To Fly or Not to Fly?

Sigh. And sigh again. Happy sighs are these. Because . . . the dragonflies are transforming from their aquatic form to flyers. In either lifestyle, they are predators, but it’s the latter flyer that we appreciate the most. Especially during years like this when the Black Fly and Mosquito populations are prolific. We give thanks, of course, for such prevalence, because these little stinging fliers become odonata and amphibian and bird food, or so we like to pretend that we give thanks. Really, we’re grateful for the insistent buzzing and biting, but even more grateful for those who predate upon them.

The exciting thing about this week is that several of us had the great opportunity to spy some dragonflies eclosing, the act of emerging from their larval forms. So here’s the deal: fully developed aquatic larvae, aka nymphs, crawl out of the water onto emergent grasses, sedges, shrubs, and rocks, split the back of their skin and emerge as winged adults like the one in view here.

Newly eclosed dragonflies lack pigment so identifying them isn’t always easy. Of even more importance, they are extremely vulnerable to predation as they clutch their old skin while pumping air into their bodies and liquid into their expanding wings. One way to note an emergent adult is by the cloudiness of the wings as they set their internal systems in motion. The tough part is that they must wait in this position, unable to escape predators, until wings dry and they can fly. The process can take several hours.

And so it was with great glee that we noticed wee, yet mature Hudsonian Whiteface dragonflies, members of the Skimmer family, flying and posing, flying and posing.

The yellow spot on segment seven (dragonfly abdomens consist of ten segments) is triangular in shape, aiding in the identification as I get my dragonfly eyes back on.

In no time, it seemed, there were dragonflies everywhere. Well, not everywhere for I traveled several trails and realized that those who were emerging tended to be near stiller waters. The Common Baskettail, as this species is known, is a member of the family Corduliidae (the Emeralds). Unlike other Emerald family members, baskettails lack the kryptonite-green eyes, though as they age the color does change. But they make up for it by being super hairy. As a naiad, the hair apparently traps tiny pieces of debris, thus hiding it from predators in the muck. In its adult form, the hair serves as a spring jacket, holding in heat.

All that is fine and well and there will be many more odonata references during the next six months as I wonder my way. but today I happened upon one who added to my knowledge bank and I’ll forever celebrate this opportunity to learn more. Do you see the neon green appearing to drip off the wings?

Look closely at the left behind aquatic structure, aka exuvia or cast skin, and you can see the length of the former nymph that helps define this species to family based on its shape: Darner.

Though I first thought this specimen was dead, suddenly it walked along the underside of an old stump beside the water. Try as I could to separate its wings, I was unsuccessful. For some reason they were stuck together. And one was even folded still as it would have been upon first emerging, thus there was green at its tip, though it appeared at first glance to be in the middle of the wing.

Based on the fact that its thorax stripes were already taking on its adult colors, I knew this darner had been trying to reach flight stage for hours. What had gone wrong? What was the neon green? Something must have gone astray as this dragonfly tried to pump hemolymph (Insect fluid like blood) through to its wings to stiffen them for flight.

Hemolymph is made up of water and other characteristics like carbohydrates and amino acids, and also pigments, though the latter are typically clear but may be tinged with yellow or green. In the case of this darner, it seems that green is the color of choice. Had it been able to expand its wings, the fluid would have drained out of the wings and back into the body. Usually, it takes about an hour or more for the wings to reach full length and they have a cloudy appearance as the fluid is pumped into them. They are held together over the back, much like a damselfly, but once the fluid drains out of them, the dragonfly is able to extend the wings and there’s a shiny glint to them until they fully dry and stiffen. And then, in a split second, when one such as me is watching, flight happens.

For some reason, this darner will not know flight, but I gave thanks for the opportunity to see its blood and slow my brain down to think about the process.

To fly or not to fly?: it’s a complicated question.

As The Vernal Pool Turns

If you follow me either virtually or in reality, you know that during April and May I spend a lot of time beside vernal pools. And this year is no different. Thankfully, I also get to take others along on the journey, from school children to their parents, and members of the public, plus colleague naturalists in the form of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s volunteer docents.

And so it’s been that this particular pool on a land trust property has received tons of attention this year. We’ve always known it to be special because it’s home to Fairy Shrimp, which just the occurrence of one makes it significant by State of Maine standards.

Vernal pools provide essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including salamanders and some frogs species. At the same time, juvenile and adult amphibians associated with such a pool provide an important food source for small carnivores as well as large game species. Many of these amphibians are pool specific in that they must return to their natal vernal pool to breed, thus making them and the surrounding habitat important and the loss of such would lead to loss of local amphibians, a decrease in biodiversity, and a decline in food available to others who inhabit the surrounding natural community.

Upon visiting this past week, the pool had taken on a new sheen, appearing at first glance to resemble ice. But it was much too warm for that to be the case.

Floating upon the pool’s surface were male Red Maple flowers, the oval items at the ends of slender, threadlike stalks the pollen producing anthers dangling on their filaments and the release of said pollen the cause of the ice-like presentation.

So the exciting thing about this particular pool is that though It has long been a breeding ground for Fairy Shrimp (and mosquito larvae), this year we spotted more of the former than ever swimming along on their backs as they filtered the water and sought a mate.

Though the pollen on the pool may give it a look of being polluted, the presence of Fairy Shrimp actually serve as an indicator of good water quality.

Where a month ago we were scooping up hundreds of these tiny crustaceans, this past week we found only a few, which served as one sign that this is a pool in transition. Their life cycle isn’t long, but if you checked in recently with the post entitled Peering Into the Pool, you’ll have learned a cool fact or two about their existence.

Back to now. Wood Frog tadpoles had suddenly emerged and their egg masses began to disintegrate, though still adding a source of food in the symbiotic relationship with an algal form.

Mosquito larvae and pupae, though still present, were not as prevalent, given that their flying, biting form had begun to hatch.

And then there was another change to note. And it’s a major change in my book of these habitats. Large Bullfrogs had taken up residence.

The wee bit smaller but similar Green Frogs had as well.

How does one decipher between a Bullfrog and Green Frog? First, as you approach a pool and you hear a squeal as a frog jumps from the edge into the water, you know that Green Frogs are in the midst.

And if you finally get to spy one, look for the line behind the eye. If it follows along both edges of the frog’s back, called dorsal lateral folds, it’s a Green Frog.

If, however, the line extends from the back of the eye and wraps around the round disk, or tympanum membrane (think ear), it’s a Bullfrog.

Also, Bullfrogs don’t leap away quite a suddenly as Green Frogs. In fact, they can stay quite still for hours on end.

Once human eyes adjust to the surroundings, shadows may pretend to be frogs, but they aren’t. The real deal, however, lurks at the surface, often only its eyes making its presence known.

Hemlock needles and maple flowers decorate it, and much to my surprise don’t frustrate it. Though some frogs may seem super sensitive to us, they also exhibit a patience not to be matched as they sit and wait.

Oh, did I mention that they were everywhere? Literally.

The thing is. these two frog species weren’t in the pool to breed like the Wood Frogs had been. They, after all, need a permanent water source because their tadpoles take two years at a minimum to morph into adults and a vernal pool that dries up each year would not be suitable. This tadpole was spied at a nearby pond, indicating that perhaps the Bullfrog came from that source to the vernal pool.

So what were the Bullfrogs and Green Frogs doing at the pool? Predating all that live within. Remember what I said earlier, that vernal pools provide food for small and large predators. These would be on the smaller size, though not the smallest.

Perhaps that’s why we weren’t seeing as many Fairy Shrimp this past week. And given the prevalence of these two frogs, who knows what will hop or crawl out of the pool, but we suspect some Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders will make it to adulthood so that they can carry on the tradition of returning to their natal pools to breed.

The thing about visiting a pool such as this with the younger set is that they are bound to make exciting finds. And so one did, locating a Spring Peeper swimming about.

And in the surrounding uplands, another found a Pickerel Frog. We could hear their snoring chorus, so this discovery wasn’t unexpected. But still it was special.

How to tell a Pickerel Frog from a Leopard Frog (the latter a species I’ve only seen a few times): by the spots on its back. The Pickerel’s spots are more symmetrical than the randomness of a Leopard’s and the Pickerel’s spots are outlined while a Leopard’s are not.

And then there was this teeny, tiny American Toad covered with warts and suddenly the ground was hopping with these wee creatures and Spring Peepers and one had to be careful where one stepped.

The final find of the week, an adult Wood Frog with its robber mask making for a sure ID. This one was a poser.

As the vernal pool turns, so do its inhabitants and I give great thanks for the opportunity to learn from it and share it with so many others who add to the lessons.

Dedication: This one is for Nancy Hogan Posey cuze I was going to write about something completely different today and your question turned the page to this one. Thank you.

Just Another Boring Mountain Mondate

No need to read on. You know it will be photos of today’s finds. Ho hum.

Our day began as it always does, with a shared piece of CraftonMain Lemon Meringue Pie topped with a raspberry, while we sat and watched this pair enjoy a meal of their own. Wait. We don’t always begin with the pie–but sure wish we could. Cardinals, however, have been blessing us with their appearance for years.

And then there was the sighting of the neighborhood fox in the field beyond our stonewall; it had its eyes on the neighbor’s dogs while we had our eyes on it. Don’t worry, the dogs didn’t become breakfast. In fact, as their mistress began to walk toward the fox (we don’t think she spied it, nor did the dogs or they would have given chase), the fox turned and dashed across the field, over another stonewall and into our woodlot.

At last, it was time to begin our hike along a trail we haven’t visited since August 2019. Our intention had been to climb it in 2020, but during the first year of the pandemic, it was closed and then we never considered it . . . until this morning. And as we started up, I remembered . . . this is the mountain where the Early Saxifrage grows.

 It’s also known as rockbreaker for its habit of cleaving to the rocks, and perhaps suggested the Latin name–Saxifraga virginiensis. Saxum-rock and frangere-to break.

A funny name for such a diminutive and delicate display.

Round-leaved Violet with its scalloped-rimmed leaves more heart shaped than its name suggests also grew along the trail. Spying these tiny offerings of yellow with those incredible magenta runways meant to attract pollinators always brings a smile as if they were meant to brighten the day of all who hike this way.

Our journey found us enjoying the sound of the water’s rhythm as we climbed higher . . .

and contemplating each step once we turned away from the brook.

At the summit, the view from lunch rock included a look to the southeast where the sky predicted the forecast of a front moving in.

Meanwhile, our hometown mountain stood out in the sun.

But the grand lady, Mount Washington, was starting to disappear into the clouds.

It was windy and a bit chilly at the summit, but that didn’t stop the Brown Elfin butterfly from flirting with a few others where the blueberries grow.

I also spotted one Spring Azure. Both are rather small butterflies and if you look closely, you might spot that their antennae are patterned white and black.

On the way down, we did what we often do–looked for bear claw trees because we know they exist here. And because I know such an activity will slow my guy down. 😉 Bingo. He spotted one that was new to us.

I went in for a closer look and couldn’t believe all the marks on display.

And so I began to circle around the trunk.

One can only imagine the crop of Beech Nuts this tree must have offered.

But enough is enough. It’s just another bear claw tree, after all. Nothing to write home about. Or is it? Think about the bear and the blueberries the Brown Elfin Butterfly will help pollinate and the Beech Nuts the trees will produce and all the connections that will be made, which will include the Cardinals and the Red Fox and the flowers and all that is part of the forest. And be wowed like us. It was hardly just another boring mountain mondate on Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine.

Peering Into The Pool

If you’ve been following wondermyway for a few years, you know that each spring I make a bee-line for vernal pools, those shallow, short-lived ponds that fill with snowmelt or spring rain for at least several weeks most years, have no major inlet or outlet, and most importantly, no fish. Without fish, reproductive success is more likely for some amphibians, crustaceans, and insects who depend upon these ephemeral water bodies for breeding.

There are four indicator species in Maine that define a vernal pool as significant. Since 2007, significant vernal pool habitat has been protected by law under Maine’s Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA): “Significant Vernal Pool (SVP) habitat consists of a vernal pool depression and a portion of the critical terrestrial habitat within a 250-foot radius of the spring or fall high water mark of the depression. Any activity in, on, or over the SVP or the 250-foot critical terrestrial habitat zone must avoid unreasonable impacts to the significant vernal pool habitat and obtain approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, either through Permit by Rule (a streamlined permitting process) or full individual NRPA permit.”

Those four indicator species that define such significance: Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, Blue Spotted Salamanders, and Fairy Shrimp. The pool must contain 40 Wood Frog egg masses, or 20 Spotted Salamander Egg masses, or 10 Blue Spotted Salamander egg masses, or one Fairy Shrimp. I’ve yet to see a Blue Spotted Salamander or its eggs.

Some may see these ponds as oversized puddles, but let your eyes focus and suddenly you’ll realize that they are places teeming with life.

As you do, it might surprise you to spot lots of flying activity just above the pool’s surface. It’s actually Midges on the move, trying to get a date so that there will be even more Midges on the move. They look rather like mosquitoes, but don’t bite, so not to worry.

Male Midges have a longer, more slender body that the females, and they like to posture in attempts to interest one of the opposite gender. They’re actually fun to watch.

Of course, equally, ahem, fun to watch are the larval forms of Mosquitoes as they wriggle and wraggle through the water column, some even forming dense clusters.

If you do some container dipping at a vernal pool near you in order to take a closer look, I trust you won’t dump these onto the leaf litter rather than back into the water. As much as the females annoy us once they morph into that annoying flying insect that needs to suck mammal blood to gain proteins and nutrients for their eggs, they play an important part in the food web.

Especially for warblers such as this Yellow-rumped that was part of a flock that arrived in western Maine this week–just as it should have, being the end of April. It was spotted quite near one of the pools, so I suspect Mosquito Mash will soon be on the menu.

Back to those four indicator species for a significant vernal pool . . . it was this week that while looking close up at some Wood Frog eggs, I realized we had babies in the form of tadpoles.

I saw “we” because mom and dad Wood Frog do not hang around. Once they’ve canoodled and eggs have been fertilized and deposited, they exit the pool and return to their upland habitat, where they spend the next fifty weeks, so it’s up to us to watch over their young ones. Their metamorphosis, or change to adult form, will be completed by late June or earlier should temperatures rise and the pool begin to dry out.

I encourage you , dear readers, to do what I do and stare intently into the leaf litter to see if you can spot some tadpoles. And who knows what else you might discover.

While looking into another section of the pool, you might notice another type of egg mass, this one coated with a gelatinous mass that encompasses all of the eggs. Spotted Salamanders made their Big Night return to the pools about a week or so later than the Wood Frogs, so the embryos are still developing.

I find it fascinating to see the little forms take shape. It’s like looking into a mother’s womb without medical devices.

Okay, it’s time for you to peer into the pool again. This time you are looking for Fairy Shrimp, those tiny crustaceans that are about a half inch long, swim on their backs, and move eleven pairs of legs like a crew team in a rowing shell. Remember, I said one Fairy Shrimp makes a pool significant according to the State of Maine. How many do you see in this photo?

Those in the first Fairy Shrimp photo are males, but females are present as well. The way to identify a female is to look for her two brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.

So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch. One of the pools I’ve been frequenting lately I’d only discovered last year and it had no Fairy Shrimp. The other day when I approached with some volunteer docents from Greater Lovell Land Trust, one exclaimed within seconds of our arrival, “Fairy Shrimp.”

That got me thinking: how is it that we didn’t spot any last year, and this year we started seeing them everywhere. Also, in another pool where we’ve often spied a few, we’ve noticed they are in abundance. Previous to this week, I knew that the eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, but assumed that if the pool flooded each year, they all hatched. It didn’t make sense though that one pool suddenly has shrimp and the other has so many more than normal. It was time to do a little research, and what I learned from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies , is that only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching. So I thought about winter 2021 and how we didn’t have a lot of snow and the temperature was on the mild side. This past winter was much snowier (though not enough still in my book) and much chillier. My unscientific conclusion, based only on limited knowledge and observation, is that conditions weren’t conducive in 2021 at that one pool and so no shrimp hatched. I’m already looking forward to next year.

For your enjoyment I’ve included a video of a Fairy Shrimp moving through a pool this past week. Fairy Shrimp indicate unpolluted water, so finding one is significant. Finding so many . . . bliss.

When you are peering into the water for such a long time, other life forms make themselves known, such as Predacious Diving Beetle larvae, aka Water Tiger. Just like the adult this insect will morph into, it eats everything including tadpoles and insects, and even its siblings sometimes.

It wasn’t just the docents and I who had fun at the pools, but also a group of middle school students I have the immense honor to work with each Friday and yesterday they enjoyed documenting life at the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year. Quiz yourself on ID of the species one student scooped up in this bug box. And rest assured that these critters were released back into the pool after being studied for a few minutes.

As I said, I’ve done a lot of scanning this week, including on a couple of solo trips, and it was on one of these that I made one of my favorite discoveries: a Caddisfly larvae. In larval form, Caddisflies are resourceful architects who repurpose their surroundings to create their homes. Sometimes I find them constructed of hemlock needles topped with a maple flowers, and a friend sent a photo today of one she found who had built its house of grains of sand. My find . . . in the pool that suddenly had Fairy Shrimp this year: a mobile home built of leaves. It was so well camouflaged that only the movement made me realize what was before my eyes.

Larval Caddisflies eat various types of detritus, including bits of leaves, algae, and miscellaneous organic matter so they, too, are important as they break down what is in the pool.

If it wasn’t that I need to eventually find my way home and make dinner, I’d probably still be out there. But yikes, it’s 7:00pm, and I haven’t even started dinner, and my guy will be home from work soon, so I’d better get going.

If you are looking for me in the next few weeks, however, I’ll be the one with hands on bent knees as I hunch over the pool. Join me and we can peer in together.

Where the Bobcat led us

When GLLT Tuesday Trackers meet at a property, we never know what animal sign we’ll need to interpret or what greater understanding we’ll gain. Today was no different and we had a few surprises along the way.

What we’ve all learned is that we need to take a bird’s eye view and consider where we are, whether it be forest or field or wetland, look at how the mammal is moving and what type of pattern it is creating as it moves, get down and count toes, look for nail marks and notice other idiosyncrasies, and then follow the trail for a ways, looking at the prints in different light, or under different trees. Often under hemlock trees we find the best prints because there’s not as much snow since the boughs hold it.

And so today’s adventure began with us following this particular animal and debating—do we see claw marks, is the overall shape round or oval, is there a lead toe, is the ridge creating a C on its side or an X between the toes and heel pad? It took some time, but we finally found a few prints that gave us confidence it was a bobcat we were following. So, where did the bobcat lead us?

Our first stop was along a stream where he walked beside the edge—about two or three feet above the open water for such is the snow height—but then paused for a moment and seemed to step down because he was curious about something. And so were these three, Pam, Dawn, and Emily, for they spied something in the water below.

From our position on the opposite bank, a few of us saw what we thought they were looking at. “It’s furry,” Dawn told us.

She wanted to go down into the water because it didn’t appear to be all that deep, but still that would have meant she’d be wet and so Emily hunted around and found a branch to use as a poker instead.

As Dawn wiggled the stick, all the time exclaiming that it was big, whatever it was, and trying to turn it over, Emily and Pam grabbed her to make sure she didn’t turn into an otter and slide down, though I suspected she would have laughed about the experience.

We all watched intently, making suggestions about the critter’s identity while Dawn continued to poke at it and move it. Mammal? Skull? Full body?

The coloration was definitely unique, but it is winter after all, so the freezing temperatures and fact that it was in water may have altered its appearance.

Those were our thoughts anyway, and we voiced our opinions, until . . . Dawn flipped it over and saw . . . a tag.

So hoping for a kill site where the bobcat may have dined, instead we found ourselves looking at . . . a stuffed owl.

Peter took Pippi’s hiking pole and aided Dawn in rescuing the sopping wet bird and if you look closely you may see water dripping from it.

Our chuckles must have rippled through the forest as we laughed at our great find. Mighty trackers are we. But . . . we think the bobcat was almost fooled as well. Almost.

The owl then flew from Peter’s hands to a perch and there it shall remain, or so we think.

For a few minutes we returned to and continued upon a logging road, and then the bobcat called for our attention again and so we did follow it. As I said to the group, normally I’d insist that we backtrack the animal so we don’t put stress on it, but the tracks were at least a day old.

This time the bobcat led us to a hemlock tree. Do you see the debris under the tree?

How about now? And stained snow by the trunk?

There were even little brown commas atop the snow that could easily be mistaken for hemlock cones. But rather, they were a form of scat.

Like us, the bobcat had been here, but for some reason he chose to pass by.

Whenever we spy downed hemlock branches, comma-shaped scat, and lots of urine at the base of a tree, we know to look up and so we did. High above sat a male porcupine. Males are known to stay in a tree during the day while females typically return to the den each morning and head back to the tree of dining choice at twilight. Here’s are two curious things: 1. the bobcat passed by—they will go after a porcupine, but perhaps this one was too high up. (Fishers are a porcupine’s #1 enemy.) 2. we looked all around and couldn’t find any porcupine tracks. If we had, we might have followed them to see if we could locate the den. But, since we couldn’t we came to the assumption that this porcupine has been up in the tree since at least our last major snowstorm on Friday, February 25.

Back on the bobcat’s trail we did go, being stymied occasionally because though we knew it was a bobcat, there were a few prints that resembled a deer and we came up with all kinds of stories about flying deer and other critters of our imaginations.

But always, we’d find a few classic prints and again feel 100% confident of our ID. Well, not ours, but the bobcat’s.

So where would it lead us next? To a spruce tree all covered with sap . . . and fur.

Some of the hair was dark and coarse.

In other spots it was redder and softer. After much debate, and noting that it was all up and down the tree from just above snow level to at eye sight and maybe a bit above, I think we all agreed it was a bear marking tree. Bears sometimes nip and bit trees and rub their backs on them and their hair gets stuck on splinters or in this case also sap.

According to North American Bear Center: “Favorite trees have little ground vegetation to prevent a bear from approaching them, and they often lean slightly toward the trail.  Look for hair caught in the bark or wood 2 to 5 feet high and look for bites 5½ to 6½ feet high.

The hair often bleaches to brown or blond after a few months but can still be distinguished as bear hair from its length and appearance.  Guard hairs are typically coarse and 3-4 inches long and have a narrow base that may be wavy.  Bears are shedding their winter fur when much of the marking is done in spring or early summer, so the bark may also catch underfur, which is thin, wavy and shorter.”

Two feet up made sense given the snow’s depth.

You’d think that would have been enough, but again we wondered: where will the bobcat lead us?

This time it was a snapped snag and we noticed he’d walked along the top of it.

And then one among us spotted this. Brown snow and more hair. We were sure it was a kill site. Yes, as trackers we really like kill sites because they are fun to interpret and we appreciate the energy passed from one animal to another via the predator/prey relationship.

For a few minutes we took turns walking around the site trying to take in everything presented to us, including some hair that had fallen into the snag’s hollow.

I think it was the two=toned hair that helped us figure this one out. Plus the fact that there was no blood. This was a spot where the bobcat sat down, thus the rather tamped down snow that had turned brown. The warmth of his body helped to flatten it and in so sitting, some of his hair, which is black and white, got stuck, similar to what we see in deer beds at this time of freezing and warming temps. The mammals are beginning to shed their winter coats and last week we had an unusually warm day so change is in the air.

We admired his hunting spot and balance beam. And then it was time for us to leave.

But those grins remained on our faces for we were grateful we’d taken the time to see where the bobcat might lead us at GLLT’s Charles Pond Reserve today.

The Tale of the Squirrel’s Tail?

The forest behind our home has long served as my classroom and this past week has been no different.

Upon several occasions, through the doorway I stepped. My intention initially was to stalk some porcupines I’d tracked previously in hopes of finding at least one of them in a tree. But the three dens that had been active two weeks ago were empty.

Near one located almost a mile from home, however, I spied squirrel middens dotting the landscape. This was in the late afternoon of Wednesday, February 23, a day when the high temperature broke records and reached 62˚ in western Maine.

For a brief second I spied the squirrel responsible for the middens, but then it scrambled up a hemlock and disappeared from my sight.

And so I . . . I decided to try to examine its territory and exclaimed when I realized that because of the warm temperature, its tunnels had been exposed. This particular one led to one of its food storage units, a cache of hemlock cones stored under a downed tree.

Into the mix it was more than the squirrel, for I spied vole tunnels and deer prints. So here’s the thing, red squirrels tunnel through the deep snow to get to their caches. Of course, they also leap across the snow. Voles, on the other hand, are much shier of sky space because they are everyone’s favorite food. They tunnel between the ground and the snow in what’s technically called the subnivean zone and typically we don’t see their exposed runways until spring. But 62˚is like an early summer day ’round these parts. Oh, and do you see that same downed tree from the last photo? Keep it in mind, for it plays an important role in this story.

A vole’s tunnel is about an inch across and the only thing I had for a reference point was a set of keys. I was traveling light that day.

Likewise, the squirrel’s tunnel was about three inches in width.

My next move was to walk the perimeter of the squirrel activity in order to gain a better understanding of its territory. All told, it is about 30′ x 50′, and located under several tall pines and hemlocks that create a substantial canopy. On the fringe of this particular neighborhood live a few red maple and balsam fir saplings.

I had to wonder if the squirrel was still in the hemlock or had moved to a different location via its tree limb highway while I was looking down and all around.

Having figured that out, I returned to the downed tree, for not only did it serve as a food storage or cache below, but the top side was the dining table/refuse pile, aka midden. Obviously the hemlock had provided a great source of food–a good thing given that it seemed to be the only hard mast available this year.

There were other middens scattered about, but I really liked this one upon a stump, which showed the pines had at least offered a few treats not yet devoured. The thing is, red squirrels like to dine on high places, whether it be upon a downed tree, stump, or even up on a limb. That way they can see their predators approach and make a mad dash to a tunnel or up a tree trunk.

Two days later, on Friday, February 25, seven or eight inches of snow fell and again in the later afternoon I ventured into the woods to check on the squirrel’s activity. Sometimes during storms mammals hunker down but by the number of prints visible, I knew that this one hadn’t. Its tunnels had some snow in them, but the boughs above kept much of the snow from landing on the ground.

The curious thing for me was that though there was a lot of activity by the downed tree, I couldn’t locate a single midden. Even if the squirrel had been dining on a tree limb, surely some cone scales and cobs would have fallen.

It had also climbed its favorite tree, the one where I spied it on Wednesday, but again, no sign of food devoured.

After my guy and I spent the morning and early afternoon tramping four miles from home to a swamp and back, I decided to head back out to check on the squirrel while my guy went for a run. Speaking of running, as I approached the squirrel’s territory, I watched it run across the snow and zoom up the hemlock and never spied it again.

So I turned to the tree stump–it was covered with Friday’s snow, though there were tracks around the base of it. What I loved is what I’d missed on Friday–barbed wire. This was all once farmland and obviously I was standing on a boundary. It was actually a boundary for the squirrel as well, since this marked an edge of its territory.

Near the red maple saplings I found evidence of some fresh tunneling, albeit not under the snow, but through it, which is also typical. Perhaps the squirrel was dining within and had hidden its middens.

I stepped over to the downed tree and looked under in a southerly direction, curious to see barely a sign of the cache that had been so evident on the first day.

Looking north, it was more of the same.

That is . . . until it wasn’t. A hint of color captured my attention. Feathers?

No. Hair. From a red squirrel, whose hair hues can range from gray to brown to red. A fluffy tail no more. The thing is that squirrels sometimes loose their tails to predators, or even parts of the tail from a fracas during a territorial fight with one of its own. Another cause may be a tree trying to snag the tail just as speckled alder and winterberries and balsam fir tried to snag my hat repeatedly on our tramp this morning.

Even upon the downed tree . . . a little tuft. No tracks atop the tree. And no signs of feeding.

I looked around, searching for predator tracks and instead found the snow lobster instead. This was a place of squirrel and vole and deer and hare. But not a predator in sight.

And so I looked up, thinking that the hair was the result of an avian predator. My hope was to find a few strands dangling from a tree. Or some other evidence. Nothing. Oh, how I wished GLLT’s Tuesday Trackers were with me, for they are an inquisitive group and ask great questions and process the whole picture in a complete manner. Together we share a brain and I needed that sharing.

Alas, they were not, but I snatched some of the hair and will certainly share it with them in the morn.

In the meantime, that’s my tale of the squirrel’s tail. And if you have ideas or considerations, please let me know.

Happy 7th Birthday to you, wondermyway!

Seven years ago today I gave birth–rather a record at my age. It was February 21, 2015, when I welcomed wondermyway into the world. It’s been quite an adventure that we’ve shared together and one of my favorite things to do each year to celebrate is to take a look back.

As I reviewed this past year, the reality hit home. I’ve written less than half the number of posts of any other year. That all boils down to one thing. Time. There’s never enough. Oh, I’ve taken the photos, and had the adventures, but I haven’t made the time to write about all of them. Sometimes, they sit off to the side in my brain and I think I’ll use some of them together in a cumulative post, and there they sit.

That all said, I’ve had more views and visitors this past year than any other. Views = 24,955; Visitors = 16,994. Followers = 701. And over the course of wondermyway’s lifespan, the blog has received 121,765 hits.

An enormous heart-felt thanks to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. I get excited to share with you and love hearing from you.

In case you are wondering, my guy and I did have a Mondate this afternoon–along Bemis River and then up to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.

It was here at the falls that we celebrated wondermyway.com with a couple of those Bavarian Haus chocolates we purchased last Monday.

And now for a look at a few excerpts from posts I made during the past year, beginning with March 2021. To read or re-read the entire post, click on the link below each photo.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons. Somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go.

Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.

But . . . this spring will be different.

How so? And what invitation still stands? Click on the link under the beetle’s photo to find the answers.

Whispers Along The Trail

“The way to be heard isn’t to shout,” said the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells of St. Martins in the Fields, London. “It’s to whisper.” But who are the whisperers?

Listen for the slightest murmur of Trailing Arbutus’s delicate blossoms beneath its leathery leaves.

Hear also the soft words of a rattlesnake-plantain explaining that its striking veins may suggest “checkered,” but it actually goes by “downy” in common speak.

You’ll have to click on the link under the photo of the Trailing Arbutus flowers to hear what other species had to say.

Surveying the Wildlife of Charles Pond

For the past two weeks at Greater Lovell Land Trust we’ve had the good fortune to conduct a wildlife survey in the waters that surround the newly acquired Charles Pond Reserve in Stow, Maine.

MDIFW maintains a comprehensive database on the distribution of Maine’s amphibians and reptiles, as well as terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates and the data we’ve collected will add to the bigger picture. What we discovered was just as important as what we didn’t find.

The survey began with a day of setting and baiting fifteen traps in the pond and associated rivers. What’s not to love about spending time in this beautiful locale, where on several occasions lenticular clouds that looked like spaceships about to descend greeted us.

Our favorite bird sighting was this bald eagle, who found a silver maple snag at the outlet of Cold River into Charles Pond. I was a wee bit nervous as that was Change The Trap Bait Day, and I had a bag of stinky old sardine cans in my lap as I paddled a kayak.

He was intent, however, on something else and barely gave us a glance.

This story of the survey would not be complete, however, without the absolute best sighting that occurred on the last day. Our mammal observations on almost every trip included a muskrat, plus occasional squirrels, and once a beaver. From our game camera set up at various locations, and from tracks and scat, we also know that coyotes, raccoons, otters, a bobcat and a black bear share this space.

But . . . you’ll have to click on the link under the Bald Eagle photo to figure out what our best sighting was.

The Saga of a Vernal Pool

Warning: Some may find parts of this post disturbing. But it is, after all,  about the circle of life. 

A climbing thermometer in March signaled one thing amidst many others: the time had arrived to check the vernal pool. 

Completely covered with ice at the start of my explorations, I noted puddling on top and knew it was only a matter of days. 

Not wanting to rush the season, though truly I did, I rejoiced when the edges melted because life within would soon be revealed.

And then one day, as if by magic, the ice had completely gone out as we say ‘round these parts. It was early this year–in late March rather than April. That same night I heard the wruck, wrucks of Wood Frogs, always the first to enter the pool. 

The next day he had attracted his she, grasping her in amplexus as is his species’ manner. 

Ah, but how does the story end? Click on the link under the photo to find out.

Consumed by Cicadas

I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.

Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.

Click on the link under the photo to see the story of the Cicadas unfold.

Not Just An Insect

Out of curiosity, and because it’s something I do periodically, I’ve spent the last four days stalking our gardens. Mind you, I do not have a green thumb and just about any volunteer is welcome to bloom, especially if it will attract pollinators.

There were millions of other insects, well, maybe not millions, but hundreds at least, flying and sipping and buzzing and hovering and crawling and even canoodling, the latter being mainly Ambush Bugs with the darker and smaller male atop the female.

But why the title, “Not Just An Insect”? Ahhh, you know what you’ll need to do to find the answer.

A Collection of Mondates

Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”

The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”

The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”

We did figure it out. Over and over again. This collection happens to include places that make us happy and many of our family members and just looking back puts a smile on my face. Oh, and the selfie–taken at the same place where we went today–only in September 2021.

Beautiful Maine

A vacation loomed in front of us. Where to go? What to do?

Click on the link, Beautiful Maine, to see what surprises awaited us as we got to know our state a wee bit better.

Pondering the Past at Pondicherry Park

Before today’s deluge began, I slipped into Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, Maine, to fill the innermost recesses of my lungs with November air, and at the same time my brain with memories of so many people who have traveled these trails with me from Ned Allen, former executive director of Bridgton Historical Society, to Loon Echo’s Jon Evans, and Lakes Environmental Association’s Alanna Yanelli and Mary Jewett, and friends and friends and friends, including the late JoAnne Diller, Sue Black, and Jinny Mae. But today’s journey also included memories of one I took two years ago with Becky Cook, who shared her remembrances of growing up along South High Street and romping through these trails as they were part of her backyard. If anyone ever had a sense of this place, it is Becky.

This post is full of information of an historic and natural nature. Go ahead, click on the link above to learn more.

Following the Circle of Life

Upon an aimless journey into our neck of the woods a pattern soon emerged, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes, it’s best that way. To be present is the key.

Click on the link to find out more about the pattern.

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

But what could good hair possibly have to do with this Mondate? You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

So how is this stuffed beaver connected to a gory story?

Starring wondermyway, episode 3 on LRTV

Finally, settle into a comfy chair and click on the following link to listen to fourteen minutes of wondermyway: wondermywayIII.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope you’ll continue to wonder along with me as I wander through the woods.

The Duck’s Tale

Dear Readers, This post may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s something those of us who track find incredibly exciting as we try to interpret the gory story. Yes, you read that correctly. Blood and guts are to follow. You are now forewarned, and if you decide not to read on, I totally understand.

For those who are still with me, here’s the scoop. Last Wednesday during a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk on Groundhog Day, where shadows were the main focus, and yes, Lovell Lil, the beaver, did spy her’s and predicted six more weeks of winter, a group of us noticed a pile of feathers on the far side of a brook we snowshoed beside. (Notice how I used this photo as an intro so that those who didn’t want to deal with the aforementioned gore could exit with a beaver image in their minds?)

Here’s how it all began. First, a few of us glimpsed a large bird that we thought was an owl, fly off with something in its mouth. Though we were supposed to be looking for shadows, our nature distraction disorder (NDD being the best kind of disorder to possess) took over and we decided to walk quietly in hopes that we might spy the owl in a tree. Imagine a group of curious people on snowshoes attempting to walk quietly. But we did. Or so we thought. Until three ducks flew up out of the brook and headed in the same direction as the owl.

Shortly after, we spotted this scene and two of us decided that once the public hike ended, we’d find our way to the other side and try to decipher the story of the feathers and the blood and the slides. I was sure I knew the predator.

As we approached, we spotted wing marks at the base of a tree.

What we’d seen from the other side was the plucking station where the predator had pulled the feathers off to get to the meaty part of its avian meal.

Once the bird was plucked, then it dragged it up the hill and sat down to dine behind the tree. Do you see the circular area where the predator left an impression. I’m sure the prey was not at all impressed, though by this time it was . . . dead.

Here’s another look from the dining table down toward the plucking site and the brook below.

Of course, I need to give you a closer look–at the duck’s entrails. I often find these left behind at a kill site and wonder why. Do they not taste good? Is there some sort of bacteria that makes them indigestible? Or do they not offer any discernible nutrition?

Another body part not to be overlooked was the foot with its tendons still attached that sat on the dinner table beside the entrails. Can you see the webbing between the toes? That confirmed our ID that the prey was a duck. But who was the predator? We looked around for mammal prints and found none.

What we did find was a slide. Actually there were a couple of slides. And as I often do, I wanted to confidently say that an otter was the predator. But . . . rather than seeing otter tracks in any of the slides, there were wing marks beside them. From the duck? Or someone else?

We hunted around as we tried to decipher the story. It appeared that quite a struggle had taken place.

And no feather had gone unplucked.

The bright red blood was quite fresh and I could just imagine the pain the duck endured.

While most of the blood was at the plucking station, there was some on a small mound on the brook and again I wondered: was that where the initial attack occurred?

As I said, we found no signs of a mammal, but we did find large splatters or splays of bird feces. Birds don’t produce urine and instead excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, which emerges as a white paste for most.

Fellow tracker, Dawn, and I also found several long shots of excrement that I cannot explain, but perhaps the owl had spent some time up in the tree?

I guess by now you’ve figured out that our assumption was that the owl we saw fly off was the predator. That’s the story we’re telling anyway about how this particular duck lost its tail and its life.

But . . . think of it this way: Plants the duck fed on were primary producers who used energy from the sun to produce their own food in the form of glucose. The primary producers were eaten by the duck, a primary consumer. The duck was then eaten by the owl, a secondary consumer. Who knows how the duck’s tale will actually end because we don’t know who might eat the owl. In the midst of it all, however, energy flowed and in this case may continue to flow from one trophic level, or level of the food chain, to the next.

I know you expected a Mondate, and my guy and I did explore Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, today as I prepped for a Maine Master Naturalist field trip related to tree bark and buds, but the story of the duck and owl have been forming in my brain for a few days. And then this morning another tracker sent me this email:

Subject: Tracking Forensics:

Weird thoughts in the early morning…

I was thinking about the Tracking Tuesdays that you lead on the GLLT properties and about how similar they are to all those CSI shows – coming in a day or two after the events have occurred and trying to piece together who was there and what happened. From seemingly little information you figure out who was there, what they were doing, where the gang hangs out, and sometimes who killed whom. 

Bring in the TV cameras!

That’s when I knew I should take a chance with the blood and guts story. Nature can seem brutal, but it’s all part of the system.

Dedication: This one is for Pam and Bob Katz for leading the Shadows Hike that led us to make this discovery; for Dawn Wood who helped me interpret the site; and for Joe Scott who sent the email. Bring on the TV cameras indeed!

Good Hair Mondate

The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.

Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.

As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.

We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.

Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.

In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.

And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.

And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.

I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.

Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.

And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,

below boulders,

and down through a chute,

creating ice sculptures all along its journey.

Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.

The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.

We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.

Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.

Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.

As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.

Do you see a bear?

Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.

And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.

In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.

Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.

Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.

Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.

As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.

Ever A Sense Of Wonder

I thought I was losing it. Wonder, that is. I’ve hiked or walked many miles, taken thousands of photos, but haven’t been overly wowed by much lately.

This weekend, though, that all changed.

Maybe it was the fact that a friend and I spent a bluebird, yet brisk Saturday snowshoeing many miles as we tracked a couple of local mammals.

There were porcupine dens to explore. Well, not actually crawl into because we didn’t know who might decide to crawl out. We discovered two new ones that were obviously in use, but visited this older stump dump and found no one at home. Why? It had all the makings of a nice condo. Lots of room available, hemlocks growing right out the back door, beside a field with other offerings for a summer diet. Don’t you just want to move in?

We did discover other abodes that showed signs of life with tracks leading to the inner chambers.

How many inner chambers was the next question. Atop this much larger stump dump we counted at least seven holes coated with hoar frost around the edges–leading us to believe someone was breathing within. Did that mean there were seven porcupines living in this den? Do you know what a group of porcupines who share the same winter den, but sleep in their own bedrooms, is called? A prickle of porcupines. Don’t you love that?

By the amount of tracks, we couldn’t tell how many actually lived there, but in the fresh layer of snow we did note that at least one had gone outside to eat the previous night for we followed its tracks for a bit.

It also had visited another den, and by the amount of scat, it was obvious that this wasn’t the first day in a new house.

The porcupines weren’t the only ones we were interested in. For miles and hours, we also tracked a bobcat who’d paid a visit the previous night. Would we find evidence of what it had eaten? A kill site where a prey was attacked? Scat?

We knew by the fact that the bobcat track was atop the turkey prints that this bird lived to see another day.

The same was true for the squirrels that managed to avoid being consumed by the predator overnight as they huddled somewhere close by. But the bobcat apparently didn’t catch a whiff of their scent, though the former did check out holes by stumps and snags.

Sometimes we noticed that the cat picked up speed and we were sure we’d find the reason.

And then . . . and then it would pause and we did too. When the bobcat led us back out to the road we’d traveled on, and crossed to the other side, we knew our time with it had come to an end but enjoyed the journey, though still had questions. Did we miss a kill/feeding site?

We had noted an abundance of food available, much of it in the form of the squirrel or hare. This is my snow lobster, as I’ve mentioned in the past and love how the front feet, being the smaller two prints, land on a diagonal and form the lobster’s tail, while as they lift up to leap forward, the hind feet land in such a way that they appear in the front of the set to form the lobster’s claws. And I’m reminded that for ground dwellers like the hare, the front two feet tend to land on a diagonal, while for tree dwellers like the squirrels, whose front feet also appear smaller and at the back of the set of prints, are most often parallel.

That was yesterday. Today dawned with a sleet storm. When I ventured out the back door this afternoon, I noticed again an abundance of hare prints, these the larger set in the photo while the smaller ones belong to a red squirrel. When I said an abundance of food, these are two of the many choices and this year the hare is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I find it hopping through communities I’ve not seen it in the recent past. Certainly the bobcat of yesterday will or did find one–we just didn’t stumble upon it.

After spending so much time tracking, a favorite winter activity of mine, I finally turned my focus to trees, another passion. I was actually looking for insects, but fell for this solid droplet of balsam resin that looked rather like a bug. I would love to see the colors of the dribble repeated in yarn.

Then there was the ice that mimicked the shield lichen attached to a branch of the fir.

At last I did find an insect. Well, at least the left-behind structure of a sawfly–where it had pupated and then once ready to emerge, cut its perfect circular escape hatch. How to remember this insect: think of it as a circular saw-fly.

And attached atop the pupating case–what looked like another insect pupating. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to name its species, but I thrilled in spotting it.

Bark is cool, but especially when you begin to notice all the idiosyncrasies of life upon it, such as the fruiting disks of a couple of crustose lichens, but one of my favs is the braid-like formation of the liverwort Frullania. It has brown leaves divided into two lobes. Liverworts are cool because they are flowerless and lack roots and reproduce via spores. Frullania is abundant upon bark, but unless you slow down and look, you may not ever spy its spiderwebby structure.

Speaking of spying, yesterday’s brilliant sun shone upon the hairy twigs of paper birch, another sight easy to overlook.

Today’s natural community found me tramping through an area where gray birch, with their bumpy, hairless twigs, grow.

How did these two members of the same family develop such differences? I think about that and how it is true of all in the natural world. Maybe the hairs don’t appear in exactly the same line-up and the bumps are more or less bumpy on another twig, but they all are variations on the same theme. Mammals are like that as well. And flowers. And ferns . . . and well, everything. We can learn to ID them because generally they share the same characteristics from one dandelion to the next. But . . . what about us? As humans, there are familial similarities, but very few of us look exactly like another. Though perhaps somewhere in the world we all have a twin we’ve yet to meet. Alas, I’ve rambled on enough.

It all boils down to the bush clover–a species my friend Pam and I first met at Brownfield Bog a couple of falls ago and recognized almost immediately when we discovered it in a field in Stow, Maine, before encountering our first porcupine condo yesterday. Today, she informed me in a text message that a year ago we met it in the same field, and we shared a chuckle that neither of us had a memory of that moment. Uh oh.

But I was reminded this morning that it’s important to go forth with a child-like attitude, finding awe in all that we see and encounter and I realized then that I’ve been too busy lately to slow down and really look.

Here’s hoping I can ever renew and enjoy that sense of wonder and that you can as well.

Knowing My Place

I planned to accomplish so many things since I had time off this past week. And I did check a couple of items off my list, but . . . most of my time was spent wandering and wondering in the woods behind our house.

Sometimes I followed trails known only by those who like to zoom through this space and never really see.

Other days I bushwhacked, eager to discover what might present itself.

Always I was reminded that this has long been my classroom and its taught me many a lesson, including that the bracts of the Witch Hazel flower persist in the winter and offer a dash of color in the landscape. Notice how each flower consisted of four bracts that curl back. The ribbony flowers fell off in the fall. And I have to admit that there was a time when I thought these were the flowers.

While bushwhacking, debris on the snow drew my attention and of course I had to investigate.

Much to my delight, I found a couple of Pileated Woodpecker scats filled with insect bodies. And notice all the chiseled wood–it’s a lot of work, but I’m always happy to note via the scat that the attempt was successful.

Equally successful was the digging of a Red Squirrel who had cached a pile of hemlock cones and returned within the last few days to dine and leave behind a midden of cone scales–its garbage pile.

This is a truly wild place that serves as home to so many mammals and birds and I give thanks to them for leaving behind prints and other signs of their presence. Of course, I was looking for the resident Moose, who has eluded me so far, but the White-tailed Deer are everywhere, including sucking seed from our bird feeders every night.

The Turkeys haven’t discovered our feeders yet, but by their prolific tracks I know they are nearby.

I’ve also been noting many, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, some in places I don’t recall seeing them previously and methinks there is plenty of prey available for predators. One of the learnings these woods have offered is that the hare’s prints can throw one off on ID, especially when the snow is soft and its hind feet (top of photo as they always land in front of where the front feet landed and lifted off) spread out and leave more toe impressions than one typically sees.

Of course, no visit to these woods is complete without a check-in at the vernal pool. And this week I discovered two other pools to check on in the spring. But those are for another day three months away.

For all my wandering, actually spying wildlife is rather rare, but from inside our kitchen door sometimes we see so much. Every few nights a porcupine pays us a visit. And every night four healthy looking deer stop by as I said earlier. But on these stormy days, the feeders see the most action and today’s visitors included Tufted Titmice,

and American Goldfinches studying the scene.

Eventually, this male flew to the ground and dug in, much like the Red Squirrel in the woods.

Time and time again, he knew success.

Mr. Cardinal also dove in.

And his Mrs. came by as well. One day we actually spotted two Cardinal couples in the yard.

One of the joys of the feeders is that those who visit add color to the scene and it soon became apparent that red was the color of the day, this time with the spots on the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head indicating it was a male.

Another male of another species also showed off his red coloration.

I was tickled to welcome a couple of House Finches. And do you see the deer hair on the snow to the upper right of his beak?

It’s that time of year when the Juncos also pay a visit and keep the red theme going with their pink beaks.

Not all birds are created equal or don’t tell the Gray Squirrel he’s not a bird because like the deer and porcupine, he’s sure that the seed and nuts are meant for his pleasure. Certainly.

This was my week, a week spent happily dilly-dallying in my place and giving thanks for past and present and future lessons. A week spent wondering and wandering alone. And it was topped off with this icy sculpture in the woods that reminded me of a bird’s head–it seemed apropos, but I did have to wonder how it formed. Ahhhh, not all is meant to be understood in this school of choice.

How well do you know your place?

Christmas Bird Count 2021 and the Porcupine Morph

December 28, 2021, 7:13am

Good morning!

As many of you probably know, we are having some light snow at the moment. It looks like the snow will end soon and it is supposed to be a beautiful day today. I encourage you to assess the conditions at your house, and communicate with your co-counters (if you have them) about your comfort level going out. You can start later in the day if you need to.

Mary

Such was the message that Mary Jewett sent out for those of us covering Maine Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the Sweden Circle. Referring to Sweden, Maine, that is.

My assignment: Walk the trails in Bridgton’s Pondicherry Park and Lake Environmental Association’s Highland Research Forest, both highlighted in red, and count birds of whatever species presented on this winter day.

And so . . . into the park I went–from the backside because it’s the easiest way for me to access the park from our back door.

Looking about, I thought about Maine Audubon’s Forestry For Maine Birds assessment and how this spot checked off many of the needs noted:

  • Gap in the overstory
  • Trees over 30 feet tall
  • Trees 6 – 30 feet tall
  • Water
  • Some age variety
  • Snags over 6 feet tall
  • Large downed wood

I couldn’t speak for smaller downed wood or leaf litter or saplings, but still, this space is a bird’s paradise and in the spring the amount of song and color and flight bespeaks the wealth this community offers. It’s a wee bit quieter in winter. Or a whole lot quieter.

But quiet can be interrupted and by its chirps I knew a Northern Cardinal was in the neighborhood. His red coat provided such a contrast to the morning’s snowy coating. Notice how he’s all puffed up? That’s because birds can trap their body heat between feathers to stay warm in the winter.

I searched and searched for his Mrs. but never did spy her.

There was a different Mrs. to admire, however. And she stood out from the many as I counted about 43 Mallards all together, and it seemed they were divided almost evenly by gender, but most dabbled along Stevens Brook. I found this Mrs. on Willet Brook, where she was accompanied by her Mr.

Handsome as he was, she followed he in an act of synchronized swimming, for it seemed that with each swivel he took in the water, she did the same.

I walked the trail in slo-mo, listening and watching and hoping for the rare sighting. Other than the Mallards, and Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, all was rather quiet.

After a few hours walking through the park and other than the aforementioned, plus a few Bluejays and American Crows, I headed north to Highland Research Forest (HRF) where I was sure a wetland would offer something special.

But first, I decided to treat myself to a visit to a set of trees at HRF known to host a porcupine. Porcupine sightings were hot topics of conversation at our home over the holiday weekend as the one who lives under our barn made its nightly appearance and even attacked a Christmas kissing ball hanging in a Quaking Aspen ten feet from the kitchen door.

In the scene before me at HRF, by the sight of the American Hemlock on the left, I knew porky had done much dining and I could see disturbance on the ground so I scanned the trees in hopes of spying him. I can use the masculine pronoun because it’s the males who occasionally tend to hang out in trees during the day.

A nipped twig dangling in a Striped Maple sapling smack dab in front of my face further attested to the porky’s occupancy of the area.

And under the tree–a display of tracks and scat all not completely covered by the snow that fell earlier in the day.

Porky had posted signs of its presence everywhere, including upon this American Beech. Can you read it?

In his usual hieroglyphics he left this message: I was here.

My heart sang when I saw the pattern of his tooth marks as the lower incisors scraped away at the bark to reach the cambium layer. If you look closely, you’ll begin to see a pattern of five or six scrapes at a time forming almost a triangular pattern. The end of each patch of scrapes is where the upper incisors held firm against the tree and the lower ones met them.

Because I once stood under these trees expounding about how porcupines are known to fall off branches to a group of people who from their location about fifteen feet away told me to be careful because there was one sitting above, I’ve learned to scan first before stepping under.

And to my utmost delight, I spied . . . not a porcupine, but a bird. A bird with a long striped tail.

Brain cramp. Which hawk could it be? Coopers? Goshawk? Rough-legged?

But wait. It’s feet weren’t talon-like as a hawk’s would be.

Feeling confident the porcupine wasn’t in the tree, I walked under and around for a better look and confirmed the identification. On Christmas Bird Counts in the past, I’ve always had brief glimpses of Ruffed Grouses as they explode from their snow roosts in such a manner that it causes my heart to quicken for a second. But here was one sitting in a tree!

Though I could have spent a couple of hours with the grouse, I had a task to complete and so eventually I ventured down to the wetland where nothing spectacular made itself known.

And on to Highland Lake. By then it was early afternoon, and again, it was more of the same to tally on the checklist.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Pondicherry Park, thinking I might make another discovery–and I did. By the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, a female Hairy Woodpecker must have sourced some Carpenter Ants because she vehemently excavated the tree.

Another great spot in this photo–do you see the robust Red Maple buds? Sometimes I think we forget that buds form in the summer and overwinter under waxy or hairy scales, depending upon their species.

It was in the park that I did finally spy a rare bird, and I couldn’t wait to report it to Mary. At first I wasn’t sure of the exact species, but once I looked up, I found it’s name almost immediately.

Snowy Pondicherry Loop Yellow Woodybird, complete with a sign and arrow showing others where to spot this special species not found anywhere else in the world.

With that, my day was done and it was time to complete the forms before turning them in to Mary. But . . . I must confess that back at Highland Research Forest, I did sneak back in to look for the Ruffed Grouse before I left there and an hour and a half later it was still in the tree, though starting to move about and coo a bit.

The snow is only about five or six inches deep, not enough for it to dive into and so I suspect the tree served as its winter roosting spot until conditions below improve. I have to say that this experience brought back memories of my time spent with ArGee in Lovell, a Ruffed Grouse a few friends and I met occasionally in 2018.

As the sun began to set upon Sweden Circle’s Christmas Bird Count 2021, I gave thanks for the opportunity to participate, and especially the great discovery of a porcupine that morphed into a bird!

Dedication: For my dear friend Faith on her birthday, especially since she once scanned photos of the very same trees at HRF in another blog I’d posted that included a porcupine, and struggled to see its form until I supplied close-ups. Happy Birthday, Faith!

Messages in the Snow

Dedication: This one is for Kimmy, aka Lt. Col. Kimberly Jennings, Chief of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility on the Executive Leadership team for the USAF; a former student of mine, babysitter of our sons a hundred years ago, and very dear friend, who is dealing with Melanoma.

May the snow embrace you as it does the hemlock trees over the forest path.

Express your true form like the dancing winter structure of pinesap.

Let your uniqueness shine forth as those of individual snowflakes.

Occasionally defy gravity and rules like snow clinging to vertical beech leaves.

Continue to seed the minds of those who follow in your footsteps.

Forever provide a place for others to gather.

Turn an uprooting into an opportunity to fly in different directions.

Build dams and occasionally breach them.

Dabble about and quack your desires incessantly because you can.

When you spot a standing tree, gnaw at its base in hopes of defining future goodness.

When stonewalls block the way, call upon your superpowers to create openings.

Find universal hearts in everyday places.

And always, no matter the snow depth, channel your inner child and make snow angels.

You got this, Kimmy. And we’ve got you.

A Collection of Mondates

Every Mondate is different, which goes without saying, and the adventure always begins with a question, “What are we going to do today?”

The answer is frequently this, “I don’t know, you pick.”

The instantaneous reply, “I asked first. You need to figure it out.”

Some have found us paddling in our favorite body of water, where we love to explore the edges and islands and float among the lily pads.

It’s a place where we always look below the surface and sometimes are rewarded, this being a Bryozoan mass, a most definite gift for the tiny colonial aquatic creatures that connect their tubes together and form the jelly-like blob, effectively filter particles from the water. The animals live in the tubes and extend their tentacles that capture even smaller microscopic organisms for food. The gelatinous species, also known as moss animals, is native to North America.

We’ve wandered beside ponds where gentle breezes provided relief from mosquitoes and views of distant mountains doubled our joy.

Being my guy, he’s spotted lady’s slippers in bloom and more than once observed clusters bouquets worth noting.

Likewise he’s occasionally rewarded with pendants, this being an immature Chalk-fronted Skimmer dragonfly.

I’ve been equally rewarded with the sighting of a perching Dragonhunter, one of the largest clubtail species in our neck of the woods.

One hot summer Monday found us taking a shower under a waterfall.

And contemplating in front another.

We’ve searched for our favorite shades of blue, mine being that offered by Clintonia borealis, aka Blue-bead lily, it’s fruits reminding me of porcelain.

While mine is inedible, his favorite shade of blue invites his greed.

And so several Mondays were spent picking blueberries from the water . . .

and atop our hometown mountain.

Upon several occasions we summited said mountain and always paid homage to the fire tower that still stands tall and recalls an early era when wardens spent hours in the cab scanning the horizon for smoke.

We’ve posed at the ski area on the same mountain, where the pond below sometimes serves as our backyard.

Some of our best Mondates of this summer have been spent with family, this being our youngest and his gal.

And our oldest and his gal and their friends.

One we even shared with a tyke we finally got to meet, a grandnephew from Virginia . . .

who travelled north with my niece, his mom, and his daddy and grandmother.

It’s been a summer of catching up on so many fronts, and now I’ve arrived at our most recent Mondate. The morning began with a delightful surprise for when we uncovered a pie we’d purchased at one of our favorite roadside stands, and discovered it was decorated with a dragonfly. I swear we purchased it for the strawberry/rhubarb flavor and not the design. Really.

After dining on the pie for breakfast, we started our journey by searching for a trail someone had told me about. But . . . did she say park at the shed before the pond or after? We couldn’t find a shed in either location, but did find lots of NO TRESPASSING signs. Finally, we located what might be a trail and it wasn’t posted. For about a quarter mile we walked, until we found ourselves facing a field with a farmhouse at the far side. Backtrack we did, with Plan B in mind, but at least we were rewarded with the spot of Actaea pachypoda, White Baneberry, aka Doll’s-eyes. It does look like the eyes of a china doll, its creepiness accentuated by the thick red stalks and the fact that the fruits are poisonous.

The trail we chose instead let us know from the start that we’d made the right decision when we spotted a bumblebee upon a thistle.

It was a place beside two small specks of ponds, where the beavers have docked a boat conveniently beside their lodge.

Though we didn’t see any beavers in action, my guy demonstrated their gnawing technique.

It’s also a place where Autumn Meadowhawk Skimmer dragonflies danced and paused, danced and paused.

But the best moments of the day where spent crossing under a powerline where goldenrod grows abundantly. If you look closely, you might spot the subjects of my guy’s attention.

Monarch Butterflies. The most Monarchs we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ten butterflies? A dozen? Perhaps two dozen? Maybe more.

Watching them flutter and sip, flutter and sip, gladdened our hearts and made a perfect ending for this particular collection of Mondates.

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

It’s hard to believe that six years ago I gave birth to wondermyway as a means to record the natural world and all I met along the way.

There’s no need in reminding everyone that since last February it has been quite a year, but I have to say that I’m especially grateful to live where I do, in a place where I CAN wander and wonder on a regular basis.

As I look back through posts of these expeditions, I realize how often nature presents itself in such a way that moments of awe make everything else going on in the world seem so foreign. If only everyone could whisper to a dragonfly upon his or her hand; watch a cicada emerge from its larval form; and even appreciate a snake or two or three.

Join me for a look back at some of my favorite natural encounters of the past year. If you want to remember a particular adventure, click the titled link below each photo.

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

We’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Under the Bubbles

Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.

In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that your bubble is attached to so many others as you share a brain.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun. And birds. And dragonflies.

I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he? He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose. The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

Marvels of the Meadow

“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.

Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by mid-afternoon. But our bug eyes were wide open. In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape 
upon stones that memorialize the past...

On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas. 

Frog Alley

I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.

But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”

No way.

After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three.

Crowning Glory

The theme of the week didn’t dawn on me immediately, but a few days into it and I knew how blessed I am.

It was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life are from our sons whom I can chat with on the phone to those who have chosen to make this area of western Maine their home and to get to know their place in it. And then to go beyond and share it in a way that benefits the wider community.

Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent, and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.

We are all blessed. Today we crowed Hadley, and in so doing, gloried so many others.

Making Sense of Scents

Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement caught my attention.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.

Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.

For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.

For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.

All In A Day’s Walk

My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.

First there was the porcupine den, then a beaver tree, and along the way a fungi.

My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?

Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.

My Heart Pines

Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine. Because of the temp, the day offered some incredible wonders.

For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sharp Observation

I was early–a rare occasion as usually I’m the one who arrives at least ten minutes after the agreed upon time. It wasn’t always that way, but has become a bad habit. That said, it was a creature of habit that I went in search of because I had some time to spare.

He was up there enjoying the cambium layer of the bark as witnessed by the goldeny color of the branch by his feet. All those downed twigs–apparently they were in his way so he nipped them off and dropped them to the ground in order to get to the nutrients he sought for his winter diet.

Check out his eye. We were both sharp observers as we eyed each other from a distance.

Ghost of the North Woods

For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.

After finding so many signs year after year, today . . . today I spied an uprooted tree at the very spot I thought might be a good place to stop and spend a few hours in silence. As I made plans to do such in the near future, the tree moved.

And transformed into you!

When at last you and your youngster departed, despite your sizes, it was as if you walked through the forest in silence. My every move comes with a sound like a bull in a china shop, but you . . . Alces alces, you weigh over one thousand pounds, stand six feet at your shoulder, and move through the forest like a ghost. For that reason and because you let me spend some time with you today, February 11 will henceforth mark the day that I celebrate the Ghost of the North Woods.

Thank you to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. With each learning or sighting, I get excited and can’t wait to share it with you. I’m not only grateful to be able to wander and wonder, but I’m also thankful for all of you who take the time to read these posts.

Top Notch Tracking

“Want to go back to Becky’s?” was the message I received last night.

My instant reply, “Yes!”

And so we did, Pamela M. and I.

We chose Moose Alley as the first trail to follow, though traveling in a counterclockwise pattern to change things up a bit. If you joined us for our journey there a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that we found lots of moose sign and even a few beds. Oh, I know, this is indeed a sign, but . . . it wasn’t exactly what we hoped to discover.

Within seconds of beginning today’s journey, tracks of a snowshoe hare pretending to imitate a snow lobster made themselves known.

We soon began to realize that the hare crossed the trail . . . frequently. One hare? Two? Or even more. One thing we did notice was that there was a least one of a slightly smaller size than the rest and now I regret that we didn’t measure the print and snap a photo. Oh well, maybe the next time. There’s always time for another trip to Becky’s.

There were some domestic dog tracks and we had to remind ourselves not to be confused by those, but we did spy coyote and possibly fisher along the way as well. More certain we were, however, when we occasionally spotted prints on the diagonal of a bounder. We quickly nailed down the identification to either ermine or long-tailed weasel by the size and track pattern.

After a bit, we found another moose sign. But still no moose prints.

So, we decided to explore the land around and beside the bog to see if the moose was just off trail. In our search, we found an old vireo nest tucked away in a beech sapling. On first thought it seemed the bird had built it rather close to the ground, but a second thought was the realization that the ground was probably two feet below our feet for such is the depth of the snow all of a sudden.

We also found a small cottony egg sac on red maple bark and wondered if it was deposited by a moth.

And an intact sawfly cocoon. Quite often we encounter these with perfectly cut lids meaning the adult fly had previously emerged–as in six months previous at least.

But, just as we know we should follow a track for a ways to make a correct identification, or walk all the way around a tree to study its bark, we were also reminded to look at the backside of the cocoon. Had a bird tried to dine? Or perhaps a wasp parasitized the sawfly? We’ve been spending a lot of time lately focused on bug forms in winter, but thankfully still have so much more to learn.

The bog, itself, was beautiful and we followed the edge of it for a wee bit, until that is, we saw water and thought better of our intention to locate the moose for which it was named.

Back on Moose Alley, we made our way downhill and then a depression about fifteen feet off trail stopped us. And, of course, we had to tromp through the snow to check it out. Though we made quite a disturbance with our snowshoes, there was only one possible track about ten feet behind us and five feet off trail. Then we noticed a ball of scat.

Being the mighty investigators that we are, once we realized the sawdusty scat was from a moose, we got down on all fours to investigate the broken depression. When we started digging we discovered more moose scat frozen inside. But still, we pondered. There were no other tracks. The depression was several feet across, but not large enough for a moose. We hadn’t seen any deer tracks. And it seemed odd that it the crusty chunks were not smoothed out by the body heat of an ungulate. Still, we did consider a small flying moose. How else would it have gotten to that spot?

Walking back to the “prints” that were closer to the trail, we examined them again. And noted a bit of tunneling. Maybe they weren’t prints after all.

And then we spied a bird track a few feet beyond. Turn on the light bulb please. Could it be that the ruffed grouse, who burrows into deep, soft snow to hide from predators, and scares the daylight out of us when it explodes out of its hiding spot, had blasted through the crusty layer of snow to spend the night. Was it surprised to find moose scat in its chosen spot?

Once we began spying the grouse tracks, we realized they were everywhere. Just like the snowshoe hare. The question remains: which came first?

While the grouse was searching for birch seeds upon which to dine, the hare made its meals of the woody foliage stems. Like a moose’s winter scat, the hare’s is also quite sawdusty in texture given its food source.

Did I say the grouse’s tracks became quite ubiquitous? And we began to find more holes like that made by the flying moose, I mean grouse.

The thing that really struck us was the thickness of the crusty layer and the energy the grouse had to use in order to blast into and out of it. Some call them fool’s hens, but they struck us as being rather smart about penetrating solid slabs.

Eventually, our own need for nourishment and energy renewal brought us to a halt in a sunny spot at Moose Alley’s intersection with Loop Trail. We each found a stump upon which to dine and while we sat quietly, chickadees entertained us with their quick seed gathering foray and calls to each other.

To take it all in, Pam struck a pose the reminded me of a certain famous person; she just needed wool mittens 😉

Eventually we stood and moved along, pausing briefly beside mullein in its winter form–hoping against hope that a spider or another insect might make itself known. No such luck, though we did admire the size and structure.

More domestic dog tracks shouted their names by their behavior, but we soon discovered prints of a strict carnivore who had recently moved through the forest with intention.

By the four toes, no visible nails, and shape of the ridge and heel pad, we knew it to be one who says, “Meow.” Well, maybe not exactly like a domestic cat, but still a feline, in this case a bobcat.

Our final find of the day was the track of a red fox. Oh, we’d seen squirrel and mouse as well. And maybe a few others I’m forgetting to mention. But moose?

Just as Marta and Kristoff wanted nothing to do with us, we suspect the moose was the same. That means only one thing.

We must return to Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch again . . . and again . . . and maybe again.

As for today, with powder upon the crusty layer of snow, it was a Top Notch Tracking day.

P.S. Thank you, Becky and Jim.

Folly of a Sun-Mondate

Into the wilderness of Sebago, Maine, we ventured upon land owned by Loon Echo Land Trust.

Sometimes we had to break trail.

Other times it was like the white carpet had been rolled out to show us the way.

And often, we found ourselves traveling the same route others had taken or crossed over, for such a corridor it is.

We tromped through a vast wetland.

And bushwhacked into what seemed like a never-ending shrub-land.

The hares made it all look so easy as they traveled back and forth on their packed-down snowshoe routes.

Meanwhile, the beavers remained snug at home despite frequent callers.

Though we couldn’t see steam rising from the lodge’s chimney, we suspected they reposed quietly within.

Nearby, their works of art added a decorative nature to the winter scene.

We spent one day seeing hugs . . .

and hearts in the forest.

And the next day exploring an unorganized territory; or was it?

It’s such a place where wooden birds fly.

And owl talons cling.

On Sunday, we snowshoed along a five-mile route, that was rather easy given that most of it was a snowmobile trail at Tiger Hill Community Forest, and paused briefly for lunch on a rock in the woods, followed later by a brownie beside Cold Rain Pond that I think my guy was still eating when I snapped this photo.

Today found us nearby at Perley Ponds-Northwest River Preserve, where the tree spirit chuckled for he knew before we did that our two-mile tramp would be much more challenging but we’d come upon unexpected finds that would add to this folly of a two-day Mondate on either side of Folly Road.

Winter Bug Safari

I’m a winter gal and snow and tracks and scat and bark and buds all pull me out the door on a daily basis as I try to understand who has traveled where and why, and through what natural community the journey has been made.

But now . . . I have another reason to slip outside: Bugs. And how they overwinter. And where.

On one tramp through the woods this past week, with eyes peeled for the tiniest movement on the snow or twigs or tree trunks, I spotted the fresh work of a Pileated Woodpecker. Though I would have loved to see the bird, I was equally thrilled to see the pile of debris below the hemlock tree. (And that gorgeous magenta-colored inner bark, of course.)

The fresh wood chips on the snow invited a closer examination. And you thought this post would be about bugs. But indeed it is for it’s Carpenter Ants that the bird sought. By the two clumps of bird scat that I found, it was obvious the woodpecker had been successful.

For you see, within the cylindrical casing coated with uric acid were body parts.

Ant body parts. Now, here’s the thing that I need to learn more about. I’ve watched Pileated Woodpeckers land on trees and pause, sometimes deciding to excavate, but other times moving on. And I’ve been told that they test the tree out and listen for the ants. I’ve never been able to prove that. But here’s the thing: what I learned today is that Carpenter Ants not insulated by snow or the warmth of your home enter diapause, a low-energy state that allows them to survive the cold and go for long periods without eating. So the question remains, how does the woodpecker know which tree to pick on, or is it a lucky strike?

Further along that same trail, I came upon the prints of a horse that had stymied me a few weeks ago when I tried to mentally turn its track pattern into either a bear or a moose, knowing full well that what I was seeing didn’t quite fit what I knew to be true of those species. Horse manure would have helped, but there was none to be seen . . . until the other day when a fresh plop in the middle of the trail offered an invite to look for insects seeking minerals upon it. I saw one small fly that I couldn’t identify, but beside the manure was this Winter Cranefly. It was a brisk day and today I learned that this species is only active when the temperature is below freezing. My kind of bug, indeed.

On another day and another trail, it was a Winter Firefly that drew attention. First, fireflies are not flies; they are beetles.

Second, unlike many beetles, Winter Fireflies overwinter as adults.

Third, Winter Fireflies are diurnal and don’t have lanterns to light up the night sky.

And fourth, though I find most tucked into the bark of maple trees, the first one this week was on a hemlock. After that, it seemed to be maples upon which I found others.

As the temperatures rise bit in the next month, they’ll become more active and will be visible crawling up the tree trunks and eventually flying. By summer, you’ll see not a one but their nocturnal cousins will light up the night.

One day, it was Snow Fleas, aka Spring Tails upon lichenized bark that garned a look.

And another day, upon another crustose lichen on a maple tree, shed larval skins of possibly Twice-Stabbed Lady Beetles were visible. Kinda creepy, especially when you are looking up-close and personal with a hand lens, but oh, so cool.

And then there were the spiders, thus the reason this isn’t just an Insect Safari. This minute eight-legged creature that practically ran across the bark must have had antifreeze in its blood.

Behind another piece of bark was this slightly active crab spider . . .

and its more dormant relatives hunkered down who had probably supercooled through the process of accumulating glycols in their blood (antifreeze again). Apparently, despite the below freezing temps, their tissues remained unfrozen and they won’t become spidercicles. How in the world did spiders and other critters physiologically adapt via the antifreeze compounds so that they won’t turn to ice?

It’s all a wonder to me.

Before I finish, let me leave you with one last image. It’s some sort of beetle, I know not what. And I don’t know what is on its wings–perhaps some sort of mite or parasite? When class reconvenes again, I will ask the instructor.

I am so excited to be taking Bugs In Winter, taught by Charley Eiseman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: a Guide to North American Species. Thank you to Maine Master Naturalist Anthony Underwood for suggesting it to me (perhaps so I’d stop sending him photos of mystery bugs and asking his advice).

The course has only just begun and a few naturalist friends are taking it with me. We have tons to learn and so I invite you to tag along cuze for the next two months I’m going to be on a Winter Bug Safari, which will then turn into Spring Bug Safari, and after that . . . you get the picture.

Cached In My Heart

I knew it was going to be a great day when snowflakes began to fall. And when asked the day before how I intended to spend yesterday, I said I’d probably read, bake, and knit. But . . . those plans were postponed for a few hours because that white stuff was falling and I heard it calling my name.

Thankfully, it was only my name that it called and for the first time since March, I stepped back into Pondicherry Park, a place that I love, but have intentionally avoided because so many others have discovered it as a tonic to the worries of the pandemic and I wanted to give them space, knowing I could find plenty of other places to explore with the same quest in mind. But . . . it was snowing, and I suspected that others might be home reading and baking and, well, maybe even knitting, and I would have the place to myself.

Soon, however, I discovered that I wasn’t really alone for even though the snow wasn’t piling up, tiny tracks on boardwalks indicated others were scampering about.

A few minutes into the hike, bright green moss invited me off trail to examine the base of pine where a hole beneath the tree . . .

and a cone still intact made me wonder: If this was the home of a little scamperer, what might it be eating other than this cone?

And then I twisted right–in more ways than one. And spread out along a downed pine and all around the base of another–a huge cache/midden: the cache being a collection of cones gathered and stored; and the midden being the refuse pile of scales and cobs left behind after the seeds were consumed.

I’ve been looking for one of these for a few weeks as the air temperature has dropped and wondered when the little guys would get their acts together and gather a supply to see them through winter.

One among them had, indeed, been busy, not only gathering, but dining, and with today being Thanksgiving, you might think this critter had the longest dining room table because it intended to invite everyone over for a meal.

But, its a feisty diner, and each meal is consumed quickly, with some chits and chats warning others to stay away–social distancing naturally.

Peeking under the dinner table, I discovered some cones tucked away in the pantry . . .

others in the fridge, with the door left open, thus exposing them to the elements . . .

and a few in cold storage.

On the other side of the pine table, holes in the midden showed the downstairs and upstairs doorways: all leading to Rome–or rather, the cache that must have been huge based on the size of the midden left behind. I did feel concern that so much had been consumed and there might not be enough for winter survival.

No need to worry. On the backside of the tree, three were tucked into furrows–making me think of a $20 bill stored away in a wallet, just in case.

My journey through the park eventually continued and meant a few pauses at favorite haunts, including one where the reflection nourishes my little friends . . . and me.

Occasionally more boardwalks curve through the landscape offering their own reflection–of this past year, which has taught us all that when there are curves in the road, we should follow and embrace them.

And if a hemlock grows beside a pine, it’s okay to cache your pinecone supply atop the former’s roots. You don’t always have do what the rest of us expect you to do.

Especially if you are the creator of the caches–a feisty Red Squirrel, ever ready to give chase to your siblings and chitter at any intruders such as me.

Of course, if you are a Gray Squirrel, you’ll take a different approach to winter preparations and store one acorn at a time and hope you remember where you left each one.

Three hours later, I finally found my way home, grateful that the stars had aligned, it had snowed, and I had the trails to myself. And then I began to bake, but never got around to reading or knitting or even writing this post for the phone kept ringing and there were envelopes and gifts to open, messages and emails galore to read, and cake to consume, and though we can’t be with our family or friends today, I gave thanks that on my birthday the squirrels let me share their world for a wee bit and I was showered with so much love–that I’ve cached in my heart.

All In A Flash

To feed or not to feed? That is not the question for I know I will continue to put out bird seed from now til April or May since it provides them with a constant food source and me with a constant entertainment source.

But still, things happen, like Gray Squirrels figure out how to access the squirrel-proof feeders.

And when I least expect it, everyone makes a mad dash because a bird of prey suddenly rockets in with talons extended.

I’d only placed the feeders in the yard a few days ago, but today this Cooper’s Hawk explained why I keep discovering feathers on the grass. Do you see the gray feathers by its talons? Tufted Titmouse? That makes me sad, but . . . raptors need to eat too.

Meanwhile, a female Northern Cardinal who had been feeding on the seed I spread on the ground tried to take cover in the grass. Notice how her crest is raised? I suspect it stood tall indicating her worry.

Even after the hawk flew off, she remained in the same spot. But, do you see the difference? The crest began to drop, perhaps because she began to relax.

I could almost hear her say, “If I don’t move, he won’t see me.”

About 15 minutes and lots of raindrops later, she finally perused the yard.

And let a few more raindrops gather on her feathers before flying off. I was grateful to see her fly, because for a while I worried that she had been injured in the fracas. My other thought was that she might be in shock. But, I think for now, until I learn more about bird behavior, I’ll stick with thinking she was playing it smart and waiting for danger to pass.

Two hours later, I spotted the hawk on our stonewall and later went out to search for feeding evidence as chipmunks and other small mammals are also part of their diet. I found only a couple of downy feathers where the bird had stood in the yard and nothing by the stonewall, but I suspect there may be something to notice in the future.

Today’s drama all happened in a flash and as odd as it may seem, I was grateful to be a witness.