After much debate, and noting that it was all up and down the tree from just above snow level to at eye sight and maybe a bit above, I think we all agreed it was a bear marking tree. Bears sometimes nip and bit trees and rub their backs on them and their hair gets stuck on splinters or in this case also sap.

According to North American Bear Center: “Favorite trees have little ground vegetation to prevent a bear from approaching them, and they often lean slightly toward the trail.  Look for hair caught in the bark or wood 2 to 5 feet high and look for bites 5½ to 6½ feet high.

The hair often bleaches to brown or blond after a few months but can still be distinguished as bear hair from its length and appearance.  Guard hairs are typically coarse and 3-4 inches long and have a narrow base that may be wavy.  Bears are shedding their winter fur when much of the marking is done in spring or early summer, so the bark may also catch underfur, which is thin, wavy and shorter.”

Two feet up made sense given the snow’s depth.

You’d think that would have been enough, but again we wondered: where will the bobcat lead us?

This time it was a snapped snag and we noticed he’d walked along the top of it.

And then one among us spotted this. Brown snow and more hair. We were sure it was a kill site. Yes, as trackers we really like kill sites because they are fun to interpret and we appreciate the energy passed from one animal to another via the predator/prey relationship.

For a few minutes we took turns walking around the site trying to take in everything presented to us, including some hair that had fallen into the snag’s hollow.

I think it was the two=toned hair that helped us figure this one out. Plus the fact that there was no blood. This was a spot where the bobcat sat down, thus the rather tamped down snow that had turned brown. The warmth of his body helped to flatten it and in so sitting, some of his hair, which is black and white, got stuck, similar to what we see in deer beds at this time of freezing and warming temps. The mammals are beginning to shed their winter coats and last week we had an unusually warm day so change is in the air.

We admired his hunting spot and balance beam. And then it was time for us to leave.

But those grins remained on our faces for we were grateful we’d taken the time to see where the bobcat might lead us at GLLT’s Charles Pond Reserve today.

The Tale of the Squirrel’s Tail?

The forest behind our home has long served as my classroom and this past week has been no different.

Upon several occasions, through the doorway I stepped. My intention initially was to stalk some porcupines I’d tracked previously in hopes of finding at least one of them in a tree. But the three dens that had been active two weeks ago were empty.

Near one located almost a mile from home, however, I spied squirrel middens dotting the landscape. This was in the late afternoon of Wednesday, February 23, a day when the high temperature broke records and reached 62˚ in western Maine.

For a brief second I spied the squirrel responsible for the middens, but then it scrambled up a hemlock and disappeared from my sight.

And so I . . . I decided to try to examine its territory and exclaimed when I realized that because of the warm temperature, its tunnels had been exposed. This particular one led to one of its food storage units, a cache of hemlock cones stored under a downed tree.

Into the mix it was more than the squirrel, for I spied vole tunnels and deer prints. So here’s the thing, red squirrels tunnel through the deep snow to get to their caches. Of course, they also leap across the snow. Voles, on the other hand, are much shier of sky space because they are everyone’s favorite food. They tunnel between the ground and the snow in what’s technically called the subnivean zone and typically we don’t see their exposed runways until spring. But 62˚is like an early summer day ’round these parts. Oh, and do you see that same downed tree from the last photo? Keep it in mind, for it plays an important role in this story.

A vole’s tunnel is about an inch across and the only thing I had for a reference point was a set of keys. I was traveling light that day.

Likewise, the squirrel’s tunnel was about three inches in width.

My next move was to walk the perimeter of the squirrel activity in order to gain a better understanding of its territory. All told, it is about 30′ x 50′, and located under several tall pines and hemlocks that create a substantial canopy. On the fringe of this particular neighborhood live a few red maple and balsam fir saplings.

I had to wonder if the squirrel was still in the hemlock or had moved to a different location via its tree limb highway while I was looking down and all around.

Having figured that out, I returned to the downed tree, for not only did it serve as a food storage or cache below, but the top side was the dining table/refuse pile, aka midden. Obviously the hemlock had provided a great source of food–a good thing given that it seemed to be the only hard mast available this year.

There were other middens scattered about, but I really liked this one upon a stump, which showed the pines had at least offered a few treats not yet devoured. The thing is, red squirrels like to dine on high places, whether it be upon a downed tree, stump, or even up on a limb. That way they can see their predators approach and make a mad dash to a tunnel or up a tree trunk.

Two days later, on Friday, February 25, seven or eight inches of snow fell and again in the later afternoon I ventured into the woods to check on the squirrel’s activity. Sometimes during storms mammals hunker down but by the number of prints visible, I knew that this one hadn’t. Its tunnels had some snow in them, but the boughs above kept much of the snow from landing on the ground.

The curious thing for me was that though there was a lot of activity by the downed tree, I couldn’t locate a single midden. Even if the squirrel had been dining on a tree limb, surely some cone scales and cobs would have fallen.

It had also climbed its favorite tree, the one where I spied it on Wednesday, but again, no sign of food devoured.

After my guy and I spent the morning and early afternoon tramping four miles from home to a swamp and back, I decided to head back out to check on the squirrel while my guy went for a run. Speaking of running, as I approached the squirrel’s territory, I watched it run across the snow and zoom up the hemlock and never spied it again.

So I turned to the tree stump–it was covered with Friday’s snow, though there were tracks around the base of it. What I loved is what I’d missed on Friday–barbed wire. This was all once farmland and obviously I was standing on a boundary. It was actually a boundary for the squirrel as well, since this marked an edge of its territory.

Near the red maple saplings I found evidence of some fresh tunneling, albeit not under the snow, but through it, which is also typical. Perhaps the squirrel was dining within and had hidden its middens.

I stepped over to the downed tree and looked under in a southerly direction, curious to see barely a sign of the cache that had been so evident on the first day.

Looking north, it was more of the same.

That is . . . until it wasn’t. A hint of color captured my attention. Feathers?

No. Hair. From a red squirrel, whose hair hues can range from gray to brown to red. A fluffy tail no more. The thing is that squirrels sometimes loose their tails to predators, or even parts of the tail from a fracas during a territorial fight with one of its own. Another cause may be a tree trying to snag the tail just as speckled alder and winterberries and balsam fir tried to snag my hat repeatedly on our tramp this morning.

Even upon the downed tree . . . a little tuft. No tracks atop the tree. And no signs of feeding.

I looked around, searching for predator tracks and instead found the snow lobster instead. This was a place of squirrel and vole and deer and hare. But not a predator in sight.

And so I looked up, thinking that the hair was the result of an avian predator. My hope was to find a few strands dangling from a tree. Or some other evidence. Nothing. Oh, how I wished GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers were with me, for they are an inquisitive group and ask great questions and process the whole picture in a complete manner. Together we share a brain and I needed that sharing.

Alas, they were not, but I snatched some of the hair and will certainly share it with them in the morn.

In the meantime, that’s my tale of the squirrel’s tail. And if you have ideas or considerations, please let me know.

Happy 7th Birthday to you, wondermyway!

Seven years ago today I gave birth–rather a record at my age. It was February 21, 2015, when I welcomed wondermyway into the world. It’s been quite an adventure that we’ve shared together and one of my favorite things to do each year to celebrate is to take a look back.

As I reviewed this past year, the reality hit home. I’ve written less than half the number of posts of any other year. That all boils down to one thing. Time. There’s never enough. Oh, I’ve taken the photos, and had the adventures, but I haven’t made the time to write about all of them. Sometimes, they sit off to the side in my brain and I think I’ll use some of them together in a cumulative post, and there they sit.

That all said, I’ve had more views and visitors this past year than any other. Views = 24,955; Visitors = 16,994. Followers = 701. And over the course of wondermyway’s lifespan, the blog has received 121,765 hits.

An enormous heart-felt thanks to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. I get excited to share with you and love hearing from you.

In case you are wondering, my guy and I did have a Mondate this afternoon–along Bemis River and then up to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.

It was here at the falls that we celebrated wondermyway.com with a couple of those Bavarian Haus chocolates we purchased last Monday.

And now for a look at a few excerpts from posts I made during the past year, beginning with March 2021. To read or re-read the entire post, click on the link below each photo.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons. Somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

But . . . this spring will be different.

How so? And what invitation still stands? Click on the link under the beetle’s photo to find the answers.

Whispers Along The Trail

“The way to be heard isn’t to shout,” said the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells of St. Martins in the Fields, London. “It’s to whisper.” But who are the whisperers?

Listen for the slightest murmur of Trailing Arbutus’s delicate blossoms beneath its leathery leaves.

Hear also the soft words of a rattlesnake-plantain explaining that its striking veins may suggest “checkered,” but it actually goes by “downy” in common speak.

You’ll have to click on the link under the photo of the Trailing Arbutus flowers to hear what other species had to say.

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond. I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space.

But . . . you’ll have to click on the link under the Bald Eagle photo to figure out what our best sighting was.

The Saga of a Vernal Pool

Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all,  about the circle of life. 

A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool. 

Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days. 

Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed.

And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool. 

The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner. 

Ah, but how does the story end? Click on the link under the photo to find out.

Consumed by Cicadas

I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.

Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.

Click on the link under the photo to see the story of the Cicadas unfold.

Not Just An Insect

Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.

There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.

But why the title, “Not Just An Insect”? Ahhh, you know what you’ll need to do to find the answer.

A Collection of Mondates

Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”

The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”

The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”

We did figure it out. Over and over again. This collection happens to include places that make us happy and many of our family members and just looking back puts a smile on my face. Oh, and the selfie–taken at the same place where we went today–only in September 2021.

Beautiful Maine

A vacation loomed in front of us. Where to go? What to do?

Click on the link, Beautiful Maine, to see what surprises awaited us as we got to know our state a wee bit better.

Pondering the Past at Pondicherry Park

Before today’s deluge began, I slipped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, Maine, to fill the innermost recesses of my lungs with November air, and at the same time my brain with memories of so many people who have traveled these trails with me from Ned Allen, former executive director of Bridgton Historical Society, to Loon Echo’s Jon Evans, and Lakes Environmental Association’s Alanna Yanelli and Mary Jewett, and friends and friends and friends, including the late JoAnne Diller, Sue Black, and Jinny Mae. But today’s journey also included memories of one I took two years ago with Becky Cook, who shared her remembrances of growing up along South High Street and romping through these trails as they were part of her backyard. If anyone ever had a sense of this place, it is Becky.

This post is full of information of an historic and natural nature. Go ahead, click on the link above to learn more.

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

Click on the link to find out more about the pattern.

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

But what could good hair possibly have to do with this Mondate? You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

So how is this stuffed beaver connected to a gory story?

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Finally, settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope you’ll continue to wonder along with me as I wander through the woods.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

For those who are still with me, here’s the scoop. Last Wednesday during a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk on Groundhog Day, where shadows were the main focus, and yes, Lovell Lil, the beaver, did spy her’s and predicted six more weeks of winter, a group of us noticed a pile of feathers on the far side of a brook we snowshoed beside. (Notice how I used this photo as an intro so that those who didn’t want to deal with the aforementioned gore could exit with a beaver image in their minds?)

Here’s how it all began. First, a few of us glimpsed a large bird that we thought was an owl, fly off with something in its mouth. Though we were supposed to be looking for shadows, our nature distraction disorder (NDD being the best kind of disorder to possess) took over and we decided to walk quietly in hopes that we might spy the owl in a tree. Imagine a group of curious people on snowshoes attempting to walk quietly. But we did. Or so we thought. Until three ducks flew up out of the brook and headed in the same direction as the owl.

Shortly after, we spotted this scene and two of us decided that once the public hike ended, we’d find our way to the other side and try to decipher the story of the feathers and the blood and the slides. I was sure I knew the predator.

As we approached, we spotted wing marks at the base of a tree.

What we’d seen from the other side was the plucking station where the predator had pulled the feathers off to get to the meaty part of its avian meal.

Once the bird was plucked, then it dragged it up the hill and sat down to dine behind the tree. Do you see the circular area where the predator left an impression. I’m sure the prey was not at all impressed, though by this time it was . . . dead.

Here’s another look from the dining table down toward the plucking site and the brook below.

Of course, I need to give you a closer look–at the duck’s entrails. I often find these left behind at a kill site and wonder why. Do they not taste good? Is there some sort of bacteria that makes them indigestible? Or do they not offer any discernible nutrition?

Another body part not to be overlooked was the foot with its tendons still attached that sat on the dinner table beside the entrails. Can you see the webbing between the toes? That confirmed our ID that the prey was a duck. But who was the predator? We looked around for mammal prints and found none.

What we did find was a slide. Actually there were a couple of slides. And as I often do, I wanted to confidently say that an otter was the predator. But . . . rather than seeing otter tracks in any of the slides, there were wing marks beside them. From the duck? Or someone else?

We hunted around as we tried to decipher the story. It appeared that quite a struggle had taken place.

And no feather had gone unplucked.

The bright red blood was quite fresh and I could just imagine the pain the duck endured.

While most of the blood was at the plucking station, there was some on a small mound on the brook and again I wondered: was that where the initial attack occurred?

As I said, we found no signs of a mammal, but we did find large splatters or splays of bird feces. Birds don’t produce urine and instead excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, which emerges as a white paste for most.

Fellow tracker, Dawn, and I also found several long shots of excrement that I cannot explain, but perhaps the owl had spent some time up in the tree?

I guess by now you’ve figured out that our assumption was that the owl we saw fly off was the predator. That’s the story we’re telling anyway about how this particular duck lost its tail and its life.

But . . . think of it this way: Plants the duck fed on were primary producers who used energy from the sun to produce their own food in the form of glucose. The primary producers were eaten by the duck, a primary consumer. The duck was then eaten by the owl, a secondary consumer. Who knows how the duck’s tale will actually end because we don’t know who might eat the owl. In the midst of it all, however, energy flowed and in this case may continue to flow from one trophic level, or level of the food chain, to the next.

I know you expected a Mondate, and my guy and I did explore Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, today as I prepped for a Maine Master Naturalist field trip related to tree bark and buds, but the story of the duck and owl have been forming in my brain for a few days. And then this morning another tracker sent me this email:

Subject: Tracking Forensics:

Weird thoughts in the early morning…

I was thinking about the Tracking Tuesdays that you lead on the GLLT properties and about how similar they are to all those CSI shows – coming in a day or two after the events have occurred and trying to piece together who was there and what happened. From seemingly little information you figure out who was there, what they were doing, where the gang hangs out, and sometimes who killed whom. 

Bring in the TV cameras!

That’s when I knew I should take a chance with the blood and guts story. Nature can seem brutal, but it’s all part of the system.

Dedication: This one is for Pam and Bob Katz for leading the Shadows Hike that led us to make this discovery; for Dawn Wood who helped me interpret the site; and for Joe Scott who sent the email. Bring on the TV cameras indeed!

Snowshoeing with Gratitude

As planned, I met Pam M. at Notch View Farm in North Chatham, New Hampshire, for an afternoon adventure. This is one very special parcel of private land that abuts the White Mountain National Forest and it always has something to offer to our wondering eyes and wandering minds.

The owner had mentioned a new trail that we should follow and told me it was near the sap house. We started out from the winter trail head, but then I couldn’t remember where the sap house was located that would lead us to the new path and so we backtracked to the mailbox where maps are stored.

We followed Sap House Trail to Loop Trail and finally took a right onto Brook Trail, having passed some fox prints and lots of meandering indentations in the snow that indicated pup Sully had accompanied his owners and helped to trim branches along Brook Trail.

The brook, for whom the trail is named, was frozen and snow covered, but we imagined its sights and sounds in the months to come.

Upon a pine near the brook ornamental baubles dangled in a manner defying gravity.

And then the tracking really began, first with this critter who made us chuckle for its never ending change of direction, presumably influenced by the source of food–birch seeds being a major choice at the moment.

This critter is able to walk atop the snow because of its pectinations, or comb-like structures, that grow in the fall on the outsides of its toes and help it walk without sinking. These modified scales will fall off when spring arrives. Who is it? We know it locally as a ruffed grouse.

Another, whom moons ago we were told was a true hibernator, has over recent years made us realize it leaves its underground den upon occasion during the winter and a recent day was one such for the chipmunk made a couple of short excursions and left behind its own impressions.

And then we followed another critter off trail (don’t tell) and up a steep incline, questioning its identification all the way. By the two smaller feet in the group of four that landed on a diagonal and the two larger hind feet that landed on a parallel line above the front, I was 85% sure I knew the creator–but why were the hind feet breaking through the snow.

That said, the ruffed grouse’s trail intersected what I thought to be that of a snowshoe hare.

Another critter that was surely a predator also followed the trail of the bird and though I didn’t photograph it, perhaps because I couldn’t get a good read on it, I followed to see where it might lead. The snow is such that it’s quite fluffy and so deeper impressions are messy to read at best.

Unfortunately, the grouse met its demise and all that was left were some scattered feathers.

In these situations, I always remind myself that energy has been passed through the system from one critter to another.

Pam had gone in a different direction following the predator trail and eventually we reconnected, both frustrated with a lack of ID, so we decided to return to Brook Trail and see what else we might find.

Snowshoe hares are abundant this year and we gave thanks to this one because not only did it share some clear prints, and scat, but it also offered a few groups of tracks where those larger hind feet made deeper impressions and it made us think that on the steep incline what we were looking at was a hare leaping upward, its hind feet sinking with the force of acceleration and landing with the same force.

Eventually we reached Moose Alley, a perennial favorite.

Today, however, though we sought evidence of the one for whom the trail was named, all we found were more of the same: hare, mystery predator, and Sully prints.

But, we also spotted benches in several places including at Moose Bog, a cascade, and another spot overlooking the Baldfaces, best viewed when the leaves are off in this season.

At the intersection with Boulder Loop, of course we followed it.

And then, and then, by the boulders, some oversized impressions. Man or beast?

Though filled with a bit of snow, the extra-large and super deep dumbbell shape bespoke the creator, its foot entering the snow, ankle moving forward, and then hoof, yes, hoof exiting. We had found our moose.

Actually, it was more than one moose and they climbed up, circled around as they browsed and then journeyed back down to Boulder Loop. We did the same, though looking a bit beyond in the woods in hopes of finding more of their action. Instead we found trails created by their deer cousins and red squirrels.

We, too, headed back to Boulder Loop, and then Pam spotted another red squirrel feeding spot, where it sat upon what was probably a tree stump and dined on a hemlock cone, seeking the two tiny seeds tucked under each scale. What it left behind was a midden or garbage heap of scales and cobs and even a few seeds. But . . . there was more.

This was possibly one of the greatest finds of the day–red squirrel scat.

After exclaiming over the squirrel scat, we made our way back to Moose Alley, diverted to Sugarbush Trail and eventually walked along the edge of Route 113 in front of the farm house on our way to our vehicles.

Though our journey was over, no visit to Notch View Farm is complete without taking time to admire the Norwegian Fjord Horses who live here.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that their owner was trying to trim their manes. She was successful with twenty-year-old Marta.

We suspected six-year-old Kristoff was thankful we showed up for he was momentarily saved from a trimming as the owner walked across the paddock to greet us.

We were so glad she took a break for it gave us a time to thank Becky (and her husband Jim) for sharing their land, carving out trails, and allowing people like us to wander and wonder any day of the year. It’s a lot of work involved, but in listening to Becky’s stories of creating trails, building benches, enjoying wildlife, we know it’s an act of love. And then there were the tales of the horses and their escapades, including a recent escape, which helped us make sense of some scat that we first thought was moose, but then suspected horse.

To Becky and Jim, Marta and Kristoff, and Sully, we once again snowshoed with gratitude and thank all of you for caring for the land as you do and making such great efforts to share it with all of us.

P.S. Thank you also to Pam and Bob K. for introducing us to this property a few years ago.

Ever A Sense Of Wonder

I thought I was losing it. Wonder, that is. I’ve hiked or walked many miles, taken thousands of photos, but haven’t been overly wowed by much lately.

This weekend, though, that all changed.

Maybe it was the fact that a friend and I spent a bluebird, yet brisk Saturday snowshoeing many miles as we tracked a couple of local mammals.

There were porcupine dens to explore. Well, not actually crawl into because we didn’t know who might decide to crawl out. We discovered two new ones that were obviously in use, but visited this older stump dump and found no one at home. Why? It had all the makings of a nice condo. Lots of room available, hemlocks growing right out the back door, beside a field with other offerings for a summer diet. Don’t you just want to move in?

We did discover other abodes that showed signs of life with tracks leading to the inner chambers.

How many inner chambers was the next question. Atop this much larger stump dump we counted at least seven holes coated with hoar frost around the edges–leading us to believe someone was breathing within. Did that mean there were seven porcupines living in this den? Do you know what a group of porcupines who share the same winter den, but sleep in their own bedrooms, is called? A prickle of porcupines. Don’t you love that?

By the amount of tracks, we couldn’t tell how many actually lived there, but in the fresh layer of snow we did note that at least one had gone outside to eat the previous night for we followed its tracks for a bit.

It also had visited another den, and by the amount of scat, it was obvious that this wasn’t the first day in a new house.

The porcupines weren’t the only ones we were interested in. For miles and hours, we also tracked a bobcat who’d paid a visit the previous night. Would we find evidence of what it had eaten? A kill site where a prey was attacked? Scat?

We knew by the fact that the bobcat track was atop the turkey prints that this bird lived to see another day.

The same was true for the squirrels that managed to avoid being consumed by the predator overnight as they huddled somewhere close by. But the bobcat apparently didn’t catch a whiff of their scent, though the former did check out holes by stumps and snags.

Sometimes we noticed that the cat picked up speed and we were sure we’d find the reason.

And then . . . and then it would pause and we did too. When the bobcat led us back out to the road we’d traveled on, and crossed to the other side, we knew our time with it had come to an end but enjoyed the journey, though still had questions. Did we miss a kill/feeding site?

We had noted an abundance of food available, much of it in the form of the squirrel or hare. This is my snow lobster, as I’ve mentioned in the past and love how the front feet, being the smaller two prints, land on a diagonal and form the lobster’s tail, while as they lift up to leap forward, the hind feet land in such a way that they appear in the front of the set to form the lobster’s claws. And I’m reminded that for ground dwellers like the hare, the front two feet tend to land on a diagonal, while for tree dwellers like the squirrels, whose front feet also appear smaller and at the back of the set of prints, are most often parallel.

That was yesterday. Today dawned with a sleet storm. When I ventured out the back door this afternoon, I noticed again an abundance of hare prints, these the larger set in the photo while the smaller ones belong to a red squirrel. When I said an abundance of food, these are two of the many choices and this year the hare is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I find it hopping through communities I’ve not seen it in the recent past. Certainly the bobcat of yesterday will or did find one–we just didn’t stumble upon it.

After spending so much time tracking, a favorite winter activity of mine, I finally turned my focus to trees, another passion. I was actually looking for insects, but fell for this solid droplet of balsam resin that looked rather like a bug. I would love to see the colors of the dribble repeated in yarn.

Then there was the ice that mimicked the shield lichen attached to a branch of the fir.

At last I did find an insect. Well, at least the left-behind structure of a sawfly–where it had pupated and then once ready to emerge, cut its perfect circular escape hatch. How to remember this insect: think of it as a circular saw-fly.

And attached atop the pupating case–what looked like another insect pupating. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to name its species, but I thrilled in spotting it.

Bark is cool, but especially when you begin to notice all the idiosyncrasies of life upon it, such as the fruiting disks of a couple of crustose lichens, but one of my favs is the braid-like formation of the liverwort Frullania. It has brown leaves divided into two lobes. Liverworts are cool because they are flowerless and lack roots and reproduce via spores. Frullania is abundant upon bark, but unless you slow down and look, you may not ever spy its spiderwebby structure.

Speaking of spying, yesterday’s brilliant sun shone upon the hairy twigs of paper birch, another sight easy to overlook.

Today’s natural community found me tramping through an area where gray birch, with their bumpy, hairless twigs, grow.

How did these two members of the same family develop such differences? I think about that and how it is true of all in the natural world. Maybe the hairs don’t appear in exactly the same line-up and the bumps are more or less bumpy on another twig, but they all are variations on the same theme. Mammals are like that as well. And flowers. And ferns . . . and well, everything. We can learn to ID them because generally they share the same characteristics from one dandelion to the next. But . . . what about us? As humans, there are familial similarities, but very few of us look exactly like another. Though perhaps somewhere in the world we all have a twin we’ve yet to meet. Alas, I’ve rambled on enough.

It all boils down to the bush clover–a species my friend Pam and I first met at Brownfield Bog a couple of falls ago and recognized almost immediately when we discovered it in a field in Stow, Maine, before encountering our first porcupine condo yesterday. Today, she informed me in a text message that a year ago we met it in the same field, and we shared a chuckle that neither of us had a memory of that moment. Uh oh.

But I was reminded this morning that it’s important to go forth with a child-like attitude, finding awe in all that we see and encounter and I realized then that I’ve been too busy lately to slow down and really look.

Here’s hoping I can ever renew and enjoy that sense of wonder and that you can as well.

Knowing My Place

I planned to accomplish so many things since I had time off this past week. And I did check a couple of items off my list, but . . . most of my time was spent wandering and wondering in the woods behind our house.

Sometimes I followed trails known only by those who like to zoom through this space and never really see.

Other days I bushwhacked, eager to discover what might present itself.

Always I was reminded that this has long been my classroom and its taught me many a lesson, including that the bracts of the Witch Hazel flower persist in the winter and offer a dash of color in the landscape. Notice how each flower consisted of four bracts that curl back. The ribbony flowers fell off in the fall. And I have to admit that there was a time when I thought these were the flowers.

While bushwhacking, debris on the snow drew my attention and of course I had to investigate.

Much to my delight, I found a couple of Pileated Woodpecker scats filled with insect bodies. And notice all the chiseled wood–it’s a lot of work, but I’m always happy to note via the scat that the attempt was successful.

Equally successful was the digging of a Red Squirrel who had cached a pile of hemlock cones and returned within the last few days to dine and leave behind a midden of cone scales–its garbage pile.

This is a truly wild place that serves as home to so many mammals and birds and I give thanks to them for leaving behind prints and other signs of their presence. Of course, I was looking for the resident Moose, who has eluded me so far, but the White-tailed Deer are everywhere, including sucking seed from our bird feeders every night.

The Turkeys haven’t discovered our feeders yet, but by their prolific tracks I know they are nearby.

I’ve also been noting many, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, some in places I don’t recall seeing them previously and methinks there is plenty of prey available for predators. One of the learnings these woods have offered is that the hare’s prints can throw one off on ID, especially when the snow is soft and its hind feet (top of photo as they always land in front of where the front feet landed and lifted off) spread out and leave more toe impressions than one typically sees.

Of course, no visit to these woods is complete without a check-in at the vernal pool. And this week I discovered two other pools to check on in the spring. But those are for another day three months away.

For all my wandering, actually spying wildlife is rather rare, but from inside our kitchen door sometimes we see so much. Every few nights a porcupine pays us a visit. And every night four healthy looking deer stop by as I said earlier. But on these stormy days, the feeders see the most action and today’s visitors included Tufted Titmice,

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

Eventually, this male flew to the ground and dug in, much like the Red Squirrel in the woods.

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

And his Mrs. came by as well. One day we actually spotted two Cardinal couples in the yard.

One of the joys of the feeders is that those who visit add color to the scene and it soon became apparent that red was the color of the day, this time with the spots on the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head indicating it was a male.

Another male of another species also showed off his red coloration.

I was tickled to welcome a couple of House Finches. And do you see the deer hair on the snow to the upper right of his beak?

It’s that time of year when the Juncos also pay a visit and keep the red theme going with their pink beaks.

Not all birds are created equal or don’t tell the Gray Squirrel he’s not a bird because like the deer and porcupine, he’s sure that the seed and nuts are meant for his pleasure. Certainly.

This was my week, a week spent happily dilly-dallying in my place and giving thanks for past and present and future lessons. A week spent wondering and wandering alone. And it was topped off with this icy sculpture in the woods that reminded me of a bird’s head–it seemed apropos, but I did have to wonder how it formed. Ahhhh, not all is meant to be understood in this school of choice.

How well do you know your place?

Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.

Mary

Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.

My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.

And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.

Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:

  • Gap in the overstory
  • Trees over 30 feet tall
  • Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
  • Water
  • Some age variety
  • Snags over 6 feet tall
  • Large downed wood

I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.

But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.

I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.

There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.

Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.

I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.

After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.

But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.

In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.

A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.

And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.

Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?

In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.

My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.

Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.

And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.

Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?

But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.

Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!

Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.

And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.

Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.

It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.

Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.

With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.

The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.

As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!

Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

And so I began by walking slowly and breathing deeply as I followed the labyrinth in and out.

Eventually I met an old friend who shouted with glee that I had stopped by.

Behind said friend, her age lines were revealed and it was obvious that from time to time she’d hosted a variety of others who ate at her inner core in such a manner that her death provided a means for their life.

Similarly, her sibling showed off his own marks of healing and growing.

And then I moved into a different neighborhood, this one a conifer stand, where an obvious meal had been interrupted and I wondered why.

Upon another rock, another midden indicated an earlier meal consumed, perhaps in a safer place as maybe the barbed wire added some safety.

And then I saw them. Prints that is. Impressions in the snow. Created by not one, but two coyotes. Why did they change direction?

By the hair-filled scat one of them had left not long ago on another rock along the wall it was obvious they’d been here before.

A few steps more and I knew why. I’d discovered the crossroads–that intersection of life where red squirrel headed left, snowshoe hare in the same direction as my boots, and the coyotes circled about.

The red squirrel survived. This I know because it left fresh prints that led to a hemlock stand where, though I couldn’t see it, it scolded me from high above. Or perhaps it was telling me a tale of its heroic adventures to outwit the coyotes.

The coyotes’ trail indicated they’d moved north. The snowshoe hare? I’m not sure where it went.

As for me? I returned home to enjoy this gift I received from dear friends that now graces our kitchen wall. It was fun naming all the ornaments they’d bestowed upon the wreath from Northern White Cedar leaves to Evening Primrose, lichens, sensitive fern spores, an acorn, a hemlock cone, and Queen Anne’s lace in its winter form.

Taken all together, today’s adventure followed the circle of life and the circle of friends from trees to woodland critters to givers of the wreath. I am grateful for all.

What’s To Come Mondate

Perhaps we’re getting smarter in our old age. Or maybe luck just happened to be on our side today. The thing is . . . we remembered to pack our micro-spikes–a first for this season.

Our intended hike: Kearsarge North off Hurricane Mountain Road just beyond North Conway, New Hampshire. The Fire Tower was our destination at 3.1 miles and while the conditions looked clear yet wet from the trailhead, we suspected we’d discover otherwise after about two miles.

It’s a steep hike with roots and rocks for those first two miles and then the trail transitions to granite ledge. So no matter what, if one wants to look up, one needs to pause. Otherwise, at least for us, we developed hiker’s neck, the exact opposite of spring’s warbler neck.

But . . . when one looks down, one sees some fun stuff like this frothy collection, an interaction of water friction and air. Tiny bubbles . . . make me happy, make me feel fine.

The bright yellow of a slime mold also captured my attention until I realized it was actually trailblazefungusamongus.

A look up and I knew exactly from whence it sprouted.

Another sweet find was a small patch of Pipsissewa, their leaves evergreen, and buds already formed for next summer. Scientifically known as Chimaphila umbellata, it’s a native wildflower of the Pyrola family that blooms in July.

As we continued to climb, we encountered one hiker on his way down and asked him about the conditions for the rest of the way. He informed us that there was snow but not so much ice, which we’ve encountered on this steep trail in the past.

And then we met it! Another first for this season. SNOW!!!!

It just got prettier and prettier the higher we climbed. That said, conditions were slippery underfoot than the first hiker stated and we encountered another hiker descending in sneakers who struggled to stay upright.

Yet another first, for where there is snow, there are tracks–those of our fellow hikers, but also of the wild mammals with whom we shared the space and I couldn’t help but smile at these left behind by a Red Squirrel. Let the tracking season begin.

As the conditions underfoot got a tad bit rougher, I chose to put on my spikes for the final quarter mile, which happens to be the longest quarter mile in the world.

I didn’t realize until we got home that I never took any photos of the trail once conditions worsened until we reached the summit, and the same on the way down because I was so focused on placing one foot in the right spot before choosing where to put the other foot.

But . . . none of that mattered when we reached the summit. This was once the sight of an inn that was destroyed by storms. In the early 1900s the fire tower was erected, rebuilt in the 1950s and manned until the late ’60s. Today, hikers can get out of the wind and take in the 360˚ views.

Do you see my guy on the stairs?

From the deck surrounding the tower, one can look toward Upper Kimball Pond in Chatham, NH, and on to the ridge line of our Pleasant Mountain in western Maine.

Or below to North Conway.

Or beyond to the White Mountains.

But the best part is stepping inside to sign the guest book, eat a late lunch, and enjoy the views without the wind.

We didn’t stay long because it was late and we could see precipitation in the offing. And both donned our spikes once we got to the base of the tower.

Lowering by the moment, the sun occasionally glowed upon the trail as we descended. Eventually, it disappeared completely and felt like someone had turned off the light as it gets dark early in the mountains. About halfway down it began to sleet.

All that said, two things came to mind. As much as I fret while climbing up because I dread what the hike down will be like (if only I could just hike upward and meet either an elevator or helicopter at the top–in a perfect world), that descent is always much easier, even when it’s as technical as today’s difficult hike, than my brain imagined. Of course, the spikes and a hiking pole were huge aids.

And as my guy said when we started to see snow on the trail and trees, “This is what’s to come.” Indeed.

When we reached home I saw an email from a friend that included this line: “Your favorite season is coming.” Yes, Karen Herold, it is!

And today we got a glimpse of it. Let it snow!

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .

and not so deep moose tracks . . .

to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.

But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.

As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.

The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.

And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.

But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.

I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.

I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.

I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .

and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .

and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.

But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.

The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.

“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.

Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.

As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .

including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.

The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.

Tail-end Greetings

Despite a frigid temp and wind chill in the negative numbers, today was a day to head out the door and check on an old friend or two. I wasn’t sure I’d find either, but since so many work from home these days it was worth taking a chance.

Two years ago there was evidence that the first had spent some time sleeping in the den, but on that day, though I knocked and knocked, no one answered the door.

This morning, however, I spotted the family name hanging on a shingle right by the front door and suspected a greeting in my future.

Beads of sap accessorized a brand new tapestry of grooves that spelled out Erethizon dorsatum, aka North American Porcupine. And my heart began to sing. Maybe. Just maybe.

To the front door I again ventured. And noted that familiar pattern of tracks on the welcome mat. Maybe. Just maybe.

My heart stilled. After years of stalking a variety of porcupines, this was a first for me–to actually spy one within its winter den. And in so doing, I garnered a keen look at its quill-covered backside and tail. 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 as you can see in the mix here.

We visited for a bit, but I soon realized our conversation was one-sided–me asking questions and answering for my friend who slept quietly in hopes of gathering energy for a night-time feeding frenzy.

Eventually, I moved along the trail, that is until I noted where my friend, or one of its kin, had crossed and descended down the steep ledge, a path I chose not to take.

Turning in the opposite direction, I decided instead to follow a track which turned into an intersection of roadways–all created by my friend.

Step into the living room as I did today. By the dropped hemlock twigs, I recognized the carpet design on the floor.

Angle-nipped twigs were part of the room’s wall decorations.

Dribbles of pee, and there were lots of them, added to the aura, some of it a few days old.

Other samples were more recently shared.

And scattered among it all, like dust-bunnies in any room . . . SCAT!

Upon a hemlock frequently visited for that’s what porcupines do, frequent the same tree year in and year out that is, I spied claw marks indicating the staircase upon the uneven bark substrate.

And so it was that because I was in the vicinity, I decided to check on my other friend who lives about a tenth of a mile away. The last time I visited in November 2020, it was obvious that my pal had been by, though I couldn’t say exactly the last time this bedroom had been used.

Spotting a track in the right locale, I decided to see where it might lead.

Bingo. Tracks and even a few scats led to a small opening below the boulder.

Like with my other friend, on hands and knees I went and was well rewarded.

Notice how porky friend one and two both had their tails facing out–a defensive move incase a predator shows up and needs a little needling to remind it of who is boss. But . . . being a friend, I felt honored to be able to spend a few minutes with each–neither of us disturbed by the other.

Having spent that time with those two friends, I did feel a bit of porcupine greed and went in search of several other friends located in different areas. I really wanted an eye-to-eye meeting like this one in January, but still . . . today I was blessed with a tail-end greeting of my porky friends and who can complain about such?

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

It’s hard to believe that six years ago I gave birth to wondermyway as a means to record the natural world and all I met along the way.

There’s no need in reminding everyone that since last February it has been quite a year, but I have to say that I’m especially grateful to live where I do, in a place where I CAN wander and wonder on a regular basis.

As I look back through posts of these expeditions, I realize how often nature presents itself in such a way that moments of awe make everything else going on in the world seem so foreign. If only everyone could whisper to a dragonfly upon his or her hand; watch a cicada emerge from its larval form; and even appreciate a snake or two or three.

Join me for a look back at some of my favorite natural encounters of the past year. If you want to remember a particular adventure, click the titled link below each photo.

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

We’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Under the Bubbles

Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.

In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that your bubble is attached to so many others as you share a brain.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun. And birds. And dragonflies.

I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he? He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose. The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

Marvels of the Meadow

“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.

Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by mid-afternoon. But our bug eyes were wide open. In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape 
upon stones that memorialize the past...

On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas. 

Frog Alley

I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.

But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”

No way.

After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three.

Crowning Glory

The theme of the week didn’t dawn on me immediately, but a few days into it and I knew how blessed I am.

It was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life are from our sons whom I can chat with on the phone to those who have chosen to make this area of western Maine their home and to get to know their place in it. And then to go beyond and share it in a way that benefits the wider community.

Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent, and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.

We are all blessed. Today we crowed Hadley, and in so doing, gloried so many others.

Making Sense of Scents

Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement caught my attention.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.

Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.

For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.

For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.

All In A Day’s Walk

My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.

First there was the porcupine den, then a beaver tree, and along the way a fungi.

My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?

Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.

My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine. Because of the temp, the day offered some incredible wonders.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sharp Observation

I was early–a rare occasion as usually I’m the one who arrives at least ten minutes after the agreed upon time. It wasn’t always that way, but has become a bad habit. That said, it was a creature of habit that I went in search of because I had some time to spare.

He was up there enjoying the cambium layer of the bark as witnessed by the goldeny color of the branch by his feet. All those downed twigs–apparently they were in his way so he nipped them off and dropped them to the ground in order to get to the nutrients he sought for his winter diet.

Check out his eye. We were both sharp observers as we eyed each other from a distance.

Ghost of the North Woods

For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.

After finding so many signs year after year, today . . . today I spied an uprooted tree at the very spot I thought might be a good place to stop and spend a few hours in silence. As I made plans to do such in the near future, the tree moved.

And transformed into you!

When at last you and your youngster departed, despite your sizes, it was as if you walked through the forest in silence. My every move comes with a sound like a bull in a china shop, but you . . . Alces alces, you weigh over one thousand pounds, stand six feet at your shoulder, and move through the forest like a ghost. For that reason and because you let me spend some time with you today, February 11 will henceforth mark the day that I celebrate the Ghost of the North Woods.

Thank you to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. With each learning or sighting, I get excited and can’t wait to share it with you. I’m not only grateful to be able to wander and wonder, but I’m also thankful for all of you who take the time to read these posts.