I’ll let you in on a tad bit of a secret . . . eventually.
But first, today was a tracking day and so five of us did just that. When we arrived at the intended location, due to snow conditions, I think we had low expectations. I know I did.
We had just stepped off trail to begin our bushwhack excursion when we spotted this Ruffed Grouse scat. So the curious thing about this is that there are two kinds of grouse scat, the typical cylindrical packets coated with white uric acid, but also a juicier, brown dropping. And I regret that I didn’t take a photo of the juicier, yet slightly frozen stuff we saw dripping from some twigs above. At the time, I knew the brown stuff was significant because I’ve looked it up before, but couldn’t bring it to mind. Thanks to Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks, I found an explanation in Bird Tracks and Sign: “Interestingly, after producing these lower-gut-generated solid evacuations, some game birds, such as a grouse, often then evacuate a semi-liquid brownish mass from the upper gut, or cecum, with the two types of droppings coming out sequentially; the more liquid, almost liver-colored scat comes out second and is spread on top of the solid matter. In Ruffed Grouse, it is common to find the hard, fibrous scats at one roost and the soft, brown cecal droppings at another.”
But not uncommon to find them together!
We stood for a long time discussing the grouse scat and when we finally moved on, it wasn’t too far that we discovered bobcat prints. Given that the prints were not super fresh because there was some debris in them, we decided to follow the track forward. Had they been fresh, we would have backtracked so as not to put pressure on the animal. Though secretly, we all love it when we do actually get to spot a mammal. Or a grouse, for that matter.
Eventually, we lost track of the bobcat, because as you can see, there were spots with no snow. But then we stumbled across a sighting that confused us. White-tail Deer scat on the edge of a boulder. Dawn has some new tools she was gifted for Christmas, and so she was excited to pull them out. Our confusion, despite the fact that it looked exactly like deer scat, was caused by the location. On top of a boulder. On the edge of said rock. We came up with a few stories, but will let you try to interpret this on your own.
Back in the snow, we found canine rather than the feline prints we’d been looking for and so out came the tape measure to determine species. Based on the fact that the print measured less than two inches at the widest point and that the stride, or space between where two feet touched the snow (toe to toe), we determined it was a Red Fox.
Everywhere, we spotted Red Squirrel holes and middens, indicating the squirrel had cached a bunch of hemlock cones in numerous pantries and returned since the snow fell to dig them up and dine, leaving behind the cone cobs and scales in trash piles. What struck us was that for all the middens we saw, we never heard or caught sight of any squirrels. In fact, we didn’t see any animals . . . until we did. Huh? You’ll have to read on.
Our next great find close to the pond we walked beside, was more scat! Of course, it was. This being the works of a River Otter and filled with fish scales, all those whitish ovals embedded in it. Like a small pile of Raccoon scat we’d spotted earlier, but again, I forgot to photograph (the sign that we were having fun making all these discoveries), otters tend to defecate in latrines, using the same places over and over again.
Our movement was slow, and every once in a while we’d spread out until someone made a discovery and then we’d all gather again.
Which was exactly what happened when this Snowshoe Hare scat was discovered. Three little malt balls.
After the hare find, we followed a couple of canine trails that took us back to the water. Domestic dog or Coyote? We kept questioning this, but never saw human prints. And the animals did seem to be moving in a direct line on a mission. The warm weather we’ve been experiencing may have been enough to make their prints look larger than they typically would so I think I’m leaning toward Coyote.
But in following those, we discovered a sign from another critter by the water’s edge: Mink scat!
When our time was nearing an end and we bushwhacked back to a road near the trailhead, we were all exclaiming about our cool finds. And then a little birdie we encountered asked, “Do you want to see a bear?”
We don’t need to be asked that question twice, though now that I think back, I’m pretty sure we asked the birdie to repeat the question. YES! She gave us directions and we decided we needed to take an immediate field trip. We each hopped into our vehicles, drove almost to the destination, parked, and walked as quietly as we could toward the den site.
We got us a bear! A Black Bear! The birdie said it has been there since sometime in December.
Now that I’ve shared it with you, I’ll say no more for the five of us are sworn to secrecy about its location.
Walking in silence
along a trail so familiar
my eyes were drawn
to bubbles at my feet.
Tiny bubbles, tinier bubbles, tiniest bubbles
formed random patterns
as they gave new life
to dying grasses.
Nearby, salmon-colored disks
the mint-green crustose form
of candy lichen's granular base.
Meanwhile, crimson caps of British Soldiers
shouted for recognition
as they showed off
their branching structures.
Upon a rotting tree
and backlit by the sun
glowed the irregularly lobed fruits
of Orange Jelly Spot.
In another sunny spot, a Little Copper sought nectar
from a goldenrod still in bloom
while a Spotted Cucumber Beetle
photobombed the shot.
I have to admit that I struggled with ID:
Ruby, Cherry-faced, and Saffron-winged
since this dragonfly showed characteristics
of each in the meadowhawk clan.
Being present on this October afternoon
reminded me of another day
when I paced before a couple of shrubs
and watched the insect action.
I am honored and humbled to announce that that blog post was recently published
in The Observer, a publication produced by the Maine Natural History Observatory.
My friend and fellow master naturalist, Cheryl Ring, also has an article in this issue.
The most humbling thing for me was an email I received from a reader who is also an avid naturalist. She commented that my ID of a butterfly at the end of the article, which I called Painted Lady, is actually American Lady. I now realize I need a new field guide because mine refers to it as American Painted Lady and I inadvertently dropped "American," while hers dropped "Painted" in the name. It's another lesson in why I need to wrap my brain around scientific names since common can cause confusion. I do appreciate that she took the time to read the article and write to me.
That said, the best lesson of any day is to take time to be present and observe in nature. Even if it's only for a few minutes.
My Guy and I were climbing Mount Tom in Fryeburg, Maine, this afternoon when it began to rain. Being under the canopy, it didn’t bother us. Until it did. That moment occurred when the thunder began and continued as the storm seemed to circle nearby Pleasant Mountain. Even though we were close to the summit and had planned a round trip hike, we quickly turned about and backtracked as the heavens opened and even the canopy could no longer protect us. And then back at the trailhead, the sun came out. This is Maine after all.
And so I drove down the road to another spot where the actual “hike” is about 50 feet long, but the view and sounds spectacular.
The first friend we did meet was a Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer Dragonfly, so named for that spot on its abdomen and the fact that its face is white. Sometimes common names make complete sense and other times they are a source of confusion, but to learn the scientific names boggles my brain most of the time. Or maybe I’m too lazy.
Dragonflies are often territorial, unless they are Chalk-fronted Corporal Skimmers as are two resting here on Sensitive Fern. The Corporals often share a space and I’ve frequently spotted bunches resting on rocks or the ground.
But there’s another dragonfly in this scene. Can you find it? And it got me thinking about how some different species do share a space within the same habitat. That is, until one decides to eat the other.
In the mix, Familiar Bluet Damselflies also flew … and rested. This one upon an equisetum.
And another upon a Sensitive Fern. The damselfly wasn’t all that senstive for if you look at the last few segments of its abdomen, you’ll spot little red dots, the bodies of water mites.
Some species of water mites are parasites on insects like damselflies. The mite larvae attach to a damselfly nymph in its underwater stage. When the nymph emerges from the water and enters adulthood, the mite larvae stay with it and also mature as they feed on the body fluids of the damselfly. While the damselfly will probably survive the mite parasitism, it may be weakened by the tiny critters.
In the water itself, tadpoles. Tadpoles galore.
Above the water, a Frosted Whiteface Skimmer, a rather minute species in the whole scheme of things.
That’s not all. Four-spotted Skimmers also flew and paused, flew and paused. The Four-spotted is an aggressive hunter of other insects, sometimes even capturing smaller dragonflies, um, like the Frosted Whiteface. Fortunately, no such action happened on our clock. (Though it would have been cool to witness.)
Oh, and then a Viceroy Butterfly flew in. Be still my heart. While one might think Monarch Butterfly based on the coloration, the Viceroy is much smaller and features that black line that crosses the hind wing, Monarchs don’t have a line across their hind wings.
Perhaps, though, my favorite spot of the hour was the Racket-tailed Emerald, so named for the tennis racket shape of its abdomen–use your imagination. Even more important to notice: those shiny green eyes. This was the dragonfly that shared the space with the Chalk-fronted Corporals.
So the reality was that My Guy spent a few minutes with me and was impressed by the tadpoles, but then he returned to the truck and took a nap.
The Dot-spotted Whiteface looked at me as if to say, “Hey lady, haven’t you had enough yet? Maybe it’s time for you to return to the truck as well. And skedaddle. ”
I supposed I should, but really, based on all the sounds and sights and the fact that there was so much more going on that I didn’t capture, I could still be standing there.
Take a gander yourself. I welcome you to observe friends on the edge of Abraham Krasker Bog Pond on Bog Road in Fryeburg.
Our day began with a remembrance of our fathers and uncles and cousins and friends and all who have served and continue to serve our country. Growing up, my hometown celebrated Memorial Day with a parade and I remember riding or marching or watching–depending upon the year. And after there was a picnic topped off with Strawberry Shortbread. But in my adopted hometown, July 4th is the date that receives all the attention.
And so, that’s a long introduction as to why My Guy and I headed off to Overset Mountain for today’s hike. We were on a mission.
Said mission was not to count all of the Indian Cucumber Root plants we could find in flower, though My Guy did point to this one at the start of our journey because just a week ago I introduced him to their double-decker structure necessary for extra sugar creation and therefore flower followed by fruiting form.
Nor was said mission to marvel at the water as it flowed over the rocks in Sanborn River.
Instead, it was a bit of a treasure hunt that motivated us as we sought the ones who liked to hide along the trail. Um, kinda like My Guy is hiding in this photo. Can you spot him?
Success at last. The first success that is–a Pink Lady’s Slipper in full bloom. #1. Henceforth, had you been with us, you would have heard us stating the number of each Lady’s Slipper we spied and honored.
At first, there weren’t many but we did what we like to do when faced with a challenge such as locating bear claw trees–we scanned both sides of the trail in hopes of being the one to announce the next number.
Oh how they hid!
To spy one often required a sharp eye. The question was thus: what determined where a Lady’s Slipper would grow? I knew it was a certain fungus, but the US Forest Service clarifies it more than I can: “In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as ‘symbiosis’ and is typical of almost all orchid species.”
Turns out, we weren’t the only ones on the hunt. This Garter Snake crossed the trail and then paused, certain that it was so well camouflaged by the leaves and the twig it passed under that we couldn’t possibly spy it. But we did.
Sometimes, it was the white version of the pink that we spotted. As I mentioned, Lady’s Sippers orchids in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words “Cypris,” an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal, so named for the fused petals that form the pouch and their resemblance.
There were other white flowers to also admire, such as the Canada Mayflower or Wild Lily of the Valley that decorated a boulder.
Ah, but we reminded ourselves that Lady’s Slippers were our focus. Though most stood upon straight stems, there was the occasional one such as this that had a mind of its own. What had this flower endured to create such a curvature?
At last we reached Overset Pond with the mountain of the same name beyond. This became our lunch spot and while there we watched a Common Loon and a Snapper Turtle swim underwater, for so clear it is.
It was after that, however, that our Lady’s Slipper numbers began to increase. We were at 47 when we reached the pond. But then, it felt like we were constantly taking turns announcing a number and pointing to make sure the other saw the same flowers.
When one is noticing, one notices. And so My Guy pointed out this Tiger Swallowtail taking a break, its proboscis rolled as it should be when not seeking nectar.
The next flower we spotted chose a different orientation, as if it had done something wrong and needed to show its backside to the trail. But really, perhaps it was honoring the tree beside which it grew.
We soon reached one of My Guy’s favorite spots where he counted 50 in bloom in a ten-foot-square area. And that’s just what we could see from the trail.
We found some who stood tall.
And others barely overextending the height of Bunchberry.
At the summit of Overset Mountain, we paused for a dessert break before making our way down.
On the descent there were still others to admire, though for a wee bit it felt like we’d entered the desert, but once closer to the pond, the natural community changed and apparently the fungus did as well for such were our finds.
The last of the day appeared to be the richest in color, though I’m not sure we had an overall favorite for each offered a different hue of the same theme from pale white to this rich pink.
We were on our way back to the truck, when things got even more exciting–if that can be so given all the Lady’s Slippers we’d spotted. Say hello to an immature male Common Whitetail Skimmer Dragonfly. By the time he matures, his tail will turn whitish blue, but those wings will remain the same. Oh my.
And then for the final oh my . . .
Oh My Guy! This was the closet I’ve been to my favorite Black Bear (UMaine grad–though known as UMO grad back in his day) on any hike . . . ever. And for this I give thanks to the Lady’s Slippers for slowing him down to my speed. All together we counted 286 flowering Lady’s Slippers today and know that we missed some and beyond the trail there are probably a million more.
Every day this week found me wandering a different trail, or even sometimes the same trail on multiple days.
To that end, on May 24th, I celebrated a full-fledged dragonfly emergence.
Though I wasn’t there at the time of eclosure, many of the dragonflies I spotted, and there were hundreds, were either still pumping hemolymph from their wings back into their bodies, gaining their color patterns, or letting their shiny wings dry in the breeze as they slowly began to expand them. A few had wings that seemed stuck together, but then in an unexpected moment they flew and I whispered farewell in hopes that we might meet again.
On May 25th, there were other species to behold.
It was that day that I knew the Highbush Blueberry crop will be significant this year for so many were the robust Bumble Bees that worked the pollen route. I even managed to capture one doing a happy dance with pollen on its feet. And this is canoodling season, after all, so it was fun to find a pair of flower bugs enjoying a tender moment upon Chokeberry flowers. The Mayfly did not have such a happy ending for before maturing to its adult form, it landed in a sticky web, but . . . alas, the spider must eat, so it was a good day after all.
On May 26th, my travels were more varied, as were the sightings.
For a few moments, I watched as ants, both winged and not, farmed aphids upon the stem of a Maple-leaf Viburnum. Along a trail or two that day, a melodious Song Sparrow serenaded me with its happy tune. And a quick trip to the vernal pool out back found me looking into the eyes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Wood Frog tadpoles. But the best find of all, a fairy ring along a trail.
On May 27th, I was one of a bunch who arrived at a certain locale to bird at 6:30am.
Though I couldn’t stay for the entire trip, which yielded 38 species, I did have the joy of watching a small flock of Cedar Waxwings land and fly, land and fly. And then there was the Indigo Bunting. It’s blue coloration reminded me of Clintonia’s Blue Bead fruits we’ll spot in the summer if the birds don’t eat them all first. And I’m never sure why I’m surprised to find a House Wren on these journeys, but perhaps its because for so many years I didn’t see them (or didn’t realize I was seeing them) and thought of them more as a childhood bird from my beginnings in southern New England. The best find of all, on this day, however, was an Eastern Phoebe sitting on her nest.
On May 28th, I met some old friends, though for the first three I had to jog my memory for their names.
The first was a female Common Whitetail Skimmer dragonfly. It’s her guy who has the whitish “tail,” and I believe that she received the better strokes of nature’s paintbrush. Then there were the Hudsonian Whiteface Skimmers, she with yellow marks and his defined in red. Soon, the Calico Pennants will emerge, and we’ll see she also dons a yellow coat while he sports red. But as much as you know I love dragonflies, a fresh moose track also makes my heart sing.
On May 29th, I wondered how I could possibly top all of that.
And yet I did. First there were more ants farming aphids, this time Wooly Alder Aphids on Speckled Alders. After that, a Bluet Damselfly that didn’t seem to mind that I rustled around in some shrubs trying to get better photos of other species. For its patience, I thought I should honor it in this post. One of those other species, a small Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer dragonfly, drew my attention to a Pitcher Plant Flower preparing to open. I was surprised by its presence because though I knew I was in the land where Pitcher Plants are abundant, I couldn’t recall spying one in this particular spot before. But the best find of the day, an Assassin Bug, Pselliopus cinctus, finishing a meal. I had never met this species of Assassin Bug before as usually it is the slender green Zelus luridus that I encounter. The black and white legs were to be admired, by me, not its poor victim who had just had the juices sucked out of it.
It certainly has been a week to celebrate my daily wonders as I wander. And though the Assassin Bug was the best of today, the actual best I did not capture a photo of this afternoon. A River Otter popped up and stared at me briefly, chirped, and before I could reach for the camera, disappeared. But I will remember that moment and that spot in my mind’s eye.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning? Or better yet, half way through. And so that’s where today’s story starts.
My Guy and I had some errands to run, but then it was time to have fun. To that end, we chose the Weeks Brook Trail up the backside (or maybe it’s the front side depending on your perspective) of Mount Kearsarge North in New Hampshire. We last climbed Kearsarge in November, which I recorded in What’s To Come Mondate, via the Kearsarge Trail that starts on Hurricane Mountain Road. We knew we didn’t have time to go to the summit today, but Shingle Pond, halfway up the trail offered a fine lunch log date and turn-around point.
Along the way we had many to honor and so we did, beginning with a colony of Clintonia showing off bright yellow blossoms.
Each cheery bloom offered an explosion of sunshine radiating from its flaring bell shape and six long stamens with yellow tips and a long style.
Sharing the trail were Pink Lady’s Slippers offering a variation of hues sharing a color scheme.
Since My Guy loves to count slippers, an activity that forever surprises me, he noted only eight in bloom today, but this one was extra special because it featured not only today’s blossom, but also last year’s fruit in the shape of a capsule that once contained thousands of tiny seeds.
And then there was Wild Sarsapirilla with its whorl of three compound leaves at the tip of a long stem.
The globe-shaped flowers that grow upon a stem of their own below the umbrella teemed with pollinators of all shapes and sizes.
My joyous heart kept growing larger and larger with each wonder-filled find enhanced in a few cases by being the first of the species I’ve spotted this year. Indian Cucumber Root topped that list with several in flower. To some, the flowers are inconspicuous as they nod below the plant’s second tier, but to me they are among nature’s most amazing constructions as the petal-like segments turn backward and the stamens stand out in reddish purple offering a contrast to the yellow pistils.
By the time we reached the Swamp Beacon Fungi, my heart was full, but like any sweet treats, there’s always room for more. These little yellow mushrooms love a wet seep and there were a few along today’s trail. I was reminded of my first encounter with this species in 2015 when I posted Slugs, Bears and Caterpillar Clubs, Oh My! (RIP PV. I’ll miss you forever)
At last we reached the pond and immediately my focus changed from flowers to other structures all belonging to the Odonata family, this one in particular being the left-behind exuviae of a Skimmer Dragonfly. I found it at eye level–my eyes that is and not My Guy’s.
I really wanted to introduce him to a dragonfly eclosing and the best I could find today was one that had already split out of its aquatic form and was still pumping hemolymph (bug blood) from its wings back into its expanding body. “Isn’t that cool?” I asked. His response somehow turned a basketball move he expected to see on tonight’s Celtics game into a cooler situation. Hmmm. I’ll win him over yet.
Despite that, I did win another one over. It was an immature Skimmer Dragonfly who had recently emerged for a wee bit cloudy were its wings still.
I knew it to species as a Whiteface for such was the color of . . . its face.
Whether it was a Belted Whiteface Skimmer or a Crimson Whiteface Skimmer, the jury is still out and based upon wing venation. My gut leans toward the former, but I’m open to learning so if you think otherwise, please explain.
That said, it was the first dragonfly that easily climbed upon my offered hand this year and I rejoiced that the Dragonfly Whisperer had joined today’s Mondate. Even My Guy was impressed.
If you follow me either virtually or in reality, you know that during April and May I spend a lot of time beside vernal pools. And this year is no different. Thankfully, I also get to take others along on the journey, from school children to their parents, and members of the public, plus colleague naturalists in the form of Greater Lovell Land Trust’s volunteer docents.
And so it’s been that this particular pool on a land trust property has received tons of attention this year. We’ve always known it to be special because it’s home to Fairy Shrimp, which just the occurrence of one makes it significant by State of Maine standards.
Vernal pools provide essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including salamanders and some frogs species. At the same time, juvenile and adult amphibians associated with such a pool provide an important food source for small carnivores as well as large game species. Many of these amphibians are pool specific in that they must return to their natal vernal pool to breed, thus making them and the surrounding habitat important and the loss of such would lead to loss of local amphibians, a decrease in biodiversity, and a decline in food available to others who inhabit the surrounding natural community.
Upon visiting this past week, the pool had taken on a new sheen, appearing at first glance to resemble ice. But it was much too warm for that to be the case.
Floating upon the pool’s surface were male Red Maple flowers, the oval items at the ends of slender, threadlike stalks the pollen producing anthers dangling on their filaments and the release of said pollen the cause of the ice-like presentation.
So the exciting thing about this particular pool is that though It has long been a breeding ground for Fairy Shrimp (and mosquito larvae), this year we spotted more of the former than ever swimming along on their backs as they filtered the water and sought a mate.
Though the pollen on the pool may give it a look of being polluted, the presence of Fairy Shrimp actually serve as an indicator of good water quality.
Where a month ago we were scooping up hundreds of these tiny crustaceans, this past week we found only a few, which served as one sign that this is a pool in transition. Their life cycle isn’t long, but if you checked in recently with the post entitled Peering Into the Pool, you’ll have learned a cool fact or two about their existence.
Back to now. Wood Frog tadpoles had suddenly emerged and their egg masses began to disintegrate, though still adding a source of food in the symbiotic relationship with an algal form.
Mosquito larvae and pupae, though still present, were not as prevalent, given that their flying, biting form had begun to hatch.
And then there was another change to note. And it’s a major change in my book of these habitats. Large Bullfrogs had taken up residence.
The wee bit smaller but similar Green Frogs had as well.
How does one decipher between a Bullfrog and Green Frog? First, as you approach a pool and you hear a squeal as a frog jumps from the edge into the water, you know that Green Frogs are in the midst.
And if you finally get to spy one, look for the line behind the eye. If it follows along both edges of the frog’s back, called dorsal lateral folds, it’s a Green Frog.
If, however, the line extends from the back of the eye and wraps around the round disk, or tympanum membrane (think ear), it’s a Bullfrog.
Also, Bullfrogs don’t leap away quite a suddenly as Green Frogs. In fact, they can stay quite still for hours on end.
Once human eyes adjust to the surroundings, shadows may pretend to be frogs, but they aren’t. The real deal, however, lurks at the surface, often only its eyes making its presence known.
Hemlock needles and maple flowers decorate it, and much to my surprise don’t frustrate it. Though some frogs may seem super sensitive to us, they also exhibit a patience not to be matched as they sit and wait.
Oh, did I mention that they were everywhere? Literally.
The thing is. these two frog species weren’t in the pool to breed like the Wood Frogs had been. They, after all, need a permanent water source because their tadpoles take two years at a minimum to morph into adults and a vernal pool that dries up each year would not be suitable. This tadpole was spied at a nearby pond, indicating that perhaps the Bullfrog came from that source to the vernal pool.
So what were the Bullfrogs and Green Frogs doing at the pool? Predating all that live within. Remember what I said earlier, that vernal pools provide food for small and large predators. These would be on the smaller size, though not the smallest.
Perhaps that’s why we weren’t seeing as many Fairy Shrimp this past week. And given the prevalence of these two frogs, who knows what will hop or crawl out of the pool, but we suspect some Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders will make it to adulthood so that they can carry on the tradition of returning to their natal pools to breed.
The thing about visiting a pool such as this with the younger set is that they are bound to make exciting finds. And so one did, locating a Spring Peeper swimming about.
And in the surrounding uplands, another found a Pickerel Frog. We could hear their snoring chorus, so this discovery wasn’t unexpected. But still it was special.
How to tell a Pickerel Frog from a Leopard Frog (the latter a species I’ve only seen a few times): by the spots on its back. The Pickerel’s spots are more symmetrical than the randomness of a Leopard’s and the Pickerel’s spots are outlined while a Leopard’s are not.
And then there was this teeny, tiny American Toad covered with warts and suddenly the ground was hopping with these wee creatures and Spring Peepers and one had to be careful where one stepped.
The final find of the week, an adult Wood Frog with its robber mask making for a sure ID. This one was a poser.
As the vernal pool turns, so do its inhabitants and I give great thanks for the opportunity to learn from it and share it with so many others who add to the lessons.
Dedication: This one is for Nancy Hogan Posey cuze I was going to write about something completely different today and your question turned the page to this one. Thank you.
The temperature dipped overnight and wind picked up out of the WNW but given the destination we had chosen, we knew if we dressed appropriately we’d be fine because we’d be in the woods most of the time, unlike last week’s walk where we were completely exposed to the elements on Popham Beach. That said, it was cold today.
Our plan was to follow the trail around Shell Pond at the Stone House property and do it with micro-spikes on our boots rather than snowshoes. Or at least on my boots. Given that there had been some foot traffic, we hoped that when we actually arrived at the trail we’d made the right decision.
As it turned out, most of the traffic had headed to the air strip, but a few had walked our way and really, there’s more ice than snow in this part of western Maine right now.
We cruised along at My Guy’s speed, which boded well for keeping our bodies warm and gave thanks that we were both quite comfortable as we began to circle the pond. Mammal tracks were numerous, but most muted and really, we didn’t want to take time to stop and measure so we only named to each other those we were certain we knew.
Well, one of us did walk a tad faster than the other, but that’s nothing new.
In what felt like no time, we greeted the Keeper of the Trail who gave us a smile from below his winter hat.
And then we reached lunch bench, which my guy cleaned of snow so we could dine on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in comfort. Well, sorta in comfort. It was here that we met the wind as it swept across Shell Pond from Evans Notch. So, it was a quick lunch.
And a quick journey to the orchard. As we crossed the bridge over Rattlesnake Brook I recalled once watching a muskrat swim beneath. My guy informed me that I’d probably not see such today–how right he was.
I was feeling a bit bummed that we’d circled so quickly but we did promise ourselves that by the Stone House we’d turn off the air strip and check out Rattlesnake Pool and Gorge, which we’d missed on a Thanksgiving Day hike when we journeyed up Blueberry Mountain located behind the house to Speckled Mountain.
Each time we pass this way I give thanks to the owners who long ago put most of the forested part of the land into a conservation easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust and allow hikers and hunters and rock climbers to use their trails.
And so up the Stone House Trail we went, passing the gorge to start so we could meet the brook at a spot above and watch as the water swirled under ice,
and down through a chute,
creating ice sculptures all along its journey.
Briefly it danced into Rattlesnake Pond, and then followed the course below.
The pool’s nature as forever emerald green never ceases to amaze me.
We met it again at Rattlesnake Gorge were the flow continued despite all the frozen formations.
Down it continued on its way to the point where I earlier showed it in its calm and completely frozen flatwater oxbow.
Click on the video to briefly enjoy the sound.
As much as I was thrilled to have visited the Rattlesnake sites because it was too dark to do so the last time we hiked here, it was the image in the negative space of the ice that really put a smile on my face today.
Do you see a bear?
Back at the air strip we turned right and headed back to the gate. After that, we still had another mile to walk because we’d parked closer to Route 113 since the road in to Stone House isn’t plowed.
And then we played my favorite Stone House Road game–checking telephone poles for bear hair. Black bears LOVE telephone poles. For the creosote? Maybe. Is it the soft pine that they can so easily chew and claw? Maybe. Is it a great place to hang a sign that you are available for a date or this is your territory? Probably, but maybe it’s the other two possibilities that lead the bears to the poles. I do know this. They are well marked along this road.
In the process of biting and scratching some hair is left behind. Mating usually takes place in late June or July, so possibly this hair was left then and has since bleached out in the sunshine.
Shiny numbers also seem to draw their attention, or perhaps the bear wants to hang its own sign and tear down the one left by a human.
Look at the horizontal dots and dashes–can you see them? Think of the bear turning its head and the upper and lower canine teeth meeting as it bites at the wood.
Closer to the truck one pole indicated that the bear won–it had almost totally remodeled the pole including removing most of the number.
As Mondates go, I have to say this one was a very good hair date! And I’m not talking about mine or my guy’s, since we didn’t care what we looked like as long as our warm hats smooshed our manes.
As we drove to North Conway, New Hampshire for an errand today, we had no idea where we might hike. And then in the midst of said errand, my guy suggested Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch. It had been a while since our last visit so we decided it was a great idea.
It’s funny how the trail seems flat in my mind’s eye, but it’s hardly that as roots and rocks or boulders keep all eyes looking down while we climbed up. While it’s long been this way, the impact of hikers seeking solace during the past fifteen months means it’s been trodden even more than in the past.
The hike to the falls is rather generic and I soon decided I wouldn’t need to write about it until . . . we reached the Devlin’s staircase. And then it dawned on me that summer began late last night and we were in the right place, only having missed the celebration by half a day. My only hope was that we might glimpse our friend who had built them.
When we arrived at the falls, I could see that he had indeed turned on the shower and others were standing below taking advantage of the cool water on such a hot day. Do you see the heart created by leaves and trees at the top of the waterfall? That was another sign.
When in Rome–and so yes, we did the same.
After hanging out there for a bit, we hiked down and decided to detour via the trail to Bemis Falls, where even more roots slowed us down a bit, but the water spilling into the tiered basins made the trip well worth the effort. Notice how rather than a shower, the basins offered a place to bathe. It was another sign and again we knew Devlin was responsible.
Farther down the trail, we walked into Colesium Falls and again sat for bit while White Admiral butterlies fluttered around us.
One even paused long enough for us to admire its handsome features. We suspected their presence in this particular area was to serve as decoys.
For without realizing it until we returned to the Bemis Trail, we’d entered Falda’s home range. My heart be still. It was all coming together as planned.
The icing on the cake was a single Pink Lady’s Slipper, which we’re convinced Devlin had planted for Falda.
So . . . who are these two: Devlin and Falda? Why a giant and a fairy, of course. And perhaps you’ve read my fairy tale before, but even if you did, I’d love for you to read it again. And share it. And if you haven’t then, sit back and enjoy. And one more and, if anyone cares to illustrate it for fun, give it a whirl, but please share your works with me and maybe when I post this again in a year or two (It seems I’m on an every-two-years plan for sharing this story) I’ll include your works, with attribution, of course.
Once upon a Midsummer’s Eve, on Sabattus Mountain, a group of fairies gathered in a circle for a night of magic and merriment. All wore crowns of wood sorrel and ferns about their heads. Their sparkly skirts matched the color of their hair, purple and green and yellow and orange and blue. Together they danced and sang this tune:
We whirl and twirl and dance around, Our feet, they barely touch the ground. We wish and wish and wish tonight, For a Midsummer’s Eve that is fun and bright.
Aisling stopped suddenly and stared at the delicate pink lady’s slipper they circled around.
“What is it, Aisling?” asked Carys. “Why did you pause?”
“I had a vision,” Aisling said. Her wings fluttered as fast as a hummingbird’s, which they always did whenever she had a vision.
“Tell us,” insisted Imma.
“It’s about Falda,” said Aisling.
“Oh, will my wings work again?” pleaded Falda, for her wings were folded and though she could dance and jump, she could no longer fly.
“No, Falda. It’s not that, but something even better, I think. And there’s a nice ogre too,” explained Aisling.
“Tsk. Tsk. A nice ogre. Whoever heard of such a thing?” demanded Biddie. “The only ogre we ever knew was a devil. Remember his sign in Crawford Notch: ‘Devl Hom.’ That ogre was so mean, he couldn’t even spell.”
The fairies continued dancing and forgot about Aisling’s vision for a few hours. When the merriment was over, Falda and Biddie, the older fairies, returned to their homes beneath the thick foliage and moss-covered tree stumps. Imma, Carys and Aisling used pine needles to sweep the area so no hikers would discover them.
“Tell us more about your vision, Aisling,” said Carys. “Who is the ogre? And what does he have to do with Falda?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Aisling.
“Biddie always says that there was a giant who lived near our old home in Crawford Notch. He was cursed and not to be trusted,” said Imma.
“Let’s go back there and check him out,” suggested Carys.
“Yes, let’s,” said Aisling. “Remember, we can always avoid contact with him by reciting the backward chant: Ogres bad big with contact eye avoid always.”
“OK,” agreed Imma. “Let’s go.”
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies left their home in Lovell, Maine, and reached Crawford Notch. The rising moon glowed on the giant’s staircase made of carefully placed tree trunks.
Aisling was the first to smell something awful. “What stinks?” she asked.
“I think it’s him,” said Imma, pointing to where the giant stood building a two-hundred-foot high granite wall. “Biddie said his smell is why we left.”
“Shhh,” whispered Carys from her hiding place high up in a beech tree. “Listen to him.” This is what they heard: “Humph. I sure hope I can find water to flow over this fall. Then I can finally take a shower. And who knows, maybe Sweet Falda will hear that I’m clean and she’ll finally return.”
The three fairies held their noses and giggled.
“That’s your vision, Aisling,” squealed Imma.
“Humph. What was that sound?” the giant demanded. In the gruffest voice he could muster, he said, “Who goes there?”
Imma quickly waved her magic wand and a breeze moved the leaves. The giant could no longer hear them. He returned to his work of stacking granite boulders on top of one another.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get Falda and the giant together,” said Carys.
“Don’t you think he’s a mean, old ogre?” asked Imma.
“Not at all,” said Carys.
“Me either,” said Aisling.
“OK then. I have a plan, but I’ll need to ask my cousin to help,” Imma said.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the fairies returned to Sabattus Mountain and their village under the moss-covered tree stumps in the old pine grove.
“Falda, Biddie, wake up,” they called.
“What is it?” Falda asked as she walked out of her wee house, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“We just came from Crawford Notch and we saw the most amazing thing,” said Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. There’s nothing amazing left in Crawford Notch,” said Biddie.
“Oh, but you are wrong, Biddie. We saw a giant staircase, a giant waterfall . . . well, almost waterfall, and a certain giant himself,” said Imma.
“Almost waterfall?” asked Falda.
“Yes, it just needs water,” said Imma.
“Tsk. Tsk. Did you say ‘a certain giant’?” asked Biddie.
Carys fluttered up and down. “Yes, Aisling’s vision is coming true. We saw a certain giant building the almost waterfall and . . .” She was so overcome with excitement that she choked up and cried happy tears.
Aisling continued, “ . . . and he mentioned you, Falda.”
Falda’s cheeks turned as pink as the lady’s slippers that bloomed around them.
“Tsk. Tsk. You talked to that devil? Didn’t I always teach you that he is a cursed ogre and not to be trusted? Did you use the backward chant?” demanded Biddie.
“Oh, Biddie, don’t worry. We didn’t talk to him,” Imma said. The she whispered, “Yet.”
“No, we didn’t talk to him. We just listened to him,” said Aisling.
“I never even knew his name,” said Falda. She twisted her wee hands together. “He used to leave me beautiful gifts though, like a pinecone wreath and an oak picture frame.”
Biddie said, “Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil, I tell you. And he stinks.”
“Yes, he did have a certain odor,” said Falda. “That was one reason we moved to Maine.”
“Maybe he smelled bad because he was always busy building something and couldn’t take a shower,” suggested Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil and we’ll not return to Crawford Notch. It’s obvious that he put a curse on Falda and her wings got caught on a branch when we landed here. Now they are folded and she cannot fly,” insisted Biddie. “Enough of this nonsense. Go back to bed all of you.”
Aisling, Imma and Carys returned to their homes . . . momentarily. A few minutes later, when they were sure they could hear Biddie snoring, they met under an oak leaf behind Aisling’s house.
“I’ll ask Cousin Arethusa to provide a spring so water will flow over the boulders,” said Imma.
“Oh goody,” Carys said as she clapped her hands.
“Shhh,” Aisling whispered. “Quiet or they’ll hear us. We must act quickly before the sun rises on a new day.”
Silently, the three fairies formed a circle. Imma held her magic wand high and swung it in a sweeping arch above their heads. Fairy dust sprinkled upon them. Out of the dust, Cousin Arethusa appeared. In a whisper, Imma explained the need for a spring in Crawford Notch to which Arethusa agreed as long as the waterfall would be named for her.
“Thank you, Cousin Arethusa. Now we must go,” said Imma.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies returned to the Notch. They found the giant placing the last granite boulder on top of the wall.
He blinked when they landed on it. “Humph,” he growled, again using his gruffest voice, which wasn’t really gruff at all. “Who might you be?”
Immediately the three fairies covered their noses and gasped for air.
“Oh my. Do I smell that bad?” the giant asked. His cheeks turned red as the wintergreen berries that grew on the forest floor.
“Yes,” Carys squeaked.
“But if you turn around three times . . .” gasped Aisling.
“ . . . And say ‘water, water, everywhere’ five times fast,” added Carys.
“ . . . Water will flow over the falls and you can finally shower,” finished Imma.
“Really?” asked the giant.
“Try it,” said Carys.
“And hurry,” added Aisling.
“Do it for Falda,” finished Imma.
“Fal . . . da? You know Sweet Falda?” asked the giant.
“Yes, but hurry . . . you need to shower,” said Imma.
“Oh, yes.” So the giant turned around three times, said, “Water, water, everywhere,” five times and water flowed over the falls.
“Look, Arethusa Falls,” exclaimed Imma.
“I can’t believe it. I’m not very good at being mean and scary, but I can make wonderful things with my hands. Only I did wonder how I’d make this shower work,” said the giant.
“Well, you must thank Arethusa for that. And by the way, Biddie thinks you ARE mean and scary,” said Imma.
“Biddie. As I recall, she’s just an old biddie,” said the giant.
The fairies giggled.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“Because that is exactly what Falda always says about Biddie,” explained Aisling.
“Oh, Sweet Falda. I must shower now so I can see her again.”
The fairies told him that Sabattus Mountain was only a few giant steps east of Arethusa Falls. Then in a twinkle and a flitter they returned to their village.
A few winks later, the Earth rumbled. All five fairies quickly gathered at Falda’s house.
“What was that?” they wondered together.
“Sounds like thunder,” said Falda. “A storm must be approaching.”
“But I thought I saw the sun rising as I rushed over here,” said Carys.
Suddenly, the sky darkened. The fairies fluttered closer together. Falda lit a candle. Then they heard a tapping sound near the entrance. She peeked out, but saw no one. Curious, the fairies cautiously walked outside. Standing atop the mountain was a certain giant.
“Oh,” said Falda and her face brightened with a smile.
“Tsk. Tsk. If it isn’t the devil himself. And he’s flattened the trees,” exclaimed Biddie.
“The devil? Why on Earth do you say that, Biddie? And sorry about the trees. I tried my best to tiptoe,” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk. That’s what your sign said, ‘Devl Hom,’” said Biddie.
“Oh, that sign. It broke in an ice storm. I just never got around to fixing it. I was too busy building other things. My name is Devlin. That sign should read, ‘Devlin’s Home,’” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk . . . you stink too,” stammered Biddie.
“Not anymore. Now I can shower whenever I want. You must come see all the changes in the Notch.” Devlin leaned down, picked Falda up and placed her in the palm of his oversized hand. “What happened to your wings, Sweet Falda?”
“Nothing really. Just a wee accident,” she said.
So Devlin carried Falda over to Crawford Notch for a visit. In a twinkle and a flitter, Carys, Imma and Aisling followed behind him. Biddie tagged along, tsk-tsking all the way.
And they all lived happily ever after. All but Biddie were happy, of course.
Arethusa Falls and Sabattus Mountain Hikes
Guess what! You can hike to both locations mentioned in The Giant’s Shower. First, climb the giant’s staircase to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. Be sure to pack a snack or lunch to enjoy beside the falls. Who knows, you might even see Devlin working nearby. If he smells, remind him to take a shower.
The trailhead to Arethusa Falls is located on Route 302 at the southern end of Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. The hike is easy, but it does take about 45-60 minutes to reach the over 200-foot high falls. Several trail options are available so be sure to check local guides, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide and bring a map.
And only a few giant steps east of the falls is Sabattus Mountain in Lovell, Maine. If you are traveling via car rather than giant steps, Sabattus Mountain is about an hour and a half from Arethusa Falls. Follow Route 302 East to Route 5 North in Fryeburg, Maine. Stay on Route 5 through the villages of Lovell and Center Lovell. Just after the Center Lovell Inn, turn right onto Sabattus Road. Drive about 1 1/2 miles, then turn right onto Sabattus Trail Road.
The trailhead and parking area are a half mile up the road and clearly marked. The round-trip hike takes about 1 hour and is fairly easy, with one moderate spot. From the top, you will see Kezar Lake and Pleasant Mountain to the south. The White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire are to the west.
Hike up the right-hand trail. You’ll reach the top in about 45 minutes. Take time to enjoy the view left behind when the giant flattened trees with his footsteps. Some trees still stand tall, because he was only tiptoeing. Continue along the ridge until the trail turns left to descend.
In an old pine grove along this trail, you might suddenly feel the presence of fairies. Their homes are among the moss-covered tree stumps. They enjoy visiting Crawford Notch, but Sabattus is now their forever home. Pause a bit and let the magic of this place overtake you.
Do be sure not to add to or take away from the fairies’ homes. These are natural homes and you shouldn’t disturb them.
Happy hiking! And say hello to Carys, Imma, Aisling, Falda and Biddie for me.
Meanings of names used in the story: Aisling–vision, dream Carys–love Imma–water bearer Falda–folded wings Biddie–strength Arethusa (Ara-Thuse-A)–spring Devlin–brave, one of fierce valor Pink lady’s slipper–moccasin flower, large, showy orchid found in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire
How to make your own fairy dust: Combine dried flower petals, leaves and birdseed in a small bowl. Crush together. Sprinkle outdoors wherever magic is needed.
Fairy houses: Best if made from natural materials, e.g. bark, sticks, leaves, pinecones, rocks, grass, moss, berries, wood chips and flowers. Fairies particularly like the thick foliage of moss and old tree stumps. Remember, they hope that humans won’t discover them, so be cautious and don’t upset nature.
Early this morning I posted this on Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Facebook page: “Wear your long johns and hand warmers as you head out on a trail today. Maybe you’ll choose the Homestead/Hemlock route to the picnic table. If you do, look for tracks along the way, including turkey and red fox. And bring some hot cocoa to sip when you reach the table or return to your vehicle. To the table and back is two miles; or you can extend your trip and climb Amos Mountain. #greaterlovelllandtrust#takeahike#getoutside#lovellmaine#maine“
And then we did just that. Well, not exactly that. We didn’t actually follow the Homestead Trail, but did connect to the Hemlock and a series of other trails as well, which you can see if you check out our route as outlined in black on this map.
Conditions were such that we chose micro-spikes over snowshoes (though it sounds like there’s a decent storm on the horizon–finally). More important than footwear, however, was the fact that we wore layers to fend off the low temp and wind chill.
Soon reaching the summit of Whiting Hill, we took in the view of Kezar Lake and the mountains to the west, reminiscing on First Day Hikes in past years that brought us to this summit and noting this would have been the same destination for 2021, albeit via a different route, if COVID-19 hadn’t interrupted the plan.
Turning from Whiting Loop to the Hemlock Trail, at least one old bear tree begged to be honored and so we did, its claw marks disappearing among the cankers of Beech Scale Disease more and more each year.
Eventually we reached the picnic table I’d encouraged people to visit in my morning post and realized a couple had done just such. I wasn’t sure they had done so because of my suggestion or just because . . . they live nearby. My guy was impressed when I named the likely creators of such tracks. Notice the pattern of mittens on the bench.
After arriving home, I reached out to the likely suspects and discovered I’d nailed it. Ah, said mittens.
Responded Dale, with these photos of he and his wife Kitty when I inquired, “Yes Leigh, that was us. You ARE a good tracker.” It’s all about knowing the local community and those who call it home 😉 There were plenty of wildlife tracks as well, ranging from mouse to fisher, porucpine, and fox.
While Dale and Kitty had turned around at the picnic table, my guy and I continued up, climbing part way up Amos Mountain Trail and then turning west on the Heritage Trail, where we eventually reached the scenic outlook over an area formerly known as Devil’s Staircase, where more memories overtook us as we recalled a Devil of a Mondate.
Eventually, we found our way down part of the Rogers Family Trail where ice flows off the ledges next captured our attention.
And my guy grudgingly posed to add perspective to the scene.
But really, that ice.
Back up to the Heritage Trail, El Pupito came into view.
The stained-glass view beyond the pulpit once again offered views of Kezar Lake’s Upper Basin.
We paused to pontificate as one cannot help but do in this setting. And my guy found it much more to his satisfaction to pose as long as I did the same. Notice our rosy cheeks.
And then the journey continued, with the summit of Amos Mountain our next stopping point. Again we could glimpse the lake as we soaked up the sun’s rays.
Finally heading down Amos Mountain, we turned eastward at the intersection with Heritage, passing by a foundation that once belonged to the man for whom the mountain was named, before eventually reaching the Mystery Structure, its stone configuration often a site of contemplation.
Three and a half hours later, and almost seven miles under our belts, we arrived back at the mill site at the outlet of Heald Pond where we’d begun our journey.
For my guy, the finds included two geocaches.
Both were in great shape. Lately, we’ve unearthed some that have been wet, and either frozen or moldy. Also, the boxes included pencils, a great alternative to pens as the ink freezes when the temp is as low as it was today.
He wasn’t the only one pleased with discoveries. Mine included the shed skin of a Gypsy Moth larva, and dark brown shell that the new skin of the same caterpillar had hardened into so it could pupate. Though not a pleasant find, I’m forever intrigued by its alien form.
There was also a Polyphemus Moth cocoon to notice, oval in shape and featuring a tough outer layer of silk.
But the best find of all was one we made and honored together: a bear claw tree featuring scratches made within the last five years as based on the size of the lines.
We’re so glad we heeded my suggestion and headed out today, truly thankful for long johns and hand warmers. and layers upon layers of clothing.
Though we didn’t meet anyone else on the trail, which is actually our preferred way in these times, we knew by the signs left behind that Dale and Kitty had been there, and when we returned to our truck discovered a note on the windshield with this note: “Who Cooks For You?” We had our suspicions about the authors and turns out we were right again.
The finds of this day were plentiful. As was the beauty.
To feed or not to feed? That is not the question for I know I will continue to put out bird seed from now til April or May since it provides them with a constant food source and me with a constant entertainment source.
But still, things happen, like Gray Squirrels figure out how to access the squirrel-proof feeders.
And when I least expect it, everyone makes a mad dash because a bird of prey suddenly rockets in with talons extended.
I’d only placed the feeders in the yard a few days ago, but today this Cooper’s Hawk explained why I keep discovering feathers on the grass. Do you see the gray feathers by its talons? Tufted Titmouse? That makes me sad, but . . . raptors need to eat too.
Meanwhile, a female Northern Cardinal who had been feeding on the seed I spread on the ground tried to take cover in the grass. Notice how her crest is raised? I suspect it stood tall indicating her worry.
Even after the hawk flew off, she remained in the same spot. But, do you see the difference? The crest began to drop, perhaps because she began to relax.
I could almost hear her say, “If I don’t move, he won’t see me.”
About 15 minutes and lots of raindrops later, she finally perused the yard.
And let a few more raindrops gather on her feathers before flying off. I was grateful to see her fly, because for a while I worried that she had been injured in the fracas. My other thought was that she might be in shock. But, I think for now, until I learn more about bird behavior, I’ll stick with thinking she was playing it smart and waiting for danger to pass.
Two hours later, I spotted the hawk on our stonewall and later went out to search for feeding evidence as chipmunks and other small mammals are also part of their diet. I found only a couple of downy feathers where the bird had stood in the yard and nothing by the stonewall, but I suspect there may be something to notice in the future.
Today’s drama all happened in a flash and as odd as it may seem, I was grateful to be a witness.
Yeah, so on Sunday my guy and I hiked about four miles all told and found three geocaches in the mix cuze he’s now hooked, which is fun on my end since it slows him down a wee bit.
And on Monday–almost eight miles covered. But it wasn’t the mileage that mattered. Really.
Our morning began beside still waters. Well, the water was hardly still, but considering how crowded the area can be on a summer day, it was a delight to be the only two human beings in that space for those moments.
It’s a cool spot on many levels. No, we didn’t slide into the pool below; nor did we jump off the 20-foot cliff. Rather, we stood in awe and appreciated. That is, after finding another geocache located nearby.
Eventually, we pulled ourselves away because there was more water to meet, though we were surprised to arrive at a closed gate. No signs forbid our trespass and so we walked around the gate, and up the dirt road to the parking area and kiosk. On the way, we could hear a machine being operated and wondered if we’d stumbled upon a logging operation. A few minutes further along, a young man with an easy grin pulled up in a pick-up truck and knowing that the gate behind us was closed, we figured he must have something to do with the property. Sure enough, he told us they were working on the roadway and bike path ahead. The gate is closed for hunting season, but will reopen in the winter. Still, we were welcomed to hike on.
Half a mile later, we slipped into the woods and left the machinery sounds behind.
Occasionally, we walked across bog bridges and into the future.
Looking down at our feet was a constant, given that there were lots of slippery beech leaves to contend with, but . . . beech leaves mean one thing: American Beech Trees. And much to our delight, smack dab beside the trail stood a well-used beech tree. Some of the claw scratches weren’t all that old, given the width of the scars, and though this year proved to be yet another mast year for Northern Red Oaks (is it just me, or have red oaks been producing acorns on a yearly basis for at least the past five years?) it wasn’t so for the beeches. But perhaps last year or the year before or maybe a few years ago, this tree was a magnet for Ursus americanus.
We could have turned around then for our hearts were delighted, but, of course, we didn’t and soon found ourselves beside a single-wide stone wall.
Barbed wire that a tree had grown around told us the wall was intended to keep animals in . . . or out, depending on your point of view.
Certainly the tree knew, and had we spent a few more minutes with it, I suspect it would have quietly shared more knowledge with us, but we were on a quest and knew we only had so much daylight left.
And so, we hiked on. Until we reached one rather large blow-down and wondered: if a tree falls in a forest . . . Our answer: it land on the ground. Presumably with a thump. And this one must have created a ground-shaking thump.
Not far above the tree, a fanciful picnic table graces a knoll, and invites all questers, including this guy, to pause.
He didn’t pause for long. Back on the trail, as we climbed higher, the naturally community did what it does, and changed. For a bit, the delightful aroma of Balsam Fir spurred us forward, both by our feet and by our thoughts of the holiday season to come.
At last we reached water, and I thought our quest might be over. Could this be what we sought? As much as I loved watching bubbles form and pop, I was rather disappointed.
But after crossing rocks to get to the other side, the fall coloration of Tiarella (Heartleaf Foamflower) in all its hairiness called for attention.
And then, as we entered an opening where pine saplings grew in the sun, one showed off its crosier-shaped leader–bent over as commanded by a pine weevil. The tree will grow, but the live whorl of branches below will take over as leaders and change its stature.
Did I mention that the natural community kept changing? My guy and I soon realized that that was one of the things we really enjoyed about the trail, for there was so much diversity. And just steps beyond the weeviled pine, we entered a beech stand, where you know who had lumbered before us.
As much as we knew we needed to keep moving, we couldn’t help but search and didn’t have to stare far off trail to see evidence of so many bear claw trees. We figured we spied at least 25, though ask me tomorrow and I may say 30. They were everywhere and we wondered how many more we had missed.
But . . . there was more to see and so down a portion of trail that the young man we’d met had created all on his own and opened only last week, did we tramp. It was so new that the ground practically sprang under our feet. Can ground sprang?
We’d reached our quest at last and had to hurry three plus miles back as quickly as possible, promising each other not to stop and recount the bear trees, and we emerged at the parking lot as the sun was setting, with only the half mile walk down the road to our truck left to complete.
Oh, but what was our quest? It wasn’t a geocache this time.
And it wasn’t the bear trees; though they were a bonus.
Rather, it was the water that cascaded forth in three locations on this Mondate and already has us dreaming of return visits–though on a day when we either begin hiking earlier or there’s more daylight so we don’t have to hike down in twilight.
Thank you, Rosemary Wiser, for hiking this trail before us and giving us the inspiration.
Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement on the ground caught my attention.
My heart sang because I suspected I knew who I was looking at, but just the same, there were a few key characteristics that had to be acknowledged before I was one hundred percent confident.
You see, the first clues were the three buff-colored lines down its back. Between the lines, the keeled scales were quite dark. And this snake is known for its thin body and narrow, mahogany head.
But one of the most defining features, at least for me, is the whitish spot in front of each eye.
Do you see it? And the fact that there’s a line below separating it from the labial scales? Oh, and its lips are pure white.
These are examples of Ribbon Snakes, Thamnophis sauritus. In Maine, they are listed as a Species of Special Concern, which means this: “Any species of fish or wildlife that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species due to restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, specialized habitat needs or limits, or other factors.” ~maine.gov.
I’ve had the good fortune of spying three or four this year, but always, I have to stop and think about the characteristics before feeling comfortable that I’ve made the correct identification.
I really wanted the kids in the Greater Lovell Land Trust/Lovell Rec afterschool program to see this snake when they arrived. We searched. But the best I could offer was the photos I had taken.
A much more frequent sighting is of one of the largest snakes in Maine–at least of the snakes that I have met. There are nine species of snakes in Maine, but in my encounters, I’ve only met five of them (and only have photos of four to share).
This species is happy on land or in the water and before you let the hair raise up on the back of your neck and think you may never swim in a Maine lake or pond again, in the 35 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen plenty, but never encountered one while swimming. Oh, I’m sure people have other stories to share, but that has been my experience.
That said, this is one LARGE snake and can measure up to 42 inches in length.
Coloration can vary from a base color of pale gray to dark brown.
Notice how the pattern looks like bands wrapped around the body as presented from behind the head, but then becomes more blotchy in appearance.
Meet Maine’s Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, featuring a face only a mother could love.
I know some favorite haunts of Water Snakes and always look carefully because it can be well camouflaged.
One not camouflaged at all that my guy and I saw a few weeks ago on a Mondate, struck us as being out of its realm as it paused briefly on a granite ledge near the summit of a mountain upon which we hiked.
Its coloration gives away its common name: Smooth Green Snake. Smooth because unlike the first two snakes and the one I’m about to share, Green Snakes’ scales are not keeled. And its scientific name: Liochlorophis vernalis.
In my book of observations, I’ve only seen two Green Snakes ever–because they do look like their preferred grassier habitat.
The final snake of this series is the one I see most often. It might be sunning on a granite rock or searching for a meal in the kitchen garden.
Sometimes more than one crosses my path simultaneously.
And though it would be easy to mistake for a Ribbon Snake because of the buff-colored lines on its back, it isn’t. This snake has a stockier body and wider, olive-green head. Two other differences include dark marks along the edges of each labial (lip) scale, and of equal importance, no defined white spot in front of each eye. Oh, it’s pale yes, But scroll back up to the photo of the Ribbon Snake and see how they differ.
Also note how its coloration differs from one snake to another. Blotches between the stripes are common on this species but not a part of a Ribbon Snake’s appearance.
This is a Common Garter Snake: Thamnophis sirtalis.
So here’s the most exciting news of the day. Yesterday, before meeting with the same afterschool group as last week, I pre-hiked the trail. Suddenly, I walked into web as thick and sturdy as a fish net and bounced back with surprise. When I looked for the creators, I found three small spiders, who immediately went into action to fix what I had just ruined. I spent a few minutes watching them, then turned my attention back to the trail and just off to the left I spied this Garter Snake at eye level in an Eastern Hemlock sapling.
Snakes spend the fall basking in the sun because they are ecothermic, meaning they are cold-blooded and their body temperature varies with the environment. Mary Holland, in her Naturally Curious blog post today, described their fall/winter habits of Basking and Brumating.
When the kids arrived, I told them about my sighting–and we talked a bit about the differences between last week’s Ribbon Snake sighting and this week’s Garter Snake. And then we began our hike, stopping along the way to examine leaves, dig into the leaf litter as Forest Floor Archaeologists, and play with sticks cuze kids just love to play with sticks.
About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.
Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.
For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.
For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.
To the vernal pool I wandered on this overcast, drizzly, rainy day.
I thought for sure I’d later expound upon the deciduous trees that surround it and their leaf colors for such was the carpet at my feet as it reflected the sky above, despite the lack of water in the pool.
But . . . it was the conifer trees that shouted quietly for my attention, their offerings much more subtle than their broad-leafed cousins. First, there was a firefly that made me wonder how he could move so quickly and gingerly in an upside down manner.
Take half a minute and watch his progress.
From the pine sapling I moved over to a hemlock on the far side of the pool. Something dark dangling below its branches begged to be inspected.
It was (is) about two inches long and felt almost leafy when I touched it. Protruding from it were several spikes that weren’t really sharp.
I looked at it from as many angles as I could. And found it curious that it appeared to be performing a split at its upside down base (meaning the top portion in the photo).
Some serious webbing held it in place and what appeared to be sap decorated it.
What could it be? I wondered if we’d ever been introduced before and like so many I’d forgotten its name. Perhaps a moth cocoon inside a spider web? Or a gall that dropped from a tree and got caught in the web? Or a spider egg sac? I looked for a spider and found one. Do you see it in the lower left-hand corner? Rather tiny compared to the alien object. Was the object an alien? Something from outer space? I suppose I could have split it open to see what it contained, but I decided to look around for others like it. And found absolutely none. Knowing that, I could hardly destroy it and so it’s still dangling from the hemlock and I’ll visit from time to time to see if the mystery solves itself. (Please don’t tell me if you know because that will ruin the fun of making a discovery.)
Oh, I did have one other thought, that it might be related to a hemlock cone gone awry, but when I stopped to look at cones on another tree, that theory didn’t make sense. It was there, however, that I spotted a flying insect that wasn’t flying. It, too, was a dangler.
Though my identification wasn’t definite, I suspected it was a member of the flower fly family. Curious enough, just moments before spotting the fly, I’d noticed a couple of blueberry flowers blooming. These are strange times, indeed.
A few more steps and I began to notice one I am familiar with: the tube created by a Pine-Tube moth. The larva ties needles together with silk as a form of protection in which to pupate. The tubes then get lined with more silk and are usually half as long as the needles because the larva eat the ends off. Though the larva may eat their way through several tubes over the course of a winter, I suspected this one was currently active because one needle stuck loosely out of the end. Inside, someone must have been dining.
And then . . . and then . . . I spied a small inch-worm type caterpillar. A Pine-Tube Moth larva?
Again, I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to display the right behavior.
I didn’t have all the answers today, but I know right where I met my acquaintances and hope that the next time we meet I’ll recognize them and perhaps will greet them by name. Chances are, though, that when I head out the back door to look for them, something else will shout quietly for attention and I’ll meet new things in the forest that will also leave me stymied by nature.
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.
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.
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