Winter Wild Out My Door

Winter Storm Harper left its mark in the form of snow and wind upon our little spot in the universe.

And I was certain that any tracks I might encounter in the woods would have been erased by dervishes that whirled across the field yesterday, overnight, and into today.

Consequently, it was a pleasant surprise to discover porcupine tracks leading to and fro our barn and woodlot in their typical pigeon-toed pattern.

As delighted as I was, I was equally dispirited as I noticed that the tips of my favorite hemlock had been nipped to oblivion.

But, the porcupine had moved on from that tree, crossed over a stonewall, and visited several other trees in our woodlot, as noted by the downed twigs that decorated the snow’s surface. Like the tracks, the twigs were freshly cut in the past twenty-four hours or less actually.

Of course, I couldn’t overlook the woody commas amid the debris, much as they break up a sentence such as this, that added to the list of evidence that a porcupine had been present. Some call them scat.

And then, as I continued onward, I followed the tracks of two others that frequent our yard. Even as I delighted in the winter structure of a Queen Anne’s Lace florescent, did I notice the red fox prints on the snow below.

The tracks led me to Stevens Brook, which has a journey of its own to trace.

I went to look because I felt the need to add a bit of color to this wintry day and knew that the local congregation of Mallards would contribute not only that, but sound as well.

And then, as I snowshoed beside the trail that follows the brook, I began to notice tracks made by another–this one a member of the weasel family with tear-drop shaped toes of five on each foot.

The more I followed it, the more I realized it had walked and then loped and appeared to drag something along the way.

Sometimes it chose to slide on the downhills.

And equally left an impression as it journeyed up and over a stonewall.

Meanwhile, within the wall, I surmised another of a different species quivered as silently as possible so as not to attract attention, with the hope of creating hoar frost for another day.

Wherever I went, the weasel had also trekked. And frequently I noticed signs of blood as if something had been dragged and the life dripped out of it.

In some places the frozen vital fluid bespoke a meal perhaps waiting to be cached–the perfect sacrifice of one to nurture another.

So few were the tracks of mankind on the virgin snow and so abundant the weasel.

Soon I found myself beside another brook, this one named Willet, and I glanced about expecting to see evidence of action, but instead found ice and snow and shadows disappearing into the bend.

And then . . . upon the edge of the brook’s high bank, a sudden turn my weasel had made, choosing to not slide downward.

A bit further along, I was following its tracks again when I spied fresh woody debris upon the snow’s surface and knew that a pileated had been at work this day.

Rounding the tree, I discovered a series of holes made over a series of days or weeks or years.

From the woodpecker tree, it took a few minutes, but again I found the tracks of one very busy fisher. I never did find any kill sites, but suspected that it had a cache somewhere and let its fresh groceries dangle from its mouth as it carried them back to the pantry.

Making my way toward home, I didn’t need to rest, but had I intended upon such, it wouldn’t have been at the bench for so deep was the snow.

That was okay, for my movement kept me warm and I knew that I’d soon be stripping off my winter layers once I reached our kitchen. But first, there was a pasture to pass through, and while I seemed to have left the fisher behind, I came upon the tracks of the two red foxes I’d met earlier.


In typical red fox behavior, one of them had paused at the tip of a downed tree and urinated. One of these days perhaps it will finally get lucky.

In the meantime, I felt lucky for I’d seen the prints and tracks of so many on this day when I wondered if I’d see any–including those of the Mallards beside Stevens Brook.

And of all the winter wild out my door, today the ducks were my favorite because I not only got to watch them for a while, but I also appreciated the colorful display they added to the landscape.

My Need To Get A Life

About two weeks ago a friend and I exchanged e-mails about mammal tracks we’d spotted that day. His big find was plenty of bobcat tracks at Bald Pate Preserve, while mine was mink tracks by Sucker Brook in Lovell. And that’s when he commented, “We need to get a life.” 😉

Yup. So today I did just that. With a friend in tow, I revisited the Red Tail Trail off Hurricane Mountain Road in North Conway. Our mission was to move slowly through the landscape in search of signs of nature in winter.

Oh my. Such a boring task. What could there possibly be to see? Everything is brown and gray and ever so drab.

mouse

From the start, mouse tracks show the suicide mission these little guys make each night as they scramble this way and that in search of food . . . and cover. Mice are nocturnal bounders who travel above ground for long  distances–risky behavior since they are tasty treats for most predators. White-footed and deer mice have similar-sized feet and bodies, so their prints are difficult to distinguish from each other. Their print pattern reminds me of that made by squirrels, only in miniature and their long tails often leave drag marks in the center.

vole 4vole 3

Here’s another favorite meal for many predators–evidence that a vole lives nearby. We were in an old logging area when we found this. While a vole is similar in size to the white-footed and deer mice, its tail doesn’t show in the track. Plus, two other things stood out to us. The tunnel in the first photo is typical vole behavior. While we received 6 inches of snow in western Maine on Tuesday, North Conway only has about two inches on top of ice. Voles are shy of sky space, so tunneling is one of their behaviors. With ice below the snow, this tunnel was exposed and reminded us of spring when vole tunnels become visible in melting snow. The other behavior of this little brown thing (LBT) that is different from its cousins, the other LBTs like mice and shrews, is the zig zag or alternating pattern when it walks. Voles vary their walking pattern, but they don’t bound like the others. The pattern is visible for a few steps above the ruler.

mink 1Mink 2

And who might those predators be? We found the diagonal pattern typical to the weasel family. We thought that this one was a mink, but now that I’m in my cozy den, I’m questioning our ID. It may have been a short or long-tailed weasel. (1/15/16: Changed my mind back to mink. My ruler kept sliding, but the measurements we took, and we took several, clearly indicated mink, so that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.)

weasel 2

Further up the trail, we were more certain that this one was a weasel, though, again, short or long-tailed is the question. Suffice it to say–weasel.

Fisher 1  Fisher pattern

And still another family member–only a bit larger in size. Notice the tear-drop shaped toes. And the loping pattern. A fisher had recently crossed the trail. We followed its tracks for a bit and then bushwhacked back. On our return we came across a second set of fisher tracks. And then, as we backtracked beside our own snowshoe prints, we realized they’d traveled together and then split apart–perhaps hoping to find some good chow.

Kearsarge River

As we moved beside and away from the river, we also saw deer, snowshoe hare, coyote and fox tracks.

Winding our way up through the switchbacks, one other critter left a calling card.

wing

Based on the behavior, I want to say it’s a ruffed grouse. I must admit that we didn’t follow the tracks, but grouse are also tunnelers and there’s a bit of a tunnel here. Usually I find their scat.  By now, you are probably thinking that I really do need to get a life.

ground litter

hemlock seed and scale

yellow birch

We laughed about how we used to not even notice everything on the ground–dismissing it as  tree litter. Ah, litter it is. But more specifically, we were in the land of hemlocks and birch trees. Hemlock cones, cone scales and winged seeds (samaras) are part of the array. And the yellow birch catkins have released their fleurs-de-lis scales and seeds as well.

beech scale 3

One of the things we weren’t thrilled to discover–the white, wooly and waxy coating that the beech scale insects secrete to cover themselves. Oy vey. This beech tree doesn’t stand a chance.

polypody frozen

So back to happier thoughts, including the polypody that let us know it was time to head home and curl up by a warm fire–the temp was in the low teens.

ice skirt

Even the river rocks wore several layers.

artist 3

artist conk

Just before we arrived at my truck, we stopped to admire this mighty fine artist conk. It will still be there on Saturday–join me and the wonderful folks from the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust for a walk on the trail–weather permitting. I’m not so sure it will actually happen this week given the forecast.

No matter. These were only a few of our finds. There’s so much to see and wonder about and every time I visit, I’m in awe of this special place. And thankful for the life I’ve got.

Mustelids, Oh My!

kiosk sign

This morning I drove to the Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve on Sucker Brook in Lovell. This is a Greater Lovell Land Trust property.

Station !

My mission was to photograph the eight station signs along the nature walk so another docent and I can spend some time this spring updating them.

station 2:a

Before I even reached Station 2, I realized I had a bad case of NDD. Nature Distraction Disorder. OK, so I think I just coined a new term and acronym, but maybe I heard it somewhere else and had it tucked away in my mind. (NawDee for short?–corny joke alert and I might be the only one who gets it) Anyway, what it boiled down to was what you see on this sign and then some.

Fisher

Fisher tracks were all along the brook and through the woods. I’m almost certain these are fisher. I was beginning to question my “I’m always 100% correct when alone” statement. These were quite fresh.

mink1mink slide

Mink tracks and slides were also visible, especially in and out of Sucker Brook.

otter

And then I found these. River Otter.

Silent and graceful are the weasels. From them I should learn so many lessons as they move about quietly observing and discerning what is important. I always think of them as fun loving with all the sliding some of them, like the mink and otter, do. But . . . they are carnivores who have to consume a lot of food to keep warm in the winter.

hole activity

This hole was one of several that I saw. It was across the brook, so I don’t know who entered here. Perhaps they all checked it out. Or maybe it’s a sleeping space for these nocturnal animals.

little brown thing hair

And I found what remained of hair from a little brown thing–either a deer mouse or white-footed mouse. There were tracks leading up to it, but it’s difficult to discern the difference between the two. Who had dinner here? The fisher, I believe.

pinecone tracks

It wasn’t only mammal tracks that I found. Look at the trail left behind by this pinecone.

morning lightbrook 1brook 2

The morning light was beautiful–the beginning of a crisp, clear day.

water and ice 2

Movement frozen in time. water and ice 3

tranquility

And then the brook calms down. Chickadees sing their cheeseburger song while white-breasted nuthatches call, “Yank, yank,” over and over again.

platform

Finally I reached the platform–a hidden oasis that encourages us all to take time to pause and wonder.

bog

And search the brook and bog for signs of wildlife. One of these days, I’m going to see a moose. I think I heard a river otter here either last summer or the previous one. And I’ve been on owl prowls to this very location–occasionally even heard them respond to our calls.

false tinderhoof

Now for some other fun stuff I saw along the way–false tinder polypore. I love that I can now identify this one by its hoof-like appearance on top, but also the way the pore surface angles down toward the tree’s bark. And it’s a perennial, growing taller with the years. I sound so smart, but I’m only just beginning to understand woody fungi. Only a very wee bit.

Some signs that spring is around the corner . . .

wintergreen

Wintergreen appearing where the snow is melting. You may know it as Checkerberry and Tea Berry. We used to chew teaberry gum when we were kids. You can purchase it at Zeb’s General Store in North Conway, New Hampshire. Today, however, the wintergreen extract is produced synthetically.

Hobblebush 2Hobblebush

Hobblebush! While most of the buds we see in the winter landscape have scales to protect them from the weather, hobblebush buds are naked. How do they survive? They are hairy–maybe that helps. I can’t help but wonder. I do know that it won’t be too long before the flat heads of flowers the size of my hands will bloom.

One last thing to share about today’s wander. I thought I was seeing the tracks of this true hibernator and then I saw the real McCoy.

chipmunk

Actually, I saw two of them. It may snow tomorrow, but methinks spring will make  an appearance this year.

Thanks for wondering along beside me on today’s wander. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.