Granite Hills Trail -- Winter

Granite Hills Trail -- Winter

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 is a cold day with little wind. In some ways it is good that there is little wind. That way you won’t freeze your nose off. Your ride isn’t willing to take the risk, though, and is keeping close to the coffee pot and the fireplace in the center lobby. So you are on your own.

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. It takes a moment for that to register, but then you relize a gray squirrel is annoyed about something, possibly your presence. Well, in that case, you’ll walk on elsewhere.

The snow crunches under your feet, and you walk carefully, enjoying the feel and sound of the dry snow, but also not wanting to miss the various little squeeks and chirps that you know will come from the winter feeding flocks of birds. Then your foot touches something lying on the snow, 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. You slip off a glove for a moment. 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 remember what to do to be sure. Oh, yes. You isolate a bundle — didn’t you read that the botanical name was ‘fascicle’? And so what? There are several needles, four, no five. What does that make it?

A white pine, of course. That is one way to remember. The white pine has five needles per bundle and five letters in its name. It is also the only pine in the region with more than two needles per bundle. You remember hearing that nearer the coast you sometimes find pitch pines with three stiff needles per group. Of course, if you’re around where people have planted trees, it could be anything. Still, there aren’t very many five-needle pines that will survive in this climate. Neither will unprotected fingers. Back on with the glove.

Onward. Just a whiff of smoke reminds you of the fireplace back in the building. But no wimp are you. Onward again. Whoah! What was that? Sounded like something squeeking up above you off beyond the trail. You stop dead still. What is it?

Then you hear it. Click to take a good listen

Now that is an easy one! Too bad they can’t all be so easy. Some of those little monsters are tough to tell. This one, though, is Maine’s state bird, the black capped chicakdee. 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. It must be in the open fields around the center or across the road in the cleared area.

The crow is one of the most familiar of birds. You might expect to hear an equally familiar relative of the crow today, too. 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. The bell sound this one was giving is actually sort of musical. Well, sort of.

You continue on the trail without hearing much else except the crunch of snow and the occasinal whisper of the wind high in the trees. You 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. How about in spring and summer? Could you really hear the flutter of aspen leaves?

Right now there seems to be little softening. Maybe these are deciduous trees. Hard to tell. You sweep your cane back and forth overhead and beside the trail and encounter branches. A bit of groping brings one to hand. Off glove again. Where are the buds? Oh, yes. They seem to be 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 and can put your glove back on.

The northern red oak is about the only tree 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. Wow, was that what you think it was?

Listen again. Yup, there it is. What a nice find! It is a bit early in the year for them to be calling, but this one may be getting anxious to start nesting. They are more likely to call during the day than are the other common owls. He says, “Who cooks for you; who cooks for you.” You must visit the south someday. You’ve heard it stated seriously that southern birds finish with a “who cooks for you-all”. You’re not quite sure you believe it; it is just too good a story.

The barred owl is the middle sized owl of the three common species of Maine. The call tells you that you maybe you were right in deciding you were in hardwoods. Of course, he was off toward the creek, so it isn’t sure. Barred owls inhabit deciduous trees, most typically in lowlands. Anyway, you did identify the red oak. Better give yourself a pat on the back.

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, 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, and your nose is beginning to feel like a block of ice.

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.

It’s windier up here, more exposed. 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. Automatically you slip off a glove to get the feel of the branch. It is an evergreen with short, stiff four-sided or round needles growing singly. That should tell you. You take another feel before slipping back into the glove — while you still have the capacity to 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. The rule of thumb is that 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 continue on your way, pleased with having figured out the tree. Off to the side you hear a squeek that probably indicates a flock of feeding chickadees. You try ‘pishing’ but get no response, so onward.

You are now right at the top of the ridge,and the wind has become a factor to recon with. Oh, well, who needs a nose. Or fingers. Any trees plants that want to be identified now will have to wait till spring. Suddenly, overhead, you hear a deep croaking cry, carried off quickly by the wind. A raven. Great. You wonder if they are beginning courtship. Ravens often play in the wind on winter days. Must be great to have an impervious coat of feathers.

The trail drops you below the ridgetop and the wind relents some. As you continue down it becomes no more than an errant zephyr — a cold zephyr, but still a zephry. 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, fortunately before your fingers freeze. 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. Good.

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.

When the bluejay shuts up, you hear another bird voice. Listen carefully. Ouch! That’s a tough one. It’s got to be one of the red finches. Out here in the woods it’s probably a purple finch. As if to confirm your guess, you hear soft, dry chip notes. Yep, purple finch. Onward and downward.

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 announces his presence. It is sort of a nasty voice, as though he were saying unpleasant, or even unprintable, things. It is a herring gull passing over, probably en route from one dump to another. So now you are back. You check the pointers for directions. It has been fun.

image: Pixabay