Mondate with a View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Food Is The Name of the Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect meal was garnered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support your local food pantry,

Tracking Glee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it gnawed on the branches of a tree.

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

The Beaver’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beaver’s tale indeed.

The Ice Storm that Cameth

January 6, 1998: Epiphany; the icy rain storm began.

January 7: Even icier.

January 8: No school, power on and off and then OFF, with no more ons.

On the 8th, My Guy had to park his red truck at the neighbor’s house because wires and limbs prevented him from driving up to our house.

Via battery operated radio, CMP (Central Maine Power) officials warned customers not to talk to power people–just let them do their work as they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure. And definitely no bribing them with food.

After our neighbor, Mr. Mush, stopped by in the afternoon to check on us, I looked out the window and noticed a man wearing a hardhat walking up the road. Mr. M. approached him.

“We aren’t supposed to talk to those guys, but he is. I’m going out there,” I thought.

Our youngest joined me. We donned our winter gear and headed out the door. I said to P, “We aren’t supposed to talk to CMP workers. We’ll let Mr. Mush do the talking.” As I said that, I looked for the CMP truck, but didn’t see it. Then I did a double-take.

“Mr. Hall, that’s you,” I said shaking my head as I realized it was another neighbor under the hardhat. “I thought you were a CMP worker. I was so hopeful.”

He chuckled and said, “You haven’t been listening to the news. You aren’t supposed to talk to CMP workers.”

Jan 9: Wee hours of the morning: SNAP! CRACKLE! POP! CRASH!

My Guy flew across our bed as I sat straight up.

“It’s OK,” I choked. “It’s just a tree hitting the roof.”

After which I hyperventilated and struggled to add, “It’s just a tree. It’s just a tree.”

I could hear My Guy trying to reassure me, but I was frozen with wild terror. My throat, which felt like it had closed, finally opened. From that point on, I shook.

The cracking and clashing sounded worse than firecrackers and continued all night long.

January 10: Our friend Bob called from a job he was working on in Massachusetts. He couldn’t get through to his wife, Marita, as their phone line had been affected by the storm. Somehow, however, she and I figured out that we could talk if we picked up our phones at the same time and I guess I called her. Anyway, I assured Bob that she and the girls were fine and she was her chipper self. What I didn’t have the heart to tell him was that his goldfish had not survived the storm. They froze to death.

January 11: Our sons, S and P have storm clean-up all figured out. The town crew will plow up the branches and trees. Logging trucks will also be needed. They’ll haul the wood away to mills to be turned into baseball bats and paper.

We had heat for the first time. No lights, but plenty of warmth and I actually thought of shedding a layer of clothing. Another neighbor’s son-in-law lent us a small generator to fire up our furnace for warmth and to keep our pipes from freezing.

One thing a storm of this magnitude made us realize that people are good. My Guy was one of the best. And my biggest hope after all was said and done was that the people he helped would remember that he stayed open for them without power at the store. And he kept ordering stuff so that he would have what they needed.

Outdoor conferences with the neighbors became a constant.

And family and friends called to offer warmth and a shower.

Marita and I offered each other encouragement and she came to fill water jugs daily. We loved the bread she baked.

January 12: We heard via our battery-operated radio that Baltimore Power trucks arrived in Maine today. Apparently they were sighted on the turnpike bearing signs that read: “Maine or Bust!”

My Guy and I took showers thanks to the generator on loan. And we invited Mrs. Mush over to shower as well. My sister-in-law took the boys for the day, which gave us a chance to do some clean-up, though despite the fact that My Guy wasn’t at the store, he was constantly in contact and thinking about it often. The wee bit of slow-down that the day offered him, gave him time to reflect and sort through all that had happened in the last few days.

One of our tasks, other than yard work, was to clean out the refrigerator and freezer–stinky and sticky. We cleaned it and turned it into a momentary breadbox.

Mrs. Mush and I also picked up sticks and branches in an elderly neighbor’s yard while she was away staying with her daughter and son-in-law.

January 13: 124 hours of no power. School has been cancelled until next Tuesday.

Last night we began helping our next-door neighbors raise the temperature in their house with our Kerosun heater.

The ice, as much as it’s been a menace, is incredibly beautiful.

As cold as it was outside, the boys and I spent as much time outdoors as possible, so it would feel warm when we went back in–at least for a few minutes.

While they skated on our outdoor rink, I chatted with another neighbor, Tom, owner of Tom’s Homestead Restaurant, which he’d turned into a shelter for some people. Despite the fact that we didn’t have power, Tom was still able to function with a woodstove and gas furnace.

“I’ll teach you how to skate, P,” said S.

And so he did. The boys were five and three, S in kindergarten and P in preschool.

They also enjoyed the snow fog that rolled down the street. Oh, and those signs at the end of the driveway: announced to the world that Winnie-the-Pooh’s Studio was located in our barn and everyone was welcome to visit.

Writing that now, I’m reminded of a sign Mr. Mush stuck in the snow at the end of the road: “245 people live on this road.” Um, I’m pretty sure there were only ten houses and residency ranged from 1 to 4 or 5 in any particular abode.

January 14: Imagination has always been the name of the game and the boys have always had vivid ones so, of course, we celebrated Tigger’s birthday, homemade party hats for all.

Another big event today: an NBC affiliate from Washington D.C. came to town to film the proper use of generators. They stopped at Hayes Hardware and interviewed My Guy. Then he sent them to our road to tape a generator in use at a neighbor’s house. The boys and I followed them around the neighborhood. We then called everyone we knew out-of-state and told them to watch at 6pm. We listened on our radio. No mention of our town much to our disappointment–it wasn’t our day to become movie stars.

7:30pm, 148 hours without power. We’re especially concerned tonight because it’s already -2˚ with a full moon. But, there are now five generators being shared between 8 homes on our street.

January 15: With the advent of a full moon, we knew more trouble was brewing as the temperature dropped. Pipes froze in our pantry sink. We placed the Kerosun heater by it and I kept pouring boiling water (thank goodness for a gas stove so we could cook on top, using a match to light the burners), into the sinks–to no avail. At 9:30am, Mr. Mush came over with a torch and warmed the pipes (at that time located literally outside the pantry).

Then he tucked insulation around them.

In between working, My Guy helped to keep everyone on our road under control.

That afternoon, S and I did some yard work, hauling branches to the pile. The boys also sold me some snow cones, snow pies, and lemonade.

While we were outside, a CMP truck drove up. I slowly approached and asked the driver, “Can we talk?”

“Uh oh, you’re scaring me,” he said.

“No, I just want to know if we have any hope,” I replied.

“Well, the crew is in South Bridgton now. When they finish there, they’ll head back into town. They’ll be here. Maybe today, but don’t count on that. Probably tomorrow. But, do you know what the storm looks like?” he asked.

“They’ve lowered the amount of snow to six inches,” I said.

“Good, what about the temp?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Oh, well, we’ll see.” And off he drove.

Later, Marita appeared bearing muffins.

And I had this conversation with P: “What are you doing?” I asked as he chewed his fingernails.

“My fingernails are stuck,” he said.

“What do you mean, your fingernails are stuck?”

He studied his hands, “My fingernails are stuck to my fingers.”

We guffawed.

One really bad thing we learned today. Moe Needham’s house burned to the ground last night.

Late that night, after My Guy and I had settled into bed, the most powerful light lit up the street. Of course, anything brighter than a Coleman lantern illuminates our world. But this light was different. High intensity and not flickering like a plow, though it was snowing as predicted.

My Guy dressed and ran outside. I was so excited that I called my sister to tell her men were in buckets up in the trees. I wasn’t sure if they were there to cut trees or reattach wires. After I hung up, I headed out the door. Arborists from Cohrain, Massachusetts. In a state that is proud of being 90% trees, there were many, many downed ones to cut.

January 16: I had the best helpers as we dug out from the overnight storm. S shoveled the snow off the steps.

I only wish I remembered what advice P was offering as he worked. Or perhaps he was gleeful because he was eating snow.

January 17: A CMP scout checked things out.

While the boys and I shoveled six inches of snow off the driveway, the CMP truck crept up the road. The driver told Mr. Mush he was waiting for an out-of-state power company to come work on our lines.

At last they arrived! I phoned neighbors at work.

From the neighbors’ driveway, we watched the action.

At last, the man in the bucket lowered himself. “The power will be on momentarily,” he said.

Mr. Mush met me in the driveway to ask about our furnace hook-up. We walked up the driveway and saw My Guy in the barn. I yelled, “It will be on momentarily.” Above a bulb was lit.

“Look,” I exclaimed. “How is that on?”

“The power is on,” My Guy said with a smile.

10:00am: POWER!

The boys had to check it out after 186.5 hours without such.

Meanwhile, at the store, the line was long. Somehow, My Guy managed during all this time to meet the needs of customers, the needs of neighbors, and the needs of his family. And always with a grin.

Thank goodness our boys saw it as an adventure.

The list of thanks probably left someone out, but in the end we were all so grateful for the sense of community and neighbors helping neighbors.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the Ice Storm of ’98 Cameth and we were afraid that it would never Leaveth, but it finally did.

Sworn to Secrecy

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

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

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

But not uncommon to find them together!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crows Count

Really? Can birds count? It’s a curious thought and we impose so many of our attributes onto wildlife that we come to believe it all true and that they have feelings and abilities that match ours. And so on this day of the Sweden Circle Christmas Bird Count in western Maine, I set out with Dawn to seek numbers and answers.

The territories assigned to us are marked in red within the circle for we had the opportunity to explore Pondicherry Park in downtown Bridgton and LEA’s Highland Research Forest on foot, rather than driving along a bunch of roads.

Mere steps from where we’d parked we heard and then spotted Northern Cardinals. Not one, but two, then three, then four. Three being a male such as this one, with one female in the mix.

Below the cardinals were other birds that we heard first and shared a simultaneous thought, “I hear Wood Frogs.” Oops, that would be ducks. But the thing is that when we approach a vernal pool in the spring, and the frogs croak before they sense our trespass into their territory, they sound like ducks quacking.

We counted 45 Mallards who quacked and swam and preened and paused and dabbled and quacked some more. Her markings soon became important to us.

As did his. Notice the differences between the two from coloration of heads and bills and feathers. It’s been said that the male is much more handsome than the female. Maybe he is, but she offers her own sense of beauty and design. Again, pay attention to his markings.

Why? Because we noted this one hanging out for a while under some shrubs. And immediately, we realized that it was somehow different. Look at the color of its head–muted green and a hint of purple or mauve crowning its head. Like the female Mallard, there was an eyeline, but much more subtle in presence. We thought it might be a female, but like the male, the bill was bright yellow with a dark spot at the tip. Plus the overall plumage was different from either the female or male Mallard. And yet, it looked so similar.

The curled tail led me leaning more toward a male, but if you have information to clear up this identification, please don’t hesitate to share. We were just thrilled to be able to state definitively that this particular duck was a hybrid. And I’m still jazzed by the color hues of its head.

The point of it being a hybrid was driven home when the male Mallard and this other specimen shared the focal point of my camera. The hybrid even had a neck ring like the Mallard, though a bit creamier in color.

The Mallard collection in the brook below kept changing and what spooked them (other than us), I do not know, but fly they would and then land a wee bit further down the river before flying upstream again a few minutes later.

We eventually moved farther from the parking lot (maybe an hour later) and just after we’d made a turn on the trail, we saw a bird take flight. And a dog and its person move along the trail (not part of the dog trail, mind you, but people don’t seem to see the dog trail/no dog trail signs anymore). As it turned out, we gave a quiet thanks to the dog for it flushed out this bird and we were gifted the opportunity to get quite close to it. That opportunity made us realize that we probably often are in the presence of this owl, but its ability to not only fly in silence, but also perch in absolute silence, meant that it could hide from us–camouflaged as it was upon a tree limb. We felt like our day was done with that sighting, but we continued in the name of science for we were participating in an annual bird count for Maine Audubon.

A few hours and a few bird species later, we made our way back to the park entrance where this Mallard’s head color, accented by the sun as it was, captured my awe. But what was the duck doing? Quite possibly, it had tucked its bill into its feathers to retain heat. Bills obviously have no feathers, so they can loose a lot of heat. Think of it like warming your hands with hand warmers inside your mittens.

His Mrs. was doing the same nearby. Dawn asked if Mallards are monogamous. What I’ve learned in the hours since is that generally speaking they are. BUT . . . paired males are known to pursue females other than their mates.

Mixing it up, after lunch we moved on to Highland Research Forest where our first bird sighting was in the shape of . . . a Red Squirrel. Yes, a squirrel hide. Since it sat at our eye level, we knew the predator wasn’t a coyote, raccoon, or weasel, but rather an eagle, hawk, or owl. We really wanted to spy the perpetrator, and searched high and low with our binoculars, but came up empty handed.

Sadly, and much to our misunderstanding, as we moved along the trails, we spotted and/or heard few birds calling. But, much to our delight, we did find some sign, such as this, the excavating works of a Pileated Woodpecker.

In. the mix of wood chips below the tree, for the woodpecker consumes only a wee bit of bark in the process of seeking Carpenter Ants from the innermost paradise of a tree trunk, scat happens. And this offered a great opportunity for Dawn to make her first P.W. scat discoveries. Bingo, She found at least three displays upon the wood chips.

Pileated Woodpecker scat is most often coated in uric acid and contains the undigestible parts of the consumed ants. Of all the possible finds in the natural world–this is one of my favorite discoveries on any given day.

All that said, did I mention that much of our journey was beside water, my favorite place to be? And that over and over again we noted not only water levels from a few days ago when brooks and rivers overflowed in our region, and since have been enhanced by ice formations given frostier temperature? This sculpture brought to mind another with whom we shared today’s trails.

Do you see the match between the ice formation and tail feathers?

Our overall sums were low compared to years past, but the learnings we gained of this hybrid outnumbered what we tallied.

That said, when we heard an American Crow caw, our response was rather bland. Until . . . we looked at each other and Dawn said, “Crows count,” because of course they do as any bird does.

We departed ways about 3:30pm, leaving with questions about why numbers were so low. Oh, we counted chickadees, and nuthatches, and robins, and others, but overall, not so many species and not so many of said species.

Taking all of that into consideration and awaiting thoughts from others about the state of our winter birds in Maine, we were equally overjoyed that during today’s Christmas Bird Count we got us a Barred Owl. Can birds count? Certainly!

Making a Happy Face

Earthward they fell
So many flakes of white.
The forest enhanced
with accents to delight.
Even trees long dead
whorled with new light.
Pine saplings bent over
shortening their height . . . 
Mimicking hemlocks,
who were ever so slight.
Flakes piled upon shrubs
in a manner upright,
While others dangled
defying gravity's might. 
Meanwhile, the flying snag
prepared to take flight,
Just as the oak leaf
grabbed a blanket for tonight.
In the midst of it all,
calm water reflected varying light,
While flowing water
offered a beautiful sight. 
Feeling giddy about this snowstorm
I made a tree sprite.
In fact, I made two
with the intention to make others' days bright. 

Dear Mr. Pileated

Dear Mr. Pileated,

I’ve been meaning to thank you for serving as our morning rooster all these years. In a couple of months, as the days dawn earlier than on the cusp of this vernal equinox, I know my guy will curse your call, but I admire your tenacity to return morning after morning and practice your drum roll on a snag by the stone wall closest to our bedroom.

Your sounding board of choice resonates with each strike of your beak and I’m sure the volley of taps, sounding like someone is rapping on the back door, can be heard at least a half mile away.

What is amazing to me is that you have the ability to tap at all. But I’ve learned that your tongue actually wraps around your skull, thus dissipating and directing the energy around the brain. Plus, you have a sponge-like bone positioned in the fore and back of your skull to absorb much of the force from the repeated impact of constantly hammering against wood. 

After several rounds of repetition, you take a break and stretch your neck away from the snag . . .

and sway your head . . .

in a 45˚ arc, a movement known as a bill wave. It seems to serve two purposes: as an announcement of your territory to another of your kind; or a message to the one you are trying to woo with hopes she’ll accept a date.

Of course, in the mix of all this action, you also make time to preen. After all, should a mistress fly in, you need to look handsome–an easy task on your part.

I’ve read that your territory ranges from 150 – 200 acres and give thanks that we live in an area that satisfies your needs and those of your kin.

In winter, your feeding trees are easy to spot, either by the oblong holes chiseled into the tree trunks . . .

or piles of wood chips at the base of a tree, providing a contrast with the snow.

I love it when you even rework a hole you’d started when the tree was standing. So many don’t realize that it’s not unlike you to use your tail as a third leg like a stool and stand on the ground to seek the goodness within.

When the opportunity to watch you work presents itself, I take it and stand silently below while you chip away.

What I can’t see is your method of feeding, as you pursue the tunnels of carpenter ants and snag them with your long, barbed tongue covered as it is with a sticky solution that works rather like tacky glue.

BUT, one of my great joys, as some know, is searching among the chips you’ve excavated to discover if your feeding efforts were successful. Yes, Mr. Pileated, I actually feel well rewarded when I discover packets of scat you defecated. While we humans get rid of waste nitrogen as urea in our urine, which is diluted with water, I have come to realize that you cannot fly with a full bladder and therefore must dispose of uric acid, plus the indigestible parts of your meals in combination via the cloaca or vent located under your tail. Knowing this helps me locate your scat because I first look for the white coating, which is the uric acid, and then I spy the exoskeletons of the ants that you feed upon in winter located inside the cylinder.

Sometimes, your scat doesn’t make it all the way to the ground, but rather lands on a branch below your foraging site.

Of course, it’s great fun when others are present, to whip out my scat shovel and scoop some up so they may take a closer look.

I did that just yesterday with a group of students, some of whom fully embraced the experience, which also gladdened my heart.

Another thing I love to spot as a result of your foraging efforts, sir, is the winter coloration of sap that flows from Eastern White Pine trees you’ve excavated. In warmer weather, the sap is amber in color, but there must be some winter chemistry that I do not understand, which turns it shades of violet and blue.

Oh so many shades of blue. And once blue, it doesn’t seem to regain the amber hue, at least from what I’ve seen. But then again, somewhere in this world, there’s one that does. Or many more than one.

Noticing the droplets of fresh sap yesterday, I decided to take a closer look, and spied not only spring tails stuck to its sticky surface, but also a small winter crane fly that will be forever suspended . . . unless something comes along for a snack.

When I checked this morning, it was still stuck in place.

As I complete this letter to you, Mr. Pileated, I once again want to express my appreciation for your part in this world, for creating nesting sites that others, such as small songbirds, may use, and how you help the trees in the forest by contributing to their decomposition, for as much as some think that you and your kin are killing the trees, the trees are already dying due to insect infestations, and your work will eventually help them fall to the ground, add nutrients to replace what they had used, and provide a nursery upon which other trees may grown.

And I want my readers to know that your bill waving has paid off for this morning as I watched and listened to you, in a quick turn you flew off giving your Woody Woodpecker call as you sailed away and in flew your date. She landed on the same snag you always use, gave a few taps of her own, preened for a moment or two, and then she also turned and headed in the direction you had taken, and I can only hope that the two of you have been foraging together ever since.

Oh, and that if there are any offspring from this relationship, you’ll name your first born for me.

Sincerely yours,

wondermyway.com

P.S. BP, this post is dedicated to you. Hugs from your non-hugging friend.

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.

The Duck’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no feather had gone unplucked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject: Tracking Forensics:

Weird thoughts in the early morning…

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

Bring in the TV cameras!

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

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

Snowshoeing with Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually we reached Moose Alley, a perennial favorite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.

As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.

We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.

Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.

In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.

And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.

And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.

I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.

Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.

And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.

The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.

We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.

Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.

Do you see a bear?

Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.

And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.

In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.

Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.

Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.

Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.

As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.

Ever A Sense Of Wonder

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

This weekend, though, that all changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Tracks into 2022 Mondate

On this coldest day of the new year, with winds gusting from the north, my guy and I chose to go for a walk on a beach and peer into the future. What did we see?

A clean slate to start.

What did we learn? Rather than clam up, be happy and express your true colors.

Break free from the crowd occasionally and make sure your pop is the loudest.

Know that some layers will erode, but still, strong roots will persist.

Find works of nature’s art in the midst.

Recognize the value of local plants just like your Dad always did.

Liken bursts of sunshine upon rocks that add color to gray days.

Take a brief second to pause, as you skitter along.

If you feel trapped, find a way out.

Spew when you need to, but do make it colorful and dramatic.

Despite the cold temperature, paddle like heck.

When the moment is right, ride the waves.

Let life’s lines intersect and go with the pattern presented.

And most of all, together make tracks as you step into 2022.

Happy New Year to all and to all a good night.

Knowing My Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

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

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How well do you know your place?

Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

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

Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Pleasant Mondate

The tale of this date really began on Sunday, February 28, when my guy and I decided that if possible we’d like to hike a trail up Pleasant Mountain. Knowing how popular all of the trails have been in the past year, and how careful we’ve been to choose those less traveled, we had a few plans in mind. Plan A: Bald Peak Trail. Cancel that plan due to too many cars in the parking lot. Plan B: Ledges Trail. Cancel that plan due to not only the parking lot being full, but cars parked all along Mountain Road; something Loon Echo Land Trust, which owns 2,064 acres on the mountain and protects an additional 24 acres through a conservation easement, has asked people not to do. Plan C: Southwest Ridge Trail. See Plan B. Plan D: Firewarden’s Trail. Tada. Only three vehicles and so we pulled in. Mind you, on the way to the latter we did develop a Plan E, but we quickly put that on hold for another day and donned our micro-spikes.

And so it was that in the mid-afternoon we began to climb up the trail that also serves as a snowmobile trail. But back in the day, this was the route not only to a hotel that stood upon the summit in the early1900s, but also for fire wardens to reach the surveillance tower erected in 1920.

As an old tote road, it can be quite rough and I find it hard to believe it was a comfortable ride, but a family of four on two snowmobiles found it to be a fun adventure.

Because of them, our ascent was rather quick, with pauses to get out of the way for the two machines, as well as one hiker and one snowboarder.

Near the summit, we paused again, at the old lightning shack.

The wardens’ or watchmens’ cabin was actually located lower down on the trail. If there was a lightning storm, however, the observers couldn’t get down the mountain to the cabin, so instead, they built this structure near the tower, which served as a lightning shack.

It was obvious by the signatures inside that since the tower was decommissioned in the early 1990s, others have found it a haven.

Just above is the fire tower built in 1920 and manned until 1991 when the state switched to aerial surveillance. It’s my understanding that originally it was 48 feet tall, but in 1968 when the cab at the top was replaced, it was lowered to 36 feet.

There’s something about coming upon it at the top that always brings to me a sense of awe. I suppose it’s the historical significance and admiration for those who remained there for the fire season–keeping an eye on the forest for as far as they could see with binoculars and scopes no matter what the weather might be. According to the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Maine Chapter: “The very early lookouts used a transverse table with scopes and later the department issued high-powered binoculars. Opening day for lookouts was heavily dependent on how the winter was. Typical openings were in April and closing was in late September or early October. It was also dependent on location. Southern Maine usually had a longer season than northern Maine and the higher elevation peaks.”

Just prior to reaching the tower and summit we’d wondered how many people we might encounter. At least twenty was our assumption for so many vehicles filled the parking lots. It was with great delight that we discovered we had the place to ourselves, though on that day a storm was brewing and the view wasn’t as spectacular as it is on other days.

Upon our descent we decided we’d return the next day and follow two other trails–that is until that storm that was brewing crashed our party and forced us to stay home.

Today, however, dawned with a blue-bird sky and so we decided to take two trucks and if all went as planned, my guy would park at the base of the Ledges Trail and hop in with me in hopes that we could begin our ascent at the Southwest Ridge Trail.

Success. His was the only truck in the lot mid-morning. And at the Southwest Ridge there were only two other vehicles. And so we began to climb, turning back from time to time to take in the view–initially of Pleasant and Lovewell Ponds.

Being well-packed by so many others over this past weekend made for a much easier climb than on a summer day when one has to contend with rocks and other trail obstructions.

It seemed like in no time, we reached the teepee, where we stopped for a quick break before continuing on.

Oh, and a selfie for good measure.

Zooming along as we were doing, I did make one naturalist discovery–rhizomorphs or black, stringy mycelial cords of a fungus. Though I’ve seen this before, I’m not sure I’ve ever discovered the tendrils coating a dead but standing tree like a lacy shawl, with some even dangling as if fashionably draped.

Onward we charged after that brief break, for we had the summit on our minds and lunch in the pack that I was carrying.

For those of you who like a challenge of locating something in the distance, think of my guy’s head as the center of a clock. And then look up toward one o’clock. Do you see the cab of the fire tower?

How ’bout now?

With three plus miles behind us and only one hiker and one telemark skier encounter, we reached the summit on this glorious day.

And again had it to ourselves, though my guy quickly claimed lunch rock. Just in case we had competition.

Looking behind us we could see from whence we had come sorta. including the cellphone towers on the Southwest Ridge. Some scorn them, but so many of us depend upon them.

The white trails you see, one a road below the cell towers that some scorn, but so many of us depend upon, and the other belonging to a private landowner, aren’t the trail we followed for Loon Echo rerouted a section taking hikers away through the woods instead of near those towers of another kind.

More spectacularly, however, was the view before us, with Mount Washington adding a striking backdrop.

Do note the four dead trees in the foreground: they are (or were) Red Pines that were killed off by a pine scale insect within the last ten years or so. The insect is believed to have been introduced to the US on exotic pines planted at the NY World’s Fair in 1939.

Since we had such an incredibly clear wide-angled view (and unlike any fire watchers didn’t have to think about whether what we might be seeing was a wisp of smoke or a wispy cloud for there was no sign of either) of the surrounding mountains with lakes and ponds and Saco River between, gave a true idea of a glacial lake in its time.

Through a telephoto lens we pulled in the grand mountain of the Northeast in, and even the rime-ice coated buildings at the summit of Mount Washington were visible.

Eventually leaving all that behind, we remembered to hike down the Ledges Trail rather than backtracking, and completed 5.8 miles in about three hours–making for a Pleasant Mountain Mondate on every level.

Funky Mondate

It seems like it’s been forever since my guy and I shared a Mondate, but truth be told we snuck away to Diana’s Bath and beyond in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a week ago and here’s a sneak peek.

We’d had snow two days prior and the lower falls of Lucy Brook showed off the force that the Lucy family had harnessed in the late 1800s to operate a saw mill.

Remnants of the mill’s foundations still exist.

Fortunately, the falls are watched over by fairy-sized snow people.

Stopping by the Upper Falls, we had memories of ice discs spinning counterclockwise, but they remained just that: memories from a Romancing the Stone Mondate two years ago. Last week, the temp was not quite as frigid so no discs formed.

Despite that, we hiked on for a couple of miles and eventually turned around to retrace our steps.

Fast forward to today and we headed off to explore two land trust properties in western Maine, the first of which we’d never traversed before. My extreme excitement upon arriving at the first was to learn that an outermost trail was named for G. Howard Dyer.

I had the pleasure of knowing Howard, who died at age 103 in 2009, when he lived at a local assisted living home where my mom also resided. He was an independent Mainer who drove a car into his late 90s and I remember his license plate: GHD. To me, it read: GOD. He’d turn into the home’s parking lot practically on two wheels, and though the old car had some dings, somehow Howard’s adventures weren’t thwarted by his age, maybe because he was GOD.

At the time that Mom lived in the same home, I volunteered to help the Activities Director one day a week and one of the things I did besides arts and crafts was create a monthly newsletter filled with recipes, poetry, songs and memories of yesteryear that the residents shared with me.

For one issue, I spent some time interviewing Howard about his life and experiences. He was a great storyteller and shared with me that over the years he’d lived in Otisfield on and off. Knowing that state law required perambulation of the town’s boundaries, in 1946 he conducted his first walk about town. Fifty-six years later, in 2002, he knew that no one had walked the boundaries in a long time. So, at 95 years of age, he decided to do it again. “Weren’t sure I could do it,” Howard told me as his eyes twinkled. “Didn’t say it to anybody.”

It took him months to complete because he’d walk here today, there tomorrow. When he finally finished the job, he told town officials. As Howard told it, they were surprised because they couldn’t get anyone to do it due to “swamps and all, you know.”

Howard’s accomplishments were included on the 2002-2004 House Appendix of the Legislative Record when he received Otisfield’s Boston Cane. “Town law required perambulation of the boundaries every ten years, and as a gift to the town, Mr. Dyer walked the 34-mile Town of Otisfield’s boundary line, once at the age of 39 and more recently at the age of 95.”

He was quite a guy and actually ten or more years ago my guy and I decided to follow his example and perambulated the boundary of our town, a section this Monday, another section the next Monday, taking a year to connect all the dots.

I was thrilled to see that Howard had been honored by having a trail named for him, and suggested to my guy that perhaps we need to consider repeating our perambulation. To which he readily agreed.

For today, however, we had other things to notice, and lately it seems no hike is complete unless a Winter Firefly can be found.

There were other insects burrowed in place and they shall remain nameless because I didn’t want to expose them any more than they already were.

My learning continued as we journeyed on and we were almost finished exploring Howard’s trail when I spied an oval shaped sawfly cocoon on a Northern Red Oak twig.

But it was the cluster of cocoons at the end of the twig that deserved even more attention. I’m 95% certain (until someone tells me otherwise) that this is the random formation of a parasitic bracinoid wasp cocoon. The question remains: who died so this structure could be created? Because that’s what these wasps do–parasitize other insects by laying their eggs upon them.

We soon left Howard’s Trail behind and moved on to tramp along another trail, where a White Oak pulled me in because the salmon color and rounded edge of the leaves always stops me in my tracks.

Because I stepped in for a closer look, the sapling honored me with the offering of what I think is an old Wooly Sower Gall, which I believe only has a relationship with this species. When first formed, it would have consisted of white wool highlighted with pink spots, but apparently it takes several years for the larvae to mature and the structure develops “horns” over time.

Lest you think I have been ignoring mammals to focus on insects, never fear–I delighted with the discovery of a large cache/midden created by a Red Squirrel.

Our journey took us beside a river that follows a crooked course through the landscape, but what always amazes me is the erosion along the edge. For how much longer will this tree stand?

As we stood on the edge ten to fifteen feet above the river, we had to wonder–how high does it get that the bank should be so eroded at this height? We never seem to visit in late winter, but maybe this year we should. Though given the current lack of precipitation, maybe this isn’t the year to gain a baseline understanding.

At last we reached the trail end, and knew it was time to turn toward home.

It had been a successful day, coming unexpectedly upon the trail named for Howard and my guy locating a winter geocache that wasn’t really a winter geocache for he had to dig through some snow to find it and the snow isn’t at all deep. Yet.

We also discovered an impressive hollowed out tree through which we just had to chat. If I were a bear in the woods . . . this would be my den. Note to self: if you ever need an out-of-the-way place to rest, remember this spot.

And we found a fun key hanging from a tree, adding icing to our funky Mondate.