Returning to Wonder

For three hours this morning I wandered across the crusty snow in the forest behind our home, all the while wondering what I might see. Occasionally, I sat on a stone wall or tree stump and let the sun’s warmth embrace me on this brisk day as I listened.

There were a few sights that gladdened my heart, including the woody capsules of pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys. Monotropa means once turned, while hypopitys refers to its habitat under pine or fir trees. This one had grown under white pines by a stone wall. And from the looks of it, the capsule had not yet split open from the tip to the base, thus the seeds hadn’t been released.

As I sat there, I looked across into an area of forest succession. About 15-20 years ago, one section had been almost clear cut and pine, beech, oak, and birch saplings now vie for air space. They aren’t the only ones, for wasps had apparently flown their own route among the branches as evidenced by the nest that was now in disarray.

I’m not sure if the wasp nest was from this past summer or a previous year, for some of the pulp had been threaded into a nearby bird nest. But then again, I’ve found other wasp nests in these woods in previous years.

Within minutes, I changed my focus from tree branches to the icy snow carpet. Where the forest was young, snowshoe hare scat was abundant. Oh, how I wanted to see one. But, my movements were too loud and quick.

Where the forest was a bit more mature, but still included coppiced trees (coppiced means a trees ability to make new stems from the roots or stump after its been cut down), moose tracks and scat were equally abundant. My favorite sight was of a moose print filled with scat–including the two dew claws a the back of the foot. Since this is a sideways photograph, the dew claws would be those two little scat-filled circles, one atop the other, just right of the center.

Oh, how I wanted to see a moose. But, I had to settle for the prints, scat, and possibly another sign. Many coppiced red maples’ terminal buds had been heartily consumed and so I studied the branches. An voilà, hair stuck behind one lateral bud. You many not be able to see it, but the fibers were tubular, as the winter coat of our northern mammals usually is–thus allowing the critter to trap air inside and remain warm(er). Moose and deer don super-insulated jackets of long, hollow hairs. They also sport a dense, soft undercoat that allows them to stay cozy and warm. I’m not certain, but some of the hair specimen may have included the wispier undercoat.

I was grateful for my findings, but all along I kept thinking about the fact that I really wasn’t seeing anything exceptional and perhaps my sense of wonder had disappeared. And so I decided to head home and along the way I recalled a few fun sights I’d made from behind the glass in our back door. Can you see the red squirrel’s tongue?

And do you spy the gray squirrel that tried to hide during a recent icy rain storm?

That same day a chickadee watched intently as an icicle dripped from the feeder’s overhang.

Then there were the red foxes. One or two pass through our yard almost every day. Sometimes we see them more than once in a day. During our most recent snowstorm (when all of one inch or so coated the snow we already had) the duo graced us with a lunch time visit (our lunch time, that is).

The bird feeding station is always one of their stops for it’s a gathering place day and night of birds and other mammals.

And then, on Christmas Eve morning, one of the foxes got down on all fours in anticipation, ready to pounce . . . on a gray squirrel that ran up a tree. Red foxes don’t climb trees, but had it been a gray fox, it could have outsmarted the squirrel for they do climb.

I was almost home, and indeed back in our woodlot, when I remembered first hearing and then watching a male pileated woodpecker the other day. How do I know it’s a male? Because it has a red “mustache” on its cheek, and the red crest on its head extends to its bill.

At last I was back behind the window in the back door and periodically I checked on the activity. A downy woodpecker didn’t let me down. Check out the red heart on the back of its head–thus it was a male.

The downy’s bill is about a third the size of its head and rather narrow when compared to other woodpeckers that frequent western Maine. What I find fascinating are the light brown rictal bristles as the base of its bill, which are thought to offer some sort of sensory mission.

And then as if on command, in flew a hairy woodpecker, so named apparently for the long, filamentous white feathers in the middle of its back. I find that a curious distinction because the downy seemed to have a similar feature. But the differences I do recognize are the red color–in the male you’ll see two bars on the back of the hairy’s head, not joined together as on the downy; and the bill again–for the hairy, the bill is thicker and almost as long as the bird’s head. And easy mnemonic: huge hairy for the huge bill.

It was a while before the hairy left the long-damaged quaking aspen in the yard. Have you ever watched one? It can stay in one position for a long time, all the while looking about. Was it listening for insects? Looking for something? I don’t know, but eventually it flew to the feeder and began to eat the suet. And if you look closely, you’ll see the rictal bristles that looked like a bushy mustache atop its upper mandible.

Squirrels too, attracted my awe. Earlier in the day I heard one chastising me and thought, “Oh, it’s just a red squirrel.” Then I reminded myself that I like squirrels. I’m fascinated by them. And am having fun watching them move across the landscape, which is bringing a new understanding to my mind and will possibly be the topic for another post.

You wanna know one cool fact about red squirrels? Of course you do. Do you see the tufts of hair on the tips of its ears? During early fall, the tufts grow like a crown on their heads. It seems apropos since despite their size, they think they are the kings of the forest.

One of the resident gray squirrels (possibly the one that survived the fox treeing episode) joined the feeding frenzy out the door. It showed an outline of white fur behind its ears, but no tufts at the top–more visible if you look at her left ear.

And then there was the titmouse–a tufted titmouse to be exact. Yes, it too has a tuft . . . all year round. And the largest eyes. But why the tuft? And isn’t a cardinal also tufted? Why isn’t it called a tufted cardinal?

At the end of the day, I know there’s more for me to see and notice and question and I realize that I’ve returned to wonder. Thankfully.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this two years ago, 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 sparkle 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 long ago, 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 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 bare 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.

Merry Christmas from Narramissic

With Christmas rapidly approaching I decided to visit Narramissic, the Peabody-Fitch Farm gifted to the Bridgton Historical Society in 1987 by Mrs. Margaret Monroe of Providence, Rhode Island.

I had the honor of knowing Mrs. Monroe’s daughter, Peg Norman, who essentially grew up in the house having spent all of her summers there. Her mother purchased the house in 1938 after the death of her father. In Peg’s words as recorded in an essay entitled “Narramissic – Hard to Find” that she wrote when the deed was transferred from her mother’s estate to the historical society, she said, “[Mother] was searching for a refuge, a place to heal.” 

Peg continued, “Inside the house I remember only clothes hung everywhere and an unmade bed in the upstairs sitting room. My mother saw beyond. She saw the fans over the doorways, 

the granite hearthed fireplaces, Nancy Fitch’s name engraved in the wavey glass window pane, the sweeping arch of the carriage house entrance . . .

and the mountains, purple massifs unfolding out of the sky. She felt the history and eternity and peace.”

Peg went on to mention that her family spent “many Christmas holidays and ski weekends up there throughout the years — just the way the Peabodys and Fitches had (the original owners of the farm), heated by the kitchen stove and blazing fireplaces — and an old Franklin stove my mother finally allowed to be set in the living room fireplace ‘just for winter.'” 

Peg’s mention of the outbuildings included the barn, “the huge barn with the biggest horse I had ever seen munching contentedly in the front stall.”

Still standing, though its had some help recently to that end, the barn was erected by the Fitches and has come to be known as the Temperance Barn; historical records claim it to be so named “because it was raised without the traditional barrel of rum.”

I chose to explore on this delightfully warm day(45˚ feels like summer given the recent temps), but also to gain a better understanding of the collaboration between the historical society and Loon Echo Land Trust as they raise funds to purchase the 252-acre Peabody-Fitch Woods from the Norman family and place it under conservation easement while adding to a contiguous forest with other protected properties both adjacent and nearby. As I crossed the field, I kept turning back–to admire the farm and the mountains, including the ridge-line of our beloved Pleasant Mountain. Between Loon Echo and The Nature Conservancy, almost 3,000 acres of the mountain is protected and LELT maintains the 10 miles of trails that we frequent. 

It occurred to me that I didn’t realize the blue trail that crossed the field and continued into the woods, as designed by Adam Jones for his Eagle Scout Project in 1999, wasn’t part of the historical society’s property. 

And yet, it’s just as important for many species depend on it. Should the property be developed, the historical and natural features might diminish.

Should it be developed, I won’t be able to return in the future to figure out why the squirrel condominium featured a muddy carpet between doorways. 

Should it be developed, I’d miss out on ice formations along the trail such as this miniature pony — saddle and rider included. 

Should it be developed, new understandings would bypass me, such as the fact that white oaks do indeed grow in Bridgton. Well, at least in South Bridgton. This one was speckled with spring tails on this warm day. 

Should it be developed, the pileated woodpeckers will have fewer trees upon which to excavate. 

And selfishly, I’ll have fewer opportunities to search for their scat — filled with insect body parts. 

Should it be developed, there will be fewer toadskin lichens to admire. Thanks to the melting snow, many of the examples I found today were bright green, making the black-beaded apothecia where its spores are produced stand out in contrast. Toadskin lichen may be indestructible, but should the property be developed I wondered about the lichen’s immortality. 

Should the property be developed, where would the snowshoe hare scat? 

And the same for the ruffed grouse? 

Should it be developed, what would happen to K.F. and T.B.? 

Should the property be developed, would I see sights such as this and come to another new understanding?

I was actually searching for bear claw marks that alluded me (and I know they are there for I’ve seen them before) and instead saw this red bloom decorating some beech bark. It was quite pretty and festive given the season. 

At first look, I thought it was the apothecia of a crustose lichen, but do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among it? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insect. 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. 

Should the property be developed, what would become of the quarry and bear trap? 

This is the spot from which the foundations for the buildings were split so long ago.

Should the property be developed, would the plug and feather holes left behind as reminders of an earlier time disappear from the landscape?

The land already has been developed around Bear Trap, which is located at the end of the trail. We used to be able to hike or drive there; now one can only hike and you kinda, sorta need to know where it is.

How did the bear trap come to be? According to an August 17, 1963 article in the Bridgton News, “Enoch Perley, early settler of South Bridgton, built his first house in 1777 and brought his bride to their new home in 1778. [I believe this was at Five Fields Farm.]

As Enoch acquired livestock, he was much troubled by depredations from bears. He built a bear trap on the hill back of his first home . . .

Tradition says that four bears were caught in this trap–not enough! So Mr. Perley later had an iron bear trap made which took care of eight bears. Without a doubt, many were disposed of by him personally. A story is told that in an unarmed encounter with a bear and two cubs beside a wood road at dusk, Mr. Perley allegedly strangled the mother bear with his garters . . .”

The article continues, “The bear trap is built of stone. A large stone door is suspended and as the bear takes the bait, he trips the lever and is caught in the stone enclosure.”

In a December 1954 issue of the Bridgton News, a brief article states: “The old stone bear trap on the mountain in South Bridgton known as ‘Fitch’s Hill,’ unused for more than one hundred years, has been reactivated by Dr. Fred G. Noble and Gerald Palmer and put in readiness to capture a bear.” As the story goes, they never did succeed.

Should the Peabody-Fitch Woods be developed, all of this will be lost.

My hope is that the Bridgton Historical Society and Loon Echo Land Trust will experience a Merry Christmas as they finish out their fund-raising drive to purchase the land.

I think I walked beyond the boundary they are considering, but Bear Trap is one of my favorite historical sites. And with today’s walk I came to the realization of how important it is to protect the land around the farm.

Before I finish, I have one final historical piece of writing to share. In his memoirs, “Ninety Years of Living,” Edwin Peabody Fitch (1840-1931) who grew up in the farmhouse wrote, “Holidays were not much in evidence in those days. Christmas was so far in the shade, we didn’t think much about it. In fact, we felt that it was just a Catholic holiday and not be be observed by us. We went to school on that day and the only notice we took of it was to shout “Merry Christmas!” to the classmates. 

Merry Christmas from and to Narramissic! 

Holey Mysteries

It all began with a photo sent to me by a friend two days ago. “Any ideas? 8 inches wide. 20 yards from a bog,” he wrote. 

I asked him about tracks in the area, but other than deer, he saw none. He did, however, see two track makers–a fisher and a weasel. 

And so, I contacted a few other friends and invited them to join me on a quest to figure out what the hole was all about. 

We met at the designated location, determined it would probably be in our best interest to wear snowshoes rather than Micro-spikes, and set off to search for the hole and clues. 

But first, something else stumped us. Oh, wait. I wasn’t stumped. I knew it was sumac and a bird must have been munching on the seeds. But . . . I didn’t remember sumac having such long hairs and there certainly were strands associated with the droppings. 

The color, however, made it incredibly obvious. Sumac indeed. 

Until . . . 

it wasn’t! Corn on the cob? On ice? And then we remembered that there was a cornfield located directly across the road. So . . . that made sense. But, how did it get to the other side? We’d noticed plenty of turkey tracks. Would turkeys carry cobs of corn? Not the ones that visit my backyard on a daily (sometimes twice daily) mission to eat as much bird seed I’ve tossed on the ground as possible. They scratch about and eat whatever is available on the spot rather than carrying it–as far as the four of us knew anyway. 

Did the deer bring it across? Again, we’ve always seen them dine on site. And . . . we noticed that the cobs, and even occasional husks, were left within their prints, so the corn arrived after the deer. 

As we continued to look around, we began to see kernels in small piles everywhere. 

And with that, we suddenly spied something else that looked oddly familiar. 

The hole! Notice its spiral shape. Discernible tracks? No. Dirt? Yes. Hoar frost? Yes. Hmmmm . . . 

We looked around for signs. “So and So lives here” would have made it too obvious. But, we found hoar frost on an adjacent hole, which raised a few questions: 1. Were the holes connected? 2. Was a critter breathing within? 3. Or, because we were near the bog, was there warmer water below that was creating the frost? 

Then we found something none of us had ever seen before. A smattering of sawdust on the snow located about five feet from the hole. Scat? Upset stomach? Two of us got down with a loupe to take a closer look and came to no conclusions. 

As we continued to look around, we noticed that though there wasn’t a discernible track, it did seem that activity led to two hemlock trees.

And there were snipped off twigs cut at an angle below the trees, plus some comma-shaped scat. 

With that in mind, we returned to the hole in question. 

Bingo! There was a sign that clearly read “So and So lives here.” A quill! When I first looked at the photo the other day I’d suggested porcupine or fox. Porcupine it was. 

Within the hole which we could tell was deeper to the left, we spotted more quills. 

Mystery solved–almost, for we didn’t know about that smattering of sawdust. Porcupine scat consists of sawdust because their winter diet includes tree bark and needles. Did the animal have a bellyache? 

Our excitement at finding the hole wasn’t diminished by the unsolved portion of the story. And still, we continued to find corn cobs as we moved closer to the water in hopes of finding tracks. 

Indeed, there were some and we tried to figure out the pattern to determine what mammal had crossed the ice. 

But before taking a closer look, there was ice on the bog’s edge to admire and we each found artistic displays to our individual liking. 

Back to the tracks on the ice.

At first, with porcupine on my mind, I thought I recognized the pigeon-toed behavior. 

But my companions couldn’t see it. And then I realized that I was seeing a different pattern instead. Opposite diagonals became important in the overall look of two feet together. 

Studying that one pattern of a waddling animal, we soon realized another had crossed over it–in a leap and a bound. Do you see the intersection of the two in the middle of the photograph? 

And, there were a couple of corn cobs on the ice. 

It was all too enticing, and so we got up the gumption, threw risk to the wind, and stepped out. One of us, stepped onto all fours as she slid across, the better to distribute her weight. It also gave her a better view of the tracks. 

Another came forth with caution, though she admitted she’d hoped we’d go for it. 

Her husband was the smart one and he stood on shore–looking at tracks in the snow created by one of the critters we were examining on the ice. And ever ready to call for help should we need it. 

Back to the pattern–do you see three sets of two feet? In the lower set the diagonal is higher on the left and lower on the right. It switches with the middle set of prints. And goes back to the same with the upper set. 

Where debris had frozen into the impressions you can almost see the toes. The smaller, almost rounder right hand print is a front foot and the longer left hand print is the opposite back foot. That’s how it goes with a waddler such as this. 

We’d actually seen clear prints near where we’d parked and so we knew this mammal had been in the area–those baby hand-like prints belonged to a raccoon. Raccoon tracks and corn on the cob. Hmmmm. We were beginning to make some connections. 

With that figured out, we moved on to the next set of tracks and determined they belonged to a snowshoe hare–the larger front prints actually representing its back feet as they had landed after the front feet bounded forward. 

As we studied the hare track, we noticed lots of movement had previously been made by another critter and I’m going to go out on a limb to say based on its size and behavior that it was related to the next mystery we encountered. 

First, there was a hole around a couple of tree stumps and it was the layers of ice that drew our admiration. 

Right near it, however, was another frozen over hole and we could see some tracks that were difficult to read. 

But the ice was glorious and there was another small tree stump in the center. 

We weren’t sure who had made the holes until we spied another and some prints in the snow. 

The five tear-drop shaped toes provided a huge hint. 

And a bigger hint–a hole nearby. 

As usual, it commanded a closer look. 

And what did we find? Fish scales. With that signature, and the prints and even the pattern of the older tracks near the snowshoe hare activity, we knew a river otter had recently eaten. 

Eventually, we made our way back to the road, crossed over and checked the cornfield for we still weren’t sure who had brought the cobs to the bog. It made sense that the raccoon may have, but all of them? 

We found plenty of deer tracks, many of which were again filled with either kernels or nearly complete cobs. 

But it was the one stuck up in a broken red maple limb and the chitting nearby, plus scat below, and the actual sighting of a particular mammal that we think gave us the answer as to why so many piles of kernels–red squirrels. 

With that, it was time for us to take our leave. First, we gave great thanks, however, to Parker for sending me the photo of the hole. When I’d shown it to another friend, he asked why the spiral. I think that was the lowest point and the porcupine climbed out and then made its typical swath around until it reached the higher ground each time it exited and entered.

The question none of us could answer–what about that sawdust smattering?  

Ah well, we saved that for another day and left thankful for the opportunity to solve most of the holey mysteries. 

Bird Brain

Wrote Aldo Leopold, “Everyone knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

And so it was that I tramped with a couple of friends today who had the delightful pleasure of meeting ArGee (R. G. for Ruffed Grouse). We’d been chatting and searching for a few red blooms on a tall staghorn sumac when suddenly we spied him crossing over a stone wall and approaching us. 

He circled and circled for a while as we stood still yet continued to talk–sharing admiration and awe at the opportunity to be in his presence. 

We watched him forage for seeds and wondered about his behavior. Typically, Ruffed Grouse are loners, except for mating season. But this one seems to greet visitors to its territory with somewhat regular frequency. 

When we moved, he did likewise–usually a few feet to either side of us. 

And when we stopped, he did the same, seeming as curious as us. 

It was a brisk morning, so periodically he did what birds do to warm up–turned into a football of sorts as he fluffed up his feathers to trap warmer air. A bird’s body heat warms the air between its feathers and the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. After all, he didn’t have the luxury of hand warmers. But then again, we didn’t have the luxury of trapping air within our feathers. 

While we watched, I couldn’t help but notice the auricular feathers–those stiff feathers that cover the bird’s ear and form a triangular patch that extends back from the bill and the middle of the eye. 

Do you see what I mean as they fan out below ArGee’s eye? 

Here’s another look. And notice that beak–sturdy and down-curved for eating buds and twigs, the bird’s staple in winter. 

Survival isn’t easy for a Ruffed Grouse, but despite his affinity for people, ArGee knew to take cover occasionally and perhaps that is why he is still among us. That and maybe the fact that we’re honored to be in his presence and learn more about his species as we have the ability to study him. 

While I’d previously noted the comb-like scales on his feet that act as snowshoes and perhaps add stability somewhat like a porcupine as he’ll search for buds in trees once winter advances, today’s understanding included noting how ArGee moved–with one foot placed in front of the other. 

 I’ve seen it displayed in the tracks left behind including this old set we found further along, but watching the proximity of one foot to another as ArGee moved added a vision and understanding to the signs left behind. 

Sometimes it seemed the feet were practically touching and other times there was a bit of space between them. Then again, at times ArGee paused and that seemed to be when his feet where closer together and other times he marched or ran beside us and there was a bit of distance between the two feet. 

Our time with ArGee lasted maybe a half hour or less. And he wasn’t always puffed up to stay warm. When he returned to his original size, his chicken-like form seemed more apparent.

Always, he searched for buds to consume. Ruffed Grouse have a special internal adaptation, most helpful for their winter diet–similar to that of deer and moose, which is rather funny when you think about the fact that most Ruffed Grouse burst out of the snowpack and scare the daylights out of us as we approach and make our hearts beat rapidly as we’re certain we’ve encountered a moose. Maybe they should be named Ruffed Moose instead.

So back to that internal winter adaptation: they store food in their crops (esophagus) until later and then within their bodies are two offshoots of their intestines, called caeca, which grow enormous each autumn and allow them to break down cellulose so they can get nourishment from the woody aspen and birch buds that they prefer. Come spring, the caeca atrophy for the warmer months.

Our lesson from ArGee ended in much the same time frame as it usually does, but he left us wondering all the same. After we’d spent time moving and stopping together, suddenly he started to gently attack the backs of our legs. It was at a spot that seemed to delineate his territory given past experiences, but why the attacks? Did he want us to leave? Not leave? Were we suddenly seen as the aggressor? All along he’d seemed as curious about us as we him and so we were left to ask questions which we did for the rest of our journey. But wow. We were given the opportunity to wonder. 

And wonder we did. What did ArGee see in us? 

And what was he thinking? 

Bird brain? What passes through it? We may never know, but we do know that our lives were enriched and the landscape is alive. 

P.S. Pam and Bob–this one is for you! Wow! 

Boothbay Aglow

Yes, it was the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens that drew us to Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor this past weekend, but we found the Christmas light show to be only a part of the attraction. 

One of our favorite haunts in the harbor is the 1901 footbridge that connects the western and eastern sides of town. It’s renowned as being the longest wooden footbridge in the USA. And so as my guy settled in to watch a football game before heading off to the gardens, I set off to stretch my legs, the bridge being only a block or so from our “front” door. 

We’d booked a brief stay at The Harborage Inn, where our wee room was quiet and comfortable and we especially loved the pillows! Huh? I’ve become a bit of a pillow connoisseur in recent months–well, not really, but I know what I like and what I don’t and I wanted to take the pillows from our room home. But my mom would be proud for I refrained from stuffing them into our bag. 

Standing on the bridge, I could look north (or was it south for so confused do I get when I’m on one of Maine’s coastal fingers), and see our “place” and its dock, the last in line. 

Halfway across the bridge sits the bridge house, which has served many functions from bridge tender’s house to art gallery, and it’s accompanied with rumors of a prominent position during Prohibition when rum was smuggled through a trap door. This weekend its only activity was to provide a Christmas postcard look. 

Actually, much of the town was decked out in Christmas finery. Greens and reds and golds and a variety of other colors defined this seaside locale. 

But . . . others had their own display to share, including a non-breeding loon who spent some time by the bridge. 

Though I stood still, it was in constant motion like the waves that surrounded it. 

There was a reason–feeding time! The water shallow, a crab was captured in a flash. 

And then played with–dunk . . . 

toss about with a happy face, . . . 

dunk again, . . . 

grab, . . . 

let hang out of the mouth much like a teenager does a mouth guard, . . . 

toss in the water one more time, . . . 

and then swallow. Notice the bulge in the loon’s neck? And the glow of the sun on its bill? 

A final gulp and the crab was completely consumed. A meal complete. 

Finally, back across the footbridge I walked and near the shore the pigeons drew my attention. Okay, so they are pigeons. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, they are rather exotic. 

And curious. And colorful. Pay attention to the colors. They provided a foreshadowing of what was to come. 

On Main Street another exotic, aka invasive, caught my attention by its song–that of the Eastern Starling. But those colors–again a sheen and pattern to admire. 

There were more traditional colors on display everywhere for this is a season that Boothbay has embraced. 

Back at the room, my guy was ready to depart for our next destination, but he had his radio and ear buds ready so he could listen to the Patriots football game. 

We’d no sooner stepped onto the property of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens when I heard him exclaim. Apparently the Patriots lost on a play gone afoul, but you would have thought it was the end of the world. Despite that, he quickly turned his attention to New England’s brightest and most colorful display.

We arrived for the 4pm entry so we could watch the world transform before our eyes. 

The sun set as we moved from one section of the garden to another, remembering along the way our past visits in warmer months. Typically in summer and early autumn our eyes were drawn to the display of colors from foot to hip, but on this evening, it was from foot to sky that we needed to note. 

With every minute that passed, the scene changed and we were grateful to our friend Marita for the suggestion to arrive at 4 and watch the transformation. 

Silhouetted trees and iced reflections enhanced the experience. 

We were wowed by the fact that over 650,000 light bulbs had been strung to create such a scene. How? When? Who? We learned the next morning from a local gentleman with a handlebar mustache who pulled up a chair to join us for a chat before our breakfast arrived at a local bakery that volunteers help, the process begins months prior, and the locals are invited to attend for free one night before the event opens to the public. 650,000 bulbs. My hardware guy tried to fathom that sale. 

In the twilight, beauty shown. 

But it was in the darkness that magic beset the scene. And even though we moved among thousands of people, we managed to find spots to ponder the glory. 

Our initial journey lasted about an hour and then we spent an hour more circling about again, revisiting favorite spots before taking our leave. 

If you go, note where you park! Yes, that’s a warning. We thought we’d walked further to the entrance than we had. Thank goodness we remembered a few key features about our parking spot. Periodically, we did press the key fob as we looked for familiar lights to come on. At last . . . success. 

The next morning found us up and out early, again enjoying the footbridge, though it was a bit slippery with frost. 

I walked across, but my guy chose to run. Can you see his breath? 

And yet again, it was the pigeons that pulled me in. Notice the color of those neck feathers. 

And the need to puff up in an attempt to keep the cold at bay. 

I’m always amazed how birds can transform from their skinny selves to plump renditions in an effort to keep heat in and stay warm. 

Again, those neck colors. Don’t they remind you of the nighttime display? 

And then I found them reiterated in the rocks below. 

I could have stayed on the footbridge forever (perhaps I should move into the bridge house), but at last I moved off. Not before, however, marveling at the lobster buoy decoration that marks the bridge’s center. 

And the town reflected upon the calm water. 

My walk continued along water and some town roads. And I had to chuckle for though I wasn’t haunting my usual neck of the woods, old friends still made themselves known. 

I did note some differences. In the woods, a red squirrel chooses rocks or downed trees or sawed off tree trunks upon which to dine. Beside the water, apparently any railing will do. 

The mergansers seemed to have arrived not too long before us for just a week or so ago I saw a large flock of them on Kezar Lake in Lovell. Was the middle one getting the last laugh in my honor? 

And then there was a crow who shouted, “Har, har, har,” over and over again. And I heard a woman respond to him and thought he must be a regular. He seemed soooo black in this town of so many other colors. But apparently he had his own colorful character to maintain. 

Colors. Everywhere. Into. The. Focal. Point. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Gardens Aglow. Worth a visit. Just remember, it’s more than the gardens. And even more than I noted. Boothbay Aglow. 

When You Go

My goal was simple. Walk the blue trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve and add a few more decorations to the Christmas Tree. 

If you recall, two weeks ago the Fairs, Farms, and Fun Homeschool 4-H Group decorated a tree(s) as part of the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Their biodegradable ornaments were mighty tasty, smeared in peanut butter and bird seed much to the good licking of birds, squirrels, and deer. 

Since the first decorating party, we led a fun walk where participants adopted a scavenger hunt attitude and examined all evergreens along the way until they spotted the special tree(s). And then, because we’d packed more peanut butter and bird seed, and some of the youth had gathered pinecones on the way, we spent time creating new ornaments. That was on Saturday. By Monday, those had also disappeared. 

 As has been the case in the past, only the hearts cut from fallen birch bark remained. 

Taking a tip from our neighbors at Western Foothills Land Trust, which is also participating in the Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, I added orange and apple slices to the tree(s) and a few higher branches. 

I hope you’ll challenge yourself and your family and friends to go on the hunt.

I also hope that some of the ornaments will still be there. But if not, know that the mammals and birds are dining in style. 

In fact, their style reflected in scat I found included more than the offerings we’d supplied. On this rock, it looked like the local staghorn sumac had provided some nourishment. 

That wasn’t the only scat in the area. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing atop the snow. The scat of larger birds also decorated the trail and I wondered what predators might be about. 

So here’s the thing–when you go in search of the tree (or on any walk in the woods) take some time and look for scat. And while you’re at it, see what else might draw your eye in. 

Maybe you’ll spy an empty sawfly cocoon. 

Or one that will protect the larvae as it pupates within over the winter months. 

When you go, look for the unusual among the usual. I found this pine tree snag that struck me as most intriguing. How tall had it grown before its life tumbled down? 

No matter. What did matter was that its whorled limbs still reached outward in star-like fashion. 

And inward as well. 

Above, its kin stood tall. 

When you go, make time to enjoy the scenic view opened this past summer by staff and volunteers. 


When you go, look for interesting sights like this one, where one pine embraced another. 

Pines typically self prune, but these two chose to keep their lower branches and snuggle together for the rest of their lives. 

So close did they grow that the “arms” of the tree to the left had grafted to the tree to the right so that their hug included shared energy. 

When you go, look for the other old pines along the stone wall–those that grew up when the landscape was more open and their structures could stretch out more than up. 

And below them, notice the squirrel middens. I wasn’t sure there would be many middens this year since it wasn’t a mast production year and few cones had formed.

When you go, let your imagination see the discarded pine cone scales and cobs as toppings on a bowl of ice cream. 

When you go, look for the amber nuggets of pine sap hardened on old bark. 

When you go, if the apple slices remain on the tree(s), notice the star shape of the core. 

When you go, look for all of these . . . or better yet, make your own really cool discoveries. 

I do hope you’ll go to the Chip Stockford Reserve or any of the three other sights in western Maine where trees are decorated. But . . . if you can’t go here, go somewhere. And when you go . . . have fun!