When Alanna Doughty, of Lakes Environmental Association fame, and I pulled into the parking lot of Saco Heath this morning, we had no idea what to expect. It is described as the southern-most coalesced domed bog in Maine. I have to admit, I need to learn so much more to understand the real meaning of that. According to The Nature Conservancy, for this is one of their preserves, “the heath formed when two adjacent ponds filled with decaying plant material called peat. Eventually, the two ponds filled completely and grew together to form a raised coalesced bog, where the surface of the peat is perched above the level of the groundwater.”
Our first steps found us walking through a forested bog rich with wetland plants including Cinnamon and Royal Ferns.
And then we entered the peatland through the pearly gates.
It was a place where one could disappear for a few lifetimes and eventually emerge completely preserved. With Pitch Pines and Black Spruce towering above, the colors gave us our first pause for the Rhodora was in full bloom and neither of us could remember ever seeing so much of it before.
As it was, we seemed to have been transported into a still-life painting of spring where even the toppled Gray Birch might have been intentionally placed for such a contrast it provided.
Taking a closer look, it was suddenly obvious that life was not still at all and the flower drew our eyes in and out and in and out again with all of its lines.
We even found a few with brand new hairy leaves complementing the presentation.
This was a place where old friends live and greeting them again with a friendly handshake seemed only natural.
The Tamarack’s needles so soft and bright green graced the tree with a feathery appearance.
The flowers of the Black Chokeberry gave us pause for a few minutes for we had to get our shrub eyes adjusted to the brightness that surrounded us.
We weren’t the only ones with large eyes noticing all the goodness in our midst.
Being in a heath, members of the heath family made their presence known, such as the Bog Laurel. Some of the flowers had fallen to the sphagnum moss floor below the boardwalk, so we sat down to take a closer look at the flower, its petals fused into a shallow, five-lobed bowl. The interior of the bowl was interrupted by ten indentations where the pollen-bearing anthers snuggled as if in individual pockets. Each awaited a pollinator to trigger the spring-like tension and thus get showered with pollen. We may have unintentionally aided in sharing the goodness.
Because we were looking and trying to gain a better understanding, Alanna ran her fingers down the Bog Laurel’s stem, reveling in the recognition of the longitudinal ridges between each pair of leaves. From one set of leaves to the next, the ridge orientation and next set of leaves shifted 90˚. In the land of wonder, we were definitely wallowing in awe.
Another member of the heath family stumped us for a few minutes until it reminded us that its “pineapple” form atop the rhododendrum-like leaves was not the fruit, but rather the start of the flower.
It was a few plants later, that we noticed the flowers beginning to burst.
While we watched, a male Painted Lady paused atop one of the laurels as if it was a pedestal, the better place from which to possibly entice a mate.
Shortly thereafter we made a new acquaintance. By its shiny, parallel-veined leaves we thought we knew it, but then we spied the tiny white flowers. We know False Solomon’s Seal, but join us in greeting Three-leaved False Solomon’s Seal. Ronald B. Davis writes in Bog & Fens, “In bogs, it commonly occurs on a peat moss mat at the transition between a mineorotrophic black-spruce wooded area and a more open ombrotrophic area.”
Indeed, I have a lot to learn, but the natural community was transitioning again.
And within the transition zone, we met another new friend: Mountain Holly. In retrospect, we may have met in a past life, but it’s always good to spend some time getting reacquainted with the finer details such as the tiny flowers at the end of long, fine petioles.
At the end of the boardwalk, the trail loops around through a forest of pines and oaks.
At the shrub level, Bumblebees acted as bell ringers while they flew from one flower of the Highbush Blueberry to the next, making sure that all were in tune.
It was in this same neighborhood that we met another for the first time. Velvet-leaved Blueberry’s leaves and stems were as soft as any robe an angel might wear.
Below, her bell-shaped skirts dangled.
A surprise along the loop trail was a spur to an outlook where a sturdy bench offered time for contemplation and meditation.
Several signs beyond our reach warned us not to step off the platform and into the bog, but . . . it was soooo tempting. And weren’t we in the garden?
As we stood and wondered about what we might be missing, we spied several Pitcher Plants with their urn-like leaves.
And directly behind the bench stood one of the rare species for which this place is known: Atlantic White Cedar
Though we never did see the Hessel’s Hairstreak Butterfly, another rare species associated with Atlantic White Cedar, we honored the tree by taking a closer look at its foliage.
And then it was time to return back across the boardwalk, upon which we immediately noticed a huge Pitcher Plant we’d missed on our previous pass. In its center the bulbous red flowers posed as cranberries.
We also spotted a couple of Pink Lady’s Slippers in bloom that we’d previously walked past, giving thanks that we’d had to follow the same route and because of that made some new observations.
At the end of our time we knew we’d visited a very special place that allowed us to come to a better understanding of old friends and make new acquaintances. It certainly felt like we’d spent the morning at Heaven on Heath.
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.
The minute I stepped out of the truck, a loud, rather unharmonious musical performance, greeted me at Deer Hill Bog in Stow, Maine. Rather than the Peeper and Wood Frog chorus of spring, the summer symphony was performed by Bullfrogs and Green Frogs, but mainly the former.
It was about nine a.m. when I caught my first glimpse of the bog, a result of man and nature working together. An old wood dam combined with a beaver dam created the 25-acre body of shallow water. From moose and Great Blue Herons to aquatic plants and tiny organisms, over 90 species call the bog home. Though I truly expected to spy a moose, that opportunity was not meant to be. I did go, however, because of the Great Blue Herons. Friend JoAnne reminded me the other day of the old rookery, so I decided to check on it.
But first, I made my way toward the wildlife viewing blind.
The blind featured benches, cut-outs for viewing and informational posters–a quiet place to watch nature in action.
It was built in 1993 by the Maine Conservation Corp and is maintained by the White Mountain National Forest. Two more panels described some species of wildlife one might expect to see.
And, of course, the cut-outs provided a bird’s eye view . . .
of life in the bog.
But, I’m not very good about staying undercover, and so around to the side and front of the blind I went. And stood as still as possible, for the Bullfrogs quieted upon my approach, as I expected they would. A few minutes later they again sang, “rumm . . . rumm . . . rrrrrumm,” the notes all in bass.
The water practically boiled with small fish jumping, but my freshwater fish knowledge is limited and my best guess was that they were bait fish of some sort.
Looking around, I noted three beaver lodges, each of a different size. None looked active, but it was a warm summer morning and perhaps they were sleeping inside.
And then I spied two heron nests–on the first I saw only an adult who spent much time in preening mode.
The second nest I was sure was empty–until an adult flew in and three immatures squabbled for the food about to be regurgitated by the parent.
And back down to bog level, another Bullfrog doing what they seemed to do best–waiting patiently, with nary a rumm, though the sound seemed to travel in waves down the bog.
Frogs are ectothermic animals, which means they depend on the environment to maintain their body temperature, therefore many jumped onto fallen logs to catch a few rays. It may also have been that the height gave them a better view of the local action.
This one did eventually turn, making it a fine time to examine his body a bit. How did I know it was a male? His eardrums or tympanums, those circles located directly behind the eyes, were larger than the eyes. In females, they are about the same size.
There were other things to look at, like the exuviae of a clubtail dragonfly. Notice how far apart the eyes were. Eye position is one key to determining species.
Other characteristics included the white face of the Frosted Whiteface.
And the black face and brown eyes of a Slaty Skimmer.
The slaty part of its name came from the fact that male’s body is entirely blue–slate blue.
It seemed there were female frogs around, but they didn’t care about the males’ singing talents–at least not in my presence.
And an o-ka-leeee.
In the midst of it all, some canoodling by a pair of Frosted Whitefaced Dragonflies connected in their love formation.
Plunking rubber bands to the beat of plunk-plunk-plunkplunkplunk were the Green Frogs. This one was so identified by the dorsalateral folds that ran from its eyes along the sides of its back and down toward its former tail.
Wood Ducks and Merganzers swam further away from my spot, but Grackles flitted in and out, up and down on the ground, fallen trees, and rocks, ever in search of fine dining.
In between foraging for insects, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, and frogs, oh my, they sang their guttural song that was often followed by a high-pitched whistle.
There were also painted turtles to admire. Well, I only saw one, but suspect there were others.
It slipped into the water and then came up on a nearby log, another species that valued the sun’s warm rays.
And another. Really, they were everywhere. Did you know that a frog’s pupils are horizontal so it can look forward, backward, and up and down. The better to see me, dinner, and predators on the quick.
Sometimes frogs yelp, and it was such a sound that brought these two to my attention. Because of the sun’s position, I couldn’t get a clear take on their gender, but I watched them both jump onto the log simultaneously. At first they were side by side, but then one shifted further to the right. Had they been mating? Had one male tried to jump onto another thinking it was a female? Had something bigger than them been on the hunt?
I may never know why the frogs jumped, but this water snake was making the rounds. Every once in a while it made the water boil and I knew something was consumed. Can you see his forked tongue sticking out?
At last my bog time was drawing nigh, and yet there was so much more to see, including Round-leaved Sundews and Marsh St. Johnswort on log islands.
And one more Bullfrog to provide a last note to the morning’s wonder.
Though to some, the bog may look like a place of death, and death does happen there, it’s also full of life. It’s a place of biodiversity and hidden beauty. And this morning I was thankful to have it all to myself–the only human sounds I heard were of my own making. Deer Hill Bog–a magical, wonder-filled place to capture peace.
Maybe everyone needs a bog visit.
P.S. The frog sounds were borrowed from https://srelherp.uga.edu/anurans/sounds as I’m not tech savvy enough to have recorded them. But do click on them, because it gives you a sense of this place. You’ll need to turn up the sound on your computer and possibly will need to press play when you click on the link.