Rookery and Beyond

It’s a difficult sound to describe, rather primordial in nature. Maybe it’s a duck’s quack? Or a dog’s bark? Or some combination of the two. And yet, all is quiet and then the noise erupts suddenly from one nest as a parent flies in, a meal in the oven about to be regurgitated.

It’s a scene that plays out at individual nests for a while before all become quiet again as if lunch has ended and the kids should take time for a nap. But until such time, the neighbors in the high rise next door watch enviously as their playmates are fed.

Just down the block one of the tweens, for suddenly after about a month of life they are such, flexes his wings as he stands out on a branch. It’s a tradition as old as time–tweens and teens going out on a limb to show their capability to survive in the world. The question remains, however: when will he reach the right age to get a license?

As the tween to the right finishes flexing, the one in the center lets a shiver pass through his body. Is it a pre-flex motion? His other sibling watches and wonders what it’s all about. Perhaps he’s trying to prove something?

Meanwhile, because I stood beside a river with a friend so I could count Great Blue Heron nests, active nests, young, young in nests, fledglings, and adults, we also began to notice other life that surrounded us like a Kingbird who posed for moments on end.

Constantly, however, my eye was drawn to the tiptop of the White Pines, where I began to realize there were more and more birds than my first count because many were feeling their oats and testing their individuality.

Other birds added to the rhythm as we listened for and shared with each other the location of the song makers in our midst.

And then, and then . . . a male Belted Kingfisher pause smack dab in front of us, his tuft of head feathers earning him the “Wicked Cool Dad” award in the neighborhood.

He looked right at us and made dorky dad comments that left us exclaiming with delight.

Meanwhile, back at the rookery, some of the tweens continued to wait in the most patient manner. They muttered hardly a word. We did have to wonder how such big birds could fit in those nest of twigs. The nests were large in bird terms, but the birds were even larger. At last it was time for us to depart, and we left the young in their quiet mode.

My journey continued on the other side of the river. It was there that I spotted Robber Flies in that age-old act of mating.

And a moth I believe to be known as a Virginian Tiger Moth or Woolybear Moth clinging.

But perhaps my favorite of all, that I found because we chose today to check on the rookery, was the Sphinx moth holding onto a pine sapling. At first I thought it was a dead leaf caught on the twig.

Behold the wonder of the rookery and beyond.

Thanks to the Hare

I should have known it would be this kind of a day when I spotted a Snowshoe Hare on the road. It’s a rare spot for me, though all winter long I see their tracks and scat. Only occasionally do I get to glimpse one and even then, it’s just that . . . a glimpse.

But today was different. As I drove to a Greater Lovell Land Trust property, movement on the pavement slowed me down. To. A. Stop. Not wanting to scare it, I took a photo from behind the windshield and then watched as it hopped on the road for a couple of minutes and then off into the grass.

My destination was just around the corner where the Sundews grow. Carnivorous Round-leaved Sundews. Check out the glistening droplets at the ends of the hair-like tendrils that extend from each round leaf. The droplets are actually quite sticky. Just like a spider sensing a bug on its web, the tendrils detect the presence of prey and then curl inward, thus trapping the victim.

The whole leaf will eventually wrap around an insect and in the process of digesting it, the plant will absorb the bug’s nutrients. Can you see the action in process of the lower leaf on the left?

Sundews tend to grow in areas that lack sufficient nutrients, so this is the plant’s way of supplementing its diet. And if that isn’t enough–it’s just plain beautiful.

When I first ventured onto this wildlife refuge with others for a morning of trail clearing, the sky was overcast and mosquitoes plentiful. But . . . the sun eventually burned through the clouds and with that, some of my favorite over-sized, prehistoric looking insects did fly. Thankfully, they also paused so I could admire their structures, colors, and habits. This member of the Odonata family loves to skim across the land at low level and pause on rocks or leaves. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking with them for such is their behavior to lift off from one rock as I approach and settle on the next just a few feet ahead. That is, until I approach that one and then they move on to the next. Over and over again. Of course, all the time they’re hunting for a meal.

The two photographs above are of the same species and same gender. Both are females of the Chalk-fronted Corporal sort. But notice the cloudier abdomen of the second. There’s just a bit of the grayness in the first photo. So here’s a word to stick under your hat and remember: Pruinescence–meaning a “frosted or dusty looking coating on top of a surface.” The female’s abdomen turns chalky gray with pruinosity. In my under-educated brain, I’d say the second is older than the first for her pruinose markings are more obvious.

I was standing in the middle of a former log landing when I began to notice the insects. It’s an area where forest succession is slowly occurring and may need to be addressed. But for now, the wildflowers include Yellow Hawkweeds. And because their resting position is different from the Corporals, upon the flowers perched Calico Pennants. The first I saw was a male, so identified by the red markings on its abdomen.

In many male/female contrasts, be it dragonflies, damselflies, or even birds, the female is in no way as attractive as the male. But for the Calicos, both are worth celebrating. Check out those wings–their basal patches like stained glass windows.

It wasn’t just dragonflies that visited the field, for as I said it’s a land once stripped of vegetation that now plays hosts to flowers and shrubs and saplings all competing for space. And Syrphid flies also competed, their focus not on other insects, but rather pollen and nectar.

Equally stained-glass like are the wings. And notice the hair on its body. The natural world is incredibly hairy. Looks rather like a bee, doesn’t it? I was fooled, but my entomologist friend Anthony corrected me–thankfully.

Notice the lack of pollen baskets on those big funky hind legs, lack of antenna with “elbows,” and the shape of the eyes. Similar to a bumblebee, yes, but with subtle differences.

Other visitors who sampled the goods in a much faster manner included Hummingbird Clearwing Moths. The wings of this one pumped so quickly that it appeared wingless. If you look closely, you may see the comb-like structure of its antennae, which helps to differentiate moths from butterflies with their club-like antennae.

I had been feeling rather blessed for all I’d seen to this point and then an old friend made itself known. This dragonfly is one that I know I’ll eventually photograph on my hand or leg this summer and it honors me with those landings for I feel like a Dragonfly Whisperer in those moments. Today we were merely getting reacquainted. And instead of landing on me, it let me photograph its face. Take a look and wonder.

And then look at the abdomen of the same dragonfly: a Lancet Clubtail. By its bluish gray eyes that remind me of my own, and narrow yellow daggers on each segment of its abdomen, I hope you’ll recognize it going forward should you have the opportunity to meet.

Butterflies were also among the visitors of the field, including a Tiger Swallowtail with a tale to tell of how it lost a part of its tail.

And then I spotted a skipper or two moving just a wee bit slower than the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. My what big eyes you have.

As I slowly made my way back up the trail, it was the Kennedy’s Emerald, named for Dr. Clarence Kennedy, a renowned Ohio State University professor and odonatologist that asked to be noticed. I knew we’d met before when I realized it had two downward-arched yellow spots on the first two segments of its otherwise dark abdomen. The yellow coloration indicated it was a female.

Then I watched a most curious thing as I stood by a fence that stands beside a short portion of the trail. Do you see the dragonfly crawling along the fence?

It seemed to be on a mission that I couldn’t understand.

Perhaps it had its sight on an insect I couldn’t spy.

For a few minutes it posed and gave me time to at least decide it was a darner, though I keep changing my mind about which one. But notice its markings. The venation of its wings was rather fine compared to so many, yet the markings on its abdomen were well defined. Oh, and do you see the paddle-like claspers–used to hold the female’s head during mating? And then it flew off.

My heart was filled by all that I’d been seeing. And then . . . in flew another that seemed to top the rest. A Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Count each one on all four wings–twelve dark spots. Crazy beautiful. And to think that I always used to think dragonflies were dragonflies and they were wonderful because they consume mosquitoes and make our woodland hikes so much more bearable. But like ferns that I always thought were all the same, they are not. Slowly I’m learning them by their names and give thanks for every moment I get to spend in their presence.

What’s not to wonder about and love–notice the yellow hearts on the female Calico Pennants abdomen. And her reflection on the leaf below.

I knew that hare brought me good tidings. And will be forever grateful.

Bear to Beer: Bishop Cardinal to Lord Hill

Our destination sounded rather regal; as if we’d be paying our respects to Bishop Cardinal and Lord Hill. And indeed we did.

We also paid our respects to telephone poles. Well, actually only certain ones. They had to have a certain look–as if a Black Bear had backed into the pole and turned its head around at an angle and bit the wood with its upper and lower canine teeth thus leaving nearly horizontal marks that look like a dot and dash. In the process, the aluminum numbers had to be a bit mangled in order to receive our attention. This particular pole was right by the trailhead and so after examining it, we headed up the blue trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Bishop Cardinal Reserve on Horseshoe Pond Road in Lovell.

Along the way, we examined every American Beech we saw, but actually passed by a spot where we know there are several with the marks we sought. If you go, look for the blue dot on the white arrow and hike in at a diagonal from there.

Our hope today was to find other bear claw trees we’d missed previously and so we kept going off trail in search. Turning onto the red trail, we continued to check. Sometimes it’s the shape of the tree’s crown that makes us wonder.

We have learned that we can’t dismiss any bark without walking all the way around and bingo–we had a new-to-us bear claw tree.

I don’t know why it is, but those marks make our hearts sing. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the wildness of it all and the fact that we share this place with such intelligent beings.

Whatever it is, we decided that rather than creating waypoints for each tree we found, we’d try to remember the location by using other landmarks such as a certain waterbar that was intended to divert snowmelt and rain from washing out the trail. When you reach that certain waterbar on the red trail, turn left and walk in about twenty yards. If you don’t find our tree, perhaps you’ll discover another.

Continuing up the trail, we did note a few other favorites off to the right.

Sometimes, in my mind’s eye, I could just see the movement of the climber.

With one such tree, the marks were lower than most and I wondered if it was a younger bear. Of course, we have no idea how long ago those marks were left behind. Mary Holland suggests a way to age them that we haven’t tried yet. And we didn’t look for fresh marks. Really, we need to be better sleuths going forward.

In case you are wondering, occasionally we noted other points of interest, such as the burst of beech buds, their spring green leaves all hairy and soft, which is actually quite a contrast to the papery feel they eventually acquire.

Here and there, the cheerful display of Round-leaved Violets brightened the path.

And drone flies, with their bigger than life eyes, posed. Any black flies? Yes, a few, but not biting . . . yet.

We were almost to the old shack site, if you know where I mean, when our journey off trail revealed another fine specimen. Again, the claw marks were on the backside since we approached from the trail. Always, always, always circle about and you might be surprised.

Eventually, we reached the intersection with the trail to Lord Hill and continued our surveillance as we continued our hike.

Once we turned right onto the Conant Trail, we did find one tree with marks long ago made . . . by some bears with either an extreme understanding of relationships, or more likely, a few who weren’t all that intelligent after all.

At last, the trail opened onto the ledges overlooking Horseshoe Pond and it was there that we sat down on the warm granite as a nippy breeze flowed across. Enjoying the view of Horseshoe Pond below and the mountains beyond, we ate lunch.

We also toasted a few others with a Honey of a Beer brewed by Lee of another spelling! Dubbel Trouble was double delicious. Thank you, Lee Fraitag. 😉 Our toast was also doubled for we gave thanks to Paula and Tom Hughes, who live just below on the pond. Tomorrow we’ll enjoy a Mother’s Day Brunch at the Old Saco Inn courtesy of the Hugheses. 😉

Clink. Clink.

After enjoying lunch rock we journeyed up to the Lord Hill Mine.

According to mindat.org, Lord Hill Mine was “a former rare mineral specimen quarry. Briefly worked in episodes in the mid-20th century for feldspar. Originally a mineral collector’s site in the late 1870s. Opened by Nathan Perry and Edgar D. Andrews in the early 1880s. Originally called Harndon Hill, but the named changed in a complex change of names about 1917. Operated solely by Nathan Perry by 1882. Operated for massive topaz for educational mineral collections in the 1970’s by Col. Joseph Pollack of Harrison, Maine. The locality is the type locality for hamlinite, now regarded as a synonym for goyazite. Granite pegmatite. Oxford pegmatite field. Local rocks include Carboniferous alkali feldspar granite (muscovite accessory mineral).

We spotted several people busy digging for their fortunes and decided to let them. They either were so tuned in to their work that they didn’t hear us or they chose not to. No matter. After a quick look about, we quietly followed the mine trail down–our own focus still on the trees.

And at the point where the National Forest abuts the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s property, we turned back onto the land trust’s loop trail. We’d come up from the left, so turned right to continue our descent.

And yes, we found one more bear tree. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of the number of new finds. But, we trusted that for all we found, there were so many more we must have missed. And then some.

Back on Horseshoe Pond Road, we turned left and checked all the telephone poles along the edge, examining each for bear hair because we’ve seen it stuck on them before. Today, no hair.

So why do the bears pay attention to telephone poles? Think of it as a combo backscratcher and messageboard. Pretend I’m a young male, ready and available. Wanna go out for a date tonight? Give me a call.

Despite the lack of hair, because we were looking, we found a Mayfly. That in itself, was another reason to celebrate.

Bishop Cardinal and Lord Hill. We thank you both. Black Bears, we thank you. Lee, we thank you. Paula and Tom, we thank you. (Happy Mother’s Day, Paula) All are regal indeed.

Bear to beer possibilities: Bishops Cardinal Reserve and Lord Hill Mine.

Significant Fairies

We’d made promises in the recent past that fell flat. With that in mind, when the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Nature Explorers, a homeschool group led by Docent Juli, gathered this morning, she was smart and stuck to the life cycles of potential sightings like frogs rather than possibilities.

The group that gathered was large–24 in all with a mix of moms and their children.

Of course, being kids, they were immediately attracted to the water below the mill site at Heald Pond. But after letting them explore for a few minutes, a light whistle pulled them all together again.

At the nearby vernal pool, everyone quickly learned what larval mosquitoes looked like as they watched them somersault through the water column. A few complaints were expressed about future bites, but that was redirected to the fact that mosquitoes feed birds and dragonflies, and in their larval form, other aquatic insects.

Pond dipping became the morning habit and at first, it was only the mosquito larvae that made it into the containers.

But, that led to a quick lesson on the biting insects’ life cycle–one of many teachable moments that snuck into the morning fun.

Oh yes, those larval mosquitoes also feed amphibians and thanks to Juli’s son Aidan for finding a large Green Frog. Notice the ear disc, aka tympanum, that is located behind its eye. Given its size as being bigger than the eye, this was a male. And notice the dorsal lateral ridge or fold that extends from behind the eye down the side of its back (there’s one on either side)–that’s a clue that this is a Green Frog and not a Bull Frog, for the latter’s ridge circles around the tympanum.

As the morning went on, it turned out that today was Aidan’s day to shine for he was also the first to find a Fairy Shrimp.

A what? Yes, a Fairy Shrimp. Do you see that delicate orangish body in the middle of the tray? It’s a mini crustacean that lives only in vernal pools.

The kids all got caught up in the thrill of such a find and within minutes became pros at recognizing them.

And so the dipping continued.

Moms also got caught up in the dipping experience.

And they also found cool stuff, like Kim’s Fishfly. We kept expecting it to eat the mosquito larvae, but it seemed that they preferred to nudge it in a way we didn’t understand.

While Kim focused on her new friend, the kids were also making new friends, testing their balance, getting rather wet and muddy, and having a blast as they sought more Fairy Shrimp.

Their pan began to fill up with one, two, three, four, five and even a few more.

And then other species were discovered, including aquatic beetles and a Phantom Midge.

We’d come in hopes of at least finding Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander egg masses, which the kids quickly recognized. By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later, some of the boys had discovered the best way to spot the masses was from the crow’s nest.

But in the end, our most significant find was the Fairy Shrimp. You see, on a public walk a couple of weeks ago, when we’d promised folks such a sighting, we came up short. But today . . . they made their presence known. And with the find of just one Fairy Shrimp, the vernal pool became a significant one as recognized by the State of Maine.

A hearty thanks to Juli for leading and the moms and their kids for attending. It was such a joy to watch everyone interacting and engaging. I only wish I could have been a Fishfly on the wall at suppertime as they shared their finds of the day with other family members.

Cinco de Mayo Maine-style

When Pam asked at the end of our slow tour today what my favorite finds were, I named at least five.

First, there was the Painted Turtle that I spotted on Kezar Lake Road as I drove toward the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook Reserve. After I pulled over and approached him, he did what turtles do and retreated into his shell. Though he wasn’t feeling it, I was in celebration mode, for he represented my first turtle of the season. And I helped him cross the road.

I felt safe calling him a he for males have long fingernails. Can you see him peeking out at me in a not too pleased manner? Can’t say I blame him, but our time together was brief and soon he wandered his way while I wandered mine.

And then, another reason for celebration–Coltsfoot in bloom. I know it’s invasive, but its sunny face and scaly purplish stem that predate its leaves offer a first hint of the season’s promises of colors to come.

Coltsfoot is known by some as Filius ante patrem (the son before the father), because the bright yellow star-like flowers appear and wither before its broad, green leaves are produced.

The next sight to be considered: a small spider that, like the painted turtle, continuously eluded our focus by quickly moving to the opposite side of the beech twig. Can you spy it?

And then there were those tree buds bursting forth with life ready to unfold from within. We were offered a few early glimpses of the future and rejoiced at each sample.

At last we reached Long Meadow Brook, for which the reserve is named. And stood and looked and listened and waited and absorbed. Oh, Pam absorbed some water in her boots thanks to a leak. But she didn’t let that stop her and we each enjoyed the opportunity to let this place soak through our pores for moments that turned into a string of minutes and suddenly an hour had passed.

At long last, we pulled away and began a bushwhack through the woods beside the brook.

In so doing, we found more to celebrate, like a red squirrel refectory upon a rock and we suspected a large hole below the tree trunk and boulder had served as the larder.

Continuing on, we saw mats of black upon moss by another tree and almost wrote it off as perhaps a fungi we hadn’t met before.

But. It. Moved. As we watched, we realized the constant motion was created by springtails writhing en masse. To say it wasn’t creepy would be lying. Likewise we were fascinated and leaned in closer to watch the swarm upon the moss.

Resting nearby, perhaps having just gorged on some of those tiny little morsels, was another reason for celebration–a spring peeper. We spotted two, but heard a hundred million more, each adding its song to the symphony that arose from the wetland. And suddenly, an interval of silence would interrupt the music, and then one male would peep, and the rest would join in again until they arrived at the next rest symbol upon their sheet music.

Others added their own notes to the orchestra, including a couple of White-throated Sparrows that trilled in our midst.

Near the end of our journey, we reached a point where we could see that there was still some snow on the the Bald Face Mountains in Evans Notch, but we spotted a dragonfly and honored Trailing Arbutus flowers and rejoiced. Though our celebration didn’t have a Mexican theme, we still had at least cinco reasons to give thanks from the Painted Turtle to Coltsfoot to Bud Bursts to Squirrel Larders to Creepy Collembola to Spring Peepers to White-throated Sparrows. Really, it was more a Siete de Mayo on this Cinco de Mayo–Maine-style.

This Wild Place

There’s no music quite like the Wood Frog’s defiant chorus, sung when the ice is barely off the vernal pool and the ground still covered with patches of snow. Singing together, they sound like dozens of quaking ducks. Wood Frogs are often the first Maine frogs to break winter’s quiet, beating Spring Peepers by a few days or even a week.

Their vocal prowess extends to silence. Once we approach a vernal pool and they sense danger (perhaps through vibrations), they cut off their song altogether, as though timed by some unseen conductor. The purpose of all this calling is finding a mate, of course. Male Wood Frogs, once they’ve called in some unwitting females, can be tenacious in the extreme–even if their suitor happens to be the wrong species.

This morning, as Greater Lovell Land Trust Docent Linda Wurm and I approached a pool on the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, the symphony was eerily still.

And so we began to circle around, our eyes scanning the watery surface for clumps of eggs. Our hope was to either see a male hug a female in an iron-lock grasp, forming the mating embrace called amplexus, or evidence of their date.

And we were rewarded. At least one female had laid eggs fertilized by a male. As is their habit, the female attached the mass to a twig and the tiny black embryo of each egg was surrounded by a perfectly round, clear envelope about one-third inch in diameter. These gelatinous blobs can consist of up to 1,500 individual eggs. Egg-mazing indeed.

The embryos will hatch into small brownish-black tadpoles in a week or two, or longer given how chilly the water was today. As they grow, their rounded tail fins will become translucent–almost mottled with gold and blackish flecks.

Wood Frog tadpoles grow at varying rates depending on water temperature, tadpole density, and available food resources, but tend to develop within about two months to become adults. Unfortunately for them, but in the web of life good for others, tadpoles often succumb to cannibalism, especially to their larger relatives. They are also eaten by predacious diving beetles, salamanders, turtles, and birds.

We only found one, maybe two egg masses, but this pool isn’t known for many. What it is known for is its Fairy Shrimp population and I’m sorry to report that we found not a one. But, we did spy a few handsome hemlock varnish shelf fungi.

And by them some red squirrel middens that made us happy for we saw few of these all winter.

Right behind the fungi and midden, something else in the water caught our attention and Linda focused with a keen eye.

My photo wasn’t the clearest, but upon some leaves and twigs we spotted spermatophores left behind by male Spotted Salamanders. They remind me of cauliflower, their structures consisting of pedestals topped with sperm. Though we couldn’t see any milky masses of salamander eggs, we hope that on future visits we will.

Spotting a Spotted Salamander is a rare treat. With their bright yellow spots on a sleek, shiny black back, they are even more nocturnal and elusive than the Wood Frogs. They are actually mole salamanders and spend most of their time burrowed underground.

As we circled back around the pool, a White-breasted Nuthatch mimicked our searching eyes and probed under some bark, its long narrow beak seeking beetles.

Every few seconds it took a break and surveyed the world that included us.

We, too, surveyed the world, and suddenly at our feet we discovered eggs we’d not seen previously. What were they doing about a foot out of the water?

And to whom did they belong? At first I considered Pickerel Frog, but on closer examination I thought they might be Wood Frog.

And then Linda shifted one clump a wee bit with a stick and we found what may have been the entrails. Life happens in vernal pools and this one was no different. Had a predator stopped by? Perhaps a raccoon or skunk or chipmunk or raccoon? But, why didn’t it eat the eggs? Again, so many questions.

With the field microscope, we looked at the eggs again and were almost one hundred percent certain that they were Wood Frog.* We did place some of them back in the water, but wondered if they were viable.

For all the eggs that are laid, it’s hard to believe that only 10% will survive. But the truth is that most die before transforming into adults and leaving their pools. The reasons are varied: the ponds dry up; or they are hunted down by predators: or they die of diseases.

After a few hours, we pull ourselves away, grateful for the time to explore this wild place–full of life . . . and death.

*I’ve reached out to Dr. Rick Van de Poll about the eggs out of water–if, by chance, he responds, I’ll update this post so stay tuned.

And now from Rick:

Hi Leigh!

Fascinating find! Having just seen a few predated egg masses today I can definitively say they are spotted salamander eggs. The blackish coloration is likely imparted by the stomach acids of a raccoon, who apparently gorged and threw them back up, along with a few frog parts. Again, while its not too common to see this kind of things around vernal pools, it does make for for a pretty good ‘who-dunnit’!

Rick

Looking for Spring

Last night one of the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s volunteer docents earned her certification from the Maine Master Naturalist Program. The MMNP’s goal is to develop a statewide network of volunteers who will teach natural history throughout Maine. With hands-on training, the course provides over 100 hours of classroom and outdoor experience, focusing on geology, identification of flora and fauna, wetland and upland ecology, ecological principles and teaching methods. By the time students complete the program, which includes a final capstone project, they have developed the skills to lead a walk, present a talk and provide outreach. In the year following certification, each graduate agrees to volunteer 40 hours and thereafter must continue to volunteer to remain an active Maine Master Naturalist.

And so it was that Juli joined four of us in the GLLT’s docent group by becoming a certified naturalist last evening. And today, she was out doing what she does best–leading homeschooled families along a GLLT trail. You see, for her capstone project Juli created a group called Nature Explorers. On the second Tuesday of each month (and today’s was the third trip she’d led for this group), other homeschooled families join hers for a walk with a focus along a GLLT trail. Today’s focus: Signs of Spring.

Given the fact that the snow is still at least knee deep, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But the day dawned bright, if a bit chilly to start, and so two of Juli’s kids waited for others by hanging out with the trees. Or rather . . . in the trees.

Once all had gathered, she led us down Slab City Road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

It was there that while we began our search for the season that often begins with a stubborn start in western Maine , we spied something that brought smiles to our faces and awe to our experience. Otter slides. On both sides of Mill Brook. Look carefully and you may also notice the slides–they look like troughs in the snow.

We tromped through (leaving our snowshoes behind, which we sometimes regretted) to take a closer look, noticing where the mammal had bounded and then slid down the embankment.

And then we moved on . . . to observe and learn, including fifty cent words like marcescent, which means withering but remaining attached to the stem. Juli pointed out the dried up leaves on the beech trees.

And the kids joined her to take a closer look–at the leaves, but also the buds, which had started to swell. Ah, sign one!

It was a Witch-Hazel which next grabbed the group’s attention. She explained that while the small, gray woody structures looked like flowers, they were really capsules that go dormant throughout the winter. Those will develop over the next growing season and then in autumn forcibly expel two shiny black seeds about 10 to 20 feet.

One of the boys noticed that the buds were hairy and so others came in to examine the structures.

From there, it was another beech tree to check out, but this time the discussion moved toward the alternate orientation of its branches and leaves.

And then, because they suffer from the best of syndromes we refer to as Nature Distraction Disorder, the group stopped at a Red Pine to admire its bark.

With hand lenses, they focused on the various colors of the thin, puzzle-like scales. Some had fallen to the ground as is the habit of the flakey bark, but Juli reminded everyone that it’s best not to pull it off for bark protects the tree much like winter coats protect us.

It was a fungi that next attracted the group.

And so they pulled out the lenses again to look at the spore surface of several Birch Polypores growing on downed trees. The brownish underside was actually another sign of the season for they would have released their spores in late summer or autumn.

A wee bit further and a wet spot was noted where we could see some brown leaves reflecting the names of trees in the canopy above, but also, drum role please . . .

some greenery with buds beginning to form–in the shape of Wintergreen. One of the girls did point out that though it was a sign of the season, it did have the word “winter” in its name.

Another one of the girls looked up at an old Pileated Woodpecker excavation site, and noted the spider web within that had been created last summer by a funnel-web spider, so named because of the funnel-shaped web. Though no one was home today, the spider typically waits in the funnel for prey to fall onto its horizontal web. Then it rushes out, grabs its victim, and takes it back to the silken burrow to consume and hide in wait.

Since our signs were few and far between, and Juli really wanted to get to Otter Rock to show some fun finds, she challenged the kids to run with her.

They did. And then they slid.

And looked.

And spotted.

And wondered.

And wondered some more.

We’d reached our destination of Otter Rock and though we didn’t have any dipping containers, we made do with lucite bug boxes.

At the edge of Heald Pond, the kids found movement in the water . . .

in the form of Mayfly Larvae, with fan-like gills along the abdomen and three filaments at the tip.

Spring indeed! With that discover, we left with a spring in our steps, already looking forward to next month’s vernal pool exploration.

P.S. Thanks Juli for this wonder-filled offering, and congratulations on your achievement. You are now a member of the nexus of naturalists.