Perhaps we’re getting smarter in our old age. Or maybe luck just happened to be on our side today. The thing is . . . we remembered to pack our micro-spikes–a first for this season.
Our intended hike: Kearsarge North off Hurricane Mountain Road just beyond North Conway, New Hampshire. The Fire Tower was our destination at 3.1 miles and while the conditions looked clear yet wet from the trailhead, we suspected we’d discover otherwise after about two miles.
It’s a steep hike with roots and rocks for those first two miles and then the trail transitions to granite ledge. So no matter what, if one wants to look up, one needs to pause. Otherwise, at least for us, we developed hiker’s neck, the exact opposite of spring’s warbler neck.
But . . . when one looks down, one sees some fun stuff like this frothy collection, an interaction of water friction and air. Tiny bubbles . . . make me happy, make me feel fine.
The bright yellow of a slime mold also captured my attention until I realized it was actually trailblazefungusamongus.
A look up and I knew exactly from whence it sprouted.
Another sweet find was a small patch of Pipsissewa, their leaves evergreen, and buds already formed for next summer. Scientifically known as Chimaphila umbellata, it’s a native wildflower of the Pyrola family that blooms in July.
As we continued to climb, we encountered one hiker on his way down and asked him about the conditions for the rest of the way. He informed us that there was snow but not so much ice, which we’ve encountered on this steep trail in the past.
And then we met it! Another first for this season. SNOW!!!!
It just got prettier and prettier the higher we climbed. That said, conditions were slippery underfoot than the first hiker stated and we encountered another hiker descending in sneakers who struggled to stay upright.
Yet another first, for where there is snow, there are tracks–those of our fellow hikers, but also of the wild mammals with whom we shared the space and I couldn’t help but smile at these left behind by a Red Squirrel. Let the tracking season begin.
As the conditions underfoot got a tad bit rougher, I chose to put on my spikes for the final quarter mile, which happens to be the longest quarter mile in the world.
I didn’t realize until we got home that I never took any photos of the trail once conditions worsened until we reached the summit, and the same on the way down because I was so focused on placing one foot in the right spot before choosing where to put the other foot.
But . . . none of that mattered when we reached the summit. This was once the sight of an inn that was destroyed by storms. In the early 1900s the fire tower was erected, rebuilt in the 1950s and manned until the late ’60s. Today, hikers can get out of the wind and take in the 360˚ views.
Do you see my guy on the stairs?
From the deck surrounding the tower, one can look toward Upper Kimball Pond in Chatham, NH, and on to the ridge line of our Pleasant Mountain in western Maine.
Or below to North Conway.
Or beyond to the White Mountains.
But the best part is stepping inside to sign the guest book, eat a late lunch, and enjoy the views without the wind.
We didn’t stay long because it was late and we could see precipitation in the offing. And both donned our spikes once we got to the base of the tower.
Lowering by the moment, the sun occasionally glowed upon the trail as we descended. Eventually, it disappeared completely and felt like someone had turned off the light as it gets dark early in the mountains. About halfway down it began to sleet.
All that said, two things came to mind. As much as I fret while climbing up because I dread what the hike down will be like (if only I could just hike upward and meet either an elevator or helicopter at the top–in a perfect world), that descent is always much easier, even when it’s as technical as today’s difficult hike, than my brain imagined. Of course, the spikes and a hiking pole were huge aids.
And as my guy said when we started to see snow on the trail and trees, “This is what’s to come.” Indeed.
When we reached home I saw an email from a friend that included this line: “Your favorite season is coming.” Yes, Karen Herold, it is!
I’m working on a challenging article and can’t quite figure out how to introduce the topic. After a bunch of attempts, I suddenly had an inspired idea . . . drop the pen, walk away from the legal pad and head out the door.
And so I did despite the freezing rain that was falling atop this morning’s snow. Heading down a trail I haven’t had a chance to step upon in months, I realized that I was among old friends who had passed by prior to the storm.
In fact, every where I went for the next two plus hours, they had been there before me.
Their tree of choice also gave away their presence and I fear that there won’t be too many red maple leaves in bloom come spring. Imagine this: a moose needs to consume fifty to sixty pounds of vegetation daily–that’s a lot of buds, twigs, and bark.
With their lower incisors and hard toothless upper palate, they grabbed the twigs and yanked to pull the buds off for consumption. Left behind were their calling cards–long dangling tags. Some were at least three feet above my head.
Also think about that moose face–homely and ungainly as it may be with a large upper lip that can wrap around the twig in order to dine, and the bell or dewlap dangling below its mouth.
With utter glee I found some hair stuck to one twig and it wasn’t the hollow shafts of its dense coat, so I wondered if in the process of browsing, hair had come off its face or dewlap.
As I said, the moose had traveled throughout the woods and I began to follow their tracks exclusively, for they always lead to coppiced red maples that are trying to make a comeback in these woods that were logged within the last five to ten years.
It was on one of the trees that I did find the hollow hair shafts, and I’ve used black arrows to try to point them out to you. There were three which seemed to intersect at the point where the twig had been swiped. Notice how straight they are, especially in contrast to the slender, curly hair.
The more I looked, the more soft, curly hairs I found. Hmmm, I have a feeling any of my hunter friends can enlighten me, for now I’m considering belly hair? Is it softer? Or am I correct in thinking about the chin hairs?
It doesn’t matter. Well, it does because I’d like to know.
And maybe the chickadees were trying to tell me as they flew in and landed on maples while singing their “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song. But what mattered most was that I got outside and cleared my brain and came up with an introduction to the challenging article: It was a dark and dreary day . . . oh drats, I can’t use that–especially since despite the snow and rain, I hardly found it dark or dreary.
I think instead, I’ll begin in the middle and see where the article takes me from there. In the meantime, though I didn’t see them, I’m tickled to know that there are still several moose in the woods behind our house.
It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.
And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.
Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.
Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.
Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.
Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).
Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.
The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.
It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)
Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.
Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.
We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.
And so Joe did.
And Dawn followed suit.
It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.
I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.
At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.
Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.
Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.
And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?
There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.
This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.
And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.
One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.
Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.
I bet you can see it now.
I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.
Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.
We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.
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.
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?
With the most recent snowstorm now history, I strapped on my snowshoes this morning with a sense of eager anticipation about the possibilities. And then it hit me like the snow plops that fell from the trees and landed on my head or slid down my neck: I could do this while others could not and it was for them that I needed to focus.
I hadn’t gone far when my first moment of wonder stood before me. Actually, just prior, I’d been looking at some pileated woodpecker works–ever on the search for the bird’s scat, and in the process had noticed other bird scat soiling the snow. But . . . what was all the amber color?
Had snow collected on mushrooms that decorated the bark? If so, why hadn’t I seen them yesterday or the day before?
Upon a closer look, I realized it was sap. But why the big clumps? And why so much on a dead snag?
I poked it with my finger and found it to be of snow consistency. And so . . . the mystery remained. But it was certainly worth a wonder and I knew that those I was intentionally walking for would appreciate the sight. And yes, I did see plenty of other examples of dripping sap at the base of trees, but nothing like this. As usual, if you know what was going on, please enlighten me.
My next moment of wonder was one that always gives me pause–and again I knew that my friends would feel the same. A miniature evergreen world momentarily encapsulated in a droplet of melting snow.
Everywhere, the meltdown offered a variety of shapes and designs, each worthy of reverence . . . and a photograph, of course.
One of my favorites was plastered to a tree in such a way that it looked like it was flat against the bark until further study revealed otherwise. As it melted before my eyes, its ever changing formation resembled a series of little flowers scattered here and there. Just maybe you have to see that through my eyes.
And then I stumbled upon another mystery–a web of sorts like Charlotte might have woven? I studied the shrub and found numerous examples of a similar pattern, but no arachnids in sight. Besides, the silky lines seemed too thick. But, what could it be? It took me a while as I studied the area and then I remembered. Before the snowstorm, I’d taken some photographs of the winter structure of a thistle. The storm had knocked down the fruiting form, but I think my gaze was upon the filaments that had served as parachutes for the thistle’s seeds.
My journey into the winter wonderland continued, though not all the trees along the way were fortunate to withstand the weight of the snow that was quickly melting. It sounded like a rain storm as I walked under the arched branches.
At the the other end of the snow tunnel, I emerged into a field with its own offerings. Typically, I pass by, but today I was inspired by those who virtually walked with me to explore. And I don’t think they’ll be disappointed by the findings. First there was the Goldenrod Ball Gall. The round gall occurred in the middle of a stem, the top of which had broken off. In the spring, the Goldenrod gall fly laid her eggs on the stem. Hatched larvae chewed their way into the stem and the gall started to develop. And from the looks of the hole on the side, it appeared the creator had chewed its way out and flown off.
Also in the field, a Rose Bedeguar Gall, aka Robin’s Pincushion Gall on Meadowsweet, which happens to be a member of the rose family. Burrowing in to the leaves and stem of the plant was a two-fold offering for the fly larvae it hosted, for the insect benefited from the nutrients while it was simultaneously protected from predators.
There were also numerous examples of a structure that might baffle the onlooker. Beaded formations of the fertile stalk from a Sensitive Fern poked up through the snow. Typically, the beads or capsules remain intact with their brown dust-like spores waiting inside for the structure to break open during the rains of early spring.
I moved on from the field and eventually reached a wetland that I couldn’t cross. But, I could stand and listen and so I did. All around me the forest orchestra performed its Plop, Plop, Swish, Plop, Splash symphony.
At first, it sounded and looked like I was surrounded by a million wild animals, but really . . . all the sound and sights were a result of snow falling, either gently with a whisper of the wind or harshly with a thud and splash.
As I stood there looking for the million wild mammals, my eyes focused on the works of something much smaller. Insect egg tunnels on a dead snag’s trunk read like a story on paper.
The longer tunnels were bored by a female Bark Beetle. From the sides of her tunnels, larval mines radiated outward. The overall design could have been an abstract drawing.
At last I started for home, thankful that I was retracing my steps for often new sights are revealed when one does that. And so, I believe it was a crust fungus and perhaps it was an oak curtain crust fungus, but let it remain that I discovered a fungus I don’t think I’ve seen before, with a warty, rust-colored underside and dark upperside. Suffice it to say, it was a mushroom of some sort.
Along the way was a script lichen, which looked to me like someone had doodled. Commas and apostrophes decorated that page.
And then, and then, Tetragnatha viridis, a green long-jawed orb weaver. I actually saw two of them. Typically, the translucent green color helps them camouflage amongst pine needles, their usual habitat, but they can frequently be seen on snow, especially if the temperature is in the 25˚-35˚ range as it was this morning.
The orb weaver’s characteristics: eight eyes in two parallel sets of four; long chelicerae (jaws); enlarged pedipalps; long legs with spines; and that color–oh my!
It was for eight parallel eyes that I walked today, the eight representing Jinny Mae, Dick, Kate, and Carol.
Where trees didn’t cover the trail the snow was about fourteen inches deep and as you can see I chose the wrong boots and forgot my gators. But that was okay because I knew that I would eventually wander home and change my sopping wet socks. What mattered more was the fact that I was honored to step out for others when they couldn’t necessarily do the same. Here’s to the four of you–thanks for letting me be your eyes.
Oh, it wasn’t as bright as yesterday when I wandered in brilliant light under clear blue skies and saw hints of spring, including skunk prints in the snow,
and some blue-green algae in a vernal pool that is slowly opening up.
But given the temperature and wind, the ice goddess reminded me that winter prevailed.
This morning presented a different picture that didn’t feature Mount Washington in the background because it was obscured by clouds. Rather than don my snowshoes, I decided to stick to the snowmobile trail for the most part. I wasn’t the only one who ventured that way. Because I wasn’t making as much noise as usual, the deer didn’t hear me approach. And so we stood for many minutes contemplating each other. I didn’t want to scare her for I knew she wouldn’t just stick to the trail and the snow depth continues to be such that she sinks with each step. It was in those shared moments that I began to think about energy and how much she put forth all winter and now continues to do the same as spring evolves. Every day I spy more and more young hemlocks trunks that have been scraped. She and her family are feeding on sunlight, which first feed the insects in the soil and then the trees. At each stage or tropic level of the food chain only ten percent of biomass from the previous level is retained. Thus, a thousand pounds of plant biomass is necessary to support a hundred pounds of an herbivore–that’s a lot of little buds for a deer.
Eventually, she made her way across the powerline and joined her family. I decided to turn around so I wouldn’t disturb them further. And it’s then that I recognized some prints I’d missed previously. My micro-spike print is on the left, beside those of a carnivore–a bobcat, or rather, two. Usually bobcats travel in a solitary manner, but their breeding season is upon them. And those thousand pounds of plant biomass that supported a hundred pounds of herbivore, in turn support ten pounds of carnivore. The hunt becomes important.
I did find a few spots where the snow had melted and winter weeds, such as this motherwort, provided hints of future buffet items for the herbivores and omnivores to consume.
And then I came upon junco feathers and knew that a different consumer had benefited from the sunlight offered forth by this little bird. The hemlock needle provides a perspective of size.
Despite its demise, the feathers surrounded by melting snow created an artistic arrangement. That was my attempt at positive thinking, for like us, all things must eat to survive.
And then a few producers caught my attention and I found myself focusing on young trees and shrubs. I’ve walked past this young tree numerous times and never saw it until today.
White ash or green? They both look similar, but the leaf scar is the giveaway. It’s shaped like a C or misshapen horseshoe with a deep notch at the top.
And its terminal bud is domed. In these woods, the ash trees aren’t a preferred food source of the deer–lucky for them.
Nearby, another neighbor caught my attention and it, too, I hadn’t met before.
My assumption was dogwood, given the bright red/purpishish color of its shrubby stems, long-gone fruits and opposite leaf buds. But–red osier or silky? I’ve leaned toward the latter but will have to pay attention as the season moves forward. These did seem to tickle the herbivores fancy from time to time, though not nearly as much as the maples that grow nearby.
As I headed toward home, I stumbled upon another site I’ve seen frequently all winter. Actually for the past few winters. There must be a peanut plantation somewhere in these woods. That, or the blue jays have discovered a good source at someone’s bird feeder.
Before heading indoors, I paused to acknowledge another ice goddess, one who also knows the sun’s power and found relief in today’s shadows . . .
and flakes. It’s snowing again, this fourth day of spring. Liquid sunshine, for the snow also provides nourishment to all who live here.
You see, the sun always shines . . . even when you can’t feel the warmth of its rays.
A fresh layer of snow makes my heart sing and I can’t resist any opportunity to look at footprints left behind by those who travel through it.
And so early this morning I followed the trail of a fox who had walked in a straight line for the most part, with a wee diversion here and there, perhaps to sniff out possibilities.
While the fox’s path continued northward, I decided to turn at the logging road and headed west, curious as to what stories might unfold.
It was the papery calyx of Indian Tobacco to which my eye was next drawn. Its winter manifestation, both delicate and light, offered an ethereal image in a global manner.
Often a solitary plant, I found it scattered along the path. And then, at one particular spot, I noticed something more than just its form and stature.
This was the sight of coyote play. Several coyotes at play, in fact.
And one, or maybe more than one, had peed on the Indian Tobacco. Curiously, Lobelia inflata, as it is known, is a poisonous annual–maybe the coyotes knew that. Or maybe it was just the right spot for one to claim familial rights.
I’d arrived at the log landing, that staging place to which logs are hauled, trimmed and loaded onto timber trucks. It’s also the perfect stage for all who dance in the night. In this case, I noted the tracks of at least four coyotes, presumably a family clan, who’d zigged and zagged as they crossed the landing.
Sometimes they’d followed each other and then split apart.
But over and over again, they came together, perhaps to play. And maybe it was also a rehearsal for future hunts, practicing yet again how to circle prey.
I turned around at this point, and as I headed back, I suddenly realized a moose had passed, though earlier than the coyote clan.
And a snowshoe hare had also bounded through the scene previously.
More in tune with the coyotes’ time frame, a ruffed grouse had left tracks, but I trust flew off without meeting its demise–yet.
On my way back, with my eyes still drawn downward, I noticed other visitors. I suspect this was a carpenter ant.
It was beside a rushing stream and its wings were folded. Had it taken a dip? It kept raising one leg at a time, as if uncertain of the snowy base upon which it walked.
I found snow cutworms, the larval stage of a noctrid moth. They were less than an inch long, similar in size to a balsam fir needle and I’m not sure how I keyed into them, except that once I did, I noticed them again and again. How had I missed ever viewing these before, I wondered.
Also quite minute, a tiny spider that posed beside my boot.
Its hairy body seemed to suit the situation.
But my favorite find of all, a much larger spider . . .
complete with a translucent green head and legs, made lighter by the flash of my camera. Why, oh why, did it cross the snow? Perhaps it was a fishing spider? If you know, do tell.
What I know is that it was beautiful, brought a smile to my face, made my heart sing and was the perfect culmination of all that I had wondered about at my feet.
(P.S. Fellow Master Naturalist Alan Seamans shared this with me: ” The beautiful green spider is Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. The color of the abdomen is variable, sometimes with little red, other times with a lot of red like yours (doesn’t seem to be gender-related either). Normally their green color helps them camouflage amongst pine needles, their usual habitat, however it seems that they are frequently spotted in winter on snow for some reason! This species is common in the eastern US. Your specimen shows several i.d. characteristics: eight eyes in two sets of four parallel; long chelicerae (jaws), long legs with spines, and of course the beautiful green color. I will make a guess that it is a female because it lacks enlarged pedipalps? The genus is also called stretch spiders, ’cause that’s what they do! Stretch out those long legs so they look thin and blend in on pine needles and twigs.” Thank you, Alan.
I took to The Mountain today, as we fondly refer to Pleasant Mountain ’round these parts, in search of what it might teach me.
It was chilly as I started up the Bald Peak Trail. Beside the stream, I thought about its life-giving capacity.
It wasn’t only the stream that was wet. The leaves were covered in droplets that acted as a hand lens–offering a closer look at the structure.
Sue’s Way is about .7 up Bald Peak. For all my treks up The Mountain, I’ve never tried her way. I don’t know Sue and had no idea what to expect.
It begins in a beech grove. As I continued, the beech and oak leaves were so thick that I couldn’t identify the trail, and sometimes had to pause and search for the next orange blaze. It slowed me down and made me pay attention.
Especially to things like this old beech. I knelt beside it, praying the wind wouldn’t decide this was the moment to shout timber, and realized the tree was hollow in the center. Somehow, with a minimum bit of sapwood under what’s left of the outer bark, this fella made enough food to leaf out. To keep on giving even when times are tough.
Its leaves looked a bit worse for wear, but they exist. This beech is. So am I.
The community soon changed and I followed a stream bed where water flowed below the rocks.
An enchanted valley–I was in the land of the evergreen ferns. Evergreen Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)–first downward pointing pinnule on the lowest pinna is shorter than the pinnule next to it. Huh? In fern terms: a fern frond consists of the blade and stipe or stalk; a blade is the leafy part of one frond; each blade is divided into separate leaflets or pinna; and the pinna may be divided into smaller leaflets called pinnules.
I didn’t mention the rachis–that’s the stalk within the blade. So take a look at the rachis and the first set of pinnae. The one on the right is a big ragged, but on the left, you should see that the first downward-pointing pinnule is shorter than the second.
Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) also flourishes here. Its margins are smooth, where as the Evergreen’s are toothed and have bristle tips.
I found some that were fertile, with their round sori located near the margin–thus the common name.
In some spots, they grow so close to each other, that they seem to be the same plant. Not so–Evergreen Wood on the left and Marginal Wood on the right. Teachable moment.
Polypody also grows abundantly, giving the rocks a green head of tussled hair.
At last I reached the next intersection and took a quick trip out to the Shawnee Peak ski slopes.
It won’t be long. I thought about my guy who raced yesterday in the Moose Pond Half Marathon, a fundraiser that benefits the Shawnee Peak Adaptive Ski Program. I’m so proud of him for finishing the race in 1:56:44, four minutes faster than his time last year, and for placing first in his age group (last year he was second). Not only that, but he raised $550 for the cause.
Back on the trail, heading along the North Ridge, I realized that the leaves made a louder crackling sound–ice. Winter will come again.
The North Ridge, with its white and red pines towering above and blueberries and sheep laurel below, has always been one of my favorite spots.
What I didn’t realize is that speckled alders and gray birches also manage to live in this neighborhood.
I was no longer following Sue’s Way, but trust she looped around the North Ridge often. My journey took me in the opposite direction than is my norm at this point, so it was fun to view the mountain ridge and see the fire tower halfway across–my destination.
Look what I found when I moved onto the Bald Peak Trail to follow the ridge line: SNOW!
And a parachute that flew in on the breeze. Perhaps this will grow into a healthy milkweed and the monarchs will find it. Hope is eternal.
At the summit, I couldn’t have asked for a crisper view of Mount Washington.
Like our mountain, Mount Washington always gives us a sense of location. But it provides more than that. Beauty and splendor. Awe and wonder.
Hiking down the Ledges Trail, I noticed the hieroglyphic work of bark beetles on one tree, and human beetles on another. I prefer the former, but this goes to show that natural and human forces constantly change what is before us.
And then I came to black knot fungus on a cherry tree. In a previous post, I identified a growth on a cherry tree as black knot and a friend corrected me. I wasn’t sure he was right, but turns out he was. What I saw previously was the casing of tent caterpillars–not black knot. Thanks to Alan S. for pointing that out. I still have a lot to learn. Thank goodness.
A glistening Beaver Pond in Denmark offered a brilliant reflection of this cool, crisp day.
As I continued to descend, I was ever mindful of the leaves beneath my feet. They weren’t so wet on this trail, but still slippery. I was wallowing in my good luck as I neared the road, when the earth reached up to grab me. A rock actually. Maybe two rocks. I landed with a thud. A young couple didn’t see me go down, but they heard me. I stood up and shook it off, though I can tell you right now exactly where my body made contact. Humbling for sure. It’s not my first fall. And I hope it won’t be my last. Not that I want to fall again, but I don’t want a fall to prevent me from hiking.
Five point two miles later I was back on Mountain Road and still had a mile and a half to walk before reaching my truck, which I’d left at the other trailhead.
No matter how often I climb The Mountain, I come away a better person for time spent enjoying moments in its presence.