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.

Significant Fairies

We’d made promises in the recent past that fell flat. With that in mind, when the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Nature Explorers, a homeschool group led by Docent Juli, gathered this morning, she was smart and stuck to the life cycles of potential sightings like frogs rather than possibilities.

The group that gathered was large–24 in all with a mix of moms and their children.

Of course, being kids, they were immediately attracted to the water below the mill site at Heald Pond. But after letting them explore for a few minutes, a light whistle pulled them all together again.

At the nearby vernal pool, everyone quickly learned what larval mosquitoes looked like as they watched them somersault through the water column. A few complaints were expressed about future bites, but that was redirected to the fact that mosquitoes feed birds and dragonflies, and in their larval form, other aquatic insects.

Pond dipping became the morning habit and at first, it was only the mosquito larvae that made it into the containers.

But, that led to a quick lesson on the biting insects’ life cycle–one of many teachable moments that snuck into the morning fun.

Oh yes, those larval mosquitoes also feed amphibians and thanks to Juli’s son Aidan for finding a large Green Frog. Notice the ear disc, aka tympanum, that is located behind its eye. Given its size as being bigger than the eye, this was a male. And notice the dorsal lateral ridge or fold that extends from behind the eye down the side of its back (there’s one on either side)–that’s a clue that this is a Green Frog and not a Bull Frog, for the latter’s ridge circles around the tympanum.

As the morning went on, it turned out that today was Aidan’s day to shine for he was also the first to find a Fairy Shrimp.

A what? Yes, a Fairy Shrimp. Do you see that delicate orangish body in the middle of the tray? It’s a mini crustacean that lives only in vernal pools.

The kids all got caught up in the thrill of such a find and within minutes became pros at recognizing them.

And so the dipping continued.

Moms also got caught up in the dipping experience.

And they also found cool stuff, like Kim’s Fishfly. We kept expecting it to eat the mosquito larvae, but it seemed that they preferred to nudge it in a way we didn’t understand.

While Kim focused on her new friend, the kids were also making new friends, testing their balance, getting rather wet and muddy, and having a blast as they sought more Fairy Shrimp.

Their pan began to fill up with one, two, three, four, five and even a few more.

And then other species were discovered, including aquatic beetles and a Phantom Midge.

We’d come in hopes of at least finding Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander egg masses, which the kids quickly recognized. By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later, some of the boys had discovered the best way to spot the masses was from the crow’s nest.

But in the end, our most significant find was the Fairy Shrimp. You see, on a public walk a couple of weeks ago, when we’d promised folks such a sighting, we came up short. But today . . . they made their presence known. And with the find of just one Fairy Shrimp, the vernal pool became a significant one as recognized by the State of Maine.

A hearty thanks to Juli for leading and the moms and their kids for attending. It was such a joy to watch everyone interacting and engaging. I only wish I could have been a Fishfly on the wall at suppertime as they shared their finds of the day with other family members.

Duck, Duck, Porky Bear!

Our mission today, which we chose to accept, was to revisit a Porcupine den and check on the activity there and if time allowed, find a certain Red Pine tree in the forest. We knew the location of the den for we’ve visited it several times in the past three or four months, but had only a vague idea of where the Red Pine grew tall.

The Porcupine’s entry hole was just as we’d remembered it, but it was the scene about that had changed since our last visit. Hemlock boughs decorated the still snow-covered forest floor in great quantity.

And so we looked up–at two trees now mere skeletons of their former selves. All that was left–backbones and ribs. The meat and flesh had been almost completely nipped off. But, it still made us smile for the Porcupine had done what Porcupines do. And except for our occasional visits, it seemed they’d not been interrupted by human interference.

The other thing Porcupines do is scat. Prolifically. Below their tree of choice. And by their dens. Of course, I needed to document such. This presentation offered a delightful contrast, subtle though it may have been, of the prickly rodent’s scat and a Hemlock cone. Sometimes the color is so similar, and as you can see the size is as well, that it’s difficult to tell them apart. But, if we are what we eat, then their similarities make perfect sense.

After admiring the Hemlocks, we returned to the hole and noticed a few quills. You may need your detective eyes to locate them. I’ll leave it at that (Faith and Sara–good luck).

And then we moved out to the edge of the brook to check on another entrance to the same den. It didn’t appear to have been used recently, but that got us wondering about the melting snow. Having said that, we could see the pathway created to the upper right of the tunnel was worn, but any scats we found there were quite dried out and deteriorated to the point of being almost unrecognizable.

Just above the tunnel, however, a new discovery–another Porcupine tree. This one a Beech sapling–most of it denuded of bark and even a few twigs. Our questions continued. Was the upper part of this seven or eight foot tree dined upon when the snow was deep? And the lower part as the snow melted? Or had the Porcupine recently climbed up? How in the world can such a large animal climb such a small tree without snapping the trunk in half? I could practically wrap my thumb and pointer finger around it. Ah, but they do. Another amazing feat by one with grippers for feet.

Leaving the Porcupine area behind, we moved along beside the brook and paid our respects to the Itt family. Cousin Itt and his cousins stood clustered together eagerly awaiting the sun that was to come.

Our slow motion then found us beside a stump upon which Pixie Cup lichens grew. Pixie Cups or Goblet lichens are members of the Cladonia group. This find made us realize that as the snow pack dwindles we have so much to learn or relearn. Thank goodness it’s a slow melt and we have time. 😉

Our time today next involved a magic trick. One of us poked the blisters on the trunk of a Balsam Fir.

With a glob of resin attached to the broken twig, she tossed it into the water. Then we stood and watched . . . as the oil dispersed, changed shape and colors, and the tiny piece of twig moved about like a water fairy’s motorboat.

The essential oil within the sticky tree goo propelled the twig and created a map that could have been the United States.

As we watched, some of the oil broke away and feathered out in the movement of the water . . . but in a fashion we didn’t understand for it seemed to only float so far and then circled back.

As I said, we watched for a while, and where the little twig settled, we began to notice another shape emerging . . . a duck. Some people look at clouds, but we were fascinated by a substance that has antiseptic properties to seal cuts and protect them from infection, lessens the pain of burns if smeared gently onto skin, and serves as nature’s gasoline when one wants to start a fire. Oh, and reacts in water by creating fascinating rainbows while propelling objects.

At last we pulled away for I had a time crunch, but we still wanted to reach the Red Pine. To get there, we passed a Turkey kill site we’d discovered in January. The feathers remained and reminded us of the day we’d spent trying to solve the mystery of the Turkey’s demise. If nothing else, we came up with a good story that day.

From the feathers, we journeyed on, reaching the edge of a wetland that stretched away from the brook. My time was running out, but we gave ourselves six more minutes (why not five, you ask? Why not?) and scanned the tree tops in search of one Red Pine. And then . . . we spied it.

We weren’t the first, for a Winter Firefly moved out from under the bark as we admired its colors and jigsaw presentation–of the bark that is. We admired the insect as well, but that bark. Oh my.

And then our real “Oh my!” exclamations began for we had found what we sought. Bear claw marks on the bark! They are much more subtle on Red Pines than American Beech, but as we circled the tree we kept seeing them.

The thing about the Red Pine is that the flaky bark must make it difficult to climb, but then again, we couldn’t tell how high Ursus americanus had gone. Mind you, we didn’t look at any other trees in the forest, and as I sit and think about this one now, I can’t wait to return (I’ve a feeling my guy will want to be in tow for the next expedition) because this morning I’d forgotten that Black Bears use lone Red Pines as communication poles–turning their heads and biting into the tree while rubbing their backs against it to leave a scent (Think date night invitation). Usually, some hair is left behind in the sap. We did located old Pileated Woodpecker holes filled with sap, but no hair. Yet.

Our journey out was more of a bee-line because our six minutes took longer and I was a wee bit late to an interview, but my hostess was gracious when I explained that a Red Pine had held me up! And then on my way home I stopped by some more open water and much to my delight, a pair of Wood Ducks struck just the right pose.

And now I’m torn. Which duck do I prefer? The Balsam Fir Duck or the male Wood Duck? Such decisions to have to make at the end of the day.

Duck, duck, porky bear! They were each special in their own way.

For Whom The Crows Caw

At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.

I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.

That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .

This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.

The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?

The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?

My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?

Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.

And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?

Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.

And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.

It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.

And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.

One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).

There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.

After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.

Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.

As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.

Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.

She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.

As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.

She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?

I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.

As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.

Until finally, it was only a memory.

I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.

But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.

Forest in a Bottle

When Pam and I stepped into the woods this morning, I don’t think either one of us understood the enormity of the task before us. You see, our job was to gather all the pieces of the forest through which we’d pass.

And so we began by collecting a recent beaver masterpiece with fresh wood chips below.

There was a beaver sculpture as well, those tooth grooves deep and distinctive.

And their tracks, which all emerged from a recently frozen-over hole. The tracks were a few days old, but we added them to our findings just the same.

Because we were in beaver territory, to our delight we found otter tracks and slides galore–many of them fresh.

There was even an otter hole that we wondered if the beavers had used as well. We decided we might as well throw it in to our bag.

And we couldn’t resist our favorite otter activity of all–the spot where the infamous slider slid.

Following the trail to a different part of the forest, we spotted a diptera pupa that gave us pause for quite a while as we admired its structure and the perfectly formed circle where the fly had chewed its way out. We were so in awe that it seemed only obvious we would want to include it in the collection.

Further on, we reached a brook and spied a muskrat, that dark body in the center. As it turned out, it was a stone muskrat and we left it behind as we chuckled about our mistaken ID.

By the brook, we did, however, find mink prints in the dust of snow that had settled upon thin ice. Those were certainly worth capturing.

We also gathered more otter slides, and then stumbled upon an apparent otter roll, an area where the playful critter made a lot of fuss and left behind some urine and tarry-looking scat. We were sure we’d hit the jackpot.

Because we were beside running water, the icy baubles were not to be ignored.

Nor was the snow depth, which we determined to be close to four feet deep.

And then we marched onto a wetland, where we were stumped for quite a while about some mystery tracks. Should we take them or leave them, we wondered. The pattern indicated a perfect walker, as in a candid or feline, but the depth was deep and the toes threw us off.

The curious thing was that those tracks and others left behind by a mink and a fox led to a deep hole beside a tree.

I thought the frozen fluid within was blood, but Pam leaned more toward urine. One thing we knew for sure, if it was a kill site, there were no remains. Had the mammals been on the hunt to no avail? Take it or leave it–we put it in the same category as the mystery prints.

The mystery tracks also led to a beaver lodge and it appeared that the mystery track maker had tried to locate another meal. Given that there was no air vent at the top of the lodge, we doubted anyone was at home at the time of its visit, and so we left the lodge behind.

After standing in the middle of the wetland and eating our own lunches, we discovered a set of perfect red fox prints that we just had to include in our collection. The top print in this photo is actually the hind foot and the lower print is the front. Can you see the chevron in the foot pad?

There was another lodge we considered grabbing because the top of it appeared to possibly have a vent, but like the fox, we took a closer look and discovered that it, too, was abandoned so we left it behind.

Instead, we made our way off the wetland and back into the woods where a debarked hemlock tree stopped us in our tracks. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are known to scale trees–removing the outer bark to get at the insects underneath. Can you see the insect holes? And the cinnamon color of the inner bark? This one was a keeper, for sure.

Especially since a section where the inner bark had been removed revealed a polished layer like one might find on a table top.

There was also a huge snow-capped burl to pick.

And a small cross-section of the liverwort Frullania juxtaposed beside script lichen. Everyone should have a sample of those two.

Two old heron nests were well worth adding into the mix. They’d been used in the past until two years ago. If the herons do return to the rookery, we suspect they’ll build new structures so we didn’t feel so bad gathering these.

And then there was a pileated woodpecker hole that would have to represent all woodpecker holes in these woods. Before tossing it into the bag, Pam made sure that no other critter had set up housekeeping within.

Our final finding was one that made us think back to the mystery tracks. The more we studied these and later met the mystery tracks again and followed them for a while, the more we understood that not only did beavers, otters, foxes, deer, mink, and snowshoe hare romp in these woods, but so did coyotes.

The best thing about this coyote was that it made a coyote angel in the snow! We most definitely scooped that up.

For you see, our mission was to put it all together–in a glass jar. Haven’t you always wondered about the magic involved with placing a ship in a bottle? Well, today, we spent six hours amassing various items in the woods and then assembled them–creating a forest in a bottle. Can you see it?

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.

Doozy of a Playdate

When I sent out the invite to the Maine Master Naturalist Program’s Lewiston 2013 class for a tracking expedition at one of two possible locations, grad Alan responded, “Any place you pick in western Maine is fine; you know the area and conditions well. The only request I have is for you to try to show me a ‘bear tree.’”

Bingo! I pulled a third location out of my hat because it was within an hour of those who would join us and I knew that it passed the bear tree test.

And so six of us met at 10am, strapped on our snowshoes, and ventured forth. It’s always such a joy to be with these peeps and talk and laugh and share a brain.

Because our focus at first was on beech bark while we looked for bear claw marks left behind, we also shared an imagination. One particular tree made us think of a horseshoe.

Even

Eventually we found a few trunks with the etched scratches of bear claws that had grown wider with the years. After the first find, which was actually on a different tree, the others developed their bear tree eyes and became masters at pointing them out.

And though we’d come to track, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the preserve except for the occasional deer. But . . . we still found plenty to fascinate us, including Violet-toothed Polypore.

Alan was the fungi guru of the group and so to him we turned to confirm our ID. We were correct, but in the process he taught us something new about this gregarious mushroom. There are two types of Violet-toothed: Trichaptum biforme grows on hardwoods; Trichaptum abietinum grows only on conifers. Now we just need to remember that. Before our eyes the former reached to the sky on the red maple.

All along, as I’ve done all winter, I searched for an owl in a tree. Penny found one for me. Do you see it?

What I actually saw more than the owl was the face of a bear. OK, so I warned you that we took our imaginations with us.

We were almost down to the water, when the group paused. Tracks at last. Near water. Track pattern on a diagonal meaning one foot landed in front of the other in a consistent manner for each set of prints. Trail width or straddle: almost three inches. Stride we didn’t measure because it varied so much, but it was obvious that this mammal bounded through the landscape. Identification: mink. Repeatedly after first finding the tracks, we noted that it had covered a lot of territory.

At last, we made our way out onto the wetland associated with South Pond and followed the tracks of a much bigger beast–in fact multiple beasts: snowmobiles.

Rather than find lunch rock, we chose lunch lodge and stood in the warm sun to enjoy the view.

We did wonder if it was active and determined that though there had been some action in the fall as evidenced by the rather fresh looking sticks, there was no vent at the top so we weren’t sure any beavers were within. Maybe it was their summer cottage.

Close by, however, we found another lodge and the vent was open so we didn’t walk too near.

Because we were on the wetland, we did pause to admire the cattails, their seeds exploding forth like a fireworks finale (but of the silent type, which I much prefer).

Back on the trail, the bark of another tree stopped us. We looked at the lenticels, those lines that serve as a way to exchange gases much like our skin pores, and noted that they were thin rather than the raised figure 8s of a pin cherry.

We had a good idea of its name, but to be sure we conducted a sniff test.

Smells like . . . wintergreen! We were excited to have come face to face with black or sweet birch. Some also call it cherry birch. Hmmm . . . why not wintergreen birch? Because, yellow birch, a relative, also has that wintergreen scent when you scratch the bark, especially of a twig.

Continuing along, the temperature had risen and snow softened so periodically we had to help each other scrape snowballs off the bottoms of shoes.

Otherwise the feeling was one of walking on high heels.

As I said earlier, all kinds of things stopped us, including the straight lines of the holes created by sapsuckers, those warm-weather members of the woodpecker family. One in the neighborhood apparently decided to drum to a different beat as noted by the musical notes of the top line.

Speaking of woodpeckers, for a few minutes we all watched a pileated and admired its brilliant red crest in the afternoon sun, but we couldn’t focus our cameras on it quickly enough as it flew from tree to tree. We did, however, pause beneath a tree where it had done some recent excavation work.

And left behind a scat that resembled a miniature birch tree.

At last, four hours and two miles after starting (we’d intended to only be out for three), we’d circled around and stopped again at the kiosk to look at the map. Do note that we’d also picked up a passenger along the way for Carl Costanzi, a Western Foothills Land Trust board member and steward of the Virgil Parris Forest came upon us and joined our journey. We picked his brain a bit about the property and he picked up a pair of snowshoes that had malfunctioned for one of us. Thank you, Carl! That’s going above and beyond your duties.

Before departing, we did what we often do–circled around and took a selfie.

And then we left with smiles in our hearts and minds for the time spent reconnecting. Our memories will always be filled with the discovery of the first bear tree not too long after we began. As Penny said, “That first one was a doozy.”

Our entire time together was a doozy–of a playdate.

Thanks Beth, Gaby, Roger, Alan, and Penny. To those of you who couldn’t join us, we talked about you! All kind words because we missed you.