Mountains to Marsh Trail -- Winter

Mountains to Marsh Trail -- Winter

Welcome to the Mountains to Marsh trail. This trail takes you from upland areas of the Penquis Virtual Nature Center to the lowlands. 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? Remember, files marked long may take half a minute or more to download.

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.

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 has short, soft thin leaves less than an inch long growing from the sides of the twig. So it must be either a hemlock or a fir. Oh, yes. Aren’t fir needles stiffer and a bit longer than this?

It must be a hemlock. The only one in our region is the Eastern Hemlock. It isn’t bothered by the cold, but unprotected fingers are definately bothered. 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.

The trail begins to descend. You must be heading down to the low-lying areas.

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? It comes from ahead of you and lower down.

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 a bit lower down, 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.

The trail levels out. You must be down. Your cane encounters branches and you feel along one. Ah-ha! Here are some tiny cones on a leafless shrub. Must be an alder. You’re definately in the marsh area now.

“Per-chick-o-ree” (long)(MIST) says something overhead. American goldfinch, of course, more easily recognized by call than by sight in their drab winter plumage. Actually, sight is less important than hearing in a lot of birding activities. Large, obvious birds are best recognized by sight, but the majority of birds are not large and obvious. They are obscure little critters that lurk in the foliage letting out the occasional squeak or song to let us know they are there. A person not tuned to the sounds of nature might think the woods are completely barren of life — and some people seem to so believe. No surprise to find American goldfinches here. They will be eating the seeds of the alder cones.

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 Mountains to Marsh Trail. You know you are near the beaver pond, though it is a pretty desolate place in winter. The beavers are in their lodge, living on food brought in before freeze-up. Beavers eat a lot of aspen, also known as popple. The way it smells in your stove makes you wonder how anything could eat it. Takes all kinds of tastes, evidently.

But there is something going on. A bird. Be thankful for birds. This little character is getting in a bit of early singing practice from the marsh vegetation. Have a listen. Yup, a song sparrow.

You walk on past the area. A tree arrests your cane and your attention. It is obviously an evergreen. It has short, rounded needles growing singly along the branch. A spruce. And if the water weren’t frozen, your feet would be wet. Which makes the tree a black spruce.

From nearby you hear another sound. It is a short, dry ‘pick’ call. Now what… Oh, yes, a woodpecker. Must be a downy. The hairy has a louder, sharper call. They are sort of hard to tell apart, but then they are hard to tell apart for the sighted. The only notable differences are that the downies are lots smaller, obvious when they’re seen together, not so obvious when you see only one bird, and have shorter beaks.

You hear some squeeky sounds and then a familiar call. Chickadees are all over the place. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats at all seasons of the year.

The trail is rising again. Was it really a good idea to carry on when the last part will be uphill? Oh, well, you’re 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: pxhere