April 14, 2016

Red-tail Dining Surprise

Over the last nine years of regular forays around Great Meadows, there are a few memorable moments that pulled me deeper into the wild intimacy of this refuge like no other.

Yesterday at dusk, I walked slowly along the westbound dike trail scanning night song for the bubble and squeak of rusty blackbirds, when I spotted a young red-tailed hawk high above in trees.  As I raised my camera to catch his silhouette against the sky, he plunged headlong in front of me, crashing into the tangle of cattails beside the trail.  I stood for many minutes in the chilling sea breeze waiting for movement or sound until the hawk finally stumbled into view, his foot seemingly caught up on something.  But it soon became clear something was caught up in his talons...a male wood duck.  

He dragged the duck partially up out of the water, then spent a long hour feasting.

It's hard to get a close view of these beautiful and demure little ducks in the impoundments due to their overly secretive and skittish temperament, but there are many within the refuge.  Love them as I do, I was impressed by this young hawk's brazen hunting prowess.

Leaving the red-tail to his feast, I continued on toward Borden Pond, still listening for rusties and watching waves of other blackbirds flying into the refuge to roost for the night.  Now 7 pm,  the sun cast a raking light over neighboring Hutchins Farm fields and their alternating bands of freshly cultivated soil and emerging spring grass.  These bright horizontal lines crossing the dark vertical rise of silver maple silhouettes and reflections along the river projected a compelling scene out to the trail as I passed by.

Borden Pond and its outflow into the refuge impoundment were bathed in this delicious evening light, revealing the beaver lodge that is usually well camouflaged.

A dark, floating semi-sphere caught my eye out in front of the lodge that signaled a turtle's presence.  It was motionless for so long that I nearly abandoned my patient vigil, when suddenly it jerked, rose, then sank a bit before going motionless again. Thinking it might be mating snapping turtles, I continued to watch.  There were remarkably long stretches between movements with no sign of a head reaching up for air.  Suddenly, a second dark half-dome appeared moving toward the first and disappeared just a quickly.

In the shadowy half light, I began to think my eyes were fooling me, until at last a head appeared, strangely disconnected from the body, with a face eerily resembling ET's.  A very large snapping turtle indeed.

Satisfied with my turtle ID, and now feeling like a cold-blooded reptile myself, I began my return along the trail accompanied by another walker I met at the pond.  We stopped to check on the young hawk and its quarry, which she hadn't previously noticed.  As we arrived, he looked up, soaked and blood-stained, and apparently sated.

He shook out his feathers and leaped into the air, only to land just five feet from where we stood.

Then he flew back up into the tall silver maples, shaking and spreading his soggy wings in the chilled night air.  He'd been standing in the cold water for over an hour and the dipping temperature would make drying out difficult.

I walked on admiring his diligence and fortitude and with a deepened appreciation for my own dinner that was waiting at home.

April 10, 2016

Sweet Violets Stir Memories

Opening this weekend, these diminutive English sweet violets have announced spring's debut in our yard,with their intense purple glow and intoxicating perfume, for nearly four decades.  They're a cherished gift from the vibrant Jean Baxter, one of my favorite volunteers at the Garden in the Woods when I was working there in the late '70's.  Jean's wooded back yard in Lexington Center was carpeted with the progeny of a small violet plant she'd smuggled in from England several decades before that, and one precious pot full from the Lexington colony has flourished near my house for all these years.  Jean worked faithfully with Concord's Penni Logemann to catalog the extensive slide collection in the New England Wildflower Society's library, creating informative slide programs that were rented throughout the region, their weekly banter as they worked always entertaining and informative.  I wonder what Jean would think of the way we share images now...I've no doubt she'd be enthralled with the internet and digital photography.

Each spring, when I catch the scent of these first tiny violets, I remember Jean.

April 6, 2016

April Snow Standouts

Yesterday, I took a walk around Great Meadows on pristine, snow-covered trails, canopied by a pure blue sky.  Long stretches of sparkling white were unbroken by the footfalls of visitors and patterned by resolute tracks and foraging signs of wildlife and the intricate shadows of its rooted residents.  Several scenes stood out for early April, and one was a first for any of the colder months.

Green on white, multiflora rose...a sequence we don't want to see in early April.  Though multiflora rose and other invasive shrubs tend to be some of the first to leaf out, the heat spikes of February and March prompted buds nearly two weeks early this year.

Muskrat channels under the ice are usually hard to spot during any winter from the vantage point of the trails and overlooks.  But with the flash freeze of the last two nights (19º and 15º F. respectively), combined with the muskrats' early spring activity, these channels were quite evident yesterday, both along the entrance driveway and in the flooded forest areas on the eastern edge of the refuge.

Four and a half foot strides along the cross dike trail would have gotten my attention in themselves, but these tracks had bare feet!  Though likely wearing toe shoes, these tracks were startling to see on a morning with a single digit windchill.  The unusually large foot size and stride along with the bare footprint  were the closest evidence I've seen yet for the Sasquatch that's often reported on the refuge chalkboard!

March 12, 2016

Venerable Trees in Fairyland

Deep in the protected hollows of Concord's Town Forest, grows a venerable and beautiful white pine, which I met for the first time in the spring of 2010.  Her exuberant and towering feminine form and the hallmarks of significant age, prompted me to call her the Grandmother tree, and I have made many pilgrimages to commune with her since our first meeting.

Her trunk is pillar-like and tall, covered with a deeply furrowed bark that has patches of exfoliation.  Enormous roots brace the tree, looking like large toes curling into the high duff (leaf litter) mound at her base.  Massive limbs at the top rise up to the sky and the light, to hold spare tufts of dark green foliage interspersed with wind-snapped branches.

Exfoliating bark and a visiting male northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata)
Massive roots, protruding like ancient, elephant-like toes from the duff below

Measuring 13'1" in circumference, she had the largest girth of any pine my homeschool students and I had measured in the greater Concord area, including the Carlisle Pines. In 2015, local arborist and champion tree climber and chronicler, Andrew Joslin, got in touch with me to ask about old trees in the area.  Turned out he had discovered the grandmother tree himself and obtained all her requisite measurements, submitting the data to a regional database resulting in her being recognized as the current  champion white pine in Eastern Massachusetts.

My homeschool students communing with the Grandmother.

This venerable pine likely was a sapling some 200+ years ago, when Thoreau and Emerson walked these woods.  No doubt, it weathered the 1938 hurricane thanks to the protection provided by the steep glacial kame of Brister's Hill rising to the east.  On this porous slope, not far away, stand numerous, large hemlocks and old yellow birch trees whose shimmering bark are given a touch of added color from a powdery blue lichen.

Yellow birch with powdery blue lichen
The wet bottomland of this forest, fed by the outflow stream from Fairlyland Pond, supports a lush growth of skunk cabbage, Canada mayflower, ferns, mosses, and mushrooms that in warmer months further accentuate the primeval atmosphere of this special place.  These trees grow in the corridor between the pond basin and Old Cambridge Turnpike that Thoreau called Clintonia Path, for the green bluebead lily flowers that lined the footpath in June.

Skunk cabbage and Canada mayflower carpet
In autumn, golden yellow birch leaves obscure the tree's looming size.

For a glimpse of Grandmother tree in her winter repose, see Snowy Giant in Fairyland.

March 5, 2016

Spring Walks 2016 - Great Meadows/Concord

Sunday, March 20, 3-5 pm - Spring Equinox walk   Note date change!
Sunday, April 17, 3-5 pm
Sunday, May 15, 3-5 pm

Any necessary rescheduling or other updates will be posted here.

Join Cherrie for walks among spring wildflowers, returning birds, mating reptiles, splashing fish, and all of the sensual splendor of this awakening season. Wear layers for comfort out on the Dike Trail.

Open to all ages.  No pre-registration required.

Donations will be gratefully accepted. 

Led by local naturalist, Cherrie Corey

Co-sponsored with Friends of the Assabet River NWR

Please note:  Refuge headquarters waives the entrance fee for these walks.  However, I encourage everyone to consider purchasing a $12 annual pass to help support critical visitor service needs at Great Meadows - Concord.

Meet at the information kiosk at Great Meadows NWR in Concord.  Take Rte. 62 to Monsen Rd.  Follow Monsen Rd. and turn left into refuge driveway when road turns sharply right.  Follow refuge road to the parking lot at the end.

For questions or to be added to the emailing list for notice of these and impromptu evening walks, contact Cherrie at cherrie.corey@verizon.net or 978-760-1933.

February 17, 2016

Winter Magic Behind the Mountain

Since this month began, temperatures have bounced down and then up again by as much as 65º in New England, with a 64º temperature rise in just the last 34 hours! Crazy weather for February, but perfect conditions for hoar frost and panoramas of frost flowers across the surfaces of every flash-frozen pond, river, and stream throughout the region.

Frost flowers, like stars, on fresh black ice
If you're feeling the need of some seasonal grounding after this rollercoaster ride, enjoy the ephemeral winter beauty that John (my husband) and I discovered on a day's visit to southern VT yesterday.  All along our drive from Concord to the Vermont border, every dark waterway was spattered with white crystals, as if the stars had fallen from the sky.

Once in Brattleboro, we made our way to the dirt roads behind Wantastiquet Mountain, the 970 foot prominence that forms a dramatic backdrop for the town from across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire.  We were rewarded with ice flows and forms and luxuriant hoar frost that only this crazy two weeks of weather could have conjured...and just in time before an incoming snowfall and soaring temperatures changed the magic.

First stop, the stream and cascades along the Gulf Road (W. Chesterfield, NH).  All of these spectacles were discovered in one brief stop along the road...only 5º F. so we moved quickly.

Water flowing beneath the ice
Hoar frost decorates the frozen cascade

Crystal floor beneath the frozen cascade

Next, a pull off where the stream ran through a field edge (see first photo) and was covered with frost flowers.

A bit further down the road, we pulled into the Madame Sherri Forest parking area for a brief foray.  The trailhead starts at a footbridge over a stream and underfoot a cache of sparkling crystals!

Even the frozen puddles along the trail were blooming...

And then the remains of Madame Antoinette Sherri's "castle" come into view up the hill in the woods.

For more information and photos on her colorful life in NY theater and these ruins, see http://www.nephotographyguild.com/2014/03/mystery-madame-sherris-castle-2/

Finally, we took a short drive down the Mountain Road, which runs along the base of Wantastiquet's western slope, for a closer look at the frost flower appointments on the Connecticut River's fresh frozen expanse.

Following our inspirational morning amidst the frozen wonders in this storied landscape, we enjoyed lunch overlooking Wantastiquet from a Brattleboro cafe before meeting up with our daughter and Mama Fran for a brief visit.  Then home to Concord through snow that eventually changed to sleet and rain, washing away yesterday's facetted beauty.

February 10, 2016

Walking on Thin Ice

Walking on thin ice is an occupational hazard when you live a wild life in and around Great Meadows.  Here are some masters caught in the act last evening and late this afternoon.

Some geese resting in rapidly freezing waters, while others opted to walk along the icy rim.

My blue heron friend surprised us both as the ice gave way underfoot

Composure regained

At 4 pm this afternoon, a large coyote gingerly walked out onto the thin ice to investigate a muskrat lodge, testing with his paw when footing was uncertain.  Wisely, he decided against any vigorous activity near the lodge and returned back toward the shoreline.

The coyote catches sight of me watching him, from nearly a half mile across the marsh.

Beavers avoid walking on thin ice by poking or plunging straight through instead.  Along the inflow channel from the river, there are a lot of punctures through the ice, along with tail trails and scent mounds.