Rejoice in the Unexpected

My hostess wasn’t home when I ventured upon her land today, but I went with her blessings. And in return was blessed.

I’d barely stepped into the woods when a female pileated woodpecker called for attention as she tapped with intention and sloughed off pieces of bark in a quest for insects.

My own quest was to check on beaver activity, for I’ve traveled this land before and knew their previous hangouts, but . . . by the level of water behind the first dam the water was a wee bit low and I sensed no one was at home nearby.

Just below the dam, a tall sculpture created last year indicated that we grow ’em big in these parts. Beavers, that is. But really, last winter the water was higher and so was the snow, so it wasn’t a super hero beaver after all who had gnawed and shouted, “Timber.”

A wee bit downstream stood dam number 2, also not in current use. But . . .

By the path through broken ice, I suspected that an otter had checked out the scene rather recently.

Perhaps he had high hopes of finding someone at home. When I knocked, no one answered.

Dam number 3 was also defunct and I began to wonder if there were any beavers in the neighborhood.

And then . . . and then I spotted a tell-tale sign: fresh incisor marks on a single tree. Do you notice how they are oriented left to right? A beaver must turn its head to the side in order to scrap the tree trunk and reach the inner bark with its upper and lower incisors.

Beyond the new works, were plenty of old, the shades of the wood telling the story of years of activity.

And on some trees, new met old, adding more colors and designs to the art work.

An old lodge stood in the middle of the wetland that was fed by a brook and stream, where ice sealed the world above from the world below.

A closer look at the lodge revealed that it had been compromised, and the memory of an exploration last winter reminded me that a predator had been attracted to it but didn’t seem to find anyone at home. Today, it seemed, the house was still an empty chamber.

As I continued along the edge of the wetland, I found one tree where a beaver merely took a quick taste and perhaps didn’t find it to his liking. Or . . . a predator happened along and he skedaddled back through the icy water to the safety of home.

It became apparent that someone was indeed home, just not in the first lodge. And by the color of the wood, the logging operation had occurred rather recently.

Wood chips on the ice added to the assumption that this was a recent harvest and if you look beyond, you’ll see two dome-shaped lodges in the offing.

From the shore, both looked well mudded, like we might add insulation and Typar to our homes to keep winter temperatures at bay. This technique also makes it resistant to attack from predators. What it doesn’t keep out is other undesirable visitors often in the form of hordes of insects.

The closest lodge was rather skyscraper in height and I began to wonder, was it the living room and the shorter one perhaps the kitchen? Did you know that beavers heap sticks until they are well above water and then gnaw their way up into the structure to create a chamber?

Much of the color surrounding the houses and throughout the wetland was provided courtesy of leatherleaf and its upright leaves and future flowers stored within the tiny buds.

Not far downstream from the two lodges, an infinity pool any homeowner might die for gave proof that someone was indeed home. Keeping the water high is important for beaver survival since they need to access their food supply of munch sticks stored underwater near the lodge and come and go from said homestead via a secret entryway. Secret to us and most of their predators, that is. Water snakes came find them in season. And otters can find them at any time, especially when the possibility of enjoying a meal of a young one seems a possibility.

Below dam number 4 water rushed and ice formed.

Dam number 5 was along a different stream, and though it hasn’t been in use for several years, its structure is worth honoring.

The meadow above invites others to take advantage and in the spring muskrats and wood ducks were seen in this place.

That’s the thing about beavers; they create wetlands that create habitats for others to enjoy, such as the deer that left behind some rubs on trees by dam number 1. From the raggedness at both ends of the rub and smooth wood between, I knew a buck had roamed this land and rubbed his antlers, leaving an inviting scent for a doe to notice.

And a chipmunk hole surrounded by hoar frost indicated someone was eating and breathing within.

But . . . not all chipmunks have decided to retreat to their underground homes just yet. The funny thing about a chipmunk is that it can pose as still as possible for minutes on end so a predator won’t spy it, but the minute it decides to move, it chirps. Why is that?

Certainly, it seems, it sends out a message to others like the bobcat who left behind a print or two or three on several patches of snow.

I traveled this land today because of the generosity of my hostess and so for her I found a bunch of fungi and decided to honor her with a false tinderconk as my way of giving thanks for letting me trespass almost anytime I want.

I’d gone to check on the beavers and was pleased with the discoveries I made for I know where they are and aren’t active. And I’ll return because those five dams and four lodges are only a taste of what her land has to offer.

But, it was the ice that once again stopped me in my tracks. Like the water it forms from, I’m always awed by the artwork created, in this case chandeliers dangled.

Seriously. Seriously, my heart stopped when I found a three-dimensional heart sticking up from a rock. Seriously.

My favorite find of all though, was a reflection of my face as I rejoiced in the unexpected.

This next month I hope you’ll make time to do the same.

Book of February: Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer

Yikes. Here it is the end of February and I’ve spent the month mentally flipflopping between two books to recommend–one about tracks and the other about tree buds.

And then this day dawned. Not long into the morning as I sat at my desk beside a window, a swift motion captured my attention . . .

and I knew immediately that Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer by Mary Holland would be the February Book of the Month.

In this factual, yet delightful story, Mary tells of Ferdinand’s birth, childhood activities, and growth as he and his siblings are born and eventually weaned. Her amazing photographs fill the pages and alone are worth a reason to purchase this book. But there’s so much more and one doesn’t need to be 3-8 years old to enjoy it. Even those of us who are more “mature” can surely learn from the information shared on each of the book’s 32 pages.

And there’s even more to the book because at the end is a section her publisher labels “For Creative Minds.” Though one can’t copy other pages in the book, we are encouraged to use the material in this section for educational, non-commercial purposes.

Included are “Red Fox Fun Facts and Adaptations” with photographs and brief blurbs to describe various behaviors of these canines. (I remember a time when I had to get it through my brain that a fox was a canine and not a feline.)

One of my favorites from this section: “Red foxes are most active at dusk and dawn (crepuscular). In summer, they are more active at night (nocturnal) because their prey, mice, are more active then. Foxes may hunt during the day (diurnal) in the winter because it’s harder to find food.”

Bingo! That brings me to the reason why I chose this book for February.

Remember that motion I mentioned observing this morning. Well, I went to the kitchen door and there on the snowbank by the back deck was my neighborhood fox.

He was on the prowl. Do you see all the gray and red squirrel tracks on the snow? And Mary’s comment that foxes will hunt during the day in the winter. One would think that given all the squirrels and mice folks were dealing with last fall, a result of the previous year’s mast crop production of acorns, pinecones, and beechnuts, the foxes and coyotes and bobcats would have plenty to feast on. But . . . there wasn’t so much food for those little brown things to cache this winter and so it’s a rare occasion that I find a squirrel midden or even mouse tracks in the snow right now. Instead, they are all at my bird feeding station. And my daily fox knows this. Though I haven’t seen him find success, he returns repeatedly and follows the same route each time so I suspect he’s helped himself to a few local delicacies.

Notice that long snout–the better to smell you with, my dear. Oh wait, that was the big bad wolf, not the big, bad fox.

Just after I shot this photograph, he pivoted and dashed off in the direction from whence he’d come.

And then he returned, with nothing dangling from his mouth. His eyes, in the front because he was born to hunt (eyes on the side, born to hide–like a deer), focused on something in the quaking aspen that I couldn’t quite see from my vantage point.

He went back to the tree and for a second I thought he was going to climb it. Hmmm, gray foxes climb trees, not red.

Again, this was from the edge of the door and I couldn’t quite see what had captured his attention. Prior to his visit, the feeders and ground had been a party spot for a slew of squirrels and birds. I doubted a bird would hang out in a tree while a fox lurked below, but wondered if a squirrel was trying its darnedest to blend in with the tree trunk. And if it was a red squirrel, it was keeping its mouth shut for a change for I heard not a bit of its usual chatter.

After a minute or two, Fred, as I’ll call him (after all, Mary named her fox) moved a few feet away, sat down and began to scratch behind his ear. Those darn fleas.

He sat there for a few minutes and then got up and began to walk away. But his eyes . . . still they were focused on that tree.

At last he gave up on that particular quarry and ran off, following his usual route across the yard toward the neighbor’s house. I wonder how many cats they have left.

I gave Fred a wee bit of time to move on so I wouldn’t disturb him and then I headed out because, after all, who can resist the opportunity to check out brand, spanking fresh tracks? Remember that red fox’s feet are quite hairy so their prints look rather muffled, even in the fresh dusting of snow that fell overnight.

Do you see the X between toes and pad? Some semblance of nails? And can’t you just envision him loping across the yard?

Remember how he sat down to scratch behind his right ear (looking head on it would have been his left to us)? Well, I found the spot where he’d left an impression on the snow. And more. A tad of pee and SCAT! He’d dined on something.

I backtracked him for a while, crossing over stonewalls and into neighboring tree lots curious about where he comes from, but as Mary Holland reminded me, “As the weather turns cold, Ferdinand and his siblings sleep outside on the ground and no longer use their den.” Instead, they curl up and their bushy tails keep them warm. At last, I came to a tree where he’d dillydallied.

And then I spied a tiny amount of yellow snow–he’d tinkled (what fun to write “tinkled”) there. The sniff test results: skunky scent. Has he not mated yet? One day more than a month ago he did bring a gal by, but I haven’t seen her since. Red foxes typically breed in January and February, and it is, after all, still February for a few more hours.

At the end of our cowpath, he’d turned south as he always does and his track became but a memory.

Mary’s book can help keep that memory alive. It’s only one of numerous children’s books she’s now written. All have cross-curriculum teaching activity guides that one can download from www.SylvanDellPublishing.com.

Mary is also the author of Naturally Curious, which is now out of print (though someone told me there is an updated edition, but I’m not sure its been published yet), and Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, and she shares a blog post about five times a week with those who wish to learn more.

I’ve had the honor of being in her presence twice, both times here in western Maine, and she is delightful, down-to-earth, and extremely gifted as a naturalist, photographer and author. She’s also quite approachable and I’m always amazed that she takes the time to answer questions via e-mail.

If you follow her blog or read her books, you’ll feel as if she’s either walking beside you or just ahead. Mary, if your ears are burning, it’s because those of us who do follow in your tracks often comment on the fact that what we see you just happened to post. Thank you for helping all of us, no matter our age, become naturally curious.

Once again, the February Book of the Month: Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer.

Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer by Mary Holland, Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2013.