My Eagle Eyes

From my first sighting this morning I had a feeling that today’s views were going to be amazing. I just didn’t know at the time how amazing.

It all began when this Bald Eagle gave me a backward glance as I drove west. He posed as usual on his favorite hangout and I knew that he was patiently awaiting his turn to dine on some recent roadkill. In the meantime, the crows had a feast.

What I didn’t expect was to see a second Hermit Thrush this week, but so it was as I snowshoed through a land trust property with a couple of other people. I have them to thank for they spied the bird first.

And then we stood silent and watched. And dreamed of its enchanting song to come.

Finding my way beside water a few hours later, it was a pair of Common Goldeneye ducks, his eyes even reflected below, that made me pause next.

Despite a couple of branches slightly obstructing my view, her eye of gold stood out vividly as well. What exactly is it that’s common about them? Their presence I suppose, but still I’m thrilled each time we meet.

Nearby, I almost missed Donald and Daffy, but he hollered for attention, while she stood by on one leg.

Why do birds stand on one leg? And how do they do it? The why I think I can answer–to keep the other leg warm. Unlike some avian species, ducks don’t have hairy sweatpants and so by tucking one leg up under a wing, they can retain some heat. That was important for today while the temperature was in the 40˚s, with a breeze, it was overcast and felt rather raw.

As for my second question, how do they do it? Stand still on one leg without toppling over, that is. I don’t know, but do wonder if it has to do with the feet located toward the center of the body so its weight can be evenly distributed–maybe it turns the one foot a wee bit to insure stability. And perhaps the splayed foot also helps assist what for me would be an awkward position.

Perhaps. And perhaps she looked at me as if to say I was daffy.

And he smiled in agreement.

The next great sight was not a bird, nor was it caged in. And it wasn’t an original find for me because some friends met me at a location where they’d spied it yesterday. But in yesterday’s warm sun, the Red Fox let her four kits frolic about. We watched for a while today, but apparently she’d told the kits to stay in. Her choice for a den sight was remarkable and we learned she’d chosen the same fair spot last year.

At last I began my journey homeward, but first I had to stop by a spot I’ve been frequenting often of late, for it’s where the Sandhill Cranes have been dining. At the moment there are only two, but by last fall they numbered at least eighteen. Will the same come true this year? Only time will tell.

And then, another bird called out and when I realized what it was all I could think of is “Here Comes the Judge” for so its feathers and stance reminded me of a robed magistrate.

This scavenging creature has no feathers on its head in order to keep bits of carrion (dead meat) from adhering to the skin as they would to feathers.

Yes, these were Turkey Vultures. Where there was one, I soon realized there were two. Actually, on a tree behind these two were two more. I wonder if I missed any.

If I had eyes as big and bright as the Wood Ducks that swam quickly through a brook nearby, I’m sure I wouldn’t miss anything, including food in the water below as well as those above who might think of me as food.

Like this guy! As with so many of my finds today, I’m not sure how I happened upon him, but I did. I guess it was that I tried to look for the anomaly in nature. What shape or color stands out from the surroundings?

As I watched, the Bald Eagle changed its orientation. And then it flew and I was sure that that would be the end of our time spent together.

But it landed on a branch above and continued to look about. I swear it even looked at me and I gave thanks for the opportunity to begin and end the day with such a noble bird in two different locations.

I knew I’d been honored to share a few moments with friends as well as notice those things that deviated from the norm. My eagle eyes certainly felt keen today.

Forest in a Bottle

When Pam and I stepped into the woods this morning, I don’t think either one of us understood the enormity of the task before us. You see, our job was to gather all the pieces of the forest through which we’d pass.

And so we began by collecting a recent beaver masterpiece with fresh wood chips below.

There was a beaver sculpture as well, those tooth grooves deep and distinctive.

And their tracks, which all emerged from a recently frozen-over hole. The tracks were a few days old, but we added them to our findings just the same.

Because we were in beaver territory, to our delight we found otter tracks and slides galore–many of them fresh.

There was even an otter hole that we wondered if the beavers had used as well. We decided we might as well throw it in to our bag.

And we couldn’t resist our favorite otter activity of all–the spot where the infamous slider slid.

Following the trail to a different part of the forest, we spotted a diptera pupa that gave us pause for quite a while as we admired its structure and the perfectly formed circle where the fly had chewed its way out. We were so in awe that it seemed only obvious we would want to include it in the collection.

Further on, we reached a brook and spied a muskrat, that dark body in the center. As it turned out, it was a stone muskrat and we left it behind as we chuckled about our mistaken ID.

By the brook, we did, however, find mink prints in the dust of snow that had settled upon thin ice. Those were certainly worth capturing.

We also gathered more otter slides, and then stumbled upon an apparent otter roll, an area where the playful critter made a lot of fuss and left behind some urine and tarry-looking scat. We were sure we’d hit the jackpot.

Because we were beside running water, the icy baubles were not to be ignored.

Nor was the snow depth, which we determined to be close to four feet deep.

And then we marched onto a wetland, where we were stumped for quite a while about some mystery tracks. Should we take them or leave them, we wondered. The pattern indicated a perfect walker, as in a candid or feline, but the depth was deep and the toes threw us off.

The curious thing was that those tracks and others left behind by a mink and a fox led to a deep hole beside a tree.

I thought the frozen fluid within was blood, but Pam leaned more toward urine. One thing we knew for sure, if it was a kill site, there were no remains. Had the mammals been on the hunt to no avail? Take it or leave it–we put it in the same category as the mystery prints.

The mystery tracks also led to a beaver lodge and it appeared that the mystery track maker had tried to locate another meal. Given that there was no air vent at the top of the lodge, we doubted anyone was at home at the time of its visit, and so we left the lodge behind.

After standing in the middle of the wetland and eating our own lunches, we discovered a set of perfect red fox prints that we just had to include in our collection. The top print in this photo is actually the hind foot and the lower print is the front. Can you see the chevron in the foot pad?

There was another lodge we considered grabbing because the top of it appeared to possibly have a vent, but like the fox, we took a closer look and discovered that it, too, was abandoned so we left it behind.

Instead, we made our way off the wetland and back into the woods where a debarked hemlock tree stopped us in our tracks. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are known to scale trees–removing the outer bark to get at the insects underneath. Can you see the insect holes? And the cinnamon color of the inner bark? This one was a keeper, for sure.

Especially since a section where the inner bark had been removed revealed a polished layer like one might find on a table top.

There was also a huge snow-capped burl to pick.

And a small cross-section of the liverwort Frullania juxtaposed beside script lichen. Everyone should have a sample of those two.

Two old heron nests were well worth adding into the mix. They’d been used in the past until two years ago. If the herons do return to the rookery, we suspect they’ll build new structures so we didn’t feel so bad gathering these.

And then there was a pileated woodpecker hole that would have to represent all woodpecker holes in these woods. Before tossing it into the bag, Pam made sure that no other critter had set up housekeeping within.

Our final finding was one that made us think back to the mystery tracks. The more we studied these and later met the mystery tracks again and followed them for a while, the more we understood that not only did beavers, otters, foxes, deer, mink, and snowshoe hare romp in these woods, but so did coyotes.

The best thing about this coyote was that it made a coyote angel in the snow! We most definitely scooped that up.

For you see, our mission was to put it all together–in a glass jar. Haven’t you always wondered about the magic involved with placing a ship in a bottle? Well, today, we spent six hours amassing various items in the woods and then assembled them–creating a forest in a bottle. Can you see it?

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.

A Sign of Hope

We’ve entered that season many of us know as Christmas; a time of year when hustle and bustle can so easily overtake our lives. As youngsters, it was our desires, our longings, our yearnings that became the focus of our lives during the month of December. We thought we wanted, in fact needed, that pair of ice skates or that furry hat with the pom-pom balls at the end of the ties. At least, those were my desires when I was ten and eleven years old. 

In fact, I coveted that hat to the point where on Christmas morning I snuck down the hall to the living room and peeked into the gift bag with my name that sat under the tree. I was at once delighted/disappointed. Yes, Mom and Dad had fulfilled my wish and I would look like the other girls at school who donned such; but . . . the moment of surprise was gone and I’d have to feign my excitement. I don’t remember if it ever dawned on me that the hat was just that–an expensive, fancy covering for my head. One I didn’t need given that Mom loved to knit hats for us.

And then there were the Christmases that my guy and I bent over backwards as we tried to create a special day for our sons. And as we all know, the empty boxes were the best toys of all. 

Now, as I take an honest look at my past and wonder about the future, I realize that my attitude has shifted. No longer is it a frenetic, mad dash for the best deal or piece of plastic. My life has taken on the form of slowing down, noticing, watching, even in the darkness. 

And it was in doing so yesterday and today, that I realized something rather special in the ordinary. 

We’ve all become used to seeing wild turkeys on roadsides, in our yards and occasionally even up in the trees they fly to when danger lurks or  nighttime falls. But . . . think about it. Meleagris gallopavo, that fancy scientific name, have been the comeback kids since farms of yore reverted  to forest, thus allowing these large birds to reestablish in their former range. 

Because I put bird seed in feeders and spread it on the ground, the neighborhood turkeys stop by for an hour or two at least twice a day. 

And they aren’t the only visitors to the feast, for red . . . 

and gray squirrels also take advantage of the free meal. 

But it was the male turkeys upon whom I focused much of my attention for it occurred to me today that they were unicorns in their own right. Unicorns had a single horn protruding from the center of their heads, right? Okay, so maybe its a snood. But still.

As for their magical powers, have you ever noticed that a male’s featherless head of blue and pink and red raised bumps called caruncles change colors with his moods?

Shifting my eyes to the back of the shanks or leg, the unicorn theme was reiterated in the form of a pointed spur. 

The theme again was repeated behind the toes, where a claw stuck out on its own in the area we might call a heel.

Check out the bottom of that foot, its bumpy surface much like a no-skid sock. Certainly there must be more magical powers protected within.

From behind a window in the back door that served as a bit of a screen, I watched the feeding station without disturbing the activity. The squirrels and male turkeys (their rafter ranging in size from 9 to 13 depending on the hour), devoured the sunflower seeds. 

It appeared to be a blissful co-existence. 

Until it wasn’t. The gray squirrel was the aggressor. 

Every few minutes, it took a flying leap and so did the young jakes and older Tom. 

Simultaneously, other gray squirrels decided to show off their own super powers, such as finally scaling one of the poles. Too bad I hadn’t put a suet feeder on it yet. 

He moved on to the bigger feeder–jumping first onto a baffle intended to keep him out. From there, he reached the top of the squirrel-proof feeder, and . . . um . . . 

proceeded to open the cover of the seed tube. 

The interior must have seemed like manna from heaven. 

Into the inner sanctuary he descended. 

His super powers included his ability to debunk “squirrel proof” and perform a disappearing act–almost. 

The day continued and so did the turkey and squirrel activity. And then, as the turkeys were moving away, a healthy red fox climbed over the stone wall, walked among the turkeys and paused. The squirrels again performed a disappearing act and were silent for once, but the turkeys didn’t appear threatened. Perhaps the fox was sated for the moment. 

In the case of the turkey, and yes, also the squirrels, we complain there are too many. But, we should give thanks that we’ve created an environment that’s conducive to successful turkey breeding. As for the explosive squirrel population that resulted from last year’s mast production of pine, beech and oak fruits, the red fox is on the hunt. 

At the end of the day, calling a turkey a unicorn is in the eye of the beholder. But, in his own form of handsomeness, he portrays a similar sign of hope.

As the holiday season continues, I hope you’ll also make time to watch . . . and be attentive to other signs of hope. 

Frigid Reflections at Flat Hill/Perky’s Path

A sheet of ice greeted me in the parking lot at the GLLT’s Flat Hill trailhead this morning, not to be unexpected given the recent rain and fluctuation in temperature. From -8˚on Monday to +50˚ midweek and this morning back to 0˚, we’ve been riding a thermometer rollercoaster. Consequently, I chose micro-spikes over snowshoes and made sure I packed my hiking pole and hand warmers.

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Even the pumpkin had an ice covering? What? I know not where this came from or what the “5” means, but it sits upon the basswood stump beside the lot and greets all who pass by.

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Despite the rain and warmer temps for a couple of days, the snowpack is still over a foot deep and quite dense.

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In fact, it’s so dense, that a previous snowshoer who probably had hiked this way last weekend, barely broke through, and I was able to stay on top, except for an occasional post hole. Well, maybe more than occasional given that I frequently went off the main trail to check things out.

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Upon the trail, the leaves of marcescent trees gathered in the snowshoe indentations.

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Even a few that aren’t marcescent made their presence known, like this sugar maple. A friend ask me recently about the pronunciation of that word that I love to say because of how it makes my mouth work: ˌmärˈses(ə)nt. He wanted the first “c” to be hard, but indeed it isn’t.

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A birch polypore growing at an abnormal angle made me wonder what had happened. I’m still wondering.

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And then I spotted a different color on the snow beneath a beech tree. This was when I realized that rather than my hiking boots I should have worn snow boots. A few post holes and the snow slipped in under the boot tongues.

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But . . . it was worth it. Up high–the elongated hole created by a pileated woodpecker.

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And down low–its scat. My day was made and I could have gone home, but . . . didn’t.

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As I continued hiking, I noticed tracks that crossed the trail in several places. They weren’t quite discernible, but I had a feeling they’d been made by a fisher. And then, further along, I noticed these, which though not perfect, were easier to determine. Their pigeon-toed, sashaying behavior indicated porcupine, a resident of this place (and prey of the fisher).

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And at the summit, deer tracks.

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I love the name Flat Hill–an oxymoron it seems, though once you climb up, you realize that the top is almost flat. And from here the Baldfaces and Mount Washington enhance the view. I looked around for the typical porcupine works and perhaps the critter itself who sometimes can be seen in the treetops, but was disappointed to see neither. Despite the hand warmers, my fingers were frozen–probably because I kept taking my mittens off to take photos. I’d intended to eat lunch at the top, but it wasn’t to be.

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Common polypody ferns that grow on the summit rock curled inward as if to confirm my chill.

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And as I turned to descend, the blueness of pine sap seeping from a woodpecker hole also spoke to the day–the lower the temp, the bluer it appears.

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It was that sap that pulled my attention to another sight I’d missed on the way up. White pine branches were scattered below a couple of trees and tracks were almost visible all around.

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I looked up, but my friend was nowhere to be seen. And so I looked down to admire his work–angled cuts and nibbled needles. I can honestly say I’ve never paid attention to the needle works before.

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Amongst his offerings tree bark also decorated the forest floor for he discarded the bark to get at the cambium layer beneath. The one thing I didn’t find was scat. And believe me, I searched.

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Though most of his work was on older trees, younger ones had also been visited. I was just to the left of the trail summit and in the past I’ve searched the ledge below for a den. Today, I didn’t do so, but his path led in that direction. Perhaps he saved his scat to serve as insulation back at the homestead. I don’t know, can porcupines choose when and where to leave such offerings? Usually it seems that they don’t have such control.

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I left the porcupine findings behind and headed back down to Perky’s Path, a favorite place because of the wetland it passes through.

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No humans had been this way in a while, but a critter recently paid a visit.

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My brain went into overdrive. Could it be? Well, it had been warm for two days, so it could . . . be a raccoon. When I’m alone, I’m 100% correct, but today I kept questioning myself. The prints were the right size and the pattern and habitat worked. But if you think otherwise, I’m willing to listen.

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What I do know is that the beaver lodge, the uppermost hump on the left, remained abandoned.

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I decided to follow the wetland for a bit, until something caught my eye near the root system of an downed tree closer to the trail.

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Hair. Small tufts of it.

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Gray. With red tips.

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Hollow in structure.

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Beside hair-filled scat. There were no prints in the snow, such as it was. I wasn’t even digging post holes at that point, with the temperature lower closer to the wetland. Here’s my story of what I saw. As a red fox searched for prey, including in the hole beside the downed tree, the mites that have infected its skin made it itch. The tree roots provided the perfect back scratcher (there were a few hairs hanging from it) and so the fox took advantage. Its scat–incidental or intended, I’m not sure. Typically, it’s intended, leaving a message to others about boundaries, age, sex and the like. Does it also announce the presence of mites? Red foxes and not gray, are affected by the sarcoptic mange mites.

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After such a finding, I needed to move on. By the bridges that cross the wetland, the view was as beautiful as ever.

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Royal ferns, almost a memory, leaned over the water’s edge.

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Trees offered reflections in the flow of the water.

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And ice gathered in solid, yet fluid motion.

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Hoar frost flowers bloomed, speaking to the frigid temp.

I, too, was chilled, but happy to have time to reflect on the lives that call Flat Hill and Perky’s Path home. And then I was happy to head home, the heat in my truck on high for most of the trip.