Windy Ridge Trail -- Winter

Windy Ridge Trail -- Winter

Welcome to the Windy Ridge trail. This trail takes you through upland areas of the Penquis Virtual Nature Center. It follows the upper ridgeline for some distance. It is better not to try this trail on cold, windy days. Remember the name. 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 mild day with little wind. It makes you think of spring. Spring is wonderful in a couple ways; snow melts and it gets warmer, and the birds return and begin singing in earnest. But it also gets muddy. You decide to do this walk on your own. Your ride is a wonderful person but can’t stop talking, and that is disasterous for someone dependent on sound for the enjoyment and understanding of nature.

Anyway, you enjoy being alone, well, except for your dog. 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 urge the dog onward, fold up your cane, and you are off.

The snow has pretty well melted off the trail in the warm weather, but you open out your cane to check and find there is still plenty of snow in the woods beyond the trail. Many small mammals winter and remain active in tunnels under the snow as you have read. It is hard to think of snow as a warming, insulating substance, but it does keep out the worst of the cold.Under your feet you feel some crunching as from fallen leaves.

You reach down and pick one up. It is pretty well disintegrated by this time, but you can still feel that it is roughly hand-shaped with lobes and deep clefts between. Feels like a maple of some sort. The edges have a few large teeth, so it must be a sugar maple. Cane time again. You find a tree and feel the bark. Yes, it has that long, flat ridge feel of the sugar maples in this area. Might be the same tree. Or maybe not. Your foot encounters a twig and you pick that up. The buds and the leaf scars grow opposite to each other. Maple, likely, in view of the leaf you just found. This is probably a stand of sugar maples you are in, though distinguishing the twigs of sugar from red maple is a little uncertain for you. Let’s see, the red has larger buds… Oh, well, this could be either.

What on earth was that? Oh, yes, a mockingbird, probably feeding on the hips of multiflora rose near the center buildings. Some experts have traced the spread of mockers northward to the spread of multiflora rose. There are also several other food sources for mockers there also. The warm day must have gotten his juices flowing.

You carry on, the path tending upward. Here comes another sound. What might that be?

Then you hear it. Click to take a good listen

Easy! A black-capped chickadee. Too bad they can’t all be so easy. Some of those little monsters are tough to identify. This one, though, is Maine’s state bird. 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.

Another sound 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.

You continue on the trail without hearing much else except the rustle of leaves under your feet 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. 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?

You check the sides of the trail for trees. Here is one. Bark peeling in long sheets. Obviously a birch. But which one? A search locates a small branch, and you scratch it. No smell. Must be a white birch.

You have now reached the ridge tops. Did you decide earlier that there was no wind? Well, down there it was pretty calm. Now you lean into the wind to keep from blowing away. And you button your jacket. What was that thin scream blowing away overhead?

Listen again. Yup, there it is. What a nice find! But what is a redtailed hawk doing here at this season? Well, a few do winter nearer the coast, and this one must have been lured in by the warmer weather. Maybe it is a good snowshoe hare year. Good hawk food. The hares vary in about an eleven year cycle. You make a note to ask somebody if this is an up point in the cycle. You lean into the wind and continue on.

Soon you come to a choice point. This is the end of the short loop of the Windy Ridge Trail. 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 Trail. The wind is pretty fierce, but no wimp are you. Besides, you know that the trail drops down below the ridgetop soon to loop back to the center.

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.

Stiffish fat needles growing singly. Short. It has to be a spruce. White spruce is uncommon here, but you crush the needles to test. Whoa, how about that! You haven’t smelled anything like that since you had to clean the litter box when the cat had a kidney infection. It is a white spruce after all. Good thing you checked; you had been ready to pass it off as a red.

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.

Suddenly, overhead, you hear a deep croaking cry. 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. Your cane locates a tree, and you decide to check it out. The bark is sort of flaky ridges. Maybe a hemlock? Or a white pine? You reach up, but the bark remains consistent as far up as you can reach. Well, it is a large tree. Could it be anything else, a hardwood maybe? Your answer comes quickly. From the branches above you comes a distinctive call. Thank you, you say to the red-breasted nuthatch. It is a conifer; unlike their white-breasted cousins, red-breasts are found almost exclusively in conifers, going headfirst down the larger branches and trunks. The very thought of that position starts to give you a headache. It would be nice to find something definitive to identify the tree as to hemlock or white pine. None of the spruces have such bark.

You rub your feet along the path. No litter. White pines usually have a carpet of shed needles beneath them. This might be a hemlock, then. Or it might not. But hemlock is a good guess. If you could just find a branch with very short, narrow, flat, flexible leaves.

Now, there’s a familiar sound. 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 is silent, you hear something overhead. Sort of a “chick-o-ree” or “per-chick-o-ree”. (long)(MIST) Well, that could only be one thing, an American goldfinch. This is one time when the ear birder is better off than the eye birder. In the winter goldfinches just don’t look like goldfinches. They are pretty dull. Oh, they can be identified, but hearing the call is quicker.

You are almost back to your starting point. It has been great fun. You got some exercise, some time alone, and found that you really can enjoy and learn about nature by touch and sound — and smell, you add remembering the white spruce. Ahead at tree height you hear the strange racheting sound of a red squirrel. The way he goes on he might be reading the news. Your dog just yawns. Not only is she well trained, but she seems to be aware that she can’t climb trees.

You take a casual feel with the cane, and find some low bushes. You reach out and grab a branch and –“ouch, damn it!” — learn to be careful where you grab. You just found the rosebushes on which the mockingbird was probably feeding.

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