The Happy Fox Trot

I know. I know. I should have taken the bird feeders down two months ago. But I blame it on My Guy because he keeps bringing damaged bags of bird seed home. And because of that, we’ve actually had a delightful time watching all the action at the feeders and below where I scatter plenty of seed on the ground so others can partake.

A pair of Northern Cardinals are the most frequent visitors, and lately he’s taken to making sure she’s well fed. Often she sits and waits rather than helping herself, taking notes on the kind of parent he will be to their offspring.

Chipping Sparrows have also participated in courtship feeding, and just maybe this behavior also strengthens the bond between the two genders.

He did look at me as if to say, “Hey, this is between the two of us. Skedaddle.” And I eventually did disappear.

But when I looked again, I spotted an Eastern Chipmunk filling its cheeks. While this is common behavior, what wasn’t quite so common is that fact that most of its tail was missing. Had a fight occurred or did it narrowly escape becoming a meal?

I’ll never know. Among the most frequent mammal visitors are the Gray Squirrels. And they, along with the Red Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks have learned where we store the seed in the barn and no matter how many times we think we’ve outfoxed them, we soon discover that they’ve been chewing again. We’re now using small metal trash cans, but knowing the prowess of these critters, I doubt we’ve won this battle. And keeping them out of the barn is impossible because it’s an old barn with lots of secret passageways, some that I’m sure we’re not aware of . . . yet.

Some days there are five or six Gray Squirrels foraging for seeds and looking as if they own the place. I suppose they do. We’re merely itinerate tenants and we give thanks that they let us live here.

Oh, and then there’s the neighborhood fox. We haven’t discovered the den yet, but every morning we can expect two or three visits. If it isn’t successful at sneaking up on one of the other critters, and squirrels and chipmunks can outrun a fox, it, too, dines on some seeds.

And then pauses to lick its chops.

But what the fox really wants is a more substantial meal and I suspect it has kits nearby that need feeding.

Unfortunately for the fox, sometimes the American Crows announce its presence and all the little critters run up trees or fly away.

Soon, however, they return. And begin to forage again.

And from high positions, they’ll take a break, and actually pull seeds out of those puffed-up cheeks in order to dine.

And so this morning dawned with a light rain, and just as our Red Fox walked in front of the stones by the garden, I saw a flash of brown run across the flatter rock. R.F. jumped up, looked around, jumped down and gave chase. The fox was unsuccessful.

But that didn’t stop it from returning and though the crows didn’t alert us, the squeal of a Gray Squirrel made us raise our heads and look out the back door.

Breakfast had been secured and the last we saw of the fox, it was trotting away with a meal in its mouth.

The Happy Fox Trot indeed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Thanks to Evan Miller at Lake Region Television, wondermyway is on TV once again. For this program, Evan added music by pianist Abbey Simon.

Settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII

Clicking on the photo won’t pull up the video, so be sure to click on the link above the photo.

May this bring you some moments of well being and peace.

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. Our hats are off to Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) for her willingness to be the lead on this project and work in collaboration with us. Alanna, you see, has conducted previous surveys for Maine Inland Wildlife & Fisheries (MDIFW) at LEA properties, and was trained by wildlife biologist Derek Yorks to set these up.

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.

Each trap was given a number to identify on subsequent days, and all were marked with waypoints on a GPS map of the area. The traps were designed so critters could get in from either end without harm, but could not escape . . . until we recorded them and set them free, that is. An empty water bottle helped each trap stay partially afloat, thus allowing any captured turtle an opportunity to surface for air since unlike fish, they don’t have gills. And each trap was baited with a can of sardines in soybean oil, opened just a tad to release the oil, but not enough for the critters to eat the fish. That was the messy . . . and stinky part of the task. But I swear my hands and wrists currently are less wrinkled than the rest of my arms.

As Alanna on the right, showed GLLT’s Executive Director Erika Rowland, on the left, and me on day 2, the information we needed to collect included air temp at the beginning of each set of five traps, water temp at every trap, plus we had to document turtle species and any bycatch. And if we moved traps, which we ended up doing a day or two later, we needed to note that as well, and remember to change the location on GLLT’s iPad.

We felt skunked at first, because a bunch of our traps were empty, but soon learned that every day would be different. Our first painted turtle, however, was a reason to celebrate.

In no time, it became routine, and GLLT’s Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau, Erika, and I took turns sharing the tasks of the daily trips. If it sounds like a hardship, it was not.

Even GLLT’s Office Manager, Alice Bragg, had an opportunity to spend time checking traps with us and taking the water temperature.

With confidence that we knew what we were doing, well, sorta knew, we invited all volunteer docents and board members to get in on the fun. Of course, my email to them mentioned the stinky soybean oil and feisty mosquitoes, but that did not deter. Often, if something was in the trap it would wiggle upon our approach, but sometimes, as Pam Marshall learned, it wasn’t until you picked it up to check, that the real action began.

A hornpout, aka brown bullhead, started flipping around and there was a moment of surprise.

I knew nothing about freshwater fish at the beginning of the survey, and still don’t know a lot, but am learning. Hornpouts are native catfish who come out at night to feed, vacuuming up worms, fish and fish eggs, insects, leeches, plants, crustaceans, frogs–you name it.

They have a thick rounded body, and a broad, somewhat flattened head with a distinctive set of “whiskers” around the mouth called barbels, which they use to find prey. Their fins have sharp saw tooth spines that can be locked in an erect position as we soon learned and wearing gloves was the best way to try to pull one out if the release zipper on the net wasn’t working. With no scales on their skin, they were a bit slippery, but we managed.

On another day, when volunteers Pippi and Peter Ellison and I had to wait out a fast-moving rain storm that initally left us soaked and chilled, the first catch of the day was a water scorpion. At the time, I kept calling it a walking stick, because it does resemble one. But this is an aquatic insect. It’s not a true scorpion, despite its looks. It uses its front pincer-like legs to catch its prey. And its tail actually acts as a kind of snorkel, rather than a sting, allowing it to breathe in the water.

Once the rain stopped, the Ellisons and I carried on and they were well rewarded. All told, they released the biggest variety of species from this small snapping turtle, to several painted turtles, a crayfish, and several fish species.

In the very last trap, Pippi also pulled out a giant water beetle.

On another day, one of Bob Katz’s finds was a freshwater snail. Thankfully, it was not the large, invasive Chinese Mystery Snail, but rather one of the 34 natives.

As was often the case, teamwork played a huge role in the process of removal of not only the species, but also the stinky sardine cans that were replaced with fresh ones every other day. That didn’t stop Joan Lundin from smiling about the chores to be completed on a super hot day when the air temp hit 90˚.

While some days were downright cold or windy, and whitecaps made crossing the pond a real challenge, others offered calm waters and Basil Dixon and Bruce Taylor joined Rhyan and me for one of the latter.

Up Cold River, much to our surprise, Basil hoisted out a trap filled with four hornpouts.

They waited impatiently for a photo call and release and in moments were on their way.

At the very next trap, Bruce discovered four as well, this time all being painted turtles.

They looked as grumpy as the hornpouts, but who could blame them. Painted turtles are common throughout Maine and in fact, the most wide-spread native turtle of North America. This colorful turtle’s skin ranges from olive to black with red, orange, or yellow stripes on its extremities.

Each time we went out, I prayed we wouldn’t find a large snapping turtle in the trap and that if we did, Rhyan would be with me. Several times, we had to replace traps because big snappers had torn the mesh, and twice we released small snappers, one feistier than the other. On the very last day when we were pulling the traps out because the study was drawing to a close, as luck would have it, Rhyan was with me and we caught not the biggest snapper we’ve ever seen, but still one of decent size.

Notice the plastron, or bottom shell, and you can actually see the bridges that connect it to the much larger top shell or carapace. The zipper on this particular trap had been sewn shut because apparently in a previous study another snapper had torn it, but Rhyan carefully unstitched it to let the turtle swim free.

So, the thing about visiting the same place on a regular basis, is that you get to know so many of the community members, such as the six-spotted tiger beetles who chose that very moment to move rapidly across leaves and rocks by the pond’s edge as they mated. Their large eyes, long legs and sickle-shaped mandibles are characteristic of these metallic green beetles. Usually, however, I can’t get close for a photo because like some dragonflies, as soon as I take a step, they fly ahead a few feet and land until my next step. I was grateful that canoodling slowed them down at least a tad.

Did I mention dragonflies? Each day more exuviae were added to the stems and leaves of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Though fragile, the casts of exoskeletons retain the exact shape of the full grown nymph. You might think of it as a kind of death mask for that previous aquatic stage of life. In each exuvia there’s a hole located behind the head and between the wing pads where the adult dragonfly emerged, literally crawling out of itself. The white threads that dangle from this exit hole are the tracheal tubes.

For a couple of hours after we’d finished the survey on the day Pam was with me, we watched this dragonfly that for some reason could not completely escape its larval form. It was obvious by its coloration and body/wing formation that it had been trying for quite a while to free itself–there was still life in it as we watched it move its legs and wings, but we didn’t interfere (though a part of us regretted that) and the next day I discovered it in the same position, but lifeless. Two days later, it was gone and I had to hope a bird had a good meal.

Speaking of birds, we saw them and delighted in listening to them, like this yellow warbler, and herons, osprey, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one lonely loon, and even a hummingbird.

But 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. As you can see by the context of this photo, Rhyan and I weren’t far from him at all.

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

On the sandbar below, stood a sandpiper.

At last, however, the eagle flew, the sandpiper didn’t become a meal, and we watched as the bigger bird landed in a pine where we’ve spotted it before. We still had two more traps to attend to that day, and both were located below the eagle’s perch, but it left us alone.

The smallest birds that delighted us we heard first for they were constantly begging for a meal. All of the first week, we knew they were there by their sweet peeps, but it wasn’t until the second week that we began to spy them. And their demands for food began to sound louder and more adult-like. Unfortunately, the excavated hole used as a nest, was located in a spot where the afternoon sun made it difficult to see, but again on that last day the Kodak moment arrived.

Turtles, too, entertained us not only from the traps, but from their much happier places, basking on rocks or fallen logs. Typically, they slid off the substrate as soon as we approached, but this one actually let us pass by as it remained in place.

Because the water was shallow and clear, occasionally we spied one swimming below. Erika and Rhyan also paddled over one large snapper on a day I wasn’t out for the survey, but our snapping turtle finds tended to be on the smaller side–thankfully.

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 . . .

as we paddled the canoe across the pond, Rhyan spied the young bull moose first. We’d seen moose tracks on the road way and every day hoped today might be the day. At last it was.

For a few minutes we sat and watched as he dined upon vegetation.

He seemed not bothered by our presence; mind you we were farther away than appears.

For a while, he browsed in one area, and then began to walk along the edge. And we gave thanks that the stars were aligned, but felt bad that one more volunteer, Moira Yip, who was supposed to be with us, hadn’t been able to make it.

Finally, the moose stepped out of the water and we knew our time together was coming to a close.

He gave one sideways glance and we said our goodbyes.

And then he disappeared from Charles Pond for the moment, and so did we.

What an incredible two weeks it was as we surveyed the wildlife of Charles Pond. Many thanks to Erika and Rhyan, to all of the volunteers who joined us (including Nancy and Brian Hammond who went on a day that I wasn’t present) and especially to LEA’s Alanna, and MDIFW’s Derek Yorks for letting us complete this assessment.

It was an honor and a privilege to be part of this project.

Ho Hum Mondate

Today’s adventure began earlier than most because we hoped to beat the snowstorm and so over bumpy roads did we travel to an old favorite. Actually, it’s a favorite we haven’t visited in at least a year because on one approach there were so many cars parked along the roadway that we knew the trails would be crowded so we found a spot to turn around and skedaddled out of there. And with the overcrowding of trails in mind, we’ve spent a lot of time finding the those less traveled, and not always mentioning our location. But . . . finally, we returned to this one.

One of the reasons I love the winter trek is that the road upon which everyone parks from spring through fall isn’t plowed, so one must walk in. And do what I always do–check the telephone poles for bear hair.

Whether it’s the creosote on the pole, the hum of electricity riddling high above on the wires, or something new and shiny in their territory, bears are attracted and rub their backs against the object as they turn their heads to nip and bite. The jagged horizontal lines speak to the upper incisors scraping the wood as they reach toward the lower incisors. And the shiny numbers that marked the pole–all that is left is a notation in the power company’s data base.

The thing is: we always check the poles along this stretch when we hike in on the road. And we’re always rewarded for our efforts. Do note the color of the hair–bleached by the sun, a Black Bear’s hair turns ginger.

Almost a mile in we reached the starting point for our expedition as a few flurries fluttered from the sky. Much but not all of the Stone House property is conserved under an easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust.

Our plan was to continue down the road, then turn right onto the Shell Pond Trail system.

All along the road we’d noted tracks galore of mice, squirrels, hares, foxes, fishers, coyotes and weasels.

The snow was well packed, but we weren’t sure that would be the case when we turned onto the intended trail.

It was, and so having donned our micro-cleats, and carried our snowshoes, we decided to ditch the latter behind a tree. And crossing over the trail at said tree, a bobcat track, complete with a classic segmented bobcat scat. Did I mention that we almost always encounter bobcat tracks here and that we often store our snowshoes, deciding that we should be just fine without them?

At the first bridge, we paused and I hoped against hope we’d see signs of an otter. Or even the real deal.

No such luck, but there was a mink track by the edge of the water. It’s often one or the other that we expect to see here.

Ditching the snowshoes, like always proved to be a good idea as our progress was much quieter (and quicker–but then again, any hike with my guy is rather on the quick side no matter the distance). Only occasionally did we punch holes into the snow.

On a couple of occasions my post-holing was intentional for I spied woodpecker trees.

The debris below each meant the bird had spent a lot of time excavating.

And the depth of the excavations meant it must have found delightful little carpenter ants and maybe some beetles to dine upon. What do I always do when I see such a refuse pile? Examine it for scat, of course. At the first tree, I found none and worried that either the bird had gone hungry or was constipated.

I was just about to stomp back to the trail after looking about below the second tree when the pièce de résistance caught my attention. The bird wasn’t starving and didn’t have digestive issues after all.

And then there’s another tree that begs to be honored with each passing and so we always do. Today the burl gave us the feeling that we might be passing through the Jurassic period, albeit snow taking the place of lush vegetation.

At last we reached the bench, or at least the top of it, and my guy turned from Shell Pond to clean it off for lunch.

Our traditional PB&J sandwiches unwrapped, we took in the view and watched the clouds play as they danced across the mountain range.

At last we continued on in the area where Peregrin Falcons will soon nest (or so we hope) on the cliffs above, and if you follow us frequently, you may note that at first my guy doesn’t have the Curious Traveller pack on his back. Once lunch is eaten and more water consumed, he takes the pack and I tease him about it being so much lighter.

The journey took us through the old orchard . . .

across the former airstrip where the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky . . .

and past the privately-owned stone house for which the property is named.

And then, because the snow had held off for the most part, we decided to hike a short distance up the Stone House Trail to Rattlesnake Pool. Surrounded by ice and snow, it had shrunk in size, but still, it’s always worth a visit.

We climbed down and got within about six feet, but chose not to dive in. The emerald green water was enough to revive us.

Because we were there, we also needed to walk in to Rattlesnake Gorge, located south of the pool. Water gurgled in the background, but much of it travelled under the weight of snow and ice.

And when we turned, it was more of the same–a frozen world waiting for the upcoming thaw to free it.

Oh, did I mention that we stowed the backpack before heading up to the pool and gorge, giving my guy even more of a break from hauling it the rest of the way? As we returned to the airfield, the snow was just beginning to fall in earnest.

Remembering to grab our snowshoes, we finally made our way back along the road, past the lemonade stand house, and returned to the truck, completing a seven-mile journey.

We are creatures of habit, as becomes more obvious each day, and we’re thrilled to back at this perennial favorite. To top it all off, we realized that we had the entire property to ourselves today. No Ho Hums about this Mondate.

Folly of a Sun-Mondate

Into the wilderness of Sebago, Maine, we ventured upon land owned by Loon Echo Land Trust.

Sometimes we had to break trail.

Other times it was like the white carpet had been rolled out to show us the way.

And often, we found ourselves traveling the same route others had taken or crossed over, for such a corridor it is.

We tromped through a vast wetland.

And bushwhacked into what seemed like a never-ending shrub-land.

The hares made it all look so easy as they traveled back and forth on their packed-down snowshoe routes.

Meanwhile, the beavers remained snug at home despite frequent callers.

Though we couldn’t see steam rising from the lodge’s chimney, we suspected they reposed quietly within.

Nearby, their works of art added a decorative nature to the winter scene.

We spent one day seeing hugs . . .

and hearts in the forest.

And the next day exploring an unorganized territory; or was it?

It’s such a place where wooden birds fly.

And owl talons cling.

On Sunday, we snowshoed along a five-mile route, that was rather easy given that most of it was a snowmobile trail at Tiger Hill Community Forest, and paused briefly for lunch on a rock in the woods, followed later by a brownie beside Cold Rain Pond that I think my guy was still eating when I snapped this photo.

Today found us nearby at Perley Ponds-Northwest River Preserve, where the tree spirit chuckled for he knew before we did that our two-mile tramp would be much more challenging but we’d come upon unexpected finds that would add to this folly of a two-day Mondate on either side of Folly Road.

Stepping Up A Notch Mondate: Part 2

Last week found us hiking up an old fav, but there’s another way to approach the summit and so today was the day to follow that route.

But first, my guy needed to sleep in for a bit because he’s been working way too hard of late and way too many hours and so he missed some early morning moments spent with our resident doe.

But that didn’t matter. A late morning start found us parking beside a clover patch where the swallowtail butterflies showed off not only their need for nectar, but battle scars as well.

Not long into the hike, we came upon a stone bench where we once shared lunch. It was only for a brief pause that we stopped today because the insects were thick, but still . . . it’s such a pleasant spot.

After conquering some wet spots along the way, we arrived at the wettest of all, that was actually quite dry. And not a dragonfly in sight.

After that we began to climb, encountering more damp seeps along the way.

All the while our eyes scanned the forest floor because on the other trail to the same summit we’d counted 150 lady’s slippers last week. It wasn’t until we were two miles into today’s hike that we finally found one.

At last we reached the start of the ledges, a welcome spot for that meant no more mucky spots and fewer biting insects.

By the time we reached the same spur to the summit that we’d followed last week, we’d counted 13 lady’s slippers. Mind you, as we began the hike I asked my guy how many he thought we’d see. “One hundred,” he replied. And then he turned the question to me. “Seventy-five,” I said.

At the intersection he conceded. “You win because you had the lower number.”

“What do you think we’ll count when the lady’s slippers fade,” I asked.

“Deer Flies,” he said. Funny guy, my guy.

We agreed that we couldn’t count the ladies along the spur since we’d already acknowledged them last week. That is, until we came upon a bouquet we’d completely missed. Eight in a cluster like none we’d seen before.

We did chuckle a bit further on for we knew there were a bunch, but swear more had appeared for today’s display. Though you can’t see them all because some are by the tree line, there were fourteen that we know of. That’s one more than along today’s chosen trail.

Even though we had stopped counting, I have to tell you that we continued to point out old friends to each other, and even found a few others we’d previously missed. Besides the bouquet, my favorite was a wee blossom that hid under a red maple sapling.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge others on display like the huckleberry’s red flowers shaped like bells waiting to ring joyous sounds across the summit.

And then there was the flower beetle atop a mountain ash tree. I was pretty sure it was a flower beetle because . . . um, it was a beetle on a flower. But beyond that my knowledge and research were limited. So as I do in such cases, I reached out to Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood, who said that I’d found an uncommon scarab, Gnorimella maculosa, or Maculated Scarab. Maculate means “mark with a spot.”

And then there were the ants pretending to be part of a flower structure.

Birds also were in on the scene, though we actually heard the songs of many more than we had the honor to see. But this Mourning Dove posed on the trail for us and we could hear a mate call from nearby so we suspected there must be a nest in the vicinity.

Our wonders were many, but the best of all . . . when we reached lunch rock we realized several women who were social distancing had arrived at the overlook before us. Funny thing . . . we knew them. Funnier thing . . . and the best part was that last week along this same mountain we’d met Eleanor on the left and Rachel in the middle. Today, Amy completed their friendship triangle.

Who knew that as we stepped up the notch from a different starting point on this Mondate, we’d find these three amigas. Perfect.

Where will we find you next week, ladies?

Mondate with the Ladies

Our afternoon adventure began beside a brook in western Maine where the wildflowers and mosquitoes do thrive.

We looped along beside the water, enjoying the sound of it and each other’s voice flowing forth, rhythm and tempo matched.

Occasionally I’d say, “Wait a minute,” from behind for so stunning were the sights including Clintonia (Bluebead Lily) and . . .

even a lingering Painted Trillium or two.

But soon it became apparent who the biggest star of the show at our feet might be. I think it was a mention that so many Lady’s Slippers were spotted along a short section of a Greater Lovell Land Trust trail over the weekend that got my guy going and suddenly he pointed out every moccasin flower within sight to me.

Along the way he saw other interesting things like a burl on a birch that could have been two small bear cubs.

I pointed out an Indian Cucumber Root in flower and decorated with drops from rain and hail that fell upon us occasionally as the sun shone, but the blossom didn’t seem to excite him as much as it did me.

Instead, pure white flowers offered their rendition of a Pink Lady and he didn’t let it go unnoticed.

After a few miles we reached the pond for which the mountain in the background was named and enjoyed the view, knowing that a mile or two later we’d be at the summit looking back toward the very place where we stood in the moment.

Onward we continued and so did the Lady’s, which found my guy saying, “If you told me I’d be counting 150 Lady’s Slippers today, I’d say you were crazy.” But so we did. And then we counted more for we found a huge patch.

“Thirty-one right here,” he said. And with that he felt quite satisfied for he knew he’d far surpassed the weekend count on another trail. Ah, nothing like a little competition to keep this guy going.

At last we reached a bog crossing at the end of the pond and then followed the trail uphill.

It was here that others garnered our attention such as a young chipmunk that dashed up a tree as my guy passed and then turned to look back.

Chipster paused as we stood, then dashed down the tree and disappeared into a hole in the leaf litter.

Onward and upward we journeyed into the land where the slippers weren’t as abundant, but still there were a few.

At last we reached the summit where the pond below formed a heart in our mind’s eye and we gave thanks for the fact that we can get out and hike and never spot another person. All that and as we descended there were more Lady’s Slippers to add to the count.

On this Mondate with the ladies my guy was amazed to spy so many and I was amazed that he enjoyed the sight of every one of them.

Wondermyway Celebrates Fourth Anniversary

My comings and goings are often a tramp through the woods, where I pause frequently to contemplate the world through which I wander. These provide me with glimpses at a small portion of the wonders of the universe. Please join me for a few minutes as I share the mysteries of the hills that have been revealed to me this past year.

The ice delighted our sense of sight, understanding, and artistic form. Like the water from which it was created, it flowed in much variety.

And then . . . as we looked, a motion captured our attention. We were blessed with the opportunity to spend a few moments with a mink as it bounded down the hill before realizing it had an audience.

Next a splash startled us. What caused it? There was no snow high up on the trees that might have fallen. At last we saw the creators. There were actually three–swimming about slowly. Suddenly splashing again, they disappeared into the depths below. And the chambers within. We were in awe and felt honored to have shared a few minutes with members of the beaver family.

Sometimes our stops were to contemplate our next steps–especially when it came to the water that covered the cobblestones. Spying a bird nest, we wondered about its creator. There were some acorn pieces inside, so we thought it had hosted more than one inhabitant. Because we were near water, though most of it still frozen, and the temp was high, we weren’t surprised to find a set of baby handprints created recently by a raccoon.

As I stood there looking for a million wild mammals, my eyes focused on the works of something much smaller. Insect egg tunnels on a dead snag read like a story book page. The overall design could have been a map leading to hidden treasures.

Within each soft snowflake I felt millions of wings brush against my face–reminding me of those I know who are at the moment downtrodden and have hurdles to conquer. Some tiny, others immense, all were angelic in nature. As the flakes gathered together, they enhanced the reflection of harmony with illumination. They brought Heaven down to Earth . . . and reminded me that even in the darkest hours I hope my friends remember that grace surrounds them.

Life, it seems, is always in transition. So it feels, when one season overlaps another.

The scene is never the same, nor is the light. What may have appeared monochromatic was hardly that. When the sun began to set, the water harbored reflective moments as it transformed the views from crisp representations into impressionistic paintings.

Right away, the trail’s tree spirit whispered a welcome. And another of my favorite trees begged to be noticed again. It’s an ancient yellow birch that has graced the granite for more than a century. The tree itself, wasn’t in good health, but the roots atop the rock splayed out in support of a life to be continued.

Beside it stood one that some know as white; I prefer to call it paper. The curled-back birch bark offered hues of a different color reminiscent of a sunrise in the midst of a graying day.

And not to go unnoticed, bark from another birch had fallen to the ground. It too, offered subtle pink hues, but it was the stitchery created by the tree’s pores that drew my eye. They reminded me of a million zippers waiting to reveal hidden secrets.

Near the stonewall along the cowpath stood tall an old pine that perhaps served as the mother and grandmother of all the pines in my forest. Today, bedecked in piles of flakes, her arms reached out as if to embrace all of her offspring.

I had only walked a wee distance when I heard a Barred Owl call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It was noon, after all, so it seemed totally appropriate. Suddenly, I heard a response somewhere ahead. For about five minutes they echoed each other. And then the world was silenced.

At last we reached the boardwalk, where we embraced stillness and listened to the green frogs strum their banjo voices and red-winged blackbirds sing their conk-la-ree songs. Our gaze became more focused when we realized we stood in the midst of a newly emerged dragonfly. We felt a sense of caretakers for suddenly it was our honorable duty to watch and protect this vulnerable being from becoming prey. With wonder, we observed it slowly change position and suddenly spread its wings. For at least an hour we stood sentry and noted the slightest movements while we delighted in how the breeze occasionally fluttered through the dragonfly’s wings. And then, in a flash, it flew off and we were proud parents who had sent our offspring into the world.

I have no idea how much time had passed, but suddenly we all stirred a bit and then someone who was noticing redirected our attention. We were encouraged to focus on another who was also paying attention. And narrowing in . . . on lunch. When the young bird flapped its wings, we were all sure the meal was meant “to go.” But thankfully, the bird stayed. And played with its food. Ever so slowly, the fish was maneuvered into its mouth. And gulped. Down the throat it slid, a slight bump in the long neck. And then the feathers were ruffled–rather like a chill passing through its body. Wing motion followed. But still, the Great Blue Heron stayed. And stalked some more.

A blanket of fog enveloped the view. It didn’t matter, for my focus zeroed in on what was before me rather than being swept up into the beyond. I began to look around and felt an aura. It was as if I stood in another place and time. The fog. The green. The gray. The world disappeared. And the scene before me opened. One yellow lichen inched across the granite face. Beside it, another stood out like tiles in a mosaic work of art. Meanwhile, the fog danced across the ridgeline, twirling and whirling in a ghostly quiet manner, its transparent gowns touching the ground ever so tenderly before lifting into the next move.

We watched him forage for seeds and wondered about his behavior. Typically, such birds are loners, except for mating season. But this one greeted visitors to its territory with somewhat regular frequency. When we moved, he did likewise–usually a few feet to either side of us. And when we stopped, the Ruffed Grouse did the same, seeming to share our curiosity.

One doesn’t necessarily step into the woods and expect transcendent events to occur, but then again by learning to live in the moment one never knows what to expect. 

These are my thin places, where I see the light more on this side of than the other. May the answers slowly reveal themselves by day and by night, while the questions and awe never end.

Thanks to all of you who continue to wonder and wander with me whether literally or figuratively. I truly appreciate our time spent together.

Mondate Shared with Tom and Ron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was further verified by the downed hemlock twigs.

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

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

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

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

and plenty of healthy looking scat. 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we pulled it in with a telephoto lens.

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

And scat 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear to Beer: Middle and Peaked Mountains

My guy opened his Christmas Bear to Beer box and considered the possibilities. The winner was . . .

Middle to Peaked Mountains in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The day had dawned warm after the recent deep freeze and so we had to consider how to dress and what to use for footwear.

Given that our route would take us uphill as we ascended via the Middle Mountain Trail to Middle Mountain, retrace our steps to the connector before summiting Peaked Mountain and then follow the Peaked Mountain Trail down, we knew we needed to dress in layers, but not quite so many and not quite so heavy.

We also weren’t sure of our footwear until we arrived at the parking area and saw the well-packed trail. Our choice–micro-spikes over snowshoes. We only hoped that when we reached the intersection of the Middle Mountain Trail and the Connector Trail, we wouldn’t regret our decision. But time would tell.

In the meantime, after we climbed over the snowbanks to get to the trailhead, we had to conquer the gate. We’ve climbed Peaked in the past, as well as walked the Pudding Pond Trail, both part of the Green Hills Preserve, so we knew that typically one walks around the gate. Today, we merely stepped over it–which tells you something about the snow depth.

At .2 miles, the trail comes to a T. The right hand route leads to Pudding Pond, while the left requires a brook crossing before continuing on to the mountain trails.

A bit further along, we came to one set of several that denote the trail system. In terms of following it via the signs, trail blazes, and well worn path, it was easy. Given the soft snow conditions and contour, we’d rank it a moderate hike.

It was one that got the hearts pumping, which is always a good thing. And when one of us needed a rest, we pretended that we just wanted to admire the sound and sight of the gurgling brook.

We passed through a few natural communities, including hemlock groves, and mixed forest. But our focus was really on any beech trees and by the leaves that littered the path, we knew there were plenty.

We scanned the bark every time we spied a beech, and saw not a nail scrape anywhere. But . . . sad to say we did notice tarry spots which oozed out of the cracks in the bark caused by cankers a tree develops as a defensive attempt to ward off beech scale insects and the nectria pathogens that follow their entry points.

The community changed again as we approached the summit of Middle Mountain, where red pines dominated the scenery. And in the warm sun, the snow became softer.

Two miles and some sweat equity later, we’d shed some clothes and reached the top.

From there, my guy went in search of lunch rock and I eventually followed.

It was actually more of lunch ledge and we set up camp, using the jackets we weren’t wearing as our seating area.

The view beyond our feet included Conway Lake in the distance. Lunch consisted of chicken salad sandwiches made with our own cranberry orange relish offering a taste of day in the fen picking berries, a Lindt peppermint dark chocolate ball, and an orange, topped off with frequent sips of water.

While we sat there, I did what I do. There were no beech trees to look at and so I focused in on the bonsai red pine in front of us. Its form, unlike its relatives who stood tall behind us, was the result of growing on the edge of the ledge where it took the brunt of the weather.

I took the liberty of turning a photo of a lower branch 90 degrees because I could see the face of the tree spirit reaching out as it formed a heart. It is February after all.

But enough of that. We were on a mission to find a bear paw tree. When I chose this trail, I had no idea if we’d see one. Yes, we’d climbed Peaked in the past, but never had we noticed any trees with such marks left behind.

So, down we slid, I mean climbed, off Middle Mountain until we reached the connector and could see Peaked’s summit in the background.

We weren’t too far along when our constant scanning paid off! Bingo. A bear paw tree. Some people bag peaks. We bag bear paw trees.

Our mission accomplished, though we continued to look, we journeyed on to the second summit.

From there, we had more of a view of North Conway below, the Moats forming the immediate backdrop, and Mount Chocorua behind.

In front of us, we looked across to Middle Mountain from whence we’d just come.

And behind, Cranmore Mountain Ski Area and Kearsarge North in the background.

With my telephoto lens I could pull in the fire tower atop Kearsarge. It’s among our favorite hiking destinations.

We didn’t stay atop Peaked as long as we had on Middle because the wind was picking up. On our journey down, the mountain views included Washington.

We continued to look for bear trees but found no others. That being said, there were plenty of beech trees on the Peaked Mountain Trail, but the sun was in our eyes for much of the journey, and we had to pay attention to where we placed our feet because traveling was a bit slippery given the soft snow. Maybe there were others after all, and we just didn’t notice.

We completed the 5.5 mile hike about four hours after beginning, ran a few errands, and finally found our way to the finish of today’s bear to beer possibility at the Sea Dog Brewing Company. Black bears like to sip too!

Porcupine: Down Low, Up High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrepid Travelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babe in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Wild Out My Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes it chose to slide on the downhills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Nature’s Larder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then another about ten feet away.

And still another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirits of Long Meadow Brook

People often ask me this question: Aren’t you afraid of hiking alone? My response is that I’m more afraid to walk down Main Street than through the woods, the reason being that it’s a rare occasion I encounter another mammal. Oh, I do move more cautiously when I’m alone and today was no different. But . . . there’s something uniquely special about a solo experience.

Perhaps it’s that my mind wanders with me and I see things I might otherwise miss when I’m distracted by conversations with dear friends and family members. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to travel with them, I just equally enjoy going forth on my own.

Today’s exploration of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook Reserve and the adjacent private property protected under a conservation easement with the land trust allowed such a wander, both literally as I only occasionally followed the trail, and figuratively as I was sure that the two-headed tree spirit chuckled with me, not at me. You’ll need to let your own imagination wander to see the spirits within the split tree–believe me . . . they are there.

One of the things I love best about the Long Meadow Brook Reserve is its cathedral of pines–and the route I chose today appeared to lead to infinity. It’s not the blazed route, but someone had obviously been that way before.

When I reached the first bench, I heard the voices of fellow travelers and the laughter of the Lovell Recreation Summer Campers who often clamber for a seat. For the time being, their good-natured chatter was buried until they return again.

From the bench I moved across the field as many a deer had done, and found my way down to the namesake for this property, Long Meadow Brook. I’ll never forget my first visit several years ago–and the awe when discovering this view in the summer. In every season, I welcome the opportunity to have my breath taken away.

The view by my feet also garnered my attention, for it was obvious that a red fox had walked this way before me.

How did I know it was a red fox and not gray? Well, first I measured the print size, straddle, and stride. And then I looked at the foot morphology as presented in the snow. The prints were a bit muffled, which is one aid in identification, for a red fox has hairy feet. And . . . I spied the chevron, a little indented ridge that appears in the foot pad. If you look at David Brown’s Trackard in the previous photograph, you’ll see the chevron as a dark line.

There were other clues as to the maker of the tracks–for some frozen urine by a sapling spelled his name. And its skunky scent added a flourish to his penmanship. It’s mating season and this boy had an announcement to make.

I suspected his words were heard for it appeared that more than one fox had traveled across the old beaver dam and I found more pee at each little post.

I desperately wanted to cross as others had, but I was alone and knew it was best to stay on the eastern side.

That didn’t stop me from looking and noticing what may have been a recent otter or mink slide in the midst of the fox tracks.

Or the remains of a snowball fight that I imagined the fox affectionately tossed as his date.

Looking south, I couldn’t see any action, unless you consider the cattails. But I had to wonder, were the fox and the mink and the otter and any others at the edges keeping watch over me?

I couldn’t be sure, but I did note that the cattails parachuted seeds were eager to set off on the breeze and start their own lives.

Likewise, the water at the dam added its form of action and color and texture and sound–in as many renditions as possible.

At last I moved on, followed the blazed trail and climbed to the second bench on the property, along a route the deer know so well. Where were they? Also at the edge, again keeping watch?

Had I startled them from browsing the red maples? Missing buds and long tags represented their mark on the land.

Before moving on again, I stood behind the second bench where the mountains in Evans Notch looked as if they’d been coated with frosting; and in the way of the winter world, they had.

And then I followed a seldom used trail back down to the brook, where I spied a fox track. Do you see it? It’s about in the lower middle of the photograph.

I was even more excited when I noticed mature tamaracks growing along the brook’s bank and gave thanks.

For you see, several years ago some young tamaracks that grew along the beaver dam had been inadvertently chopped down to make a pathway for the snowmobiles. I was saddened by the discovery because this is one of the few GLLT properties with this deciduous conifer that looses most of its needles each fall. And that spot had also featured balsam fir, hemlock and white pine, making it the perfect outdoor classroom.

Add to that the pitch pines that grow by the first bench, and voilà! A lesson completed.

That made today’s discovery of the tamarack’s nubby twigs extra special and I knew that the tree spirits weren’t making fun of me, they were smiling upon me.

With that in mind, I was going to follow the trail back, but decided instead to journey for a bit beside the brook, where I found a deer bed in the sunniest of spots.

Eventually, I climbed up a hill and back to the trail, crossed through a stone wall to the neighboring property, continued on to a field and across that to a stump dump. Why go to such effort to reach a stump dump?

Because it’s actually a porcupine condominium hidden among the rocks and decaying tree stumps.

There were several entry ways–all showing the telltale signs of the pigpens of the woods.

Nipped twigs covered with a tad bit of fallen ice made me think the creators were snug inside and not over my head.

I did look up, but I did the same thing last week and didn’t see what others saw from a few feet back. That day, a porcupine was right over my head. Today, I didn’t think so, but the sun was bright and I couldn’t be absolutely certain. One may have been observing my actions from above.

And wondering what my fascination was with its scat. Check out those woody commas.

As I wandered about by the stump dump, something else also caught my eye–a promethea silkmoth cocoon.

At last I climbed back on to the porcupines’ rooftop and had to watch my step for there were several frosty vent holes and I didn’t want to land inside the humble abode.

As I stood there, I searched again for any quilled critters, but saw none. What I did see–that only a skeleton of a hemlock remained. It’s a tree the porcupines have spent more than several years denuding.

And in the tree next door, I noticed that they’d not yet reached the tip of one branch. Word has it that porcupines have many broken bones from falling out of trees. I’d love to be present when one returns for this leftover.

At last it was time for me to make my way out. I’d made a silly mistake today and thought that because it was so cold the snow would support me so I hadn’t worn snowshoes. Instead I created post holes with each step I took.

As I started across a five-acre field, my own spirit led the way–encouraging me not to give up despite the fact that I was tired.

And by the edge of the field, I did find a spirit hanging out. What was the cairn thinking? Maybe its expression as reflected at the base of the tree was one of disgust that I’d ventured forth in its space. Or perhaps it was forlorn that I was now taking my leave.

I chose to believe the latter and gave thanks for the opportunity to wander among the spirits of Long Meadow Brook.