Learning in the Forest

Today was field trip day. Well, actually, every day is field trip day. This week’s trips have included Kezar Lake and the Kezar River Reserve in Lovell, as well as Holt Pond in Bridgton. But today, it was further afield as I drove north to China, Maine, to introduce Erika Rowland, Executive Director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and Alanna Doughty, Education Director of Lakes Environmental Association to a special person and a special place.

The special place is one that allows children young and old to use natural materials to build faerie houses. I’ve been entranced by such since my youth–thanks be to my father and his Scottish ancestry, and our “Aunt” Betsy, (she isn’t related, but she’s always been a wonderful aunt) who often took us on a picnic to the fairy table in her woods.

Faeries (fairies) love quiet places and their homes come in many forms. They’re best made from scavenged materials. Imagination rules and nature provides all the things needed for such creative architecture.

This particular village is identified by a sign that provides a list of materials both appropriate and inappropriate.

A wee bit further along the trail, we happened upon another spot that hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s a collaborative effort between our hostess and last year’s fifth grade class.

The kiddos studied Maine mammals and then created a scavenger hunt. Erika, Alanna, and I continued to channel our inner kid and looked left, right, high, and low to spy the critters that share these woods. From coyotes to . . .

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

a moose, they were a pleasant surprise all along the way. If you have a smartphone available, you can learn more about them.

And if there are mammals, then there must be tracks.

We checked the gravely mammal “pit” and discovered pointed toenail prints leading us to think coyote. Had the silhouette come alive?

Continuing on, we came to an old log landing, where pine saplings happily inhabited the clearing. Our hostess, Anita, showed off the recent crazy growth years. Each year, a White Pine produces a whorl of branches, thus allowing one to age the tree by counting from one whorl to the next. And in between–well, the tree grows. Some years, the growth is extensive if conditions are right, such as this 18″ spurt one year and a similar one above the next.

A couple of trees, however, showed off the efforts of a White Pine Weevil. Brown, wilted main shoots (terminal leaders) featured tips curved into a shepherd’s crook. More on that later.

In the midst of all the pines, I was wowed by another tree with needles. It’s one that begs a handshake every time.

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

Even upon its trunk, the needles do splay . . . like an aster, but they won’t last long for a Tamarack (aka Larch, Hackmatack) is a deciduous conifer and already they are turning their golden autumnal color.

The Tamarack wasn’t the only star, for cedars also added a different texture to the woods.

And then . . . and then . . . we came upon the Treehouse. A handicap accessible treehouse.

It’s known as the Reading Tree, but it’s more than that, which the interpretive sign explains. Remember that White Pine Weevil damage we saw at the log landing? Well, the White Pine that the treehouse surrounds was a long-ago weeviled tree. When a pine is weeviled, the leader shoot dies and the whorl from the previous year take on the task of growing skyward.

The treehouse is built to accommodate its growth and let the sun in.

It also provides a fantastic place for all to blend in to its structure.

Of course, if you climb the tree, you might have to spend a bit of time in “Timeout.” But really, what a pleasure to do both.

We didn’t want to leave the treehouse behind and actually considered moving in, but onward our journey continued to a spot where the story transitions to mathematical computations. A cord of wood in the background, a chance to measure board feet in the foreground. It’s all a part of this special place, where classrooms abound . . . in the forest.

It didn’t stop there. A fence with cut-outs high and low let us peek at more local wildlife. Had we been with a class of twenty or more elementary school children, we surely would have scared the birds away. But . . .

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

At the end of the wall, the interpretive sign offers clues of those one might see.

Leaving the wall, as we walked toward a wetland, movement at our feet led to the realization that we’d disturbed two garter snakes trying to grasp the rays of today’s limited sun.

Onto a bridge originally built by students twenty plus years ago in the man-made wetland, we paused to covet the outdoor classroom.

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

And they were all possible because of our incredible hostess, Anita Smith. Anita is a retired teacher, Maine Master Naturalist, and Project Learning Tree Advocate.

Her community close to home appreciates her, but so do the rest of us for as I’ve learned, Anita is alway happy to share what she and others have created to educate all ages.

Before we drove back to western Maine, we had one last wonder to fill our day–the woody capsules of Lady’s Slippers gone by that grow in clumps like we typically don’t see anywhere else.

Thanks to Anita and all her volunteers, we spent today wandering the China School’s Working Forest in China, Maine, and loved exploring the twenty or so learning stations set up on the fifty-plus acre forest. Neither Greater Lovell Lovell Land Trust or Lakes Environmental Association can replicate the China School Forest, but our take-away was immense and we loved the opportunities to learn in the forest.

In the Middle of the Bubble

We were going to go. We weren’t going to go. In the end, we each took a break from work and met at Lakes Environmental Association’s Highland Lake Research Forest.

Alanna said we could get away with calling it work because we were, after all, conducting research–on where the vernal pools were located. And so we listened and followed our ears as we bushwhacked through the woods. Peeps and wrucks and trills filled the air and we beelined their way. Suddenly we emerged beside the Red Maple Swamp.

Of course, the symphony cut off upon our arrival, and so after sitting and standing still for a few minutes, we decided to step into the water and search for egg masses. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, though Alanna did find at least one Wood Frog mass after she crossed over a log.

While she was still on the other side, I headed back up onto the land, and a few feet from the water I was stopped in my tracks by a large snake.

Its mouth gaped in a fashion that could almost have been a smile. For a few minutes I watched and the mouth never closed. That’s when I realized that it was dead.

As Alanna made her way back to see it, she found a deep hole and one of her boots filled with water. Being the person she is, she got out of the muck, emptied it, and . . .

despite the fact that we were both intrigued and a wee bit freaked out about the snake, she picked it up. If you’ve never seen a Northern Water Snake, they are big. And what if it wasn’t really dead, though we were sure that it was. But what if it wasn’t?

It dangled from her hands as over and over again she said, “I can’t believe I’m holding a snake.” Her grinning grimace echoed those words.

Because she’s a collector of fine things like scat, she had brought along a bag and so into it went the snake. Still, she continued to repeat, “I can believe I’m holding a snake.”

Just a few feet away, we found another kill site. A woodpecker had met its demise.

And only feet from that–a deer vertebrae. It became clear that life happens by the swamp; and nearby was an owl pellet filled with bones. We doubted the owl had anything to do with the deer, but what about the snake and bird? Maybe it wasn’t the owl, but some other bird of prey. Why hadn’t the snake been consumed? Or the bird plucked? As usual, more questions than answers. At last we decide to move on because we heard a wetland chorus calling our names on the other side of the next hill.

I followed Alanna until she stopped abruptly. In her path about twenty or thirty feet from the water, another water snake. This one even bigger. And . . . alive. The sun’s rays weren’t strong, but we suspected it was trying to get warm. For a few minutes we stood and watched and then finally decided we could walk by without a problem. And we did. That being said, every step we took after that included a search just in case more snakes lurked about.

The amphibian calls drew us to the area where a river flows through the swamp.

It was there that we found more signs of life including Canada Geese,

Red-winged Blackbirds,

and rather recent beaver works. At that point, Alanna had to depart, but I stayed for about an hour longer and wandered along the edge of the wetland.

My finds continued for where I looked for frogs by a coppiced tree, instead I found a tussock moth caterpillar frozen in time. It had remained attached firmly to the twig all winter because I suspected it had been parasitized by a mummy wasp.

And then it was uphill toward a rocky ledge that I tromped because the ground was carpeted with hemlock twigs. I knew who had cut and dropped them, and wondered if I might spy a den.

Where I thought there was a den below, I was wrong. But . . . atop the downed tree was another kill site. This time it looked like a Junco had been the source of food.

And on a leaf, the bird’s blood stains.

Not far from the feathers and blood, I did find what I was looking for–a porcupine den and its telltale pile of scat flowing forth.

Murder and mayhem you might think. But death is part of the web of life, which also sustains us.

Today, Alanna and I went seeking egg masses and instead found ourselves surrounded by so many other things. It all made me realize I am only one tiny speck in the middle of the bubble.

Beaver Caper

Our interest was piqued a couple of weeks ago and we promised each other we’d return to learn more–thus today was the day that Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association, and I ventured to the Muddy River at Holt Pond Preserve.

Crossing the Emerald Field at the corner of Grist Mill and Chaplins Mill Roads, we found our way to the trail, passed into the woods and immediately noticed some fresh works created by Castor canadensis.

Please take note of the small portion of a sapling trunk in the bottom of this photo, for I promise that you’ll see it again. And again. And . . .

But in the meantime, we slipped, slid, and postholed our way to the brook, and noted where water flowed over an old dam so it was obvious this wasn’t the spot to which the beavers had dragged their sawn logs.

Also notice the “Posted” signs on the trees. Can beavers read? It did seem that they stayed away from the far shore. Maybe they can read 😉

We looked upstream, but decided to turn around and follow the river down, ever curious about what we might find.

First, however, we did pause to admire the ice sculptures where the water rushed and gurgled and bubbled over the old dam. Soon, these will be a thing of the past and we’ll miss their varied forms frozen in time only momentarily.

And then, as we started to walk south, the foamy water drew our attention.

Where Alanna saw frozen froth of rootbeer floats . . .

I saw mini ice discs in their final form.

And one that created a tree skirt with a lacy slip below.

Just beyond we spied the largest of all the sculptures and gave thanks for its existence. In our minds’ eyes we could see the upper part of the sculpture taking shape when the snow was deeper beside the brook. And the lowest part a more recent attempt of the chiseling artist.

The artwork was enhanced by the chips splayed about as if creating a textured pedestal for the display.

Just beyond that spot, we looked further south and scanned the shoreline, not noting any further work of the sculptor. The water didn’t seem particularly backed up so we figured there wasn’t a dam below. What did it all mean? We knew from our previous visit that there was more work north of our location, but had so hoped to find something new to the south.

The only thing visible, a few old beaver stumps such as this one. Given that, we did a 180˚ turn and made our way north.

First, however, we had to walk through the water and gave thanks for our boots, before passing “the” tree one more time.

Alanna, being much younger and far more agile than me, was kind enough to lead and wait, lead and wait. And because she was ahead, she went shopping when I wasn’t looking. I don’t remember what we were talking about when it suddenly occurred to me that she held a piece of the sapling trunk we’d spied earlier. This is a woman who loves to laugh and so she did when I commented on the specimen tucked under her arm.

Notice how snug she held it as she walked with intention across one of the stream bridges.

We walked for another bit before we found more beaver works, including a cache of debarked twigs–beaver chews. They seemed so fresh, and some were actually green, that we got to thinking. Winter food stash? We know that in the fall they gather saplings and branches, anchor them in the mud and when the ice covers the river, they slip out of the underwater tunnel in their lodge and chew off a stick from the stockpile to bring into the feeding compartment for a meal, thus keeping themselves safe from winter predators. But . . . these weren’t near a lodge and seemed like the result of a fresh logging operation and so we wondered, did they have a new lodge in mind? Are they planning to build a new dam?

We also had to wonder about their debarkation–so smooth were the sticks.

As we continued on, our nature distraction disorder kicked in periodically, as it should, and we rejoiced in the sight of buds on Trailing Arbutus, aka Mayflower.

But still, it was more beaver works that kept calling our names and we tried to pay homage to all of them.

The last fresh one we saw was on a beech and we knew by the height that the cuts had been made when the snow was deeper. So . . . were the beavers still around?

Oh, wait. While we wondered, Alanna also had deer scat to collect.

And just beyond that–weasel scat found its way into her bag.

And then a winter firefly crossed our path as seems to happen frequently of late.

Onward we continued for we wanted to check on a couple of lodges we knew existed. Do you notice that the art work remained tucked safely under her arm?

For a little bit our trail took us away from the Muddy River, but when we returned to it, we focused on old beaver works–a fallen tree and a girdled hemlock. That got us thinking about the fact that they do girdle trees–often, in our experience, it’s hemlocks that they seem to debark in a band that encircles the tree, thus killing it. These they don’t drop to use for building or feeding. So why go to all that effort? We’ve heard different theories, including that once the tree dies, a species more to their liking will grow? True? Maybe.

We continued to look for more recent works, but found none. Until . . . we spotted some brown snow.

Leaves and river muck had been pulled up and distributed over the snowy surface beside the water. We stepped closer and saw footprints that were indecipherable, but knew by the pile of gunk that we’d discovered the makings of a beaver scent mound. Had the two-year-olds left the lodge and set out to claim their own territory? We suspected such.

Atop it all, we noted where a scent mark had been left behind. Of course, we both had to get down on all fours and sniff. I thought it smelled a bit like wintergreen, perhaps an indication of a meal consumed. Most often it smells more vanilla in nature. We found the starts of another scent mound a bit further along that emitted a muskier scent and we thought of the beaver marking its territory with castoreum.

Oh, and then there was some more scat to collect for Alanna spied the round nuggets or malt balls of a snowshoe hare.

At last we reached the board walk that leads back out to the Muddy River, some of it under water and again we gave thanks for our boots–hers Boggs and mine Mucks. Both perfect for our adventure.

From the board walk we could see the twin lodges on the river, but neither had any fresh logs atop and so we still didn’t know from whence the beavers came. It appeared they hadn’t used the old lodges, but we never found any new ones. Or a dam. But the scent mounds were super fresh. And so, we concluded that we’ll have to revisit the area either early in the morning or later in the day in hopes of spying the industrious builders in action.

In the meantime, we left with new findings, new questions, and for Alanna, some new scat and new beaver works–the one tucked under her arm a reminder of our Beaver Caper.

Fawning with Wonder

Though fawning is most oft used to describe someone who is over the top in the flattery department (think old school brown nose), the term is derived from the Old English fægnian, meaning “rejoice, exult, be glad.”

I just knew it was going to be that kind of day when I drove toward Holt Pond Preserve this morning. First, on Route 302, a deer dashed in front of my truck–and I avoided hitting it by mere inches. (And being hit by the woman who was smack dab on my tail.) Then, as I drove up to the summit of Perley Road, a red fox crossed my path.

To top off my feeling of gladness, in the preserve’s parking lot I met up with the most gracious of hostesses, Lake Environmental Association‘s Education Director Alanna Doughty, and the ever delightful host, Loon Echo Land Trust‘s Stewardship Director Jon Evans. Those two dynamos had joined forces to lead a public walk that looped all the way around Holt Pond. Joining the group was a gentleman named Bob and two others–my dear friends Faith and Ben Hall. The Halls had arrived at their summer camp recently and this was my first opportunity to welcome them home. After intros and a discussion about how the two organizations have collaborated on projects including Holt Pond, along with an explanation of how they differ (LEA is about water science and protecting our precious lakes and ponds, while LELT is about protecting the uplands and lowlands that surround the watershed), we headed off on our adventure.

p-oak apple gall 1

Within minutes, a small, rubbery green ball, about the size of a ping pong ball, caught our attention. This was the result of an apple oak gall female wasp (yes, there is such a species) that crawled up the tree trunk of a Northern red oak earlier in the spring and injected an egg into the center vein of a newly emerged leaf. As the larva grew, it caused a chemical reaction and mutated the leaf to form a gall around it. The leaf provided the larva sustenance. Had we left it alone, once it matured into a wasp, it would have sawed its way out through a small escape hole.

p-oak apple gall 2

Because we were curious, however, Alanna split it open so everyone could see the spoke-like structure hidden inside, that provided support for the developing insect.

I shared with the group a little tidbit I learned last fall in Ireland. When working on the manuscript for the Book of Kells, monks used these galls for the color green, soaking them in beer or mead to create a dye.

p-Alanna and Jon

That set the stage and from there on, we paused periodically to wonder, though I think we said at one point that we wanted to get all the way around before 1pm. But there’s so much to see that we had to stop. And because the pitcher plants grow beside the boardwalk, it was hard to ignore them. Being Alanna, she got down on her knees to talk about how this carnivorous plant functions, enticing insects into its pitcher-like leaves that are filled with water and digestive enzymes. Because of downward-sloping hairs  on the leaf, insects can’t climb out and eventually they succumb–allowing the plant to break them down and absorb their nutrients.

p-pitcher plants flowering

Today, the pitcher’s flowers were beginning to bloom.

p-Indian Cucumber Root

As our journey continued, we stopped to admire other flowers including the Indian Cucumber Root,

p-jack in the pulpit

Jack in the Pulpit,

p-lady's 1

and pink lady’s slipper.

p-Faith on beech

To show off the contorted growth of a tree, Faith graciously took a brief break at the beech.

p-greater bladder sedge

While Jon shared a lot of information about South Bridgton’s historical past, Alanna enlightened us on the works of nature, including the bladder sedge with its inflated, teardrop-shaped sacs that enclose its fruit. Though common, like the pitcher plant flowers, it’s otherworldly in form.

p-nannyberry?

And then we got stumped by one shrub we should have known. Witherod (wild raisin) or Nannyberry? We decided on the latter for a couple of reasons–the petioles (stems) of the leaves were somewhat winged and the veins beneath the leaves were not scurfy. Scurfy? That was a new term for me–meaning rough to the touch or covered with scales.

p-Bob, Alanna, Faith 1

As our journey continued, we passed lots of hobblebush in the understory. But not to be missed were the witch hazels. And more galls, this time the witch’s cap that grows on their leaves and forms a cone-shaped structure much like a witch’s cap. How fitting that the Witch Hazel Cone Gall Aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis) chose this particular shrub. Having caused the leaf to form a gall around her, mother aphid stayed inside, where she’s protected as she feeds and reproduces.

p-porky 1

During our journey, we shared brains and eyes. I’m thankful for others who thought to look up, and spotted a porcupine looking down.

p-grouse bath

We also looked down, spying the spot where a bird took a dust bath.

p-grouse bath feather

In this case, it was the work of a ruffed grouse that wanted to rid itself of lice and mites. A stray feather was also left behind. Do you see it?

p-fawn 3

But our best find of all–a young fawn curled up beside the trail. I was leading and talking at the time and didn’t even see it. Faith quietly called me back and I was sure she wanted to show me a snake. We paused quickly to take a few photos and this babe never flinched, obeying its mother’s order to stay put while she went off to feed. (I used to try that at the end of the aisle in a grocery store when my guys were young–but they did their fair share of flinching.)

We’d been blessed–and we all rejoiced while fawning with wonder.

 

 

 

“Hey You!”

Shouts of “Hey You!” echoed across Long Lake in Naples, Maine, this morning as sixth grade students from Oxford Hills enjoyed a cruise sponsored by the Lakes Environmental Association aboard the Songo River Queen II, a replica of the famed Mississippi River Paddle Wheelers. For the past twenty years or so, LEA has offered this event to those who have completed the Living Connections Program in the Lake Region Schools and as a special program for students from several other districts, such as Oxford Hills.

l-Songo River Queen II

This culminating activity brings all the lessons students have learned about shoreland zoning and water quality to life in an engaging and interactive way.

l-Long Lake

After what seemed like months of rain, it was a beautiful morning as Captain Kent steered the boat away from the dock and onto the 11-mile-long lake.

l-Mary 1

As the tour began, LEA’s talented teacher/naturalist Mary Jewett, quizzed the kids.

l-prizes

They expressed their knowledge about watersheds, lake hydrology, phosphorus and other nutrients, chlorophyll, algal blooms, vegetated buffers, erosion control, thermocline, stratification and turnover, and received prizes for each correct answer. I’m always impressed by their responses.

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They’re able to point out vegetated buffers . . .

l-grandfathered cabin

and recognize that some lakefront properties built within the 100-foot setback are older than the shoreland zoning law and therefore grandfathered.

l-station 1, sand 1

In the midst of it all, Captain Kent suddenly made Mary aware of a violation occurring on shore. Several women shoveled sand out of a wheelbarrow and spread it with rakes.

l-station 1, sand 2

Encouraged by Mary, the kids shouted, “Hey You!” The women continued to spread the sand so the kids shouted again—only this time they were even louder. On shore, the culprits looked surprised. Using the loudspeaker system, Mary explained that it’s illegal to add sand to the beach.

l-station 1, sand 3

The women quickly retreated, dumping the wheelbarrow in the process. The kids caught on that this was a role playing situation, but it created opportunities to discuss the implications–such as the fact that dumping sand can cause significant problems for the lake because it contains phosphorus, which contributes to decreased water clarity and algal blooms. Wildlife is also affected, e.g. decreased spawning habitat for fish, and increased opportunities for invasive aquatic plants like variable-leaf milfoil.

l-station 2, fertilizer and spray

Mary continued to question the kids as the boat poked along, until another “Hey You!” moment. One woman was spotted spreading fertilizer (flour in this case) with a flourish, while another sprayed what appeared to be weedkiller on the vegetative buffer. The kids were reminded that topical fertilizers often contain phosphorus and other nutrients that wash into the lakes.

l-station 2, cutting grass too short

At the same property, a man mowed the lawn using the lowest setting (or so it looked from the boat). Short grass is even more likely to allow those nutrients to wash into the water.

l-station 3, trimming vegetative buffer

The next violation involved a group of people trimming and removing the vegetated buffer. The students know the buffer is the last line of defense between a home and the lake because it provides a filter for any run-off, thus helping to keep excessive nutrients, sediment and storm water out of the lake. Native trees, shrubs, flowers and ground cover should be left in place.

l-station 3, running 1

Like the other offenders, this group hastily ran away . . .

l-station 3, hiding

and hid behind the trees.

l-Mount Washington
Following the third stop, the boat paused in the middle of the lake, where Mount Washington was visible. Students rotated through water testing stations where they practiced using such devices as a secchi disk, dissolved oxygen meter, Van Dorn water sampler, and core sampler. I was in charge of the core sampler and we talked about how the hose is lowered to one meter below the thermocline, that mid-point at which the temperature decreases and sunlight cannot penetrate. (Think about doing a cannon ball off the dock and hitting the spot where the temperature is suddenly freezing–or so it feels on a hot summer day.) We talked about how the water is tested in a lab for chlorophyll, phosphorus, pH, color and more. And then they tried gathering a water sample. One student lowered the weighted end of the clear, plastic hose into the water, while the others held onto the rest of it. When I said “Crimp and cover,” a second student crimped the hose and a third covered the far end. Quickly, the first student raised the weighted end, the other two let go and working together, all raised the hose high and tried to “walk” the water down it and into a container. Today, I think we gathered the most water I’ve seen in all the years I’ve volunteered for this activity.

l-pencils

Once students had rotated through all of the stations, Mary’s quiz continued as we traveled along the eastern shore. Volunteers asked questions, though I let Mary ask mine, and again the students who answered correctly were rewarded.

l-station 4, trees 1

Because they were on the lookout, one of the kids noticed people wearing hardhats and attempting to cut pine trees within mere feet of the lake.

l-station 4, Anne, who me?

They are quickly admonished by this now savvy group, though the “workers” couldn’t believe they’re being picked upon. Mary did remind the kids that shoreland zoning laws do allow homeowners to limb up to 1/3 the height of a tree in order to maintain a view.

l-station 5, Matt 2

Close by, a man washed his laundry—yes, in the water. Under state law, it is illegal to intentionally introduce foreign substances, including soap, into the water. (He was supposed to “bathe,” but the temperature is a wee bit chilly yet.)

l-party 1

It didn’t end there. As the boat passed by the Naples Town Beach, the kids noticed a group gathered on the dock drinking and then tossing empty cans.

l-party 4

You know by now what happened.

l-party 6

Though one guy did run back . . .

l-party 8

to get the boom box.

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At last Kent steered the boat back toward the dock.

l-Rick's Cafe

The cruise had come to an end, but by seeing the volunteer actors on shore, students made the connection between their in-class learning and real life situations when it comes to water quality.

l-dragonfly exoskeleton

Oh, and before we had initially headed out, Mary spotted a huge dragonfly exoskeleton by the causeway and LEA’s Education Director, Alanna Doughty, climbed over the railing to fetch it. As Mary pointed out to the kids when she held the exoskeleton up, this is what it’s all about–clean water for aquatic species and for us.

Hey You! Think about your actions and be the difference.