“A Perpetual Astonishment”

It was actually still winter when I joined Lakes Environmental Association’s Education Director Alanna Doughty and LEA member Betty for a “Welcome Spring” snowshoe hike at Holt Pond Preserve this afternoon–but really, for western Maine, it was a delightful spring day.

Our hearts smiled as our journey began beside a clump of pussy willow shrubs, so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws. Actually, the white nubs are flowers pre-bloom. Their soft, silvery coating of hairs provides insulation thus protecting these early bloomers from cold temperatures.

That being said, they aren’t protected from everything and if you look, you may see pineapples growing on some. Those pinecone-like structures were created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows. It’s a crazy world and everything seems to have its place.

Hanging out with the pussy willows were speckled alders, some with protrusions extending from last year’s cones. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were alder tongue galls–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. I’ve yet to see it in its early form but time will tell.

We passed a spider walking across the snow and then came upon another member of the lilliputian world–a winter stonefly on the move. How they and the spiders survive the cold and snow is dependent upon special compounds including glycerol, proteins, and sugars that act like antifreeze. By its presence, we knew we were approaching a fast-moving stream.

More evidence of the stream’s presence became immediately apparent when we moved from the field to woods and immediately spied a sign of beaver works.

Stepping down beside the Muddy River, we began to see beaver tree after beaver tree. Each a most recent work.

Alanna stood upon an old dam, but though it was obvious they’d crossed over it by the well traveled trail of tracks, repair work was not yet part of the scheme for the water flowed forth.

We stood there for a few minutes and tried to understand what they had in mind, when one in our group spied the beaver chews in the water–their snack of choice.

We wondered if they were active downstream or up, and decided to follow the trail north.

A few minutes later, we came upon another trail well-traveled and knew that they’d been working in the vicinity.

In the brook, covered with spring ice, which features a different texture than the frozen structures of winter, was a small tree.

And then our eyes followed the beavers’ tracks back and we saw from whence it had been sawn.


And dragged through the snow. In our minds’ eyes we appreciated their efforts.

Still, we didn’t know what the beavers were up to, so we moved on in hopes of learning more about their activities. All the while, there were other things to notice, like the orange brain fungus growing on the inside of a stump. We weren’t the only ones to appreciate it for snowfleas, aka spring tails, also searched the surface.


Since we were beside the river, it might have made sense that we checked out the beaver works via canoe, but . . . the snow is slowly melting and it will be a while before we need to bring our own paddles, personal flotation devices and duct tape (just in case the canoe springs a leak).

From the boat launch we followed the secret trail and made our way out to the red maple swamp.

In a sunny spot we spied a swab of earth–a taste of what is to come. And the ever delightful wintergreen offering the first shade of spring green with a dash of spring pink.

Slowly we made our way back out to the Muddy River, where we stood and looked across at two beaver lodges on the other side. We didn’t dare cross, but from where we stood, it appeared that the lodges may be active given that we could see the vents at the top. It also appeared that they’d been visited, though we weren’t sure if the tracks were created by predators. Was this where the beavers who had been so active downstream were living? Or were these the homes of their parents? Were the new beaver works those of the two year olds who had recently been sent out into the world to make their own way? Our brains wondered and wondered?

We weren’t sure, but with questions in our mind, we moved on toward Holt Pond.

There were other things to see as we walked across the wetland, including the woody structures of maleberry capsules and their bright red buds.

Rhodora, that delightful pink beauty showed us that she’s waiting in wings.

As we made our way back, more wood chips on the ground indicated that a carver of another type had been at work–of the bird type rather than rodent.

To identify it, we looked not only at the shape of the chiseled structure, but also the scat we found among the chips.

Because it was filled with the body parts of carpenter ants and we knew its creator’s name–pileated woodpecker.

And then we found an insect of another type. Why was a hickory tussock caterpillar frozen to a twig? Was it shed skin from last fall? How did the structure last throughout the winter? We left with questions, but gave thanks for the opportunity Alanna provided to share the afternoon wandering and exploring and thinking and looking forward–to spring.

In the midst of our wandering, we did discover a fairy house and suspect that tonight some wild dance moves are on display under the Super Equinox Worm Moon.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.”

British Author Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plume, Ellis Peters (1913-1995)

Change of Pace Mondate

Every once in a while salt air sends a subtle invite through the breeze and we RSVP with this: We’re on our way. We’ll be there in an hour or so.

It took a bit longer than an hour today, but finally we arrived, parked where we weren’t permitted, and followed the path.

Low tide greeted us with all the beach’s layers revealed.

Streamlets flowed forth from our feet to the ocean beyond.

Rounded driftwood carved impressions in the sand.

Waves broke with gentle crests as the tide rolled out.

Water created trees accented with driftwood leaves.

Colors summoned dune-like illusions with visions of water serving as potential mirages.

And then we found a set of tracks.

They led to and danced around a clean plate.

And a diner who celebrated with a song all his own.

There were others, their feathers all a’flutter.

And a few released that showed the pattern of their minute barbs.

My guy and I, though we weren’t the only people on the beach, for stretches felt as if we had the world to ourselves.

While we walked, he paused occasionally to gather some golf balls. (Note: If he tries to sell you one, sniff it first. If it smells like salt, you may want to reconsider–unless it will help your game, of course.)

My souvenir was a link to my mother, who would have collected the same and this piece of seaglass will find a home with those she and I both gathered.

At last, we reached our turn-around point–at the jetty beside the Saco River’s outlet. We know the northern part of the river intimately, but where the brackish water forms as freshwater joins salt, our understanding is less familiar.

It’s been a while since we’ve actually celebrated a Mondate, so it certainly seemed apropos to find a heart in the sand. And to follow my father’s advice long ago to fill the innermost recesses of our lungs with salt air. We did so.

As we enjoyed a change of pace and a change of scenery.

Framed by the Trees

Our journey took us off the beaten path today as we climbed over a snowbank at the end of Farrington Pond Road and onto the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge East. We began at a piece of the parcel neither Pam Marshall or I had ever explored before, which added to the fun. At first, we followed the tracks of a giant, and eventually decided they might have belonged to another human being. Might have. Always wonder.

And then we were stopped in our tracks as we looked up and recognized a Great Blue Heron–or so it seemed in the dead snag that towered over the edge of Farrington Pond. Except for one tiny area of water, the pond is still very much ice covered so it will be a while before this ancestor of the Greats sees her relatives return.

Standing beside the bird-like structure was another that helped us find beauty and life in death.

We peered in, and down, and up, and all around. With each glance, our understandings increased. So did our questions.

There were holes that became windows looking out to the forest beyond.

But those same windows helped us realize they were framed by the results of their injuries. You see, it appeared that a pileated woodpecker had dined on the many insects who had mined the inner workings of the tree. After being so wounded by the birds, the tree attempted to heal its scars as evidenced by the thick growth ring structure that surrounded each hole. Or at least, that’s what we think happened.

To back up our story, we looked from the outside in and saw the same.

We also noted the corky bark with its diamond shapes formed where one chunk met another.

And much to our surprise, we found one compound leaf still dangling. No, this is not a marcescent tree, one of those known to hold its withering leaves to the end of time (or beginning of the next leaf year). But instead, this old sage is one of the first to drop its leaves. So why did one outlast the race? Perhaps to provide a lesson about leaves and leaflets, the latter being the components of the compound structure.

Adding to the identification, we realized we were treated to several saplings growing at the base of the one dying above. By its bud shape and opposite orientation we named it Ash. By its notched leaf scars and lack of hairs, we named it White. White Ash.

Because we were looking, Pam also found a sign of life within. We suspected a caterpillar had taken advantage of the sheltered location, but didn’t know which one.

About simultaneously, our research once we arrived at our respective homes, suggested a hickory tussock moth. Can you see the black setae within the hair?

Pam took the research one step further and sent this: “I read that the female lays eggs on top of the cocoon and then makes a kind of foam that hardens over them so they can survive the winter. How cool is that?” Wicked Cool, Indeed!

We probably spent close to an hour with that tree, getting to know it from every possible angle.

And then it was time to stop looking through the window and to instead step into the great beyond.

We did just that, and found another set of mammal tracks to follow. Tracking conditions were hardly ideal and we followed the set for a long way, never quite deciding if it was a fisher or a bobcat, or one animal traveling one way and another the opposite but within the same path.

Eventually, we gave up on the shifty mammal and made our way into the upland portion of the property where I knew a bear claw tree stood. Pam’s task was to locate it and so she set off, checking all the beech trees in the forest.

Bingo! Her bear paw tree eyes were formed.

It was a beauty of a specimen that reminded us of all the wonders of this place.

From that tree, we continued off-trail, zigzagging from tree to tree, but never found another. That doesn’t mean we visited every tree in the refuge and so we’ll just have to return and look some more.

We did, however, find some scratch marks on a paper birch.

They were too close together to have been created by even a young bear, but we did consider squirrel. Wiping off the rosy-white chalk that coated the bark, we did find actual scrapes below. Now we’ll have to remember to check that tree again in a year or so and see what we might see.

What we finally saw before making our best bee-line out (don’t worry, our Nature Distraction Disorder still slowed us down) was the view of Sucker Brook and the mountains beyond.

At last we pulled ourselves away, but gave great thanks for that ash tree that framed our day and our focus and for all that we saw within it and beyond.

Seeking Change

I wasn’t going to pre-hike Loon Echo Land Trust’s Bald Pate Mountain Preserve in South Bridgton today to prep for a climb there tomorrow because I figured there wasn’t really much to see except the snow. But, at the last minute, it felt like the right thing to do.

And, of course, it was. As I headed up the Bob Chase Trail, so named for the man who was the driving force behind the land trust, and its public face for fifteen years, I noted those who’d passed through the woods at some point within the last couple of days, including snowshoe hare, foxes and coyotes. Oh, and domestic dogs a many.

There were the views to admire as well, including this one from three quarters of the way up, where Mount Washington sits in the saddle of Pleasant Mountain.

The fun thing about a telephoto lens is that one can bring those distant peaks into view. Doesn’t the cellphone tower roadway up Pleasant Mountain make it look like you could walk directly onto Mount Washington? And can you see the weather station at the top of Mt Wash?

It doesn’t take long to reach the summit of Bald Pate where the view encompasses Hancock Pond in Denmark (Maine) and I was beginning to wonder what I might share as signs of spring, since despite the frigid temps and snow depth, we are on the cusp. Drive down any western Maine road and you can bear witness to that. The frost heaves and potholes have made themselves known for the past several weeks.

But, then I looked up–at the leaning Pitch Pine beside the Eastern White Pine.

And there was my answer! Pitch Pine cones take two years to mature and upon the tip of each scale is a pointed and curved prickle.

They open gradually but depend upon fire for their seeds cannot be released until they are heated to an extremely high temperature.

That being said, this is the only native pine that will resprout when damaged.

While the cones of the Eastern White Pine where almost nowhere to be seen, on a Pitch Pine they may remain for 10 – 12 years.

The needles are bundled in packets of three–making it easy to remember its name: Pitch–three strikes you’re out!

Another easy way to identify Pitch Pine is to look for needles growing right out of the bark–both on the trunk and branches.

I always think of it as our bonsai tree for though it can stand straight and tall, on mountain tops it takes on a contorted structure. The “pitch” in its name refers to its high resin content, thus making it rot resistant.

Though not located at the summit, I hope I remember to share my favorite evergreen found on this property. Meet Jack Pine. It doesn’t typically grow in our area, but there are two along the trail and either they were planted or they came in on a skidder during a previous logging operation and planted themselves.

As I’ll surely share tomorrow, I love mnemonics and that’s what helps me remember the names of the various evergreens. You see, Jack Pine has bundles of two short needles: think Jack and Jill.

Its cones also take two years to mature and tend to be slender and curved.

I was thinking that with the three varieties of White, Pitch, and Jack, there must be a fourth and bingo–just as I returned to the parking lot I found it: a young Red Pine with its needles of two. (I used to think it had three for R-E-D, just as White has five for W-H-I-T-E or M-A-I-N-E for it’s our state tree, but I used to think incorrectly!)

It wasn’t just the pines, however, that drew my attention. The tree buds are swelling and suddenly quite noticeable. Each bud, like this beech, which may contain miniature leaves or flowers, is covered with scales, which in themselves are actually modified leaves.

By May those scales will curl back and eventually fall off as the leaf and or flowers emerge, but today I found a couple that decided to get a head start. It’s the same every year–there are always a few in the crowd who want to be first. Do they survive? One of these days I’ll mark one and check back on it.

I did see several beech buds that had curly topped heads, a site I’d not seen before. This will certainly be a point of discussion tomorrow as we try to solve the mystery.

And there was an oak that also wanted a head start. Perhaps it’s because they’re located on a mountain and closer to the sun?

Some of my favorite finds included the striped maple buds and their subtle spring colors.

And then I found red maple twigs on the ground. That, too, will become a subject of further research on our walk. I suspect I know why they were on the ground, but we’ll see what conclusions the participants draw.

And then, and then, because I was looking, I found a couple of other surprises. This one is the cocoon of a Polyphemus Moth. Check out how it wrapped itself in the leaf. And can you see the silky outer layer of the cocoon located within?

And another–a Promethea Moth. Its cocoon was attached to the branch by a strong peduncle or stem and it had incorporated the curled red oak leaf. Talk about camouflage–at first I thought it was just a marcescent leaf that had withered but not fallen yet.

Our tour will include other flyers as we’ll take a closer look at the tracks and wing marks in the snow and try to figure out what the story was behind them.

And speaking of stories–many a trail features such a sign left behind accidentally by a hiker who lost a bit of traction when the Yaktrax fell off. Any takers? This one has been on the stump for a while so I think it’s fair game if you need one.

Jon Evans of Loon Echo and I plan to take the group to the summit and then find our way to the Foster Pond Outlook, where the stone cairn that’s usually three or four feet tall is barely a memory right now.

About two hours after we start, we’ll lead the group out, and if the sun is shining much as it did today, the trees’ shadows will bridge the gap between winter and spring and help those who are seeking change bring it into focus.

I feel honored that Jon invited me to help him lead this one for it’s in conjunction with the Lake Region campaign called Bring Change 2 Mind. The group focuses on encouraging conversation and ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Our aim tomorrow will be to discuss and reflect on how time spent outdoors can encourage positive mental health and well-being.

It may be too late to sign up, but here are the details just in case: Hike for Mental Health.

Even if you can’t join us, I hope you’ll head outdoors and find the change you seek.

Neither Snow, Nor Freezing Rain, Nor Sleet . . .

Church was cancelled this morning and it seemed like the perfect day to stay inside, read the newspaper, complete the crossword puzzle, and keep an eye on the bird feeders.

And so I did. Among my feathered friends was a Tufted Titmouse that seemed to stand back and consider the offerings,

a Junco that chose the thistle,

and an Eastern Starling who made quick work of the suet. For those who aren’t fans of the Starling, this was the first of the season and actually four flew in today. I have to say I’m rather taken by their coloration.

Of course, not one to go unnoticed, a red squirrel came out of its tunnel below one of the feeders and looked about as if to say either, “Hey lady, where’d you hide the peanuts?” or “Hey lady, when are you going to come out and play?” I preferred to think it was the latter and so I headed out the door.

Because of the weather, I chose a baseball hat for headgear so the visor would keep the snow off my glasses. And then I did what I always do when wearing a baseball cap–I forgot to look up and bumped into the pergola. Boink.

But, the pain was momentary and so I continued on. Soon I realized I wasn’t the only one who had responded to the call to head outdoors. Quite often mammals leave behind sign that tells me who has passed by and I wasn’t disappointed for today I found signatures . . . of Eddie, Annie, Emma, and Veronica.

I wondered if I might find their creators. Was Eddie the mink that had slid and bounded just moments before and left fresh prints?

I followed his tracks in hopes of catching a glimpse and knew he’d passed under a fallen tree and traveled along a brook.

He’d also paused briefly beside an opening, but it appeared that rather than enter the water to forage as he could have done, he continued on. And so did I, meeting his tracks quite often, but never spying the mink that he was.

Any other tracks I spied were diluted by the precipitation, and so I turned my attention to the mushrooms that had donned their winter caps. From the false tinkerconk to . . .

the tinkerconk,

hemlock varnish shelf,

and red-belted polypore, all appeared to have shopped at the same hat boutique.

Traveling through these woods on such a day with not a soul about made me ever mindful of the transition taking place as snow gave way to freezing rain and then sleet.

But it didn’t bother the female mallard that flew in and landed right below me.

Nor did it bother me. In fact, I loved it. I know the advent of frost heaves and potholes along our roadways are signs that spring is around the corner and even today’s weather was an indicator, but I don’t want winter to end just yet.

Neither snow, nor freezing rain, nor sleet . . . can keep the squirrel or me from digging our way out of our tunnels.

Prehistoric Creatures of western Maine

I heard it before I saw it as I reached the summit of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Flat Hill this afternoon. The rhythmic tapping sounded as if a structure was being built and so I looked upward expecting to see a treehouse under construction. Scanning all the trees in the mixed forest, I saw only their crowns.

And then I smartened up and looked at the snow. Bingo! Fresh debris atop this week’s layers of snow from two storms and I had a better idea of the construction worker’s location.

Sure enough, high up in a deteriorating yet live red oak stood the one with a crown all his own–brilliant red as it was in the afternoon sun. By the red mustache on its cheeks, I knew the pileated woodpecker was a he. Call him either PILL-ee-ated or PIE-lee-ated; the word means “crested.”

Sometimes, when these birds are intent on their work, I find I’m able to quietly move in a wee bit closer. Mind you, he was up quite high (at least 25 feet above me) and there were other trees between us. I hoped if he was aware of me that he knew I meant no harm. I just wanted to observe.

And so I did for a good while. Check out that chisel-like bill.

In a seemingly effortless manner, he pounded away. Did you know that a pileated can peck up to 12,000 times a day? Not all on the same tree, of course.

Thank goodness for extra-dense neck muscles and a compressible skull bone. Between hammering, this guy paused periodically. To admire his work? To check on the food supply? Or just to take a break?

Can you see one of his four-toed talons grip the edge of the excavation site?

One cool thing about woodpeckers is how they use their tail feathers for support–as if the third leg on a three-legged stool.

As I watched, I noted that Woody Woodpecker, a name I give all pileateds because their rattling call reminds me of the television cartoon I grew up with, kept digging a bit deeper.

And deeper still.

Then he’d take a break and turn his head away from the tree and I finally realized that the tree was at such an angle that to remove debris he needed to drop it below.

Eventually, he flew off and so I checked on the woodchips in hopes of finding scat filled with insect body parts. There was none. For all of his work gouging the oak, he didn’t seem to have found any carpenter ants or wood-boring beetles. Maybe that’s why he moved on. And so I did as well.

About halfway down the trail, I came upon a sight that might have delighted the woodpecker. I know I was thrilled.

Within a few feet I spotted a second one. They were snow scorpionflies. Much like the fact that Flat Hill isn’t actually flat, nor can the snow scorpionflies fly!

On his website “Bug of the Week,” entomologist Dr. Michael J. Raupp explains, “They belong to a small order of insects known as Mecoptera. The “scorpion” moniker derives from the fact that males in this group have unusually large and upward curving genitalia that resemble the stinger of a scorpion. The “fly” part of the name comes from the fact many species of Mecoptera have wings and can, well, fly.”

To fly and not to fly. Predator and prey. Despite their extreme differences, both finds today certainly struck me as being prehistoric creatures of western Maine.

Porcupine: Down Low, Up High

While the ground hog won’t see his shadow in Maine tomorrow because he’s a true hibernator, his rodent cousin the porcupine may have to serve as a stand in. And ’round these parts, there are plenty of stand ins available.

A couple of friends and I searched for one today. We had barely begun tramping when we recognized its telltale sign of discolored snow.

Truth be told, we knew the porcupine lived there, but weren’t sure how this past week’s snow storm had affected it. And so we journeyed closer to take a better look. The hole is actually an old bank burrow that had once belonged to a beaver. Porcupines are known to take advantage of such if it’s high and dry.

One of the things that always grabs my attention is the action of the animal as evidenced by its means of entry and departure. Standing there, I could envision it emerging from the hole, using its long claws to get a grip, turning to the left and then swaying to the right. The waddling motion of its hair and quill covered body adds a dimension to the story for if you look carefully you’ll see the wavy impression left behind.

Because its a frequent traveler from den to preferred trees, the entire body, that weighs anywhere from seven to forty pounds, can form quite a trough. Typically the trough is up to nine inches wide in the snow. Within those we saw today, recently cast prints showed the bumpy bottom surface of the foot pad and the five nail marks that extended across the front.

The mammal’s identification was further enhanced by other evidence–quills. The hollow structures were tipped with black barbs. Paul Rezendes, in his book Tracking and the Art of Seeing, states that “the porcupine’s scientific name [Erethizon dorsatum] can be loosely translated as ‘the animal with the irritating back.'” Indeed, many domesticate dogs and their owners would agree with that description.

Because we were on our hands and knees looking, we also noticed soft, wavy hair on the snow. A porcupine’s body is covered with at least 30,000 quills on its back, shoulders and the upper surface of its tail, but it’s not only those large stiff hairs that complete the animal’s coat. Their fur also includes fine hair found on the face, belly, and insides of its legs. In deep snow it’s easy to find the delicate hairs within the trough. Oh, and do you see the little yellow birch seed that looks like a teeny, tiny, brown insect?

We followed one of several troughs that led from the hole and kept looking up into the hemlocks in search of the critter. We never saw it, but we did see some recently nipped branches dangling from above.

Our search led us to a second hole that we’ve watched transform over the last couple of months. And again, we could see the action of the animal as portrayed in its journey.

We wondered about the tunnel from the wider opening in the woods to the smaller opening at the brook bank. Though both had seen recent action, we didn’t see any major amount of scat, which was a surprise. Then again, we didn’t climb in and search further. Perhaps it had moved toward the center of the tunnel during the storm.

Another sign of porcupine’s activity was the dribble of urine that marked the trail. That made me realize that I often refer to them as the pigpens of the woods for they scat and urinate with abandon, but . . . all mammals pee, some with more purpose than others.

We followed the porcupine’s pathways for a bit and noted that they led to the nearby hemlocks and beyond.

But as often happens, we were distracted and stepped back out onto the brook where we followed deer tracks for a while.

Eventually, our curiosity about the porcupine gave us a reason to get out of the wind and we headed back into the woods, where we soon discovered another one of its trails. Curiously, the porky had ventured out toward the frozen, snow-covered brook, but turned and retraced its steps. Why?

Perhaps it smelled a coyote in the area. A porcupine has poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. And coyotes will go after a porcupine, but they prefers other food sources. Fishers are the porcupines least favorite predator. A fisher will grab the porcupine by the nose. Once it dies, the fisher will flip it and expose the stomach. Remember that the stomach is covered with that soft wavy hair–and therefore unprotected.

The coyote didn’t appear to go near the porcupine. Our porcupine study, however, led us to what was probably a bear bait barrel. With no bears to worry about at this time of year, the barrel had been repurposed as evidenced by the tracks that led into and out of it.

And the pile of comma-shaped scat within. Was this where our porcupine weathered out the latest storm? It certainly got me thinking about those two holes to the beaver burrow and how the porcupine must have had to plow the snow out with its body. The barrel was a much better choice. And with the scat as an insulator, what a great place to wait out a winter storm.

Not far away, but perhaps with more luxurious digs, either a mate, or relative had apparently set up home under a barn.

While the porcupine by the brook traveled between an underground tunnel and a barrel buried in the snow, the one up the road preferred the high road. Wouldn’t you like to be there to witness its journey? I know I would.

Porcupine: down low, up high–worth a wandering wonder.