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"You still hear from time to time the whinnering of the raccoon, still living as of old in hollow trees, washing its food before it eats it. The red fox barks at night. The loon comes in the fall to sail and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with its wild laughter in the early morning." - Henry David Thoreau, journal, 1845
"I seek acquaintance with Nature, - to know her moods and manners. Primitive Nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth." - Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 23, 1856
"Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?" - Henry David Thoreau
"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gray Squirrel nests are multiple layers of leaves, while Red Squirrel nests are of woven materials, as seen here.
"To us snow and cold seem a mere delaying of the spring. How far we are from understanding the value of these things in the economy of Nature." - Henry David Thoreau, written March 8, 1859, in his Journal , vol. XII, p. 24.
Even after over 50 years of living near and exploring the beauty and mystery of Quabbin, every day is a treasure. Here, intimacy with Nature nourishes my soul.
Henry David Thoreau
Tracking legend John McCarter joined me and the tracking apprentices for this 3-day adventure tracking the ghost of the north, the Canada Lynx. Here, John breaks trail through deep snow as snow squall clouds gather over the mountains.
John was one of my principal animal tracking teachers, and we have become good friends over the years. It was an honor to have him join us on this expedition to track the rarest indigenous carnivore in the northeast, and I am sure the apprentices felt the same. It was a fantastic experience for all of us.
Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's clouds' illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
When every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way
But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughin' when you go
And if you care don't let them know
Don't give yourself away
I've looked at love from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
But something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day
I've looked at life from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
words by Joni Mitchell
- in memory of a friend, William Douglas Rhodes
"Good-night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." - William Shakespeare
This is a typical nesting hole of a downy woodpecker. It is easy to confuse those of downy woodpeckers with those of hairy woodpeckers. Downies prefer dead trees; hairies prefer live trees. The entrance hole of downies is from 1.2" to 1.4" diameter (slightly less than 1&1/2"); the entrance hole of hairies is from 1.6" to 1.8" diameter (slightly more than 1&1/2"). They both nest up to over thirty feet high. Downies may nest lower, to about 8 feet off the ground; hairies usually to only about 15 feet off the ground. The nest holes of both downies and hairies are nearly round; those of hairies may sometimes appear slightly more oblong vertically, but this is very subtle if at all.
To feel the heartbeat of a bird mingling with yours is a gift of joy. This injured bird lived to fly and lead its miraculous life.
"The deer we know today are beautiful, alert, graceful, intelligent creatures." - Leonard Lee Rue III, The Deer of North America
A curious shrub, the Witch Hazel flowers in the fall. Soon after the leaves drop, the seed pods explode, sending the seeds up to twenty feet away. Then the bright yellow flowers appear, sometimes persisting after snow has fallen, a delightful and surprising sight to behold.
This Black Bear scat is 100% acorn. This scat, diameter about one-and-a-half inches, was from an adult bear. We have a heavy mast year here for black oaks and red oaks, and bears and many other animals are gorging on the bounty. Although the soft mast (berries) crop was low this year due to drought, the acorns will compensate.
"While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden
"October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint, just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight." - Henry David Thoreau, "Autumnal Tints" in Excursions, pp. 224-225
The Beaver is one of the most interesting wild mammals here in the Quabbin area, where we have one of the highest concentrations in the world. Its ecological importance is tremendous, creating wetland environments that are home to numerous species of plants, birds, fish, insects, amphibians, and other forms of life. Beaver ponds are utilized by many mammals, from Mink, Otters and Muskrats feeding in the water during the day, to Raccoons, Deer, and Moose feeding around the edges at dawn and dusk, to several species of Bats flying overhead feeding on insects in the nocturnal hours. Without Beavers, we would have far fewer of these other forms of life and Nature's web would be impoverished. The long-term stages of occupation and abandonment by Beavers are a never-ending story of change, and a metaphor for life itself.
Also called Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis), this flower forms a capsule that explodes when touched, sending the seeds flying in several directions - this delights our childish sensibility, no matter what our age is. It grows under the same conditions as Poison Ivy and Stinging Nettles, and the juice of the crushed leaves and stems is a very effective antidote to the toxic skin effects of those plants. It can also be used to help alleviate the itch of conditions such as athlete's foot, and its chemical constituents have been scientifically verified as medically effective. Perhaps most wondrous is the beauty of the plant as it glitters after a rain shower or dew of the morning or evening.
This parent was extremely attentive, always staying close as the young loon practiced its diving skills. The adult issued vocalizations that were different from any I have heard in the past.
This was slightly over 3/4 of an inch long.
Note the proboscis drawing nectar. Here in the Quabbin area this is one of the largest and most exquisite butterflies. Jewel-like silver spots adorn the underwings, contrasting with striking orange and black geometric patterns on top of the wings, creating ever-changing flashes of color in a mesmerizing show as it streaks about. The eggs hatch in the fall and you may find the caterpillars feeding on violet foliage before they overwinter.
Note the pollen sac on the hind leg, soon to be brought back to the hive. If you look closely you may also see pollen dusting the bee all over its body and limbs.
This is a Witch Hazel that was straddled vigorously by a Black Bear and uprooted in the process. Straddling of small diameter trees and shrubs of various species is the most common form of Black Bear sign that can be found in the forest. A great deal of scent is deposited on these, and although the behavior peaks during the mating season, it continues throughout the year. This particular tree was straddled repeatedly for several years, resulting in the twisted growth of the trunk. Straddle trees are only one form of the complex and varied communicative language of bears.
Having emerged from its aquatic larval stage into its adult form, this Damselfly is waiting for its wings to fill with fluid and harden so it can fly. The larval shell is lower on the right side of the blade of grass.
This brilliantly colored beetle is dependent upon the Common Elderberry shrub.
These nestlings are very nearly grown and will soon leave the nest. We are at a remarkable time in the modern history of Great Blue Herons. It is very likely that their numbers are at the highest since the arrival of white people on this continent and the eradication of the beaver that followed. Since beavers have returned, suitable heron nesting sites have once again become available. Dead trees, in the middle of beaver ponds and surrounded by water that discourages predators, are a requirement for heron nests. As beaver ponds persist and mature for many years, the dead flooded trees eventually rot and fall away. Hence, the number of total suitable nesting trees is declining, resulting in a somewhat diminished number of herons after the initial bubble in their population numbers that followed the return of the beavers. As always, nature will adjust and reach an equilibrium, if allowed to do so.
This mammoth rock formation, found in the Holyoke Range in Hadley, western Massachusetts, was formed by lava flows (basalt)in the late triassic/early jurassic, approximately 200 million years ago. It is one of the geologic marvels of our home area.
Wild Turkeys, if seen with an eye open to nature's majesty, bring wonder to the observer. Ever alert, ready to explode away in a burst of powerful flight, these creatures epitomize the ability of wild animals to adapt and thrive if given the chance. Destruction of habitat and, especially, uncontrolled hunting eliminated these birds from virtually all of their range. Reintroduced a few decades ago, they have re-established themselves in most of their former range in Massachusetts and some other states. I recall first hearing turkeys while fishing on the Swift River in Belchertown in the late spring of 1972, and wondering what creature made this intriguing sound. Now they have become an integral part of an ecosystem that is recovering some of its former health. It is bewildering to hear people speak dismissively or disparagingly of these and other animals that have become widespread and abundant. Their beauty and ability to survive in the wild are testaments to the power of the creative force of the universe. Would that we could stand in awe of, and with respect for, nature's hand, rather than with the neglect or even contempt that humans hold for living things they deem commonplace and trivial.
Spring plays peek-a-boo: now you see it, now you don't.
Alder, encrusted in ice. Alders, Birches, American Hornbeam, and Hop Hornbeam are closely related; in fact, they are all within the Birch Family.
Tracking this Eastern Coyote (Coy-Wolf), we found a dig, where he had apparently scented a dead, frozen, Hairy-tailed Mole, but declined to eat it (Moles, like Shrews, are known to be extremely distasteful to Carnivores). This was odd, as Moles at this time should be well beneath the surface of the earth; could another predator have unearthed it elsewhere and either dropped it unintentionally, or perhaps cached it? Later on in the trail, we found where the Coyote had done a similar thing with a pile of soft Grouse scat, digging it out and leaving it. These sorts of behaviors make us wonder whether the Coyotes and other Carnivores are having a difficult time with this extended period of harsh cold and deep snow. They appear to be having a hard time moving about to find prey, and are certainly burning fat reserves just to stay warm in this unusual cold.
Coyote trail; in deep soft snow, he is moving in a walk rather than his favored trot.
Coyote trail on the left, Bobcat trail on the right. Normally, the Coyote's trail would appear more narrow than the Bobcat's, but since he is in a walk, his trail looks wider and messier.
Deer incisor marks from feeding on the bark of Witch Hazel, a not-uncommon food source.
Here was a hole where a Long-tailed Weasel entered the subnivial world below.
Here a Mink dove through a snow drift along its way bounding through the forest.
Mouse trail, short, even bounds in deep snow.
A Porcupine "Bonsai tree," caused by generational feeding on an Eastern Hemlock, a favorite winter food.
"Nip twigs," feeding debris from a Porcupine aloft in the Hemlock. The vast majority of feeding occurs at night year-round, and during the winter almost all Porcupines take shelter rather than spending the day sleeping in a tree as they usually do in warm weather months.
Debarking by a Porcupine on a small-diameter White Pine. This is a common winter food source; although the Porcupines feed extensively on Hemlock foliage during the winter, they do not feed on Hemlock bark as often as they do on White Pine bark, presumably because of the high tannin content of Hemlock bark, which interferes with digestion.
Porcupine tracks evident in a deep trough created by the body.
Porcupine scat and urine on the trail. If you have never smelled Porcupine urine in the winter, you have missed an amazing "piney" smell.
Here is somewhat of a surprise: a deer feeding on a dead tree trunk. It was actually going after a fungus growing on the tree trunk.
The beautiful trail of a Red Squirrel.
“But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sproutlands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by church-going and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day. ... I wish to forget, a considerable part of every day, all mean, narrow, trivial men…, and therefore I come out to these solitudes, where the problem of existence is simplified. I get a way a mile or two from the town into the stillness and solitude of nature, with rocks, trees, weeds, snow about me. I enter some glade in the woods, perchance, where a few weeds and dry leaves alone lift themselves above the surface of the snow, and it is as if I had come to an open window. I see out and around myself. . . . This stillness, solitude, wildness of nature is a kind of thoroughwort, or boneset, to my intellect. This is why I go out to seek. It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, January 7, 1857
“Only by looking closely can we begin to understand and appreciate the intimate interrelationship of all living things to one another and to the earth. It is impossible...to more than hint at the complexity of the pattern. We can, however...open the door to a vision of the forest world of which all life is an inseparable part.” - Sigurd F. Olson The Hidden Forest
A Deer playground, digging for remnant grasses in an open field, and a Deer antler rub on a Speckled Alder at the edge of a Beaver wetland.
Two Moose antler rubs in close proximity: one, on a White Pine, and the other on a Birch.
Tracks of a Fisher in a walk, and tracks of a Porcupine in a walk. Fishers walk a great deal more than people may expect. Strides can match those of a Porcupine, and under certain conditions the shape and orientation of the tracks may appear remarkably similar.
Remnants of Moose feeding on the tender tips of a tall Red Maple sapling, and bite and claw marks of a Black Bear on a Red Pine. The former is feeding behavior, the latter is communicative behavior.
The first ice is forming fantastical patterns on small ponds in the forest.
A Beaver lodge and fresh cutting nearby. The lodge is in fine repair and a winter cache, anchored in the mud of the pond's bottom, is obvious in front, which will help the Beavers survive the long Winter should they become locked in by the ice. Note also the channel behind and to the right, with mud piled high on either side. Fresh cuttings of a Black Birch verify that the Beavers are here.
Beaver artwork, and Beaver tracks.
Fresh Black Bear sign. These are what we call "climbing whammies" - the Bear climbs a tree (in this case two White Pines), and intentionally rips the top off the tree. Note the major mark tree in the foreground.
“It is hard to say exactly what any animal is doing. It is impossible to know when or where an event in an animal’s life begins or ends. And our human senses confine us to realms that may contain only a small part of the information produced in an event. Something critical could be missing and we would not know.”
- Barry Lopez
From out of the earth
I sing for the animals;
I sing for them.
Red Streaked Around the Face
We are thankful to be alive.
Everything wants to live.
Hawks and eagles kill so they can
eat. It is the same with wolves and
weasels. The Creator intended it to
be that way; it reminds us that one
day we, too, will die.
Paul Goble, I Sing for the Animals
Dave Vincenti tames a chickadee on the apprentice program.
Tracking apprentices plotting a compass bearing out of the Quabbin as evening approaches on a cold, windy day.
"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."Henry David Thoreau
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
Edna St. Vincent Millay: Love Is Not All
Cellarhole, abandoned long ago, near the extinct village of Puppyville in the Quabbin.
When I was a boy growing up in the area, there were still many old-timers who had been born in the towns or tiny villages of the Swift River valley and its lovely hills. Their life stories fade with the passing of time. Crumbling cellarholes like this one, its nameless occupants scattered long ago, remind us of a simpler, more innocent time that will never return.
During Fall hyperphagy, the period of fattening up on mast such as acorns with high fat content, Bears can consume as much as 15,000 to 18,000 calories per day. This Bear was obviously gorging on acorns, getting ready to survive, through hibernation, Winter's dearth. (Incidentally, hibernation is no longer defined by torpor; it is a term indicating extreme physiological changes induced in order to survive a period with a lack of water and/or food, e.g., northern Winter).
"...I picked up some white-oak acorns in the path by the woodside - which I found to be unexpectedly sweet & palateable, the bitterness being scarcely perceptible - To my taste they are quite as good as chestnuts... Their sweetness is like the sweetness of bread - and to have discovered this palatableness in this neglected nut - the whole world is to me the sweeter for it." Journal, Henry David Thoreau, 8 October 1851
American Pelecinid (Pelecinus polyturator), female, about 2 inches long in this curved position. Adults feed on nectar. The larva feed on Beetles: the adult female, such as the one pictured, pushes her abdomen into the ground and lays one egg on a Beetle; the egg hatches and the larva feeds on the host Beetle, killing it, and then feeds on the remains and remains there until it pupates.
a closer look
This appears to be a heavy mast year for oaks, red and white. Besides Porcupines, the acorns provide food for many animals, including Deer, Turkeys, various Squirrels, Raccoons, Black Bears, and many insects. The acorns are high in fat, providing energy, but low in protein, so Porcupines will continue eating leaves from preferred species such as Basswood, high in protein (in the raw form as nitrogen) and low in tannins.
In the tree canopy, a Porcupine will cut small branches and harvest the acorns, leaving the acorn caps on the branch as it falls to the ground. Although quite a few acorns remain attached to branches that hit the ground, Porcupines do not normally eat the acorns on the ground, leaving a bonanza for animals such as Deer and Turkeys that do not climb trees to feed. During this period Porcupines will reach their heaviest weight of the year, preparing for the dearth of food in the winter.
The tubers can be harvested and used like potatoes. These plants are prolific spreaders, and it is easy to get a substantial stand growing in your yard, attracting bees and late-flying butterflies, as well as providing a food source for you. Their beauty is reward enough. There are several varieties of Helianthus in our area.
The last roses of summer have passed on.
We often overlook the commonplace, and in so doing, walk through life as though blind to the myriad wonders surrounding us. Yet, we can cultivate our awareness to, at least temporarily, open our eyes and see through the fog. Something as seemingly ubiquitous as an Eastern Chipmunk may then dazzle us with its presence. Here are acorn shells (Red Oak, Quercus rubra) opened by a Chipmunk, and a Chipmunk scat.
horizontally, front to back: Porcupine tracks, old Deer tracks, Human tracks, Eastern Coyote tracks, Deer tracks, small Deer tracks; Beaver tracks on right edge heading toward the water.
The tracks are heading away from the bottom of the image to the top. You would be hard-pressed to find any quill marks (the ventral, or belly-side of the porcupine is devoid of stiff quills, but rather soft under-fur and guard hairs). Note also that the feet do not display a "pigeon-toed" orientation in this set of tracks. During warm weather months porcupines are often found near water, and tracks will often show the animal entered the water. They are after salts contained in aquatic vegetation.
On Quabbin's shore we wandered, like ancient supplicants, among tracks of Bobcat, Deer, Coyote, Red Fox, Beaver, Otter, Porcupine, Crow, a world of animals. Somewhere across the water, the tremolo call of a Loon, echoing. Crossing the setting sun and its accompanying sun-dogs, a Bald Eagle, high above the water. A Great Blue Heron overhead. Popping noises from a Raven. A Northern Water Snake, flat against warm sand - now alive and sidewinding into water. The juice of wild grapes in our mouths. Asters and Goldenrods and Joe-Pye Weeds in a riot of color. Tall grasses rustle and sway. Summer melts imperceptably into Fall.
Jalapenos, habaneros, cayennes, serranos, poblanos, and more are ripe in the fields at our farm share - all you can pick. Time to make pepper jelly.
Caterpillar of the Pale Tussock moth(Halysidota tessellaris).
Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) fruit are edible, but sour.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is in its glory at this time. It is also known as Spotted Touch-me-not, named for the way the flower forms a capsule that explodes when touched, sending ripe seeds flying. Sap from the stems and leaves lessens the itch from Poison Ivy and Nettles, and is also a legitimate fungicide that relieves symptoms of athlete's foot and other fungal problems.
The White-breasted Nuthatch has long been a favorite bird. Winding its way downward on a tree trunk in search of insects, it captures our interest. Its call notes are a familiar sound in forest and backyard throughout the year. In winter it is often part of a "mixed flock" along with the Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Slate-colored Junco, Kinglet, and other foraging birds.
Water Chestnut (Trapa natans) is a non-native aquatic invasive species, with both submerged and floating leaves. The floating leaves are spade-shaped, with toothed edges, arranged in a rosette. The submerged leaves are feather-like, arranged in whorls along the stem. The fruit, pictured here, has 4 barbs and contains the seeds. Like other invasives, it outcompetes and eventually eliminates native species, upsetting the food web and destroying the balance of nature that has taken millenia to evolve. And like other invasives, once established it is difficult or even impossible to eradicate; prevention is the best solution, itself difficult or impossible with our "world economy."
Galls are a reaction by a plant to an invading insect. Here are two examples found on Oak trees; when dry they will appear as a brittle, papery shell.
Valerie and the Jake Swamp Tree of Peace. This white pine, named in honor of the Mohawk Chief who led the Trees of Peace movement until his death in 2011, is the tallest tree in New England. The Trees of Peace grove can be found at Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, Massachusetts. More information can be found at the Native Tree Society web site (formerly Eastern Native Tree Society, co-founded by Bob Leverett).
This oak branchlet was "cut" by an oak twig borer. The smaller hole shows the entrance, and the larger hole the exit after gestation and feeding occurred. The twig, then hollow, snapped off. You will find these on the ground during mid to late summer. If the branch gets caught aloft, you may mistake it for porcupine feeding sign. The base of this twig was about 1/2 inch in diameter.
A giant silkworm moth (family Saturniidae) - a beautiful Polyphemus (Antheraea polyphemus). The green Luna moths and reddish Cecropia moths are perhaps the better-known silkworm moths, but all three are native to North America and are magnificent finds that amaze when first encountered. This individual had a wingspan of 5 &1/16 inches.
A kicker, not a picker. Do not tempt fate by eating any white-gilled mushroom that you find. Amanitas produce an insidious and horrible death.
76 years after abandonment, a road lies crumbling in the Quabbin, vanishing slowly like those who once travelled there.
Bumblebee on buttonbush blossom.
Black Bear scat, about 1&3/8 inches in diameter (small adult or yearling), comprised mostly of vegetation and a few blackberry seeds.
Leaf of a Black Birch, Betula lenta; as the species name hints, the lenticels, used in gas exchange (transpiration) through the bark, are usually more obvious than other Birch species.
Rana sylvatica - its species name derives from the root word for wood, tree, forest, etc. Its duck-like mating calls are heard early in the spring, often starting earlier than the calls of Spring Peepers, and for a shorter period.
These are saprophytic plants. Lacking chlorophyl, they are unable to produce their own food through photosynthesis, relying instead on decaying organic matter to derive energy.
A member of Family Tachinidae, genus Winthemia, known for depositing eggs on caterpillars.
Pseudacris crucifer gets its species name from the cross, or crucifix, on its back. Now that they are mostly silent, they are less obvious, and found farther from the breeding pools of Spring. During summer and autumn you may hear its "rain call," which is less musical than its springtime mating season calls.
"Glacial potholes," Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Deerfield River, Massachusetts.
Walden Pond, Concord/Lincoln, Massachusetts.
The alarm calls of Robins caught my attention. From the heights of a tall White Pine came a ball of fluff, half floating, half plummeting, a Blue Jay attending its fall. The Robin nestling was dead on impact. The alarm calls of the parents faded into the distance as they pursued the Blue Jay.
Porcupines will be eating the swollen buds of maples at this time. Once the leaves have opened, they will abandon a particular tree, as the tannin level of the leaves makes them indigestible. It is a very short window of time.
This Sugar Maple has been browsed by Porcupines for many years, giving the tree a characteristic look that tells a tale. Porcupines head for sugar maples at this time of year for a brief period of feeding. Once the sap has stopped flowing (and the Maple Sugar men have removed their buckets), the buds on the Sugar Maples will swell. At this time the Porcupines will climb to feed on the buds, which contain a high level of protein,up to 22% (the high quality 7-grain cereal I ate this morning has 13% protein by comparison). As the buds open and form leaves, the levels of tannins (phenolic compounds or phenols) rise dramatically, from less than 2% to over 6%. These are defensive compounds that protect the leaves from consumption, and the porcupines will abandon the Sugar Maples. In short, the buds are food but the leaves are poison. Thus there is a brief window of time between April and May when you will find Porcupines feeding in Sugar Maples. This results in the pruning that creates the characteristic shape of twigs as seen in the photo above.
Beavers have been attempting to maintain a lodge at this location on an extremely small pond for several years, and have not been very successful. This year, despite the rigors of an extremely long and often extremely severe winter, they finally made it. Note the remains of the winter cache in front of the lodge - food stores anchored in the bottom of the pond that enabled them to survive. An adequate water depth below the ice allowed the beavers access to the cache; in some cases, especially in shallow ponds such as this, the ice may freeze to the bottom of the pond, stranding the beavers in their lodge with no access to food until the spring thaw.
Day 1, a few hours old.
Day 2, about 24 hours old.
This baby goat was born, appropriately, on the first day of spring. It was a difficult birth, with the second baby breached and lodged dead in the birth canal. The mother was near death during the first two days and it took a great effort to save her, but she is on her way to recovery. On the third day, the baby took a turn for the worse, going into shock and nearly dying; again, he pulled through with a lot of help from a large-animal vet. It's now a week later, and mother and baby are doing amazingly well. Life is a miracle and hangs by a thread.
Here is a view in the North Woods about this time last year. This winter has been much more severe up there - I am looking forward to our trip up north at the end of April!
The Spring Bulb Show at Smith College's Botanic Gardens is over. Here is a shot from our trip there on March 11th last year, when, rather unbelievably, considering our weather this year, it was warm enough for short sleeves.
In this day of ubiquitous plastic, blue tubes are strung in New England woodlands to maximize the production of maple syrup, eliminating the need to hang buckets and check them on a regular basis. Something seems missing in this approach, and it is heartening to see places where it is done the old way, requiring hard work and effort that leads to greater appreciation of the end result, and a deeper connection to the role of Nature behind this. Squirrels tap the trees as well, and it is not hard to imagine the first human witnessing this and thinking of a way to replicate it. One of the greatest delights that children (and adults) have lost is knowing the sweet subtle taste of Maple sap as it comes from the tree.
Hemlock bark like that eaten here by a Deer is starvation food, filling the belly in times of desperation. A long and severe winter reminds us of the fragility of life. Wild animals like Deer have an amazing ability to survive; who could not marvel at their lives?
Partridge Berry vegetation was the goal here, judging by the shallow scraping and the long runners and bits of green left behind, as well as actual berries, which the deer usually do not consume.
These are teeth marks of a vole or voles stripping bark and the cambium layer of a willow branch for food. This was probably covered with snow when done, and the spring melt has now revealed it.
Today is the last full day of Winter. I always find this time of year bittersweet, as the Winter is a time of quiet and reflection, with astounding beauty. By day, snow reflects light like billions of tiny stars, as breath-taking as the vast reaches of the universe shimmering in Winter's nighttime sky.
I watched this Shrew (Blarina brevicauda, "Short-tailed Shrew") hunting for a long time time today. It would burrow around under leaf litter for considerable amounts of time, and occasionally dash into holes in the snowbank, especially if I made the slightest movement or if the wind gusted. Eventually it seemed to tolerate my presence, perhaps even attracted by the high-pitched noises my camera focus indicator made, and at one point made a few passes over my boot tip, emitting high-pitched squeaks. Its tiny eyes and long snout hint at its lifestyle, relying on its nose rather than its eyes in an environemnt devoid of light. At times it appeared to me that it was using its nose as a feeler under the leaves (Moles, another member of Order Insectivora, rely greatly on the tactile sensitivity of their noses, and I suspect this may be true to some degree for Shrews as well).
Rattlesnake Gutter, Leverett, Massachusetts. This Deer had been cached in a rock crevice, most likely by a Bobcat. The contents of the rumen were deep within the rock cavity where the body had lain. Large bone fragments showed the crushing power of Eastern Coy-Wolf jaws; the bone marrow showed the deer was in a weakened condition, with most of the fat content depleted and the hollowed bones containing only a red jelly-like substance rather than healthy marrow. The surrounding area was a tangled maze of hundreds of tracks of visitors including Coy-Wolves, Red Fox, Bobcats, Crows, Ravens, and many smaller birds and mammals. This Deer has literally become part of these other animals, remaining in the area where it had lived its days.
Fever Brook, West Branch, near the Dana-Petersham line in the Quabbin. This particular antler rub still looks extremely fresh, although it was made by a male Moose in the early Fall.
Swift River, Middle Branch, New Salem, downstream of Lake Mattawa. Even fast-moving brooks like this one are still locked in winter's hold. Although this winter's long stretch of cold weather seems extreme, in actuality it is what winter should be in this area - cold. I talked with an "old-timer" last week, who spoke of regularly ice-skating on this brook as a child; it has almost never frozen in recent decades. As described by the Milankovich cycle of the tilt of the Earth's axis, we should be in the midst of a cooling period, unlike the warming that we have been experiencing for many years. One season of "extreme" weather does not balance out the long-term trends, nor does it negate the fact that man-made global warming is increasing.
There are domestic cat tracks in the foreground and tracks of a Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis,in the background. The skunk left what some call a "running pattern." It is actually a "slanting lope," or "transverse lope." Although skunks often leave notoriously messy trails, this pattern is not uncommon. The direction of travel was from left to right. Look at the second group of four tracks and you will clearly see front-hind-front-hind (the larger track is the hind foot for a skunk); that makes it a lope. Note also the sequence: left front - left hind - right front - right hind; that makes it transverse.
There are few places where humans are comfortable with silence; this is one.
A family gathering today honored the traditional Orthodox Russian Easter celebration, as our late mother would have wished. The day also marked the 30th anniversary of our father's burial. During conversations with family and friends, questions arose several times along the lines of "Have you been doing any tracking?" The question always gives me pause, as the answer is not a simple one, and not one that most people appreciate, so I would talk about tracking Lynx and Pine Marten this winter and our Black Bear research project now that the bears are out of hibernation. The answer, if I was truthful, would be "Yes, I'm tracking all the time." This gets to the heart of the matter, which is whether there is such a thing as a definition of tracking. Daido's talk on Dongshau's Essential Path explains tracking better than I ever could, although he never mentions the word "tracking" at all. In discussing this koan, Daido talked about goal and process in photography. Hearing this, I thought we could substitute the word tracking for photography. Whether tracking or photographing (or whatever we're doing), if we focus on the process, we lose the goal; if we focus on the goal, we lose the process; but if we realize they are one and the same, then at some point, within some step in the process, we will realize the goal is already there. "Paying attention," "enlightenment," "being awake" - all are saying the same thing. When all seperation between the observer and observed ceases, you are in the moment. And that is all there is. When you "realize" that, you are tracking. There is no path to this, no prescribed steps, no formula, no methodology. It's here, you just have to let it "reveal itself," for if you chase after it, it keeps receding; in the commentary for this koan, Daido said "If you linger at the source you'll miss the radiance; if you chase after shadows, you'll get tangled in brambles." It's already there, we don't create it and we don't have to go looking for it. We just have to get out of the way in order to become it. But people always want to know how to do this. I remember reading (I think in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh) the emperor once asked the Buddha "What do you and your disciples do?" The Buddha answered "We sit, we walk, we eat." Irritated, the emperor exclaimed "But everyone does that!" The Buddha answered "When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating." That says it all.
Note the huge number of feathers at the initial point of contact.
Close-up of above image. Note the lack of shearing.
There are two large piles of feathers here, a couple hundred feet into the woods. There were no tracks in the mud in the horse pen between the chicken coop and here. Note the upper left corner of the photo.
The final piece of evidence pointing to an owl that took the rooster as he was outside the coop during the night.
"Our science is only as good as the questions we ask." - Michael A. Steele and John L.Koprowski, North American Tree Squirrels, Smithsonian Institution, 2001.
"I don't want to end up simply having visited this world." - Mary Oliver
. . . The same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow-star. As surely as the petals of a flower are fixed, each of these countless snow-stars comes whirling to earth, pronouncing thus, with emphasis, the number six…
What a world we live in! where myriads of these little disks, so beautiful to the most prying eye, are whirled down on every traveler’s coat, the observant and the unobservant, and on the restless squirrel’s fur, and on the far-stretching fields and forests, the wooded dells, and the mountain tops. Far, far away from the haunts of man, they roll down some little slope, fall over and come to their bearings, and melt or lose their beauty in the mass, ready anon to swell some little rill with their contribution, and so, at last, the universal ocean from which they came. There they lie, like the wreck of chariot-wheels after a battle in the skies. Meanwhile the meadow mouse shoves them aside in his gallery, the schoolboy casts them in his snowball, or the woodman’s sled glides smoothly over them, these glorious spangles, the sweepings of heaven’s floor. And they all sing, melting as they sing of the mysteries of the number six, - six, six, six. He takes up the waters of the sea in his hand, leaving the salt; He disperses it in mist through the skies; He recollects and sprinkles it like grain in six-rayed snowy stars over the earth, there to lie till He dissolves its bonds again.
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." - John Muir
November 21, 2012. Sugar Maple leaf and Red Fox track.
November 19, 2012. Wild cranberries at the Quabbin. The first hard freeze seems to bring out their sweetness, and picking them has become a pre-Thanksgiving tradition for us. The high level of Quabbin's water in the spring gradually subsiding through the summer and fall creates an ideal growing situation for these wild berries. Oddly, we have not found evidence of this abundant food source in the scats of wild animals. Perhaps they are too acidic? An hour of picking produces several pounds of these beauties; mixed with sugar and chunks of orange, they are another reason to be thankful during the holiday get-together.
November 18, 2012. A Gray Squirrel drey, or leaf nest. By now, our Gray Squirrels have moved to hollow tree nests.
November 17, 2012. Tamaracks, our only native deciduous coniferous tree, are ablaze in golden glory.
November 11, 2012. Most crops have been harvested in the Connecticut River valley, and winter rye is in. Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle, we have been striving to eat as much local or regional food as possible this year - a challenge, but gratifying to know that we are doing a small part in reducing our negative impact on the earth's natural systems, especially by reducing oil consumption that is used in the distribution and transport of food across great distances.
"If we do not permit the Earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either." - Joseph Woodkrutch
November 10, 2012. "Wild (naturalized)" asparagus plants are festooned with bright red berries at this time.
November 8, 2012. A great example of Bobcat scat, found on the shore of Quabbin today while leading a special program for the Wildlife Society (Valerie's famous finger, pointing).
November 3, 2012. Oyster mushrooms are one of the most prolific, and delicious, wild mushrooms. Here they were growing on a Sugar Maple, yielding several pounds for our table.
October 24, 2012. Colors such as these during the fall remind us what an amazing planet this is. The foliage this autumn was especially vibrant, and long-lasting.
"October's poplars are flaming torches lighting the way to winter." - Nova Blair
October 18, 2012. Dogwood leaves and hay-scented fern fronds catch the last few rays of sunset near the southern end of Quabbin.
"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower." - Albert Camus
October 17, 2012. Overlooking Moosehorn Brook valley toward Quabbin's Harris Hill at daybreak.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like falling leaves." - John Muir
October 7, 2012. A Flying Squirrel peeking out of its nest, at WFF adjacent to the Quabbin. Note also the squirrel bites around the entrance hole.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
- Dust of Snow, Robert Frost
"How Swiftly the Days Pass!"
|Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center|
|325 Walnut Hill Rd, Orange MA 01364||Phone: 978-544-6083|
|All photographs on this site are by Nick Wisniewski|