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.

Perley Pond Preserve Presents

I love to learn and today’s presence offered such as I explored Loon Echo Land Trust’s Perley Pond/Northwest River Preserve in Sebago. I’ll be leading a hike there this Saturday, so if you are so inclined, I hope you’ll come along. But if you can’t, then please read on. (Note: Jon Evans, Stewardship Manager for LELT will be with me on Saturday, and he’ll have so much more to offer about the lay of the land, which was acquired by the trust in 2014. Today marked my first visit to this property.)

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There are three entry points along Folly Road and I began my reconnaissance mission at the first, where I didn’t get far due to a stream not quite frozen, but still found plenty to examine.

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Evening Primrose stood at alert in the field just off the road. Tall in stature, its distinctive seed pods peeled back in four parts and small seeds looked like fresh ground pepper on the snow.

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Black-eyed Susans also decorated this space, some leaning over to share their offerings. The hairy bracts and gumdrop shape made these easy to spot.

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One of my favorite finds in the first section of the property–the hairy twig, catkin, leaf and bud of a Beaked Hazelnut. Just last week I saw the same, well, minus the catkins, in Lovell. And knowing that certain leaves are marcescent, e.g. remain attached to the stem throughout some or most of the winter like oak, witch hazel and especially beech, I was thrown off by this other type. It had me thinking birch and well it should have because Beaked Hazelnut is a member of the birch family. But #1, though a hairy twig like Yellow and Paper Birch, the leaf base wasn’t right for either, and #2, I didn’t recall ever seeing these leaves still dangling in later fall/early winter. The trees taught me a lesson today–the most perfect of gifts–a few Beaked Hazelnut leaves continued to dangle, though most were turning quite dark in hue and I suspected will fall soon, and, I found Gray Birch leaves also clinging. Just when I thought I knew everything, nature proved there’s more to learn. So the gift was a reminder to pay more attention.

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I left that section and walked down the road to a spot where a chain prevents vehicles from entering the old log landing. It certainly didn’t stop the deer who had danced in the night.

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As I moved through the landing, I paused to admire another dancer as witnessed in the fluid movement of Sweet-fern.

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Like the Beaked Hazelnut, its catkins were wrapped gifts that spoke to the future.

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Also in this space, a few willows with their own little packages.

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The willow pine cone gall was created in the summer by a gall gnat midge. The larva stage secreted a substance on the stem that caused the willow to go into overdrive–resulting in a multi-layered chamber composed of hardened material that would have been leaves, but alas, the stem growth was arrested. Inside that hairy structure resides the wintering larva, nice and snug for the winter. It will metamorphose into a gnat when warm weather arrives.

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As I walked along I noticed Christmas tree patterns among the firs.

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It was a simple case of an upside-down look. Once flipped, in my brain anyway, the seasonal symbol was obvious.

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And the ornaments dangled–in the form of Big-toothed Aspen leaves and White Pine needles,

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Northern Camouflage Lichen,

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and shredded bark created by . . .

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a Pileated Woodpecker in search of food.

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I felt my good fortune to find a spot where a ruffed grouse had tunneled.

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And then I was stopped by a burl. Like a gall, this was created by insects.

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The tree of choice featured lower gnarly bark that resembled a Northern Red Oak.

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But a peek toward its crown revealed a birch–the two-fer one gift: Big-toothed Aspen.

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Its leaves, oh my, another  temporarily “marcescent” variety–showing off the big teeth for which it received its common name.

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Speaking of leaves, there were numerous renditions of White Oak–another dancer that seemed to freeze in motion.

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Here and there among the offerings, Red Pine. This particular one showed my love for it where a branch had broken off. Do you see the wee heart?

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While mature Red Pines feature bark that reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle, I found some younger trees, their structure speaking to geometry.

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Continuing on along the logging road, I wondered if perhaps I’d gone astray. Suddenly, I found myself in Piscataqua County–miles and miles from home. I knew I was in unknown territory, but was I really that far from home? More than my usual fake lost?  Or someone’s sense of humor?

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Maybe so. Certainly I was in the land of owl feet.

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And a tuckered coyote?

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It was at this point that I headed off trail, made easy by underbrush.

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Deer tracks led me to another wonder-filled gift.

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The wetland and Northwest River, one of the namesakes for this place.

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It was here that another lesson presented itself–the layered bark made me realize I was viewing Pitch Pine growing beside the bog. My understanding was that these grew on ledges or rocky outcrops. But here was one with wet feet. And so I later consulted Bogs and Fens by Ronald B. Davis (I highly encourage you to add this title to your Christmas wish list) and discovered that not only does it grow in dry woodlands, but also “in swamps and at the edges of fens and bogs.” (Additional note: Pitch Pine Bogs are listed as S2:  “Imperiled in Maine because of rarity (6-20 occurrences or few remaining individuals or acres) or because of other factors making it vulnerable to further decline”; thus another reason to give thanks to LELT for preserving this place)

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Pitch Pine needles present themselves in bundles of three–perfect for this time of year–ahhhh, the Trinity.

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Rhodora

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and Leatherleaf added to the winter ornamentation.

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In my attempts for “the perfect photo,” I broke through the ice several times. I’d been post-holing through about seven or eight inches of snow all afternoon sans snowshoes because it was quite easy to move about in the fluffy stuff, but when I reached the edge of the water, the snow had insulated the thin ice cover and . . .  crash, crackle, crunch, I sunk in to the top of my Boggs and even a wee bit over.

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On my way back down the logging road, I realized how my own tracks were much more varied than that of the deer who’d passed before me.

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And then I came to a boundary sign. Opps. Guess I went beyond the land trust’s property, though thankfully no signs deterred me from trespassing.

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And a wee bit further down Folly Road, I stopped at Perley Pond, part of the namesake for this property–and part of the reason for my presence for the presents presented.

Oaks On Parade

I know some towns and cities create “parades” of objects, such as the painted snowmen in North Conway, New Hampshire, or the painted bears that lined the streets of Belfast, Maine, a few years ago.

But this year, the northern red oaks are creating a parade of their own–all natural.

I have to assume that they’ve held the parade on an annual basis, but this is the first time I’ve stood along the route and paid attention.

Up until now, I’ve always thought of oak leaves as being green all summer long–which they are 🙂

green leaves on tree

And then, in my mind’s eye, they turned yellow-brown

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before falling to the ground, where they sported a completely brown coat.

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There seemed to be no redeeming value in these leathery leaves. And then I noticed that the tips of each lobe is bristly. And learned that they are marcescent, meaning some leaves, especially at lower levels, remain on trees throughout the winter. For most broad-leaf trees, the abscission layer that separates the leaf and its twig forms in the fall. Consequently, the leaf is shut off from its nutritious supplies and it drops to the ground. This layer doesn’t form fully in marcescent leaves. Why? Who knows, but it’s worth a wonder.

Here’s the other thing worth wondering about–their autumn display.

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If I didn’t know better, I’d swear these were maple trees, rather than a red oak beside a beech.

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Is it just this year, or have they always been decked out in such vivid colors?

side by side color variation

Side by side, there is variation.

full head of color

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They light up the sky

green, tan and brown make their own statements

and make their own statement in the array on the ground.

puddle leaf, splotches of color

Even in puddles, their glory shows forth.

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As the moon rises, they dance in the breeze. Day is done, but the parade isn’t over yet.

Oak leaves–worth a wonder.