A Spider’s Feast

In the changing light of the early afternoon, I began chasing male Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies. That’s no surprise, I’m sure.

But what did surprise me was that I didn’t notice any females. And that reminded me of the Calico Pennants, for in the early summer it was the males of that species that I spotted most often. Where were the females?

Perhaps mating was no longer on the minds of the meadowhawks and given the cooler temp of the day, I could convince one to climb upon my finger to gain some warmth.

And so it did . . . until in a flash, it flew off. In pursuit of what? I didn’t know.

And so I turned my attention to a Mottled Grasshopper, also known as a Pine Tree Spur-throated Grasshopper, or more scientifically Melanoplus punctulatus. Had it been on a tree, I might have missed spying it, but upon the rock it posed thus allowing me to spend some time in admiration. Ah, the eyes. Two segmented antennae. Those teeny, tiny feet that support such a large body. And that body suited in armor. Its colors and patterns reflecting an artistic creator. Lest I get carried away, I moved on in search of more dragonflies.

And suddenly I spotted a canoodling pair that flew past me and landed on an oak tree, where their bodies formed the mating circle. But again, just as they’d flown in, off they went in tandem, toward the pond so he could make sure it was his sperm that fertilized the eggs she deposited along the shoreline.

What was I to do? Why, look around, of course. And that’s when I spotted a huge orbweaver in action as it dangled from the camp shed.

I was immediately mesmerized as I realized it was a grasshopper that must have climbed the building and become ensnared. The red squirrel above me was not as enchanted with my presence and so he scolded.

Looking up into the white pine, I searched for the branch upon which he sat.

It took a moment for he was rather high up in the tree, but at last I spied the chatterbox.

But my main focus was on the feast waiting to happen. First it had to be wrapped.

I’ve seen wrapped insects in webs before, but I what I found most fascinating about this one was the size of the predator and its prey. The spider was hardly daunted.

From different angles, I tried to gain a better understanding. Not only was the wrap so intriguing, but have you ever wondered how such a large spider can dangle upside down, held only by thin threads of silk? Then again, have you ever broken through a spider web? Some are mighty strong and sticky.

While that action continued on the front of the shed, I looked to the side to see if there was any evidence of an old feast. None was evident, but I did see another grasshopper heading toward the roof line.

And then it turned . . . toward the front of the building. A wrong turn?

Indeed. Slowly it advanced . . . until it encountered an entanglement and realized its poor choice of direction.

With care, it retreated.

And so I returned to the front of the shed to check on the action where the well wrapped meal could have been mistaken for a small fish.

Orbweavers typically bite their prey to kill them, then wrap their meals in silk for later consumption. Really wrap. I watched for well over an hour and then headed off for a hike with my guy.

Just before leaving I glimpsed at the side where the live grasshopper had tried to escape. In the moment, it was a success story for I didn’t see it anywhere.

Upon returning three hours later, I immediately checked upon my friend. Wait. Did I just call this incredibly huge, hairy/spiny arachnid “my friend”? I do suffer like many from arachnophobia, but at the same time, their structures and behaviors garner my awe.

As for the wrapped grasshopper, I guess you could say it was “toast.” The spider had turned and it appeared that meal was being consumed.

I looked for crumbs this morning, but found nary a morsel. Somewhere there may be a small ball of indigestible parts on the ground that I overlooked. Even the web had been destroyed, which is typical spider behavior–consume the silk as morning approaches, thus reabsorbing any moisture used in its construction, as well as the dew. Perhaps it’s like a sip of juice to help with digestion.

A meal of toast and juice–a spider’s feast.

Firsts of May

Spring springs forth each year and yet I always find myself greeting its gifts as if for the first time. Such was my journey today as I met a few old friends along a path near, you guessed it, a wetland.

My first moment of awe occurred beside a Beaked Hazelnut. These are the first of the shrubs to flower with their teeny tiny magenta ribbons that may look large because I zoomed in with my lens, but typically the petals fall off as the leaves emerge. And so it was with great joy that I could honor this particular flower today and note that said flowers will eventually become the beaked fruits filled with the most desirable of nuts. And those new leaves–oh my. They were a close match for the flowers in gaining my attention.

And then in the shadows I saw another who garners notice in every stage of its development as well. Those pleated leaves. That crazy beautiful flower structure.

In the sun’s rays, another Hobblebush showed off its incredible flowerhead taking more shape with larger sterile flowers on the outer edge and the smaller fertile flowers just beginning to gain their shape.

And if that wasn’t enough, as is the situation along many a trail right now, an American Beech cotyledon sported its embryonic leaves. Okay, so this was the second day in a row that I saw such, but still . . . it’s always worth celebrating.

The lower set of leathery embyronic leaves remind me of a butterfly and appear before the tree’s true leaves make themselves known. Part of what intrigues me about these seed leaves is that they contain stored food. Eventually these food stores will wither and fall off.

I also love how the word cotyledon (cot·y·le·don \ ˌkä-tə-ˈlē-dᵊn ) flows off my tongue, much like marcescent, which describes the leaves of this same tree that cling, wither and rattle all winter long.

There was more for everywhere I looked a variety of fern crosiers sprouted from the ground, this particular array belonging to either cinnamon or interrupted for they both are similar at this stage. The morning was cool, but it appears that this fern has it covered–literally, with a hairy coating for its head and legs and a cape styled by an errant leaf.

As if that wasn’t enough, another tiny flower showed off its stamen-studded head. You’ve heard of Goldilocks. Meet Goldthread.

It wasn’t just the shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns that begged to be noticed, however. My only wish is that I could share sound and action with you, but in its place, color. First I bring to you a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

And then a Blue-headed Vireo.

There were also Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Phoebes, and so many more. But the Blue-headed had my eye. Don’t you love its eye?

I was almost done with my tramp when I spotted one that I know going forth I’ll photograph a trillion times. Is there a problem with having a trillion photographs of trillium? My guy thinks so, but . . . I don’t agree. And so today I began by honoring Stinking Benjamin, aka Red Trillium, with the first photos of the season.

There was all that and then . . . on the way home a bird beside the road caused me to back up. One can do that in western Maine. This American Woodcock and I spent a few minutes together, but just when it turned to show off its long beak two cars whizzed by and it scampered into the undergrowth. Perhaps we’ll meet again, but if not, I was grateful for the opportunity.

On this sixth day of the month I gave thanks for the firsts of May.

I’m in Frog Heaven

The ice went out on the vernal pool in our woods on April 5th and by the 6th the wood frogs were singing their love songs and egg masses had already been attached to fallen branches.

Once I spy such I become addicted to visiting the pool on a regular basis to keep an eye on the activity. As much as I’d love to bring some home, I know that that would interrupt the natural process and so I do the best I can by peering into the water.

One of my great finds early on turned out not to be as extraordinary as I first thought. What I thought were blue spotted salamander egg masses slowly morphed into wood frog masses. They were laid out like sheets on the floor of the pool rather than attached to sticks as is normally the case. But it didn’t all make sense as up to the point that I spotted those masses, I hadn’t seen any salamander spermatophores.

Daily visits to the pool garnered a better understanding and about two weeks later not only had the spotted salamanders left their deposits on the pool floor . . .

and the next day their eggs on sticks . . .

but the so-called blue-spotted suddenly began to look more like wood frog masses with tadpoles developing inside. Perhaps they were laid at the very edge of the pool by young wood frogs just getting the hang of the annual ritual.

With the help of my son who works for a film editing house in Manhattan, I’ve pulled all of this together into a video so even if you can’t get to a vernal pool, perhaps you can enjoy the magic of this place for a few minutes by clicking on the link and watching: Are You in Frog Heaven?

There’s so much more to come and I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the action.

In the meantime, why not create a Frog and Toad Chorus as you stay at home.

In the amphibian world, males sing as a means of attracting a mate and defending a territory.

Here’s how to conduct your own chorus: Assign a species to various family members who will imitate the sound as best they can. Have fun leading your gang as you control who “sings.” And then head outdoors to see if you can identify the species based on your knowledge of the songs they create.

Wood Frog: quacking duck or wruck, wruck in early spring

Spring Peeper: high-pitched peep-peep in early spring

American Toad: sustained trill lasting up to 30 seconds (from your lips or throat), early to late spring

Green Frog: throaty gunk! like banjo strings, late spring – early summer

American Bullfrog: deep, resonant rr-uum, or jug-o-rum, late spring – early summer

Gray Tree Frog: slow, musical bird-like trill lasting 2 or 3 seconds (use your lips or tongue), late spring – early summer

Are you in Frog Heaven? I know I am.

Easter Parade 2020

Back in the before, our Easter celebration included a simple breakfast, church service, and gathering with family for brunch or lunch before a short afternoon hike. But that was then. The now is controlled by forces beyond our understanding. And so . . . today’s celebration was much simpler, yet possibly more eloquent in nature. The morning’s highlight included decadent treats from Craft Patissiere scored yesterday at Lovell’s improvised farmers’ market. After that, time spent together listening to Bishop Thomas Brown’s remote homily brought tears to our eyes as we recognized the significance of the good works my guy, his employees, and so many others have been doing this past month, many quietly performed behind the scenes.

And then it was time to pack a picnic lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, the ham cut from last night’s dinner, and created upon sourdough bread from Fly Away Farm, also scored yesterday thanks to Justin and Jenn Ward of Stow, Maine. The sandwiches I placed first in bees wax wrap created by Sierra Sunshine, The Barefoot Gardner, and then in sandwich wraps that came from groundcover, a former shop in town that we already miss. Water bottles filled and lunch packed, including a couple of dark chocolate treats, and we were on our way.

Our destination was the seven mile parade route where babbling brooks struck up the marching band, joined at various points by song birds, beaver slaps, and drumming grouse.

Spring’s cheerleaders performed their routines with pompoms created by flowering red maples.

Teeny, tiny beaked hazelnut flowers topped their catkins like minute magenta threads were used to sew costumes for the performers along the route.

Floats were varied and included boulders with attempted splits,

springs long ago sprung,

and yields 24/7.

Decorations were varied with scales being a major part, including those that resembled rattlesnakes in appearance.

Some, such as leatherleaf, showed off shiny silvery scales above and rusty below–gems sparkling in the day’s light.

Others included scurfy witherod buds, exposed as they were between yellowish-brown scales.

In their presentation, the witherod proudly showered drupes of old fruits, raisin-like in appearance to the gathered crowd.

Providing more good cheer to the day were the marsh rose hips–offering a hint of yesterday with the bright hope of tomorrow encased within.

Giving a springy green appearance to the parade was the sight of false hellebore, its pleated leaves ready to add texture to the mix.

On this Easter Day when we all have found ourselves experiencing social and physical distancing, Trailing Arbutus, aka mayflower, offered one more sign of hope as its buds expanded.

We found lunch log overlooking the route,

somehow avoided the crowds as we traveled between stone walls,

viewed rocky floats from the parade stand,

and ended the day beside a brook where the beavers are quite active.

Every Easter celebration is different, but this one of 2020 will stand out among the best as we gave thanks along the parade route–thanks for being able to appreciate the offerings made more meaningful in the moment. We can only hope that “the after” is influenced by our decisions made in “the now” rather than a return to “the before.”

The Dividends of Noticing

We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I have to wonder if all of our physical/social distancing, and stay-at-home orders may actually have a silver lining. Think of the creative initiatives underway to help others; the reaching out that has become an essential component for many. And think about how all of this is affecting the natural world as we travel much less and spend more time noticing the action in our own backyards.

What have I noticed? For starters, nature didn’t get the directive for social and physical distancing and so as they do, semi-aquatic springtails gathered upon stagnant water as well as in the leaf litter. The mob scene was initiated by phermones sent out by adults, perhaps as a way of saving their lives in herd fashion. If you look bigger than you are while you feed on dead organic matter, algae, spores of mold and mildew, and pollen on the water’s surface, perhaps your enemies, such as spiders and beetles, will reconsider your fate.

What have I noticed? A spider paused briefly before journeying on toward a goal. That goal? To eat some springtails? Spin a web for future meals? Carry out a courtship ritual with a mate? Our time together wasn’t long, and while I moved forward so did it, though less conspicuously for there was plenty of natural litter to hide its progress.

What did I notice? Because I was looking down so much, that is when not looking up trying to spy all the birds chiming up their orchestral instruments from the tops of the hemlock trees, there were other things to see like this vole tunnel and hole. I placed the quarter for size and wondered if the creator survived? Voles are everyone’s favorite food and so typically they spend the winter in what’s called the subnivean zone, the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack, which allows them to move about without being spied by their predators. Once the snow melts, the tunnels they’d created as they fed on roots and grasses and seeds become visible.

What did I notice? I don’t know the vole’s fate, but I do know how the story ended for the hickory tussock caterpillar. Well, rather, I think I know. There’s so much I don’t know, but I do love trying to figure it out. My theory is that it waited too long last fall and a cold snap zapped the life out of it before it could wrap itself in a cocoon.

What did I notice? Life was certainly happening for some, like the underwing moths that chose to “puddle” on fox scat. While they get most of their nutrition from nectar (which must be a challenge right now), perhaps they found sodium as they probed that could serve as a gift should either of them find a fair maiden.

The name “underwing” comes from the fact that while at rest, the brighter wing color of their hind wings doesn’t show. Granted, the brighter color appears on the upper side of those “underwings.”

What did I notice? The hairy buds of Shagbark Hickory were growing larger by the day and each wore its own set of pastel colors. The colors reminded me of the inner part of an oyster shell.

What did I notice? The furry catkins of Pussy Willows begged to be touched, and if everything else wasn’t already giving the message that spring is on, these certainly did.

What did I notice? It wasn’t only the insects, spiders, birds, and buds that were the harbingers of spring, but the acorn also had a message to deliver in the form of a new root: Life will continue; and perhaps because of the challenges so many face, we’ll come out on the other side better persons for it–on behalf of each other and on behalf of the Earth. That would be one of the greatest dividends of noticing.

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.

On sunny days, water scavenger beetles swim about in search of a meal to suit their omnivorous appetite.

Preferring decaying plant and other organic matter as the ideal dinner menu are the mayfly larvae. Some call them nymphs, others know them as naiads.

To spot them, one must really focus for they are quite small and blend in well with the bottom debris, but suddenly, they are everywhere.

And then, another enters the scene, this possibly one of the flat-headed mayflies. If you look closely, you may see three naiads, two smaller to the upper far left and lower on the stick to the right. In between is the larger, its paired gills and three tails or caudal filaments easier to spy because of its size.

Switching to a different locale, a winter stonefly, its clear wings handsomely veined, ascends fallen vegetation on its tippy toes and my heart dances for this is probably my last chance to see one of these aquatic insects until next year. Then again, none of us can predict the future.

In the mix, green insects move and I surmise by their minute size, shape and coloration that they are leafhoppers all set to suck sap from grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Who else might live here? Why a caddisfly larva in its DIY case.

Of course, no aquatic exploration is complete without sighting mosquito larvae somersaulting through the water.

And a wee bit away from the watery spots, the pupal stage of a ladybug, a form that has perplexed me for months. It is my understanding that motion stops and so does feeding, the insect scrunches up its body and color changes . . . but the transition should last five to seven days–not since last fall. Or perhaps this species has a lot to teach me about waiting and what is to come.

Another one for the books is a translucent green caterpillar not much more than inch-worm size that I discover clinging to a red maple twig only hours before snow descends upon the setting.

Mind you, I also spotted three crescent or checkerspot butterflies, their small orange and black wings adding a quick flash of color as they flutter across my path.

And then my mind shifts, as it has a lot in the last few weeks, and between patches of snow and a fresh snow fall, I welcome the opportunity to remember others who share this space, including an opossum amidst the turkeys and deer.

Following a Tom turkey who seemed to walk with determined speed, I get to meet another neighbor and note by Tom’s toe print that his path intersected with that of a coyote after the predator had passed by. Phew for the Tom.

After all, he has a job to do. Suddenly, I note a change in his pace, which slows down considerably based on the closeness of his feet. And then I spy wing marks on the outer sides of the prints and know that he is in display mode. The curious thing: on average, he takes ten steps, then displays, takes ten steps, then displays. I know this because I counted, over and over again. But then . . . he must hear his lady friends for he makes an about turn.

And struts his stuff.

I’m not sure they are impressed for they move on and head in the direction of other neighbors, specifically a squirrel and porcupine. Others presenting tracks include chipmunks, snow lobsters, I mean snowshoe hares, moose, and a bobcat.

This is my little space on the Earth and I love spending time trying to understand it and find out more about my neighbors.

Watching over all of this action is a Fox Sparrow, whom I greet as a welcome visitor, knowing he’s on his way north to the boreal forest.

Like him, 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.

Ides Bog'ling: Beware. Be present. Be still.

When the world goes haywire, the perfect antidote is a day spent outside soaking up the sights and sounds and sun and most of all, fresh air.

Today, that spot offered so many sights including Mount Washington’s snowy covering in the great beyond.

And Pleasant Mountain’s ridgeline at a closer range.

But the sights also included selections much smaller such as Buttonbush’s winter structure–offering a half globe rather than the full orb of its summer form.

And Rhodora giving off its own glow as with buds and flower structures waiting in the wings.

What’s not to love about an infusion of color to the late winter/almost spring landscape.

Speckled Alders, their male catkins growing long below the females, also bespoke the season on the horizon.

Having developed last summer, the males are slender spikes of tightly appressed scales. Above, the females are more bud-like in manner. Both persist throughout the winter and soon will bloom before summer leaves appear.

While new buds showed off their reddish faces, last year’s alder “cones” remained woody in form. Not truly cones for those grow only on conifers, there is a strong resemblance. Thankfully, Mary Holland of Naturally Curious explains the difference best: “Angiosperms, or flowering plants such as Speckled Alder, produce seeds that are enclosed within a covering (the ovary), whereas gymnosperms (conifers) have un-enclosed or “naked” seeds. Alder “cones” open to release seeds in a manner similar to many conifer cones and, like most cones, do not disintegrate immediately after maturity. Female flowers/catkins of Speckled Alder, if fertilized, will develop into ‘cones.‘”

That said, there were some of last year’s structures that showed off a much different form. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were Alder Tongue Galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins.

Other sights included Morse Code representations of the dot dot dash work created by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers upon many a birch.

I traveled this day with a friend and in our quest to clean out the innermost recesses of our lungs, we walked across ice, snow, mud and through water. it was totally worth the effort to get to the other side.

For on the other side, we encountered Maleberry shrubs with ornaments of a different kind.

Each had been sculpted in a unique manner, but we suspected all resulted from the same creator.

Our best guess, after opening one or two, was that some insect had created a home in the Maleberry leaves last fall but once again, we were stymied by a new learning and suspect the lesson hasn’t ended yet.

As our journey continued, we suddenly found ourselves in the presence of wind dancers for so did the marsescent White Oak leaves appear.

On the ground we found a comparative study between the White and Red Oak leaves, their lobes and colors bespeaking their individuality.

And upon some of the White’s saplings, another gall of this place–Oak Marble Gall. Growing in clusters on twigs, they turn brown in maturity and their emergence holes show the site of escape for mature adults who flew out in the fall. They are also called oak nuts.

Today’s sights included the landscape and its flora, birds of the trees such as nuthatches and chickadees, plus those of the water including woodducks, and sky birds like two eagles we watched circle higher and higher until they escaped our view. We also found bobcat and coyote scat. And then in some mud, signs left behind by others such as the raccoon’s close-toed prints.

Among the raccoon track, there were also plenty of bird prints that we suspected belonged to crows.

And in the water beyond, a rather active beaver lodge.

On this day, my friend and I slipped away into the land beyond known locally as Brownfield Bog, where we at times were boggled by the offering of this Ides of March. Beware. Be still. Be present. It’s the best way to be. Be.

Tales of the Trees

“Can you meet on Wednesday morning for a hike?”

“Yes, where and when?”

After a few notes sent back and forth, the decision was made: Sawyer Mountain in Limington, Maine, at 10:00am. Though we were coming from opposite directions, somehow we timed it just right and both pulled into the parking area on Route 117 at 9:47. I’m never on time. She’s never late.

For at least the first half mile or more of our four mile hike, we talked non-stop, barely taking the time to notice our surroundings for so much catching up did we have to do. But then . . . two old Red Oaks growing upon a ledge with rock tripe and spring green moss between made us stop and pay reverence.

And because we stopped, we began to notice others who deserved our deep respect for we recalled a hike years ago upon the Ledges Trail of Pleasant Mountain, a place where this species also grows. It was there that we were first introduced to it and it is there that our minds always take us back to the first moment of meeting: Hophornbeam with its lovely thin, shaggy strands of vertical strips.

A quick scan of the bare ground and we found the seed structure (hops) for which is was named.

Crossing through one of many stonewalls, I followed my dear friend, for she was leading the way today.

And she told me that it was places like this pasture and the walls that surrounded it that made her think of me upon her previous tramps in this place. Just imagine: In 1815, Ebenezer Walker let his livestock graze the high pasture. We don’t know when such farm activity ended, but the trees that have filled in the space probably only have stories passed on by their ancestors to tell of times past for rather on the youthful side did they seem.

Still, there were others that showed their age and inner workings.

Like wise sages, they pointed out their idiosyncrasies and by their whorled inner branches we knew their names: White Pine.

Shortly after meeting the pine, we came upon another sight that reminded us of another day. It was along a stone wall at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve that the two of us first realized the offerings of such.

A look up and we knew the tree had been visited by a Pileated Woodpecker in the past tense and present.

And because of our GLLT experience all those moons ago (we really can’t remember how many moons, but it’s been many), we knew to look through the debris on the ground. As is often the case, we were rewarded with the tubular bird scat filled with insect body parts.

Further on, a burl upon a Yellow Birch invited us to curtsy. And in looking at that, my friend spied something else nearby.

A bear claw tree. Ah, another memory was evoked . . . the time we led a bear walk for the GLLT upon the Bishops Cardinal Trail. Only one participant joined us and we got rather carried away with our bear evidence sightings.

That participant didn’t come back for a while and we feared we’d scared her off, but I’ve since learned otherwise. Her job and her family occupied much of her time and now she comes to events when she can.

And by all the opened beech nut husks, we knew that last summer had been a mast year for such nuts and we hoped that meant a great supply of nutrition for Ursus americanus.

Then there was the tree with the hieroglyphics that resembled a treasure map. Really though, they represented trails followed by various bark beetles that bored through the wood. Each pattern represents a different species, and a place where eggs were laid and the larvae ate their way through the tunnels.

We were almost to the end of our hike when another group of trees begged our awe for so white were they that we could have been easily fooled. It seemed that in Tom Sawyer fashion, these trees had been painted . . . with Whitewash Lichen. It’s a crustose lichen that looks like . . . whitewash.

With our vehicles in sight, we spotted one more to bow before, for by the colors, lines, and cracks of its dead inner bark we saw sculpted art.

And stepping back a few feet, we noticed several faces.

The most obvious whispered tales to all who would listen. Tales of the land upon which we’d hiked. Tales of the people whose pastures and foundations and gravestones we encountered. Tales of the issues between the land trust that owns the property and the current residents.

If we listen to the trees, we might hear the stories of the canopy as reflected in the bubbles and the gurgling water. Trees can talk; we just need to pay more attention.

P.S. Thank you, Joan, for sharing the trail and a brain with me today. The trees evoked so many memories and helped us make new ones.

The Magic of Holt Pond

I’ve recently felt like the wonder disappeared from my wanders. And so I hoped a tramp late this afternoon around Lakes Environmental Association’s Holt Pond Preserve held the tonic.

We parked at the corner of Perley and Chaplin’s Mill Road, and hauled our snowshoes to the trailhead about a half mile down Chaplin. A few steps in and we decided to stash the shoes and proceed, sure that the snow depth would be on our side and we wouldn’t posthole too much. Until we did. And abruptly turned around to fetch the snowshoes, proving time and again how wise we are.

I was following my guy, so of course it didn’t take us long to get down to the pond, where love was written across the sky in the form of a squished heart and I knew my sense of wonder was about to kick back into gear.

Back on the trail, it was a pileated hole that stopped me in my tracks. Okay, so that happens on a regular basis, but take a closer look with me.

First there was the inner bark, call it cinnamon or mauve, or some crayola color between, with a delightfully bumpy texture, and I knew I had a winner. But there was more. Take a closer look. Do you see the horizontal lines where the woodpecker must have scraped its beak against the bark? And the fibers of the wood? And the depth of the hole? Certainly, this woodpecker must have found something worth drilling for in the depths of this hemlock.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that once I spy a pileated woodpecker’s excavation hole, the debris below becomes a focus of my attention.

I was not disappointed. What some may see as a silver caterpillar, I knew to be the cylindrical scat of the Woody Woodpecker of the woods. The compact package was coated with the bird’s uric acid, but it was the contents that really mattered. While I looked, so did a few others–do you see a couple of springtails, aka snow fleas–at least one on the wood chips and another on the snow?

With my continued perusal, a second scat appeared. Look closely at the darker sections and you may see some body parts of the carpenter ants and tree beetles that the pileated woodpecker sought from the inner confines of the hemlock tree.

My guy was patient as I looked and then we continued our journey. At the first stream crossing, where a bog bridge seemed to have disappeared, he practiced his inner ballerina (don’t tell him I said that) and leaped to the other side, landing a jeté: a leap taking off from one foot and landing on the other.

Since the pileated’s scat leant itself to my insect quest, I continued to look and smiled each time I spied a funnel spider’s holey web no longer in use. Check out all the points of attachment that strengthened the structure when it was in use.

In what seem like no time we reached a former log landing where he was astonished by the fact that pine saplings had grown into teens. And then he looked at one and asked, “Is that a red pine?”

“Yes,” I replied as I took a closer look and spied the tiniest of tiny homes among its needles. Do you see the circular cut in the center? It was the former home of a pupating pine “circular” sawfly. Their cocoons are everywhere and once you see one, you’ll see a million. If cut like this one, the insect departed when conditions were right, but if completely intact then life grows within.

At places along the trail, it was other compositions that bore witness to the nature of the community, such as this icy ornament that dangled like a stocking from one hemlock twig to another.

Another hemlock offered the vision of a forest wizard, his face, albeit, rather long and gnarly. His lips, pursed. His eyes, narrow. Certainly he had a lot to contemplate.

Throughout much of the preserve, which made sense given that it was a wetland habitat, fisher prints prevailed, its five tear-drop shaped toes adding a clue to its identification.

Check out that diagonal orientation that trackers look for because it tells them that the mammal who bounded across the landscape was a member of the weasel family.

Reading tracks isn’t easy, but learning the idiosyncrasies of family patterns, preferred community, and finer details such as number of toes and measurement of prints adds to the knowledge bank and enhances the trek for suddenly, even though you may not see the mammals that have left behind their calling cards, you can still get a sense of those with whom you share a presence in the woods.

The more we tramped today, the more I realized that there were sweet things to notice, like a snow-plop spotted hemlock twig that offered a suggestion of winter’s Swiss cheese.

An enlarged yellow birch catkin, formed by the tree to protect its seeds held tightly within, mimicked a wreath on the snow, and reminded me of the circle of life it represented.

And then I spotted one who perhaps best represented life. Foremost in consideration was the fact that it was alive. And second, that an antifreeze we can hardly comprehend allows it to remain active throughout the winter. Spiders on snow? Worth a wonder.

Our journey progressed as the lighting changed given the late hour of the day and our position on the globe. At times it seemed night would descend any minute.

And into the night tramped my guy, crossing a bog bridge he built several years ago. But . . . slow yourself down rather than try to keep up with him. What do you notice? Clue: to the left of his bridge?

Do you see the muddy line extending upward from the water? And the finger-like prints left on the snow. Yup. The signature of a local raccoon left behind like a done deal on a piece of property.

At last we reached my nemesis, the very spot where almost two years ago my feet flew out from under me, my wrist hit the edge of the boardwalk with a wallop, and suddenly I was a southpaw. It’s become my place of pause and contemplation. To go or not to go. Today, my guy did the same.

And then he went, assuring me from the other side that all was well. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard those words before.

I followed as I often do and gave thanks that I safely made it to the other side, where the snowy mounds and reflections offered a taste of mid-winter reflection.

Our journey across the snow-covered boardwalks through the wetland showed off the fruiting structures of many wetland shrubs, but surprisingly, winterberry offered the most brilliant form.

Eventually, we found our way out to the pond again via the quaking bog, following a fox track that we’d encountered during much of our journey.

Given that there were no dragonflies to spy at the pond’s edge, after a few moments we headed back into the woods.

At the next spur choice, we took it, and headed out to Muddy River, where the beaver resort included its big house, little house structure, bespeaking the New England tradition of home construction.

A bit of open water prevented us from taking a personal look.

But, freshly carved logs at the peak of the lodge bespoke recent activity. Similar activity below was questionable, but my whimsical mind wondered if they’d tried to set up a fire pit.

Our journey was coming to a close as we continued across the boardwalks through the wetlands, where within blueberry stems a baker’s dozen of wasp larvae pupate. The gall’s kidney-shaped form is easy to spy.

Following the Muddy River out, we couldn’t resist its late afternoon relections.

Beside the river another weasel showed its form in the prints of a mink.

Diagonal, diagonal, diagonal, so is a weasel pattern.

At last, before climbing up to the Emerald Field that would lead us back to our starting point, we paused beside the brook and let it work it’s magic in the sound of flowing water, but also the forms and reflection and colors and wonder. Moments of wonder. I gave great thanks for yet again Holt Pond had worked its magic.

It was a dark and dreary day . . .

I’m working on a challenging article and can’t quite figure out how to introduce the topic. After a bunch of attempts, I suddenly had an inspired idea . . . drop the pen, walk away from the legal pad and head out the door.

And so I did despite the freezing rain that was falling atop this morning’s snow. Heading down a trail I haven’t had a chance to step upon in months, I realized that I was among old friends who had passed by prior to the storm.

In fact, every where I went for the next two plus hours, they had been there before me.

Their tree of choice also gave away their presence and I fear that there won’t be too many red maple leaves in bloom come spring. Imagine this: a moose needs to consume fifty to sixty pounds of vegetation daily–that’s a lot of buds, twigs, and bark.

With their lower incisors and hard toothless upper palate, they grabbed the twigs and yanked to pull the buds off for consumption. Left behind were their calling cards–long dangling tags. Some were at least three feet above my head.

Also think about that moose face–homely and ungainly as it may be with a large upper lip that can wrap around the twig in order to dine, and the bell or dewlap dangling below its mouth.

With utter glee I found some hair stuck to one twig and it wasn’t the hollow shafts of its dense coat, so I wondered if in the process of browsing, hair had come off its face or dewlap.

As I said, the moose had traveled throughout the woods and I began to follow their tracks exclusively, for they always lead to coppiced red maples that are trying to make a comeback in these woods that were logged within the last five to ten years.

It was on one of the trees that I did find the hollow hair shafts, and I’ve used black arrows to try to point them out to you. There were three which seemed to intersect at the point where the twig had been swiped. Notice how straight they are, especially in contrast to the slender, curly hair.

The more I looked, the more soft, curly hairs I found. Hmmm, I have a feeling any of my hunter friends can enlighten me, for now I’m considering belly hair? Is it softer? Or am I correct in thinking about the chin hairs?

It doesn’t matter. Well, it does because I’d like to know.

And maybe the chickadees were trying to tell me as they flew in and landed on maples while singing their “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song. But what mattered most was that I got outside and cleared my brain and came up with an introduction to the challenging article: It was a dark and dreary day . . . oh drats, I can’t use that–especially since despite the snow and rain, I hardly found it dark or dreary.

I think instead, I’ll begin in the middle and see where the article takes me from there. In the meantime, though I didn’t see them, I’m tickled to know that there are still several moose in the woods behind our house.

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.

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.