Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the Earth

Dear Earth,

This year found me once again staying in my home territory to honor you and so while my guy did some yard chores, I chose to visit a few of your vernal pools.

Along the way, I stopped to smell the roses! Opps, I mean admire the flowers of the Red Maples, their pistils and stamen all aglow.

As I approached the first and nearest pool, I new love was in the air for I heard the deep wrucks of the Wood Frogs. That is, until I got to within about ten feet, and then the only sounds were small splashes that barely created ripples as the frogs sought cover under the leafy pool lining.

But, as you’ve taught me in the past, I stood as still as possible and waited patiently. It was then that my eyes began to focus on the pool’s tenants. And I realized that the usual population of larval mosquitoes, aka “wrigglers” already somersaulting their way through the water. That may be bad news for me, but it’s certainly good news for the birds and dragonflies of the neighborhood. While I try to practice mind over matter when I’m stung by a mosquito, I have to remember that your plan to offer “Meals on the Fly” sustains so many others.

And then, and then I spied something disturbing. Actually it was two somethings. Frog legs of two frogs. And even a head. Dinner? For whom? Typically, I rejoice at a kill site for I realize that one species feeds another, but this one disturbed me. Perhaps, dear Earth, it was because I think of this pool as mine even though it’s located on a neighbor’s land, and I want to protect it and all that live within, as well as all who venture to it for nourishment. Eventually, I realized that perhaps someone had been nourished by the frogs, but why didn’t they consume the entire beings? Could it be one of their own species who went into attack mode? I don’t have the answer–but once again you’ve given me more to question. And so in the end I realized I should be grateful for having the opportunity to wonder.

The good news–right behind the two dead frogs was a recently deposited egg mass. Its form made me think Spring Peepers, but I’ll need to watch them develop.

Death. Life. The cycle plays out as if a best seller in this dramatic genre.

I circled the pool looking for any other unusual sights or clues, but found none. Eventually I stood on my favorite rock and appreciated that you finally rewarded me, dear Earth. A Wood Frog appeared by my feet and we both remained as still as possible–that is until my feet began to fall asleep and I needed to move on.

As you know, dear Earth, I located several more pools, their wruck choruses giving them away. And within one, it was obvious by the egg masses that the lover frogs had found their mates.

Walking back toward home, I got a bit nosey, as you know, and turned over some bark that had fallen from dead trees. To my delight: millipedes, earth worms, bark beetles, slugs, and . . .

At least five Red-backed Salamanders. That reminded me, dear Earth, that though I wasn’t able to join Lakes Environmental Association for Big Night on Saturday, that rainy night when the temperature ranges about 40˚ and the amphibians decide to return to their vernal pools to mate and folks try to help them cross our roadways to do so, I trust that you made sure the Red-backed Sallies and worms made their presence known in the grass behind the Masonic Hall. Did you?

As for my walk today, I followed our trails and then an old logging road, where the deer and moose and coyotes and foxes and turkeys also roam.

And because part of my journey took me along the snowmobile trail, I picked up some empties and realized that not all turkeys are created equal.

But you don’t judge, do you dear Earth. Nor do you pretend that the world is perfect.

That being said, the sight of my first butterfly of the season, the pastel colored Clouded Sulphur, was rather perfect in my book.

Thanks for once again taking the time to teach me a few lessons . . . lessons from the Earth on this, your day, Earth Day 2019.

Looking for Spring

Last night one of the Greater Lovell Land Trust‘s volunteer docents earned her certification from the Maine Master Naturalist Program. The MMNP’s goal is to develop a statewide network of volunteers who will teach natural history throughout Maine. With hands-on training, the course provides over 100 hours of classroom and outdoor experience, focusing on geology, identification of flora and fauna, wetland and upland ecology, ecological principles and teaching methods. By the time students complete the program, which includes a final capstone project, they have developed the skills to lead a walk, present a talk and provide outreach. In the year following certification, each graduate agrees to volunteer 40 hours and thereafter must continue to volunteer to remain an active Maine Master Naturalist.

And so it was that Juli joined four of us in the GLLT’s docent group by becoming a certified naturalist last evening. And today, she was out doing what she does best–leading homeschooled families along a GLLT trail. You see, for her capstone project Juli created a group called Nature Explorers. On the second Tuesday of each month (and today’s was the third trip she’d led for this group), other homeschooled families join hers for a walk with a focus along a GLLT trail. Today’s focus: Signs of Spring.

Given the fact that the snow is still at least knee deep, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But the day dawned bright, if a bit chilly to start, and so two of Juli’s kids waited for others by hanging out with the trees. Or rather . . . in the trees.

Once all had gathered, she led us down Slab City Road to the trailhead for the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

It was there that while we began our search for the season that often begins with a stubborn start in western Maine , we spied something that brought smiles to our faces and awe to our experience. Otter slides. On both sides of Mill Brook. Look carefully and you may also notice the slides–they look like troughs in the snow.

We tromped through (leaving our snowshoes behind, which we sometimes regretted) to take a closer look, noticing where the mammal had bounded and then slid down the embankment.

And then we moved on . . . to observe and learn, including fifty cent words like marcescent, which means withering but remaining attached to the stem. Juli pointed out the dried up leaves on the beech trees.

And the kids joined her to take a closer look–at the leaves, but also the buds, which had started to swell. Ah, sign one!

It was a Witch-Hazel which next grabbed the group’s attention. She explained that while the small, gray woody structures looked like flowers, they were really capsules that go dormant throughout the winter. Those will develop over the next growing season and then in autumn forcibly expel two shiny black seeds about 10 to 20 feet.

One of the boys noticed that the buds were hairy and so others came in to examine the structures.

From there, it was another beech tree to check out, but this time the discussion moved toward the alternate orientation of its branches and leaves.

And then, because they suffer from the best of syndromes we refer to as Nature Distraction Disorder, the group stopped at a Red Pine to admire its bark.

With hand lenses, they focused on the various colors of the thin, puzzle-like scales. Some had fallen to the ground as is the habit of the flakey bark, but Juli reminded everyone that it’s best not to pull it off for bark protects the tree much like winter coats protect us.

It was a fungi that next attracted the group.

And so they pulled out the lenses again to look at the spore surface of several Birch Polypores growing on downed trees. The brownish underside was actually another sign of the season for they would have released their spores in late summer or autumn.

A wee bit further and a wet spot was noted where we could see some brown leaves reflecting the names of trees in the canopy above, but also, drum role please . . .

some greenery with buds beginning to form–in the shape of Wintergreen. One of the girls did point out that though it was a sign of the season, it did have the word “winter” in its name.

Another one of the girls looked up at an old Pileated Woodpecker excavation site, and noted the spider web within that had been created last summer by a funnel-web spider, so named because of the funnel-shaped web. Though no one was home today, the spider typically waits in the funnel for prey to fall onto its horizontal web. Then it rushes out, grabs its victim, and takes it back to the silken burrow to consume and hide in wait.

Since our signs were few and far between, and Juli really wanted to get to Otter Rock to show some fun finds, she challenged the kids to run with her.

They did. And then they slid.

And looked.

And spotted.

And wondered.

And wondered some more.

We’d reached our destination of Otter Rock and though we didn’t have any dipping containers, we made do with lucite bug boxes.

At the edge of Heald Pond, the kids found movement in the water . . .

in the form of Mayfly Larvae, with fan-like gills along the abdomen and three filaments at the tip.

Spring indeed! With that discover, we left with a spring in our steps, already looking forward to next month’s vernal pool exploration.

P.S. Thanks Juli for this wonder-filled offering, and congratulations on your achievement. You are now a member of the nexus of naturalists.

Lake Living–spring 2019 issue

If you are receiving this for a second time, I apologize, but the link to the magazine was incorrect.

I am beyond excited to announce that the spring issue of Lake Living magazine is now available on a store shelf near you . . . or right here!

It’s our At Home” issue, where we feature articles about home-related items and projects. One of the projects is very close to my heart:

Yup, that’s our current kitchen. But as you can see by the title, change is in the air. You’ll have to read about it. The plans continue to evolve as I write, but we’re close to finalizing them. All that being said, nothing will happen until this summer as we still have a couple of feet of snow in the yard and after that melts, it will be quite wet for a few months. But stay tuned for The Evolving Home, part 2 in the fall issue.

Also featured: “Finding Home” by Laurie LaMountain–about rescue dogs and organizations that place them in forever homes; “Shaker Inspired”–a collaborative effort by Laurie and me about furniture built in Bethel, Maine; “A Patch of Land, part ii” by the up-and-coming writer Marguerite Wiser–describing the efforts of a local couple who have worked hard to turn their farm into a vibrant, year-round enterprise; “Cooking with Clay” by Laurie–highlighting the ever-delightful and creative Rusty Wiltjer, a local potter, and also featuring some cooking with clay recipes; “An Improved State of Home” by Laurie–offering fresh ideas for organizing and getting rid of some of your “stuff;” and finally, “Dear Earth” by yours truly–a heartfelt and funny homage to our wise and wonderful, but challenged Earth.

Please, please, please support the magazine’s advertisers (including a certain hardware store). Without them, we can’t continue to produce this little gem of a magazine (yes, I’m biased.)

And get ready . . . for soon, I promise, the snow and ice will melt and the wood frogs and spring peepers will come to a vernal pool near you.

So Many Unknowns

On this historic election day, a few friends and I took to the woods with the intention of absorbing not only the sun’s heat, but the warmth of each others company. Yes, occasionally our conversation turned to politics and wonder about the future, but for the most part, we just wanted to wander together.

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Our first spot for consideration–a vernal pool tucked away in the woods.

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In true v.p. behavior, it dried up during the summer drought, though as we moved about we experienced a sinking feeling–muck obscured by grasses and leaves. This particular pool is home to fairy shrimp and their eggs cases are protected under the leaf litter until water returns. The amazing thing about fairy shrimp–those eggs can survive long periods of drying and freezing. We trust we’ll have the opportunity to meet the next generation.

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Sometimes our eyes were tricked by what we viewed and we questioned how things could be so.

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But upon a closer examination of the facts, we realized that a club moss was merely growing near the wintergreen and the wintergreen hadn’t taken on a strange candelabra form.

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Our questions continued, however. Why was the ground completely cleared in the middle of the trail? Mammal behavior? We noted boot prints and wondered about human interaction. Finally, we moved on, unable to understand the reasoning, but knew that there are some things we’ll never fully comprehend.

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In another place, we noticed a green red-oak leaf. A holdout perhaps that preferred the way things had been and didn’t want to follow the rest of the group?

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Occasionally, we calmly debated the structures before us as we considered shape and hairiness and growth pattern and location before we determined species–in this case, hawkweed.

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And other times, no need for questions, no need for answers. Pure admiration for the presentation was enough.

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When we were again drawn in for a closer look, in this case at the white fuzzy beech scale insect, we suddenly realized there was so much more to observe, such as the black ladybird beetle.

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And then, something we didn’t understand at all. What was this spiny creature? And what was emerging from it? We left with that question floating among us. It wasn’t until doing some research later that I came to what may be the answer. Was it a ladybird beetle emerging from the pupa stage? How I wish we could go back and find it again and look at it with a different mindset.

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Drawing close to the finish of our journey together, we spied something we’ve passed many times before, but never noticed.

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Again, we’ll need to revisit the mossy boulder, but we determined it was a dog lichen. Why dog? Was it so named for the white “fang” like rhizines on its lower surface?  Or did the lobes remind someone of dog ears? Based on the large, fan-like shape, my leaning is toward Peltigera membranacea or Membrane Dog Lichen. But, I could be easily swayed on its ID.

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A short walk and hours later, we finally passed a field of milkweed, their seeds blowing in the slight breeze like flags on a pole.

It was time to say goodbye to friends who will head south this weekend before I headed back to “reality” and colored in those little ovals.

I think we all came away thankful for the questions raised and knowledge shared, but still . . . so many unknowns.

America the Beautiful

This morning’s rain and overcast sky embraced the melancholy emotions of this day as we remembered  family, friends, acquaintances and strangers who have served our country, especially those who died during times of conflict.

And then the sun shone.  It didn’t mean that we stopped remembering. But it did shine a light on the beauty that surrounds us and that we have the opportunity to observe if we so choose. Because of the service of others, we’re fortunate in that regard–we get to choose.

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I chose to step out the back door and notice.

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Visitors upon chive florets.

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Unfolding Canada anemone.

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And the first to open.

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Black cherry blossoms all in a column.

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And chokecherry blooms in terminal clusters.

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Blue-green baby hemlock cones.

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And life teeming in the vernal pool.

I’m thankful for the freedom of choice. America is beautiful.

 

The Big, The Little and Everything In Between

I stepped out of the shower after a walk around town with friend Marita and heard someone chatting away on the answering machine. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have my glasses on, though what that has to do with it I don’t know, but I couldn’t ID the voice. The male yammered away about something in the snow and it had come last night and I had to get there quickly. For some reason I thought it was our eldest and I  wondered what it was that needed my immediate attention. So, I cautiously picked up the phone and said hello. The voice on the other end continued talking desperately about me going somewhere. “Who is this?” I asked. It was friend Dick and I should have recognized his voice, but maybe not having glasses on is like not being able to taste if your nose is stuffed. Or maybe I’m overthinking as usual. Dick, however, was not overthinking or overreacting. He was excited and knew I would be as well. He was standing in a friend’s yard about a half mile from here and looking at bear tracks in the snow.

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As he knew he would, he had me on the word “bear.” His voice was urgent as he insisted I stop everything and get to his friend’s house. “I just need to dry my hair and then I’ll be right there,” I said. Deadlines loomed before me but bear tracks won my internal war. Dick suggested I just wrap a towel around my head. Really, that’s what I should have done because my hair has no sense of style whether wet or dry, so after a few minutes I said the heck with it and popped into my truck, camera and trackards in hand.

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Yup–bear tracks. Classic, beautiful bear tracks. Even nail marks above the toes.

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And the pigeon-toed gait.

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My heart be still. The bear certainly wasn’t.

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It trampled a garden fence.

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And yanked down a suet feeder that dangled from a wonderful rigging at second story height designed to keep the raccoons from stealing it. We couldn’t find the actual feeder.

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It toppled another feeder and consumed all the sunflower seeds. Oh, the squirrels may have helped, but apparently the feeder was stock full. Not any more. We looked for hair but found none.

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One of the mysteries to us was why did the bear suddenly trot. I’m now wondering if it was startled at some point and ran away.

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Before leaving, I enjoyed one more look. How sweet it is. And how thrilled I was to have seen it–especially knowing that it wouldn’t last long. The. Big.

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When I arrived home, I knew I needed to work, but figured a quick walk to check on the vernal pool was a great way to celebrate the bear tracks. And on my way–feathers. Long black feathers.

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Most were about a foot long.

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They appeared to be torn out rather than cut.

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I know the neighborhood cats hang around our bird feeders all day–ever hopeful. But I don’t think they got this crow. I’ve a feeling a hawk was the culprit. The. In. Between.

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It’s my neighborhood, so I always cast an eye toward the Mount. The. Big. Again.

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The water level seems about the same as last week and a wee bit of Tuesday’s snow still decorated the  western shore.

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Though the lighting wasn’t great at that hour, it was obvious that the tadpole population had increased.

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And the salamanders continued to grow within their protective covering. The. Little.

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I did finally settle down to work. And then it was lunch time. My guy and I weren’t the only ones dining.

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After I finished two assignments and before I walked to a meeting, I decided to visit the pool again and capture the action in the late afternoon light. But first, an examination of the woodchuck’s feeding site. Yup, those leaves were nibbled.

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And so were these. The. In. Between.

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And then it was back to the pool, where the snow had melted. But, I have to share a finding along the way. Or rather, a non-finding. I intended to grab the crow head because I wanted the skull. Not. It wasn’t in the path where I’d seen it in the morning. I poked around and couldn’t find it anywhere. Who stole it? Maybe one of those darn cats.

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In the warmth of the sun at the eastern side of the pool where most of the egg masses were laid, the population continued to increase.

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I felt the same glee about all of these little critters as I felt about the bear tracks earlier in the day.

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Tadpoles and salamanders. I may not see bears tracks every day, but for a brief moment in time, I’m honored to watch the transformation that takes place in the vernal pool. The. Little. Times. Two.

Giving thanks for the ability to wonder. The Big. The Little. And Everything In Between. Especially Everything.