Intrepid Travelers

When we gathered at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Fairburn parking lot on Slab City Road at 9:30 this morning, the thermometer registered 4˚. But the good news–no wind. And . . . the six Tuesday Trackers who decided to join me and brave the elements were dressed for the occasion.

First though, it seemed I wanted to test their endurance so we circled up for a few minutes and they used mirrors to see how a deer might see (and I should have taken a photo, but didn’t) and then I shared some casts I’d made of track prints. This one was a red fox and not only was the hair a bit visible, but so was the shape of a chevron, which some see as a boomerang in the heel pad of the front foot. I should note that this particular cast was made from a road kill specimen, so the toes and nails aren’t exactly as close together as they typically would be, especially on a cold morning in January.

The next cast to view–a coyote in mud. I love this one because it demonstrates the direct registration of a back foot stepping into the impression made by the front foot. And the X we always associate with the canines, including Eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, was visible. Notice the parallel toes close together and nails that point inward–all for the sake of retaining heat.

And finally in this morning’s demonstration, a bobcat cast with more of a C shape between the toes and heel pad.

At last we walked down the road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

I chose this trail for today’s adventure because I had a feeling we might see what we saw–an otter slide! It’s a rare winter day when such activity isn’t visible there.

I was thrilled to note that a few people had beat us to the sight and observed the same. As we stood above the dam, we spied where the otter had come up out of the water, made its way around several trees . . .

then slide down into Mill Brook below. By the tracks and impressions in the trail we could envision his motion. And if folks had wanted to quit then, it would have been okay because we’d been so honored already.

But they are a hardy group and right near the otter slide, prints of another were noted and based on their wee size and the diagonal angle of their presentation we knew we were looking at the track of either an ermine or long-tailed weasel. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two by the print size. But the cool thing was that though they appear light in the photograph, the prints that we saw were a mirror image of what David Brown drew on his Trackards. (I think I should get a commission for promoting his cards, but really, they are the best.)

Following the weasel prints, Tom found a hole by a tree and got down to check on any activity within. His report came with a grin: “It’s deep.” Was the weasel successful in finding a meal? We don’t know. But we do know that it’s typical of them to check out every little hole and make some of their own.

Continuing our journey, we’d hardly gone far from the dam when we happened upon another creator of fine tracks. Bingo! A red fox by its shape, size, and chevron.

And then. And then we found prints left behind by a mink, their size a bit larger than the weasel. By now, we were in seventh heaven. Or so we thought. For there was more.

I’d just said to one of the group that we’d seen otter, weasel and mink–all members of the Mustelid family. It was due time for a fisher . . . and what to our wondering eyes should appear?

Tell-tale prints left behind by a fisher that had loped through the woods. Do you see the five tear-drop shaped toes?

Being good trackers, we decided to back track it, for one shouldn’t follow an animal and put stress on it. And so we headed toward the pond.

One in our group had gone ahead and under a hemlock Heinrich discovered a meal partially eaten. The fisher prints led directly to and from it. A mushroom? That was my first thought until I took off my mitten and played with it. A roll? Whole wheat? Had the fisher stopped at Burger King or raided someone’s ice fishing party? Did he eat the meat and discard the roll? Not into whole wheat? Certainly he prefers a gluten-free diet.

Behind the hemlock, we followed his tracks and noted a spot where he’d sat and fussed about for a bit. Was this his lunch site? If so, he’d at least not left any wrappers behind.

As the morning went on, one set of tracks led us to those made by another and near the fisher we found more red fox impressions.

Astute eyes for we’re all so trained, also noted a dash of pee by a broken branch. Typical red fox behavior, especially given that this is mating season. But . . . in the air we couldn’t smell that delightfully skunky scent we associate with fox pee.

That is . . . until Pam got down. It was not as strong as we sometimes notice so we wondered if it was because of the cold air.

Despite that, Tuesday Tracker initiation involves getting down on all fours like Bob did. . .

and sniffing just like Paula. Come on–you know you want to join us and gain some bragging rights.

We decided to follow the fox for a while doing what we shouldn’t have done as we followed its forward motion rather than back, but suspected it was long out of range. We weren’t sure if it was one or a pair. At a tree, rather than pee, it or they seemed to dance around and possibly poke a nose into the snow. By now, the cold could have been getting to us and we were making up the story we read on the powdery page.

Eventually we did come to two sets of fox tracks and split our group in half, each following one set to see if they’d intersect again.

Well, the fox tracks led us back to the fisher and suddenly to the snowmobile trail. We saw that the fisher had headed up hill and thought we might spy it again if we followed the trail that leads toward Whiting Hill, so up we did climb. In no time at all, we found a pattern left behind by a little brown thing (LBT by tracking standards) and knew it was either a deer mouse or white-footed mouse out on a risky mission in search of seeds.

Next, a snowshoe hare had crossed the trail and we recognized it by its snow lobster shape. If you look at the second set of prints in this photograph, you’ll note that the animal was moving toward me and the two larger prints in the front were of its hind feet which had wrapped around and landed as the two smaller front feet leaped forward. Thus the overall impression looks like a lobster–at least in our minds.

Just beyond the hare, we met what we’d been looking for, the fisher. And then on a stone wall, Paula discovered two holes where it must have dug down looking for a meal. Was it successful? We so wanted a kill site to know what the critters had been eating, but saw no signs of blood or hair or bones or carcasses.

What we did see–a dribble of fisher pee that Pam checked out.

In the midst of fisher tracking, we came upon intersections, including one of a coyote and red fox. What kept us guessing was the apparent foot drag of the coyote. Was some of it tail drag? The snow under the powder was quite crusty so most of the fresh prints we found today didn’t require the mammals to break through the snow. But . . . had this coyote injured a foot on a previous journey when it was breaking through?

As the morning went on, the Trackers had to leave one by one and two by two until it was only Pam and me still on the prowl. We followed the fisher for a long way, and noted where it paused momentarily upon humps, but never discovered any sign of eating.

Eventually, we too, had to find our way out of the woods. It was rather easy for we followed the tracks the others had left behind. And chuckled at the patterns we all left in the snow. Not exactly discernible. What will the mammals say when they pause and study our prints?

Crazy humans! Ah, but I think they’ll also call us intrepid travelers, for like them, we prowled about on a frigid winter day.

We all left thrilled for we’d seen the tracks of so many in this mammal corridor. And curiously we noted those we hadn’t seen: deer and squirrel in particular, as well as moose and bobcat. Another day perhaps.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Pam, Heinrich, Nancy, Paula, Bob, Tom, and yours truly. Intrepid indeed.

Eyes of Wonder

On the first and third Tuesday of each month since the snow first flew in 2017, I’ve had the privilege of tramping through the woods with our Tuesday Trackers group. As it happened this month, we were also able to tramp together today–the fourth Tuesday.

Each week, the participants vary as they come when they can. But no matter who shows up, by the end of our two-four hour exploration, we are all wiser for the experience–and filled with gratitude for the opportunity to spend a winter morning in the Maine woods. We are also grateful for the wonder that is right in front of us, not only materializing in the form of mammal tracks, but all manner of things that make up the web of life.

j1-otters romping across the snow

Usually the age of our attendees ranges from 50-something to 80-something. But today we were joined by four little otters who reminded us what it’s like to be a child again as they bounded across the snow’s crust, and rejoiced at the sight of any and every little thing that presented itself from squirrel and chipmunk holes to fungi.

j2-squirrel prints

Of course, we were there to track and though most prints were bleached out from the sun’s March rays, we did find a few that showed well their finer points such as toes.

j14-measuring straddle

And with any discernible prints, the kids reminded us to take time to measure straddle, in this case that of a gray squirrel. We also found what we believed was a bobcat track based on the round shape of the somewhat melted print and the stride.

j3-ice and water

Most of us began the journey with snowshoes, but soon joined the kids and shedded them as we moved from frozen snow to bare ground and back again. And then we discovered water. Actually, a few of us were a wee bit behind, when one child ran up to her mom and said, “A vernal pool.” If it does turn out to be a vernal pool, we feared it will dry up too soon, but that doesn’t mean the amphibians won’t take advantage of the spot in a few weeks. It was half covered in ice, which offered a challenge because two of the boys wanted to break through it with a stick. The third boy did break through–much to his dismay. But as his calm mom said, ” Well, now he’ll know next time.” (Juli–I can’t help but smile–you are the best.)

j4-helping hands

Fortunately, for his sake, we came upon a maple tree with a huge burl on which he sat while others on the journey came to his aid and squeezed a gallon of water, or so it seemed, out of his socks. His mom had an extra pair of mittens in her pack and those covered his toes for the rest of the trek. He wore his boots, of course. While we were there, we wondered about burls and tried to remember what created them. I suggested insects and another thought perhaps fungi. It turns out we were both correct. They may also be caused by bacteria or a virus. What the young lad sat upon was a reaction of the tree to the infestation which resulted in abnormal growth due to changes in the tree’s hormones. Think of its vascular system as a twisted ball of yarn.

j5-sucker brook outlet into Kezar Lake's Lower Bay

After the sock ringing and mitten fitting episode played out, we turned around to take in the beauty of the Sucker Brook Outlet at the Lower Bay of Kezar Lake for we were on the John A. Segur East Wildlife Refuge on Farrington Pond Road.

In the distance, one lad spied a beaver lodge. You might see it as a brown dot on the snow-covered ice directly above a swamp maple snag in the center of this photo.

j6-wintergreen and spring tails

We also looked at our boots, where we rejoiced in the site of wintergreen plants evolving from their magenta winter coats. And spring tails jumping about on the leaf litter like performers in an unorganized circus.

j9-squirrel table

Upon a downed birch tree, a certain young lady found the perfect spot to set up a dinner table for a squirrel. She was kind enough to include a dessert treat by stuffing pieces of a wintergreen leaf into an acorn cap.

j10-ice bridge

Much to the delight of the younger set, they next discovered an ice bridge and took turns walking across it. The rest of us decided to pass on that opportunity, sure that we’d ruin the effect.

j11-tree stump examination

Getting up close and personal was the theme of the morning and everything drew their attention and ours, including a decaying trunk of a hemlock that was downed by a lightning strike several years ago.

j12-tree holes

Because we were curious, we noted holes of the tree’s decayed xylem, the system of tubes and transport cells that circulate water and dissolved minerals. One of the boys decided to see if it worked and poured water onto the stump, which immediately flowed into the holes. We’ve viewed tree stumps and rings many a time, but this was the first time we recalled seeing the holes. No tree stump will go unobserved on our path from now on.

j13-lodges reflect mountains

Our turn-around point was at another spot along Sucker Brook where three beaver lodges reflected the mountains in the backdrop.

j21-beaver lodge

A few of us walked across the ice for a closer look because one appeared to serve as this winter’s home site. We trusted the family within included their own young naturalists.

We were certainly thankful for our time spent with four children who allowed us to look at the world through their eyes of wonder.

(On behalf of Joan, Dave, Steve, Dick, Jonathan, and I, we thank you, Caleb, Ellie, Aidan and Wes. Oh, and your mom as well, or especially–thank you Juli. We’re all in awe of you and the gifts you’ve passed on to your kids.)

 

Satiating Our Curiosity at Long Meadow Brook Reserve

Two weeks ago I traveled the trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook with several friends and much of our wonder was captured by intermingling lines.

l-ice lines

All felt quite magical on that crisp January day as the encrusted twigs and buds offered a brilliant display.

l-snowbirds in the ice castle

It was made even more special because two of the three with whom I tramped were snowbirds who experienced the awe of our winter world. Despite all their layers, they  felt like royalty living in an ice castle, glass slippers and all. (Don’t be fooled into thinking those are snowshoes strapped to their boots or winter hats rather than crowns.)

l-Long Meadow Brook 2

We made our way to the dam by the brook as the sun shifted lower and shadows lengthened. It didn’t matter for the sky was clear and we celebrated exploring the winter world of Lovell.

l-porky den 1:25:18

And then we backtracked a bit before crossing a property under conservation easement with the land trust and visited a porcupine condominium located in a large stump dump. The porkys didn’t let us down and we found prints leading into and out of seven or eight entry ways, along with downed hemlock twigs and scat. All perfect porcupine sign.

l-squirrel 1

Since then, we’ve experienced a variety of mixed winter weather, but this past weekend a couple of inches of snow fell, making for great tracking conditions, such as this group made by a red squirrel, the two smaller feet being its front feet, which landed first, before the larger hind feet swung around and landed in front–the typical pattern left behind by a hopper or leaper. Its toes pointed toward my ruler, thus indicating the direction of travel.

l-chipmunk prints 1

Because it had been warm over the weekend, chipmunks made a brief appearance–rather than being true hibernators, they are light sleepers and will move about in the chambers within their tunnels. Occasionally, during a thaw, they’ll even venture out to forage for fresh seeds.

l-chipmunk prints 2

Notice how the straddle is about two inches, while the red squirrel above exhibited a straddle of about three inches. Straddle being the measurement from the outside of the left hind foot to the outside of the right hind foot. In case you are wondering, the measurement for gray squirrels is about four inches.

l-coyote track

And then I came upon tracks so fresh that I was certain I might spy the two coyotes who traveled before me, but as is most often the case, I didn’t see them.

Following the snow, we had another downpour and everything changed. But then the temperature dipped again.

l-few Tuesday Trackers

And so today when the GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers took to the trail at Long Meadow Brook Reserve, we were sure we’d find a plethora of well-made tracks. Only two problems. One: by the time Kathy, Dick, Mary, Russ, and I arrived, it was snowing lightly. And two: not too many mammals had been on the move in the last day or so. At least not in that neck of the woods.

l-Long Meadow Brook 1

We beelined (sort of, for we did stop to look at deer tracks) down to the old beaver dam hoping for otter sign or that of other weasels. Nada. Instead, we took in the view to the north.

l-Long Meadow Brook south

And then to the south.

l-beech leaf 2

And headed toward the porcupine condo. But along the way, a couple of other things caught our attention, including a beech tree getting a head start on the next season.

l-pitch pine 3

And a pitch pine that was the gnarliest any of us had ever seen. Pitch pine needles, in bundles of three, grow on the branches but may also sprout on the trunk–a unique feature making for easy identification among the evergreens. But so many? On branches?

l-junco

At last we reached a field where we welcomed sunshine to warm us up and noticed a few feathered friends. More than one junco scratched some bare ground in search of seeds.

l-squirrel pattern

As we crossed the field we rejoiced to have the track pattern of a gray squirrel to admire. Small things made us happy.

l-lorax tree

And then, at the top of one of the stump dumps we stood in awe of the Lorax tree. Only several branches had small fans of needles left; all the rest having been devoured by the local residents living below.

l-porky hemlock twigs

As we made our way into the hemlock grove to take a closer look, we spied what we believed to be a bobcat track based on straddle and stride, the latter being the distance from the toes of one print to the toes of the next print in the zigzag line. The overall impressions were a bit diluted indicating they were a few days old, but we’ve seen the same in this area before and the measurements led us to that conclusion. We also spotted downed hemlock twigs featuring the characteristic 45˚angled cut made by a porcupine.

l-porky tracks?

By this time, our group had increased by two when Alice and Saranne joined us for the trip into the porcupine haven.

l-porky den:stump dump

We peeked into holes, but suspected the homemakers had entered inner chambers.

l-porky tracks 2

We did find telltale tracks filled with the morning’s flurries, but still demonstrating their pigeon-toed pattern. And we saw that the bobcat had checked the holes as well before it moved on.

l-porky hole:hoar frost

We decided to move on as well, climbing up onto the stump dump, but with a word of caution to watch out for steam holes. Hoar frost surrounded the holes and gave us further reason to believe that indeed the condo was occupied.

l-porky tracks around downed limb

The very branch under which we saw one hole had fallen from a white pine. All around it were more porcupine prints.

l-porky chews

As for the white pine’s needles–think of them as dinner. The same was true of a bent red oak branch and its buds. A little variety in the diet.

l-bench

We too were ready to eat and so we headed out.

Another three hour tour and our curiosity was satiated at Long Meadow Brook Reserve and the adjacent property.  A couple of benches await at Long Meadow Brook should you want to pause and take in the wonders yourself.