Learning in the Forest

Today was field trip day. Well, actually, every day is field trip day. This week’s trips have included Kezar Lake and the Kezar River Reserve in Lovell, as well as Holt Pond in Bridgton. But today, it was further afield as I drove north to China, Maine, to introduce Erika Rowland, Executive Director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and Alanna Doughty, Education Director of Lakes Environmental Association to a special person and a special place.

The special place is one that allows children young and old to use natural materials to build faerie houses. I’ve been entranced by such since my youth–thanks be to my father and his Scottish ancestry, and our “Aunt” Betsy, (she isn’t related, but she’s always been a wonderful aunt) who often took us on a picnic to the fairy table in her woods.

Faeries (fairies) love quiet places and their homes come in many forms. They’re best made from scavenged materials. Imagination rules and nature provides all the things needed for such creative architecture.

This particular village is identified by a sign that provides a list of materials both appropriate and inappropriate.

A wee bit further along the trail, we happened upon another spot that hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s a collaborative effort between our hostess and last year’s fifth grade class.

The kiddos studied Maine mammals and then created a scavenger hunt. Erika, Alanna, and I continued to channel our inner kid and looked left, right, high, and low to spy the critters that share these woods. From coyotes to . . .

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

a moose, they were a pleasant surprise all along the way. If you have a smartphone available, you can learn more about them.

And if there are mammals, then there must be tracks.

We checked the gravely mammal “pit” and discovered pointed toenail prints leading us to think coyote. Had the silhouette come alive?

Continuing on, we came to an old log landing, where pine saplings happily inhabited the clearing. Our hostess, Anita, showed off the recent crazy growth years. Each year, a White Pine produces a whorl of branches, thus allowing one to age the tree by counting from one whorl to the next. And in between–well, the tree grows. Some years, the growth is extensive if conditions are right, such as this 18″ spurt one year and a similar one above the next.

A couple of trees, however, showed off the efforts of a White Pine Weevil. Brown, wilted main shoots (terminal leaders) featured tips curved into a shepherd’s crook. More on that later.

In the midst of all the pines, I was wowed by another tree with needles. It’s one that begs a handshake every time.

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

Even upon its trunk, the needles do splay . . . like an aster, but they won’t last long for a Tamarack (aka Larch, Hackmatack) is a deciduous conifer and already they are turning their golden autumnal color.

The Tamarack wasn’t the only star, for cedars also added a different texture to the woods.

And then . . . and then . . . we came upon the Treehouse. A handicap accessible treehouse.

It’s known as the Reading Tree, but it’s more than that, which the interpretive sign explains. Remember that White Pine Weevil damage we saw at the log landing? Well, the White Pine that the treehouse surrounds was a long-ago weeviled tree. When a pine is weeviled, the leader shoot dies and the whorl from the previous year take on the task of growing skyward.

The treehouse is built to accommodate its growth and let the sun in.

It also provides a fantastic place for all to blend in to its structure.

Of course, if you climb the tree, you might have to spend a bit of time in “Timeout.” But really, what a pleasure to do both.

We didn’t want to leave the treehouse behind and actually considered moving in, but onward our journey continued to a spot where the story transitions to mathematical computations. A cord of wood in the background, a chance to measure board feet in the foreground. It’s all a part of this special place, where classrooms abound . . . in the forest.

It didn’t stop there. A fence with cut-outs high and low let us peek at more local wildlife. Had we been with a class of twenty or more elementary school children, we surely would have scared the birds away. But . . .

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

At the end of the wall, the interpretive sign offers clues of those one might see.

Leaving the wall, as we walked toward a wetland, movement at our feet led to the realization that we’d disturbed two garter snakes trying to grasp the rays of today’s limited sun.

Onto a bridge originally built by students twenty plus years ago in the man-made wetland, we paused to covet the outdoor classroom.

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

And they were all possible because of our incredible hostess, Anita Smith. Anita is a retired teacher, Maine Master Naturalist, and Project Learning Tree Advocate.

Her community close to home appreciates her, but so do the rest of us for as I’ve learned, Anita is alway happy to share what she and others have created to educate all ages.

Before we drove back to western Maine, we had one last wonder to fill our day–the woody capsules of Lady’s Slippers gone by that grow in clumps like we typically don’t see anywhere else.

Thanks to Anita and all her volunteers, we spent today wandering the China School’s Working Forest in China, Maine, and loved exploring the twenty or so learning stations set up on the fifty-plus acre forest. Neither Greater Lovell Lovell Land Trust or Lakes Environmental Association can replicate the China School Forest, but our take-away was immense and we loved the opportunities to learn in the forest.

Wondering About My Feet

A fresh layer of snow makes my heart sing and I can’t resist any opportunity to look at footprints left behind by those who travel through it.

l-fox-path

And so early this morning I followed the trail of a fox who had walked in a straight line for the most part, with a wee diversion here and there, perhaps to sniff out possibilities.

l-logging-road

While the fox’s path continued northward, I decided to turn at the logging road and headed west, curious as to what stories might unfold.

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It was the papery calyx of Indian Tobacco to which my eye was next drawn. Its winter manifestation, both delicate and light, offered an ethereal image in a global manner.

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Often a solitary plant, I found it scattered along the path. And then, at one particular spot, I noticed something more than just its form and stature.

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This was the sight of coyote play. Several coyotes at play, in fact.

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And one, or maybe more than one, had peed on the Indian Tobacco. Curiously, Lobelia inflata, as it is known, is a poisonous annual–maybe the coyotes knew that. Or maybe it was just the right spot for one to claim familial rights.

l-log-landing

I’d arrived at the  log landing, that staging place to which logs are hauled, trimmed and loaded onto timber trucks. It’s also the perfect stage for all who dance in the night. In this case, I noted the tracks of at least four coyotes, presumably a family clan, who’d zigged and zagged as they crossed the landing.

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Sometimes they’d followed each other and then split apart.

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But over and over again, they came together, perhaps to play. And maybe it was also a rehearsal for future hunts, practicing yet again how to circle prey.

l-moose-prints

I turned around at this point, and as I headed back, I suddenly realized a moose had passed, though earlier than the coyote clan.

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And a snowshoe hare had also bounded through the scene previously.

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More in tune with the coyotes’ time frame, a ruffed grouse had left tracks, but I trust flew off without meeting its demise–yet.

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On my way back, with my eyes still drawn downward, I noticed other visitors. I suspect this was a carpenter ant.

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It was beside a rushing stream and its wings were folded. Had it taken a dip? It kept raising one leg at a time, as if uncertain of the snowy base upon which it walked.

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I found snow cutworms, the larval stage of a noctrid moth. They were less than an inch long, similar in size to a balsam fir needle and I’m not sure how I keyed into them, except that once I did, I noticed them again and again. How had I missed ever viewing these before, I wondered.

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Also quite minute, a tiny spider that posed beside my boot.

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Its hairy body seemed to suit the situation.

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But my favorite find of all, a much larger spider . . .

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complete with a translucent green head and legs, made lighter by the flash of my camera. Why, oh why, did it cross the snow? Perhaps it was a fishing spider? If you know, do tell.

What I know is that it was beautiful, brought a smile to my face, made my heart sing and was the perfect culmination of all that I had wondered about at my feet.

(P.S. Fellow Master Naturalist Alan Seamans shared this with me: ” The beautiful green spider is Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. The color of the abdomen is variable, sometimes with little red, other times with a lot of red like yours (doesn’t seem to be gender-related either). Normally their green color helps them camouflage amongst pine needles, their usual habitat, however it seems that they are frequently spotted in winter on snow for some reason! This species is common in the eastern US. Your specimen shows several i.d. characteristics: eight eyes in two sets of four parallel; long chelicerae (jaws), long legs with spines, and of course the beautiful green color. I will make a guess that it is a female because it lacks enlarged pedipalps? The genus is also called stretch spiders, ’cause that’s what they do! Stretch out those long legs so they look thin and blend in on pine needles and twigs.” Thank you, Alan.

And Rich Holschuh’s comment below.)

 

Preying Predators

weasel tracks

It took me many years to understand the patterns of mammal tracks. Sometimes they still confuse me, although as I often say, when I’m alone I’m 100% correct.

weasel 1

I noticed these weasel tracks when I was about to climb over a stone wall. One print is slightly behind the other, which is typical of the Mustelidae family.

weasel hole

And then I found this hole in the snow covering the stone wall. The weasel tracks led directly to it. A warm home? An entrance to life among the rocks? A weasel’s diet includes mice and other small rodents, e.g. squirrels and shrews. I know that red squirrels frequent the area and often use the tree on the left as a feeding site.

mouse tracks

Look what else I found by the stone wall. A mouse hole and tracks.

bounding deer

Continuing on, I came across the deep pattern of a deer that had bounded through the snow a couple of days ago. The afternoon light makes it difficult to see, but I put my trusty six-inch ruler down for perspective.

deer traffic light

I have to wonder if there is a traffic director who determines which way the deer should travel. This was one of many intersections.

coyote

And then I found coyote tracks. I was in snowshoe hare territory when I first noticed these. It had walked on snowshoe tracks I made previously. I remember years ago thinking when I found mammal tracks on mine that the predator was stalking me. Now I know better . . . I think. It’s taking advantage of the trail I’ve already packed so it doesn’t waste energy, especially in this deep snow. Animals will use the trails of other animals as well.

Now for a couple of fun photos.

snow face

A snow face. Looks rather like an ogre.

stump topper

Followed by a stump topper.

reflection

And then the sun’s subtle reflection silhouetting the red maples as I approached home.

Yet again, you’ve wondered along with me and I appreciate it.