A Labyrinth: Four Syllables

Cir-cu-i-tous
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Sacred journey.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Expanded view.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
See more clearly.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Know more deeply.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Stretch out the soul. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Trans-for-ma-tion. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Walk to wholeness. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Meant to be here. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Shape life's story. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
Life's metaphor. 
Breathe in. Breathe out. 
A labyrinth.
Cir-cu-i-tous.
Keep on breathing.

Insect Awe

I never intended to like insects. They weren’t really my thing. At all. And if I encountered one in the house, I’d either ask someone to smoosh it or do the dirty work myself, though sometimes that meant my hands clenched together until I got up the nerve.

But one day I began to look. I’m not even sure when that day was, but for quite a while now, it has become a daily habit.

What I am about to share with you are some finds from this past week. Some were new acquaintances while others were old friends I was meeting all over again.

For starters, I discovered this tiny, cylindrical structure on an oak leaf. Notice how it was right beside the main vein. I had to wonder, was the top rim also a vein, for so thick it appeared.

It’s my understanding that after creating the third role of the leaf, a single egg is laid. What triggers the insect to lay the egg then? Why not on the second role? And how many roles are there before the nest is completed?

What is this? A Leaf Roller Weevil nest, which is called a nidus.

In another place I spotted the first of what I suspect I’ll see repeatedly as spring gives way to summer. The wasp who built this global structure also used an oak leaf.

I’d love to see one of these being created and I am humbled not only by the perfectly round orb, but also the interior. This one happened to be split open so I could peek inside. The wasp used the leaf tissue to surround a single larva located at the center. Fibers radiating from that central larval capsule supported the exterior. How could it be that an insect could create such?

What is this? An Oak Apple Wasp Gall.

Standing with others beside water as we listened for and spotted birds, I noticed the largest insect remaining in one place for minutes on end as if suspended midair.

It’s rather scary looking, but that’s all an act for this impersonator likes to look like a wasp or bee in order to avoid becoming prey (think Batesian mimicry where something looks dangerous but is actually good).

In reality, despite its “fierce” presentation, it’s actually harmless. And beneficial. While it consumes nectar, honeydew and pollen, but doesn’t actually collect the latter like a bee, in the process of visiting a flower may get some pollen on its body and transfer the goods from that plant to the next.

But that controlled flying? You can see by the photo that the wings were moving, but with the naked eye it appeared motionless.

What is this? A Hover Fly.

I was standing about ten feet above a pond when I spied and first thought that these two insects were one. In fact, I was sure I was looking at the largest example of this species. And then I saw all the legs and realized something more was going on.

Indeed, a lot more was going on. She was on the bottom and as you can see, he had a tight clasp. Theirs is a mating habit that’s quite unique and if she doesn’t give in, it can go on for a couple of days. And might mean doom for her.

You see, she has a genital shield to guard against him if she doesn’t think he’s the man she wants. But, he has a counter behavior–he taps the water in a pattern that might lure predators such as fish. And since she’s beneath and closest to the fish’s mouth, it behooves her to submit quickly to his endearment.

What are these? Water Striders.

This next one was discovered when some young naturalists I was hanging out with lifted a rock upon a rock beside a brook. Burrowed in to the humus was a segmented insect.

In its larval form it would have had protective filaments, as well as gills to help it absorb dissolved oxygen. And a set of mean-looking mandibles. Ten to twelve times it would have molted before leaving the water and finding this moist environment under the rock upon a rock where it dug a cell within which it spent up to fourteen days before pupating. Under the same rock was the exoskeleton it had shed. In this next stage of life, it develops wings, legs, antennae and mouth parts. We covered it back up and I suspect that by now or very soon it will dig its way out of the cell and emerge as a winged adult.

What is it? A Dobsonfly Pupa.

One of my favorite finds was beside a river–and though I didn’t get to see it emerge from its exoskeleton, I did watch it pump some blood into its body and grow bigger and longer over the course of an hour or more.

Its cloudy wings needed time to dry out and lengthen, as did its abdomen. And eventually, its colors would help in a determination of its specific name, though I wasn’t there that long.

Just across a small inlet, another had also emerged and while it had almost reached maturity, it was still waiting for its wings to dry. Notice how in the previous photo, the wings are held upright over its back, but as demonstrated here, when they dry they extend outward. That’s actually a great way to differentiate these from their Odonata cousins who wear their wings straight over their abdomens.

Meet the cousin–the damselflies.

And now back to the others, who also begin life as aquatic insects that molt a bunch of times before becoming adults. When the time is right, they climb up vegetation and undergo an incredible metamorphosis as you saw above. Left behind as skeletons of their earlier life are the delicate structures that remain on the vegetation for quite a long time.

I’m always amazed when I discover one atop another, and as far as I know it’s all just a matter of this being a good spot to go through the change of life.

What are these? Cruiser Dragonfly Exuvia above a Darner.

Also recently emerged as indicated by the still cloudy wings (and fact that I saw the exoskeleton a few inches away) was another that wasn’t a damsel or a dragon. Instead, it has the longest and thinnest legs that look like they can hardly support the abdomen, but they do. In flight, people often mistake them for Mosquitoes, but if such, they’d have to be considered giant Mosquitoes.

As it turns out, however, they are not, nor do they bite. In fact, in their adult stage, which only lasts for ten to fifteen days, they do not eat. Anything. Their sole purpose at this stage of life is to mate.

What is this? A Crane Fly.

I have saved my favorite for last. Oh, I think they are all fascinating, but this one . . . oh my. Notice that needle-thin abdomen and the zebra-like appearance of those long, skinny legs. I think they have at least three joints which give each leg a zigzaggy appearance.

The legs become important as it flies through the air–or rather drifts. Or maybe swims would be a better verb to describe its movement. You see, each leg is hollow. And each foot (a teeny, tiny tarsomere) is filled with air. Crazy? Yes. As it lifts off, it spreads its legs, but barely moves its wings, and disappears into the vegetation beside the brook in a ghostly fashion.

I’m really not sure how I spotted it, but I’d never seen one before and then this past week twice it made its presence known and I felt honored for the meeting.

What is this? A Phantom Crane Fly. (And if you hear me say Phantom Midge while we’re walking together–feel free to correct me. It’s like birch and beech, and so many others–my mouth jumps before my brain kicks into gear.)

Insect Awe. Who knew I would ever experience such. I can only hope our paths cross again soon.

Nothing False About This Celebration

With a mission
to check upon
a heron rookery,
I invited
a friend
to join me.

The young’uns
sat upon their
nests of sticks
waiting for
the next meal
to arrive.

With the flap
of wings
slowed in rhythm,
landing gear
was extended
in the form
of long legs
and feet.
Within minutes,
a meal of fish
was regurgitated
and
passed
from
parent
to
child.
Because of 
our location
beside
a slow-flowing river,
many other sights
caught our
attention.
But it was one
with a
penchant for moisture
who stood
as tall
as my chin
that garnered
the most attention.
I've oft 
relished its
pleated leaves
of green,
their manner
that of the
lily family.
In a 
clasping formation,
they attach
to the main stem,
spirally arranged
from bottom
to top.
I've seen 
the plant often
in its leafy rendition,
but today
was the first time
its star-shaped flowers
atop the plant
revealed themselves.
With
petals and sepals
combined
as tepals,
my friend noted
their resemblance
to the leaves below.
The more we looked, 
the more we realized
there were others
who also
revered
such a unique structure,
in particular
the nectar-producing glands
at each flower's base.
The plant
took advantage,
or so it seemed,
of allowing those
who ventured
into its sweetness
with a dash,
or perhaps
a dollop,
of pollen
to pass on
for future reference.
Because of its location
in the moist habitat,
insects formerly aquatic,
such as
the Alderfly,
did walk
with sluggish movements.
Up its stout stalk
one rose,
the fuzzy structure
perhaps providing
it texture
upon which to climb.
Did it seek
the bright yellow anthers?
Or the nectar below?
With wings
delicately veined
and folded over
like a tent,
the Alderfly
paused
and hardly pondered
its next move.
The flower
mattered not
for this
weak flyer.
At last
it reached
the tip
of the
long, upright
inflorescence,
conical in form,
and I wondered:
would it pierce
the unopened flowers
for a bit
of nutrition?
Perhaps not,
for adults
of this species
have a need
more important
than eating.
Theirs is to
mate,
particularly at night.
Maybe it was
a he,
looking for a sight
to meet
a she.
As it 
turned out,
not all
who had
canoodling
on their minds
could wait
until the day
darkened
to
night.
Meanwhile,
there were others
who sought
the sweet satisfaction
of nectar
for their needs.
And in 
the process
of seeking,
tads of pollen
decorated
their backs,
in this case
where X
marks the spot.
It was 
a place
for many
to gather
and garner
including
Lady Beetles
of many colors.
And upon 
those pleated leaves,
were Mayflies
who had
lived out
their short lives,
and Craneflies
taking a break,
while showing off
their wings
reminiscent
of stained glass.
After such 
an up-close greeting
of the delicate flowers,
and recognizing
for the first time
their immense splendor,
June 15
will forevermore be
the day
to celebrate
False Hellebore.

Stop, Look, and Listen

I’m a wanderer both on and off trail, and sometimes the path has been macadamized. Such was my following this morning as I paused on the way home from running an errand in North Conway, New Hampshire.

I’d stuck to the backroads on my way out of state to avoid road construction on Route 302, but knew that upon my return I wanted to stretch my legs along the Mountain Division Trail in Fryeburg.

The delightful four-mile rail trail, so named for the railroad line it parallels, intended for walkers, runners, bikers, roller bladers, etc., extends from the Maine Visitors Center on Route 302 to the Eastern Slope Airport on Route 5 and can be accessed from either end or several points between.

The wind was blowing and the bug count low, so though it wasn’t a warm, sunny spring day, it was a purely enjoyable one. And the cheery cherry flowers enhanced the feeling.

All along the way, it seemed, the Red Maples had not only leafed out, but yesterday’s flowers had magically transformed into today’s samaras that dripped below like chandeliers.

Lovely tunes and chips were also part of the landscape and I have no idea if I’ve identified this species correctly, but I’m stepping out on a branch and calling it an Alder Flycatcher. I’m sure those who know better will correct me. The naming isn’t always necessary, however. Sometimes, it’s more important to appreciate the sighting, the coloration, and the sound. For this bird, it was the dull olive green on its back that caught my attention.

And then up above on the other side of the track, it was the “Cheery, Cheery, Cheerio” song that helped me locate the American Robin in another maple raining with seeds.

Maples weren’t the only trees showing off their flowers, and those on the Northern Red Oaks reminded me of grass hula skirts below Hawaiian-themed shirts.

Even the ordinary seemed extraordinary like the Dandelion. Each ray of sunshine was notched with five “teeth” representing a petal that formed a single floret. Fully open, the bloom was a composite of numerous florets.

Nearby, its cousin, the early blooming Coltsfoot, already had the future on its mind and little bits of fluff blew in the breeze.

Eventually, I reached Ward’s Pond and after scanning the water found a Painted Turtle seeking warmth. The day was overcast and there was a bit of a chill in the strong breeze. Being down below the trail, at least the turtle was out of the wind and I had to assume that the temperature was a bit higher than where I stood.

This is a trail that may look monotonous, but with every step there’s something different to see like a Pitch Pine showing off three generations of prickly cones. What was, is, and shall be all at the tip of the branch.

It seemed like every time I looked to the left, such as at the pine, a sound on the other side of the trail caught my attention. And so it was that I realized a White-tailed Deer was feeding on grasses behind a fence by a now-defunct factory (so defunct that the roof had collapsed under the weight of snow). Notice her ears.

And now look at her again. A deer’s ears are like radar and she can hone in on a sound by turning them.

I don’t know if she was listening to me or to the Eastern Towhee telling us to drink our tea.

After 2.5 miles, I decided to save the rest for another day and follow the path back. Though loop trips are fun, following the same path back brings new sights to mind, like the Interrupted Fern I’d walk past only a few minutes before. Notice its clump formation known in the fern world as vase-like.

And the butterfly wings of its interrupting leaflets covered with sporangia. My wonder came with the realization that within the interruption not all of the pinnules or subleaflets were covered with the bead-like shapes of fertility. Spores stored within essentially perform the same function as a seed: reproduce and perpetuate the species. So–is part of the pinnule fertile while the rest remains sterile? Do I need to check back? Oh drats, another trip to make along the Mountain Division Trail. Any excuse to revisit it works for me, though one hardly needs an excuse.

Further along I looked to the other side of the tracks for I’d spotted bird movement. Behind it was the reason–my White-tailed Deer friend. I have a feeling people feed it for it seemed not at all disturbed by my presence, unlike the ones in our yard and the field beyond that hear my every move within the house even in the middle of winter and are easily spooked.

The deer, however, wasn’t the only wildlife on or near the trail. Suddenly, a Red Fox appeared and we each considered the other. He blinked first during our stare down and trotted away.

Passing by Ward’s Pond once again, I stopped to check on the turtle. It was still in the same spot I’d seen it probably a half hour before.

Not far from the visitors center, a Big-Toothed Aspens chose to be examined for the soft downy feel as well as color of its leaves. The various hues of color in leaves during spring is caused by the presence of pigments called anthocyanins or carbohydrates that are dissolved in the cell sap and mask the chlorophyll. As the temperature rises and light intensity increases, red pigment forms and acts as a sunscreen to protect the young leaves from an increase in ultraviolet rays.

Because I was standing still and admiring the leaves, I heard another bird song and eventually focused in on the creator.

And so I have the Big-Toothed Aspen to thank for showing me the Indigo Bunting. My first ever. (Happy Birthday Becky Thompson.)

A turtle. A deer. A fox. A towhee. A bunting. All of that was only a smattering of wonder found along the Mountain Division Trail. If you go, make sure you recall the old railroad signs: Stop, Look, and Listen.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

It rained. The sun came it. Rain drops continued to fall. Until they didn’t. Then the temperature rose to a degree we haven’t seen in over eight months here in western Maine. And we melted.

But, with the heat wave came some new visitors, including this male Baltimore Oriole, so named because his coloration resembled the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

The funny thing about Lord Oriole: he’d stopped by a few days ago when I had a sturdy chunk of suet in the feeder. After seeing him, I immediately added orange slices to the offering in hopes of enticing him to return.

And so when he did this morning, I marveled at the fact that he ignored the oranges and chose instead a small bite of the suet.

Adding more color to the yard was a male House Finch. He tarried not long for his gal paused in the lilac bush and then flew past and he followed in hot pursuit.

But I gave thanks to the finch for as I looked for him to return, I noticed movement on the outer edge of the garden below the back deck. Shuffling about the dried leaves looking to glean a meal was a Common Yellowthroat. My very own Common Yellowthroat. Certainly another reason to rejoice.

There was more rejoicing to be done for I eventually found my way to the vernal pool. I realized I’ve been avoiding it lately, ever fearful after discovering a few dead frogs that life had taken a turn for the worse within that small body of water.

But the surprise was all mine when I discovered recently hatched tadpoles resting atop an egg mass. The green color is an algae with which they share a symbiotic relationship. The algae colonize the egg mass and produces oxygen. Being symbiotic, it’s a two-way street and the algae benefits from the eggs by gaining carbon dioxide produced by the embryos. The carbon dioxide is needed for the photosynthetic process. For a few days after hatching, the tadpoles feed on the alga.

Salamander embryos within their own gelatinous also took on that greenish hue due to the same symbiotic alga. My heart was filled with joy for there were numerous masses within the pool, most of them spotted salamander. And now I can only hope that the pool stays wet enough for them to mature and crawl out as their parents did.

Leaving the pool behind, I wandered toward home, but a familiar call beckoned. It took a few minutes for me to locate the creator, but eventually I saw him.

On a sturdy branch parallel to the ground, the Broad-winged Hawk did dine. He also frequently announced his presence with his high-pitched voice.

As a true carnivore, he’s known to eat reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals and even large insects. From my stance, I thought I saw a long tail that didn’t seem right for a vole. Instead, I wondered if it was a snake. I kept expecting to be greeted by one beside the vernal pool and the hawk wasn’t all that far away. I suppose that means that if the salamanders and frogs are able to crawl and leap out of the water, they’d better find good hiding places because this guy and a possible mate have been soaring above for a couple of weeks and probably have a nest nearby.

In the end, it seemed that whatever his meal was, it was lip-licking good. Upon finishing it, he flew south while I trudged across the field to the east. But I suspect our paths will cross again going forward.

All of those finds were spectacular, but . . . one of the best parts of the day–watching Eastern Bluebirds in the yard. I first spied the male in this morning’s rain.

And then late this afternoon, I was surprised to discover that they were both here, the she and the he. For the most part, they stayed out by the stone wall, perched on branches above before flying down to catch a meal.

Then they flew closer to the house and landed atop the feeders where I don’t have any mealy worms that are much to their liking. I hadn’t even planned to still have the feeders out, but with each new day bringing new visitors, I’ve delayed taking them in for the season. That is, until a Black Bear arrives.

But no Black Bears yet. (Just wait, one will probably show up overnight or tomorrow.)

And so . . . Bluebird, Bluebird, through my focus. Thanks for taping me on the shoulder. 😉 And sharing this day with me.

Thrice the Blessings

My mother always said that things happen in threes. It’s a sentiment that has stuck with me and sometimes even haunted me. But when it is good, it is very, very good. And today was one of those days.

Though it was after noon by the time I stepped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, the bird song was on high pitch. The American Redstart’s sweet, yet explosive notes came amidst bursts of acrobatic energy as he flew quickly from one branch to the next and then back again a second later over Stevens Brook.

Twenty feet away, the delightful phrases of the Gray Catbird’s tunes filled the air, but it was his raspy mews that gave away his identity. And suddenly, there he was atop a tangle of shrubs and vines as is his habit. I suspected the nest he shares with his lady was located below.

“Wichety, wichety, wichety,” was the give-away song for the Common Yellowthroat, although I do have to say he was much easier to hear than to see.

While the redstart donned the colors of Halloween, the catbird appeared to be a cat in a bird costume, and the yellowthroat was equally disguised with a black mask.

For a few minutes, I stepped off the bridge and followed the Stevens Brook trail where I was met by a delightful surprise. I spied the mottled leaves before the flowers and my heart sang its own tunes with recognition of the species that I didn’t know grew there.

But the Trout Lily flowers were beautiful with a hint of bronze accenting their yellow petals. Do you see the formation? What may look like six petals is actually a configuration known as tepals for it’s difficult to differentiate between the three inner petals and their surrounding three sepals, which had previously enclosed the flower. Ahhh, language.

And within the center core, the pistil (she’s a pistol of a woman) surrounded by six stamen (Stay men), their anthers rusty red with pollen.

Also sometimes agreeing with the division of three were three tiny Goldthread flowers looking all fresh and perky. And their leaves of three parts that remind me of Cilantro.

And then another that knows the number being repeated time and time again: Jack-in-the-Pulpit or Arisaema triphyllum. The “pulpit” from which “Jack” (technically, the “spadix”) preaches stood between two long-stalked, three-parted leaves.

Further along the trail, I watched a female Hairy Woodpecker foraging for insects on stumps and logs.

A male I assumed was her guy did the same.

And then, though the colors don’t really show it in this photo, I heard another bird sing and by his white hanky in the pocket (a dash of white on his wings, right Molly?) I think I’ve identified him correctly: Black-throated Blue Warbler.

I was grateful not only for the two that I knew, but also the third that I’m just learning.

Other flowers showed off their structures, like those of the Norway Maple. OK, so the tree is invasive and grows prolifically in the park because it was originally planted as part of the streetscape above, but the fragrant yellow-green flowers blew delicately in the breeze. (As will their seeds soon, and thus the invasion).

Another that grows much less abundantly, but always makes me smile is the Striped Maple, an understory tree. And it too had flowers to share so there is hope for more of this species.

Flowering in a different way was the Woodland Horsetail, an equisetum. Its flower was in the form of a cone at the tip. Once its spores have been shed, the cone will collapse.

Insects also were part of the scene and tis the season of Mayflies, this one a subimago as indicated by the color of its wings. Cloudy wings indicated it was a teenager that had not gone through its final morph.

And then, a Great Black Wasp–its translucent blue wings giving it away in the duff. I tried to get closer, but it took off.

Such was the case also with a Mourning Cloak butterfly, which would have given me three insects to share. Do remember that insects have three pairs of legs–there’s that number again.

At last, several hours after I’d begun, it was time for me to leave Stevens and Willow Brooks behind.

But not until I had a chance to enjoy the beauty of Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), which was my initial reason for the journey. Trillium: Latin for tri, refers to the flower parts occurring in threes; llium: Latin for liliaceous, refers to the funnel-shaped flower; and undulatum: Latin reference for wavy, referring to the petals’ wavy margins.

Mom was right. Good things do happen in threes. Along my journey I also had the blessing of chatting with three wonderful women, Becky, Sheila, and Lori.

Thrice the blessings worth a wonder indeed.

Book of May: Identifying Ferns the Easy Way

I love it when people recommend books to me and even more when I discover the the recommendation is spot on. Thus was the case when at the Maine Master Naturalist Board Retreat last month, Beth Longcope suggested Identifying Ferns the Easy Way by Lynn Levine. She’s also the creator of Mammal Tracks and Scat, a life-size tracking guide that I don’t use as often as David Brown’s Trackards. And she has authored several other books.

Book of May

But it’s this newly-released little guide that will find its way into my pack on a regular basis this spring and summer. Within the 74 pages of the 4.5 x 6.5-inch book are simplified explanations with illustrations.

Levine begins with general information about how to use the guide, general tips, and how to observe ferns. Under general tips, I especially appreciated the second: “Ferns that usually grow in clusters will sometimes grow alone.” The key “read-between-the-lines” takeaway is that if we just go by what most books say or people tell us, we’ll become totally confused when we meet an oddball choosing to strike out on its own. Not all ferns have read the books. And that goes for any and all species. It’s best to familiarize ourselves with the various species so that when one does behave in a different manner, we recognize it for what it is.

I also appreciate tip #4, but you’ll have to purchase the book to understand why. 😉

Being thorough with her topic in such a short space, she includes information about the ancient history of ferns bringing them from past to present structures. Their unique reproductive system is also discussed with the life cycle illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

And then, the nitty gritty part of the book. First, she shows how ferns are grouped as once-cut, twice-cut, thrice-cut (I’ve always loved that word: thrice), three parts, and unique. Another sketch, as you can see, illustrates the parts of the blade and defines the terms. I appreciate that at the bottom of page 9, Levine compares the terms she uses with those used by others, aka Leaflet/Pinna.

For those who are visual learners like me, on pages 11-17 are silhouettes for each group of ferns based on their cut type. That becomes valuable information for once you recognize the type of cut, you can simply go to the group pages devoted to it. For instance, Group 1 covers once-cut ferns on pages 18-27. All are denoted by a staggered black tab on the edge of the page, therefore making each group a quick find.

Group One begins with Christmas Fern. For each fern within a category, the reader will find a two-page description with illustrations. The description includes the Common Name, Scientific Name, Where it Grows, Tips for Identification, species it Can be Confused With, and Interesting Notes.

From these, I noted some different ways to consider the fern and picked up some new ID tips to share with others. I did find it funny that what I long ago learned was either Santa in his sleigh or the toe of a Christmas stocking, Levine refers to as an ear on the leaflet/pinna.

Right now, Christmas Fern fiddleheads have sprung forth in the center of the evergreen blades and they are mighty scaly.

Fiddlehead is the term used to describe the crozier shape (like a Bishop’s crozier) of an emerging frond. And not all fiddleheads are created edible. In fact, I know of only one that is. This is not the one. But do note those mighty hairy scales.

Another Group 1 species, Maidenhair Spleenwort. In her tips for ID, I love this line: “Leaflet pairs are opposite each other (like a bow tie).” This isn’t a species I typically encounter in western Maine. In fact, this photo was taken in the Glendalough monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century–in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland.

Under “Interesting Notes” for Rock Polypody, Levine clears up the meaning of the name for me, for though I knew that poly means “many” and pod refers to “foot,” I didn’t understand why the fern should be named thus. “Rock Polypody has many ‘feet’ connecting one fern to the next by their roots.” Now I can’t wait to revisit them.

I chuckled when I read under her tips that Sensitive Ferns grow in large colonies. Indeed.

They are so named because with the slightest bit of cold they turn brown. Levine says it’s sensitive to the first frost, but I’ve noticed it turns brown in mid-August if not sooner, when the nights have that wonderful chill, but we haven’t yet had a frost.

Group 2A are those ferns that are twice-cut and form a vase-like cluster. The first in the group, Cinnamon Fern, like all others, is slowly unfurling and if you head outdoors you might see the splendid display.

Soon, the cinnamon-colored fertile stalks will be visible in the center of the plant formation. But, once they have done their duty and dried up for the season, you really have to look to locate the fertile frond. And Cinnamon Fern can be easily mistaken for Interrupted Fern.

But as Levine reminds us, the give-away is on the back of the leaflet/pinna. By the center rachis, that main part of the frond to which all leaflet/pinna are attached, do you see the wooly tufts? In this neck of the woods, those only occur on the backside of Cinnamon Ferns.

Its cousin, Interrupted is best identified also by its fertile fronds, with the interruptions occurring in the middle of the blade. Levine sees them as butterflies when they first emerge and face upward. You’ll hear that pass through my lips going forth.

Here’s the thing with Cinnamon and Interrupted Ferns in their fiddlehead form. They are both covered in a veil of hair. But at least you know it’s one or the other and once they unfurl, the determination becomes easier.

Levine’s tips for IDing Marginal Wood Fern included a note about the subleaflet/pinnule’s wavy appearance making us think it might be thrice-cut. She makes the point, however, that it belongs in Group 2 because they “are not cut deep enough.”

Do note the spores dotting the margin of the backside.

At last, she comes to Ostrich Fern. This is the one edible fiddlehead that I know of in our area. Notice how bright green it is? And the lack of scales? There’s another clue that you may or may not see in this photo, but it’s also important for ID if you plan to dine for the stalk is deeply grooved. Deeply. Always double-check.

The vase-like form of Group 2A is especially evident in this display of Ostrich Fern, but there is an intruder. Can you name it?

Like Levine states, the “fertile frond may remain standing during the winter.” I took this photo last spring.

Group 2A ends with one of my favorites: Royal Fern. She describes it as having an “airy appearance.” I like that. And again, she uses that bow tie description.

It’s the location of the spore cases that give this fern its name. Curiously, though she says the cluster appears at the tip, she doesn’t mention that they are like a crown on top of a head.

I did find it interesting to note in her “Interesting Notes” that “Roots are a source of fiber (osmundine) that is sometimes used as a growing medium for orchids.”

Group 2B are those ferns that are twice-cut but do not grow in vase-like clusters. Such is the case for the Beech Fern, so named according to Levine because it is common where Beech trees grow. Another thing to pay attention to going forward.

All together, there are seven ferns described in this group.

Group 3 are those that are thrice-cut. Did I mention that I’ve always loved that word: thrice. Say it thrice times. Thrice. Thrice. Thrice.

Lady Ferns are part of this group and their scaliness can be referred to as hairy legs. They also have spore cases on the underside of the leaflet/pinna that remind us of eyebrows.

What I liked about Levine’s description is the following: “Fronds grow in asymmetrical clusters, but it sometimes grows in small groups of just 2 or 3 fronds.”

Group 3 includes five different ferns.

Group 4 consists of those ferns with a blade divided into three parts. The tallest among them is Bracken Fern. If you look closely, you may see a young friend of mine hiding under one.

With this species Levine issues a word of caution about the consumption of Bracken Fern fiddleheads: Don’t eat them. Buy her book and on page 62 you can read why.

While the Bracken Fern grows 3 – 5 feet, most of the other members of Group 4 are rather diminutive in stature, such as the grape ferns. I do love that she notes how the sterile blades range from being finely cut to less finely cut. The illustration on page 65 helps clarify that. You’ll have to buy the book. 😉

A species not included because it’s not all that common in the Northeast, at least in the woods, or rather associated wetlands I frequent, is the Virginia Chain Fern. It looks very similar to Cinnamon Fern, but . . . while Cinnamon has a separate fertile frond that forms in the spring and then withers, Chain Fern’s sporangia are oblong and on the underside. I’ve seen this at Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest and Holt Pond Preserve. That being said, you do have to get wet feet.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you to buy this book. It includes the twelve most common ferns of Maine: Christmas, Polypody, Sensitive, Cinnamon, Interrupted, Marginal, Royal, Beech, Hayscented, Lady, Evergreen, and Brachen, plus a variety of others, most of which we do stumble upon either often or less frequently depending upon habitat.

My favorite local bookstore, Bridgton Books, was not able to get a copy of the Book of May: Identifying Ferns the Easy Way, so I ordered via Amazon on Tuesday and it arrived today.

Identifying Ferns the Easy Way by Lynn Levine, illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, Heartwood Press, 2019.

Bear to Beer: Bishop Cardinal to Lord Hill

Our destination sounded rather regal; as if we’d be paying our respects to Bishop Cardinal and Lord Hill. And indeed we did.

We also paid our respects to telephone poles. Well, actually only certain ones. They had to have a certain look–as if a Black Bear had backed into the pole and turned its head around at an angle and bit the wood with its upper and lower canine teeth thus leaving nearly horizontal marks that look like a dot and dash. In the process, the aluminum numbers had to be a bit mangled in order to receive our attention. This particular pole was right by the trailhead and so after examining it, we headed up the blue trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Bishop Cardinal Reserve on Horseshoe Pond Road in Lovell.

Along the way, we examined every American Beech we saw, but actually passed by a spot where we know there are several with the marks we sought. If you go, look for the blue dot on the white arrow and hike in at a diagonal from there.

Our hope today was to find other bear claw trees we’d missed previously and so we kept going off trail in search. Turning onto the red trail, we continued to check. Sometimes it’s the shape of the tree’s crown that makes us wonder.

We have learned that we can’t dismiss any bark without walking all the way around and bingo–we had a new-to-us bear claw tree.

I don’t know why it is, but those marks make our hearts sing. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the wildness of it all and the fact that we share this place with such intelligent beings.

Whatever it is, we decided that rather than creating waypoints for each tree we found, we’d try to remember the location by using other landmarks such as a certain waterbar that was intended to divert snowmelt and rain from washing out the trail. When you reach that certain waterbar on the red trail, turn left and walk in about twenty yards. If you don’t find our tree, perhaps you’ll discover another.

Continuing up the trail, we did note a few other favorites off to the right.

Sometimes, in my mind’s eye, I could just see the movement of the climber.

With one such tree, the marks were lower than most and I wondered if it was a younger bear. Of course, we have no idea how long ago those marks were left behind. Mary Holland suggests a way to age them that we haven’t tried yet. And we didn’t look for fresh marks. Really, we need to be better sleuths going forward.

In case you are wondering, occasionally we noted other points of interest, such as the burst of beech buds, their spring green leaves all hairy and soft, which is actually quite a contrast to the papery feel they eventually acquire.

Here and there, the cheerful display of Round-leaved Violets brightened the path.

And drone flies, with their bigger than life eyes, posed. Any black flies? Yes, a few, but not biting . . . yet.

We were almost to the old shack site, if you know where I mean, when our journey off trail revealed another fine specimen. Again, the claw marks were on the backside since we approached from the trail. Always, always, always circle about and you might be surprised.

Eventually, we reached the intersection with the trail to Lord Hill and continued our surveillance as we continued our hike.

Once we turned right onto the Conant Trail, we did find one tree with marks long ago made . . . by some bears with either an extreme understanding of relationships, or more likely, a few who weren’t all that intelligent after all.

At last, the trail opened onto the ledges overlooking Horseshoe Pond and it was there that we sat down on the warm granite as a nippy breeze flowed across. Enjoying the view of Horseshoe Pond below and the mountains beyond, we ate lunch.

We also toasted a few others with a Honey of a Beer brewed by Lee of another spelling! Dubbel Trouble was double delicious. Thank you, Lee Fraitag. 😉 Our toast was also doubled for we gave thanks to Paula and Tom Hughes, who live just below on the pond. Tomorrow we’ll enjoy a Mother’s Day Brunch at the Old Saco Inn courtesy of the Hugheses. 😉

Clink. Clink.

After enjoying lunch rock we journeyed up to the Lord Hill Mine.

According to mindat.org, Lord Hill Mine was “a former rare mineral specimen quarry. Briefly worked in episodes in the mid-20th century for feldspar. Originally a mineral collector’s site in the late 1870s. Opened by Nathan Perry and Edgar D. Andrews in the early 1880s. Originally called Harndon Hill, but the named changed in a complex change of names about 1917. Operated solely by Nathan Perry by 1882. Operated for massive topaz for educational mineral collections in the 1970’s by Col. Joseph Pollack of Harrison, Maine. The locality is the type locality for hamlinite, now regarded as a synonym for goyazite. Granite pegmatite. Oxford pegmatite field. Local rocks include Carboniferous alkali feldspar granite (muscovite accessory mineral).

We spotted several people busy digging for their fortunes and decided to let them. They either were so tuned in to their work that they didn’t hear us or they chose not to. No matter. After a quick look about, we quietly followed the mine trail down–our own focus still on the trees.

And at the point where the National Forest abuts the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s property, we turned back onto the land trust’s loop trail. We’d come up from the left, so turned right to continue our descent.

And yes, we found one more bear tree. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of the number of new finds. But, we trusted that for all we found, there were so many more we must have missed. And then some.

Back on Horseshoe Pond Road, we turned left and checked all the telephone poles along the edge, examining each for bear hair because we’ve seen it stuck on them before. Today, no hair.

So why do the bears pay attention to telephone poles? Think of it as a combo backscratcher and messageboard. Pretend I’m a young male, ready and available. Wanna go out for a date tonight? Give me a call.

Despite the lack of hair, because we were looking, we found a Mayfly. That in itself, was another reason to celebrate.

Bishop Cardinal and Lord Hill. We thank you both. Black Bears, we thank you. Lee, we thank you. Paula and Tom, we thank you. (Happy Mother’s Day, Paula) All are regal indeed.

Bear to beer possibilities: Bishops Cardinal Reserve and Lord Hill Mine.

Significant Fairies

We’d made promises in the recent past that fell flat. With that in mind, when the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Nature Explorers, a homeschool group led by Docent Juli, gathered this morning, she was smart and stuck to the life cycles of potential sightings like frogs rather than possibilities.

The group that gathered was large–24 in all with a mix of moms and their children.

Of course, being kids, they were immediately attracted to the water below the mill site at Heald Pond. But after letting them explore for a few minutes, a light whistle pulled them all together again.

At the nearby vernal pool, everyone quickly learned what larval mosquitoes looked like as they watched them somersault through the water column. A few complaints were expressed about future bites, but that was redirected to the fact that mosquitoes feed birds and dragonflies, and in their larval form, other aquatic insects.

Pond dipping became the morning habit and at first, it was only the mosquito larvae that made it into the containers.

But, that led to a quick lesson on the biting insects’ life cycle–one of many teachable moments that snuck into the morning fun.

Oh yes, those larval mosquitoes also feed amphibians and thanks to Juli’s son Aidan for finding a large Green Frog. Notice the ear disc, aka tympanum, that is located behind its eye. Given its size as being bigger than the eye, this was a male. And notice the dorsal lateral ridge or fold that extends from behind the eye down the side of its back (there’s one on either side)–that’s a clue that this is a Green Frog and not a Bull Frog, for the latter’s ridge circles around the tympanum.

As the morning went on, it turned out that today was Aidan’s day to shine for he was also the first to find a Fairy Shrimp.

A what? Yes, a Fairy Shrimp. Do you see that delicate orangish body in the middle of the tray? It’s a mini crustacean that lives only in vernal pools.

The kids all got caught up in the thrill of such a find and within minutes became pros at recognizing them.

And so the dipping continued.

Moms also got caught up in the dipping experience.

And they also found cool stuff, like Kim’s Fishfly. We kept expecting it to eat the mosquito larvae, but it seemed that they preferred to nudge it in a way we didn’t understand.

While Kim focused on her new friend, the kids were also making new friends, testing their balance, getting rather wet and muddy, and having a blast as they sought more Fairy Shrimp.

Their pan began to fill up with one, two, three, four, five and even a few more.

And then other species were discovered, including aquatic beetles and a Phantom Midge.

We’d come in hopes of at least finding Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander egg masses, which the kids quickly recognized. By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later, some of the boys had discovered the best way to spot the masses was from the crow’s nest.

But in the end, our most significant find was the Fairy Shrimp. You see, on a public walk a couple of weeks ago, when we’d promised folks such a sighting, we came up short. But today . . . they made their presence known. And with the find of just one Fairy Shrimp, the vernal pool became a significant one as recognized by the State of Maine.

A hearty thanks to Juli for leading and the moms and their kids for attending. It was such a joy to watch everyone interacting and engaging. I only wish I could have been a Fishfly on the wall at suppertime as they shared their finds of the day with other family members.

Peeking with my Peeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book of the March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker

A few weeks ago I’d contacted my friend Parker Veitch of White Mountain Mushrooms, LLC, to make sure he was willing to co-lead a couple of fungi walks this summer and in his response he included this paragraph: “I have a book for you. Should I leave it at the office? The first 20 or so pages are a little slow, but I think you will really like it.”  

Like it? I LOVE it. And I haven’t even finished reading it. So you must be curious by now. As I was when I saw it sitting on the table at the Greater Lovell Land Trust office. You see, I was sure the book would be about fungi because Parker is always trying to help me learn about the principal decomposers of the world. Ah, but one should never assume.

May I present to you the Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker by Tamarack Song.

This book is like no other tracking book that I’ve read. As I wrote back to Parker, “Thank you so much for sharing the book with me. I’m in the midst of reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is about Alexander von Humboldt, and a book of essays by E.B. White (thanks Judy and Bob for gifting me that gem), but right now I’m most captivated by the teaching of Tamarack Song and I am going to have to ask Bridgton Books to order a copy for me. I want to be him and have the understandings and slow down and ask the questions he asks. And teach others to do the same.

At first I couldn’t put the book down. But now I’ve changed my tune a bit because I want to savor it. Typically, when I read a book such as this I underline key phrases, write notes in the margin and turn page corners up. But, because I’m only borrowing this copy I’m not doing that. (Did I have you nervous for a minute there, Parker?) And that’s making me soak it all in and savor each chapter more fully than I might.

You see, Tamarack, according to the back cover blurb, “has spent his life studying the world’s aboriginal peoples, apprenticing to Elders, and learning traditional hunter-gatherer survival skills. He has spent years alone in the woods as well as living with a pack of Wolves. In 1987, he founded the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, where he runs the yearlong Wilderness Guide Program.”

In each of the sixteen chapters, Tamarack plays the role of guide, but not by telling. Rather, he takes the reader along on an exploration with one of his students, and encourages all of us to question what we see. In other words, to never assume, which is what I did when Parker first mentioned the book and what I often do when I’m tracking.

Instead, he wants us to notice and think about why the animal might be behaving in a particular manner, even if we know what it is by its tracks and its sign. What’s the rest of the story?

In fact, why did Opossum suddenly appear toward the tail end of the snowstorm on Sunday night?

And why is he in western Maine? How has he survived this winter with its frigid temps (mind you, it’s finally starting to warm up a tad). Where has he been since I last saw his prints in the snow a few months ago? What brought him to our yard again? Does he live under the barn with the rest of the neighborhood?

And what about last night’s visitor, Raccoon. Where has he been all winter? What brought him out? I have to say I wasn’t surprised to see him as once the temps do begin to rise the slightest bit, he appears. I also know that the bird seed attracted him, though he surprised me by not stealing the suet.

Tamarack encourages us to become the animal, especially if we don’t see it, but do see the signs it left behind. Had there been snow on the deck, I imagine I would have recognized the raccoons prints, but I would have wondered about other lines that probably would have appeared. Having the chance to watch Raccoon as I did, I now know that those lines would have been his nose and tongue as he tried to vacuum the seeds.

But then there was Raccoon’s coloration. Why the mask? Why the striped tail? I have so much to think about and learn.

And then late today, I headed out the door through which I’d taken those photos the previous two nights, and noted the Hemlock tree that Porcupine had denuded this winter. It used to be one of my favorites in the yard. But today it occurred to me that though we pay taxes on this property and try to “maintain” it, it really isn’t ours. It never has been. It belongs to the animals and the trees, and yes, even the fungi. Maybe especially the fungi.

One thing I have noticed is that all of Porcupine’s activity has aided Deer who also stops by daily.

As I continued over the stone wall, noting the six or seven other Hemlocks Porcupine has visited, a shape high up in one tree caught my attention.

I moved under Hemlock for a better look. Well, not all the way under, for I sometimes know better than to stand below such an exhibit.

As I looked with the aid of a telephoto lens, I noticed that Porcupine had apparently dined briefly and then fell asleep. Hmmm. I know some people who do that.

But the sight of Porcupine got me thinking–was this friend who lived under the barn a he and not a she after all?

And how did he/she sleep as the breeze swayed that not so thick Hemlock bough upon which Porcupine was balanced?

I did gain a better appreciation for the various types of hair that cover Porcupine’s body.

But still, so many questions, some that haven’t even formed in my mind yet.

I give thanks to Tamarack and his stories within Entering the Mind of the Tracker for that. Now I must practice the art of slowing down and paying more attention.

And I give special thanks to Parker for the offering of this book. In many ways, he emulates Tamarack Song, for both are hunter-gatherers and Parker understands the ecological systems in a way I will never know. At less than half my age, he has already slowed down and learned to pay attention.

To be attuned to the hidden nature–that is my wish. To that end, I shall purchase a copy of this book. And hope you will consider it as well.

Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature.

Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature, by Tamarack Song, Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International, 2013.

For Whom The Crows Caw

At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.

I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.

That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .

This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.

The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?

The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?

My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?

Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.

And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?

Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.

And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.

It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.

And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.

One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).

There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.

After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.

Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.

As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.

Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.

She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.

As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.

She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?

I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.

As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.

Until finally, it was only a memory.

I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.

But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.

Book of February: Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer

Yikes. Here it is the end of February and I’ve spent the month mentally flipflopping between two books to recommend–one about tracks and the other about tree buds.

And then this day dawned. Not long into the morning as I sat at my desk beside a window, a swift motion captured my attention . . .

and I knew immediately that Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer by Mary Holland would be the February Book of the Month.

In this factual, yet delightful story, Mary tells of Ferdinand’s birth, childhood activities, and growth as he and his siblings are born and eventually weaned. Her amazing photographs fill the pages and alone are worth a reason to purchase this book. But there’s so much more and one doesn’t need to be 3-8 years old to enjoy it. Even those of us who are more “mature” can surely learn from the information shared on each of the book’s 32 pages.

And there’s even more to the book because at the end is a section her publisher labels “For Creative Minds.” Though one can’t copy other pages in the book, we are encouraged to use the material in this section for educational, non-commercial purposes.

Included are “Red Fox Fun Facts and Adaptations” with photographs and brief blurbs to describe various behaviors of these canines. (I remember a time when I had to get it through my brain that a fox was a canine and not a feline.)

One of my favorites from this section: “Red foxes are most active at dusk and dawn (crepuscular). In summer, they are more active at night (nocturnal) because their prey, mice, are more active then. Foxes may hunt during the day (diurnal) in the winter because it’s harder to find food.”

Bingo! That brings me to the reason why I chose this book for February.

Remember that motion I mentioned observing this morning. Well, I went to the kitchen door and there on the snowbank by the back deck was my neighborhood fox.

He was on the prowl. Do you see all the gray and red squirrel tracks on the snow? And Mary’s comment that foxes will hunt during the day in the winter. One would think that given all the squirrels and mice folks were dealing with last fall, a result of the previous year’s mast crop production of acorns, pinecones, and beechnuts, the foxes and coyotes and bobcats would have plenty to feast on. But . . . there wasn’t so much food for those little brown things to cache this winter and so it’s a rare occasion that I find a squirrel midden or even mouse tracks in the snow right now. Instead, they are all at my bird feeding station. And my daily fox knows this. Though I haven’t seen him find success, he returns repeatedly and follows the same route each time so I suspect he’s helped himself to a few local delicacies.

Notice that long snout–the better to smell you with, my dear. Oh wait, that was the big bad wolf, not the big, bad fox.

Just after I shot this photograph, he pivoted and dashed off in the direction from whence he’d come.

And then he returned, with nothing dangling from his mouth. His eyes, in the front because he was born to hunt (eyes on the side, born to hide–like a deer), focused on something in the quaking aspen that I couldn’t quite see from my vantage point.

He went back to the tree and for a second I thought he was going to climb it. Hmmm, gray foxes climb trees, not red.

Again, this was from the edge of the door and I couldn’t quite see what had captured his attention. Prior to his visit, the feeders and ground had been a party spot for a slew of squirrels and birds. I doubted a bird would hang out in a tree while a fox lurked below, but wondered if a squirrel was trying its darnedest to blend in with the tree trunk. And if it was a red squirrel, it was keeping its mouth shut for a change for I heard not a bit of its usual chatter.

After a minute or two, Fred, as I’ll call him (after all, Mary named her fox) moved a few feet away, sat down and began to scratch behind his ear. Those darn fleas.

He sat there for a few minutes and then got up and began to walk away. But his eyes . . . still they were focused on that tree.

At last he gave up on that particular quarry and ran off, following his usual route across the yard toward the neighbor’s house. I wonder how many cats they have left.

I gave Fred a wee bit of time to move on so I wouldn’t disturb him and then I headed out because, after all, who can resist the opportunity to check out brand, spanking fresh tracks? Remember that red fox’s feet are quite hairy so their prints look rather muffled, even in the fresh dusting of snow that fell overnight.

Do you see the X between toes and pad? Some semblance of nails? And can’t you just envision him loping across the yard?

Remember how he sat down to scratch behind his right ear (looking head on it would have been his left to us)? Well, I found the spot where he’d left an impression on the snow. And more. A tad of pee and SCAT! He’d dined on something.

I backtracked him for a while, crossing over stonewalls and into neighboring tree lots curious about where he comes from, but as Mary Holland reminded me, “As the weather turns cold, Ferdinand and his siblings sleep outside on the ground and no longer use their den.” Instead, they curl up and their bushy tails keep them warm. At last, I came to a tree where he’d dillydallied.

And then I spied a tiny amount of yellow snow–he’d tinkled (what fun to write “tinkled”) there. The sniff test results: skunky scent. Has he not mated yet? One day more than a month ago he did bring a gal by, but I haven’t seen her since. Red foxes typically breed in January and February, and it is, after all, still February for a few more hours.

At the end of our cowpath, he’d turned south as he always does and his track became but a memory.

Mary’s book can help keep that memory alive. It’s only one of numerous children’s books she’s now written. All have cross-curriculum teaching activity guides that one can download from www.SylvanDellPublishing.com.

Mary is also the author of Naturally Curious, which is now out of print (though someone told me there is an updated edition, but I’m not sure its been published yet), and Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, and she shares a blog post about five times a week with those who wish to learn more.

I’ve had the honor of being in her presence twice, both times here in western Maine, and she is delightful, down-to-earth, and extremely gifted as a naturalist, photographer and author. She’s also quite approachable and I’m always amazed that she takes the time to answer questions via e-mail.

If you follow her blog or read her books, you’ll feel as if she’s either walking beside you or just ahead. Mary, if your ears are burning, it’s because those of us who do follow in your tracks often comment on the fact that what we see you just happened to post. Thank you for helping all of us, no matter our age, become naturally curious.

Once again, the February Book of the Month: Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer.

Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer by Mary Holland, Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2013.