Spying Like an Eagle

Working in tandem, we paddled against the wind and despite its force gave thanks for the relief from the heat offered. Our intention was to explore the islands of Moose Pond, a place where the two of us can get lost in time.

It was movement above that caught our attention as we watched a large bird fly into a tree. And so we paddled even harder in hopes of getting a better look. About midway up a White Pine, an immature Bald Eagle sat upon a branch . . . and panted, feeling the heat like we did. Since birds can’t sweat, this was its way of dissipating the sweltering weather.

We watched the bird until it finally flew off and headed south.

Then we continued our journey north.

My guy jumped ship to wander an island or two and I stayed aboard to see what I might find, like the Spatterdock petals hiding within the petal-like sepals.

There were Buttonbush flowers with their funky orb shapes and spiky protrusions.

And I was delighted to see a Rose Pogonia, its fringed beard hiding among the grasses and reeds.

The damselflies wrote love notes on almost every stem, but this gathering I found most comical–as the guys each attempted to be her suitor. In the end the top Bluet gracefully acquiesced.

And then there was the Variable Darner Damsel to wonder about as she posed upon a Pickerel Weed of matching color. Were her wings so shiny because she’d just emerged? And though its difficult to see the left-hand wing, they appeared to be spread–perhaps another indication of her recent adventure from aquatic nymph to sky dancer.

Our discoveries were many, but I’ve shared just a few from this afternoon as my guy and I . . . we spied like an eagle.

My Eagle Eyes

From my first sighting this morning I had a feeling that today’s views were going to be amazing. I just didn’t know at the time how amazing.

It all began when this Bald Eagle gave me a backward glance as I drove west. He posed as usual on his favorite hangout and I knew that he was patiently awaiting his turn to dine on some recent roadkill. In the meantime, the crows had a feast.

What I didn’t expect was to see a second Hermit Thrush this week, but so it was as I snowshoed through a land trust property with a couple of other people. I have them to thank for they spied the bird first.

And then we stood silent and watched. And dreamed of its enchanting song to come.

Finding my way beside water a few hours later, it was a pair of Common Goldeneye ducks, his eyes even reflected below, that made me pause next.

Despite a couple of branches slightly obstructing my view, her eye of gold stood out vividly as well. What exactly is it that’s common about them? Their presence I suppose, but still I’m thrilled each time we meet.

Nearby, I almost missed Donald and Daffy, but he hollered for attention, while she stood by on one leg.

Why do birds stand on one leg? And how do they do it? The why I think I can answer–to keep the other leg warm. Unlike some avian species, ducks don’t have hairy sweatpants and so by tucking one leg up under a wing, they can retain some heat. That was important for today while the temperature was in the 40˚s, with a breeze, it was overcast and felt rather raw.

As for my second question, how do they do it? Stand still on one leg without toppling over, that is. I don’t know, but do wonder if it has to do with the feet located toward the center of the body so its weight can be evenly distributed–maybe it turns the one foot a wee bit to insure stability. And perhaps the splayed foot also helps assist what for me would be an awkward position.

Perhaps. And perhaps she looked at me as if to say I was daffy.

And he smiled in agreement.

The next great sight was not a bird, nor was it caged in. And it wasn’t an original find for me because some friends met me at a location where they’d spied it yesterday. But in yesterday’s warm sun, the Red Fox let her four kits frolic about. We watched for a while today, but apparently she’d told the kits to stay in. Her choice for a den sight was remarkable and we learned she’d chosen the same fair spot last year.

At last I began my journey homeward, but first I had to stop by a spot I’ve been frequenting often of late, for it’s where the Sandhill Cranes have been dining. At the moment there are only two, but by last fall they numbered at least eighteen. Will the same come true this year? Only time will tell.

And then, another bird called out and when I realized what it was all I could think of is “Here Comes the Judge” for so its feathers and stance reminded me of a robed magistrate.

This scavenging creature has no feathers on its head in order to keep bits of carrion (dead meat) from adhering to the skin as they would to feathers.

Yes, these were Turkey Vultures. Where there was one, I soon realized there were two. Actually, on a tree behind these two were two more. I wonder if I missed any.

If I had eyes as big and bright as the Wood Ducks that swam quickly through a brook nearby, I’m sure I wouldn’t miss anything, including food in the water below as well as those above who might think of me as food.

Like this guy! As with so many of my finds today, I’m not sure how I happened upon him, but I did. I guess it was that I tried to look for the anomaly in nature. What shape or color stands out from the surroundings?

As I watched, the Bald Eagle changed its orientation. And then it flew and I was sure that that would be the end of our time spent together.

But it landed on a branch above and continued to look about. I swear it even looked at me and I gave thanks for the opportunity to begin and end the day with such a noble bird in two different locations.

I knew I’d been honored to share a few moments with friends as well as notice those things that deviated from the norm. My eagle eyes certainly felt keen today.

Birds of a Feather

My intention was to check the condition of several vernal pools as I tramped into the woods today. Only a few years ago I was taking photographs of wood frogs on this very date, but I knew that would not be today’s focus.

As I approached the first and saw that it was still snow covered, though the northeast side displayed the pastel bluish hue of slushy ice, I began to wonder what would draw my attention.

And then I looked down by my snowshoes and suspected I’d found the answer. That answer, however, brought other questions to mind. To whom did the feathers belong? What had happened? Were there others? How did they get there? And when?

Beside the pool and just below a hemlock, I found another. The hemlock’s needles provided perspective for they were only about a half inch in length.

As I moved onto the pool, my eyes cued in to a feather here and a feather there and occasionally a cluster in the mix.

While most were slate gray, I began to note some with tints of brown on the outer fringe.

There were even a few that I thought might be tail feathers, but really my bird knowledge needs to increase greatly. Again, however, with their orientation beside the beech leaf, it was obvious that the bird of choice was not big.

With so many feathers on display, as minute as they were, I wondered who had dined. Or rather, who had snacked for it hardly seemed like a full-fledged meal (pun alert) had been consumed. I found the tracks and then scat of one of the neighborhood deer and knew it was intent on the hemlocks beside the pool and small birds were not on its menu.

In the melted water by the scat were a a couple of feathers of lighter colors. And then it occurred to me. All had been plucked.

Finding no other evidence of tracks other than deer and turkeys, my mind began to gaze skyward for I considered a bird of prey as the predator. The pool is surrounded by a mixed forest of beech, maples, oaks, hemlocks and pines. Several would have been fine candidates for a feeding tree.

And so I began to wonder if there was more evidence somewhere near the pool. With that in mind, I climbed out of it, and still here and there tiny clumps or individual presentations caught my attention.

With that knowledge, I made a plan. I began on the northern edge looking south and then turned around and walked out, scanning the ground and trees, both at eye level and above, looking for evidence.

I’d walk out as far from the pool as I found evidence, also checking every tree well on the way. Do you see the bits of gray?

Any feathers were more scattered the further from the pool I went, but still they were present. And if you’ve noticed, all were atop any other ground debris. That was significant.

At the point where I saw the last of the feathers, I’d turn around and approach the pool again at an angle, thus zigzagging in and out as I circled it. The furthest away that I got was about 15 snowshoe lengths.

By the time I reached the southerly shore I realized that there were no feathers. That also proved to be significant.

While I was searching, or perhaps because, I found other things of interest like the jelly ear fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae.

It’s one of my favorites this time of year and I love its rubbery and gelatinous feel.

But I digress. And so back to my bird. I didn’t encounter feathers again until about half way back on the westerly side. That lead me to make some conclusions that may be totally wrong, but I’ll put myself out on limb (oh geesh, another one) with my findings: 1. The perpetrator had dined from high up in one of the trees on the north side and I suspected a pine or oak. 2. And if it had dined from above, then the predator was a larger bird 3. The meal was rather recent for all of the feathers were on top of the surface, rather than having sunk into the snow or appearing from under any other debris. 4. I suspected the victim was a Dark-eyed Junco. While the Juncos were everywhere in the fall, once the snow fell in early November, we didn’t see them for a couple of months. And then in mid-January a few found our feeders. This week, the flock has increased substantially as they migrate north and I counted twenty on the ground and in the trees by our home, which isn’t far from the pool.

I never did make it to the other vernal pools today, for so taken was I with trying to figure out the mystery of the feathers. Another thing about Juncos is that though many we see are slate gray, females may be a bit buffy on top of their head, back, and wings.

The other thing about Juncos is their countershadowing coloration.

Looking at the bird from the ground, it tends to blend in with the sky, especially on this gray day. And if you were to look down on the bird from above, it would blend in with the ground. That is, unless of course, you have snow on the ground as we have had for quite a while. It’s beginning to melt, especially in this afternoon’s rain and fog, but it does make the wee birds an easy target for the bigger ones.

Yesterday I saw a big one, but not in my backyard. Well, in a way I guess it was for I saw it near our camp. And I should have recognized it for I spent all last summer watching an immature and adult in the very location but it’s coloration threw me off.

When I first spied it, I thought it was an eagle or an owl. But the closer I got (mind you, I wasn’t as close as this may seem given that it’s a telephoto lens on a Canon Powershot), the more the white spots on those wings confused me. So, I settled for a hawk–either an immature Broad-winged, Red-shouldered or Red-tailed. But . . . . for once I did what I should always do–and reached out to those who know more than me.

Thank you to Alan and Linda Seamans and the Stanton Bird Club for they all agreed that it was a sub-adult Bald Eagle. Notice the mask. According to the Cornell allaboutbirds site, which I visited at least a hundred times yesterday: “Third year birds [Bald Eagles] have a mostly white belly, with some brown mottling, a brown chest, and a broad brown mask on the face.” Said my friend Alan, who is also a Maine Master Naturalist, “The huge schnozz is being noted by all, much too big in proportion for a red-tailed.”

Thank you also to the birds who continue to teach me about their life stories every day. I don’t always interpret what I see correctly and I admit I may be wrong about thinking the feathers belonged to a Junco, but I do enjoy the journey. Birds of a feather, they keep me wondering.

Cranberry Memories

It’s amazing how a simple act such as taking cranberries out of the freezer and transforming them into a relish can take one back in time, but so it did today.

My family knows best that I’m not a foodie, and cook only because we can’t survive on popcorn alone (drats), but one of my favorite flavors brings a burst of tartness to any meal. And as I concocted the simple cranberry orange relish we so enjoy, moments spent picking them kept popping up.

On several occasions last fall, I bushwhacked toward the fen, stopping first to explore the kettle holes that dot the landscape.

And though I love tracking all winter, it’s those unexpected moments in other seasons when I recognize the critters with whom I share the Earth that make my heart quicken.

Especially when I realize that one of my favorites has also passed this way, stomping through the water . . .

and then onto the drier land. Yes, Ursus americanus had been on the hunt as well.

He wasn’t the only one fishing for a meal, though of a much smaller spidery-style scale.

And then there were my winged friends, the meadowhawks.

I remember the mating frenzy occurring as that most ancient of rituals was performed both on the leaf and in the air.

Other winged friends, showing off a tad of teal, dabbled nearby.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the kettle holes and tramped through winterberry shrubs filled with fruits and cinnamon ferns ablaze in their fall fashion.

After all, my destination was the cranberry fen.

And last year was a mighty fine year for those little balls of wonder that hid below their green leaves. I filled my satchel to overflowing before taking my leave, knowing that in the coming months I’d share the foraged fruits with family and friends and remember time well spent.

Not only did the abundant fruit make it so special, but on my way out I stumbled upon another kettle hole and much to my delight spotted two Sandhill Cranes, part of a flock that returns to this area of western Maine on a yearly basis.

While the cranes foraged on the ground, a Great Blue Heron watched them approach.

And then in flew a Bald Eagle who eventually settled in a pine tree beside a crow.

With that, the cranes flew off and a few minutes later so did the heron. And then I left, trying to find my way out, but I’d gotten a bit twisted and turned and ended up cutting through someone’s yard to get back to the road. Because I was a wee bit confused, I couldn’t find my truck right away, and in the process of looking I dropped a few cranberries. It was all worth it! And still is as we’ll enjoy that relish in our chicken salad sandwiches tonight.

Ah, cranberries. And bears. And spiders. And dragonflies. And birds. Ah, cranberry memories.

To Pause and Focus

I had no idea what to expect of today’s tramp with two friends as I didn’t even know prior to this afternoon that the trail we would walk even existed. And so I pulled in to the parking area at the end of Meetinghouse Road in Conway, New Hampshire, sure that we’d only be able to walk down to the Saco River about a hundred feet away and that would be the extent of our adventure.

1-Conway Rec Path

But . . .  much to my pleasant surprise I was wrong and in the northeastern corner of the parking lot we crossed a bridge into the unexpected setting.

2-Saco River framed

For the entire journey, we walked above and beside the Saco River. And our minds were awed by the frames through which we viewed the flowing water and boulders.

3-clear view of the Saco River

Occasionally, our view was clear and colorful, the colors now more pastel than a week ago.

5-witch hazel, understory

Even as the colors have begun to wane and leaves fall, we looked up from our spot below the under and upper stories and sighed.

4-Witch Hazel

For much of the time, we were wowed by the Witch Hazel’s flowers–for so thick were they on many a twig.

4a-witch hazel flowers

In fact, if one didn’t pause to notice, you might think that each flower featured a bunch of ribbons, but really, four was the count over and over again.

4b-witch hazel flowers, leaf:bundle scars

And some were much more crinkly than others. One of my other favorites about this shot is the scar left behind by a recently dropped leaf. Do you see the dark smile at the base of the woody yet hairy flower petiole? And the dots within that represented the bundles where water and nutrients passed between leaf and woody structure?

6-spotted wintergreen

And then one among us who is known for her eagle eyes spied a Spotted Wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata, a name that has always made us wonder for its dark green leathery leaves seem far more stripped than spotted. It’s one of those plants with a bunch of common names and so we should try another one on: spotted wintergreen; striped prince’s pine; striped wintergreen; striped pipsissewa; spotted pipissewa; and pipissewa. But perhaps the fact that it’s striped and referred to as spotted helps me to remember its name each time we meet. A sign of how my brain works.

7-spotted wintergreen patch

While we know it to be rare and endangered in Maine, it grew abundantly under the pines on the slight slope beside the river in New Hampshire, and we rejoiced.

8-spotted wintergreen capsules

Its newer capsules were green, but a few of last year’s woody structures also graced the forest floor. Reseeding helps the plant propagate, but it also spreads through its rhizomes.

9-maple-leaf viburnum

Everywhere we looked there was a different sight to focus our lenses and we took photo upon photo of the variations in color of some like Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), a shrub with three-lobed maple-like leaves and small white flowers in the spring that form blue fruits in the early fall and had been consumed, only their stems left to tell the story.

10-red maple leaves

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) leaning over the river offered their own hues that bespoke autumn.

16-platter sized mushrooms

And tucked into a fungi bowl, we found the yellow form of Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum). 

11-Saco River with Moat Mountains in background

Onward we continued with the river to our left, outlined with maples and evergreens, and backdropped by the Moat Mountains.

12-small pond stained glass window

And to our right, a small pond where trees in the foreground helped create a stained glass effect filled with autumn’s display.

13-reflection

And once again, in the pond’s quiet waters reflections filled our souls.

14-turn around trespass

A wee bit further, we trespassed onto private land, and decided to make that our turn-around point as we got our bearings via GPS.

15-trail

Backtracking was as enjoyable as our forward motion. We had been on a trail called the Conway Rec Path, part of the Mount Washington Valley Rec Path, intended for walking, running, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, bird watching, wildflower viewing , tree study, plus river and mountain views. Kennett High School athletes ran past us and we encountered couples out for exercise. None took their time as we did, but that’s our way and occasionally we ventured off trail because something caught our eye.

9-rock carvings match the waves

Meanwhile, the river continued to flow, as it has for almost ever, and the water continued to carve patterns yet to be seen, but we enjoyed those that reflected its action.

17-old silver maple

Back at the parking lot, we were wowed by a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its girth suggesting an age older than a century.

18-silver maple buds

As had been the case all along the way, we experienced another wow moment when we realized how developed were the flower and leaf buds already. We know they form in the summer, but . . . they looked ready to pop!

19-white-throated sparrow

As we stood and admired, a flock of Juncos and White-throated Sparrows flew from one spot to the next as they sought seeds on the ground. Occasionally, the sparrows paused for a moment.

20-2 white-throated sparrows

And then moved on again.

21-Eagle over Moose Pond

At last it was time for us to move on as well and head for home, my friends’ to their mountainside abode in New Hampshire and me to my humble house on the other side of the Moose Pond Causeway. But as I always do when making the crossing, I looked up.

22-immature Bald Eagle

And was honored by a sighting that pulled me out of my truck. The immature Bald Eagle I’d watched and listened to all summer graced me with another opportunity to view it.

One scene after another, it was a delightful autumn afternoon. Thanks P&B, for the sharing a new trail with me and providing many moments to pause and focus.

A “Fen-tastic” Afternoon

I was on a reconnaissance mission this afternoon for next week I’m leading some middle school students into a wetland and talking about forest ecology before sharing the joy of foraging with them.

1-Into the jungle

To reach the wetland, it was like walking through a jungle where the ferns grow tall, their fall coloration enhancing the scene. Cinnamon Ferns are a species that easily grow in medium to wet soils in part shade to full shade. The moist, rich, acidic soils, I walked through were much to their liking.

1a-cinnamon fern

It appeared that they were named for their autumn presentation, but really it refers to the cinnamon-colored fibers found near the frond bases.

1b-hairy underarm

Because they look so similar to their relatives in the Osmundaceae family, the Interrupted Fern, I looked to the back of the frond for confirmation. Sure enough, where the pinnae (leaflet) met the rachis (center stem), a tuft that we refer to as the hairy underarm was present.

2-kettle

Onward I continued, not sure what the moisture situation might be. So, in the past, I’ve paused by the kettle hole, but never actually entered it. All that changed today and my plan is to take the students into this special place. A kettle hole is a basin created when a large block of glacial ice was left stranded and subsequently melted in place, producing a basin or depression. These basins fill with water up to the depth of their surrounding water table, which currently happens to be rather low.

3-white face meadowhawk

Because the temperature had risen after a damp, chilly start to the day, the meadowhawk dragonflies flew . . . and landed. This one was a White-faced Meadowhawk, aptly named for that face.

4-white face meadowhawk abdomen markings

Its abdomen markings of dark black triangles also help in identification.

4b-autumn meadowhawk dragonfly

Flying in the same airspace where the Autumn Meadowhawks, with their light-colored legs. All other meadowhawks have dark legs.

4c-autumn meadowhawk love

Love was in the air and on the leaf as a pair of Autumns took advantage of the warm weather to canoodle in the sunlight.

4c-dragonfly love everywhere

They weren’t alone.

7-kettle 2

What I learned as I explored was that the kettle was actually a double pot for a second one had formed behind the first. Notice the layered structure of the area from trees on the outer edge to shrubs to grasses and flowers to water.

5-mammal tracks

And everywhere–deer and raccoon tracks crisscrossed through mud and water.

5a-racoon and bird tracks

Bird tracks also joined the mix among the raccoon prints.

6-six-spotted fishing spider

And because I was interested in learning who lived there, I had to pay homage to the six-spotted fishing spider.

8-spatterdock leaves and root

The spider flirted with me as he moved quickly among the spatterdock leaves that sat in the wee bit of water left in the center of the kettle.

9-another kettle

I finally left the kettle only to discover another and again the formation of layers.

10-green teal ducks

The water was a bit deeper and a family of Green Teal Ducks dabbled.

11-bottoms up

Bottoms up!

12-my destination

It took some time and steady foot placement as I climbed over downed trees hidden by winterberry and other shrubs, but at last I reached my intended destination, a cranberry bog.

13-cranberries

And then I spent the next hour or so filling my satchel for so abundant were the little gems of tartness. The best where those hidden among the leaves–dark red and firm were they.

14-some nibbled cranberries

As I picked, I realized I wasn’t the only one foraging. It appeared that either chipmunks or squirrels also knew the value of the flavor–though they only nibbled.

15-October colors layered

Occasionally, or even more often, I looked up to take in the colors and layers that surrounded me–from leatherleaf bronze to blueberry red to Gray Birch and Red and Silver Maples with a few White Pines in the mix.

16-buttonbush

Buttonbush added its own color and texture to the scene.

17-finding my way out

At last I decided to find my way out. (Sorta for I did get a wee bit disoriented.)

18-royal fern fertile fronds

Among the offerings were ferns of a different kind–though still related to the cinnamons I’d seen earlier. The Royal Fern’s fertile crown had months ago shared its spores with the world and all that was left were salmon-colored structures.

21-buttonbush galore, but more

I picked my way carefully and eventually found one of the kettles. And . . . drum roll please . . .

22-two sandhill cranes

two Sandhill Cranes. Others can tell you better than I how long the Sandhills have returned to this area, but it’s been for a while now and some even saw a nesting pair this past summer. My sightings have been few and so it’s always a pleasure.

23-sandhill cranes

I stood still as they moved about and they didn’t seem to notice my presence.

24-sandhill cranes

While they foraged for roots, another also watched.

25-great blue heron

The Great Blue Heron was cautious as they strolled in his direction.

29-bald eagle

And then . . . and then . . . in flew a Bald Eagle. And out flew the heron.

30-cranes flew out

The cranes waited a couple of minutes and then they flew, bugling on the wing.

And I rejoiced. Oh, I still had to find my way out and did eventually cross through a property about a quarter mile from where I’d started. But, all in all from kettles to cranberries to birds, it was a Fen-tastic afternoon as I explored an outlet fen.

 

Eagle-eyed Mondate

It was the call of the loon that pulled me onto the dock early this morning, my coffee and camera in tow.

1

As it moved about not too far off, I noticed that it started turning in circles. It appeared to be listening and looking . . . and not for fish.

2

Suddenly, from behind me, there was movement in the sky and I began to understand. If you look carefully, you will also begin to understand.

3

A mature eagle had entered the neighborhood.

4

For some reason, the loon moved closer.

22

And then an immature eagle appeared. So did my next-door-neighbor, who walked quietly onto the dock with her camera. Together, we watched, barely exchanging any words as we didn’t want to disturb the scene.

23

Eventually the older bird flew up to a perfect viewing spot on a nearby island, rearranging a couple of twigs to create a mini-platform from which to watch the world.

5

The younger bird stayed a bit longer and then it flew toward the north end Moose Pond.

6

A few hours later, my guy and I also headed north, traveling a route we typically follow with our kayaks. Our mode of transportation on this day was the S.S. Christmas, our Maine Guide boat.

7

As we moved along, I felt a tickle on my leg and looked down to see that Sir Lance, the lancet clubtail dragonfly, had joined us for the journey. He came and went several times and then left us alone as we moved into a territory occupied by other species of dragonflies.

8

Among the islands we moved, keeping an eye on the bottom for the water is quite shallow and our boat precious. So are we. And the camera!

9

Eventually we ran out of mini-channels to follow for so carpet-like was the display of lily pads before us.

10

I would have been content to drift, but my guy is a doer and he needed to be doing something. And so he rowed.

11

As I turned around to see what I might see, I saw a hitchhiker up under the bow–a dock or fishing spider! The rule was, if it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t bother it.  And so it went for the remainder of our journey together, though I’m not sure he departed when we returned to the dock.

12

Anyway, back to our adventure. We were approaching one of the islands we sometimes stop on when we snowshoe in the winter–it’s a fine place to enjoy a PB&J sandwich. And then I spied something in the tall pine. An owl? I’ve listened to a Barred Owl the past few nights.

13

My guy rowed closer and we realized it was the immature eagle.

14

And so at last we sat still. For a long while. And watched. And waited. And listened. And saw calico pennant dragonflies.

15

But it was the eagle that really drew our attention.

16

Behind us fish jumped and we fully expected the bird to scream down our way with its talons extended.

17

But it didn’t. Instead, it panted like a dog. The day was warm, especially up in the islands where the wind was blocked.

18

It also preened.

19

And occasionally it looked our way–mostly when my guy’s feet moved a bit and his crocs squeaked, sounding rather like another eagle. Their highpitched call always surprises me for it seems rather weak for such powerful birds that draw our awe and wonder with each sighting.

20

At last the eagle flew south, apparently not at all interested in any fish . . . or painted turtles. And we made our way south as well.

21

We were almost back to the dock when Sir Lance landed on my leg again. I placed my pointer finger in front of him and he climbed onto it. How cool is that?

Another fun Mondate aboard the S.S. Christmas with my guy–and another opportunity to exert our eagle eyes!