Power of Line: Matter of Seeing

I could have followed the wood poles all the way to Mount Washington today, for such was their invitation . . .

but the mighty mountain was veiled in clouds, so instead I chose a different direction to venture.

Walking into trees, their height drew my eyes to a vanishing point on the horizon.

It was a place where ragged curves framed towering angles.

Occasionally, in that same place, geometric designs provided camouflage.

And man’s creation of horizontal, diagonal, and vertical found imitation in curved shadows.

Upon another structure reflections stood still before flowing forth.

Further on, intersections were noted upon several levels.

Ripples created movement with quiet wedged between.

Into the mix, nature added a triangular archway.

And allowed jointed legs to cross needles of ice.

At one pause beside a tree trunk, wing venation offered a tiny stained-glass presentation.

Nearby, venation of a different sort peeked out from under its winter blanket.

A story was written upon a crustose in squiggly calligraphy beyond my interpretation.

Slowly, I returned to the anomaly in the landscape . . .

Where paddlers constantly reinvented ovals and circles.

And then I headed home and noticed Mount Washington was lifting her cloudy shroud, thus adding more curves and angles to the picture.

The power of lines, a familiar part of the landscape. It’s all a matter of seeing.

Perennial Mondate

It’s an old fav, Bald Pate Mountain Preserve in South Bridgton. And we love to visit it in any season. That being said, winter will “end” in a few weeks and this morning we realized we needed to head on over.

Our plan was to follow the Moose Trail for its entire length, then continue on the South Face Loop to the summit, start down the Bob Chase Trail, veer off to Foster Pond Lookout and then make our way back by rejoining Bob Chase.

One might expect to see a moose along the first trail, and we hoped to have such luck, but it was not to be. Instead, do you see the ski tracks? Portions of the preserve are groomed for cross-country skiers as part of the system at the adjacent Five Fields Farm.

What else did we spy? Some wicked cool finds in my book of wonder. For instance, you may think that this broken off piece of a twig is merely dangling from its counterpart, but . . . it is solidly stuck in place by a fungus known commonly as glue crust. It glues together twigs and branches that touch each other.

And sometimes twigs meet the bark on the trunk of a tree and hang in what you might think of as an unnatural stance.

The fungus is the dark bumpy structure that the second twig is stuck to, much like a magical act performed by nature. Really though, this fungus doesn’t let the twig fall to the ground where it would be decomposed by other fungi. Pretty tricky–making a claim all for its own benefit.

Continuing on, we scanned every beech tree in hopes of finding bear claw trees. We did find a beech worth honoring for we loved how it rested an elbow on the boulder below and with two arms formed a frame of the scene beyond.

Ever so slowly we climbed upward, our pace not my guy’s usual because of the bear paw challenge. When one is looking, however, one discovers so many other things upon which to focus like this rather common birch polypore in a rather uncommon shape, almost like a Christmas bell jingling in the breeze.

And then there was a display of snipped hemlock twigs scattered across the snow-covered forest floor.

We looked up and saw not a silhouetted form, but by the debris, which include diagonal cuts on the twigs, comma-shaped scat (some a bit more rounded than others), and even the soft, curly belly hairs of the creator, we knew a porcupine had dined overnight.

We looked a wee bit, but found not its den. By its tracks, however, we could tell that it had made more than one visit to this fine feasting spot.

Had we climbed the Bob Chase Trail we would have reached the summit in twenty minutes, but our choice to circle about before hiking up meant we spent two hours approaching the top where the bonsai trees of the North grow–in the form of pitch pines.

The true summit is a wee bit higher and so we continued on and then turned back to take in the view of Peabody Pond below.

It was there that while looking for insect cocoons I came across the gouty oak gall caused by teeny wasps no bigger than fruit flies. The structure was woody as it’s a couple of years old. And almost creepy in its display, like a head with many eyes looking every which way.

We did take the hint and looked every which way ourselves, the next point of view beyond Hancock Pond and beyond.

And then we moved on, until that is, we reached the wall of tripe, which always invites me to stop.

Water had also stopped in the form of several frozen falls.

And again, more of nature’s magic for the icicles facilitated photosynthesis by the algal partner of the lichen’s symbiosis. It’s a thing worth liken.

Nearby, a relative also begged a notice. Do you see the black flat-headed disks upon the surface? Those are the fruiting bodies or apothecium where this lichen’s spores are produced. The common name for this umbilicate structure: toadskin.

Just above the tripe and toadskin offerings, Pleasant Mountain came into view. Hidden behind a cloudy veil was Mount Washington, which typically sits in the saddle of the Pleasant Mountain ridgeline.

As we wound down and around, polypody ferns spoke about the weather–some were curled as it was cooler in their location upon a boulder in a hemlock grove, but others were flattened bespeaking the rising temperature.

Our last focal point before heading back to the parking lot was the lookout to Foster Pond. Where once stood a tall cairn, there are now two shorter ones marking the point of view and turn-around.

It was there that we discovered another gouty oak gall, its size at least that of a golf ball; a rather holey, warty golf ball.

This preserve is forever a fav in any season, which on this Mondate offered a flash ahead (think the opposite of flashback, rather like a preview) of what is to come. We love winter. And we especially love snow. But . . . we also love all the other seasons and the perennial plants on the southern side of the mountain where the snow has melted a bit, showed off their evergreen shades and hints of future events. Wintergreen and Trailing Arubuts, the later with the long buds atop a hairy stem.

Because of the Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It led me to yet another Snowshoe Hare form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE ME, love me: Three state park gems in a row

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you: Maine that is. And more specifically, its state parks. To that end, my guy and I have been traveling at a snail’s pace since we began this journey a year ago,. In 2019, we checked two off the list. But today . . . the number finally more than doubled.

Our journey began with lunch at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. Shout out to several local businesses and friends: Pam and Justin Ward of Bridgton Books for the book bag in which we packed today’s picnic, Sierra Sunshine Simpson for the bee’s wax wrap that kept our sandwiches fresh, Fly Away Farm for the sourdough wheat bread and grape jam that enhanced our Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, and my sister for the chocolate-covered McVitie’s digestive biscuits that rounded out the meal.

Lunch completed, we began to look around and right beside the picnic table grew ever-hairy Staghorn Sumac twigs with heart-shaped leaf scars surrounding new buds. What’s not to love?

At last we headed off onto the trails. Do you see what I see? Or rather, do you not see what I don’t see? Snow. Back home, it’s quite deep, but along the coast, it seemed to be non-existent.

Eventually the trail led to the Atlantic Ocean and the infamous rocky coast of Maine. It’s really my mom’s rocky coast of Maine for she was always in search of such. Having grown up in Connecticut like she did, I understand her fascination.

My limited understanding of geological folds created by heat and pressure during the mountain-building process was enhanced by crashing waves.

Within the complexity of the geological formations was another with its own history written throughout its structure.

Sunburst lichen, foliose to umbilicate, spreading extensively, yet loosely attached, smooth to somewhat wrinkled, featured a complex organism that arose from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of fungi in a mutualistic relationship that included yeast in the mix. How’s that for a simple life form?

Step by step, one amazing feature after another made itself known, including a quartz vein cutting a quartzite bed.

Eventually we came a rock that could have been a sculpture of a bald eagle. Or perhaps a story written that still needed to be deciphered.

We continued to walk along the edge, enjoying the action of the waves as juxtaposed beside the prehistoric rocks. Part of the splendor, in fact, a major part, included the color. Our western Maine eyes don’t mind the blues and browns and greens and whites of winter, but beheld the beauty and bounty that was the splendor of this winter day.

We stood in wonder as the waves moved in, met the rock with splashes high and lo, and then retreated.

At last we walked higher ground, but still noted buckets of wonder as waves interacted with rocks to the southwest.

Beside the well-worn path we walked, others who have known this way from one generation to the next offered their winter forms, such as this Queen Anne’s Lace.

The woody form of Evening Primrose also greeted us in the midday midst.

Bulbous and colorful, yet equally full of flavor (so noted in days of yore by my father) and vitamins , rose hips offered their own take of winter.

I soon learned as we stepped away from the coastline that we weren’t the only soles who wandered the area. A vole had traveled in the subnivean layer between the ground’s surface and snow that had been–leaving its telltale tunnel.

After we circled about the edge of the 41-acre property, we headed “inland” toward the reason for its special upkeep as a state park. Once upon a time this had been a prime piece of land that offered a protective layer to Portland’s port. While a battery had been constructed, with clear points of view and contact, as well as enemy protection, no guns had ever been fired.

About a tenth or two down the road, a mini harbor provides protection for any who travel the fingered coast of Maine.

Because it offered smaller rocks among its mix, I asked my guy to look for hearts. Seek and ye shall find.

Seaweed and seashells added to the array and provided another colorful hue to this mid-winter day.

Across the harbor from our stance stood one of the two former lighthouses for which the area was known.

No longer in use, its light warned ocean farers of the rocky coast. Life has changed since its day of service, but as we stood nearby we could hear the toll of its well-revered friend, a bell buoy.

In the opposite direction of the lighthouse, the folded rocks bespoke their ancient form.

Beside such, we could feel the bend and imagine the creation.

Stepping atop, we looked back and took in the landscape.

And then we moved on, stepping out toward a beach whose shape rendered its name.

Walking upon its much softer coastal offering, we noted artistic “trees” that appeared to be deer hiding in the sandy forest.

And then there was the moss-colored seaweed making us think of the Emerald Isle miles and miles beyond.

After crossing from the seaweed-covered rocks to an upland piece, we then stepped down toward the water again where red sand greeted us and if your imagination is in as full gear as ours was, you may see a heart within the sandy artwork.

In places where water flowed over rock faces, we rejoiced in the interface of ripples upon ridges.

Up close and beyond, the scenery and the scents filled the innermost recesses of our souls.

And the artwork of those who had come before touched our whimsical sides.

After we’d reached the southwestern edge and turned back, the reason for this state park’s name became most obvious: Crescent Beach.

Walking back, we continued our quest for the shape of a heart. I found one in the suds of the retreating tide.

At exactly the same moment, my guy found one in a more rounded form among the stone offerings.

And then a gull captured our attention. He appeared to have found a hamburger roll upon which to dine.

For a few minutes he played with his meal, perhaps softening its texture in the low water.

When he finally did partake of his meal, he swallowed it all in one piece and if you look carefully at his neck, you may see the bulge on its way down.

Our third and final park of the day, for so are they closely located along the roads of Cape Elizabeth here in Maine, was Kettle Cove. Of course, it’s located between the other two, but we saved it for last.

On another day we’ll revisit it and take a look at the tidal pools that it offers, but the sun was growing low in the sky when we arrived and so our journey was on the rather quick side and didn’t do it the true honor it should receive.

In the end, however, we were thrilled with the opportunity to explore three state parks in our quest to get to know Maine better. Today’s LOVE ME, love me tour included Two Lights State Park, Crescent Beach State Park, and Kettle Cove State Park–three gems in a row.

Today's Mystery Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wondermyway turns 5

Five years ago today I turned from taking a hundred million photos on each tramp to taking a hundred million photos and writing about them.

Typically, on the anniversary I scan the past year’s posts and choose one from each month, providing a photo to represent it, with a brief (or not so brief) comment and link to the full read.

But . . . because this is a milestone I never imagined reaching (posts: 733; views: 76,793; visitors: 44371; followers: 578), I thought I’d take the time to thank you, the readers, for wandering through the wonders with me

THANK YOU

This afternoon I decided to step back into my happy place where the journey began on February 21, 2015. I had no idea back then what I might write about, but I was so excited, and a wee bit anxious, no, I was wicked anxious (don’t you love that Maine descriptor?) to share the little things with others.

It felt a bit egotistical to invite people along, but I took the first step and so many others have followed.

Over these five years, I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and greet new ones through this effort.

Please know that typically it is late in the day when I sit down to write a post, first having spent at least a few hours tramping (“You’re stating the obvious, Mom,” my sons would say if they actually read this; nor does my guy just so you know–those of you who comment to him about something that you read may have noticed his bewildered look; and then he realizes you must follow the blog), more time downloading photos in hopes of finding a few key ones to use, and then figuring out what the story is and how to tell it.

As I wander, whether alone or with you, the first draft often forms in my head, but by the time I stomp the snow or mud or pine sap off my boots, it shakes loose and disappears. I trust, however, that whatever phrase I thought was brilliant in the field will flash back through my mind at some point. Does it? Perhaps, but I’ll never know because that first draft doesn’t get recorded.

Writing is a process, one that I’ve forever enjoyed, but what you read is only part of the whole picture. Because it’s late in the day, as I said earlier, and I’m tired, I make mistakes, which I don’t always catch before I publish. For those who are email followers, or those who quickly read one of my “stories” just after I’ve posted it to social media, please forgive me. You see what I consider draft 2 without any further edits. Laurie LaMountain, the editor of Lake Living magazine, for which I’ve worked since 2006, knows full well that draft 3 is not the final from me. Sometimes it takes 18 drafts before I’m ready to go to print, and even then I know that when I turn the page to one of my articles, I’ll cringe with frustration for I missed something.

Thank you to all of you who catch my grammatical errors and gently let me know. I love having you along to share the journey.

And thank you to those who do the same when my identification or explanation is not quite correct. As in, it’s downright wrong. I appreciate your engagement.

Thank you to all of you for reading this long story and so many others that I’ve written. I know some of you just scan the photos, and I can’t say I blame you.

For me, wondermyway is a diary that I can look back upon to recall all the amazing sights and insights the natural world has shared with me. I’m happy to be able to share that with so many others–to invite you into this part of my life.

Thank you also to those of you who, because of the blog, have bestowed gifts upon me from books and calendars to ornaments, pillows, wrist warmers, scat, feathers, and even a camera on loan for an extended period of time when mine went kerplunk into the water.

No, I am not asking for more gifts; I just want to say that I am often surprised to know that what I shared or time I spent with you touched you as much as it did me.

As a parting gift, today, for helping me celebrate this fifth anniversary, let me share one post that I thought stood out this past year.

Do you remember The Secrets of Life Found Among the Dead?

Each journey has offered refresher courses and new learnings and I appreciate that you let me share them.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I celebrate the wonder that has been revealed on so many wanders thus far.

Again, thank you.

Tuesday Tracking is ON

I promised the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s Tuesday Trackers that I’d let them know by 7am today if our adventure would actually take place because the forecasters were predicting a snow storm. We LOVE snow, but not when it ruins our plans.

And so at 6:43am, after checking various weather reports and TV stations for cancellations, whereupon I discovered that no school’s had cancelled, which seemed a sign that meant if the kids could go to school, we could go tracking, until I remembered that this is school vacation week and the kids weren’t going to school today anyway, I wrote to the 54-member group: “Weather reports state that the snow will start at 1pm in both Cumberland and Oxford Counties today, but in the hourly listing it shows snow showers at 10 and snow at 11.

I’m going to go for it in hopes that we can at least find some evidence of the porcupine and its visitors, but trust those of you who had intended to join me to make that old judgement call. Please don’t be afraid to back out.”

As usual, I told them that the plan would stay the same for those who had already told me they’d attend, unless, of course, they did decided to back out. None wrote to say they could not come. Three sent messages that they would join us.

Much to my delighted surprise, seventeen met at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve parking lot #1 at the far end of Heald Pond Road in Lovell as the snowflakes fell. It was 9:30am. Actually, I met some to carpool from the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, and it was there that a few of us first noticed the flakes were falling–just after 9. Hmmm. 1:00pm?

But, this hearty crew didn’t care and after donning our snowshoes, onward we charged. Well, not exactly, for we pride ourselves in not getting far from the parking lot and then spending an hour looking and wondering. First, it was fox prints, and then a fisher that took us a while to figure out based on the clues because snow had filled in the indentations, but the pattern of the track and a few glimpses of toes helped us make a determination that was confirmed after we crossed the path of a more recent snowshoe hare, and seemed to follow the activity of a porcupine.

Like the scouts that we are, we spread out at times, each one or pair trying to notice the finer details. We were in a mixed forest in Maine, close to a summit with rocky ledges, yet near a wetland, stream and between two ponds. The overall pattern was important to notice. How was the critter moving across the landscape? And did its action change at some point? Were any finer details visible in a single print? Or a combination of prints?

Taking measurements was also important–extremely so for those prints that were a couple of days old and muted. Their shape and size and the pattern of their overall track helped, but the measurements cinched the case as we noted stride, especially for the direct walkers such as a red fox.

Ah, how did we know it was red and not gray? The measurement of its stride and straddle were spot on, but also by the scent it had left behind on saplings and rocks did we know it. A few of us got down to sniff–and we were not disappointed. Skunky musky is the odor of some fox urine, especially at this time of year when leaving a calling card with ones age, sex, and telephone number is of utmost importance.

Once you take a sniff, you never forget and know that the next time you smell that skunk in the middle of winter, you are actually in the presence, past or maybe present but watching you from a distant point, of a red fox.

We spent at least an hour with the parking lot still in view as we noted other tracks including squirrel, snowshoe hare and deer. And then we challenged ourselves–a climb to the summit to check on the porcupine den below. The snow was getting heavier and accumulating on our hats, but no one wanted to turn around.

Occasionally, we paused to catch our collective breath, happy were we to be out for this adventure. I did, of course, tell a few who were unfamiliar with the trail, that the summit was just up ahead. Um, I said that more than once. Twice. Three times. Maybe four.

But . . . it was soooo worth it. At the summit, we could see more porcupine tracks that were fresh either last night or the night before and a smattering of pine twigs that had been cut and dropped.

The angled cut of the twigs added to our knowledge bank: rodents make such cuts, called nip twigs. The twig is snipped then turned so the nutritious tender buds can be accessed; and then it is cast off, creating a “trash” pile below the feeding tree.

Bark had also been a point of the porky’s focus and we paused by saplings to wonder about the rodent’s ability to climb what struck us as the scampiest of trunks, but also to appreciate the indentations of its teeth.

While some stayed at the summit, others descended below in hopes of finding a den.

We knew we’d entered a Disney World of sorts, for everywhere we looked below the summit we saw signs of the porcupine’s adventures, including troughs leading from one potential feeding or den site to another.

Getting down wasn’t pretty, especially in one spot, but still no one gave up. Remember, this is a determined group.

Under the ledges, we stopped to check for mammal sign, curious to learn more about the story of these woods and rocks.

We weren’t disappointed. We never are. That may sound pompous, but it’s really one of wonder. When we focus, things are revealed and we are wowed. One of today’s wonders, bobcat scat. Three times over. Do you see the arrows that point to the deposits? And their segmented structure?

But . . . that wasn’t all. Despite the tricky climbing we had more to see.

It was a spot, however, where we needed to take turns given the conditions, and so while we waited, we noticed other things of interest, like the curled form of Common Polypody ferns curled up like Rhododendron leaves to indicate the cold temps–nature’s thermometers. Did I say the name of the shrub began with an M? R? M? They’re close in the alphabet. 😉 (Some of you will chuckle to know that it was my guy I turned to for the shrub’s name–I was still stuck on M)

R or M? In the end it doesn’t matter. But do check out those double rows of orange sori, clusters of spore-producing organs on the fern’s underside.

Rock tripe (which for once I didn’t pour water upon to perform a magic trick) and icicles also garnered our attention.

But . . . it was the actual porcupine den and its juxtaposition with granite and evergreen ferns and snow that tickled our fancy.

Can you see the scat, prolific in nature?

With so much, including lots of fresh deposits, we wondered if we might be disturbing the local resident. And so when our friends who’d stay at the summit yelled down to ask if we when we were going to ascend, we knew the time had come.

Back at the summit, most of us posed. Can you see Mount Washington in the background? No, we couldn’t either.

Closer to the parking lot, we posed again, before heading off on snow-covered roads to reach our homes.

It’s my job to worry and so I did: that the road conditions wouldn’t bite us. That was why I hesitated about going forth with today’s journey, but the forecasters all seemed to think doing such would be fine. Thankfully, though the predictions for the storms start were incorrect, all was fine and I was jazzed by the time we spent together, watching this engaged group in action, asking questions and making observations and asking more questions, before coming to sound conclusions.

These are the Tuesday Trackers of today. The subject of my email message this morning was this: Tuesday Tracking is ON. And they were all totally ON for today’s adventure.

P.S. The mom in me had to check on them after we’d all departed from the trailhead. Thankfully, though a few of us saw cars off the road and/or accidents as we drove home, we each took our time and everyone made it home safely. ‘

Anyone Home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scat Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Tuesday Trackers Track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Flakes Gather

Where flakes gather . . .

Trees don necklaces.

Hemlocks act like umbrellas.

Branches create geometric shapes.

Hieroglyphics are written upon crustose bases.

Red squirrel toes are enhanced.

Leaves transform into stained glass.

Catkins release fleur de lis scales and tiny seeds one by one.

A young woman smears on cranberry red lipstick.

A gnome watches from his hiding place.

And a snowman steps forth to ask for a dance.

All of this can only happen where snowflakes gather.

Rocking the First Mondate

Christmas gifts don’t always have to cost and such was one that my guy cashed in on today. You see, I gave him a card and wrote a message within that read something like this: “Let’s travel to Tin Mountain Conservation Center’s Rockwell Sanctuary in Albany, New Hampshire, one Monday this winter. Your task will be to identify three reasons why I chose this place for us to journey. If you figure out all three, I’ll buy you a beer.”

And so we went. And I wondered how quickly he would figure it out.

At the kiosk, we examined the map and decided we’d start off on the Maple Leaf Loop to the left and stay to the left, thus covering all of the outer trails. That meant we wouldn’t see everything, but in three or four hours we would see enough. Maybe.

From the get-go, he tried to figure out what three things I had in mind. Was it the signage on the trees for he appreciated that they boasted their names?

I liked that as well, but, no, the tree signs weren’t part of the deal.

What about the trail being well marked, he wondered. Yes, that was a good thing and we do sometimes have a tendency to get “fake” lost, but donning snowshoes meant we could always backtrack and find our way out. So that wasn’t it.

Could it be the decorated Christmas tree? Well, that certainly is what introduced me to the trail system a month ago for the tree was decorated as part of the ME/NH Christmas Tree Quest I’d coordinated, but that wasn’t why I wanted to travel these trails with him.

Maybe it was Chase Pond? No again. I did, however, love its layers and really wanted to walk onto it to explore some more, but I’m not ready to trust ice recently formed and then coated with an insulating layer of a foot of snow. Soon, but not yet.

In the meantime, however, the edge of the pond presented the woody structures of Leatherleaf’s former flowers and I rejoiced. He marched on, totally oblivious, but that was okay. I knew these would capture my heart, not his, and the goal was for him to figure out the three things that would appeal to both of us.

“Could it be the beaver works?” he asked as we circled the Beaver Loop.

No, but the high ridge of an old beaver dam in the mid portion of this photo made me wish we’d seen more recent works. It appeared the beavers had done their work and moved on a few years ago.

Was it the canoe half hidden in the snow? That surely was fun to stumble upon and reminded us both of canoes at LEA’s Holt Pond in Bridgton. This looked like another case of bring your own PFD and paddles. You might throw in some duck tape, just in case. But, no, it wasn’t the canoe.

We followed Stoney’s Spur down to the water’s edge and again a question: Perhaps it was that we could be the first to make tracks in the snow? Well, sorta the first, for a fox and mink had been there before us. I reminded him that when I wrote the message on the card I had no idea exactly when we would visit the sanctuary or what the trail conditions would be so again, that wasn’t one of the thoughts on my mind.

The spur did lead us to a boardwalk and we broke trail on it before heading back around to the Laurel Loop.

A sudden stop by me and he knew that this wasn’t part of the equation for he had no idea what the structure was that drew my attention. We find these occasionally and they always make me happy. This was the capsule of a Lady’s Slipper and while I suspected that there are more such plants in these woods, we’ll have to return in the spring to verify that assumption.

The Laurel Trail lead us across Bald Hill Road and it was there that the great signage we’d enjoyed came to an abrupt end. And so we moved about searching left and right to figure out where to go next.

No blaze led diagonally behind us, but down through the trees my guy spied some yellow paint and so he checked it out before beckoning me to join him.

It was that way for much of the trail and though we enjoyed the lay of the land, we had a difficult time determining where to go next.

The glacial boulders, however, were a sight to see.

And upon one I discovered an act of gravity I didn’t understand: icicles extending outward and growing parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular to it.

Was this some sort of magnetic hill? My guy never saw these so he couldn’t add his two cents, which I would have gladly welcomed. Sometimes he sees things that make sense of what I spy.

The thing about the trail, however, was that neither of us could spy the blazes most of the time, unless we turned around and looked back. We were supposed to be exploring a loop and crossing back over the road, but suddenly found ourselves traveling back toward whence we’d come. Even with GPS, which didn’t pick up the actual trail, we could see our movement but couldn’t determine where we were supposed to be since the map wasn’t geo-referenced.

That was okay because our wander found us traveling through a Mountain Laurel field we would have otherwise missed.

My guy was rather certain the plant was not for his focus and so he moved on while I paused for the old Kodak moment.

Finally crossing back over the road by backtracking our steps for a bit, he wondered if the Owl Prowl Trail was one of the three reasons I’d chosen this place. No, though we both love owl encounters.

Crossing a bridge, he didn’t realize that he was suddenly getting hotter.

The bridge marked the outlet of Chase Pond and huge boulders formed its old damming point.

Our next left hand turn took us on to the Quarry Trail.

As we traversed it, a lightbulb went off and he asked, “The quarry?” YES! Quarries fascinate both of us and I knew he’d enjoy finding and exploring this one. He was feeling rather successful and grateful that he wouldn’t be the victim of a shut out.

At the next intersection he had his second answer: Bear Trees. Bingo. But, would we be able to actually see any?

Indeed we would. We both love the discovery of scratches left behind by the big mammals.

And so, as we climbed about through the quarry, we continued to look for beech trees with marks showing the way of the climber.

The rocks left behind offered their own interesting forms.

And the trees, lots of evidence.

There was more on the trees as well, and not all of it worth celebrating: do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among the red bloom? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insects. The holes the tiny insect makes in the bark create a perfect entry point for nectria pathogen to make its way into the tree. The pathogen, a type of fungus, kills some areas of the tree at the point of entry. In reaction, the tree develops a canker as a defensive attempt to ward off the invader, but by doing so the canker blocks the vascular tissue of the infected beech by stopping nutrient flow in that one area.

And those red spots, as pretty as they appear, are actually tarry spots which ooze out of the cracks in the bark caused by the canker. Essentially, it appeared the tree was bleeding.

We preferred to focus on the scratches, some indicating a more recent visit than others, based on the width of the marks.

We kept finding them and wondered how many more there must be within the sanctuary and beyond.

It was no wonder for many of the trees are mature and, as evidenced by the husks left scattered on the snow, they’ve been producing fruits, aka beech nuts, for a long time.

After almost four miles in three hours, my guy and I finished up our trip and he was thrilled to have figured out that I chose this place for the quarry and the bear trees. But the third reason alluded him.

That’s okay. It just means we’ll have to return again so he can figure it out. Of course, that also meant no stop for a beer on the way home.

Perhaps the next time. In the meantime, we’re both still thrilled with the finds we did make as we rocked this first Mondate of the new year.

New Year's Eve Lessons 2019

When the snow falls on the last day of the year, embrace all that it has to offer.

And there’s no better way to do such than by strapping on the old snowshoes and taking a selfie. My style of selfie, that is.

As you head into the woods, the first thing you should do is locate a treasure map. You never know where it might lead. Sometimes, you’ll discover you’re traveling in circles, as I did a couple of times today.

If the map leads you under archways, be sure to duck.

Or if it presents a field of pine saplings, find your way around them. Do be sure to look for insects and spiders as you pass by.

Today, all I saw were needle-like snowflakes.

You might soon discover that you aren’t the only one on a quest: the batman-shape of prints may indicate other travelers on the snow–in this case a squirrel.

At some point, you may come to realize that others followed the directions on the map, but at an earlier time. By the muted hour-glass shape and depth of the track, you should recognize it as a white-tailed deer.

If you are really fortunate, the map will lead you to deer beds, the rounded part of each large indentation indicating the back of the mammal.

When you look up, you’ll understand why they chose this location to bed down during the night–the huge hemlock above provided some protection from the weather.

Take a few more steps and suddenly you may discover that fresh tracks had been left behind probably moments before you approached.

And though your brain may trick you into thinking the deer had gotten a head start on a New Year’s Eve party, reality will sink in when you remember that they have two basic needs: food and safety from prey.

Fresh beds may also make themselves visible and by the shape you might begin to envision a head on the snow just right of the center, the rounded back side on the left and extended legs toward the bottom right of the impression.

As you continue your journey more treasures will be revealed, like the “naked,” yet hairy buds of hobblebush keeping winter’s weather at bay.

And the waxy scales of beech buds doing the same. For some, such a sight will provide a measure of hope that spring will come again.

Be sure to enjoy all the messages on the map, such as this one: be proud of your roots and don’t be afraid to let them show.

Or this: interruptions happen and that’s probably a good thing.

Always do you best to be as transparent as possible.

Listen to you mama and dress in layers.

Don’t be afraid to cross boundaries (even if they’re marked).

Recognize that you may have some prickly moments.

And in the end, check in on old friends and make new ones.

When the last day of the year, in fact, of the decade, gives you snow . . . make a snow person.

The heartiest lesson of all: take time to laugh with it and at yourself. Ho Ho Ho!

Happy New Year, dear readers. I truly appreciate having you along for each wonder-filled wander.

Something to Pine Over

I set off on a mission this afternoon: to spy another Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. I last spied one on December 17th, and was sure the task would be a piece of cake today.

On the plot of land that I roamed, which had been owned by a paper company until about thirty years ago, stood towering pines, but also some that were about 20 years old and others mere saplings. I’d love to say each one captured my attention, and really, they all did, but there are still a million more to examine.

In the process, I began to notice that it wasn’t just the spider that would give me reason to wonder. First there was the ichneumon wasp cocoon. In size it was the same as another that I’ll share later in this post, but the metallic color and spotted pattern made it stand out. Presumably the larva that created it is a parasitoid of some caterpillars that feed on conifers.

Mind you, I was in the woods and there were patches of snow and certainly other patterns to pay attention to so I let my mind wander in the moment. And rejoiced with this find: an opossum track.

An opposable inner toe on each hind foot looks like a human thumb. In a shuffling motion as it waddles along, an opossum places its back feet just behind the front feet.

I followed this guy’s track for a bit until it disappeared into leaf cover and I suspected it might be up a tree.

And so my spider expedition continued. My next find: a tiny clump of bird feathers. But no spider in sight.

Again, I digressed, however, for on an old snag, I found lungwort growing over a burl in a formation I’ve not seen before. I’m used to finding it on the trunk of a tree, but wrapped around the rounded growth was a new presentation.

Back to the task at hand, and I suspected this was a molt of what may have been a tiger moth caterpillar. No spider yet, but I was getting more and more excited with each find.

Practically tripping over a downed tree I came upon another sight new to me. Here’s how I’m reading this story: the green capped mushrooms, violet-tooth polypore, had begun life when the tree was standing. Once it toppled, new fungi grew perpendicular to their parents so that their spores might drop downward. While I’ve seen this with other mushrooms, where new growth emerges from old, I’ve never encountered it with this species before.

Certainly that called for the reward of a spider. A dried up caterpillar molt would have to suffice in the meantime.

And then, in another patch of snow, another waddler had shuffled through. Remember the opossum pattern of the hind foot overlapping the front? Well, a raccoon’s pattern is offered in a series of alternating diagonals. One front foot and hind on the first angle, the other front and hind the opposite. And so it continues.

What made me chuckle about the raccoon was that it chose to walk on a downed tree rather than the more stable ground. Why not?

Refocusing my attention, upon another pine was a pupating ladybug beetle. Its structure strikes me as unique until I realize all insects are idiosyncratic in any stage of life. Still no spider.

Traveling through the woods was a bit difficult at times as there was no path and there were either clumps of trees growing in each others space or downed and rotting trunks. It was upon the later that I spied a bit of color from a thin-maze flat polypore, Daedaleopsis confragosa.

Its underside gave the name meaning. Can you follow the maze?

At last I turned my attention solely to the pines for the hour was getting late and the sun sinking lower and I still had to find my way out and walk home. It was then that I met an old friend in a new form. Remember the ichneumon wasp cocoon at the start of this story? Well, the pine sawfly cocoon is similar in size and shape. This one I refer to as an old friend for I encounter these on any type of tree or shrub all the time, but given that there was no opening, I knew that within the sawfly was pupating. Still no spider.

Then I found examples of those that had been sawed open. Given that the cut is always uniform, a few friends and I have taken to calling it the circular-saw fly. The fly would have emerged in the spring. Still no spider.

Finally, I found another sight new to me: double sawfly cocoons. Surely a two-seater.

I never did find the spiders I sought. But there was certainly plenty to pine over as I tramped the woods. And all of it was worth a wonder.

Stars in the Circle

I never had the good fortune to meet John A. Segur, but I’ve given him thanks repeatedly over the years. You see, Mr. Segur left a bequest to the Greater Lovell Land Trust to preserve habitat so that native wildlife might thrive.

It was my choice today to check on how that was playing out as I circumnavigated the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge from Farrington Pond Road. Since the parking lot isn’t plowed for the winter, I pulled off at the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, which actually was a better spot because I didn’t want to be enticed to follow the trails.

A wise decision it was, for as I tramped along the property line on a northeasterly route to start, a grin immediately emerged. It was the downhill slide that made me instantly happy for I knew that rather recently an otter had also visited the refuge. As it should.

The bottom of the slide ended at the shore of Farrington Pond, a view those of us who visit the refuge rarely see for there is no path to it. But I rather like it that way for bushwhacking allows for new discoveries that aren’t as sterile as a maintained trail. And I suspected Mr. Segur would have felt the same. Plus, his vision was all about a wildlife corridor.

He also would have smiled when he realized that the beavers by Farrington had been active at some point in the fall. Unfortunately, (or as I’m sure some neighbors feel: fortunately) I didn’t see any other “fresh” beaver works, though I didn’t walk all the way around the pond, so I’m not sure of their status in this locale.

But, they had visited in the past including at least ten years ago, based on the growth rings on display around the wound. It’s my understanding that Eastern Hemlock is not a favorite species of beavers and they will often girdle a tree by eating the bark and cambium layer all the way around the trunk, perhaps in hopes it will die. I’ve heard a few theories on this including that beavers do such so that their preferred species will have a chance to grow where the hemlock once provided so much shade that no other trees could set root. But here’s another to throw onto the table: what if the beaver starts to dine and then realizes the flavor is not to his liking? And so he moves on to another tree. Hey, it’s just a theory.

Another thing about beavers is that sometimes they chop down trees that don’t exactly fall as planned. In this case, the entire upper portion dangles from another in the form of a widow maker–as in, don’t stand, or in this case sit, below it.

While studying the tree and thinking about the beaver, I looked down to the pond and saw more mammal sign. Can you spot the otter slide?

Eventually my bushwhack led me toward a stream crossing where the ice wasn’t exactly solid. But the bubbles that had formed within it were like little round spirals that reminded me of the inside of abalone shells. Or perhaps snails.

Suddenly, leaf cracklings filled the air that had been silent except for the sound of wind whooshing at a higher elevation. It took my eyes a few moments to discover the source of the noise, and then I realized I was near a flock of robins. My movement disturbed them, but they didn’t fly far and so we each spent a few moments contemplating our next moves.

As I stood there, I noticed a small tuft of feathers stuck to a hemlock branch, which reminded me that I need to stand still more often for it’s in those moments that things make themselves visible.

Finally I carried on, pausing again, however, when an old, old Yellow Birch showed off the stilts upon which it grew. From their height, I could just imagine the long rotted trunk that once served as its nurse tree, allowing its seed to germinate and set down roots.

Nearby was another ancient, this one a hemlock that preferred to begin life in the same manner as the Yellow Birch. I was sure it had stories to tell and know I’ll return one day soon to spend some time enwrapped by those roots as I listen.

The trees led the way to the wetland and I really, really wanted to explore it, but because I was alone (well, not exactly alone for Mr. Segur was with me kinda sorta, not really) I thought that that too should wait for another day.

If you peer closely at the snow-covered ice beginning from the lower right hand corner and moving toward the shrubs, you may spy the track of another mammal. Do you recognize the pattern? Once you learn patterns, you don’t always have to see the prints up close to know the creators.

Finally, I decided to turn away from Farrington Pond for there was another wetland on the property that I wanted to visit. But first, I found an old beaver dam. Given the lower level of water behind it, I knew that it was not in use, but it looked like a mighty sturdy structure.

Across the landscape I made my way, noting tracks of a million wild animals. Well, maybe not a million, but certainly many including coyote, fox, deer, raccoon, squirrel, vole, mouse, hare, weasel, and fisher. Some were fresh, while others a bit diluted from fluctuating temperatures. This was a place where the mammals wander freely as Mr. Segur intended.

In so doing, I also spied some puff balls that reminded me of applehead dolls with their weathered faces.

There were others who also offered a different take on their natural form–one might call this the star steeple for aster seeds had landed upon the woody structure of steeplebush capsules.

And then in a field I made a “new to the property” discovery: Tamarack trees. I love the nubs that once supported their leaves (aka needles) and the upright cones. Cones remain on the trees for about two years. I wondered about them being upright, but I suppose that as the scales open to release the winged seeds, they catch the breeze and rather than merely rain down below their parent, they are uplifted to a new location.

Continuing my bushwhack, I also continued to keep a keen eye on the world.

But there were a couple of locations I wanted to check on before my time with Mr. Segur ended. At last I reached Sucker Brook and again I chose not to venture onto the ice. One of these days.

From there, it was on to another place more secret than the last that I had my sights set upon. First, however, I stopped to look at the marcescent beech leaves, some like this one that were mere skeletons of themselves so thoroughly had they been munched. It was almost like all that was left was the backbone and rib cage.

Seeing this reminded me of a spring day on this property about four years ago: A Perfect Beech Day. On that day I’d been wowed by the unfurling beech leaves and noticed how hairy they were. In my book, the hairs are meant to keep insects at bay, and yet beech leaves are attacked by many, many little bugs. On that day I also made a bunch of other cool discoveries. You really should click the link above and read about it.

Speaking of little bugs, I also found a pupating ladybug beetle, its form so unique. If I hadn’t known, I never would have guessed it was a ladybug.

At last I reached that spot that I think of as the secret garden. There isn’t an official trail to it, but over the years many have had the opportunity to discover it on their own and been wowed. That’s how I think Mr. Segur would have liked it. We don’t need trails bisecting every inch of a property. We just need more curious people.

This is a spot where three beaver lodges are located as one gazes north.

In the distance to the south there are two more, but you’ll have to visit the secret spot in order to see them.

While you are there, don’t forget to honor the Rhodora, which is slowly preparing to wow all of us in the spring.

And if you choose to bushwhack out, eventually you might stumble upon the inflated capsule of Indian Tobacco. (Hint: it’s near the edge of an opening)

A little more than three hours and over three miles after beginning, my time wandering the property with Mr. Segur had drawn to a close.

I gave thanks to him for showing me all the stars within and surrounding the circle.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this in 2016, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

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He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes something like this . . .

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The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

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Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

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Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bear for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

On the Fringe

When Pam and I decided to meet this morning we knew it was going to be the coldest day of the season and so we’d need to dress accordingly. For me, it was six layers on top, two on my legs, wool socks, a hat and buff, plus mittens and hand warmers. Her ensemble was similar.

We met on the side of a road by an old stomping ground we’ve been eager to revisit for there was a certain porcupine that had been calling our names since last winter.

He didn’t let us down. Almost immediately we spotted his track pattern and the hole that serves as an entrance to his home.

His prints weren’t super clear, but I suspected some snow had blown into them after he’d made his way home about sunrise this morning. We could also see more muted prints that led away from the hole and decided that those were made just prior to last night’s snow squalls.

We looked around the area for other signs of his presence and found a vent hole or two above his underground home.

Outlined with hoar frost, we knew this guy was snug within his living quarters.

But, the question remained: where had last night’s adventure taken him? His track passed by the hemlock he spent last winter in and we noted that all the twigs he’d snipped off now decorated the ground as skeletons of their past, needleless as they were.

He led us to another hemlock tree that he seemed to pause beside and perhaps climb, but he didn’t do any dining there. A chipmunk had also raced around a wee bit later than the porcupine.

Sometimes he waddled over downed trees.

Other times he went under them and we had to find an easier way around, all the while making sure that in wet spots, we didn’t fall through any ice. It was a bit tricky to say the least, but we were determined.

At last our question was answered when we saw disturbance in the snow and oak leaves. Mr. Porcupine had come to forage for acorns.

We even found a spot where it appeared he’d paused to dine. And the track of a vole. One of the things I love about snow is the information it gives us and the fact that it makes us think about the story. The porcupine’s story ends there for our adventure, as the acorn feast was his turn around point. From there, his track returned to his den.

We, on the other hand, went looking for more and on our way to a brook that slices through the property, we discovered many ornamental icicles decorating the trees, each with its own interpretation of form and structure.

Our hope was to get as close to the water as possible, for there we were sure we’d spot others who had passed through the landscape. To keep from falling through the thin ice, however, we had to cross from one Cousin Itt clump to another.

If anyone tracked us later in the day, they must have thought, “Hmmm, human paused here for .minute, then took a giant step to get to the next Cousin Itt.” And they would have been correct in their assumption.

It was closer to the edge, where the winterberries and sweetgale grew, that Pam spied another ornament to add to nature’s Christmas tree.

The remains of a small bald-faced wasp nest dangled from the shrub. One cannot view such without wondering about the fact that the wasps had collected plant and wood fiber, mixed it with saliva, and chewed it into a papier-mâché of their own form. And in so doing, though this nest was smaller than some we’ve encountered, its structure was the same. This happens over and over again in nature and my awe never ends.

Eventually, we left that spot and journeyed to another. Not far along, we recognized another old friend, a snow lobster, I mean snowshoe hare.

Typically with hoppers, leapers, and bounders, I don’t take time to measure the stride because it can vary so much, stride being the length from one set of prints to the next. But, this was one huge hop and so out came my tape measure. Mind you, it’s a six foot measure. And by the black lines you can see that the hare flew through the air and landed almost seven feet from his jumping off point.

We followed him for a few minutes and then got distracted by the bird prints that were everywhere . . . as were the hemlock and birch seeds. Tis the season, and while folks aren’t necessarily finding birds at their feeders, I hear and/or see them every time I step into the woods. Let’s hope the same holds true for next week’s Christmas Bird Count. BTW: these are junco tracks.

A ruffed grouse had also wandered through and we laughed as we followed his track for he made some abrupt turns.

Again, making our way to the brook that crossed through this property, we found other cool things to admire and wonder about, including the Blackberry Knot Gall. Of course, we didn’t know it’s exact name at the time, but some homework helped with the ID. Apparently, the Blackberry Knot Gall Wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) laid numerous eggs in the plants cane and the plant accommodated such by creating an abnormal growth. Being colonial, there’s a group of larval wasps wintering inside. I did wonder, however, if the hole was created by a very hungry woodpecker or some other bird. This one will need repeat visits so we can keep track of any ongoing activity.

Besides more bird tracks, lots of bird tracks, we found a set of gray squirrel tracks and chuckled as we noticed his attempt to climb to the top of the tree, at which point it appeared that he decided not to jump to the other side of the brook, but rather to run back down and cross via the ice. The brook isn’t entirely frozen, so his journey was precarious at best.

For a bit, we followed the brook to the wetland, a wetland that we love to explore in winter, but again, the conditions were such and I did break through some ice, that we finally turned around. But really, we may have continued if it hadn’t been for the temperature and wind.

When she arrived home, Pam sent me this image. I think saying it “feels like 2˚” may have been an understatement. It was our feet that proved to be the coldest. Later, we each admitted that it took a hot bath/shower to finally warm up. A cup of tea also helped do the trick.

Despite that, we were grateful for the opportunity to travel the fringes of the wetlands during the fringe season as fall turns to winter in western Maine.

Wondermyway meets the Bangor Daily News

At the nudging from one of the founders of the Maine Master Naturalist Program, Dorcas Miller, I submitted an article to the “Act Out” section of the Bangor Daily News.

To my pleasant surprise, it was accepted. (And they’ve asked for another–yippee!)

Here’s the link: https://bangordailynews.com/2019/12/10/act-out/maine-naturalist-befriends-a-ruffed-grouse/

Many, many thanks to Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News and “Act Out with Aislinn” for making it all happen.

Rejoice in the Unexpected

My hostess wasn’t home when I ventured upon her land today, but I went with her blessings. And in return was blessed.

I’d barely stepped into the woods when a female pileated woodpecker called for attention as she tapped with intention and sloughed off pieces of bark in a quest for insects.

My own quest was to check on beaver activity, for I’ve traveled this land before and knew their previous hangouts, but . . . by the level of water behind the first dam the water was a wee bit low and I sensed no one was at home nearby.

Just below the dam, a tall sculpture created last year indicated that we grow ’em big in these parts. Beavers, that is. But really, last winter the water was higher and so was the snow, so it wasn’t a super hero beaver after all who had gnawed and shouted, “Timber.”

A wee bit downstream stood dam number 2, also not in current use. But . . .

By the path through broken ice, I suspected that an otter had checked out the scene rather recently.

Perhaps he had high hopes of finding someone at home. When I knocked, no one answered.

Dam number 3 was also defunct and I began to wonder if there were any beavers in the neighborhood.

And then . . . and then I spotted a tell-tale sign: fresh incisor marks on a single tree. Do you notice how they are oriented left to right? A beaver must turn its head to the side in order to scrap the tree trunk and reach the inner bark with its upper and lower incisors.

Beyond the new works, were plenty of old, the shades of the wood telling the story of years of activity.

And on some trees, new met old, adding more colors and designs to the art work.

An old lodge stood in the middle of the wetland that was fed by a brook and stream, where ice sealed the world above from the world below.

A closer look at the lodge revealed that it had been compromised, and the memory of an exploration last winter reminded me that a predator had been attracted to it but didn’t seem to find anyone at home. Today, it seemed, the house was still an empty chamber.

As I continued along the edge of the wetland, I found one tree where a beaver merely took a quick taste and perhaps didn’t find it to his liking. Or . . . a predator happened along and he skedaddled back through the icy water to the safety of home.

It became apparent that someone was indeed home, just not in the first lodge. And by the color of the wood, the logging operation had occurred rather recently.

Wood chips on the ice added to the assumption that this was a recent harvest and if you look beyond, you’ll see two dome-shaped lodges in the offing.

From the shore, both looked well mudded, like we might add insulation and Typar to our homes to keep winter temperatures at bay. This technique also makes it resistant to attack from predators. What it doesn’t keep out is other undesirable visitors often in the form of hordes of insects.

The closest lodge was rather skyscraper in height and I began to wonder, was it the living room and the shorter one perhaps the kitchen? Did you know that beavers heap sticks until they are well above water and then gnaw their way up into the structure to create a chamber?

Much of the color surrounding the houses and throughout the wetland was provided courtesy of leatherleaf and its upright leaves and future flowers stored within the tiny buds.

Not far downstream from the two lodges, an infinity pool any homeowner might die for gave proof that someone was indeed home. Keeping the water high is important for beaver survival since they need to access their food supply of munch sticks stored underwater near the lodge and come and go from said homestead via a secret entryway. Secret to us and most of their predators, that is. Water snakes came find them in season. And otters can find them at any time, especially when the possibility of enjoying a meal of a young one seems a possibility.

Below dam number 4 water rushed and ice formed.

Dam number 5 was along a different stream, and though it hasn’t been in use for several years, its structure is worth honoring.

The meadow above invites others to take advantage and in the spring muskrats and wood ducks were seen in this place.

That’s the thing about beavers; they create wetlands that create habitats for others to enjoy, such as the deer that left behind some rubs on trees by dam number 1. From the raggedness at both ends of the rub and smooth wood between, I knew a buck had roamed this land and rubbed his antlers, leaving an inviting scent for a doe to notice.

And a chipmunk hole surrounded by hoar frost indicated someone was eating and breathing within.

But . . . not all chipmunks have decided to retreat to their underground homes just yet. The funny thing about a chipmunk is that it can pose as still as possible for minutes on end so a predator won’t spy it, but the minute it decides to move, it chirps. Why is that?

Certainly, it seems, it sends out a message to others like the bobcat who left behind a print or two or three on several patches of snow.

I traveled this land today because of the generosity of my hostess and so for her I found a bunch of fungi and decided to honor her with a false tinderconk as my way of giving thanks for letting me trespass almost anytime I want.

I’d gone to check on the beavers and was pleased with the discoveries I made for I know where they are and aren’t active. And I’ll return because those five dams and four lodges are only a taste of what her land has to offer.

But, it was the ice that once again stopped me in my tracks. Like the water it forms from, I’m always awed by the artwork created, in this case chandeliers dangled.

Seriously. Seriously, my heart stopped when I found a three-dimensional heart sticking up from a rock. Seriously.

My favorite find of all though, was a reflection of my face as I rejoiced in the unexpected.

This next month I hope you’ll make time to do the same.