Matter of Nature

Mid-morning this email message arrived: “Hi Leigh,
I just returned from Heald Pond Road GLLT trail with this sample. There are other white hair clumps on several rocks along the path about 8 blue signs in.
” The attached photo was of a clump of deer hair. Why the clump? Why the location? Was there more? Was it a mammal versus mammal kill site?

I had to know. And so when another friend contacted me about a hike later this weekend, I asked what her afternoon plans were for today. She’d be free by one. Perfect. We agreed to meet just after that at parking lot #1 for Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

We weren’t exactly sure which trail to follow as two headed off from the lot, but placed our bets on the Chestnut Trail. As we started, I began to count trail blazes, but soon lost track.

Heck. There were other things to notice, including the minute blue stain fungus still holding court in its fruiting form. I’m enamored by so many different fruiting forms, but I think if someone asked which is my favorite, it would be this one. The color. The teeny structure. The fact that when it’s not fruiting, one can easily mistake it for a painted trail blaze.

It appeared that I wasn’t the only one who felt such love. Do you see the Springtail, aka snow flea? The size of the snow flea should provide perspective on the size of the fruiting body–lilliputian at best.

And then on a white pine sapling another structure captured our attention. Who was the creator?

By all the hairs in the structure, we suspected a tussock moth caterpillar. We also wondered if there is a good guide to cocoons. If you know of one, please enlighten us for we see them everywhere in every form and desire to know more. As much as we pay attention, we realized we need to watch even more closely and perhaps one day we’ll be honored by discovering the creator.

So, truth be told, we left the cocoon behind and continued along the trail searching for deer hair, but suddenly realized we’d lost track of the number of trail blazes. At a fork in the trail, we figured we’d gone too far, so we walked back to the start, turned around and tried to be present in the moment as we counted blazes. Of course, we got distracted, but had a general idea and still no deer hair. We again reached the fork and decided to split up. Along the route I explored, a female Hairy Woodpecker made her presence known by tapping at the tree trunks in hopes of detecting an insect tunnel.

At last I found the hair, a few more than eight blazes out. I went back to find my companion, Pam, and as we regrouped, the woodpecker worked other trees. And because we paused to admire her, we spied a Bald-faced Wasp nest dangling, much of its papery structure still intact. Why? Why? Why? Why are all wasp nests similarly shaped. It’s the same for so many other aspects of nature and internalizing the innate nature of it all is beyond our understanding.

Finally, I showed Pam the hair, rod-like in structure for such is its winter insulating form. Softer, curlier hairs were also in the mix. Had these tufts been pulled out? We wondered what had happened while the teeny, tiny Springtails made themselves at home on the shafts, their preference for moist conditions met by the location.

Channeling Sherlock Holmes, we searched for more hair and found clumps and tufts and even pieces of pelt.

Flipping one over, we wondered how it had come to be on the trail. Was the deer attacked by another animal? But . . . there was no blood.We eventually searched off trail, expecting to find a carcass or other signs of a confrontation. Nada.

But, we did find other things to make note of like an open catkin of a Yellow Birch resembling a cone, some of its babes already sent off to make their way in the world and others awaiting a moment to fly the coop.

There was also some handsome Lungwort Lichen to admire, its ridges and valleys reading like a topographical map.

Back on the trail, we continued forward and found more clumps, determining that it was spread about in a thirty foot section. Near some clumps we found that moss on rocks in the path had been disturbed. What was going on?

Over and over again, we got down to examine and photograph our finds.

At the next Y in the trail, where the grape ferns grow, we turned to the right. And found another clump of hair a wee bit along.

We also discovered a beautiful scalloped fungi with gills that we couldn’t recall ever meeting before.

And we made a really cool discovery that took us some time to understand because neither of us recalled making its acquaintance previously. Or at least we think we understand it. Soft in form and many veined, we wondered if it was the cellulose of a leaf, perhaps a maple. Once we found one specimen, we began to see many, some possibly maple and others from flower leaves gone by.

Speaking of flowers, we recognized one of a most unique structure: an American Basswood. The hairy, nutlike fruit was once a small greenish flower uniquely attached and hanging under a pale, leaflike bract.

As we looked at the basswood bark, a Winter Firefly caught our attention. How can a firefly glow in the winter? Do they? Adults don’t emit light and do hide in the bark of trees, so unless we pause to look for other things such as rubbing our hands along the smoothish bark today, they largely go unnoticed.

It was getting dark as we made our way back to the parking lot, when we spotted one more find–that of another caterpillar cocoon. Was it a Promethea Moth? I almost don’t think so, but seeing so many cocoons makes me want to better understand their structures. Do you see the guideline attaching the cocoon to the tree? Maybe it wasn’t even a moth. But if not, then who?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Indeed.

As for the deer, we ended up suspecting that a hunter had shot it and carried it out, perhaps pausing to drop and drag it for a few minutes. It didn’t all make sense, but it was the best we could determine.

Everything else was a matter of nature.

Fair-feathered Friends

Thankfully, the prediction for 8-12 inches of snow for today didn’t come true. But it did snow, rain and sleet. And the birds were on the move.

b-red-winged 2

The moment I stepped out the door to fill the feeders and spread seed and peanuts on the ground I was greeted by the kon-ka-reeee of the red-winged blackbirds who stopped by for a few hours. Their songs filled the air with the promise of spring.

b-cowbirds

And with them came a few friends. Or were they? It seemed the cowbirds may have been scheming.

b-cowbird female

Mrs. Cow perhaps choosing others who might raise her young one day soon.

b-song sparrow

Another recent visitor also added its song to the chorus and its streaked breast to the landscape–such is the manner of the song sparrow.

b-tree sparrow1

American tree sparrows, on the other hand, have been frequent flyers all winter. This one paused long enough to show off its bicolored bill and white wing bars.

b-robins

And then there were those who chose to visit from a distance–the American robins appeared as ornaments in the oak and maple trees.

b-crow sentry

Meanwhile, a crow stood sentry–allowing all to eat in peace as it was ever ready to announce any intruders.

b-white-breasted nuthatch

And so they came and went–some upside down like the white-breasted nuthatch.

b-chickadee waiting

Others waiting patiently for a turn,

b-chickadee at feeder

confident in the knowledge that the wait was worth the reward.

b-chick and junco

But not all . . .

b-junco in lilac

that waited . . .

b-junco waiting

remained patient.

b-junco--cigar?

The juncos gobbled the seeds . . .

b-junco with peanut

and the peanuts.

b-junco fight 1a

And like siblings, they squabbled . . .

b-junco fight 1

with attitude . . .

b-junco fight 2

and insistence.

b-junco fight 3

Of course, there was always a winner.

b-junco up close

I love these plump winter visitors with their head and flanks completely gray, contrasting white  breasts and pale pink bills–making the junco an easy ID.

b-gray squirrel

They weren’t the only gray birds to visit the feeders. Oh, you mean a gray squirrel isn’t a bird?

b-squirrel in its tracks

Nor is the red. Don’t tell them that.

b-deer in yard

The same is true of this dear friend, who first spied some action in the distance . . .

b-deer looking at me

and then turned its eyes on the bird seed and me. But with one periscope ear, it still listened to the action to my right.

b-deer flying away

And then as fast as the birds that feed here all day, but flit in and out when they hear the slightest noise or sense a motion, the deer turned and flew off as a car drove up the road.

I played the role of a fair-weather naturalist today as I watched my feathered friends from indoors.

With friends in mind, I dedicate this post to my mom’s dear friend, Ella, who passed peacefully in her sleep the other day. I trust Mom has put the coffee pot on and she, Aunt Ella and Aunt Ruth are watching the birds out the kitchen window.