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On the Trails: March meanders

Posted: May 8, 2014 - 11:00pm
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A raven dropped this frozen old robin's nest next to some hikers.   Photo by Pam Bergeson
Photo by Pam Bergeson
A raven dropped this frozen old robin's nest next to some hikers.

Our meanderings in March produced some interesting observations.

One day, we followed a tiny creek up a hill, through the forest, to a muskeg. At the edge of that muskeg, our canine companion showed great interest in some blueberry stems. We then saw that these stems had been cut by sharp teeth; just a few feet away there was a small, de-barked hemlock stump, and the upper part of the little tree was gone.

Then we found obscure old footprints in the snow that looked like beaver tracks, and down in a tiny gully were several bark-less blueberry stems. An opening in the ice at the bottom of the gully showed where the bark-eater had come and gone, connecting to the main creek. Of course, we then searched on downstream a short distance and soon spotted a small beaver lodge, with a cache of sticks in a pool not far away. This beaver had built several very small dams, creating little pools at the headwaters of the creek.

This is a strange place to find a resident beaver — and perhaps it is just an overwinter bivouac. The creek is extremely small, maybe just a foot wide, and offers little prospect of creating an extensive pond system. The beaver had harvested blueberry, alder, hemlock and crabapple sticks, in the absence of more usual fare (cottonwood and willow). Soft, green aquatic vegetation would be rare to absent in this little drainage system, so this summer food would also not be available.

We imagined our beaver — probably a young one — swimming in the salt water from its natal stream as it dispersed to find a home of its own. Then it must have sniffed out the fresh water coming down to a beach and explored its way up to the headwaters of this little creek. At least it could overwinter here.

We were not the only ones to discover the beaver signs. A wolf had left its gigantic pawprints rather recently, as it checked out the lodge and cuttings before cruising over the ridge.

There were other things to see, too: tracks of deer, porcupine and grouse; grouse scat that looked as if the bird had started to shift from winter food to soft summer food; an old, rotten log riddled with beetle borings full of frass (beetle feces) that was better preserved than the wood itself; very fresh bird scat on the trail, berry-stained and full of false lily-of-the-valley seeds.

A big, dead, double-trunked shore pine claimed our attention. As do the great majority of dead pines we’ve looked at, this elegant specimen showed a strong twist to the right. In fact, I’d say that more than 99 percent of the many dead pines we’ve inspected have this right-hand spiral in the wood. So far, we have found no cogent explanation for this observation; all the suggested published ideas fall far short.

On another hike, at the edge of a muskeg, we were entertained by a raven that flew overhead and dropped something — thud — onto the snow next to the trail. It was a wad of moss and tiny twigs. Oh, I said — nesting material. But something didn’t look quite right (and would moss and little twigs make a thud?). So I reached out and turned over the wad. It was nesting material, all right, but not for a raven. It was an old robin’s nest, mud-walled inside the moss-and-twig mix, and frozen solid. Now the question became — what was that raven really doing? Bombing us, as message? Playing games?

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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