Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wolfe's Neck

Once a year or so we make a pilgrimage to Freeport, Maine. Our first and favorite stop -- one that we discovered a few years ago -- is the 245-acre Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park. Five miles of rustic, but well-maintained trails lead from the parking lot around this wooded "neck" of land between Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River.  It is a beautiful park, with trails that lead down to the shoreline.

At low tide, which happened to be the case when we visited today, you can walk along the shore among the exposed rocks, wracks of seaweed, and beds of mussels and bits of broken shell, snails, and rock.

Kodi played happily in the seaweed; it formed a soft bed to lay in while chewing a stick or even a bit of seaweed.

Looking landward you see the red oaks and white pines growing right down to the shore. The park is named after Henry and Rachel Wolfe, the first Europeans to settle the area in 1733. Much later, the Smiths donated the land to the State of Maine and in 1972 it opened as a state park.

The woodland trails meander through oak and pine, balsam fir and hemlock, and patches of red maple.

 The wood engraved signs guide visitors to all parts of the peaceful and scenic park.

On the drive back into the center of Freeport (for stops at Patagonia and LL Bean) we drove by Wolfe's Neck Farm and stopped at the Bow Street Market (for a sub and soup and some Wolfe's Neck meat to take home). Most people visit Freeport for the shopping, we go mostly for the trip to Wolfe's Neck.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Kodi and I are seeing many mallards in wetlands on our daily walks. Mallards migrate south from breeding grounds from August to December, although some hang around all year in places with open water. Their peak flight is about now -- in October and November. Kodi gets a little frisky in the water when he sees them, but they just swim farther away and do not seem overly bothered by him.

Two years ago we were in Charlotte, Vermont for the Christmas holiday and rode the ferry across Lake Champlain from Charlotte to Essex, New York. A group of mallards were hanging around the harbor in Essex. These were likely year-round birds; their tameness probably a result of regular feeding by tourists and residents.

It was a chilly day, although the ducks didn't mind. I am always amazed that they can stand with their bare webbed-feet on frozen ground.

Mallards are the most widespread and common duck in the world. They are the ancestor of almost all domestic ducks (except the large Muscovy duck). The males are commonly called "green heads." The females are light brown, better for camouflage when sitting on a clutch of eggs. Mallards are dabbling ducks (as opposed to diving ducks such as mergansers, grebes, and  sea ducks) -- they tip-up in shallow water (so you just see their rear end) to feed on aquatic plants and insects. Black ducks, teals, pintails, shovelors, and wood ducks are among some of the other dabblers.

North America supports nearly 10 million breeding mallards in the wild. Mallards do interbreed with domestic ducks and even some other species in the same genus, Anas. Biologists have long been concerned about "genetic swamping" of other ducks, especially the American black duck, by mallards interbreeding with them. So, sometimes you might see a smudge of green on a male black duck's head. Black ducks tend to be more wily and secretive than mallards, so biologists and hunters were concerned that mallard genes would make them tamer. I am not sure that has played out to date. Most of the black ducks that I see quickly take flight long before we get too close. Mallards, on the other hand, often look to see if someone is throwing bread crumbs their way. I don't feed ducks as it often creates a nuisance and makes them less wild.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Halloween is almost here, which means November is close at hand. Yet, yesterday the temperature reached 70 F and today it is nearly as warm. October has been an extraordinary month -- the temperature, the weather, the fall foliage. One of the most beautiful in recent memory, although it really should not be this warm.

Many of the hardwoods have dropped their leaves. The deep orange of the sugar maples has begun to fade and their bare limbs are showing. A sure sign that November is near.

 The maple trees are bare

 It is now time for the oaks and they are just as stunning as the maples this year -- shiny and bold in their yellow-orange, red, and bronze colors.
The colors of oaks

Up close, individual oak leaves look a little weary and tattered. From afar though, they paint a beautiful backdrop to woodland edges and shorelines. Oaks (along with beeches) hold their leaves well into winter, so we have this color show for awhile.

The north woods has its allure, with the deep woods smell of balsam fir and enchanted forests of woodland wildflowers, mosses, and lichens. For fall beauty though, one can't find a better location than central New England. From western Massachusetts to southeastern New Hampshire this is the time to visit. The last two weeks of October (at least this year) offered a spectacular range of color among all the hardwoods.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Topo Maps

This one is primarily for New Hampshire folks or people who visit. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has created topographic maps for the entire state that you can download at their website: At that site click on "New Topo maps."

From there you will see a list of New Hampshire towns. Click on a town of interest and you will get a list of topographic maps and associated 2009 aerial photos for that town. Select a map or photo -- to view you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader version 8 or newer.

The maps can be printed on a 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper. The resolution is a little low, but still a pretty nice tool.

According to NH Fish and Game:
The background scanned images of U.S. Geological Survey paper topographic maps are from the National Geographic Society provided through ArcGIS Online, a map service with land cover imagery for the world and detailed topographic maps for the United States at multiple scales. The photography (2009) is from the National Agriculture Imagery Program. The other data layers are from NH GRANIT, the statewide geographic information system clearinghouse.

The conserved lands data that is included on these maps is not quite up to date even though it says October 2010. There are more conserved lands than the maps show, and some lands are open to the public and some are not. It is helpful to look at the legend before clicking on a map. The map legend is accessible on the page listing all the towns.

Click here to see a sample map and here to see the corresponding photo. For the example I chose the Mt. Chocorua  area in the White Mountain National Forest, a favorite hiking destination.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mapleleaf Viburnum

The day started rainy. By late morning though the clouds parted and it suddenly felt like a warm spring day.  Kodi and I set out on a walk when the vegetation was still drippy.

We walked on a section of trail owned by The Nature Conservancy that leads down to the Great Bay estuary in Newmarket. Part of the trail passes up and over a small knoll with large shagbark hickory and red oak trees. The understory was mostly open, now that many leaves have dropped. One shrub stood out with its pinkish fall foliage and contrasting dark purple-black fruits -- mapleleaf viburnum.

As its name suggests, the pairs of opposite leaves look a lot like a (red) maple leaf. 

One does not always notice shrubs in the fall, especially those growing in the shade of a hardwood forest. The mapleleaf viburnum -- also called flowering maple, dockmackie, and Viburnum acerifolium -- is one that is hard to miss in its autumn shades of salmon to pinkish-purple.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Red Day

The other day I was noticing so much orange. Today, as Kodi and I walked trails at Phillips Exeter Academy along the Exeter River (one of Kodi's all-time favorite places), I saw red everywhere.

Sumac leaflets resembling rows of Tibetan prayer flags

Multiflora rose, a very thorny invasive bush

The prettiest red -- native winterberry in fruit

A soft red maple, in reflection

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Kodi and I kicked up two flocks of (common) grackles in the last week or so. Both times and places we were walking a woodland trail not far from water. The rowdy bunch of 50 or so blackbirds were feeding on the ground, tossing leaves in search of seeds, insects, acorns. On our approach they flew up into surrounding trees with great fanfare, squeaking and whistling as they departed the path.

A check of the local bird listserve showed that others have seen much bigger blackbird flocks this week (comprised of mostly grackles along with other blackbirds) of 1,000 birds or more. The gregarious grackles are heading south, picking off whatever foods they can find on the way. The inside of their mouth has raspy parts that help them score and then crack open acorns. The woods that Kodi and I walked were full of oak trees.

The big blackbird flocks are hard to miss -- often seem as long, flowing waves of black birds in the late afternoon. The biggest birds with long tails in the flock are the grackles. Red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds are typically mixed in. Watch for the birds in your neighborhood. You might hear them first.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Color Orange

The last nasturtiums of the year, picked before last night's frost

Dad's pumpkins

My calendulas 

A sunshine winter squash from New Roots Farm

A sugar maple, glorious this year

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Cool Job

Kodi returned to daycare at the Yellow Dog's Barn yesterday after a 25-day hiatus. He was coming home with some bad report cards, so we decided to keep him home for a while. Kodi is spirited and has thrived spending all his time with me (my work has not thrived as well since Kodi looks for a daily outing that often stretches to hours). I quickly oblige at this time of year. October has been gorgeous.

Yesterday I was to be in the field all day and Kodi would have distracted me from the work at hand. When we arrived at the Yellow Dog, Kodi seemed excited to be back. JoAnne, one of the owners (who I think has a soft spot for Kodi), said she had visited my website in the intervening weeks and exclaimed that I had a cool job. Sometimes it takes someone else to help you recognize your good fortune. I thought about her comments all day as I walked the boundaries and interior of a local conservation area. I was monitoring a conservation easement to ensure that the boundaries, trails, and other features were in good shape.

The day started cool, in the 40s, under a clear sky, with a whisper of a breeze. The maples were simply stunning beneath the blue sky.

Even the dry, faded fronds of ferns were beautiful in form. 

When I walk about in the woods on such a work day, sometimes I follow trails, or bushwhack through the interior, or follow boundaries along stone walls. I carry a compass and a survey or similar property map, so I never get lost. I like to be off trail finding my way by watching the sun's path, or following the edge of a wetland or brook, or the ups and downs of the local topography. I stop to watch migrating birds -- warblers, kinglets, thrushes --  flit about in the understory picking off late season insects or fall seeds. The birds are quiet, sometimes emitting a soft, quick chip as they move about.

I watched a porcupine shuffle up a big hemlock tree, their favorite cover. Eight wood ducks took flight as I walked the shore of a slow meandering river. Sugar maples, draped in golden leaves, illuminated the stone wall beneath and a woodland trail that I traveled.

The trunks of trees are laid bare in the open understory. I felt the hard, muscle-like bark of American hornbeam (also called musclewood) and noted its striking textural difference with shagbark hickory elsewhere on the property.

American hornbeam or musclewood, Carpinus caroliniana

Shagbark hickory, Carya ovata

I guess I do have a pretty cool job. After I finished my walkabout of this property and absorbed the last of the late afternoon October sun, I packed up and headed to the Yellow Dog's Barn. JoAnne said Kodi had a pretty good day, still causing a little disturbance, but he can come back. So, I guess he had a pretty good day too.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cool Fall Seeds

I've been walking about a lot lately, for pleasure and work. This is not really a problem since it is perhaps the nicest time of year for wandering around in natural places. Fall colors are peaking in our neck of the woods. The colors are gorgeous, especially the red maples.

The beautiful leaves overhead and underfoot easily distract. Plants are not only changing colors, they are producing seeds: nuts, berries, achenes, and other fruits. Of course, this year it is hard to miss the hard, loose carpet of acorns -- a banner year for oaks. Berries seem less abundant, the strange weather of Spring 2010 seems to have dampened fruit production in some plants including apples, peaches, grapes, and many Viburnums.

A couple plants caught my eye in the last week, even amidst the rich palate of fall foliage. Their leaves are not colorful, yet each produces some rather showy seeds: common milkweed and Virgin's bower.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of those plants critical to the monarch butterfly. Monarch caterpillars rely entirely on milkweed plants for food and growth. The cardiac glycosides in milkweed make monarch caterpillars distasteful to predators. The last batch of monarch butterflies to emerge from the chrysalis are the migratory ones, now making their way to Mexico on favorable winds. Likewise, the seeds of the milkweed plant are bursting forth from their capsule and taking flight on the wind.

Milkweeds are a common, native plant in meadows; they do so well in disturbed areas that some think of them as invasive. Yet many insects would beg to differ. Besides the monarch, bees, wasps, flies, skippers, and other butterflies sip its nectar. And other bugs, bees, and moths search out its pollen. For me, the bursting forth of the silky seeds in a field is a beautiful sight.

Virgin's bower is an odd plant that grows in wood and field edges, thickets, and stream sides. It is a vine, as its name -- Clematis virginiana -- suggests. This plant is more common than I realized. I see it in almost every moist thicket, twisting and climbing among the shrubs. This time of year it is quite showy with its silky, feathery seeds. These are actually achenes with silky styles, but perhaps other common names are more apt: devil's darning needles, old man's beard, or devil's hair.

Just a reminder to look for other cool things in nature, as you take in the annual New England fall foliage spectacular. These plants are worthy of a peek.

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