Friday, December 29, 2006

Back to the Future

Even those of us who don’t observe Christmas (anymore) can’t help but notice the quiet that settles over the world on Christmas morning. As I left home on my bicycle on a frosty but clear calm morning, I saw barely a car as I crossed Main Street, rolled down the hill over the train station bridge and began my climb up Moose Hill Parkway.

I was just relaxing into the climb and casually scanning the woods for interesting sights when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large bird up in a tree. I spun the bike around and pulled off to the side of the road. It took only a moment for it to register that this large brown bird was a turkey. I fumbled for my binoculars and camera and started slowly walking into the woods. As I looked up I saw first the one, then six, then nine and finally ten large turkeys – all hens as far as I could tell – up in a large white oak and a few neighboring trees. I guess I knew these big birds roosted in trees, but I don’t think I’d ever witnessed it before.

The birds began to stir as I approached and rousted them from their rest and – as I imagined it – their comfort in the knowledge that they would not be in pots for this Christmas. As their nervousness grew, they stretched, flapped their wings and began to move about high overhead. I watched a good-sized oak limb sag as a bird hopped from one branch to another, indicating that these meaty creatures would be weighed in pounds and not ounces. Then, one after the other, they took off rather clumsily with a loud beating of wings against both air and branches. Once airborne and clear of the trees, I was impressed by how smoothly and quietly they could glide. Before I walked back to the bike, I paused to study the scratchings made by the turkeys in the oak leaf litter as they hunted for food. I wondered if they preferred white oaks to red for their less-bitter acorns. I made a mental note not to assume all scrapings on the forest floor are made by rutting bucks. These big birds can tear things up pretty well.

I was hoping for a few moments of quiet reflection on this morning to try to crystallize a few things that have been drifting around in my head that have been staying stubbornly in solution, but I also had a geographic destination. Moose Hill Sanctuary has nearly 2000 acres and 25 miles of trails, and I look forward to many wonderful days in these woods before I’ve carefully explored them all. Following a tip, I was headed for an area I had never seen before. I parked my bike – as I have often done before - near the intersection of Moose Hill Parkway and Upland Road and walked north along the Vernal Pool Loop/Warner Trail.

The woods were very quiet. I saw one small animal scurry for the shelter of a rock wall. At first, I assumed it was a chipmunk, but I thought they would be hibernating by now even though the winter has been very warm. I later saw a couple of red squirrels, so I’m not sure if the first furry flash I glimpsed was chipmunk or squirrel. As I passed the Boulders – a spot I’ve enjoyed a few times before – I paused to watch a downy woodpecker. Few other birds were stirring. Even the interstate in the distance seemed especially subdued on this morning of peace and quiet.

A short distance beyond the Boulders, the Vernal Pool Loop turned back on itself, but I continued on the Warner Trail. This pathway was likely once a road, and it was long and straight, affording views a long distance ahead. I looked up just in time to see the white flag of a whitetail deer bounding across the road ahead of me. If not for the bright white of the tail, I would have missed it, and I wondered what could be the possible selective advantage of this signal that so often is the only reason that these otherwise stealthy creatures are seen at all.

Populations of both deer and turkey are booming around here these days and I was thinking about what it must have been like before Europeans arrived with their appetites and technology. How difficult was it for the natives of these eastern forests to hunt for their food? What must it have been like for the hunter to carry on his shoulders the responsibility to feed his family? For me, finding wildlife is a pleasant diversion. For the original human inhabitants of these lands, it was a matter of life and death.

After a surprisingly long walk, the old road left the woods and I came upon an old farm site. There is an old rock-lined cellar hole, the foundation stones being slowly reclaimed by the earth with the help of gravity, frost and some trees growing from the old basement floor. Old fields on both sides of the road are being reclaimed by the forest. Hardwoods from the old hedgerows beside the road are moving up and pines from the surrounding forest are moving down. Without intervention, the fields will eventually disappear. This is a situation sanctuary managers must struggle with. Should these meadows be artificially maintained for the views and diversity of habitats they provide, or should natural succession be allowed to take its course? For now, I was glad these fields are here and I promised myself to return in the spring to see if the new nesting boxes placed here attract any bluebirds.

I retraced my steps and went back to the Boulders for breakfast. When I was last here in September, the place looked more like a stadium parking lot after a big football game than a nature preserve. It was littered with discarded lawn chairs, inflatable mattresses, empty beer cans and charred logs. It was now remarkably clean, with only the old fire pit remaining

On the path up to the Boulders I found a yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) growing, as if on stilts, over a very old stump. Birch seeds often germinate on stumps or old logs and put down roots around their decaying hosts. When the seedbed rots away, the birches look as if they’re standing on legs. If a number of birch trees germinate on the same nurse log, they grow in a straight line and when the log is gone they look as if they had been planted in a row. My guess is that this birch sprouted after the last time these woods were logged which, by now, must have been several decades or more ago. Left alone, these woods will return.

Hiking out of the woods after breakfast, I admired some big white pine. Some are about two feet in diameter. It’s been a long time since I last saw virgin white pine in Warrensburg, New York and I recalled how different the very old sentinels look from the youngsters that are so familiar. The really big trees look a bit like redwoods with reddish bark that is deeply furrowed into long plates. I hope these trees would last long enough to look that way.

Walking along the path through woods so quiet on this peaceful morning, I pondered their future as they evolve into their past. These 2000 acres are protected and are slowly approaching a condition not seen here for two hundred or more years. Large game animals like deer and turkey have returned. Large predators like coyotes are coming back, too. Traces of old farmsteads and pastures are fading. Without logging, the forests themselves will revert to their climax states as the pioneer trees give way to more shade-tolerant species of later stages in the succession. It will take generations, but these woods may eventually give us a hint of what the forest primeval was like.

There are clouds on the horizon, of course. As large as this sanctuary is, it is only a small island in a sea of development. Every available parcel of land in this part of the world is highly prized by developers. I am saddened repeatedly as I pass by new roads and house lots being torn into the beautiful woodlands that surround Moose Hill. In addition to the many small projects with one or a few houses, there are new plans to level 26 acres adjoining the sanctuary to build 104 housing units in 54 buildings. Small, site-sensitive homes are unknown around here. Every lot is denuded for the largest possible house to appeal to affluent buyers and to repay the speculator for the high cost of the land.

With new roads and housing pressing in from all sides, and deer and other wildlife leaving the woods, problems and conflicts are almost inevitable. I can only imagine what may happen as newcomers find large animals munching expensive landscaping and crashing through Beamer windshields. Picture the apoplexy when a recently-arrived pet lover sees the beloved cockapoo hanging limply from the jaws of a wild coyote.

I recovered my bicycle and rode it like a time machine down the hill from the past to the present. I knew that when the holiday was over, the bulldozers would roar again, and I wished the best for these woods in the uncertain future.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Climbing to the Light

The sun set on another season over Moose Hill tonight. I climbed the trail to Bluff Head to watch the sun disappear for the last time in the fall of 2006. Tomorrow, the sun begins its slow climb to the north. Winter began at 7:22 EST tonight.

Maybe I suffer from a wild case of SADD because the short days of December always put me in a strange state of mind. I don’t think of it as depression, really, because I’m not in a bad mood, but rather a low, quiet, somewhat melancholy state of mind. I tend to turn off the radio, which is a near-constant companion most of the year, and listen to music instead. This year, I seem to be in a particularly dreamy state of mind. Maybe it’s the light deficiency without the usual cold of December. I feel a little sheepish about saying we’ve been enjoying a very warm December after my “Cold Moon” post when it seemed like the door of winter had been slammed behind us, but since then, we’ve had mostly warm days in the 40’s and 50’s with few hard freezes.

With sunset so early (4:15), I didn’t have a lot of time, so I parked the car at the sanctuary parking lot and headed on foot for the bluffs. I took the Cistern Trail to the Bluff Head Loop. I wanted to run to make sure I would arrive at the rocky overlook with time to spare, but a cranky knee limited me to a fast walk. The sun was already out of sight below the rise in front of me, but an orange glow through the trees told me I would make it. When I broke out into the open of the rocks I found a young couple and I wondered if this was a solstice tradition of theirs. I wondered if the ancient ones came here to build bonfires to ward off the darkness of this longest night of the year.

I moved along the ledge to find a spot where I could be alone with the sun. I thought about the summer solstice when I ran up here with my son. I remember promising to myself to come back on the other side of the year, and I was glad I could keep my promise. I thought back to the warmth and sweat of the run that night and recalled how the call of the wood thrush signaled the change of the seasons. The woods were quiet on this night as the sun slipped below the horizon far south of where it did in June. Lacking the sarsen stones and heel stone of Stonehenge, I lined the setting sun with a broken-topped redcedar and the water tower at Gillette Stadium. Sometimes, we have to make do.

It might have been more appropriate to make this solstice observance tomorrow morning. I like to think of this as the time when we begin our annual climb to the light, when we start leaving the darkness behind and make the turn and begin our journey back to the days of light, warmth and life. I would like to mark this renewal with a view of the sunrise from these woods, but I don’t yet know of a good spot with views to the east.

Sunrise or sunset, this is a muted celebration here in New England. Thanks to the lag time in the cooling and heating of the Earth, our coldest days lay ahead. Every winter, I watch the temperature charts in the Globe and have a private celebration of my own when the average daily high temperature graph finally bottoms out and makes its first tick upward.

After the sun was out of sight below the horizon and the streaks of red and orange across the sky began to fade, I headed back into the woods. With the sun gone and no moon, the forest grew dark quickly. I was in no rush so I took the long way back along the Old Pasture Trail and had just enough light to see the path in front of me but not enough to peer into the woods around me. I tried to imagine how ancient people in the wilderness may have been terrified to be alone in the dark woods at night. These woods were quiet and peaceful. I pulled my hat off my ears, hoping to hear some sylvan night sounds, but the loudest noise was the roaring river of rubber and steel that is the highway to the north. I knew I wouldn’t meet any other people out here. I counted my blessings that while others were fighting through rush hour traffic, I could steal a few moments to be alone among the trees of Moose Hill. I paused in the darkness and looked up to see the stars of the first winter’s night twinkling through the oaks.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Living Waters

This morning offered yet another example of how I can never know what to expect when I head to Moose Hill. Maybe it’s because I had a birthday this week and this was a gift from the Hill. I had a wonderful morning in the woods filled with both joy and sadness. Won’t you come with me?

I had plenty of time this morning, so I took the touring bike over Moose Hill to make a preliminary exploration of a section of the sanctuary that is separated from the main body of the property by busy Walpole Street. An old jeep trail leads from the street up the hill into a nice, natural stand of white pine. After a while the jeep trail peters out into a footpath. All along the way I saw signs of a big buck where he had pawed the ground, left droppings and assaulted all manner of trees with his antlers. This path intersected the Warner Trail near the top of the hill. I should do a little research on this trail to see how long it is and where it goes. It might be fun to hike.

On the way back down the hill, I found myself looking up into the crowns of the pines and imagining how I would thin them if they were mine to manage. I plumbed the depths of my memory for things I studied in silviculture classes about dominant and co-dominant trees and live crown ratios; information used in determining when to thin and which trees to take.

I rode over to the big field at the corner of Walpole Street and Moose Hill Street. I wanted to stop at a place where my wife and I saw a bunch of birds last week. Just as I slowed to dismount the bike, my greeting to a passing jogger scared up a big red tail hawk that was perched on one of the bird boxes in the field. I watched as it soared circles over the meadow, its broad orangeish-red tail spread, catching the sun against the brilliant blue sky.

On cue, smaller birds started to filter from the woods, across the road and into the trees and brush along the edge of the field. Juncos, goldfinches and bluebirds made their way out into the field to land on spent milkweed and spikes of young sumac that are invading this old field. I followed and was greeted by the rich nutty aroma of the meadow plants warming in the bright sun.

As I followed the birds, I saw more and more bluebirds until as many as a dozen were flying from place to place. I don’t recall ever seeing so many bluebirds in one place before. Perhaps all these nesting boxes are having a real impact. I thought about sitting in the warm sun of the meadow for coffee, for who wouldn’t love breakfast among the bluebirds, but my mood was drawing me to the rocks and woods.

You see, an old friend died yesterday. I felt a need to have my view and thoughts pulled in closer, not spreading over the wide expanse of the open field and reaching for the blue sky. Martin was one of my high school hiking buddies. I took my first extended backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail with him and a handful of other guys. These trips helped cement my love of adventures in the wild. With his passing, yet another bit of my youth has slipped away. Martin was one of those kids that took all the honors classes, scored high on all the standardized tests, and went to an Ivy League school. Great things were expected from him. We lost touch soon after high school until I received a few puzzling e-mails last year. It seems this guy who was so smart, talented and confident as a young man had fallen on hard times, and a heart that was once so strong couldn’t stand the strain. Knowing few details, I could almost believe he died of a broken heart.

I stashed my bike and headed for some rocks up in the woods I had seen from the road many times. I stumbled on an old path and decided to follow it for a little while. I liked the idea of a little-used path that was not part of the official trail system. It led me past the rocks I was aiming for, but I soon saw another outcrop off in the woods glowing in the sun. These rocks were much more attractive than my original destination because they were far from the road. Just as I left the path, I came upon an amazing sight. There in the woods, virtually undisturbed be recent human visitation, was a rock-lined spring hole.

The pool was about six feet long and four feet wide. The carefully stacked rocks that lined it where covered with soft green moss. It must have been built generations ago by the farmer who worked this land. The water was crystal clear and at least two feet deep. The trickling outlet passed unseen under the rocks so the basin had an unbroken rim. Shrubby witch hazels spread a sheltering canopy over the area. As I approached I almost expected to see a woodland nymph in a gossamer gown peering at her own reflection in the water. Had I been in a different mood, I might have expected to see a troll protecting this perfect spot. As I kneeled to peer into the water, I watched in amazement as a small whitish-blue frog pushed off from the edge and swam for the depths with slow-motion thrusts of his hind legs and disappeared as if fading from a dream. Frogs in a New England mid-December? This was a magical spot indeed.

Climbing up to the rock outcrop, I found a nice flat stone, right on the top, perfect for sitting and enjoying the view of the surrounding woods as I had breakfast. I spread my old quilted down vest on the stone to insulate me from its coolness. It occurred to me that I probably wore this vest on my winter hikes with Martin. It’s so old, it was actually made in the USA. It was a quiet morning in the woods. My only companion was a tree creaking steadily in the gentle breezes, sounding a little like a small, hyperactive woodpecker. The trees around the rocks were mostly oaks and white pine with a few red maple and struggling dogwood. An old redcedar clung to life in the understory, telling tales of pastures and cows long gone.

Larger versions of these rocky promontories can take on legendary significance around here. We have King Philip’s Rock, King Philip’s Cave (A jumble of huge boulders with a space between that looks like a cave.) and Devil’s Rock in town. These are said to have been meeting places for native chiefs preparing for war with the invading Europeans. From my modest perch, I only hoped to find a few moments of peace and reflection. I thought about long hikes with young friends at a time when my whole life lay ahead of me. I wondered how a young man who seemed to have every reason to expect a long, healthy, prosperous and happy life could suddenly fall off the tracks and turn into ashes blowing in the breeze.

After breakfast, I made sure to pick up all pieces of my orange peel, just in case there was a troll lurking nearby. As I left the rocks, I paused at the redcedar to confirm the presence of obligatory antler scrapings. I stopped at the spring again to appreciate it’s beauty. It occurred to me that it would make a perfect mikveh; a pool used for ritual immersion. People immerse themselves in the waters of life for spiritual renewal and to help them heal or to mark transitions through important life changes. I wished I could have brought my friend here to cleanse him of the pain that was taking his life.

I paused to look at my own reflection in the water. I’m no Narcissus and I was not thrilled by the face looking back at me with the toll taken by the years. I thought again about the passing of my friend and the reminder that life slips away, sometimes all at once and sometimes gradually. I wondered what else might be taken away, suddenly or slowly. If I thought this pool was the fountain of youth, I would have plunged into the chilly waters. I took some comfort in knowing that what my life may lack in great potential and expectations may be made up for in calm and stability.

I walked back to my bike to find it being guarded by a guild of woodland birds. There were downy woodpeckers, chickadees, a golden-crowned kinglet, a brown creeper and a nuthatch. I think they were guarding my bike as a signal to guard the secret of this special place, the place of living waters.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


A poison ivy vine (Toxicodendron radicans) grows in my backyard. I had to work around it Sunday when I was cleaning the garage gutters on a lovely warm, sunny late fall day. The vine has been there for years. I know what poison ivy is. I’m mildly allergic to it and I know how to identify it and I stay away from it, for the most part. I am also perfectly capable of removing this noxious plant.

Over the years, a few people have noticed it. I’ve had to warn a few guests to stay away from it. Almost invariably, people say, “Oh, poison ivy! Why don’t you get rid of it?” Good question. I may be a little sloppy in my yard maintenance, but that’s not why I leave the poison ivy alone.

Poison ivy can be a real pest when it spreads across the ground and creates tangles of toxic vegetation among rocks, brush and other plants. My plant, on the other hand, is a rather well-behaved climbing vine that clings to a big Norway maple beside the garage and also twines up and around an old fence post at the base of the tree. The woodchucks that den under the woodshed love it and help keep it from spreading across the ground. I watched baby ground hogs this summer stretching as high as they could on their stubby hind legs to get every glossy green leaf they could reach.

That tough old vine hugs that old fence post as if it wanted to cling to the memory of a world where people lived with nature but did not dominate and suppress it. The post is a relic from days long gone when the old lady who lived here had chickens. I’ve been here for 20 years and the post was old when I arrived. It is exceptionally decay resistant. It serves no purpose. The chickens and even the wire it supported no longer exist. Like the poison ivy, I should probably cut it down and dig it up, but I am reluctant to destroy this little trace of the history of this place.

If I take time to look, the poison ivy is a pretty plant. I like the way it spreads its bright leaves of three compound leaflets out in flat fans to catch the light. In the fall, it provides a crimson splash of color in the backyard. The woodchucks seem to love it and, I assume, they consume it with impunity. I wonder if it produces berries for the birds. I’ll have to pay closer attention.

My poison ivy does not threaten me. If I stay away from it, it does me no harm. I try to see its good points and resist the knee-jerk desire to kill and destroy it, the way I fight the near-instinctive drive to step on bugs. In time, I have developed a desire to protect it precisely because others loath it.

Recently, I’ve had a few encounters with a mentally ill man. He suffers from some kind of crippling anxiety disorder or compulsive behavior problem, or some combination of both. That, combined with some annoying personality traits can make him difficult to deal with and troubling to be around. People avoid him. Some leave when they see him. People ask, “Why don’t you kick him out? Why don’t you call the police?”

I talked with him a few times. He’s an intelligent man and he knows perfectly well that he is sick. I'm convinced he's harmless. I tried to understand his needs but at the same time make it clear that there were limits to how much unusual behavior would be tolerated. I like to think we reached some level of mutual understanding, but it’s hard to be sure. I told others we should try to be tolerant and try to help this man to the extent we could. I tried to resist the urge to simply get rid of a problem. I hoped to understand the needs a fellow human being. I know the human mind is a complex and unpredictable thing, and I certainly have no training or skills in dealing with the mentally handicapped, but it seemed important to try. I would like to report that behind that bizarre and tortured exterior, I found a smart and likeable character that I have grown to like, but that would be premature if not highly unlikely. For now, I just hope my patience and desire to do the right thing lasts through my next encounter with him.

Sometimes society teaches us that there are plants and there are people that we would rather not have around. First impressions and gut reactions are things we come to accept without examination. Perhaps by thinking about a plant in a new way it is possible to see value where before there was only danger. Maybe by learning to be tolerant of a plant, we can also learn to be more understanding of a fellow human being.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cold Moon

Sometimes the seasons blend into one another gradually and the world changes slowly or in sensible stages. That’s not what happened this week. Winter slammed the door on the balmy fall we had been enjoying. Just over a week ago, I was sitting in the woods watching a big flock of robins gulping berries and digging for worms among the maple leaves. Just a few days ago, I was working outside in a warm drizzle. The days were December in name only.

Yesterday morning we had the first snow of the season: about two wet inches that turned to slush during the day and re-froze in the evening. I noticed a full moon rising in the East: the Cold Moon of December. I had been in denial about the season, but here was a celestial wake-up call.

On my way home from a class at the gym last night I took a detour over Moose Hill. I wanted to see the field where I had enjoyed the swallows of spring and the butterflies of summer in its new coating of snow illuminated by the full winter moon. Only the gentlest of breezes passed through the trees, causing a few icy branches to clack like dry bones. Otherwise, all was quiet.

Tonight, I ran up the hill with the rising moon at my back, lighting the way. Even at the evening rush hour, few cars go over the hill and it was good to have the lunar light to help me avoid the icy spots. As I left the road to run up the dirt road to the old farm, the frozen gravel crunched underfoot. The bright moon in a clear, starry sky lit the old field where I spent so many wonderful moments this spring, summer and fall; listening to peepers in April, watching a spotted fawn in July and being overwhelmed by the simple beauty of a red tree in October. I walked up to the old barn and admired the elegant simplicity of its lines as the moonlit lit its old cedar sides. My breath turned white in the cold and drifted toward the stars.

By the time I got home, frost had formed on my vest as the moisture leaving my body froze into white crystals on my shoulders. I knew that my trips to Moose Hill had entered a new season and I looked forward to seeing the woods and fields in a new way.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I left home on a frosty Saturday morning last week with plenty of time to walk, explore and think. There was ice on the roof and cars, but the warm earth kept the puddles on the ground from freezing. I biked up the hill, pushed the bike far enough down the trail that it could not be seen from the road and started walking quietly along the Kettle Trail. My plan was to keep moving for a while, looking for wildlife and hoping to stumble on a new place to sit, have breakfast and daydream. I had no real goals or destinations. I’ve learned that this relaxed approach often leads to satisfying mornings in the woods.

I started out on the Kettle Trail, and rather than taking the branch off to Hobbs Hill as I have already done a few times, I stayed on the Kettle Trail. This was a new route for me and I was looking forward to new discoveries.

At first, the trail passed through the now-familiar oak forest. These woods were especially quiet on this late-November morning. There was little wind and no droning of insects that was so constant in the summer. Even the birds were quiet here with only an elusive nuthatch, a few chickadees and a tapping woodpecker to be heard.

This trail was no doubt named after a series of glacial kettle holes that it passes. These are deep sinkhole-like depressions created when huge blocks of ice deposited along with geologic materials by retreating glaciers melt and leave hollows in the landscape. One kettle hole in particular was interesting in that a thicket of rhododendrons was in the bottom. These well-known ornamental plants grow wild in the East but are not common in the wild around here. This depression also had some hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) and black or sweet birch (Betula lenta), reminding me of places further south like Connecticut or my native Long Island. I cut a twig of birch to taste the cool wintergreen flavor.

Continuing along the trail, I could see, in the new carpet of oak leaves, that this trail is also used heavily by deer. Hearing more tap-tapping on a hollow tree, I left the trail to find it and soon found a female hairy woodpecker working on a dead oak. I was off the official trail but could see several deer trails paralleling an old stone wall. I decided to follow one and thought about how early humans and wildlife shared common pathways that eventually evolved into major thoroughfares. Even the streets of Boston are said to follow old cow paths, as if that helps explain the craziness of the drivers there.

I was now off the trail and in an unfamiliar area. It occurred to me that I could be lost, but no part of Moose Hill is very far from a trail or road. I was in no rush on this day, so I didn’t care if I momentarily lost my bearings. A mental check of the contents of my pack found my compass, just in case. I needn’t have worried, for these deer were not wandering aimlessly as I might have been doing. I soon hit an area where the woods was transitioning into an open area that I soon recognized as my field of swallows and monarchs in months now past.

In the brushy transition between the oak-pine forest and the open meadow I saw a robin at the top of a tree eating bittersweet berries from a vine that had twined its way up there. I used to like bittersweet. It has pretty red three-segment berries and some people like to use the vines to make decorative wreaths. This plant was often featured in the paintings of one of my favorite artists. Eric Sloane is well known for his renderings of old barns and dramatic skies. He would often show bittersweet climbing on the old wooden fence posts in his trademark barn paintings. Recently, I read in the Globe that this vine is actually an alien invader that is aggressively taking over many natural areas. Now that I know this, I seem to be noticing it everywhere and I can see how it is climbing and strangling trees. The South has kudzu, we have bittersweet.

I broke out into the field. Looking out at the vacant bird boxes, ruptured milkweed heads and the various shades of brown, I recalled the warm days of summer when this field was alive with zooming swallows and fluttering butterflies.

Movement in the woods caught my eye, so I dove back in. A flock of robins and another of mourning doves were busy among the brush and trees. In the distance I heard an unfamiliar roar, but soon realized that the small trickle I visited in the heat of July (See “Water, Water Everywhere,” July 29, 2006.) was now a loud tumbling creek after heavy Thanksgiving rains. I headed there and was greeted by the palpable excitement of another robin convention not unlike the one I was so thrilled to observe in October (See “Promises to Keep,” October 14, 2006.). Scores of robins were hopping and fluttering through the woods. They seemed as attracted to the tumbling waters as I was. They were hopping on the rocks near the brook and working in the leaves under the hardwood trees growing in the rich soil there. There were other species of birds as well, including titmice, blue jays and a downy woodpecker. Down the slope, a flock of flickers seemed to be feeling the excitement, too, their wings flashing yellow in a moment of sunshine.

I found the spot where I sat in July and settled there for breakfast. It was hard to relax because every moment presented a new movement to examine in hope of seeing a new bird, only to see yet another robin. Among all the robin clucks, chuckles and warbles, I thought I heard the more delicate call of a bluebird. Sure enough, in the same maple windfall that harbored the cute winter wren in July, there was now a female or immature bluebird.

It was interesting to contrast this lively spot with the quiet of the oak forest where I started this walk. This rich hardwood forest of maple and ash had the stream, the brushy transition and the open filed all with a hundred yards or so. This diversity of habitats in a small area is ideal for observing birds and other wildlife.

As much as I wanted to stay to watch the birds and let my thoughts wander, a nagging sinus headache was getting worse, so I started to head for home. I walked along the edge of the field, by the road this time. Another bluebird – a male – perched on one of the nesting boxes. I wondered if he might roost there that night. I passed a large tree, full of ripe berries, growing in the wooded strip along the road. This tree appeared to be one reason the robins seemed so gleeful on this day that was starting to feel more like April than November. They would fly to the tree for a beakful, and then fly back to the woods. I wracked my brain to identify the tree, but came up empty. I’ll have to go back and take a closer look and collect a twig to help figure it out.

It looked like someone had driven a small bulldozer along the edge of this wooded strip, scuffing the bark off the trees. I knew, of course, that these scrapings were the work of bucks polishing their antlers for the rutting season. This was yet more evidence of how large our deer population is getting.

I wondered how I could see so much deer sign and not see more deer as I walked quietly through the woods. I know they like to lay low during the day and move about early and late. I didn’t have long to wait before I was taught a lesson about observing deer in the woods. I chose to walk back to my bike down the Trillium Trail that roughly parallels the Kettle Trail I came up on. I was moving steadily as my headache urged me homeward, but tried to keep my eyes open. Scanning the woods on both sides of the trail, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by a face staring at me intensely. On top of a small ridge about 30 yards off the trail was a deer watching my every move. I lifted my binoculars to study the ghost-like face of a doe. I was struck by how gray she looked in contrast to the reddish-brown of summer. Scanning the area, and moving a few feet and stopping to look from different angles between the trees, I eventually spotted four does silently watching me from their beds on the forest floor. By the fourth time I stopped, they couldn’t take it any more so they rose from their resting places and walked off quietly, white flags waving.

I then understood that I must have been watched many times by deer only a few yards off the trail, but I was not observant enough to see them. I hoped this experience would help train my eyes to see. I took my throbbing head home to bed. I was sad that I couldn’t relax and let my mind wander as I love to do when in the woods, but as I think back on that beautiful morning and write, I don’t remember the pain as much as I recall the excitement of the robins and those big, black eyes staring at me through the trees.