Laughing All The Way, Ho, Ho, Ho

It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.

And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.

Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.

Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.

Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.

Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).

Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.

The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.

It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)

Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.

Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.

We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.

And so Joe did.

And Dawn followed suit.

It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.

I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.

At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.

Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.

Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.

And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?

There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.

This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.

And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.

One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.

Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.

I bet you can see it now.

I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.

Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.

We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.

Making a New Friend, Naturally

I don’t always find it easy to get to know someone upon our first greeting, especially if our time together is brief. And sometimes it takes me a year or even longer to feel comfortable in the presence of another. But there was something a wee bit different about today’s encounter that encouraged me to break down any false barriers.

Maybe it was because at first glance I thought an old friend had stopped by for the clothing it wore on its back looked familiar.

But my old friend, Ashy, wears a cloak with a yellow triangular spot on segment eight on the coat tails and segments nine and ten have no coloration above.

If you look back at my new acquaintance, you’ll realize that the pattern is quite different all the way to the hem line.

That’s when I began to realize I was in the presence of someone I hadn’t had the pleasure to meet before. Or, if I had, perhaps I hadn’t taken the time to notice the idiosyncrasies that earned it a name. To really get to know him.

Notice, for instance, the wide black shoulder stripe on the side of his thorax.

And the spines along the thigh of his hind leg.

Those two features were key, but there was more to see: look at the thorax again. Can you see two long, thin bluish-green ovals and the “I” that separates them?

Because he looked similar in some ways to Ashy and another friend I know as Sir Lancelot, I wondered if he’d be comfortable with an up close and personal meeting.

It appeared he didn’t mind as my steel-gray-blue eyes peered into his of vivid green.

He didn’t stay on my finger long and despite the fact that he was at least a half inch longer than his cousins, he felt like a lightweight.

I, of course, could not let the chance encounter pass without another opportunity to gain a closer perspective.

He seemed to feel the same . . .

and ever so slowly climbed aboard again. Three times we stared at each other, but each time it was only for a brief period.

At last he flew off and I could only hope that he felt as excited about our meeting as I did.

My only other hope is that the next time we meet, I remember his name: Black-shouldered Spinyleg Clubtail Dragonfly or Dromogomphus spinosus.

Today, I made a new friend, naturally. And it wasn’t so hard after all.

Nothing False About This Celebration

With a mission
to check upon
a heron rookery,
I invited
a friend
to join me.

The young’uns
sat upon their
nests of sticks
waiting for
the next meal
to arrive.

With the flap
of wings
slowed in rhythm,
landing gear
was extended
in the form
of long legs
and feet.
Within minutes,
a meal of fish
was regurgitated
and
passed
from
parent
to
child.
Because of 
our location
beside
a slow-flowing river,
many other sights
caught our
attention.
But it was one
with a
penchant for moisture
who stood
as tall
as my chin
that garnered
the most attention.
I've oft 
relished its
pleated leaves
of green,
their manner
that of the
lily family.
In a 
clasping formation,
they attach
to the main stem,
spirally arranged
from bottom
to top.
I've seen 
the plant often
in its leafy rendition,
but today
was the first time
its star-shaped flowers
atop the plant
revealed themselves.
With
petals and sepals
combined
as tepals,
my friend noted
their resemblance
to the leaves below.
The more we looked, 
the more we realized
there were others
who also
revered
such a unique structure,
in particular
the nectar-producing glands
at each flower's base.
The plant
took advantage,
or so it seemed,
of allowing those
who ventured
into its sweetness
with a dash,
or perhaps
a dollop,
of pollen
to pass on
for future reference.
Because of its location
in the moist habitat,
insects formerly aquatic,
such as
the Alderfly,
did walk
with sluggish movements.
Up its stout stalk
one rose,
the fuzzy structure
perhaps providing
it texture
upon which to climb.
Did it seek
the bright yellow anthers?
Or the nectar below?
With wings
delicately veined
and folded over
like a tent,
the Alderfly
paused
and hardly pondered
its next move.
The flower
mattered not
for this
weak flyer.
At last
it reached
the tip
of the
long, upright
inflorescence,
conical in form,
and I wondered:
would it pierce
the unopened flowers
for a bit
of nutrition?
Perhaps not,
for adults
of this species
have a need
more important
than eating.
Theirs is to
mate,
particularly at night.
Maybe it was
a he,
looking for a sight
to meet
a she.
As it 
turned out,
not all
who had
canoodling
on their minds
could wait
until the day
darkened
to
night.
Meanwhile,
there were others
who sought
the sweet satisfaction
of nectar
for their needs.
And in 
the process
of seeking,
tads of pollen
decorated
their backs,
in this case
where X
marks the spot.
It was 
a place
for many
to gather
and garner
including
Lady Beetles
of many colors.
And upon 
those pleated leaves,
were Mayflies
who had
lived out
their short lives,
and Craneflies
taking a break,
while showing off
their wings
reminiscent
of stained glass.
After such 
an up-close greeting
of the delicate flowers,
and recognizing
for the first time
their immense splendor,
June 15
will forevermore be
the day
to celebrate
False Hellebore.

Behold the Gold Shoe

Today’s quest found me

seeking the Holy Grail,

though floral in form.

Yellowish-greens danced

on the breeze like dainty skirts.

Not the ones I sought.

Red stamens on one

dangled from the second tier.

Not the ones I sought.

Three distinct edges

of the capsule formed below.

Not the ones I sought.

More yellow tinges

on anthers hanging under.

Not the ones I sought.

Birds ready to fly

with wings a deep magenta.

Not the ones I sought.

At long last the stairs

Leading to the palace door.

Not the ones I sought.

Two more sets of stairs

But the palace door still closed.

Not the ones I sought.

Five sets of stairs checked,

each time the palace locked.

No shoes of gold here.

At last more steps climbed

and the palace doors opened.

My search had ended.

Uncommon in Maine,

the Holy Grail I sought.

Spring ephemeral.

Behold the gold shoe.

A showy forest orchid.

This Lady’s Slipper.

P.S. Thanks to Parker, Carol, and Ursula for sharing these flowers with me on past tramps we’ve shared.

Heaven on Heath

When Alanna Doughty, of Lakes Environmental Association fame, and I pulled into the parking lot of Saco Heath this morning, we had no idea what to expect. It is described as the southern-most coalesced domed bog in Maine. I have to admit, I need to learn so much more to understand the real meaning of that. According to The Nature Conservancy, for this is one of their preserves, “the heath formed when two adjacent ponds filled with decaying plant material called peat. Eventually, the two ponds filled completely and grew together to form a raised coalesced bog, where the surface of the peat is perched above the level of the groundwater.”

Our first steps found us walking through a forested bog rich with wetland plants including Cinnamon and Royal Ferns.

And then we entered the peatland through the pearly gates.

It was a place where one could disappear for a few lifetimes and eventually emerge completely preserved. With Pitch Pines and Black Spruce towering above, the colors gave us our first pause for the Rhodora was in full bloom and neither of us could remember ever seeing so much of it before.

As it was, we seemed to have been transported into a still-life painting of spring where even the toppled Gray Birch might have been intentionally placed for such a contrast it provided.

Taking a closer look, it was suddenly obvious that life was not still at all and the flower drew our eyes in and out and in and out again with all of its lines.

We even found a few with brand new hairy leaves complementing the presentation.

This was a place where old friends live and greeting them again with a friendly handshake seemed only natural.

The Tamarack’s needles so soft and bright green graced the tree with a feathery appearance.

The flowers of the Black Chokeberry gave us pause for a few minutes for we had to get our shrub eyes adjusted to the brightness that surrounded us.

We weren’t the only ones with large eyes noticing all the goodness in our midst.

Being in a heath, members of the heath family made their presence known, such as the Bog Laurel. Some of the flowers had fallen to the sphagnum moss floor below the boardwalk, so we sat down to take a closer look at the flower, its petals fused into a shallow, five-lobed bowl. The interior of the bowl was interrupted by ten indentations where the pollen-bearing anthers snuggled as if in individual pockets. Each awaited a pollinator to trigger the spring-like tension and thus get showered with pollen. We may have unintentionally aided in sharing the goodness.

Because we were looking and trying to gain a better understanding, Alanna ran her fingers down the Bog Laurel’s stem, reveling in the recognition of the longitudinal ridges between each pair of leaves. From one set of leaves to the next, the ridge orientation and next set of leaves shifted 90˚. In the land of wonder, we were definitely wallowing in awe.

Another member of the heath family stumped us for a few minutes until it reminded us that its “pineapple” form atop the rhododendrum-like leaves was not the fruit, but rather the start of the flower.

It was a few plants later, that we noticed the flowers beginning to burst.

While we watched, a male Painted Lady paused atop one of the laurels as if it was a pedestal, the better place from which to possibly entice a mate.

Shortly thereafter we made a new acquaintance. By its shiny, parallel-veined leaves we thought we knew it, but then we spied the tiny white flowers. We know False Solomon’s Seal, but join us in greeting Three-leaved False Solomon’s Seal. Ronald B. Davis writes in Bog & Fens, “In bogs, it commonly occurs on a peat moss mat at the transition between a mineorotrophic black-spruce wooded area and a more open ombrotrophic area.”

Indeed, I have a lot to learn, but the natural community was transitioning again.

And within the transition zone, we met another new friend: Mountain Holly. In retrospect, we may have met in a past life, but it’s always good to spend some time getting reacquainted with the finer details such as the tiny flowers at the end of long, fine petioles.

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail loops around through a forest of pines and oaks.

At the shrub level, Bumblebees acted as bell ringers while they flew from one flower of the Highbush Blueberry to the next, making sure that all were in tune.

It was in this same neighborhood that we met another for the first time. Velvet-leaved Blueberry’s leaves and stems were as soft as any robe an angel might wear.

Below, her bell-shaped skirts dangled.

A surprise along the loop trail was a spur to an outlook where a sturdy bench offered time for contemplation and meditation.

Several signs beyond our reach warned us not to step off the platform and into the bog, but . . . it was soooo tempting. And weren’t we in the garden?

As we stood and wondered about what we might be missing, we spied several Pitcher Plants with their urn-like leaves.

And directly behind the bench stood one of the rare species for which this place is known: Atlantic White Cedar

Though we never did see the Hessel’s Hairstreak Butterfly, another rare species associated with Atlantic White Cedar, we honored the tree by taking a closer look at its foliage.

And then it was time to return back across the boardwalk, upon which we immediately noticed a huge Pitcher Plant we’d missed on our previous pass. In its center the bulbous red flowers posed as cranberries.

We also spotted a couple of Pink Lady’s Slippers in bloom that we’d previously walked past, giving thanks that we’d had to follow the same route and because of that made some new observations.

At the end of our time we knew we’d visited a very special place that allowed us to come to a better understanding of old friends and make new acquaintances. It certainly felt like we’d spent the morning at Heaven on Heath.

Because of the Elder Alder

“Mind your elders,” they say. And so today I did.

It all began when I stood by a river in expectation of spying a few dragonfly exoskeletons. Low temperatures of late mixed in with lots of rain, however, meant that while the Black Fly and Mosquito populations are on the high side, the dragonflies have been slow to delight us with their presence. But . . . while I looked my eyes began to focus on another bug. On small saplings of Hemlock and others along the river bank, I found numerous takes on the same insect. Though winged, none of them appeared to be in a great hurry.

While I looked about, I realized that they weren’t the only ones who chose to stand rather still. The same was true of the Mayflies recently hatched, their eyes so big, bodies so striped, and mouths non-existent for eating was not their prime duty. Mating was the name of the Mayfly game.

And it appeared that others had the same intention in mind. And so I continued to circle back to them in my usual stalking routine.

“My, what long antennae you have.”

“The better to stroke you with, my dear.”

While I looked about, a bird flew in. My initial reaction: a thrush. More specifically: a Hermit Thrush. But . . . recently I’d learned that what I thought was a Hermit turned out to be a Swainson’s Thrush–a species I tended to ignore because I didn’t realize it might be a possibility in western Maine, until it was. And in the past two weeks, I’ve had three occasions upon which to make its acquaintance.

What I’m learning to note is its buffy eye ring and consistent color. I’m not a great birder, and don’t ask me about sound. Though I was raised in a musical family, the gene somehow was dropped from my DNA. I find that I appreciate the songs and calls that I hear. In fact, my life is enlightened by the morning orchestra. But . . . don’t ask me to repeat a note for it goes in one ear, out the other, and continues on into the forest reverberating against bark and leaves and illuminating the world in a manner ethereal–just not one I can remember.

As for the resident bugs, I found one that had bird droppings on it, but somehow it had managed to avoid becoming dinner. So far.

While I looked about, a bird of another sort made itself known–via a pellet filled with hair and bones.

Meanwhile, back on the first Hemlock sapling, I overheard this:

“Do you want to see me Hemlock needle collection?”

“Oh yes, please. I thought you’d never ask.”

While I looked about, I also noticed Starflowers in bloom, their tender blossoms practically imitating the leaves below.

Back at the ranch, or rather branch, the dance had finally begun. It was a slow one, indeed.

While I looked about, one with much more speed scurried across the forest floor. Where’s Waldo Spider? Do you see him?

And on the branch the slow dance continued as the partners spent time getting to know each other.

While I looked about, ants ran up and down stems all around on a quest I couldn’t quite understand, though I’m sure there was sugar involved.

On the branch: He stepped in closer with his left foot and she with the right as they began to Rumba.

While I looked about, I realized other insects had become meals so caught were they in the tangle of a web.

On another sapling, others waited to cut in. It’s a recognized practice to cut in. The guy who wants to cut taps the gal’s partner quietly on the shoulder. The dancer must let her go both courteously and cheerfully. She, of course, has no choice in the matter.

On the branch: He was going to allow no one to cut in. And she felt the same.

While I looked about, I discovered a white Lady’s Slipper not yet in full bloom, but when it does, it will be the perfect dance shoe.

When I at last left, the couple continued to explore each other, though mating doesn’t typically take place until nighttime. I guess this male was ready to get a head start. After all, their window of opportunity isn’t long, so they must make hay while the sun doth shine.

Because of these elder Alderflies, I had the honor to see and learn so much today.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Through My Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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