Monday, December 04, 2006

Observations

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.

3 Comments:

At 12:39 AM, Blogger lené said...

You have such an eye for detail, mojoman. Like the antler rubbing marks, the wintergreen flavored bark--those are the things I enjoy most about your writing.

When you were describing the landscape today, I thought of a book you probably are familiar with--Tom Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape. If you're not, you might enjoy it.

 
At 9:27 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

I very much enjoy reading about your walks. I've been away from the woods for too long. I'll make time for a walk today!

 
At 10:09 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

I try to notice all the berry-laden bushes this time of year, but have a hard time identifying them without their leaves. The robins always know them though.

;-)

 

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