“A Perpetual Astonishment”

(from the wondermyway.com photo blog of GLLT Education director, Leigh Macmillen Hayes)

It was actually still winter when I joined Lakes Environmental Association’s Education Director Alanna Doughty and LEA member Betty for a “Welcome Spring” snowshoe hike at Holt Pond Preserve this afternoon–but really, for western Maine, it was a delightful spring day.

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Our hearts smiled as our journey began beside a clump of pussy willow shrubs, so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws. Actually, the white nubs are flowers pre-bloom. Their soft, silvery coating of hairs provides insulation thus protecting these early bloomers from cold temperatures.

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That being said, they aren’t protected from everything and if you look, you may see pineapples growing on some. Those pinecone-like structures were created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows. It’s a crazy world and everything seems to have its place.

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Hanging out with the pussy willows were speckled alders, some with protrusions extending from last year’s cones. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were alder tongue galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths are green to begin, but transform to orange, red and finally brown. I’ve yet to see it in its early form but time will tell.

We passed a spider walking across the snow and then came upon another member of the lilliputian world–a winter stonefly on the move. How they and the spiders survive the cold and snow is dependent upon special compounds including glycerol, proteins, and sugars that act like antifreeze. By its presence, we knew we were approaching a fast-moving stream.

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More evidence of the stream’s presence became immediately apparent when we moved from the field to woods and immediately spied a sign of beaver works.

Stepping down beside the Muddy River, we began to see beaver tree after beaver tree. Each a most recent work.

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Alanna stood upon an old dam, but though it was obvious they’d crossed over it by the well traveled trail of tracks, repair work was not yet part of the scheme for the water flowed forth.

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We stood there for a few minutes and tried to understand what they had in mind, when one in our group spied the beaver chews in the water–their snack of choice.

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We wondered if they were active downstream or up, and decided to follow the trail north.

A few minutes later, we came upon another trail well-traveled and knew that they’d been working in the vicinity.

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In the brook, covered with spring ice, which features a different texture than the frozen structures of winter, was a small tree.

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And then our eyes followed the beavers’ tracks back and we saw from whence it had been sawn.

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And dragged through the snow. In our minds’ eyes we appreciated their efforts.

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Still, we didn’t know what the beavers were up to, so we moved on in hopes of learning more about their activities. All the while, there were other things to notice, like the orange brain fungus growing on the inside of a stump. We weren’t the only ones to appreciate it for snowfleas, aka spring tails, also searched the surface.

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Since we were beside the river, it might have made sense that we checked out the beaver works via canoe, but . . . the snow is slowly melting and it will be a while before we need to bring our own paddles, personal flotation devices and duct tape (just in case the canoe springs a leak).

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From the boat launch we followed the secret trail and made our way out to the red maple swamp.

In a sunny spot we spied a swab of earth–a taste of what is to come. And the ever delightful wintergreen offering the first shade of spring green with a dash of spring pink.

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Slowly we made our way back out to the Muddy River, where we stood and looked across at two beaver lodges on the other side. We didn’t dare cross, but from where we stood, it appeared that the lodges may be active given that we could see the vents at the top. It also appeared that they’d been visited, though we weren’t sure if the tracks were created by predators. Was this where the beavers who had been so active downstream were living? Or were these the homes of their parents? Were the new beaver works those of the two year olds who had recently been sent out into the world to make their own way? Our brains wondered and wondered?

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We weren’t sure, but with questions in our mind, we moved on toward Holt Pond.

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There were other things to see as we walked across the wetland, including the woody structures of maleberry capsules and their bright red buds.

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Rhodora, that delightful pink beauty showed us that she’s waiting in wings.

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As we made our way back, more wood chips on the ground indicated that a carver of another type had been at work–of the bird type rather than rodent.

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To identify it, we looked not only at the shape of the chiseled structure, but also the scat we found among the chips.

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Because it was filled with the body parts of carpenter ants and we knew its creator’s name–pileated woodpecker.

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And then we found an insect of another type. Why was a hickory tussock caterpillar frozen to a twig? Was it shed skin from last fall? How did the structure last throughout the winter? We left with questions, but gave thanks for the opportunity Alanna provided to share the afternoon wandering and exploring and thinking and looking forward–to spring.

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In the midst of our wandering, we did discover a fairy house and suspect that tonight some wild dance moves are on display under the Super Equinox Worm Moon.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.”

British Author Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plume, Ellis Peters (1913-1995)