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.

Ain’t Lovell A Great Place To Be?

On my way to meet a few docents and the new interns for the Greater Lovell Land Trust this morning, a photo opp presented itself and I was forced to stop.

h-stan's sign

Stan Tupaj of Kezar Realty strikes me as the town cheerleader and I love to read his sign as I pass by. From time to time I’ve meant to photograph it, but somehow always seem to be in a rush to get to the next destination. But this morning I was a wee bit early and so this was the day.

h-heald sign

From there, I drove on to the Fairburn parking lot on Slab City Road where I planned to meet the crew.

h-green frog

Our goal was to walk to Otter Rock, not a far walk by any means, but it took us 1.5 hours to get there, such were the sights along the way, including a few green frogs in puddles along the trail. I know he’s a green frog and not a bull frog because he showed off a dorsal lateral fold along the sides of his back.

h-baby toad

While the green frogs were beside or in the water, the ground seemed to hop at our feet in dry places thanks to a kazillion baby American toads on the move.

h-Ellie and the baby toad

I noted that it seems the younger toads are in constant motion, while older and much chunkier ones pause and try to blend into their surroundings, allowing us to study them (and take photos–just saying). One of the younger members of our team, Ellie, proved me wrong as she charmed a young toad to stay still while she looked at it through her hand lens for several moments. It wasn’t until Ellie moved that the toad hopped away.

h-damselfly with eggs

While Ellie was the toad whisperer, her older brother Caleb wowed us with his ability to capture dragonflies and damselflies in a net, such as this one. As he held it high, he realized it was a she for there were eggs on her abdomen and so he gently released her–in hopes she’d find some vegetation on which to inject those tiny sacs.

h-keeping mosquitoes at bay

Their youngest brother, Wes, demonstrated the value of bracken ferns–which served as a fun hat to keep the mosquitoes at bay.


And it wasn’t until later that I realized I didn’t have a photo of Ellie’s other brother, Aidan, but I knew of one from a prior insect walk that showed his own curiosity.

h-grape fern

We looked at tons of plants as well and were all especially eager to re-greet the grape ferns that we knew grew there.

h-exoskeletons 2

At last we reached our destination, Otter Rock on Heald Pond, where we found what we had hoped for: exoskeletons decorated the landscape.

h-exoskeltons on shrub

Dragonflies lay egg clusters into sediments or tap small clumps directly onto the water’s surface. Each egg hatches into a small nymph, which grows until its ready to emerge as a flying adult. At that time, the nymph crawls to the surface, and ever so slowly, the adult pulls itself free of the exoskeleton. It’s the most amazing process to watch. But even if you don’t have that opportunity, just seeing the left over nymphal shells and knowing that the magic happened is worth a wonder.

h-exoskeletons on ground

We had to watch where we stepped, for the exoskeletons not only decorated the shrubs, but also the ground . . .

h-exoskeleton on tree

and even the trees.

h-widow skimmer

And then we began to notice newly emerged dragonflies like the widow maker on Otter Rock,

h-black-shouldered spinyleg

and black-shouldered spinyleg on the ground. We were afraid to step for everywhere our eyes focused, there was either an exoskeleton or a dragonfly drying its wings in preparation for a first flight.

h-chalk 5

As we looked about, Caleb spotted one struggling in the water, so he pulled it out.

h-chalk 4

Coated in a bit of pollen from the pond, it still clung to its exoskeleton.

h-chalk-fronted corporal 1

We watched for a few moments as it moved about, those wings slowly drying. I think my ID is right and this was a chalk-fronted corporal. At last it was time for us to draw our sense of wonder to a close and make our journey out.

h-meet the interns

But first, I asked our interns to pose–meet Hannah, Kelly and Dakota. Today was their first day of work and we probably overwhelmed the two guys a bit. Hannah was with us last year, so she knows our ways–that we walk slowly and look at everything. She gets it and we love that. We’re excited about the possibilities ahead. Join us for a GLLT walk or come to an evening talk and you’ll get to meet them.

h-heading out

Our walk out was much quicker, though we still stopped occasionally.

h-stan's sign

In the end, I have no doubt that we knew the answer to Stan’s question: Lovell IS a great place to be.




Chillin’ at Heald Pond

It was chilly this morning. Understatement. It was mighty cold, given the wind. But that didn’t stop the intrepid Tuesday Trackers of the Greater Lovell Land Trust from exploring a property under conservation easement. For some though, that was enough. A few of us had intended to explore a trail in Stoneham, but postponed that trip for another day. The temperature was dropping as the wind increased.

My brain and body, however, were still in exploration mode, so I drove to the Heald/Bradley Ponds Reserve. A sip of hot cocoa and I was ready to continue.

Mill Brook

Mill Brook takes on a different look in its winter coat.

ice twists 2

Below the tree that lays across the stream, a series of twists remind me of flames–frozen in time.

 Mill site dam

mill dam

As the water cascades over the old dam site, the ice builds up, creating a new scene moment by moment.

mill site

I love the combination of newer dam beside the old foundation stones. History was made here.

otter slide

And above those very rocks a sight that warmed my heart–an otter had been chillin’. In my next life please let me be an otter. I know they are fierce predators, but they seem to have such fun and they LOVE winter. Me too.

otter climb

An upward climb . . .

Otter 4

and another downward slide

Otter 3

   otter tracks by mill brook

back to the water. Check out those webbed tracks on the angle noted for members of the mustelid family.

mink tracks

A mink had also passed through. Oh my! I could have turned around then and headed home, but I didn’t.

pileated tree, Heald PondPil tree

Near the kiosk, a pileated woodpecker has been enjoying a feast. I found scat among the wood chips below. If you go, look for it–filled with carpenter ant bodies.


Despite hand warmers, my fingers were feeling the cold, so I bee-lined to Otter Point. Whenever here, I feel compelled to check on the dragonfly exoskeletons.

ice on wh leaf

No otter tracks at the point, but there was plenty to capture my attention including ice coating a witch hazel leaf. The contrasting yet complimentary patterns and color demanded a closer look.

wintergreen leaves

A few wintergreen leaves featuring their winter hue poked above the snow.

red oak leaf

As I started back on the trail, the wind made my eyes water and burned my cheeks. It provided a good excuse to turn onto the blue loop and climb toward the summit of Whiting Hill, all the while warming me. And so did this red oak leaf.

beech leaves

Nearby, a faded beech leaf. Take another look at the witch hazel, wintergreen and oak–notice their veins. Compare them to the beech. So many differences for something we might simply call a leaf.

 Kezar 3

Kezar Lake

At the summit, the sky and mountains offered a dramatic view. Winter blues dominated the scene. Happy blues.

red oak buds 2

As I enjoyed the sun’s warmth, I focused in on my nearby surroundings. I wasn’t the only one appreciating extra layers today–the crowned formation of Northern red oak buds don their own warm and fuzzy coats.


An aster waits patiently–huddling yet ever ready to go forth and multiply.

ruffed grouse tunnel 3ruffed grouse with scatRuffed Grouse trail

And then I saw this. Another slide? No–actually, it’s a tunnel of sorts created by a ruffed grouse. The middle photo shows the bird’s scat. The bird plowed through the fluffy snow as it fed at the summit.

mouse 2mouse

Everywhere I snowshoed (the zip ties work so far as they hold my snowshoe strap together), there were mouse tracks–the risky business critters of the world.

fisher tracks 1 fisher tracks 3fisher tracks 2

I’d seen fisher tracks crisscrossing my trail as I climbed toward the summit. And then on the way down, not much of anything except mice . . . until these tracks below a hemlock. We had light snow yesterday that has filled in many tracks, but these were quite clear–making them easy to ID.

hare 1

As the trail turned sharply left, I entered the home territory of another mammal. Within these tracks I always see the winter lobster.

snowshoe print 1

A snowshoe hare–its smaller front feet land first–one before the other and often at an angle. Then the larger hind feet swing around and make a deeper impression as the hare pushes off in a bound toward its next landing spot.

snowshoe hare convention_2

I felt like I was at the scene of a hare convention.

snowshoe hare scat

And no convention is complete without some scat. Take a look at the vegetative substance of these milk duds.

This morning we were talking about the fact that we’re seeing many more tracks right now than is normal for January. We think it’s the snow cover–easy enough for them to move around. And it’s been warmer, though you couldn’t prove that today.

milkweed 1 milkweed 2  milkweed seeds

As I headed toward the parking lot, the milkweeds that grow at a former homesite across the road called to me. Their parachutes were in constant motion in the wind, but still they clung on to the pod.

I couldn’t feel my toes, so I didn’t have to worry about them. 😉 But my fingers didn’t appreciate it when I took my mittens off for a photo call. Despite that, I’m so glad I spent the afternoon chillin’ at Heald Pond.