Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.

Mary

Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.

My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.

And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.

Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:

  • Gap in the overstory
  • Trees over 30 feet tall
  • Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
  • Water
  • Some age variety
  • Snags over 6 feet tall
  • Large downed wood

I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.

But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.

I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.

There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.

Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.

I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.

After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.

But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.

In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.

A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.

And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.

Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?

In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.

My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.

Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.

And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.

Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?

But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.

Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!

Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.

And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.

Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.

It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.

Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.

With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.

The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.

As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!

Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!

In the Middle of the Bubble

We were going to go. We weren’t going to go. In the end, we each took a break from work and met at Lakes Environmental Association’s Highland Lake Research Forest.

Alanna said we could get away with calling it work because we were, after all, conducting research–on where the vernal pools were located. And so we listened and followed our ears as we bushwhacked through the woods. Peeps and wrucks and trills filled the air and we beelined their way. Suddenly we emerged beside the Red Maple Swamp.

Of course, the symphony cut off upon our arrival, and so after sitting and standing still for a few minutes, we decided to step into the water and search for egg masses. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, though Alanna did find at least one Wood Frog mass after she crossed over a log.

While she was still on the other side, I headed back up onto the land, and a few feet from the water I was stopped in my tracks by a large snake.

Its mouth gaped in a fashion that could almost have been a smile. For a few minutes I watched and the mouth never closed. That’s when I realized that it was dead.

As Alanna made her way back to see it, she found a deep hole and one of her boots filled with water. Being the person she is, she got out of the muck, emptied it, and . . .

despite the fact that we were both intrigued and a wee bit freaked out about the snake, she picked it up. If you’ve never seen a Northern Water Snake, they are big. And what if it wasn’t really dead, though we were sure that it was. But what if it wasn’t?

It dangled from her hands as over and over again she said, “I can’t believe I’m holding a snake.” Her grinning grimace echoed those words.

Because she’s a collector of fine things like scat, she had brought along a bag and so into it went the snake. Still, she continued to repeat, “I can believe I’m holding a snake.”

Just a few feet away, we found another kill site. A woodpecker had met its demise.

And only feet from that–a deer vertebrae. It became clear that life happens by the swamp; and nearby was an owl pellet filled with bones. We doubted the owl had anything to do with the deer, but what about the snake and bird? Maybe it wasn’t the owl, but some other bird of prey. Why hadn’t the snake been consumed? Or the bird plucked? As usual, more questions than answers. At last we decide to move on because we heard a wetland chorus calling our names on the other side of the next hill.

I followed Alanna until she stopped abruptly. In her path about twenty or thirty feet from the water, another water snake. This one even bigger. And . . . alive. The sun’s rays weren’t strong, but we suspected it was trying to get warm. For a few minutes we stood and watched and then finally decided we could walk by without a problem. And we did. That being said, every step we took after that included a search just in case more snakes lurked about.

The amphibian calls drew us to the area where a river flows through the swamp.

It was there that we found more signs of life including Canada Geese,

Red-winged Blackbirds,

and rather recent beaver works. At that point, Alanna had to depart, but I stayed for about an hour longer and wandered along the edge of the wetland.

My finds continued for where I looked for frogs by a coppiced tree, instead I found a tussock moth caterpillar frozen in time. It had remained attached firmly to the twig all winter because I suspected it had been parasitized by a mummy wasp.

And then it was uphill toward a rocky ledge that I tromped because the ground was carpeted with hemlock twigs. I knew who had cut and dropped them, and wondered if I might spy a den.

Where I thought there was a den below, I was wrong. But . . . atop the downed tree was another kill site. This time it looked like a Junco had been the source of food.

And on a leaf, the bird’s blood stains.

Not far from the feathers and blood, I did find what I was looking for–a porcupine den and its telltale pile of scat flowing forth.

Murder and mayhem you might think. But death is part of the web of life, which also sustains us.

Today, Alanna and I went seeking egg masses and instead found ourselves surrounded by so many other things. It all made me realize I am only one tiny speck in the middle of the bubble.

I’m with the TREES

When Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association asked me to join her in co-leading and co-sponsoring a tree identification walk during Great Maine Outdoor Week(end) at LEA’s Highland Research Forest in Bridgton, I jumped at the opportunity. Alanna, you see, is a great joy to be in the presence of and I knew she’d make it a fun and unique experience.

I wasn’t disappointed; nor were the thirteen others who joined us this morning for a two-hour hike that turned into two and a half and even a little bit more.

Alanna had gone out ahead of us and placed hearts with tree-related information along the trail we’d travel. Our crew was a delightful mix that included young and old, with members of LEA and the Greater Lovell Land Trust, which I was representing, as well as a woman from North Conway and man from Portland. Yes, Linda and Henri–that would be the two of you.

The first heart provided information about hemlock trees and after she read it, we encouraged everyone to channel their inner hemlock and so they leaned as this particular evergreen does. Check out those smiles. Don’t you want to be a hemlock too?

Of course, because we were among the trees on this property that the David and Carol Hancock Charitable Trust donated to LEA several years ago, and the snow was super soft from yesterday’s storm, the mammal tracks were outstanding.

One of the favorites of the day–that of the snowshoe hare. It’s not often that one can see the hare’s toes so clearly, but today was the day. And as David Brown’s Trackards indicated, the footprint size depends upon the conditions.

When it came to demonstrating and identifying the action of the mammal there were two rock stars among our group. Alanna was one for she got down on all fours and demonstrated how a hare moves (before she sorta fell). And Pam Marshall was the other for she correctly identified and shared information about how to recognize all of the track and print patterns that we saw. Pam only began tracking this year with the GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers, but she’s a quick study.

Onward we trekked, pausing whenever we saw a heart of red. And each time, Alanna’s voice came through in the message. Love at first bite! Indeed.

At a beech tree, we paused for a bit longer as we noted not only the twigs and buds that are beginning to swell, but also talked about how bear claw marks are most visible on them and how the beech scale insect has altered the once smooth look of the bark. The word marcescent, meaning withering but remaining attached to the stem, also entered the conversation.

After a bit of time, we emerged onto a wetland where only last week Alanna and a couple of people including one in our midst, Anne, had spotted a hole and lots of tracks and scat left behind by an otter. Today, no sign of that member of the weasel family, but still . . . we enjoyed the warmth of the sun.

And I took advantage of the time to dress Alanna as a twig. She was the perfect Miss Twiggy model and Henri took time to pose with her.

Back in the woods, we were stopped in our tracks by the tracks of another weasel–a mink.

And then as we retraced out steps and paused by a speckled alder to admire its male and female catkins and last year’s cones, someone honed in on something that wasn’t a remnant of yesterday’s snowstorm.

The cottony white masses of wooly alder aphids decorated a couple of branches. As Alanna explained, in a symbiotic relationship, during the warmer months, ants stroke the aphid with their antennae, while the aphid releases a drop of honeydew, much like a cow being milked. It’s actually rather creepy. Today, there were no ant farmers about, but a few like Justin, did step forward to take a closer look.

After that, we were confronted with a math problem. And you thought we were just out for a walk in the woods.

Finally, well sorta, we made our way back to an opening and stood around enjoying hot cocoa and tea, plus some goodies, and each others company.

Sherpa Anne had been kind enough to haul the supplies to the opening for us as our trek began. I know she was thankful she didn’t have to pull the sled all the way out to the wetland. And we were thankful for the good tidings it bore.

You see, Alanna is a woman of many, many talents, and baking is one of them.

Did she get carried away with the cookie cutters?

We didn’t think so for we all love Maine.

And we also love trees, including red oaks with their bristly-tipped leaves and acorns.

That wasn’t all Alanna had created.

Her tree model was to be envied (at least by me). And she explained the different functions, from roots to leaves and outer bark to inner workings.

And just in case you are interested, I’ve come up with a new mnemonic, because we love memory aids.

Xylem is the vascular tissue in plants that conducts water and dissolved nutrients upward from the root and also helps to form the woody element in the stem.

Phloem is the vascular tissue in plants that conducts sugars and other metabolic products downward from the leaves.

My mnemonic: Xy high (think upward); Phlo low (think downward).

Of course, that didn’t occur to me until several hours later.

Before we finished off our delightful morning, there was one last heart with tree information to read. Hmmm. Porcupines, bark, needles, scat, look up? “You might spot one dining!”

And so up we looked.

And down as well. We found some tracks and even took a closer look at some comma-shaped scat.

Because . . . the resident male was high up in the tree! Look at that handsome fella! We did. Over and over again. Henri was sure we had planted him and that he wasn’t real.

But he was. And if you look closely, you might see his orange teeth which one (like me) could almost mistake for a Valentine heart. Check out those toe nails. And can you see the rough soles of his feet, the better to grip the tree with?

Male porcupines are known to hang out on a tree during the day. I know we’re particularly thrilled about this one because he hasn’t let us down yet.

Think about this–while the male was hanging out in the sun, porcupines (like the one that lives under our barn) typically stay in their dens until dusk and then head off to munch on bark and needles in the darkest and coldest hours of a day. That’s to be admired.

So is the work of our two organizations, Lakes Environmental Association and the Greater Lovell Land Trust. Both of us are with the Trees and we loved sharing the trail together this day.

We’re doing the same again on Sunday at 12:30 in Lovell, where we’ll go on a Porcupine Prowl–will we actually see the rodent as we did today? Who knows, but we’ll have fun as we join together again to celebrate Great Maine Outdoor Week(end).

I’m with the TREES. Are you?

Our Final Mondate

I should have known it would come to this as nothing lasts forever. My guy and I had driven to Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest and the sight at our feet when we stepped out of the truck might have been the first clue.

It was a vole tunnel–covered only by a thin layer of snow and it showed the different directions the little rodent had taken as it searched for food in the subnivean zone, that rather warm (think 32˚) space between the ground and snow where one might be protected from the harsh realities of winter. It looked like first the vole wanted to go this way and then that and there were even holes where he’d come to the surface. But what about her? Had she followed him? Or taken her own route?

Maybe it was because I’d said before we’d started that we’d check out the trails LEA had designed, but within minutes I thought it was better that we bushwhack instead for I’m forever curious about wetlands.

Or was it the fact that I said, let’s go out on the ice just after I said we need to be careful? But if we hadn’t done so, we might not have seen the small beaver lodge that we spied through the tree carcass.

Could it have been that he really wanted to get back on the trail while I wanted to look for the heron nest?

I will say he didn’t seem to mind that we saw the larger beaver lodge, though we didn’t cross too close to it.

He did seem excited about the rather fresh beaver works we discovered when I finally did what he wanted and climbed up the hill away from the ice.

But he certainly wasn’t as excited as I was about the lungwort that grew all the way up the trunk of the old sugar maple the beaver was in the process of chopping down and made me realize that the tree had survived the past history of this land . . . until now.

Below the tree was the beaver dam and I thought for sure he’d want to go down and take a look, but he didn’t have that desire.

Instead, he wanted to try to relocate the blue-flagged trail and so he followed deer tracks and headed inland.

But, my heart was drawn to the water and I really wanted to follow the brook.

For I had a feeling it would feature some cool finds. And it did.

His heart wasnt filled with joy at the sight of those five tear-drop shaped toes or the diagonal orientation of the fisher prints.

What did excite him? The discovery of blue flagging.

He did seem a wee bit enthused by another set of prints–that of a bobcat.

A burl covered in violet-toothed fungi, however, was not a view he needed to pause under.

Instead, he moved on quickly and discovered water we might need to ford.

I, on the other hand, took a few moments to get my fill of ice sculptures dangling over the rushing water.

Ice. It’s so fleeting, like a summer flower. And like a flower, every day it opens up a little more and changes and then . . . whoosh. A day too warm and it dries up.

As he looked for a place to cross the brook and then realized we should just follow it, barbed wire growing through a tree drew his attention for he’d been wondering if anyone had wandered this way a hundred years ago.

As it went today, we followed the trail and one another sometimes and bushwhacked across the landscape in other moments.

We didn’t exactly stay within the forest, for eventually we found ourselves sitting on a privately owned association beach overlooking Highland Lake.

We actually sat on lunch rock together as we topped off our PB&J sandwiches with a shared Guinness in honor of this being the birthday of Arthur Guinness’ St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin. Oh, and piece of shortbread from the Shortbread House in Scotland added a sweet touch to this: Our Final Mondate . . .

of 2018. And then I followed my guy back into the forest.