As The Vernal Pool Turns

If you follow me either virtually or in reality, you know that during April and May I spend a lot of time beside vernal pools. And this year is no different. Thankfully, I also get to take others along on the journey, from school children to their parents, and members of the public, plus colleague naturalists in the form of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s volunteer docents.

And so it’s been that this particular pool on a land trust property has received tons of attention this year. We’ve always known it to be special because it’s home to Fairy Shrimp, which just the occurrence of one makes it significant by State of Maine standards.

Vernal pools provide essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including salamanders and some frogs species. At the same time, juvenile and adult amphibians associated with such a pool provide an important food source for small carnivores as well as large game species. Many of these amphibians are pool specific in that they must return to their natal vernal pool to breed, thus making them and the surrounding habitat important and the loss of such would lead to loss of local amphibians, a decrease in biodiversity, and a decline in food available to others who inhabit the surrounding natural community.

Upon visiting this past week, the pool had taken on a new sheen, appearing at first glance to resemble ice. But it was much too warm for that to be the case.

Floating upon the pool’s surface were male Red Maple flowers, the oval items at the ends of slender, threadlike stalks the pollen producing anthers dangling on their filaments and the release of said pollen the cause of the ice-like presentation.

So the exciting thing about this particular pool is that though It has long been a breeding ground for Fairy Shrimp (and mosquito larvae), this year we spotted more of the former than ever swimming along on their backs as they filtered the water and sought a mate.

Though the pollen on the pool may give it a look of being polluted, the presence of Fairy Shrimp actually serve as an indicator of good water quality.

Where a month ago we were scooping up hundreds of these tiny crustaceans, this past week we found only a few, which served as one sign that this is a pool in transition. Their life cycle isn’t long, but if you checked in recently with the post entitled Peering Into the Pool, you’ll have learned a cool fact or two about their existence.

Back to now. Wood Frog tadpoles had suddenly emerged and their egg masses began to disintegrate, though still adding a source of food in the symbiotic relationship with an algal form.

Mosquito larvae and pupae, though still present, were not as prevalent, given that their flying, biting form had begun to hatch.

And then there was another change to note. And it’s a major change in my book of these habitats. Large Bullfrogs had taken up residence.

The wee bit smaller but similar Green Frogs had as well.

How does one decipher between a Bullfrog and Green Frog? First, as you approach a pool and you hear a squeal as a frog jumps from the edge into the water, you know that Green Frogs are in the midst.

And if you finally get to spy one, look for the line behind the eye. If it follows along both edges of the frog’s back, called dorsal lateral folds, it’s a Green Frog.

If, however, the line extends from the back of the eye and wraps around the round disk, or tympanum membrane (think ear), it’s a Bullfrog.

Also, Bullfrogs don’t leap away quite a suddenly as Green Frogs. In fact, they can stay quite still for hours on end.

Once human eyes adjust to the surroundings, shadows may pretend to be frogs, but they aren’t. The real deal, however, lurks at the surface, often only its eyes making its presence known.

Hemlock needles and maple flowers decorate it, and much to my surprise don’t frustrate it. Though some frogs may seem super sensitive to us, they also exhibit a patience not to be matched as they sit and wait.

Oh, did I mention that they were everywhere? Literally.

The thing is. these two frog species weren’t in the pool to breed like the Wood Frogs had been. They, after all, need a permanent water source because their tadpoles take two years at a minimum to morph into adults and a vernal pool that dries up each year would not be suitable. This tadpole was spied at a nearby pond, indicating that perhaps the Bullfrog came from that source to the vernal pool.

So what were the Bullfrogs and Green Frogs doing at the pool? Predating all that live within. Remember what I said earlier, that vernal pools provide food for small and large predators. These would be on the smaller size, though not the smallest.

Perhaps that’s why we weren’t seeing as many Fairy Shrimp this past week. And given the prevalence of these two frogs, who knows what will hop or crawl out of the pool, but we suspect some Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders will make it to adulthood so that they can carry on the tradition of returning to their natal pools to breed.

The thing about visiting a pool such as this with the younger set is that they are bound to make exciting finds. And so one did, locating a Spring Peeper swimming about.

And in the surrounding uplands, another found a Pickerel Frog. We could hear their snoring chorus, so this discovery wasn’t unexpected. But still it was special.

How to tell a Pickerel Frog from a Leopard Frog (the latter a species I’ve only seen a few times): by the spots on its back. The Pickerel’s spots are more symmetrical than the randomness of a Leopard’s and the Pickerel’s spots are outlined while a Leopard’s are not.

And then there was this teeny, tiny American Toad covered with warts and suddenly the ground was hopping with these wee creatures and Spring Peepers and one had to be careful where one stepped.

The final find of the week, an adult Wood Frog with its robber mask making for a sure ID. This one was a poser.

As the vernal pool turns, so do its inhabitants and I give great thanks for the opportunity to learn from it and share it with so many others who add to the lessons.

Dedication: This one is for Nancy Hogan Posey cuze I was going to write about something completely different today and your question turned the page to this one. Thank you.

Where the Bobcat led us

When GLLT Tuesday Trackers meet at a property, we never know what animal sign we’ll need to interpret or what greater understanding we’ll gain. Today was no different and we had a few surprises along the way.

What we’ve all learned is that we need to take a bird’s eye view and consider where we are, whether it be forest or field or wetland, look at how the mammal is moving and what type of pattern it is creating as it moves, get down and count toes, look for nail marks and notice other idiosyncrasies, and then follow the trail for a ways, looking at the prints in different light, or under different trees. Often under hemlock trees we find the best prints because there’s not as much snow since the boughs hold it.

And so today’s adventure began with us following this particular animal and debating—do we see claw marks, is the overall shape round or oval, is there a lead toe, is the ridge creating a C on its side or an X between the toes and heel pad? It took some time, but we finally found a few prints that gave us confidence it was a bobcat we were following. So, where did the bobcat lead us?

Our first stop was along a stream where he walked beside the edge—about two or three feet above the open water for such is the snow height—but then paused for a moment and seemed to step down because he was curious about something. And so were these three, Pam, Dawn, and Emily, for they spied something in the water below.

From our position on the opposite bank, a few of us saw what we thought they were looking at. “It’s furry,” Dawn told us.

She wanted to go down into the water because it didn’t appear to be all that deep, but still that would have meant she’d be wet and so Emily hunted around and found a branch to use as a poker instead.

As Dawn wiggled the stick, all the time exclaiming that it was big, whatever it was, and trying to turn it over, Emily and Pam grabbed her to make sure she didn’t turn into an otter and slide down, though I suspected she would have laughed about the experience.

We all watched intently, making suggestions about the critter’s identity while Dawn continued to poke at it and move it. Mammal? Skull? Full body?

The coloration was definitely unique, but it is winter after all, so the freezing temperatures and fact that it was in water may have altered its appearance.

Those were our thoughts anyway, and we voiced our opinions, until . . . Dawn flipped it over and saw . . . a tag.

So hoping for a kill site where the bobcat may have dined, instead we found ourselves looking at . . . a stuffed owl.

Peter took Pippi’s hiking pole and aided Dawn in rescuing the sopping wet bird and if you look closely you may see water dripping from it.

Our chuckles must have rippled through the forest as we laughed at our great find. Mighty trackers are we. But . . . we think the bobcat was almost fooled as well. Almost.

The owl then flew from Peter’s hands to a perch and there it shall remain, or so we think.

For a few minutes we returned to and continued upon a logging road, and then the bobcat called for our attention again and so we did follow it. As I said to the group, normally I’d insist that we backtrack the animal so we don’t put stress on it, but the tracks were at least a day old.

This time the bobcat led us to a hemlock tree. Do you see the debris under the tree?

How about now? And stained snow by the trunk?

There were even little brown commas atop the snow that could easily be mistaken for hemlock cones. But rather, they were a form of scat.

Like us, the bobcat had been here, but for some reason he chose to pass by.

Whenever we spy downed hemlock branches, comma-shaped scat, and lots of urine at the base of a tree, we know to look up and so we did. High above sat a male porcupine. Males are known to stay in a tree during the day while females typically return to the den each morning and head back to the tree of dining choice at twilight. Here’s are two curious things: 1. the bobcat passed by—they will go after a porcupine, but perhaps this one was too high up. (Fishers are a porcupine’s #1 enemy.) 2. we looked all around and couldn’t find any porcupine tracks. If we had, we might have followed them to see if we could locate the den. But, since we couldn’t we came to the assumption that this porcupine has been up in the tree since at least our last major snowstorm on Friday, February 25.

Back on the bobcat’s trail we did go, being stymied occasionally because though we knew it was a bobcat, there were a few prints that resembled a deer and we came up with all kinds of stories about flying deer and other critters of our imaginations.

But always, we’d find a few classic prints and again feel 100% confident of our ID. Well, not ours, but the bobcat’s.

So where would it lead us next? To a spruce tree all covered with sap . . . and fur.

Some of the hair was dark and coarse.

In other spots it was redder and softer. After much debate, and noting that it was all up and down the tree from just above snow level to at eye sight and maybe a bit above, I think we all agreed it was a bear marking tree. Bears sometimes nip and bit trees and rub their backs on them and their hair gets stuck on splinters or in this case also sap.

According to North American Bear Center: “Favorite trees have little ground vegetation to prevent a bear from approaching them, and they often lean slightly toward the trail.  Look for hair caught in the bark or wood 2 to 5 feet high and look for bites 5½ to 6½ feet high.

The hair often bleaches to brown or blond after a few months but can still be distinguished as bear hair from its length and appearance.  Guard hairs are typically coarse and 3-4 inches long and have a narrow base that may be wavy.  Bears are shedding their winter fur when much of the marking is done in spring or early summer, so the bark may also catch underfur, which is thin, wavy and shorter.”

Two feet up made sense given the snow’s depth.

You’d think that would have been enough, but again we wondered: where will the bobcat lead us?

This time it was a snapped snag and we noticed he’d walked along the top of it.

And then one among us spotted this. Brown snow and more hair. We were sure it was a kill site. Yes, as trackers we really like kill sites because they are fun to interpret and we appreciate the energy passed from one animal to another via the predator/prey relationship.

For a few minutes we took turns walking around the site trying to take in everything presented to us, including some hair that had fallen into the snag’s hollow.

I think it was the two=toned hair that helped us figure this one out. Plus the fact that there was no blood. This was a spot where the bobcat sat down, thus the rather tamped down snow that had turned brown. The warmth of his body helped to flatten it and in so sitting, some of his hair, which is black and white, got stuck, similar to what we see in deer beds at this time of freezing and warming temps. The mammals are beginning to shed their winter coats and last week we had an unusually warm day so change is in the air.

We admired his hunting spot and balance beam. And then it was time for us to leave.

But those grins remained on our faces for we were grateful we’d taken the time to see where the bobcat might lead us at GLLT’s Charles Pond Reserve today.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

For those who are still with me, here’s the scoop. Last Wednesday during a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk on Groundhog Day, where shadows were the main focus, and yes, Lovell Lil, the beaver, did spy her’s and predicted six more weeks of winter, a group of us noticed a pile of feathers on the far side of a brook we snowshoed beside. (Notice how I used this photo as an intro so that those who didn’t want to deal with the aforementioned gore could exit with a beaver image in their minds?)

Here’s how it all began. First, a few of us glimpsed a large bird that we thought was an owl, fly off with something in its mouth. Though we were supposed to be looking for shadows, our nature distraction disorder (NDD being the best kind of disorder to possess) took over and we decided to walk quietly in hopes that we might spy the owl in a tree. Imagine a group of curious people on snowshoes attempting to walk quietly. But we did. Or so we thought. Until three ducks flew up out of the brook and headed in the same direction as the owl.

Shortly after, we spotted this scene and two of us decided that once the public hike ended, we’d find our way to the other side and try to decipher the story of the feathers and the blood and the slides. I was sure I knew the predator.

As we approached, we spotted wing marks at the base of a tree.

What we’d seen from the other side was the plucking station where the predator had pulled the feathers off to get to the meaty part of its avian meal.

Once the bird was plucked, then it dragged it up the hill and sat down to dine behind the tree. Do you see the circular area where the predator left an impression. I’m sure the prey was not at all impressed, though by this time it was . . . dead.

Here’s another look from the dining table down toward the plucking site and the brook below.

Of course, I need to give you a closer look–at the duck’s entrails. I often find these left behind at a kill site and wonder why. Do they not taste good? Is there some sort of bacteria that makes them indigestible? Or do they not offer any discernible nutrition?

Another body part not to be overlooked was the foot with its tendons still attached that sat on the dinner table beside the entrails. Can you see the webbing between the toes? That confirmed our ID that the prey was a duck. But who was the predator? We looked around for mammal prints and found none.

What we did find was a slide. Actually there were a couple of slides. And as I often do, I wanted to confidently say that an otter was the predator. But . . . rather than seeing otter tracks in any of the slides, there were wing marks beside them. From the duck? Or someone else?

We hunted around as we tried to decipher the story. It appeared that quite a struggle had taken place.

And no feather had gone unplucked.

The bright red blood was quite fresh and I could just imagine the pain the duck endured.

While most of the blood was at the plucking station, there was some on a small mound on the brook and again I wondered: was that where the initial attack occurred?

As I said, we found no signs of a mammal, but we did find large splatters or splays of bird feces. Birds don’t produce urine and instead excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, which emerges as a white paste for most.

Fellow tracker, Dawn, and I also found several long shots of excrement that I cannot explain, but perhaps the owl had spent some time up in the tree?

I guess by now you’ve figured out that our assumption was that the owl we saw fly off was the predator. That’s the story we’re telling anyway about how this particular duck lost its tail and its life.

But . . . think of it this way: Plants the duck fed on were primary producers who used energy from the sun to produce their own food in the form of glucose. The primary producers were eaten by the duck, a primary consumer. The duck was then eaten by the owl, a secondary consumer. Who knows how the duck’s tale will actually end because we don’t know who might eat the owl. In the midst of it all, however, energy flowed and in this case may continue to flow from one trophic level, or level of the food chain, to the next.

I know you expected a Mondate, and my guy and I did explore Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, today as I prepped for a Maine Master Naturalist field trip related to tree bark and buds, but the story of the duck and owl have been forming in my brain for a few days. And then this morning another tracker sent me this email:

Subject: Tracking Forensics:

Weird thoughts in the early morning…

I was thinking about the Tracking Tuesdays that you lead on the GLLT properties and about how similar they are to all those CSI shows – coming in a day or two after the events have occurred and trying to piece together who was there and what happened. From seemingly little information you figure out who was there, what they were doing, where the gang hangs out, and sometimes who killed whom. 

Bring in the TV cameras!

That’s when I knew I should take a chance with the blood and guts story. Nature can seem brutal, but it’s all part of the system.

Dedication: This one is for Pam and Bob Katz for leading the Shadows Hike that led us to make this discovery; for Dawn Wood who helped me interpret the site; and for Joe Scott who sent the email. Bring on the TV cameras indeed!

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.

As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.

We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.

Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.

In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.

And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.

And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.

I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.

Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.

And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.

The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.

We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.

Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.

Do you see a bear?

Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.

And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.

In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.

Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.

Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.

Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.

As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.

Be-leeched!

Erika Rowland, executive director of Greater Lovell Land Trust, asked me a year ago to consider finding someone who could give a talk about leeches. And so the search was on. Back in February I found just the right person. At first he declined the invitation, but I enticed him with a place to stay thanks to GLLT members Linda and Heinrich Wurm (she asked that he not bring any live leeches with him) and through a couple of email exchanges we set up a date and time and accommodations. And so it was that we had the absolute pleasure of learning from Dr. Nat Wheelwright and his delightful wife Genie.

Nat is well known for the book he co-authored with Bernd Heinrich: The Naturalist’s Notebook. He’s also known for Nature Moments, including the one that cinched the deal for me: Swimming with Leeches.

Certain that not everyone would be fascinated by leeches, he suggested that he talk about other nature moments and so it began with a look at Bracken, a sometimes waist high fern with triangular fronds that provides a great place for children to hide, or when placed atop ones head, an insect distractor as they’ll go to the highest point, being the stem, and leave you alone. As Nat explained, it’s a prolific fern that mainly reproduces by rhizomes rather than spores. I can think of only a few occasions when I’ve spied the spores on the undersides of the leaflets . . . and believe me, I’ve turned many over in hopes of spying such.

We had about a mile-long walk along a woods road to our destination beside a pond, and were overjoyed that Nat showed off our favorite syndrome: Nature Distraction Disorder as any little thing captured his attention and he couldn’t wait to share it with us. Each time, we thought we knew exactly what he’d share, and then he’d add some tidbit we’d not realized or considered before.

Really, what more could one learn about an American Toad? Until we did. How to tell its gender! Grasp it by its underarms. If it makes a noise, it’s a male! Huh? Yup, because that’s where a male would clasp a female in amplexus and if he thinks another male is grasping him he needs to let it know it has made the wrong choice. We have a frog and toad safari coming up with a bunch of youngsters and this will certainly be on the agenda.

The closer we got to our destination, the more we began to spy Ebony Jewelwing damselflies. As Nat explained, living by the coast, this is a rare species for him, but in our region of western Maine, with so many lakes, ponds, rivers, brooks, and streams, we see them frequently.

What would we learn from him about this species?

Again, how to tell the gender. Male or female? What do you think?

See the second segment of the abdomen where the arrow points? That bulge under segment two is where the secondary genitalia are located. This is clearly absent in females. Therefore–this specimen was a male.

We gave him another way to identify the gender of Ebony Jewelwings: the male’s wings are solid black, while the female has a white psuedostigma toward the tip of each wing.

And notice the white at the tip of the abdomen? That’s pruinosity, which like dragonflies, occurs in mature damsels. Not a gender idiosyncrasy, but rather one of age.

It took us a wonder-filled while, but eventually we made it to the pond of our destination and several of us took off our hiking boots and splashed our feet in the water. To cool off on a hot summer day? Certainly a benefit. To attract a leech or two? Well, we tried, but there were no takers.

Interns Emily and Anna had been there the day before and suggested another spot that might lead us to the leeches we desired and so we walked back along the road and headed down another path to the water. But . . . there was another story to share first of Genie’s experience swimming with tadpoles one day and the demise of said tadpoles a couple of days later and a discovery of ranavirus, which kills frogs in a short time period. Nat did tell us that the pond where the discovery was made seemed to be recovering; maybe some frogs exhibiting a resistance to the virus.

One of the take-aways from this is to always clean your equipment, including trays and D-nets, between pond explorations so if one pond is affected you don’t accidentally spread the virus to another.

That said, we reached a shallow area of the water’s edge, and Moira, Nat, and I took off our hiking boots and socks and stepped into the water. So . . . what did it feel like? Mucky. And rooty. And did I say mucky. BUT . . . it was only a matter of minutes and a blood-sucking leech found my leg. We tried to capture it, however, it wasn’t ready to be the star of the show and quickly released itself. That’s not how it usually goes with such, and a shake of salt would have been necessary to get it to release. I should have been thankful.

Then we spied a much larger leech swimming about and I got out so others could get closer to the pond’s edge and see it. Moira stood still as it circled her leg over and over again.

At last, either she or Nat captured it and placed it in a tray for all to observe. At its longest stretch, it was about five inches, though sometimes it appeared to be only about an inch in length.

In awe, we watched it move gracefully as its body contracted and protracted around the edge of the tray. And then the moment of anticipation came. Time for an up-close-and-personal look.

By the line of spots on its back . . .

and orange belly, Nat identified it as the common and colorful Macrobdella decora—North American medicinal leech, apparently used for bloodletting, but not one that would harm us as we continued to witness.

The more time we spent with Della . . .

the more comfortable we became in its presence, and soon learned that it moves rather like a slinky and we needed to place one hand below the next to keep its rhythm going.

That said, it was rather disconcerting. I mean: leeches are to be feared. We’ve spent a lifetime honing that attitude.

But . . . after spending a little time with them, I realized I truly don’t understand their ecology, but I’ve certainly gained a new respect, including the understanding that they have a brain and a sucker at each end. There’s a whole lot more to them than meets our eyes–including the fact that they have ten . . . eyes, that is, if I’ve got my facts correct.

First, we thought standing in the water was enough of a challenge. And then holding the leech. But . . . Nat had one more challenge–let the leech crawl on your face. Have you ever? Genie was willing to give it a try, but it fell off.

Moira gladly also gave it a try, but it fell to the ground.

Nat, however, was the most successful . . . until we were all certain it was headed into his ear.

Did you know this about leeches?

  • some families are jawless, some toothless, and some feed through a tube
  • leeches swallow their prey whole, extract the bodily fluids, and spit out the crunchy-bits, rather like a carnivorous plant
  • they prey on invertebrates, turtles, frogs, ducks, or fish
  • they are eaten by crayfish, salamanders, birds, turtles, carnivorous aquatic insect larvae, and fish

There is so much more for me to comprehend, but what a great beginning. Today we were be-leeched at Greater Lovell Land Trust with many, many thanks to Nat and Genie Wheelwright for traveling to western Maine to share their nature moments with us, Linda and Heinrich Wurm for hosting the Wheelwrights overnight, and Moira Yip and Vanny Nelson for being today’s lead docents. (Vanny, a former intern, nailed the intro–Nat was impressed, as we all were. And they have a Bowdoin College allegiance.)

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine. Our hats are off to Alanna Doughty of Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) for her willingness to be the lead on this project and work in collaboration with us. Alanna, you see, has conducted previous surveys for Maine Inland Wildlife & Fisheries (MDIFW) at LEA properties, and was trained by wildlife biologist Derek Yorks to set these up.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Each trap was given a number to identify on subsequent days, and all were marked with waypoints on a GPS map of the area. The traps were designed so critters could get in from either end without harm, but could not escape . . . until we recorded them and set them free, that is. An empty water bottle helped each trap stay partially afloat, thus allowing any captured turtle an opportunity to surface for air since unlike fish, they don’t have gills. And each trap was baited with a can of sardines in soybean oil, opened just a tad to release the oil, but not enough for the critters to eat the fish. That was the messy . . . and stinky part of the task. But I swear my hands and wrists currently are less wrinkled than the rest of my arms.

As Alanna on the right, showed GLLT’s Executive Director Erika Rowland, on the left, and me on day 2, the information we needed to collect included air temp at the beginning of each set of five traps, water temp at every trap, plus we had to document turtle species and any bycatch. And if we moved traps, which we ended up doing a day or two later, we needed to note that as well, and remember to change the location on GLLT’s iPad.

We felt skunked at first, because a bunch of our traps were empty, but soon learned that every day would be different. Our first painted turtle, however, was a reason to celebrate.

In no time, it became routine, and GLLT’s Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau, Erika, and I took turns sharing the tasks of the daily trips. If it sounds like a hardship, it was not.

Even GLLT’s Office Manager, Alice Bragg, had an opportunity to spend time checking traps with us and taking the water temperature.

With confidence that we knew what we were doing, well, sorta knew, we invited all volunteer docents and board members to get in on the fun. Of course, my email to them mentioned the stinky soybean oil and feisty mosquitoes, but that did not deter. Often, if something was in the trap it would wiggle upon our approach, but sometimes, as Pam Marshall learned, it wasn’t until you picked it up to check, that the real action began.

A hornpout, aka brown bullhead, started flipping around and there was a moment of surprise.

I knew nothing about freshwater fish at the beginning of the survey, and still don’t know a lot, but am learning. Hornpouts are native catfish who come out at night to feed, vacuuming up worms, fish and fish eggs, insects, leeches, plants, crustaceans, frogs–you name it.

They have a thick rounded body, and a broad, somewhat flattened head with a distinctive set of “whiskers” around the mouth called barbels, which they use to find prey. Their fins have sharp saw tooth spines that can be locked in an erect position as we soon learned and wearing gloves was the best way to try to pull one out if the release zipper on the net wasn’t working. With no scales on their skin, they were a bit slippery, but we managed.

On another day, when volunteers Pippi and Peter Ellison and I had to wait out a fast-moving rain storm that initally left us soaked and chilled, the first catch of the day was a water scorpion. At the time, I kept calling it a walking stick, because it does resemble one. But this is an aquatic insect. It’s not a true scorpion, despite its looks. It uses its front pincer-like legs to catch its prey. And its tail actually acts as a kind of snorkel, rather than a sting, allowing it to breathe in the water.

Once the rain stopped, the Ellisons and I carried on and they were well rewarded. All told, they released the biggest variety of species from this small snapping turtle, to several painted turtles, a crayfish, and several fish species.

In the very last trap, Pippi also pulled out a giant water beetle.

On another day, one of Bob Katz’s finds was a freshwater snail. Thankfully, it was not the large, invasive Chinese Mystery Snail, but rather one of the 34 natives.

As was often the case, teamwork played a huge role in the process of removal of not only the species, but also the stinky sardine cans that were replaced with fresh ones every other day. That didn’t stop Joan Lundin from smiling about the chores to be completed on a super hot day when the air temp hit 90˚.

While some days were downright cold or windy, and whitecaps made crossing the pond a real challenge, others offered calm waters and Basil Dixon and Bruce Taylor joined Rhyan and me for one of the latter.

Up Cold River, much to our surprise, Basil hoisted out a trap filled with four hornpouts.

They waited impatiently for a photo call and release and in moments were on their way.

At the very next trap, Bruce discovered four as well, this time all being painted turtles.

They looked as grumpy as the hornpouts, but who could blame them. Painted turtles are common throughout Maine and in fact, the most wide-spread native turtle of North America. This colorful turtle’s skin ranges from olive to black with red, orange, or yellow stripes on its extremities.

Each time we went out, I prayed we wouldn’t find a large snapping turtle in the trap and that if we did, Rhyan would be with me. Several times, we had to replace traps because big snappers had torn the mesh, and twice we released small snappers, one feistier than the other. On the very last day when we were pulling the traps out because the study was drawing to a close, as luck would have it, Rhyan was with me and we caught not the biggest snapper we’ve ever seen, but still one of decent size.

Notice the plastron, or bottom shell, and you can actually see the bridges that connect it to the much larger top shell or carapace. The zipper on this particular trap had been sewn shut because apparently in a previous study another snapper had torn it, but Rhyan carefully unstitched it to let the turtle swim free.

So, the thing about visiting the same place on a regular basis, is that you get to know so many of the community members, such as the six-spotted tiger beetles who chose that very moment to move rapidly across leaves and rocks by the pond’s edge as they mated. Their large eyes, long legs and sickle-shaped mandibles are characteristic of these metallic green beetles. Usually, however, I can’t get close for a photo because like some dragonflies, as soon as I take a step, they fly ahead a few feet and land until my next step. I was grateful that canoodling slowed them down at least a tad.

Did I mention dragonflies? Each day more exuviae were added to the stems and leaves of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Though fragile, the casts of exoskeletons retain the exact shape of the full grown nymph. You might think of it as a kind of death mask for that previous aquatic stage of life. In each exuvia there’s a hole located behind the head and between the wing pads where the adult dragonfly emerged, literally crawling out of itself. The white threads that dangle from this exit hole are the tracheal tubes.

For a couple of hours after we’d finished the survey on the day Pam was with me, we watched this dragonfly that for some reason could not completely escape its larval form. It was obvious by its coloration and body/wing formation that it had been trying for quite a while to free itself–there was still life in it as we watched it move its legs and wings, but we didn’t interfere (though a part of us regretted that) and the next day I discovered it in the same position, but lifeless. Two days later, it was gone and I had to hope a bird had a good meal.

Speaking of birds, we saw them and delighted in listening to them, like this yellow warbler, and herons, osprey, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one lonely loon, and even a hummingbird.

But our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond.

I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak. As you can see by the context of this photo, Rhyan and I weren’t far from him at all.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

On the sandbar below, stood a sandpiper.

At last, however, the eagle flew, the sandpiper didn’t become a meal, and we watched as the bigger bird landed in a pine where we’ve spotted it before. We still had two more traps to attend to that day, and both were located below the eagle’s perch, but it left us alone.

The smallest birds that delighted us we heard first for they were constantly begging for a meal. All of the first week, we knew they were there by their sweet peeps, but it wasn’t until the second week that we began to spy them. And their demands for food began to sound louder and more adult-like. Unfortunately, the excavated hole used as a nest, was located in a spot where the afternoon sun made it difficult to see, but again on that last day the Kodak moment arrived.

Turtles, too, entertained us not only from the traps, but from their much happier places, basking on rocks or fallen logs. Typically, they slid off the substrate as soon as we approached, but this one actually let us pass by as it remained in place.

Because the water was shallow and clear, occasionally we spied one swimming below. Erika and Rhyan also paddled over one large snapper on a day I wasn’t out for the survey, but our snapping turtle finds tended to be on the smaller side–thankfully.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space. But . . .

as we paddled the canoe across the pond, Rhyan spied the young bull moose first. We’d seen moose tracks on the road way and every day hoped today might be the day. At last it was.

For a few minutes we sat and watched as he dined upon vegetation.

He seemed not bothered by our presence; mind you we were farther away than appears.

For a while, he browsed in one area, and then began to walk along the edge. And we gave thanks that the stars were aligned, but felt bad that one more volunteer, Moira Yip, who was supposed to be with us, hadn’t been able to make it.

Finally, the moose stepped out of the water and we knew our time together was coming to a close.

He gave one sideways glance and we said our goodbyes.

And then he disappeared from Charles Pond for the moment, and so did we.

What an incredible two weeks it was as we surveyed the wildlife of Charles Pond. Many thanks to Erika and Rhyan, to all of the volunteers who joined us (including Nancy and Brian Hammond who went on a day that I wasn’t present) and especially to LEA’s Alanna, and MDIFW’s Derek Yorks for letting us complete this assessment.

It was an honor and a privilege to be part of this project.

March Madness

I awoke early, filled with concern for Greater Lovell Land Trust’s March Madness hike planned for today. The wind was blowing and the temperature had dropped significantly after several days of “Fake Spring.” Would volunteer docents and staff be ok in parking lots and summits at GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve where we were encouraging people to climb one, two, or all three “peaks”?

We had it all planned–“snowman” passports available in the parking lots, along with trail maps, healthy snacks, magazines, and advice. Oh, and a donation jar 😉

At each summit, participants would have their passports stamped and choose one GLLT/nature-related swag item.

But that wind. A check of the weather report, thankfully, promised that the wind advisory suggesting gusts up to 45 mph, would end by 10am. Our event was planned to begin at 9:30. As I wrote in an email to volunteers and staff, “Let’s go for it.” No one balked. One replied, “We’ll be there.” And another wrote, “They don’t call in March Madness for nuthin’.”

After making sure everyone was set, at parking lot #4 on Route 5 in Lovell I opened the back of my truck to display the offerings. Our talented executive director had created a snowman out of the three summits, one of them actually being the snowball, and the buttoned breast serving as connector trails.

For the first two hours or so, my only companions were chipmunks, which despite, or maybe because of the cold, ran frantically from one side of the trail to the other, in and out of holes, and disappearing at one section of stone wall, while a short time later reappearing at another. Or was that a different chipmunk?

I counted four, but really, there could have been more for they entered and exited so frequently. Meanwhile, I was also on the move in an attempt to stay warm. The wind may not have been gusting per se, but it was rather breezy and certainly quite chilly.

And so I walked (and sometimes ran) around the parking lot and about a tenth of a mile up the trail, over and over again. In a way I wish I’d tracked my trail, because it would have looked as if I was indeed mad.

But . . . I made discoveries, including raccoon prints in the mud,

Yellow birch catkins flying like flags upon their twigs over my head,

and their associated trunk showing off its curly bark.

A Red Maple sported the perfect target fungus that I often mention to others, who can’t always see the bulls-eye pattern.

And somehow, though I’ve walked this trail many times over many years, I’ve never spotted the burnt potato-chip bark of a Black Cherry right beside the path before.

I also learned something about chipmunks. They scampered for several hours, but early afternoon must be siesta time and I never did see any of them again, though I checked frequently.

By 11:30, participants began to pull into the lot and I felt a certain sense of relief. Being without cell phone reception, I had no idea how things were going with anyone else, but gave thanks that people wanted to participate in the hike and had learned about it from several forms of media.

As they hiked, my parking lot meandering continued, though the space to move shrunk due to their parked vehicles.

With the chipmunks no longer offering entertainment, I decided to add an examination of the kiosk to my point of view.

Upon it I found a bunch of larval bagworm moths, their structure such that they remind me of the caddisflies I’ll soon be looking for as waterways open.

Another frequent observation at any kiosk is the cocoon structure of tussock moths. This one didn’t let me down.

Speaking of down, it was down that my eyes were next drawn and I spotted an old apple oak gall that curiously sported two exit holes–or had someone dined upon the goods once forming inside. How it survived two feet of snow and retained its global shape stymied me. Another thought though is that it may have remained attached the tree for a long time and only recently blew to the ground.

While I considered that, something hopped. Seriously.

The hopper turned out to be a . . . grasshopper instar. A what? An instar is a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate animal. Think of it as a nymph, if you will.

Spying one seemed an anomaly, but . . . I spied three more upon the snow.

They couldn’t yet fly, but they certainly could hop up to three feet despite their diminutive size of about 2 centimeters. Their direction wasn’t always forward, but sometimes more sideways.

In the end, thirteen folks hiked from my lot and the others had 12 and 9, so I’d call the first annual March Madness a success. All volunteers and staff stayed sorta warm–each finding their own way to do so.

As for me, I somehow managed to cover 7.8 miles in a small space and found myself smiling frequently as March Madness was really March Gladness.

Grasshoppers?!!!

Ho Hum Mondate

Today’s adventure began earlier than most because we hoped to beat the snowstorm and so over bumpy roads did we travel to an old favorite. Actually, it’s a favorite we haven’t visited in at least a year because on one approach there were so many cars parked along the roadway that we knew the trails would be crowded so we found a spot to turn around and skedaddled out of there. And with the overcrowding of trails in mind, we’ve spent a lot of time finding the those less traveled, and not always mentioning our location. But . . . finally, we returned to this one.

One of the reasons I love the winter trek is that the road upon which everyone parks from spring through fall isn’t plowed, so one must walk in. And do what I always do–check the telephone poles for bear hair.

Whether it’s the creosote on the pole, the hum of electricity riddling high above on the wires, or something new and shiny in their territory, bears are attracted and rub their backs against the object as they turn their heads to nip and bite. The jagged horizontal lines speak to the upper incisors scraping the wood as they reach toward the lower incisors. And the shiny numbers that marked the pole–all that is left is a notation in the power company’s data base.

The thing is: we always check the poles along this stretch when we hike in on the road. And we’re always rewarded for our efforts. Do note the color of the hair–bleached by the sun, a Black Bear’s hair turns ginger.

Almost a mile in we reached the starting point for our expedition as a few flurries fluttered from the sky. Much but not all of the Stone House property is conserved under an easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust.

Our plan was to continue down the road, then turn right onto the Shell Pond Trail system.

All along the road we’d noted tracks galore of mice, squirrels, hares, foxes, fishers, coyotes and weasels.

The snow was well packed, but we weren’t sure that would be the case when we turned onto the intended trail.

It was, and so having donned our micro-cleats, and carried our snowshoes, we decided to ditch the latter behind a tree. And crossing over the trail at said tree, a bobcat track, complete with a classic segmented bobcat scat. Did I mention that we almost always encounter bobcat tracks here and that we often store our snowshoes, deciding that we should be just fine without them?

At the first bridge, we paused and I hoped against hope we’d see signs of an otter. Or even the real deal.

No such luck, but there was a mink track by the edge of the water. It’s often one or the other that we expect to see here.

Ditching the snowshoes, like always proved to be a good idea as our progress was much quieter (and quicker–but then again, any hike with my guy is rather on the quick side no matter the distance). Only occasionally did we punch holes into the snow.

On a couple of occasions my post-holing was intentional for I spied woodpecker trees.

The debris below each meant the bird had spent a lot of time excavating.

And the depth of the excavations meant it must have found delightful little carpenter ants and maybe some beetles to dine upon. What do I always do when I see such a refuse pile? Examine it for scat, of course. At the first tree, I found none and worried that either the bird had gone hungry or was constipated.

I was just about to stomp back to the trail after looking about below the second tree when the pièce de résistance caught my attention. The bird wasn’t starving and didn’t have digestive issues after all.

And then there’s another tree that begs to be honored with each passing and so we always do. Today the burl gave us the feeling that we might be passing through the Jurassic period, albeit snow taking the place of lush vegetation.

At last we reached the bench, or at least the top of it, and my guy turned from Shell Pond to clean it off for lunch.

Our traditional PB&J sandwiches unwrapped, we took in the view and watched the clouds play as they danced across the mountain range.

At last we continued on in the area where Peregrin Falcons will soon nest (or so we hope) on the cliffs above, and if you follow us frequently, you may note that at first my guy doesn’t have the Curious Traveller pack on his back. Once lunch is eaten and more water consumed, he takes the pack and I tease him about it being so much lighter.

The journey took us through the old orchard . . .

across the former airstrip where the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky . . .

and past the privately-owned stone house for which the property is named.

And then, because the snow had held off for the most part, we decided to hike a short distance up the Stone House Trail to Rattlesnake Pool. Surrounded by ice and snow, it had shrunk in size, but still, it’s always worth a visit.

We climbed down and got within about six feet, but chose not to dive in. The emerald green water was enough to revive us.

Because we were there, we also needed to walk in to Rattlesnake Gorge, located south of the pool. Water gurgled in the background, but much of it travelled under the weight of snow and ice.

And when we turned, it was more of the same–a frozen world waiting for the upcoming thaw to free it.

Oh, did I mention that we stowed the backpack before heading up to the pool and gorge, giving my guy even more of a break from hauling it the rest of the way? As we returned to the airfield, the snow was just beginning to fall in earnest.

Remembering to grab our snowshoes, we finally made our way back along the road, past the lemonade stand house, and returned to the truck, completing a seven-mile journey.

We are creatures of habit, as becomes more obvious each day, and we’re thrilled to back at this perennial favorite. To top it all off, we realized that we had the entire property to ourselves today. No Ho Hums about this Mondate.

Finds of This Day

Early this morning I posted this on Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Facebook page: “Wear your long johns and hand warmers as you head out on a trail today. Maybe you’ll choose the Homestead/Hemlock route to the picnic table. If you do, look for tracks along the way, including turkey and red fox. And bring some hot cocoa to sip when you reach the table or return to your vehicle. To the table and back is two miles; or you can extend your trip and climb Amos Mountain. #greaterlovelllandtrust #takeahike #getoutside #lovellmaine #maine

And then we did just that. Well, not exactly that. We didn’t actually follow the Homestead Trail, but did connect to the Hemlock and a series of other trails as well, which you can see if you check out our route as outlined in black on this map.

Conditions were such that we chose micro-spikes over snowshoes (though it sounds like there’s a decent storm on the horizon–finally). More important than footwear, however, was the fact that we wore layers to fend off the low temp and wind chill.

Soon reaching the summit of Whiting Hill, we took in the view of Kezar Lake and the mountains to the west, reminiscing on First Day Hikes in past years that brought us to this summit and noting this would have been the same destination for 2021, albeit via a different route, if COVID-19 hadn’t interrupted the plan.

Turning from Whiting Loop to the Hemlock Trail, at least one old bear tree begged to be honored and so we did, its claw marks disappearing among the cankers of Beech Scale Disease more and more each year.

Eventually we reached the picnic table I’d encouraged people to visit in my morning post and realized a couple had done just such. I wasn’t sure they had done so because of my suggestion or just because . . . they live nearby. My guy was impressed when I named the likely creators of such tracks. Notice the pattern of mittens on the bench.

After arriving home, I reached out to the likely suspects and discovered I’d nailed it. Ah, said mittens.

Responded Dale, with these photos of he and his wife Kitty when I inquired, “Yes Leigh, that was us. You ARE a good tracker.” It’s all about knowing the local community and those who call it home 😉 There were plenty of wildlife tracks as well, ranging from mouse to fisher, porucpine, and fox.

While Dale and Kitty had turned around at the picnic table, my guy and I continued up, climbing part way up Amos Mountain Trail and then turning west on the Heritage Trail, where we eventually reached the scenic outlook over an area formerly known as Devil’s Staircase, where more memories overtook us as we recalled a Devil of a Mondate.

Eventually, we found our way down part of the Rogers Family Trail where ice flows off the ledges next captured our attention.

And my guy grudgingly posed to add perspective to the scene.

But really, that ice.

Back up to the Heritage Trail, El Pupito came into view.

The stained-glass view beyond the pulpit once again offered views of Kezar Lake’s Upper Basin.

We paused to pontificate as one cannot help but do in this setting. And my guy found it much more to his satisfaction to pose as long as I did the same. Notice our rosy cheeks.

And then the journey continued, with the summit of Amos Mountain our next stopping point. Again we could glimpse the lake as we soaked up the sun’s rays.

Finally heading down Amos Mountain, we turned eastward at the intersection with Heritage, passing by a foundation that once belonged to the man for whom the mountain was named, before eventually reaching the Mystery Structure, its stone configuration often a site of contemplation.

Three and a half hours later, and almost seven miles under our belts, we arrived back at the mill site at the outlet of Heald Pond where we’d begun our journey.

For my guy, the finds included two geocaches.

Both were in great shape. Lately, we’ve unearthed some that have been wet, and either frozen or moldy. Also, the boxes included pencils, a great alternative to pens as the ink freezes when the temp is as low as it was today.

He wasn’t the only one pleased with discoveries. Mine included the shed skin of a Gypsy Moth larva, and dark brown shell that the new skin of the same caterpillar had hardened into so it could pupate. Though not a pleasant find, I’m forever intrigued by its alien form.

There was also a Polyphemus Moth cocoon to notice, oval in shape and featuring a tough outer layer of silk.

But the best find of all was one we made and honored together: a bear claw tree featuring scratches made within the last five years as based on the size of the lines.

We’re so glad we heeded my suggestion and headed out today, truly thankful for long johns and hand warmers. and layers upon layers of clothing.

Though we didn’t meet anyone else on the trail, which is actually our preferred way in these times, we knew by the signs left behind that Dale and Kitty had been there, and when we returned to our truck discovered a note on the windshield with this note: “Who Cooks For You?” We had our suspicions about the authors and turns out we were right again.

The finds of this day were plentiful. As was the beauty.

All In A Day’s Walk

My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.

And so it was that on this brisk morning, snow-capped Mount Washington greeted me. If you zoom in, you might see the buildings at the summit.

Because I was at a different summit that I frequent, I knew I had to check on the activity of the local residents and wasn’t disappointed. First, I followed their trails, where leaves are well packed. Those led to trees, but no downed nip twigs as one might expect. That could only mean one thing–there are still plenty of acorns on the ground for them to eat. Because I was searching, however, I was thrilled to discover one sign that the season is changing. I knew that by the five layers I was wearing, but the stripped bark and cambium layer of a birch indicated the same. A porcupine’s diet varies with the offerings and part of their winter dining includes just this. Notice, too, the pattern of the incisor marks. Such a design thrills me no matter how often I encounter it.

One of the porky trails led into a crevice below where I stood. It was there that I caught the first glimpse of icicles and knew I had to climb down. My route wasn’t the same as the porcupine’s for I’m not quite as nimble on rocks and slippery leaves.

But, with grace, I descended and made the surprise discovery of Mount Rushmore East. At least, that’s how the rock faces looked to my eyes.

But seriously, I wanted to spy the icicles from below and they became the inspiration for next week’s GLLT Moment.

That wasn’t all I wanted to spy and I wasn’t disappointed for the trail of scat indicated one potential den site.

And more scat led to another. I suspect those aren’t the only two, but I wanted to keep moving, such was the temp.

That said, right beside the second porcupine den, I found a small hole in the ground capped in hoar frost and suspected that someone was inside. It seemed a bit larger than a chipmunk hole. Maybe a squirrel? Or a weasel? Or even, the porcupine’s den vent?

While those choices rolled around in my brain, I climbed up the ledges and made my way down the trail until it intersected with another. Eventually, water once again stopped me as it often does.

Only two weeks ago the temperatures in western Maine were in the 60˚s and 70˚s, but the past few days have been chilly and already dancing elephant legs are forming over sticks that dangle above moving streams.

Even the froth created by the friction of the stream’s movement had frozen in place.

I stopped a few more times, but finally reached the spot that was my second intention of the day. While exploring in this area a couple of week’s ago with several Greater Lovell Land Trust docents, we noticed beaver trees. The work looked rather recent and so we set up a game cam in hopes of getting a view of the perpetrator.

Today’s visit, however, showed no fresh work on this tree.

And a skim of ice indicated no one had recently walked out of the water. I snagged the camera and dropped it at the office so the photos can be downloaded. I hope they reveal more than a few test pics of us homo sapiens.

It was while heading back to my truck that this splash of color caught my attention. Notice the Striped Maple leaf on the mushroom–they are like a matched set. I’ve been torn in my identification between an Artist’s Conk and a Red-belted Polypore, whose belt is not always red.

But more important than identification was presentation. And the knowledge that the middle mushroom grew when the tree was still standing, while the others fruited after the tree had fallen, for mushrooms must always orient toward the ground, the better to spread one’s spores, of course.

My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?

How about now?

Surely now you can.

Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.

Making Sense of Scents

Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement on the ground caught my attention.

My heart sang because I suspected I knew who I was looking at, but just the same, there were a few key characteristics that had to be acknowledged before I was one hundred percent confident.

You see, the first clues were the three buff-colored lines down its back. Between the lines, the keeled scales were quite dark. And this snake is known for its thin body and narrow, mahogany head.

But one of the most defining features, at least for me, is the whitish spot in front of each eye.

Do you see it? And the fact that there’s a line below separating it from the labial scales? Oh, and its lips are pure white.

These are examples of Ribbon Snakes, Thamnophis sauritus. In Maine, they are listed as a Species of Special Concern, which means this: “Any species of fish or wildlife that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.” ~maine.gov.

I’ve had the good fortune of spying three or four this year, but always, I have to stop and think about the characteristics before feeling comfortable that I’ve made the correct identification.

I really wanted the kids in the Greater Lovell Land Trust/Lovell Rec afterschool program to see this snake when they arrived. We searched. But the best I could offer was the photos I had taken.

A much more frequent sighting is of one of the largest snakes in Maine–at least of the snakes that I have met. There are nine species of snakes in Maine, but in my encounters, I’ve only met five of them (and only have photos of four to share).

This species is happy on land or in the water and before you let the hair raise up on the back of your neck and think you may never swim in a Maine lake or pond again, in the 35 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen plenty, but never encountered one while swimming. Oh, I’m sure people have other stories to share, but that has been my experience.

That said, this is one LARGE snake and can measure up to 42 inches in length.

Coloration can vary from a base color of pale gray to dark brown.

Notice how the pattern looks like bands wrapped around the body as presented from behind the head, but then becomes more blotchy in appearance.

Meet Maine’s Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, featuring a face only a mother could love.

I know some favorite haunts of Water Snakes and always look carefully because it can be well camouflaged.

One not camouflaged at all that my guy and I saw a few weeks ago on a Mondate, struck us as being out of its realm as it paused briefly on a granite ledge near the summit of a mountain upon which we hiked.

Its coloration gives away its common name: Smooth Green Snake. Smooth because unlike the first two snakes and the one I’m about to share, Green Snakes’ scales are not keeled. And its scientific name: Liochlorophis vernalis.

In my book of observations, I’ve only seen two Green Snakes ever–because they do look like their preferred grassier habitat.

The final snake of this series is the one I see most often. It might be sunning on a granite rock or searching for a meal in the kitchen garden.

Sometimes more than one crosses my path simultaneously.

And though it would be easy to mistake for a Ribbon Snake because of the buff-colored lines on its back, it isn’t. This snake has a stockier body and wider, olive-green head. Two other differences include dark marks along the edges of each labial (lip) scale, and of equal importance, no defined white spot in front of each eye. Oh, it’s pale yes, But scroll back up to the photo of the Ribbon Snake and see how they differ.

Also note how its coloration differs from one snake to another. Blotches between the stripes are common on this species but not a part of a Ribbon Snake’s appearance.

This is a Common Garter Snake: Thamnophis sirtalis.

So here’s the most exciting news of the day. Yesterday, before meeting with the same afterschool group as last week, I pre-hiked the trail. Suddenly, I walked into web as thick and sturdy as a fish net and bounced back with surprise. When I looked for the creators, I found three small spiders, who immediately went into action to fix what I had just ruined. I spent a few minutes watching them, then turned my attention back to the trail and just off to the left I spied this Garter Snake at eye level in an Eastern Hemlock sapling.

Snakes spend the fall basking in the sun because they are ecothermic, meaning they are cold-blooded and their body temperature varies with the environment. Mary Holland, in her Naturally Curious blog post today, described their fall/winter habits of Basking and Brumating.

When the kids arrived, I told them about my sighting–and we talked a bit about the differences between last week’s Ribbon Snake sighting and this week’s Garter Snake. And then we began our hike, stopping along the way to examine leaves, dig into the leaf litter as Forest Floor Archaeologists, and play with sticks cuze kids just love to play with sticks.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.

Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.

For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.

For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.

Resurrection

I warned you that last week’s Cemetery Cicada Celebration would be revised. And so it was. Over and over again as is my custom.

But the thing is that last week I took part in a poetry workshop offered through Greater Lovell Land Trust by Poet Judith Steinbergh. The title of the workshop was “Caring for Our Earth and Waters.” Judy shared various poems with us through a remote gathering and asked us to read them aloud while thinking “about what we might visualize from the images, and how the sounds and form blend together with the image and feeling.”

She encouraged us to make notes and suggested some different approaches: speak to the subject; become the subject; instruct the reader; show feelings toward the subject. She even gave us some beginnings and endings that might inspire us to begin.

And then she concluded with “Poetry Revision Guidelines,” which included such practices as reading the poem aloud several times, questioning whether or not the opening was strong enough, maintaining focus, creating images the reader could visualize, using tight language, finding a rhythm, helping the reader gain insight, and providing appropriate breaks.

We had one week to write a poem, submit it to Judy for comments, and then the big night would come: The Reading.

Just as it’s scary to publish in this blog manner or via Lake Living magazine and other avenues I’ve used over the years, it’s equally terrifying to read aloud–especially when you can see yourself on the computer screen.

But that’s what some of us did the other night for the remote Poetry Reading and you can watch and listen in: GLLT Poetry Reading 2020

My original subject was a pine tree, but after watching the magical emergence of cicadas last week, I knew I had to write about that experience. Figuring out the angle was much more difficult and I tried a variety of avenues. In the end, I chose a style that works best for me, teaching through imagery.

It’s not a done deal, mind you, for it is my belief that there is no such thing as a final draft. OK, so that’s my default in case you don’t think this works or have suggestions to improve my attempt. All comments are welcome. It’s only a draft and I haven’t written 18 drafts yet as I often do with an article. I’m at 7 or 8.

Resurrection
By Leigh Macmillen Hayes, 7/19/2020

To walk into a cemetery on a summer day
And find an insect metamorphosing upon a stone
I begin to understand the process of resurrection.

A life well spent questing sap for sustenance
Prepares to crawl free of its past
And reach for heavenly aspirations.

Through a tiny slit, a spirit no longer contained
Emerges head first as a teneral shape develops
with bulging eyes to view a new world.

Gradually, a pale tourmaline-colored body extends outward
With stained-glass wings unfurling
That provide baby steps toward freedom beyond.

I mourn the loss of your former soul
But give thanks for a peek at your upcoming ascension
From this place to the next.

It is not for me to know when you will first use the gift of flight
As I didn’t know when you would shed your old skin,
And I quickly offer a final goodbye when I see your wings spread.

I rejoice that I’ll spend the rest of the summer
Listening to your raspy love songs
Playing nature’s lullabies upon violin strings from above.

On this day, I celebrate the secrets of a cicada’s life,
Dying to the old ways and rising to new,
While I wander among the graves of others who have done the same.

To all who joined the Poetry Workshop or the Poetry Reading or wished they could, and especially to Judy Steinbergh, I dedicate this post. Thank you for sharing.

Cinderella’s Slipper Shop Overflows

Did you hear? Cinderella lost her slipper. And didn’t know where to find it. So . . . Pam M. and I turned into Fairy Godmothers over the course of the weekend in an attempt to help the folktale heroine of our youth.

We began by waving our magic wands . . .

formed in the shape of Indian Cucumber Root flowers suddenly in bloom.

And then we looked everywhere. Do you see the shoe?

No, that’s not it. Ah, but what is that? It’s the nest of an Ovenbird who ran across the forest floor away from the nest, which made us wonder why it was running and not flying–to distract our attention, of course.

We took quick photos and then moved out of momma’s way, continuing our quest.

Do you see the shoe?

No, it wasn’t underneath, but we did celebrate the fact that we’d found the ever common rattlesnake fern with its lacy triangular fronds . . .


and separate beaded fertile stalk. To us, it was hardly common for we rarely see it except in this place. Perhaps we’ll whip the fern into another dress for Cinderella.

Do you see the shoe? No, it isn’t here either, but the leaflets (pinnae) of a Christmas fern could certainly serve as Cinderella’s stockings, bejeweled as they are with the sori’s indusia (the round sheets partially covering each sorus) attached at their centers.

Do you see the shoe? No, it’s not here either, but the hobblebush showed that even in leaves that for some reason were dying, design and color should always be noticed because everything deserves consideration. As we consider Cinderella’s next gown, certainly we’ll remember this.

Do you see the shoe? Maybe we were getting closer. Indeed we were getting closer when we spied this bladder sedge.

Do you see the shoe? We hope one day soon you will for it was while admiring the sedge that we noticed the leafy forms beside it and realized we’d discovered the plant we sought. Perhaps it will flower soon and the golden yellow shoes of our quest will make themselves known.

In the meantime, yesterday morning Pam led a stroll for the Greater Lovell Land Trust.

And this afternoon I did the same for the wait-list crowd.

Each time, we led participants on a stroll through the slipper shop. Cinderella should be pleased with our finds for in every aisle the slippers were available in exactly her size.

And each offered its own variation of the color theme.

There were a few darker ones.

And even several in white.

We were all in awe and had to bow and curtsey (in Covid-19 fashion) for so many choices were there to honor.

Saturday’s group found 53, which became a challenge for today’s group. Their total: 71.

We know Cinderella is holding out for the golden one, but until then her personal slipper shop overflows with possibilities.

Grateful For Your Company

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. Today’s hike found me traveling solo, as is the norm in this current time, but I took each and every one of you along with me because so excited was I by all of our finds.

We began at parking lot #5 of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

As I showed you in the parking lot, our plan was to begin on the Roger’s Family Trail and then circle around on the orange Heritage Loop Trail with a side trip to the summit of Amos Mountain in the midst of the journey. You all agreed that it sounded like a great plan.

I had previously warned you that part of the route could be a bit wet and was pleased to see that some of you had remembered to don your rubber boots, but those who forgot managed to find a way around. I trust no one had wet feet by the time we finished. Was my assumption correct?

Of course, I love water and so before we crossed over the bridge, I insisted that we take a look and try to spy tracks in some mud or aquatic insects or plants springing forth.

Bingo on the latter and we all rejoiced at the sight of False Hellebore with its corrugated leaves so green.

Finally, after poking about for a bit, I suggested we move along. It seemed like we managed to walk about five steps and then something would catch our attention and all forward motion came to pause. But that’s the way we like it for we notice so much with such slow movement. Do you remember this spot? Where we paused to look for Trailing Arbutus buds and noticed Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain growing in a colony. And remember how I told you that the only way I can remember the common name of this latter species is because it doesn’t look “downy” to me.

As often happens, the trail enhanced the lesson for not too much further along we practically stepped on another family member, this one bearing the name Checkered. Really, had Mr. Linnaeus asked me, I would have switched it around for the dullness of these leaves seems more downy in my mind and the other more checkered. Alas . . . he didn’t ask.

By this point, we’d hit drier trail conditions, if you recall, as we started climbing uphill. Drier, but rockier, that is. And then upon one, we spied a little package that you knew would delight me. Fox scat, indeed. With a blunt end and even a twist. Classic fox scat.

It took us a while, but we managed to reach the intersection with the orange trail and turned to the left to proceed. It was there that we began to meet common polypody ferns. Some of you explained that you know it as rock cap fern or rock polypody fern. What we all know is that it’s most often found growing on rock surfaces in moist, shady woods.

I did hear the hushed groans when I turned it over, but what could I say? I can’t resist checking to look at the underside. Like little pompoms, the organs or sori that housed the dust-sized spores or sporangia are arranged so neatly in two rows upon each leaflet. In their old age, the sori of these common polypody are orange-brown.

You, however, were eager to move on and so we did. Until we didn’t. For we stopped once again at “El Pupito,” the pulpit rock.

And did what one should do at the pulpit–honor the view through nature’s stained-glass window.

Oh yeah, and on the back of the boulder, you knew the minute you saw it what was going to happen next.

Out came my water bottle as I sacrificed some H20. But really, you are also equally amazed each time the magic happens and the greenish color of algae on rock tripe lichen makes itself known.

I saw a few of you gawk.

With a snap of our fingers and twitch of our noses (no we didn’t touch our fingers to our faces), we soon made it to the summit of Amos.

It was there that while zooming in to note the glorious red maple buds we spied another in the form of a spider. And we all took a closer look, one at a time, of course, allowing for six feet of space.

Then we backtracked down to where the blue trail met the orange trail and continued on the orange. That is . . . until sweet bird songs stopped us in our steps.

The trills lasted a few seconds and began again.

Most of us couldn’t recall who it was and gave great thanks to have Peter and Joe along for a positive ID: Pine Warbler indeed.

At our next stop I was so sure that one of you would provide a definitive answer to the structure’s use and history, but you only asked more questions to which I didn’t have the answers and so it shall remain a mystery. Who built it? Why? What? When? We do know the where and have some ideas about the how, but can’t quite respond to the Five Ws and an H in a complete manner.

And so we left there and moved on to the spot where we chatted about all the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties that seemingly followed us through the woods.

Each time we heard a sound from one of the above, if it wasn’t a dried leaf blowing across the forest floor, it turned out to be a chipmunk. Why is it, we wondered together, that they can be so still one moment, but in the next insist upon calling attention to their presence?

Moving along, we eventually crossed over the wall and onto what was once the property of Amos Andrews.

Here, only a few years ago, one among us, yes Alice, that would be you, realized that in this spot grew white oak, a tree that we had previously believed no longer grew in these parts given its use in barrel making and other purposes. That is, until we recognized the chunky blocks of bark that helped to negate that assumption.

The leaves below also defined the new story, with red oak’s bristly pointed lobes on the left and white oak’s rounded lobes to the right.

As it would be, we realized we weren’t the only ones looking. And again, we had to take turns getting close to ohh and ahh at the alternating light and dark markings on the abdomen’s edge, legs and antennae of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. Okay, so we know these beasts inflect considerable damage to some fruits and crops, and can be a nuisance when it takes shelter in our homes, but still.

Around the corner from the oak tree we paused beside the homestead of Amos Andrews and wandered about his walled property for a bit, each of us trying to answer the question, “What was Amos thinking?” We haven’t answered it yet, but time will tell as perhaps more understandings will be revealed.

Down the former road we walked, grateful that being two rod wide, (a rod at 16.5 feet), we had plenty of room to spread out.

At the intersection with the Amos Mountain Trail, our route crossed over and we continued on to the lookout point where the Balds to the left, Mount Washington a wee white pyramid in the background, and Kezar Lake below held our focus.

And then we began to retrace our steps, back toward the parking lot where we’d first gathered. But there were two more things to notice, the first being a skeleton of a paper birch, its roots till seemingly intact.

And finally, water striders not doing a very good job of practicing social distancing.

We, on the other hand, had nailed that one, for while you all walked with me, I was alone. And ever so grateful for your company.

My Great Escape

The past two days have found me wandering on and off trail at John A Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell, where spring slowly emerges.

Yesterday’s journey, which began beside New Road, required me to climb up over the snow bank. If you go, don’t worry; I did my best to carve out steps for you.

Do, however, choose your footwear appropriately for I spent a lot of time creating post holes.

My intention was to locate timeless sights I can upload to a Google Map for at the Greater Lovell Land Trust we are working to create virtual hikes for those who can’t get onto the trails right now.

But there were other things that garnered my attention and I’m never one to pass by a White Pine personally decorated by the rain.

And then there was the beech leaf that arced in such a manner its veins mimicked rays of sunshine on a gloomy day.

Speckled Alder catkins poured forth with their own presentation of color as they added more cheer to the landscape.

And Trailing Arbutus (aka Mayflower) buds, like all others, provided a sign of hope that the future will arrive.

Beside Bradley Brook, an Eastern Hemlock held a raindrop-in-waiting, its gift from the sky soon to be transferred back to the place from whence it came.

The brook flowed forth with a rhythm all its own and I rejoiced in its gurgles, temporarily forgetting the world beyond.

Eventually I followed it back, giving thanks for all its meandering curves in hopes that we will all be able to continue to enjoy life around the bend.

Today dawned a new day, and a much brighter one at that, and so my truck made its way to the other trailhead along Farrington Pond Road. The parking lot wasn’t plowed this winter and so I tucked into the edge.

Lost in thought, the sight of a fruit still dangling on a Maple-leaf Viburnum pulled me back to reality.

One of my favorite places on this property isn’t along an actual trail, but rather its one folks can easily find on their own. I prefer to think of it as the secret garden.

It offers views of Sucker Brook Outlet feeding into Kezar Lake’s Northwest Cove. But even more than that, it offers layers and colors and teems with life. Today I startled two Wood Duck couples who quickly flew off “oweeking” all the way.

Life in the secret garden includes three beaver lodges that reflect the mountains beyond.

And flowers like this Rhodora, waiting for their chance to burst into color beyond understanding.

Back on the Blue Trail, I discovered one small feather, so light and delicate and fluffy, and yet barbed, the better for all of its kind to interlock and protect.

At a wet spot, the feather slipped from my mind and I marveled at the thin layer of ice that transformed the watery display.

Within the puddle, a broken Paper Birch trunk showed off the fact that even in death, life continues.

And then I met death. At first, I thought it was a scattering of more feathers.

That is, until I bent down and realized it was deer hair. Had the deer shed its winter coat?

That was my first thought until I spied this. Do you know what it is?

I hope I’m not disgusting you, but I found it fascinating. As best I could tell, it was the contents of the deer’s rumen or first stomach chamber.

And what exactly were the contents? Acorns. Can you see a few shells not quite digested?

Beside all of that was some scat filled with hair and a chunk of something.

And just beyond, more rumen offerings and then an even larger area of deer hair.

As best I could, I tried to piece together the story. Earlier on the trail i’d seen what I thought were bobcat prints until the behavior didn’t quite match for a bobcat wouldn’t follow the entire length of a trail and the presentation seemed to morph into coyote.

I searched high and low for a carcass, but found none. Nor any blood.

What I did find was more deer hair as if something had circled around a tree.

But the curious thing: there were lots of downed branches but none of them were broken. If a coyote had dragged a carcass, surely there would be blood and guts and broken branches. My wondering began to focus on a human. Some of the twigs were on top of the hair so the incident would have occurred at an earlier time? And perhaps all of this had been hidden by snow for a while? And then recent rain events obliterated some signs?

I may never know the answers, though I’ll return to look for more evidence. About a quarter mile away, I did find more proof that a coyote had dined on something quite hairy. It included a big chunk of bone.

For those wishing I’d get back to the prettier scenes, my tramp eventually took me to a lookout point, where the backdrop was provided by the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch.

And the foreground included another beaver lodge.

Eventually I turned around and followed the Green Trail out, stopping to pay reverence to a Bear Claw tree. With the scars being gray/black and at least a half inch wide, I’d say these were created more than seven years ago. In fact, I know that for I’ve been visiting that tree for far more than seven years. But . . . it never gets old.

Nor does the sight of ice as it turns anything into a pleasing-to-my-eyes work of art.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to sneak away and even though I had a work project on my mind, these trails have been my greatest escape so far. May you also find escapes of your own making.

Lemonade By Shell Pond Mondate

As is the custom right now, today’s journey took us over bumpy roads and found us turning right directly across from Notch View Farm where I ventured with friends a few weeks ago. We couldn’t drive in too far, and so parked, donned our Micro-spikes for the walk in and grabbed snowshoes just in case.

I love the winter trek because it forces us to notice offerings beside the dirt road (hidden as it was beneath the snow) that we overlook when we drive in during other seasons. There’s a certain yellow house that has always intrigued us and today was no different because the snow and ice created an awning for the porch.

As I snapped photos of the overhang, my guy redirected my attention to the eaves where bald-faced hornets had created their own abode.

On more than one occasion.

That was all fine, but the real reason I love the journey is because of the telephone poles along the way. At the tip of each arrow I added is a nail. By the top one you should see a wee bit of metal, which once represented that pole’s number. Not any more.

When the metal numbers are a bit astray or downright missing, it can mean only one thing. Time to check for hair. Black bear hair.

Wads of hair greeted us today. Usually we only find a few strands. Bleached out by the sun, I had to wonder if it still told the message originally intended.

Down the entire length we saw more of it and envisioned the bear rubbing its back against the pole as a means of communication.

Sometimes they scratch and other times they turn their heads as they rub, and then bite the pole with their upper and lower incisors, thus leaving the dash and dot horizontal lines. My question remains: did the one for whom this message was intended receive it? We’ll never know, but we are always thrilled to know that Ursus americanus still roams these woods.

What woods exactly are they? We’d walked in from Route 113 to the Stone House Property, where the gate may be closed, but hikers are welcome.

Our plan was to circle around Shell Pond via the trails maintained by the US Forest Service and Chatham Trail Association.

Six hundred acres of the Stone House property is under conservation easement with the Greater Lovell Land Trust thanks to the foresight of the owners.

A few steps beyond the trailhead, we decided it was packed enough that we could stash our snowshoes and pray we’d made the right decision. While doing so, some artist’s conks showed off their beautiful display.

A few more steps and my guy did some trail work. If we can move downed trees and branches, we do. And we did several times. But all in all, the trail was in great shape.

Occasionally, seasonal streams offered mini-challenges.

We didn’t mind for they mostly required a hop or giant step. And provided us with the most pleasing of sounds–running water being such a life-giving force.

They also offered icy sculptures.

And given the fact that today’s temp eventually climbed into the 60˚s, we knew that we won’t get to enjoy them much longer.

As Shell Pond came into view, so did the cliffs where peregrine falcons will construct eyries and breed. This is perfect habitat for them, given the cliffs for nesting and perching and keeping them safe from predators, and open water below creating habitat for delicious morsels (think small birds) worth foraging.

And then a rare moment arrived, where I agreed to pose beside a bust of T-Rex, for so did my guy think the burl resembled.

And then another rare moment, when we discovered bear scat upon an icy spot in the trail. It was full of apple chunks and we knew eventually we’d reach the orchard where our friend had dined.

At long last, well, after a few miles anyway, we stopped at lunch bench, which was still rather buried. My guy cleared a spot as best he could and then he sat while I stood and we enjoyed our PB&J sandwiches. Oranges and Thin Mints rounded out the meal. (We did stop at the Stow Corner Store later in the day for an ice cream, but Moe told us she was all out for the rest of the season. We should have grabbed some other goodie but left with ice cream on our minds–a desire we never did fulfill.)

Our lunch view–the spectacular Shell Pond with the Bald Faces forming the background and a bluebird sky topped of with an almost lenticular cloud. Or was that a UFO?

Off to the right-hand side, we needed to check on the beaver lodge to see if anyone was in residence.

From our vantage point, it appeared that someone or two had come calling and there was a lot of activity between a hole in the ice and the upper part of the lodge. But, conditions didn’t allow for a closer look and as warm as it was, we didn’t feel like swimming. Well, we did. But . . .

A wee bit further and we reached Rattlesnake Brook, which feeds the pond.

It’s another of my favorite reasons for hiking the trails in the area, for I love pausing beside it to notice the many gifts it provides, which change with the seasons. Today, those gifts included the feathery winter form of an ostrich fern’s fertile fronds.

And squiggly shadows intercepted by linear reflections.

It was near there that we found rotten apples and the muted tracks of many visitors, one of whom we suspected we knew based on the scat we’d seen.

At last we reached the military airstrip built in the 1940s for training exercises during WWII. As always it was a moment when we were thrilled by the views, but also sad that our journey was coming to an end.

After remembering to snag our snowshoes from behind the tree where we’d stashed them (and gave thanks that we’d made the right decision on footwear), we followed the road back out.

Our only other wish would have been the opportunity to purchase some lemonade on this Mondate around Shell Pond that felt like a summer day. We might have even bought cookies and fish flies, given the opportunity.

Tuesday Tracking is ON

I promised the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s Tuesday Trackers that I’d let them know by 7am today if our adventure would actually take place because the forecasters were predicting a snow storm. We LOVE snow, but not when it ruins our plans.

And so at 6:43am, after checking various weather reports and TV stations for cancellations, whereupon I discovered that no school’s had cancelled, which seemed a sign that meant if the kids could go to school, we could go tracking, until I remembered that this is school vacation week and the kids weren’t going to school today anyway, I wrote to the 54-member group: “Weather reports state that the snow will start at 1pm in both Cumberland and Oxford Counties today, but in the hourly listing it shows snow showers at 10 and snow at 11.

I’m going to go for it in hopes that we can at least find some evidence of the porcupine and its visitors, but trust those of you who had intended to join me to make that old judgement call. Please don’t be afraid to back out.”

As usual, I told them that the plan would stay the same for those who had already told me they’d attend, unless, of course, they did decided to back out. None wrote to say they could not come. Three sent messages that they would join us.

Much to my delighted surprise, seventeen met at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve parking lot #1 at the far end of Heald Pond Road in Lovell as the snowflakes fell. It was 9:30am. Actually, I met some to carpool from the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, and it was there that a few of us first noticed the flakes were falling–just after 9. Hmmm. 1:00pm?

But, this hearty crew didn’t care and after donning our snowshoes, onward we charged. Well, not exactly, for we pride ourselves in not getting far from the parking lot and then spending an hour looking and wondering. First, it was fox prints, and then a fisher that took us a while to figure out based on the clues because snow had filled in the indentations, but the pattern of the track and a few glimpses of toes helped us make a determination that was confirmed after we crossed the path of a more recent snowshoe hare, and seemed to follow the activity of a porcupine.

Like the scouts that we are, we spread out at times, each one or pair trying to notice the finer details. We were in a mixed forest in Maine, close to a summit with rocky ledges, yet near a wetland, stream and between two ponds. The overall pattern was important to notice. How was the critter moving across the landscape? And did its action change at some point? Were any finer details visible in a single print? Or a combination of prints?

Taking measurements was also important–extremely so for those prints that were a couple of days old and muted. Their shape and size and the pattern of their overall track helped, but the measurements cinched the case as we noted stride, especially for the direct walkers such as a red fox.

Ah, how did we know it was red and not gray? The measurement of its stride and straddle were spot on, but also by the scent it had left behind on saplings and rocks did we know it. A few of us got down to sniff–and we were not disappointed. Skunky musky is the odor of some fox urine, especially at this time of year when leaving a calling card with ones age, sex, and telephone number is of utmost importance.

Once you take a sniff, you never forget and know that the next time you smell that skunk in the middle of winter, you are actually in the presence, past or maybe present but watching you from a distant point, of a red fox.

We spent at least an hour with the parking lot still in view as we noted other tracks including squirrel, snowshoe hare and deer. And then we challenged ourselves–a climb to the summit to check on the porcupine den below. The snow was getting heavier and accumulating on our hats, but no one wanted to turn around.

Occasionally, we paused to catch our collective breath, happy were we to be out for this adventure. I did, of course, tell a few who were unfamiliar with the trail, that the summit was just up ahead. Um, I said that more than once. Twice. Three times. Maybe four.

But . . . it was soooo worth it. At the summit, we could see more porcupine tracks that were fresh either last night or the night before and a smattering of pine twigs that had been cut and dropped.

The angled cut of the twigs added to our knowledge bank: rodents make such cuts, called nip twigs. The twig is snipped then turned so the nutritious tender buds can be accessed; and then it is cast off, creating a “trash” pile below the feeding tree.

Bark had also been a point of the porky’s focus and we paused by saplings to wonder about the rodent’s ability to climb what struck us as the scampiest of trunks, but also to appreciate the indentations of its teeth.

While some stayed at the summit, others descended below in hopes of finding a den.

We knew we’d entered a Disney World of sorts, for everywhere we looked below the summit we saw signs of the porcupine’s adventures, including troughs leading from one potential feeding or den site to another.

Getting down wasn’t pretty, especially in one spot, but still no one gave up. Remember, this is a determined group.

Under the ledges, we stopped to check for mammal sign, curious to learn more about the story of these woods and rocks.

We weren’t disappointed. We never are. That may sound pompous, but it’s really one of wonder. When we focus, things are revealed and we are wowed. One of today’s wonders, bobcat scat. Three times over. Do you see the arrows that point to the deposits? And their segmented structure?

But . . . that wasn’t all. Despite the tricky climbing we had more to see.

It was a spot, however, where we needed to take turns given the conditions, and so while we waited, we noticed other things of interest, like the curled form of Common Polypody ferns curled up like Rhododendron leaves to indicate the cold temps–nature’s thermometers. Did I say the name of the shrub began with an M? R? M? They’re close in the alphabet. 😉 (Some of you will chuckle to know that it was my guy I turned to for the shrub’s name–I was still stuck on M)

R or M? In the end it doesn’t matter. But do check out those double rows of orange sori, clusters of spore-producing organs on the fern’s underside.

Rock tripe (which for once I didn’t pour water upon to perform a magic trick) and icicles also garnered our attention.

But . . . it was the actual porcupine den and its juxtaposition with granite and evergreen ferns and snow that tickled our fancy.

Can you see the scat, prolific in nature?

With so much, including lots of fresh deposits, we wondered if we might be disturbing the local resident. And so when our friends who’d stay at the summit yelled down to ask if we when we were going to ascend, we knew the time had come.

Back at the summit, most of us posed. Can you see Mount Washington in the background? No, we couldn’t either.

Closer to the parking lot, we posed again, before heading off on snow-covered roads to reach our homes.

It’s my job to worry and so I did: that the road conditions wouldn’t bite us. That was why I hesitated about going forth with today’s journey, but the forecasters all seemed to think doing such would be fine. Thankfully, though the predictions for the storms start were incorrect, all was fine and I was jazzed by the time we spent together, watching this engaged group in action, asking questions and making observations and asking more questions, before coming to sound conclusions.

These are the Tuesday Trackers of today. The subject of my email message this morning was this: Tuesday Tracking is ON. And they were all totally ON for today’s adventure.

P.S. The mom in me had to check on them after we’d all departed from the trailhead. Thankfully, though a few of us saw cars off the road and/or accidents as we drove home, we each took our time and everyone made it home safely. ‘

Scat Happens

The forecast was for temps in the teens, with a wind chill making it feel like single digits. But . . . plenty of sun. And so Greater Lovell Land Trust docent Alice and I decided to go ahead with this morning’s planned Wetland Wonder at John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge West on New Road in Lovell.

After a two day storm that left snow, ice and more snow, we were happy to stretch our legs despite the temps. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, only one other person joined us, the ever adventuresome Hadley Couraud, Sebago Clean Waters Conservation Coordinator for Loon Echo and Western Foothills Land Trusts.

On a pre-hike last week, Alice and I decided it would be best to beeline to the brook and wetland or we’d never have time to enjoy the wonders that both offered. Today’s temp confirmed that that would be best as it would warm us up.

In what seemed like an amazingly short time, because for us it was, we found ourselves beside Bradley Brook and glanced downstream. Of course, we’d passed by some mammal tracks, but promised to look at them on the way out.

As we looked upstream, we noted that though it was a bit chilly, the wind hadn’t picked up yet and all the snow still coated the trees.

And then Alice rattled off a few species she wanted Hadley to look for and the first presented itself immediately. It took me a bit to catch on, but that was Alice’s way–to mention something and bingo, it was right there even though she wasn’t looking at it. That was certainly a fun way to feel like you were the first to make a discovery.

Hadley discovered the lungwort lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, and I pride myself all these hours later in remembering its scientific name.

Of course we had to move in for a closer look. It’s one that we can never resist. Its ridges and lobes create a lettucey look, but many super moons ago it was thought to resemble lung tissue and thus a good remedy for maladies such as tuberculosis.

Its a species that begs a closer look (doesn’t everything?) and so we moved in, Hadley taking the lead.

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but the tiny granules trimming the outer edges of the lobes much like a fancy accent on a winter hat or sweater. Those structures are actually the lungwort’s asexual means of reproduction–and are called soredia.

Just before I performed a magic act with my water bottle, both Hadley and I took a few more photos of the brittle structure.

And then, tada, we watched as the water performed the trick.

It never ceases to amaze me: Once wet, the photosynthesizing green algae in the thallus or main tissue causes the lichen to instantly turn a bright shade and become pliable; once it dries, the color recedes to a duller olive green.

All that wonder, and we still hadn’t reached the actual wetland.

And so we marched on, pausing next beside a member Betulaceae ( Alnus and Betula) family. Alnus includes the speckled alder before our eyes and betula the birches. Scientifically known as Alnus incana ssp. rugosa, we got caught up with the male and female catkins, which both grow at the end of twigs.

The males are the longer catkins that formed in the fall, and just above them the wee females. Pollination is by wind and the fertilized female matures to a cone.

Both alder and lungwort lichen fix nitrogen, the former through a bacteria in its root nodules and decaying leaves and the latter as its structure falls to the forest floor and decays.

Upon one of the shrubs, we noticed what appeared to be cones in flower Actually, it was alder tongue gall–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths were green to begin, but transformed to orange, red and finally the brown we saw. Can you see the curly structures such as the one the black arrow points to?

We were there to look at the little things and the whole picture as it’s a place we only enjoy in this season, being difficult to access at other time of the year. In the midst of the wetland, the sun provided welcome warmth as we enjoyed the spectacular scene before us.

Artwork created by nature’s sketching artist gave proof that the wind was starting to pick up at about 11am.

It was at that point that we knew we were reaching our turn-around point, but still we reveled in the joy of being out there.

That is, until Hadley, as the caboose for some of the journey, found a weak spot in the ice. I gave her a hand to pull her out and we knew we needed to head out.

And so we followed a snowshoe hare back–giving thanks yet again for the snowshoes that we all wore.

What probably should have been a beeline much as we’d done on our way in, however, turned into frequent stops. The first was at a tree that had fallen across our path, which wasn’t really a path, but rather a bushwhack scouted out by Alice.

The fallen tree turned out to offer a lichen form classroom of crustose (appearing flat on the bark like a piece of bread or looking as if it had been spray painted onto the surface); foliose or leaf-like in structure; and fruticose, which reminds me of a bunch of grapes minus the grapes.

It was within the foliose lichen that we spotted the apothecia in the form of brown berets or disks.

And then there was the ice marching up a branch like miniature elephants on parade. We considered its formation and how it was anchored to the branch here and there, but not consistently. Was there warmth in the wood that created such formations?

As we headed back toward Bradley Brook, we spotted a tinderconk or horse’s hoof fungi that could have been a foot at the end of warm snowy white leggings.

The brook again offered a transitioning scene and we rejoiced in the sound of water flowing over rocks and downed trees.

Because we were still looking for the species Alice had suggested when we started, we stopped by well-browsed hobblebush where she shared their idiosyncrasies, including the fact that the buds aren’t covered in waxy scales like most tree and shrub species.

Instead, they are naked. And one of my favorites with their accordian-like design and fuzzy outer coating.

Eventually we made our way back to an old log landing, where evening primrose in its winter form became the subject of focus. Hadley is an apt student of nature and so even if she felt any discomfort from her dip in the water, she continued to ask questions and take notes about everything we encountered.

On the way out we noticed more snowshoe hare tracks, bird and squirrel prints, and then at a well worn deer run with fresh movement, we spotted the X in a print and new that a coyote had followed the deer, predator seeking prey.

One would have expected that with the mammal tracks we did see, we might have found some scat. We did not. But . . . all the same, Hadley really wanted an opportunity to say, “Scat Happens” with meaning. And she found it in her polar bear dip.

Still, the three of us had a wonderful tramp and rejoiced over hot cocoa and tea once back at my truck. I checked in with Hadley tonight and she’s fine, thankfully. But did I say she’s adventuresome? And ever eager to learn?

Still . . . scat happens. And with the right attitude, one can recover.

From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Tuesday Trackers Track

“Even if the conditions weren’t great for tracking, it was still fun to get out,” said Gilda, one of the newest Greater Lovell Land Trust Trackers as we explored off trail today. Mind you, it was -11˚ at daybreak, and the temperature registered in the single digits when we all met at Lot #1 of Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Not too far along the Chestnut Trail a trough extending from both sides drew our attention. We split up and followed it in either direction trying to determine the creator. Deer? No, not deep enough in the fluffy snow. Coyote? We kinda sorta saw the footprint and perhaps the pattern, but why the trough? Fisher? We were almost certain it was for we convinced ourselves that the vague prints were on a diagonal and the critter had bounded and slide across the landscape. It seemed to be characteristic of a weasel family member. But would a fisher slide that much? We’ve seen occasional slides but this was consistent. Porcupine? Now that didn’t occur to us and as I looked at the first photo I took I thought why didn’t I think of that. I know that the summit of Flat Hill is covered with porcupine tracks and dens. We were at the base. Just maybe what we saw was the trough of a porcupine. As it was, we spent a lot of time questioning our observations and blaming it on the snow for not providing us with the best tracking conditions. Someone mentioned that I should have kept track of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” Perhaps tracking those three words would have provided us with a higher success rate.

What I did know was that when we reached the stream and noted that the mystery trough maker had crossed to the other side and we didn’t like the looks of the ice and running water below and chose not to follow suit, we did spy some prints with a pattern we all knew to be coyote based on the size, X between the foot pads, and nail marks. Actually, we thought a family was on the hunt. Perhaps for a porcupine?

All in all, we did find vole and mouse tracks, and later some that we were 95% sure were fisher, and domestic dog. But like Gilda said, it was fun to be out on a brisk winter day in a beautiful location as we shared a brain and tried to figure out the stories in the snow.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Joan, Bob, Lucy, Ingrid, Pam, Joe, Gilda, and Frank.

These trackers were as intrepid as those I traveled with year ago and the article that appeared in today’s Bangor Daily News was based on a similar adventure last year. Well, let me clarify that. It was similar in that the temp was 4˚, but if I recall correctly it must have been windy for it felt even colder. And the tracking conditions were pristine that day.

Here’s the article: https://bangordailynews.com/2020/01/21/act-out/how-to-track-maine-wildlife-in-the-snow/

Thanks once again to Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News and “Act Out with Aislinn” for giving me the opportunity and making it all happen.