Granite Hills Trail -- Fall

Granite Hills Trail -- Fall

Welcome to the Granite Hills trail. This trail takes you through upland areas of the Penquis Virtual Nature Center. Just follow along and carry out any instructions you may get. Try to decide what you are hearing, smelling, touching, or feeling before going on to get the answer. If you want to test yourself, or play a game with yourself or someone else, keep track of your right answers. Ready to start?

It it is a mild day after some early freezes, what they call ‘Indian summer’. Wonder what the Indians think of that name?

You think again how you relish this aloneness. It comes so seldom to you these days. There was a time when that was a great joy to you, experiencing solitude in the outdoors, but now it is difficult to find a time and a place to do so. You give your radio a little pat. It is security without encumbrance. Your cane picks out the guide rope along the trail, you grab the rope, and you are off. But before you can take a step, you hear a sort of sharp, but breathy bark from above and behind you. Oh, just the usual gray squirrel saying ‘good riddence’ to departing hikers. Same to you, squirrel!

You rustle your feet through the developing collection of leaves on the ground. Then your foot touches something, and you reach down carefully to find out what it is.

You pick it up and find that it is a branch of some sort. It is obviously an evergreen, because there are long, feathery needles on it. The needles grow in groups, or bundles. That should probably tell you what it is right there, but you stroke them for a minute trying to get a count to be sure. The needles grow five to a bundle. Your old friend the white pine. You remember it from other walks on this trail.

That is one way to remember. The white pine has five needles per bundle and five letters in its name. It is the only pine in the region with more than two needles per bundle. Of course, street plantings could be anything. Well, almost.

Off to the side you hear a strange grunting and groaning. What was it that the guide at the night walk said? A porcupine. They call like that during rutting season, which is fall.

Another sound is more familiar.

This is the black capped chickadee. The dee-dee-dee call that gives him his name is an alarm call. It is roughtly equivalent to asking you just what you think you are doing invading his territory.

You listen for a moment to find out if there is anything else feeding with your chickadee, but while there are a few little non descript squeeks, they are probably more chickadees. So you continue on your way, keeping your hand on the rope and using your cane to check for more branches or other interesting – or dangerous – material.

Another noise stops you. Back in the direction of the nature center you hear a familiar sound. Today is your day for easy calls on the birds. This one everyone knows. You listen for a moment.

The ubiquitous crow is one of the most familiar of birds. So is a relative of his. And no sooner said than here it is.

The bluejay’s call is interpreted variously as ‘thief, thief, thief’ or ‘jay, jay, jay’. Of course the jay’s calls are as varied as the interpretations. The birds often imitate red shouldered hawks to drive other birds away from feeders.

You continue on the trail without hearing much else except the occasinal whisper of the wind high in the trees. You often try to tell what kind of trees they are by the sound the wind makes in the branches. Back where you found the pine branch, there was a kind of hissing whisper overhead, very faint. Could you really learn to tell trees apart by the sound of the wind in their branches? You might be able to tell a pine forest from a deciduous forest in the winter. You need to be more aware of that. Use any cue you can.

You sweep your cane back and forth overhead and beside the trail and encounter branches. A bit of groping brings one to hand. You find the buds growing in a bunch near the end of the twig. It would be nice to get a feel of the trunk, but it seems to be a small tree, too young to have distinctive bark. Still, you think you know what it is.

The northern red oak is about the only tree of any size growing in this region that has buds clustered toward the end of the twig that way. Oh, if you know where to look, you might find other oaks, but they really aren’t major parts of the flora of central Maine.

There, overhead. (DVG) Guess winter really is coming if the geese are migrating. They winter in great numbers at favored sites, great enough numbers to be nuisances sometimes. But you love them. Especially in spring, though, when they announce the thaw. Maybe you’ll take up cross-country skiing or snowshoing this year, so winter won’t seem quite so long. There is snow on the ground here from November or December till April most years.

This is the end of the short loop. You can head on back to the lobby where it is warm and you can brag a bit to the lady who gives you rides, or you can go back to the trail heads. Or you can continue on with this trail. What do you wish to do?

You’ve decided to continue with the Granite Hills Trail. Almost immediately you come out on the exposed ridge that reminds you that this is called the Ridge Trail system. Now you wonder if you were wise. The wind here is much stronger. Good thing it is a warm day.

But are not going to wimp out. You continue on, puffing a bit as the trail winds up the hill. Well, they do call it part of the ridge trail system. You try to keep down the puffing; it makes it harder to hear what’s going on around you.

There is a definate sighing of foliage from your right, just off the trail. You feel with your cane and find a branch. Must be a small tree. Your hand closes on it. Hmmm. It is an evergreen with short, stiff four-sided or round needles growing singly. That should tell you. You take another feel.

Stiffish fat needles growing singly. Short. It has to be a spruce. White spruce is uncommon here, but you crush the needles to test. Right, no litter-box oder. So that eliminates white spruce leaving red or black. You remember the rule of thumb; if your feet are wet, it’s a black spruce. If they are dry, it’s a red spruce. Here in the uplands it must be a red spruce.

You are now right at the top of the ridge,and the wind has become a factor to recon with. Overhead, you hear a deep croaking cry, carried off quickly by the wind. A raven. Great. Ravens often play in the wind on winter days. Must be great to have an impervious coat of feathers. Even today it must be brisk up there. It is even where you are, come to think of it.

The trail drops you below the ridgetop and the wind relents some. Your cane locates a tree, and you decide to check it out. You are far enough below the ridge to risk a feel. The bark is sort of peely and shreddy. That must mean that it’s a birch. If you could only find a twig, you could figure out which one.

Your trusty cane comes through again. You find a twig on a low-hanging branch and give it a quick scratch and sniff test. Ahha! Wintergreen! So you have a yellow birch. White birch has no smell. Good. From farther on down you hear another bird. Strange he should be singing now. Maybe the warm day fooled him. It must be a purple finch, though you are far from comfortable identifying that song.

And there is a bluejay again. Must be excited about something. Not that it takes a whole lot to get a bluejay excited. They are actually pretty smart for birds, you remember reading. That whole group, bluejays, crows, ravens are considered by many to be the most intelligent of the birds.

You are getting lower now, almost back to the trail head. Not much bird activity right now, it seems. You note the sound of the breeze in the branches around you and try to decide what type of forest you are in. Even as you think that, you hear a voice that answers your question. And here it is again. Let’s see, it is one of the nuthatches. Ah, yes, white-breasted. And that answers the question about forest type. It must be hardwood or at least mixed. White-breasted nuthatches are rarely if ever found in coniferous forests.

Well, it has been fun, but you are back at the trail head. You find the various pointers, but as you do, one last bird sings. That is the other purple finch, probably. They hang around the feeders at the center. Of course, so do purple finches. But this one must be the house finch. A fitting end to the day’s hike.

image: Pixabay