Peeking with my Peeps

As has been our custom for the past six years, on a quarterly basis an email is sent out with a date and location and at the agreed upon time any number of grads, teachers, and mentors from the Maine Master Naturalist Lewiston 2013 class gather. Today was one of those days.

The plan was to explore a vernal pool or two at the Cornwall Nature Preserve on historic Paris Hill, but . . . it didn’t take us (Pam, Beth, Alan, Dorcas, and yours truly hiding behind the lens) long to get distracted when we saw green poking through the many shades of brown on the forest floor.

Together, we scrambled through our brains searching for the name. With the season finally feeling like it’s transitioning, we realized we have to dust off the floral flashcards in our minds and start reviewing them. And then it came to us. One year ago, on May 5, we had seen the same at Smithfield Plantation as we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Naturally. Then, however, we had keyed it out minus the flower. Today, the memory of last year’s ID slowly sifted to the forefront and by its leaves and colonial habit, we felt safe to call it Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily.

A few more steps and we started dipping containers into a potential vernal pool that was really too shallow and offered no apparent key characteristics. But . . . there was an owl pellet filled to the brim with hair and bones, the one sticking out by central vein of the leaf a hip bone. (Yeah, so I may sound like a smarty pants, but Dorcas pulled it out and quickly identified the bone by its structure.) Some little mammal, or two, or three, had provided a bird with a meal.

Stair-step Moss (Hylocomium splendens) was the next great find. I would have dismissed it as Big Red Stem or Pleurozium schreberi, and in so doing missed its finer points. Do you see how each year’s new growth rises from the previous, rather like ascending stair steps?

And then there was another new learning, for I’m always referring to this species of fungi as jelly ear or wood ear. But, with Alan the fungi fun guy in our midst, we learned that it’s really Brown Witch’s Butter or Exidia recisa. (Drats–it’s so much more fun to say Auricularia auricula.)

As we admired the Exidia recisa, we realized others were doing the same for we’d interrupted a slug fest. If you bump into Alan Seamans sometime, do ask him about the numbing qualities of slugs. 😉

A few more steps and we began to notice trilliums, especially the reds with their leaves of three so big and blossoms hiding. All of a sudden we know the flowers are going to burst open and we can’t wait to witness such glory.

At last we reached the pool of choice, located maybe a half mile from the parking area. Two years ago, MMNP students from the South Paris class discovered Fairy Shrimp in this pool.

Our best finds today were log cabin caddisflies! At this point in time, the caddisflies are in their larval stage and as such, they construct their temporary shelters from available materials. Think of them as the original recyclers.

Should a predator be about, like a hermit crab, the caddisfly can retreat into the house of needles or leaves or stones or whatever its preferred building material might be. Apparently, it didn’t mind us and we were honored to watch as the elongated body extended forth while it searched for food. In its larval form, these aquatic insects have a hardened head and first thoracic segment, while the abdomen remains pale and soft. Can you see the three pairs of legs?

The cool thing about caddisflies is that though they may use similar construction materials, no two are alike. Beth called them works of art.

I referred to this one as a she for the case included a Red Maple bouquet.

If you look closely, you might also note some filmy gills on the abdomen. And the grayish thing the Mrs. approached and a second later ignored. It seemed rather leech-like in its behavior, but I think it may have been a Planaria, which is a tiny unsegmented flat worm.

As we dipped for insects, we also noted plenty of Spotted Salamander spermatophores sticking up from leaves and twigs. But we could find none of their milky egg masses and wondered why.

We did, however, spy plenty of Wood Frog masses, some with their tapioca structures bubbling upon the surface, but most attached to the stems below.

And then a chiseled tree section across the pool called to us and so we made our way over to check the wood chips below. Of course, we searched for Pileated Woodpecker scat, but found none. Instead, we spotted a dead frog in the water. And just beyond it, a dead salamander.

It wasn’t pretty, but did make us question what had happened. Were the two amphibian deaths related? We don’t know, but we did note puncture marks on the Spotted Salamander’s underside, and even a nip of the end of its tail. Plus it had one slightly deformed front foot. And we learned that salamanders have poison glands in their skin, mostly on their backs and tails. Did the frog go after the salamander and both died from the experience? Or had another predator entered the pool? And then realized it had made the wrong decision?

We never did figure it out, but had fun asking questions. And as we stood there, our eyes keyed in on a bit of color at the end of a downed branch. Again, more questions and the use of our loupes as we tried to take a closer look. We debated: slime mold or insect eggs?

After looking closely and continuing to ask question, a quick poke with a twig provided the actual answer as we watched the spores puff out in a tiny cloud. Slime mold it was. Should we have poked it first? No, for that would have been too easy and we wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the possibilities.

On our way out, there was still one more discovery to make. I could have dismissed this one as a moss.

But, again Alan knew and he explained to us that it was a liverwort known as Porella platyphylloidea. And upon closer examination we could all see its three-dimensional structure as it curled out from the tree trunk.

Almost three hours later, our brains were full as we’d also examined trees, lichens, and other fungi, but our hearts were happy for the time spent in each others company sharing a collective brain.

I’m always grateful for an opportunity to peek with these peeps, even at something as common as a caddisfly because really . . . there’s nothing common about it.

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.

Doozy of a Playdate

When I sent out the invite to the Maine Master Naturalist Program’s Lewiston 2013 class for a tracking expedition at one of two possible locations, grad Alan responded, “Any place you pick in western Maine is fine; you know the area and conditions well. The only request I have is for you to try to show me a ‘bear tree.’”

Bingo! I pulled a third location out of my hat because it was within an hour of those who would join us and I knew that it passed the bear tree test.

And so six of us met at 10am, strapped on our snowshoes, and ventured forth. It’s always such a joy to be with these peeps and talk and laugh and share a brain.

Because our focus at first was on beech bark while we looked for bear claw marks left behind, we also shared an imagination. One particular tree made us think of a horseshoe.

Even

Eventually we found a few trunks with the etched scratches of bear claws that had grown wider with the years. After the first find, which was actually on a different tree, the others developed their bear tree eyes and became masters at pointing them out.

And though we’d come to track, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the preserve except for the occasional deer. But . . . we still found plenty to fascinate us, including Violet-toothed Polypore.

Alan was the fungi guru of the group and so to him we turned to confirm our ID. We were correct, but in the process he taught us something new about this gregarious mushroom. There are two types of Violet-toothed: Trichaptum biforme grows on hardwoods; Trichaptum abietinum grows only on conifers. Now we just need to remember that. Before our eyes the former reached to the sky on the red maple.

All along, as I’ve done all winter, I searched for an owl in a tree. Penny found one for me. Do you see it?

What I actually saw more than the owl was the face of a bear. OK, so I warned you that we took our imaginations with us.

We were almost down to the water, when the group paused. Tracks at last. Near water. Track pattern on a diagonal meaning one foot landed in front of the other in a consistent manner for each set of prints. Trail width or straddle: almost three inches. Stride we didn’t measure because it varied so much, but it was obvious that this mammal bounded through the landscape. Identification: mink. Repeatedly after first finding the tracks, we noted that it had covered a lot of territory.

At last, we made our way out onto the wetland associated with South Pond and followed the tracks of a much bigger beast–in fact multiple beasts: snowmobiles.

Rather than find lunch rock, we chose lunch lodge and stood in the warm sun to enjoy the view.

We did wonder if it was active and determined that though there had been some action in the fall as evidenced by the rather fresh looking sticks, there was no vent at the top so we weren’t sure any beavers were within. Maybe it was their summer cottage.

Close by, however, we found another lodge and the vent was open so we didn’t walk too near.

Because we were on the wetland, we did pause to admire the cattails, their seeds exploding forth like a fireworks finale (but of the silent type, which I much prefer).

Back on the trail, the bark of another tree stopped us. We looked at the lenticels, those lines that serve as a way to exchange gases much like our skin pores, and noted that they were thin rather than the raised figure 8s of a pin cherry.

We had a good idea of its name, but to be sure we conducted a sniff test.

Smells like . . . wintergreen! We were excited to have come face to face with black or sweet birch. Some also call it cherry birch. Hmmm . . . why not wintergreen birch? Because, yellow birch, a relative, also has that wintergreen scent when you scratch the bark, especially of a twig.

Continuing along, the temperature had risen and snow softened so periodically we had to help each other scrape snowballs off the bottoms of shoes.

Otherwise the feeling was one of walking on high heels.

As I said earlier, all kinds of things stopped us, including the straight lines of the holes created by sapsuckers, those warm-weather members of the woodpecker family. One in the neighborhood apparently decided to drum to a different beat as noted by the musical notes of the top line.

Speaking of woodpeckers, for a few minutes we all watched a pileated and admired its brilliant red crest in the afternoon sun, but we couldn’t focus our cameras on it quickly enough as it flew from tree to tree. We did, however, pause beneath a tree where it had done some recent excavation work.

And left behind a scat that resembled a miniature birch tree.

At last, four hours and two miles after starting (we’d intended to only be out for three), we’d circled around and stopped again at the kiosk to look at the map. Do note that we’d also picked up a passenger along the way for Carl Costanzi, a Western Foothills Land Trust board member and steward of the Virgil Parris Forest came upon us and joined our journey. We picked his brain a bit about the property and he picked up a pair of snowshoes that had malfunctioned for one of us. Thank you, Carl! That’s going above and beyond your duties.

Before departing, we did what we often do–circled around and took a selfie.

And then we left with smiles in our hearts and minds for the time spent reconnecting. Our memories will always be filled with the discovery of the first bear tree not too long after we began. As Penny said, “That first one was a doozy.”

Our entire time together was a doozy–of a playdate.

Thanks Beth, Gaby, Roger, Alan, and Penny. To those of you who couldn’t join us, we talked about you! All kind words because we missed you.

Jolly Mondate

Some Mondates are meant to be shared and this was one of them for I’d made arrangements to join the Fairs, Farms and Fun 4-H Group as they decorated a tree (or two or three) on a Greater Lovell Land Trust property this morning. 

And honestly, my guy was as excited as me to join the adventure for he loves kids.

One of the GLLT’s volunteer docents, Juli, had offered to lead today’s hike since her four children are part of the group. And because she’s a Maine Master Naturalist-in-Training, she made evergreen trees the focus as she explained when we circled up.

All together there were fifteen kids–fourteen of them walking and one young babe tucked inside her mom’s coat. At least I think there were that many. Every time I counted, the number seemed to change. 

After Juli’s initial explanation, we headed off onto the trail. Though most of us sported blaze orange because it’s hunting season, we made enough noise to announce our arrival to deer and their predators within range and beyond, I’m sure. 

We’d gone only a wee bit, when Juli stopped the group to ask them about evergreens. My guy and I were impressed with their collective knowledge.

But it wasn’t only for the trees that she stopped. She’d spied a decoration already dangling and asked if the kids knew how it happened to be there. 

What was it? A mushroom. Did it fall from the sky? Or from a taller tree? No and no. Instead, they figured out that a squirrel had deposited it and Juli explained that red squirrels place mushrooms in trees to dry. Or rather, freeze dry as was the case. 

She hadn’t walked much further when she stopped again. And again asked some questions as she showed off the five needles in a white pine bundle. 

Five needles in each bundle makes it easy to remember as there are five letters in W-H-I-T-E, the color of Maine’s State Tree: Eastern White Pine. 

It wasn’t all a lesson for the name of this 4-H group includes the word “Fun.” And so they climbed atop and under an erratic boulder and added more life on a rock than that one had seen in a long time. 

A little further on a bit of an incline invited their exploration and what to their wondering eyes should they discover but a long abandoned cellar hole with trees growing in it. For a few minutes that became their playground. 

It took us a while to move along because the kids kept finding cool things to admire, including a variety of mammal tracks and . . . even a dead spider. 

What do you see? Lots of eyes. 

And you? Fangs. 

And you? Hairy legs. 

After that discovery, we had to run to catch up with the rest of the group because they were on their way to the scenic overlook. But one of the boys had borrowed a GLLT Nature Backpack from the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library, which I was thrilled to see, and we used the lucite insect box with a magnifier that was stored in the pack so that all the kids could look at the spider up close if they so wished. 

And then it was time to decorate a tree. But first, Juli had the kids identify three types of evergreens in the same vicinity: spruce, hemlock and balsam fir. Their decorating began with the balsam fir. 

One by one, they attached homemade, biodegradable ornaments. 

And added a tree topper in the form of a birch bark “sleeve.”

Some were hearts cut from birch bark . . . 

and coated with peanut butter and sunflower seeds. 

It took great concentration. 

In no time, the tree was fully decorated.

Some changes had to be made. For one, one of the younger boys wanted his ornament to serve as a tree topper, so the birch bark sleeve was placed in a resting place on another tree. 

And then the kids decided to decorate any branch in the vicinity that attracted their fancy.

At least one needed a boost, but that’s what someone else’s mom was for when your own mom was busy with your baby sister. 

Branches all around certainly won’t feel left out. 

And no mouse or bird or squirrel or deer will go unfed. 

The kids quickly realized that they’d created a critter cafe that even included an offering tucked between two hop hornbeam trees. 

At last, the decorating had come to an end and the crew posed for photographs. 

Our journey back to the parking lot was the same distance as we followed the rest of the one-mile loop, but we travelled much more quickly. We did pause once in a while, however, especially in a grove of young white pines, where the kids practiced aging a tree. 

They knew to begin with 5 for the number of years it takes the seed to germinate and begin to grow and then to count the whorls of branches, each whorl representing one year. 

My guy challenged them to find one that matched his age. They found one that was 43–only off by 20+ years. But a few noted that it did match their dad’s age. I chuckled for I’d had that particular dad in class way back when he was in middle school. 

We were almost done when they made one last discovery–ice! Their very own rink. One little boy wanted to live there so he could slide on the ice all day. And then jump in the water come summer. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that the ice was a result of our rainy October and its not a permanent feature. 

 It was lunch time when the group was finally ready to depart. 

All the way home and even still, my guy and I have been smiling about our morning and the fun we had sharing it with the kids and their moms. Thank you Juli, and 4-H leader Wendy, and all of the homeschooled kids who attended. We were blessed by the opportunity to spend a few hours with you on the Jolly Mondate. 

I Spy . . .

This afternoon’s goal: To find a Christmas Tree to decorate for the Christmas at Ladies Delight Walk on December 1st. For the reconnaissance mission, I joined the Coombs family at the GLLT’s Chip Stockford Reserve.

The Coombs children are homeschooled by their amazing mother, Juli, and though they learn many lessons at home, they are also well educated in the outdoors. In fact, they are among my favorite naturalists.

And they belong to a 4-H Homeschool group that will decorate a tree(s) with biodegradable ornaments prior to the December 1st walk.

1

And so we set off on our tour looking for just the right tree. But . . . as is always the case with this family, there was so much more to see.

2

Since Juli is a Maine Master Naturalist Program student, so are her children. And every topic she studies, they study, so it was no surprise to me that six-year-old Wes picked up stick after stick loaded with various forms of lichens.

3

Of course, they are children, ranging in age from six to eleven, and puddles are invitations. The family motto is this: No puddle shall remain unsplashed.

4

But just after the puddle, at the start of an old log landing, we began to notice something else. A mushroom drying on the whorl of a White Pine.

5

As we stood and looked at the first, someone among us spied a second.

6

And then a third, and so it went. We knew that squirrels dried mushrooms in this manner, but never had we seen so many. It dawned on us that we were standing in a squirrel’s pantry. One squirrel? Two squirrel? Gray Squirrel? Red Squirrel? One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

7

For a while we paused by an erratic boulder and looked at the lichens that grew atop it. The kids and their mom also checked the sand under and behind it and I told them that the only critter sign I’d ever noticed was that of a Ruffed Grouse sand bath–and I only recognized it as such because I’d startled the two birds and they startled me as they flew off. In fact, on another hike this morning at the GLLT’s Five Kezar Ponds Reserve, friend Teresa and I had startled a grouse and we talked about how the bird’s explosive behavior makes us feel as if we’ve encountered a moose.

Well, just beyond the boulder, as we all chatted and moved about with quick motion, Caleb spotted something and told us to stop. A Ruffed Grouse!

8

It threw leaves about as it sorted through them in search of seeds and buds and we all watched in silence.

9

As we stood or sat still, the bird moved this way and that, making soft clucking sounds the entire time.

10

Ellie stood in front as the bird moved a few feet ahead of her and crossed the trail. I kept looking back at Juli in wonder. How could this be? Why wasn’t it disturbed by us? I’ve spotted Spruce Grouse in higher elevations and they are much “friendlier” or less wary of people, but I’d never been able to get up close to a Ruffed Grouse.

11

Our fascination continued and we noted its feathered legs, making us think perhaps it had pulled on some long johns for a cold winter night.

12

It eyed us and we eyed it back–our minds filled with awe.

13

Think about this: four children and two adults and we were starting to get fidgety because we’d been still for fifteen or more minutes and we had begun to whisper our questions and still . . . it let us watch.

14

And it let Ellie be the Grouse Whisperer for she began to follow it off the trail. Eventually, it climbed up a fallen tree and she knelt down beside, taking photos as it stood less than a foot from her. How cool is that?

15

We were all wowed by the experience, but when Ellie finally turned back, we continued on . . . sometimes running and other times pausing to ride imaginary horses.

16

Or listen to Birch Polypores! Yes, Juli did listen for it’s part of an assignment for the Maine Master Naturalist class. So what exactly does a Birch Polypore sound like? “I couldn’t hear the ocean,” she said with a smile.

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And what does it smell like? “Wood.”

18

The next moment of glee–poking Wolf’s Milk Slime Mold and watching it ooze.

19

“It’s cool and gross at the same time,” said Ellie.

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Onward and again, more fungi drying in trees as Aidan pointed out.

22

We even found a few stuck on spiky spruces much like ornaments might be and we reminded ourselves that we were on a mission and still hadn’t found the right tree to decorate.

23

At last, however, we did. And then we made our way out to the spur and recently opened view of Kezar Lake’s Lower Bay and Cranberry Fen, plus the mountains.

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This became our turn-around point as it was getting cooler by the minute and the sun was setting. We promised Wes we’d look only at our feet as we followed the loop trail down, though occasionally we stopped again to admire more fungi tucked onto tree branches and a set of trees that formed a rainbow arched over the trail.

As for the fungi, we wondered if we were seeing so many because last year’s mast crop of pinecones, beech nuts, and acorns didn’t exist this year. And when the 4-H club returns in a couple of weeks to decorate the tree, will the mushrooms still be there? Will there be more? How long do the squirrels wait before consuming them? So many questions and so many lessons still to be learned.

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And so many things to spy. We were honored with the opportunity to do just that and my heart smiled with the knowledge that the kids appreciated it as much as their mom and I did.

I spy . . . we spied . . . INDEED!

Oh, and  please join the GLLT for Christmas at Ladies Delight. I have the inside word that there will be hot cocoa and cookies somewhere along the trail.

December 1, 9:30 – noon
Christmas at Ladies Delight: The Maine Christmas Tree Hunt is a fun holiday scavenger
hunt to find decorated trees in western Maine. We’ll search for the decorated tree along the Bill Sayles Loop at the Chip Stockford Reserve and may add a few of our own biodegradable ornaments along the way. Location: Chip Stockford Reserve, Ladies Delight Road, Lovell.
Degree of Difficulty: Easy.

Bogging with Barb

Passing off a copy of the book, From Grassroots to Groundwater, about how two small Maine towns fought Nestlé and won, was the perfect excuse to head to Brownfield Bog. I told Barb I didn’t mind driving to her home or somewhere nearby to give her the book because I’d then go exploring and she welcomed the opportunity to do the same.

b2-Kathy's sign

As we began our journey, I asked if she knew Kathy McGreavy. Of course she did. I mentioned that Kathy walks in the bog daily and we might encounter her. Of course we did. Kathy and “her friend” were just coming out after walking their dogs and so we chatted for  bit. Our discussion included mention of the sign Kathy made last year as her capstone project for the Maine Master Naturalist Program. It’s an incredible piece of artwork and as she’s learned, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recently, she discovered that a woodpecker had taken to pecking it and so the bottom is now protected with a piece of plexiglass. Crazy birds.

b1-Bog view from the road

Eventually, Barb and I said our goodbyes to the McGreavys and walked down the unplowed road where I did warn her about my obsession for stopping frequently to take photos. It began from the start–when we spied the bog through the trees and noticed the contrast of colors and layers.

b3a-pussy willows

And then–specks of white were ours to behold.

b3-pussy willows

Pussy willows. Was it too early she wondered. No–in fact, I spotted some a year ago on February 23 at Lakes Environmental Association’s Holt Pond Preserve.

b4-red-winged blackbirds

Our next reason to stop–the red and yellow shoulder patch or epaulet providing their name: Red-Winged Blackbirds. Again, Barb asked if it was too early. This time, I referenced Mary Holland for the February 27th entry in her book Naturally Curious Day by Day has this headline: Returning Red-Winged Blackbirds Survive Cold Temperatures and Few Insects. Bingo.

b5-water obstacles

Sometimes our stops were to contemplate our next steps–especially when it came to the water that covered the cobble stones on the road.

b6-Barb charges through the water

But sometimes you just have to go for it. And we did. As the morning continued, we ventured through deeper water and plowed ahead knowing that we would need to dry our hiking boots out when we arrived home.

b7-bird's nest

We found a bird nest and wondered about its creator. We did note some acorn pieces inside, so we think it had more than an avian inhabitant.

b8-beaver lodge

And we paused to look at an old beaver lodge. The mud looked recent but none of the sticks were this year’s additions so we didn’t know if anyone was home.

b9-map in the snow

All along, we’d been talking about places we’ve hiked and other topics of interest to both of us. We even learned that we’d both worked in Franklin, New Hampshire, just not at the same time. But speaking of hikes, with her finger, Barb drew a map in the snow and now I have another trail to check out soon with my guy. Should I forget the way, I’ll just reference this map. 😉

b10-raccoon prints

Because we were near water, though most of it still frozen, and the temp was high (actually, too high–in fact, it felt HOT as it soared into the upper 60˚s today), we weren’t surprised to find this set of prints created recently by a raccoon. I love the hand-like appearance and opposite diagonal of each two feet. Can’t you just see him waddling through–in your mind’s eye, that is?

b11-the bog

Our turn-around point offered an expansive view of the bog. As much as we may have wanted to head out onto it, we sided with caution and kept to the edge of the shore.

b12-winterberry

On the way back, there were other things to admire as there always is even when you follow the same route: winterberries drying up;

b13-rhodora

rhodora’s woody seed pods and flower buds swelling;

b14-willow gall

and the pinecone-like structure created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows.

b16-carrion-flower tendrils

And then we stumbled upon a plant neither of us knew. With it’s long stem and curly tendrils, we were sure it was a vine.

b15-carrion-flower

Upon arriving home, however, I wondered about the umbel structure that had been its flower and now still held some fruits. A little bit of research and I found it: Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea), which apparently smells rather foul when it’s in bloom and thus attracts carrion flies as its pollinator. Now I can’t wait to return and check it out in the next two seasons. Any excuse to get back there.

b17-bog to Pleasant Mountain

At last the time had come to say goodbye to the bog and then goodbye to each other. Thanks Barb, for giving me an excuse to go bogging with you. It was indeed a treat.

Brain Share–Naturally

I was thankful I’d thrown my winter coat into the truck for I had a feeling it would be a better choice than a vest given the group I’d be traveling with this morning. And sure enough, though the sun felt warm, a breeze added a chill to the air. Plus, I knew we wouldn’t travel far and would spend much of our time standing around.

r0-life on a rock

Well, not exactly standing, for as Maine Master Naturalists, we’ve been trained to get down for a closer look. Our first stop–to check out the life on a rock that was revealing itself as the snow slowly melted. Karen is on the left, an Augusta grad, and Sarah and Anthony to her right, both South Paris grads.

r0a-polypody

The focus of our attention was common polypody, a fern with leathery leaves and spherical spore clusters on the underside. Rocks are their substrate and they often give a boulder a bad-hair day look.

r1b-speckled alder

Moseying along, we reached a point where we knew we wanted to spend some time–at a wetland beside one of the Range Ponds (pronounced Rang) at Range Pond State Park in Poland, Maine. Because it likes wet feet, we weren’t surprised to find speckled alder growing there, but what did throw us for a loop was the protrusions extending from last year’s cones.

r1a-speckled alder

It was almost like they had tried to flower atop the cones and all we could think of was an insect creating a gall. Indeed, it appeared that the cones were also experiencing a bad hair day. After a little research, it may be alder tongue gall–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths are green to begin, but transform to orange, red and finally brown. It was certainly a new one for the four of us.

r2a-leatherleaf and sphagnum moss

On we moved down to the wetland where the snow surprisingly held us for most of the journey and we didn’t leave behind too many post holes. Leatherleaf and sphagnum moss showed off their winter hues at our feet.

r4-cranberries

We also spied cranberries hiding underneath.

r3-cranberries among the leatherleaf

And sampled them. A few were tart, while others had fermented.

r1-two lodges

In the middle of the wetland, two well built lodges stood tall. They had fresh wood and had been mudded in the fall. One did look as if the vent hole had been enlarged, so we wondered if anyone still lived there. We heard no noises, but had to assume that we were bothering the residents so we didn’t stay long.

r2-wetland and pond beyond

One last view of the wetland and pond beyond, then we turned and walked toward the opposite side.

r5-bird nest

Just before climbing uphill, we spotted a bird nest in the winterberry shrubs. It was filled with dried berries, and we again made an assumption, that a mouse had cached its stash for the winter and maybe dined there in peace and quiet while the nest was covered in snow. That’s our story and we’re sticking with it. Whose nest it was prior to the mouse? We don’t know, but it was made of twigs. If you have an answer, please enlighten us.

r6-bone

Back up on an old railroad bed, we again stopped frequently, including to talk about the beech scale insect and nectria fungus that moves in and eventually kills the trees. And then something else came to our attention–it wasn’t a broken branch hanging down like an upside-down V on the beech tree. No indeed. It was a bone. A knee bone. And it had been there for quite a while given its appearance.

r7-Introduced Pine Sawfly pupal case

Because Anthony was with us and he’s our insect whiz, we spent a lot of time learning from him–including about the pupal case of an introduced pine sawfly. The sawfly had already pupated and in this case no one was home.

r8-Introduced sawfly pupal case

As the morning went on, we became quite adept at locating more cases of other sawfly species, including one that wasn’t yet opened. We each channeled our ten-year-old selves as we tried to be first to find the next one. But really, Anthony won for he had insect case eyes.

r9-going in for a closer look

And eyes for other things as well.

r10-old spider web case

This time we examined a delicate, almost lacy structure under a branch on a young beech. Anthony suspected a pirate spider, which tickled our fancy for we imagined them raiding the goods of others. But later he e-mailed with another option: “The old spider egg case could also be from an orbweaver of the araneidae family.” Either way, we were happy for the sighting; for taking the time to slow down and notice.

r11-beech leaves

And there was more. Sarah had to leave us a wee bit early, so she missed our finds on the backside of beech leaves.

r12-maroon dots on beech leaves

They were dotted with raised bumps that under our hand lenses reminded us a bit of the sori on common polypody.

r13-maroon dots on beech leaves

Leaf rust? Was it related in any way to the splattering of tiny black dots also on the leaves? We left with questions we haven’t yet answered.

r14-hair on beech leaves

Taking a closer look did, however, remind us of how hairy beech leaves are–do you see the hairs along the main vein? And that reminded us of how the tree works so hard to protect the bud with waxy scales all winter, keeping the harsh conditions at bay. In early spring, slowly the leaves emerge, ever hairy, which strikes me as an adaptation to keep insects at bay, and then . . . and then . . . it seems like every insect finds a reason to love a beech leaf and in no time they’ve been chewed and mined and you name it.

r15-oak gall

We made one more discovery before heading out–a gall formed on oak twigs. Do you see the exit hole? It’s in the shape of a heart–apparently the insect that created the gall loved the oak.

r15-pine tube moth

As we made our way back to the parking lot, I kept searching all the pine trees because I wanted to share an example of the tube created by a pine tube moth. Of course, there were none to be found, but as soon as I arrived home, I headed off into the woods for I knew I could locate some there. Bingo.

Notice how the lumps of needles are stuck together in such a way that they formed a tube. Actually, the tube is a tunnel created by the moth. The moth used silk to bind the needles together, thus forming the hollow tube. And notice the browned tips–that’s due to the larvae feeding on them. Eventually the overwintering larvae will pupate within the tube and emerge in April. Two generations occur each year and those that overwinter are the second generation. Fortunately, they don’t seem to harm the trees–yet.

Three and a half hours later we hadn’t walked a great distance, but our findings and learnings were many and we talked about how we’d added more layers to our understanding. Now if only we can remember everything. Thanks to Karen, Sarah and Anthony for sharing your brains me with–naturally.

P.S. Lewiston MMNP grads, et al, I’ll be in touch. Look for a doodle poll soon so we can get out and do the same. Or if you want to take the initiative, please feel free to go for it.