Today's Mystery Tour

The message arrived in the form of a text: “Meet me at North Fryeburg Fire Station at 10:30. I’ll drive.”

And so we did. Upon our meeting we realized we’d each left some gear home, but between us, much like we share a brain, we shared resources that would benefit us along the trail. The back of the Subaru packed with snowshoes and hiking packs, up the road we rode, one of us driving while the other two anticipated the near future.

Beside two Norwegian Fjord horses named Marta and Kristoff blankety, blank, blank, (cuze one of their owners couldn’t remember his full name), our driver did park.

Before us, a groomed trail presented itself–leading to infinity and beyond or so it seemed.

And within a mailbox, tucked into plastic sleeves, maps and track charts were available.

Rather than take either, we took photos of the map; and knew that we had a set of David Brown’s Trackards for our trail finds.

We were still by the road and farmhouse, when we noticed sap buckets tied to Sugar Maples and realized that the season had begun.

One of our good fortunes, and we had many as the day progressed, was to stumble upon Jim, the owner of the property who explained to us that the sap had only just started to flow and he had 200 trees tapped. Sap season can be fickle, but we hope the good fortune his land shared with us could be returned many times over in the form of gallons of syrupy sweetness.

Up the trail we finally tramped, stopping frequently to take in as many treasures as possible as we tried to gain a better understanding of the world that surrounded us.

One item that drew our attention was the thick twig and dome-shaped bud of an ash. Its corky leaf scar below the buds was filled with a smiley face of dots we knew as bundle scars–where sugar and water had flowed between last year’s leaf and twig/trunk.

By the shape of the leaf scar, its bud dipping into the cup and creating the form of a C, we knew its name: White Ash. Had it been a Green Ash, the bud would have sat directly atop the leaf scar, which would have looked like a D turned on its side.

I keep trying to come up with a mnemonic to remember these two species and may have just discovered such: C = cup = white cup of coffee; D = hmmmm? So much for that thought. Stick with C and if it doesn’t look like that, chances are it’s a D.

We paused beside many buds, examining them all for their idiosyncrasies, but equally prevalent on the trail were the tracks left behind by so many critters. Deer, snowshoe hare, birds of varying sizes, chipmunk, red squirrel, and the list went on. Red fox were part of the forest mix. And coyote as well. We so wanted bobcat and several times tried to convince ourselves that such was the case, but indeed, our further study made us realize it was no more than a wish.

We also wanted porcupine tracks and bear claw trees to make themselves known. We searched and searched for all three: bobcat, porcupine, and bear claw marks, but found none.

What we did discover, however, was the namesake of the trail upon which we tramped. My, what deep impressions it had left.

Perhaps the creator was Sasquatch?

No indeed. Where it had traveled upon the trail we followed before it traversed cross country, it left discernible prints that gave another sense of its size and we talked about the fact that its stomach would have been at our eye level.

By the crescent-shaped halves and dew claw marks, we knew that somewhere in the forest beyond moved a moose. Actually, by the number of tracks we saw on the trail, we thought that at least two had traveled this way.

And directly above we could see that it had dined, for the tags on the Red Maples where buds had once been bespoke its breakfast source.

At last we came to Moose Bog and briefly let our minds slip into seasons to come and offerings yet to be, but quickly pulled ourselves back into the moment and reveled in the fact that beside the sign was a sign left behind by the one for whom the bog was named.

The impressions were so deep that we decided to measure them.

Fifteen inches. We had barely sunk in an inch or two on our snowshoes, so the moose’s prints lead us to realize the immensity of its weight.

While in the same area, an abnormal growth on Speckle Alder gave us pause. At first glance, we recalled the fluffy colonies of Woolly Alder Aphids and wondered if what we saw was somehow related. A bit of white appeared in the structure, but it didn’t quite match anything we’d seen previously or our understanding.

About twenty feet down the trail, we found it again, this time on an American Beech twig. The curious thing, it only grew on one side.

Upon closer examination, we realized it looked a bit like elongated coffee grounds, and within our hands, its brittle structure quickly splintered into tiny specks.

It wasn’t until I contacted Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood several hours later that we realized we were on the right track. Anthony is my go-to entomologist and I bug him (pun intended) frequently for identification or explanation. He never fails to reveal some amazing fact.

Today’s find: The Beech Aphid Poop Eater! What? Yup. A poop-eating fungus. We were thrilled to discover that we were on the right track thinking it was related to aphids, and we knew that ants like to farm them so they’ll secret honeydew, but . . . a poop eater. The natural world just got more otherworldly for us and our wonder will never cease.

Trees continued to attract our attention, but upon the trail were a slew of tracks, the prints of coyote and fox especially decorating the way. And then, and then some coyote scat and pee, the former so full of hair and a selection of the latter at another spot that sent us all staggering from the strong scent.

A bit further on we found an older coyote scat that contained large bone chips. Do you see one in the upper left-hand corner of the specimen?

We also found fox scat filled with hair and seeds, for like coyotes, omnivores are they.

And then, some small, cylindrical shapes within a print.

X marked the spot where the latter scatter crossed its own path.

And then it flew off. Who dat scat? A Ruffed Grouse.

At least five hours after we began our tramp, the farm house finally came into view. And so did Becky, one of the owners. She was actually looking for us for so long had we wandered.

We’d taken a photo of the trail map, as I said earlier, before we set off, but never again did we look at it. No wonder Becky was worried about us. The trail we followed was only eight tenths in length, but because we’d stopped every three steps or so to look at the next best thing, it had taken us five plus hours to complete the loop.

We chuckled again for after meeting up with Becky and reassuring her that we were fine and happy and well (super well and thankful for such was the day and all that her land had offered us), we wondered if she and Jim had made a bet on how long it would take us to travel the last few hundred feet to the road.

There were still things to note, including sap seeping into buckets.

Red maple buds growing more bulbous with age also garnered our focus.

As for our mystery tour: we were treated to the Moose Loop at Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch. That would be in North Chatham, New Hampshire.

As we were greeted, our journey ended, with a smile from Kristoff and grins across our faces for the finds we’d discovered, understandings we’d made, and time spent together exploring.

Many, many thanks to Jim and Becky Knowles for sharing their land with all of us, and for Pam K for discovering this treasure and providing the mystery tour. Well done.

PS. Our last few hundred yards took about 25 minutes–who placed the correct bet on our time–Jim or Becky?

Recipe for Forest Friday

Preparation time: hours and hours. Baking time: two hours.

Note: Recipe has various stages of development.

Ingredients:

  • Maine Master Naturalist Sarah Otterson and her team of three volunteers
  • Ms. B, grade 2 teacher
  • 19 interested and interesting second graders
  • Pond by Jim LaMarche
  • string, clothes pins and towels
  • school nature trail
  • recycled containers
  • air, sand, dirt, rocks, boulders, warm water, found materials
  • surprise ingredient

Directions: Part 1

At 1 pm, meet the students and listen to an introduction to the landforms/erosion “field trip.”

Break the students into four pre-assigned groups.

After donning coats, hats, and mittens, head outside.

Discover a book strung throughout the woods.

Stop to read it and wonder about the action as well as the illustrations.

While walking, pay attention to the lay of the land. Use hands and arms when appropriate to mimic mini ravines, hills, etc.

Repeat above action when the landforms appear in the illustrations.

Directions: Part 2

Once everyone has finished reading the story, gather by the large boulder in the school yard and review some of the story action. Again, use hands to mimic landforms, including weaving fingers together to form a dam, which was the key ingredient to form the pond in the story.

Recall that the characters exclaimed about running up a mountain by placing hands high over head. But really, they were on a hill as demonstrated by the student with the green soles.

Directions: Part 3

Introduce the concept of a model as a three-dimensional representation of something, but on a much smaller scale.

Ask for examples of models the students have made or seen.

Using recycled containers, add sand and then water to create a model of a mountain.

Once the two mix, gently tip the mixing container onto a cover.

With care, set both down on the frozen ground.

A mini mountain is born.

Pour rain (warm water) through clouds (wiggling fingers) to create a weathering situation.

Watch the mountain change as the water strikes it.

Slowly it “melts.”

Directions: Part 4

Review words to the erosion song the students have learned and show off various components that create a mountain.

Have student pour top soil into container.

Add to it some seeds from hemlock and pine cones. Use the moment as a teachable one to note the differences between the two types of cones. (Not all cones are pinecones since they don’t all grow on pine trees.)

Stir in a crushed leaf, acorn, and the surprise ingredient.

Give many students an opportunity to add rocks to the mixture.

And then pour in a couple of bigger boulders.

Top off with a pinch of sand.

Pour in some water.

Replace a big boulder with a slightly smaller one.

Again, add some more water until mixture is moist.

Flip structure onto cover.

Give it a tap for good measure.

Ask the kids to share their thoughts.

And then, ever . . .

so . . .

slowly . . .

lift . . .

and release.

Smile as everyone exclaims.

A mountain is born.

Let students move in to admire (and covet the surprise ingredient).

And then . . . watch it rain again.

And the mountain quickly erode.

Two hours from start to finish: the final product.

Despite the mud and rocks and leaves and acorn and cones, I think the students would have fought over the coveted ingredient: gummy worms. Every mountain should have gummy worms.

Notes written in cookbook margin: Thanks to Sarah for letting me be a part of her lesson for Ms. B’s Forest Friday. I was blown away by the kids knowledge both as I walked the trail with my group of four and as a larger group. I was also blown away by Sarah’s demonstration. She’s one of my favorite role models when it comes to elementary environmental education.

Shrouded By Fog

“It was a dark and dreary day.”

Like a thin veil, this morning’s fog attempted to hide Miss Spring.

But instead, it revealed her nuances and enhanced her being as the birds sang and amphibians added their voices to the chorus.

As I listened, I peeked through the thinnest of openings to see what the world wanted to reveal.

Weaving all of life together were the silken lines of spider webs.

Beads of water enhancing their forms.

And the creator turned out to be the most minute of beings.

Flowing forth the remains of melting snow, the stream spoke of nourishment.

Its action creating frothy suds that cleansed.

And within its bubbles the world above was reflected.

The surrounding landscape was mirrored in the drips of raindrops.

Everywhere, there were treasures indicating what is to come . . . in the form of Hobblebush buds growing more global;

Trailing Arbutus showing a glimmer of new life;

And Beaked Hazelnut presenting its most subtle, yet exquisite floral presentation.

As I continued to look about, something different caught my eye.

A moth recently emerged from its cocoon* spoke to another form of new life.

What I learned today is that one needs to watch.

Wait.

And be ready.

Though she has been shrouded, her veil is slipping away. I was grateful to discover that Miss Spring surrounds us when we make the time to look–even on dark and dreary days.

*The moth–I knew it was such, but didn’t know what kind. Upon arriving home, I did some research and the best I could come up with was the worst–Operophtera brumata, or the invasive Winter moth. But . . . I wasn’t 100% convinced of my ID so I reached out to fellow Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood. This was his response: “Don’t panic yet, Leigh. I’ve seen this before. It’s a newly eclosed moth, yes, eclosed. Probably a Sphinx moth. I wasn’t familiar with the term until I encountered one for myself a while ago. Your vocabulary is likely more extensive than mine but just in case I’ll clarify by explaining that it means that it has emerged from its winter cocoon and is looking for a place to pump its blood into those wings and expand them for first flight. Good find!

Birds of a Feather

My intention was to check the condition of several vernal pools as I tramped into the woods today. Only a few years ago I was taking photographs of wood frogs on this very date, but I knew that would not be today’s focus.

As I approached the first and saw that it was still snow covered, though the northeast side displayed the pastel bluish hue of slushy ice, I began to wonder what would draw my attention.

And then I looked down by my snowshoes and suspected I’d found the answer. That answer, however, brought other questions to mind. To whom did the feathers belong? What had happened? Were there others? How did they get there? And when?

Beside the pool and just below a hemlock, I found another. The hemlock’s needles provided perspective for they were only about a half inch in length.

As I moved onto the pool, my eyes cued in to a feather here and a feather there and occasionally a cluster in the mix.

While most were slate gray, I began to note some with tints of brown on the outer fringe.

There were even a few that I thought might be tail feathers, but really my bird knowledge needs to increase greatly. Again, however, with their orientation beside the beech leaf, it was obvious that the bird of choice was not big.

With so many feathers on display, as minute as they were, I wondered who had dined. Or rather, who had snacked for it hardly seemed like a full-fledged meal (pun alert) had been consumed. I found the tracks and then scat of one of the neighborhood deer and knew it was intent on the hemlocks beside the pool and small birds were not on its menu.

In the melted water by the scat were a a couple of feathers of lighter colors. And then it occurred to me. All had been plucked.

Finding no other evidence of tracks other than deer and turkeys, my mind began to gaze skyward for I considered a bird of prey as the predator. The pool is surrounded by a mixed forest of beech, maples, oaks, hemlocks and pines. Several would have been fine candidates for a feeding tree.

And so I began to wonder if there was more evidence somewhere near the pool. With that in mind, I climbed out of it, and still here and there tiny clumps or individual presentations caught my attention.

With that knowledge, I made a plan. I began on the northern edge looking south and then turned around and walked out, scanning the ground and trees, both at eye level and above, looking for evidence.

I’d walk out as far from the pool as I found evidence, also checking every tree well on the way. Do you see the bits of gray?

Any feathers were more scattered the further from the pool I went, but still they were present. And if you’ve noticed, all were atop any other ground debris. That was significant.

At the point where I saw the last of the feathers, I’d turn around and approach the pool again at an angle, thus zigzagging in and out as I circled it. The furthest away that I got was about 15 snowshoe lengths.

By the time I reached the southerly shore I realized that there were no feathers. That also proved to be significant.

While I was searching, or perhaps because, I found other things of interest like the jelly ear fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae.

It’s one of my favorites this time of year and I love its rubbery and gelatinous feel.

But I digress. And so back to my bird. I didn’t encounter feathers again until about half way back on the westerly side. That lead me to make some conclusions that may be totally wrong, but I’ll put myself out on limb (oh geesh, another one) with my findings: 1. The perpetrator had dined from high up in one of the trees on the north side and I suspected a pine or oak. 2. And if it had dined from above, then the predator was a larger bird 3. The meal was rather recent for all of the feathers were on top of the surface, rather than having sunk into the snow or appearing from under any other debris. 4. I suspected the victim was a Dark-eyed Junco. While the Juncos were everywhere in the fall, once the snow fell in early November, we didn’t see them for a couple of months. And then in mid-January a few found our feeders. This week, the flock has increased substantially as they migrate north and I counted twenty on the ground and in the trees by our home, which isn’t far from the pool.

I never did make it to the other vernal pools today, for so taken was I with trying to figure out the mystery of the feathers. Another thing about Juncos is that though many we see are slate gray, females may be a bit buffy on top of their head, back, and wings.

The other thing about Juncos is their countershadowing coloration.

Looking at the bird from the ground, it tends to blend in with the sky, especially on this gray day. And if you were to look down on the bird from above, it would blend in with the ground. That is, unless of course, you have snow on the ground as we have had for quite a while. It’s beginning to melt, especially in this afternoon’s rain and fog, but it does make the wee birds an easy target for the bigger ones.

Yesterday I saw a big one, but not in my backyard. Well, in a way I guess it was for I saw it near our camp. And I should have recognized it for I spent all last summer watching an immature and adult in the very location but it’s coloration threw me off.

When I first spied it, I thought it was an eagle or an owl. But the closer I got (mind you, I wasn’t as close as this may seem given that it’s a telephoto lens on a Canon Powershot), the more the white spots on those wings confused me. So, I settled for a hawk–either an immature Broad-winged, Red-shouldered or Red-tailed. But . . . . for once I did what I should always do–and reached out to those who know more than me.

Thank you to Alan and Linda Seamans and the Stanton Bird Club for they all agreed that it was a sub-adult Bald Eagle. Notice the mask. According to the Cornell allaboutbirds site, which I visited at least a hundred times yesterday: “Third year birds [Bald Eagles] have a mostly white belly, with some brown mottling, a brown chest, and a broad brown mask on the face.” Said my friend Alan, who is also a Maine Master Naturalist, “The huge schnozz is being noted by all, much too big in proportion for a red-tailed.”

Thank you also to the birds who continue to teach me about their life stories every day. I don’t always interpret what I see correctly and I admit I may be wrong about thinking the feathers belonged to a Junco, but I do enjoy the journey. Birds of a feather, they keep me wondering.

Happy Bird-day Bird Count

Established in 1900 by an officer of the Audubon Society, the intention of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations.

Our local count, known as the Sweden Circle CBC, typically takes place two days after Christmas, unless, of course it snows. Within several weeks prior to the event, organizer Jean Preis rallies volunteers and assigns sections within the circle to leaders and their assistant birders.

I had the good fortune to lead the southeastern section and so at 8am I headed off to begin searching for birds along the road, at backyard or front yard feeders, and just about anywhere within the assigned section. For the first 45 minutes I was alone as planned, and kept blaming my limited sightings on that fact, as well as the brisk morning temperature.

Other than the temp in the teens, I couldn’t say the weather was at fault for it wasn’t all that windy and there was nary a cloud in the sky.

By 9am, I was joined by the rest of my team, Maine Master Naturalist student Juli, and her oldest children, who are naturalists in their own right, Caleb and Ellie.

Juli took over the challenging task of driving, all the while searching for movement. Caleb, Ellie, and I had a much easier task–we just needed to search high and low and if we spotted something, to let Juli know in as gentle a manner as possible so we wouldn’t cause her to jam on the breaks.

At Plummer’s Landing on Long Lake, we got out of the vehicle, as would be our custom for the rest of the day. Down to the ice we walked, our eyes scanning the surrounding scene as we listened. The only sounds we heard–the wailing of the ice. If you’ve never heard that, it’s almost as good as birding! As for birds near the lake . . . not a one.

But there was a beautiful red maple tree by the landing that made for a perfect teaching moment–the clock face that helps birders locate a bird someone spies. I pointed to 12:00 at the top, then 3:00 to the right side, 6:00 at the bottom, and 9:00 to the left. Instantly, the kids caught on and for the rest of the day they were able to direct us–that is, when we did spy a bird.

Ever so slowly, we made our way along main roads and back roads and noticed few birds. In a way, I wasn’t surprised for my feeders have had only a few regular visitors this year. And when I’m in the woods, or even on the edge of a field, I’ve seldom seen or heard a bird since November when the snow fell. Before that, juncos were extremely common sights no matter where or how I traveled. Where have they gone?

Despite the lower than usual numbers, I was sure we would see something by the old Central Maine Power dam not far from the Stevens Brook Outlet. But . . . all we heard was the roar of the water.

And all we saw . . .

was water racing toward the lake and . . .

the dancing legs of icicle formations. That was OK because we enjoyed admiring them. Still, we wanted birds to count. To that point, our tally included a few chickadees and a couple of tufted titmice.

Onward we moved, toward the outlet of Stevens Brook into Long Lake where we were certain the open water would provide us with something worth reporting.

All was quite quiet, however, and we didn’t see any waterfowl to note. But then . . . the biggest find of our day let itself be known.

High up in a white pine above the opposite bank of the outlet, a bald eagle sat in wait. We practically danced in the icy parking lot–and knew that no matter what else we might see, we were golden with this discovery.

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the eagle, and continued on while looking left and right, up and down. At last, a front yard feeder yielded some more chickadees, a white breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker. Things were picking up. Sorta.

And then as Juli drove down one back road, we spotted five crows in an unplowed driveway. They flew off when we paused, so we continued on down the road. Returning a few minutes later, we again spied the five crows in the same spot. And Caleb, who as a youth hunter has learned the ways of the woods from his dad, knew that where the crows were gathered there must be a carcass. He asked his mom to stop the vehicle while he crossed the road to check the area. Bingo! He encouraged us to join him. Just off the clearing he’d discovered a deer carcass. We weren’t certain how it had come to perish, or why its head was missing, though we had some thoughts on both, but we did notice that many had come to dine. If we’d been more into our tracking mode than our birding mode, we might have been able to write the first two chapters about the manner of death and loss of the head, but we had a different mission on this day.

Another body of water called our names. Last year, I’d seen robins and various other birds in a wetland associated with Woods Pond, so we jumped out at the town beach and stood still to listen and watch. Nada. The ice on the pond, however, was enticing. And though they didn’t have skates, Ellie and Caleb found the conditions to be much to their liking.

Even the clipboard with the field tally didn’t pose a problem as they slid to and fro across the frozen wonder.

Eventually we moved on and added a couple more chickadees to the list. And then we saw one who was not on the list and though he is native to this land, he’s not typically seen here in winter. So we filled out the Rare Bird Form for the Great Horned Owl Plastica species.

One of our final stops as a group was on what we fondly refer to as the Dump Road. At a swampy area, we thought for sure we’d have some luck. And we did. In the form of beaver works.

Peering across the road in search of birds near the open water, we noticed more beaver works.

And our luck turned to awe as we admired a beech tree that still stood despite its hourglass shape. Why hadn’t it fallen?

The lodge looked well maintained and we rejoiced to think that it was located close to town and yet we’d never spied it before. Because of the CBC, we’d been given the opportunity to get to know our town just a wee bit more intimately.

After the beaver lodge sighting, Juli and her kids headed home, and so did I . . . for a quick lunch break. And then I journeyed down several more roads, adding a few more dashes to the tally. I found more chickadees, a few more white-breasted nuthatches, and some mourning doves.

Toward the end of the day, I decided to return to the dam, but still . . . stillness in the bird world despite all the sound and movement.

And ice-encrusted needles that looked so featherlike.

By 4pm the CBC had drawn to a close and our offerings seemed so skimpy. I was almost embarrassed to turn in the form, only to discover that most of the other birders in the Sweden Circle had had a similar experience. The Denmark and Fryeburg sections had the most sightings to report, but all in all, the numbers were down significantly. A few of us gathered around Jean’s table to compute the final numbers and wonder why they were so low. Too cold in November? When the snow and cold snap occurred early, did the birds fly elsewhere? Was there not enough food this season? One among us has spent the last few weeks joining the CBC in various locations around Maine, and he said that our experience was not unique.

Despite that, Juli, Caleb, Ellie, and I finished up the day smiling because we had seen an eagle. And today was Juli’s birthday–so it was certainly a wonder-filled present for her on this year’s Christmas Bird Count. Happy Bird-day, Juli!

Book of November: Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England

All month I’ve been thinking about which book to recommend and then a recent purchase came to the forefront. Finally. It’s a good thing given that this is the last day of November. 

Here’s the scoop: I was scanning book titles at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Bookstore and happened upon Kaufman’s Field Guide to Nature of New England. Since I already had National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England on my bookshelf, I wasn’t sure I needed Kaufman’s guide. But my friend Karen Herold highly recommended it and said she preferred it to the other book. I’m am hear to state that I wholeheartedly agree. 

Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England was written by husband/wife team Kenn Kaufman and Kimberly Kaufman. Both are naturalists extraordinaire, he being the author of other field guides (which I don’t yet own) and she the executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio. 

The Kaufmans have color coded each section of the 7.75 X 4.75-inch book, making for easy reference. And though it’s a wee bit heavy (no heavier than the other book), it fits easily into the small pack I carry for explorations of the natural world. Of course, David Brown’s Trackards, accompany it. 

Speaking of tracks, the Kaufmans do offer a few identifying features of such, but they also recommend two other sources: the Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks and Paul Rezendes’ Tracks and the Art of Seeing.  I highly recommend both as well,

plus Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder,

which just happens to include me in the acknowledgements. But . . . 

my go-to guide in the field remains David Brown’s Trackards

Back to the Kaufman guide: I wish I’d had it with me this past summer when I encountered sulphur butterflies puddling on a dirt road in the western Maine town of Fryeburg. First off, the section on butterflies and moths begins with an explanation of their life cycles and the differences between the two, including an illustration of their antennae. 

In addition, a feature I really like is the view of the upper and underside of the wings since . . . 

 some butterflies “keep their wings tightly closed above their backs when at rest, 

showing their bright undersides mainly in flight,” state the Kaufmans on page 302. 

I could have fluctuated between Clouded Sulphur and Pink-edged Sulphur in my determination, but the description on page 302 reminded me that the latter prefers bogs and blueberry barrens and I was standing in the midst of a farm where milkweed, other wildflowers and hay grew. The other thing that supported my attempt at ID was that though my butterflies did have  pink-edged wings, the dots matched those of the Clouded in the book. 

And since it is now winter, the guide will be handy to pull out when showing others what a critter looks like–especially if we have the joy of spying one. 

Occasionally that happens, such as on one occasion last winter when a few of us saw this mink. Please forgive the fuzziness–a result of my excitement. 

And had I purchased the book sooner, I could have pulled it out as two friends and I watched an otter frolic in early summer. 

But . . . now I have it and it is the perfect addition to my pack, whether for solo hikes or with others when we question what we’re seeing. 

I think one of the things that I really appreciate about this book is the voice of the authors, which echoes my own thoughts. (And their sweet dedications to each other on page 4.)

In the introduction, Kenn writes, “Once a person goes outdoors with senses attuned to nature, the sheer diversity of living things is both delightful and maddening, both reassuring and overwhelming.” Just this morning, Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association, and I exchanged an email conversation about the very same thought and gave thanks that we still have so much to learn. 

Kaufman continues, “If we try to look at everything in nature, we find so many things that we never get past the edge of the parking lot.” I chuckled when I read that because my peeps and I have said the same thing, whether I’m tramping with the docents of the Greater Lovell Land Trust or a group of Maine Master Naturalists

Does the book cover every single species to be discovered in New England? That would be impossible–or at least too heavy to tote along on a tramp. “Our intent has been to cover those things that people are most likely to notice, so we have exercised a bias toward the most conspicuous plants and animals.” With that in mind, my suggestion: purchase Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England and throw it into your pack. Then purchase any other guide books and refer to them when you get home. 

Book of November: Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England by Kenn Kaufman & Kimberly Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Twig and Bud Primer of western Maine

Some people collect salt and pepper shakers, others small figurines or coins or stamps or antique cars or beer caps or . . . TWIGS! Yep, I would fall into the latter category and because I used them last week to teach a class, I thought I’d also share them with you.

If you stop reading right now, I understand. If you choose to continue, please know that some of what you read I’ve learned from the Maine Master Naturalist course, which first opened my eyes to twigs and buds; some from a variety of books on the subject; and lots from personal observation. You may not always agree with me, but I strongly encourage you to step outdoors and take a look. Keep track of your observations and begin to note idiosyncrasies.  But do remember this: nature hasn’t read the books and doesn’t always follow the rules we’ve insisted upon as we try to make sense of the world around us. 

Next year’s flower and leaf buds formed this past summer and overwinter inside bud scales, which are actually modified leaves. Most scales, such as this one, provide protection with a waxy coating. (Species: Norway Maple, Acer platanoides)

Terminal buds are  located at the tips of most twigs. When that bud forms, the tree ceases to grow for the year. At the base of the terminal bud is a leaf scar where a former leaf stem was attached to the twig. And within the leaf scar are little corky dots called bundle scars that were actually the vascular tissue that had connected the leaf to the twig. Think veins. The shape of the leaf scar and number of bundle scars can be used as an identifying mark since they are often consistent across a species. (Species: White Ash, Fraximus americana)

Leaf scars come in a variety of shapes, including monkey faces topped with hairy caps. (Species: Butternut, Juglans cinera)

Others may be shield shaped, though you could also see a bit of a funny face in this one. (Species: Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata)

And there are those that nearly encircle the bud. (Species: Staghorn Sumac, Rhus hirta)

Some twigs feature a false terminal bud. In reality, it was a lateral or side bud that took the position of the terminal bud. On twigs that don’t have actual terminal buds, such as American Elm and Basswood, the wood kept growing until the tree could no longer supply it with nutrients or something else impeded its growth. The twig then died back to the last terminal bud and dropped off. (Species: American Elm, Ulmus americana)

On those twigs with a false terminal bud, a branch scar was left behind when the woody structure broke off. The branch scar is located . . . 

opposite the leaf scar, which contains bundle scars. (The branch scar does not have bundle scars.) (Species: American Basswood, Tilia americana)

Below the terminal or false terminal buds are lateral buds, those which grow on the side of the twig. Their orientation may be opposite, such as this example. (Species: Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum)

Others are alternate. The cool thing about this example is that the alternate buds are also appressed, meaning they grow flat to the twig; and they are one scaled (well, actually two scales fused together as one). (Species: Willow, Salix spp.)

Alternate appressed buds may grow far apart or quite close to each other such as with this particular tree and its globous buds. (Species: Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides)

Others are divergent and stick out away from their twig. (Species: American Beech, Fagus grandifolia)

Then there’s the pith. I just like saying that word–pith, pith, pith. Pith is the soft central core or interior of the twig. It comes in a variety of patterns including round, triangular and star-shaped such as is illustrated here. (Species: Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides)

In some species, its shape is best viewed in cross-section by halving the twig lengthwise with a sharp knife. Diaphragmed pith, solid with partitions, can be seen in Black Gum, which I didn’t find. But this example is chambered pith, which is hollow with partitions. (Species: Butternut, Juglans cinerea)

Another fun characteristic that aids in identification is the occurrence of catkins on members of the birch family. (Note: Betulaceae, the birch family, includes six genera of deciduous nut-bearing trees and shrubs: the birches, alders, hazels, hornbeams, hazel-hornbeam, and hop-hornbeams.) (Species: Speckled Alder, Alnus incana ssp.rugosa) Speckled Alder is really a shrub, but don’t tell it that. 

Another fun thing to point out are the growth rings on twigs. We often think of aging a tree by counting the rings from the heartwood out to the bark, but . . . twigs have rings of their own. They’re a bit raised and wrinkled in presentation, but each cluster of rings indicates where that year’s leaf and flower buds had formed, developed, and released their seeds. After that, the twig continued to grow. The same will develop once the current buds complete their cycle. (Species: Striped Maple, Acer pensylvanicum)

If you’ve stuck with me, know that the end is in sight. I’d like to conclude this post with examples of some of my favorite trees found in the western Maine woods. I’ll begin with those deciduous trees with alternate buds. This particular twig is in a family that features catkins. It has several cousins so it’s worth getting to know a few of them. Notice the hairy twig, but not so hairy and rather pointed buds. Buds on older branches grow on stacked scars, which I’ll share an example of in a minute. If you were to squeeze these buds, they’d be sticky. Those are all great clues, and here’s one more. The tree’s bark is white and it curls away from the tree in rather big sheets. 

Did you guess correctly? 

Here’s a cousin and that example of stacked scars with the bud at the end that I promised. Notice the lack of hair? The clues for this species: scrape the bark on the twig and sniff it. Does it smell like wintergreen? And the bark on the trunk–does it peel away like ribbons? (Species: Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis)

And another member of the Betula family. This one is an early succession tree, meaning it grows quickly in fields and along roads that have been disturbed. But it is also the shortest lived of the family and doesn’t reach an old age in tree years (Yellow Birch can grow to be about 250 years and Paper Birch about 150). This species is lucky if it reaches its 90th birthday. Though you can’t see it here, the twig isn’t hairy, but it is quite bumpy or warty. And it doesn’t have a wintergreen odor if scratched. Also, the bud isn’t sticky. Though only one catkin is shown here, it could have two, while Paper Birch has three and Yellow three or four. Who is this? 

I’m sure you guessed it. 

Another of alternate twig and bud orientation, this particular bud is often described as a cigar. I’m not sure that works for me–maybe as it expands a bit in the spring, but the multiple overlapping scales and pointed tip make it seem obvious as its different from all other presentations. Plus, its leaves are marcescent, meaning they wither or remain on many younger trees throughout the winter. Actually, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking a mammal is moving nearby for in a slight breeze the marcescent leaves rattle. I’ll admit I’ve jumped a few times. Back to the buds–the other thing to note is that like a New York Fern, it tapers at both ends (maybe they, too, keep their lights on at both ends of the day). Who is this? 

Bingo! You are on a roll! I should define lenticel at this point. Those raised white dots on the twig are the lenticels, which are the pores that provide openings for air-gas exchange. 

We haven’t talked about the fact that some twigs have buds crowded at the tip. In this particular case, I think of them as a crown. 

This cousin also wears a crown. So, what are their differences? The first is more conical and shinier than the second. And look at their colors. Number 1 comes in shades of chestnut brown, while number 2 is much darker and almost reddish brown in tone. You’d have to look carefully to see the silky hairs at the pointed tip of number 1, but trust me that they are there. Number 2 is hairless and blunt. 

This is number 1. Did you guess that correctly? And number 2 is . . . White Oak, Quercus alba

Now it’s on to trees with opposite orientation. And if you think you’re seeing double, you are! I used this photograph at the start. But now, let’s compare this twig to that of a cousin. 

Can you see the fuzz on this one? And no fuzz on the one above? Also, notice in the first one the notched leaf scar. The second is not deeply notched. Who are they? 

Two of the three ashes that grow locally. Identifying White and Green Ash, as they are respectively, is never easy, but the hairs or lack of, and the shape of the leaf scars are the key elements. 

And finally, two members of probably everyone’s favorite fall trees. Notice the lateral buds are arranged on opposite sides. The buds and branch are purplish brown. On the twig, the buff colored lenticels practically jump out. The bud is a tad bit hairy and sharp pointed. Do you see the leaf scar bundles? How many? I hope you counted three. And who might this be? 

You are almost done. Only one last twig to examine. 

This one is probably Maine’s signature tree when it comes to fall foliage. And of all the members of the Maple family, this is the most abundant species. So, remember the crowded buds on the Oaks? Well, this twig also sometimes wears a crown. But, the terminal bud is wedged between two opposite lateral buds. And the color–red, because there’s always something red on this tree. Hint. Hint. If that didn’t give it away, this will . . . 

I love Red Maple. If you haven’t done so, follow the progression of its buds and I hope you’ll be wowed when it flowers next spring. Until I looked, I never noticed its dainty flowers. Now, I can’t not look. 

If you’ve stayed with me thus far, congratulations. You deserve an award. Or at least a hearty THANK YOU!   

 There’s more, but I’ll let the bigwigs handle that. I just learned of a new book about trees that I plan to purchase soon entitled Woody Plants of the Northern Forest: A Photographic Guide by Jerry Jenkins. Thanks to fellow naturalist Anita Smith for the recommendation. I can’t wait to add it to my bookshelf. 

Who knew there could be so many idiosyncrasies? After all, aren’t they all just twigs and buds? Ah, the wonder. 

I hope you’ll refer to this primer periodically as you gain a better understanding of twig morphology. And share it with your friends 😉