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.

Sundae School

I went on a reconnaissance mission this afternoon and visited a land trust property I’ve never stepped foot on before. My intention was to scope it out for possible use with a future Maine Master Naturalist class. My realization from the get-go was a happy heart. I can’t wait to return and take others along so we can make discoveries together.

n Preserve sign

I’ve only been on one other Western Maine Foothills Land Trust property, so had no idea what to expect. The small parking area for Shepard’s Farm Preserve is at 121 Crockett Ridge Road in Norway. (Norway, Maine, that is.) This is one of seven preserves owned by the trust. I should have known I’d enjoy myself immensely just by the name. Though we spell Shephard with an “h,” it’s a family name for us. Who knows–maybe there’s a connection.

n-trail sign

On the back of the brochure I grabbed at the kiosk, I read the following: “Originally owned by Benjamin Witt, the high undulating pasture of Shepard’s Farm Family Preserve was transferred to Joshua Crockett in 1799, Charles Freeman in 1853, John Shepard in 1910, and to Bill Detert in 1984.” Mr. Detert and his family donated the property in memory of his wife, Jan, to the WMFLT in 2010.

n-Indian pipe bee 1

My lessons began immediately. What to my wondering eye should appear, but a bee pollinating an Indian pipe. And in the middle of the afternoon. Huh? I’ve always heard that they are pollinated by moths or flies at night. Of course, upon further research, I learned that bees and skipper butterflies have been known to pay a visit to the translucent flowers. Add that to the memory bank.

n-Indian pipe

As I continued along the trail I found the upturned mature flower and again wondered–who stopped by for a sip of sap? Lessons should evoke further questions and a desire to learn more.

n-hawkweed

The trail offered other familiar flowers, like hawkweed,

n-pearly everlasting

pearly everlasting, goldenrods and asters, Queen Anne’s lace, boneset and jewelweed.

n-monkeyflower 3

And then I come upon a wildflower I don’t recall meeting before. The lesson included a look at the leaves, their arrangement on the stem, and the flowerhead.

n-monkeyflower 1

The answer to the quiz–lavender-flowered Sharp-winged Monkeyflower. Monkeys in the woods! You never know. Sometimes I think that red squirrels sound like monkeys when they chit at me, but in this case, it’s the fact that the flower looks something like a monkey’s face.

n-thistle young and old

Further on,  I spotted a favorite that I don’t see as often as I’d like. What I didn’t realize is that thistles are in the aster family. Always learning. Its presence here is referenced by trail conditions, which change periodically from mixed hardwoods to softwoods to open places. Thistles prefer those open places–fields and waste places. Hardly waste in my opinion. Rather, early succession to a woodland.

n-bee on thistle 2

A bee worked its magic on the flowerhead so I moved in for a closer look.

n-bee on thistle1

As with any flower, it was a pollen frenzy.

n-thistle with seeds

Seconds later–maturity! Well, maybe not quite that fast.

n-thistle seeds 1

But the seeds had developed their downy parachutes and the breeze was a’blowing.

n-thistle seed 2

They knew it was time to leave the roost and find a new classroom.

n-trail ferns

Another lesson worth more time was a look at the natural communities along the trail. Bikers and hikers share this space, but what I found fascinating was the constant change.

n-trail hay

The original trail for the Shepard’s Family Farm Preserve was located on a 19-acre parcel. Recently, the Witt Swamp Extension was added, which almost circles around a 250+ acre piece. Hay covers some of the new trail right now–giving it that farm-like feel and smell.

n-trail 1

I’m not certain of the mileage, but believe that I covered at least 4-5 miles in my out and back venture over undulating land and through a variety of neighborhoods. The trail conditions–pure bliss. No rocks or roots to trip over. Instead, I could look around for the next lesson.

n-cedar bark

One of the things I love about hiking in Norway is that I get to be in the presence of cedar trees–Northern white cedar.

n-cedar leaves

I’m fascinated by its scale-like leaves.

n-deer tracks

So are the deer, who feed on the leaves during the winter months.

n-dry stream

I found only deer tracks, and noted that all stream beds were dry, though the moss gave a moist look to the landscape. We’re experiencing a drought this summer.

n-red leaf

Due to that lack of rain, some red maples already have turned and colorful leaves are beginning to float to the ground.

n-porky 3

Deer aren’t the only mammals that inhabit this place. From the trail, I noticed hemlock trees with bases that looked like perfect gnome homes. And then I spotted this one that invited a closer look.

n-porky den

A pile of porcupine scat–the pig-pen of the woods. Even Charlie Brown would note a distinct odor.

n-toad camo

And in true “Where’s Waldo” tradition, a young American toad crossed my path. The camo lesson–blend in for safety’s sake.

n-turtle 2

Being former farmland, stonewalls wind their way through the preserve. And my childhood fascination with turtles was resurrected. Do you see it?

n-turtle 3

How about now? Hint: the head is quartz.

n-turtles

And this one? They’re everywhere. It makes me wonder if it was a style of the times.

n-stone wall ending

I crossed through a gap in the stonewall and noted two smaller stones topped by a large flat one. A reason why? The questions piled up. I need to ask the teacher.

n-stonepile

And then there were the stone piles. Why so many smaller stones around a boulder? What I love about this spot is that a hemlock took advantage of the boulder and grew on top of it.

n-stone structure 2

And another favorite find–a stone structure.

n-stone structure, flat

Created with rather flat field stones.

n-stone structure 1a

It’s near a stonewall, so I surmised it was a shed of some sort rather than a root cellar for a home. I could be wrong, but am thrilled by the opportunity to see it.

n bird sculpture

One of the coolest features of this property is that it’s home to sculptures created in the 1970s by Bernard Langlois, including this bird in flight. The sculptures were made possible recently by the generosity of his widow, Helen Langlois, Colby College and the Kohler Foundation.

n-bird lady 2

Mrs. Noah is my favorite. She has stories to tell and I have lessons to learn.

It’s Sunday and by the time I finished hiking I was hot. I’d intended to check out a few more preserves, but the thought of a creamsicle smoothie at a local ice cream shop had my focus–until I pulled in and saw this posted: “Cash and local checks only.” No cash. And though our checks would be local, I didn’t have any with me either. Lesson learned.

I drove home and made my own sundae.