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Short of domestication

Even when installers don’t neglect to put landscape fabric between pavers and bedding,

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keeping a walkway weed-free can be challenging to those of limited knee flexion:

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Fortunately, many such greens are of the edible (not to say delectable) variety, so otherwise indolent residents

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Life is a sun-warmed bed of Cornus florida petals

may sometimes volunteer for the job, which to them provides its own reward:

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Now if only they could be induced to chomp up all the garlic mustard…



Hackmatack

More commonly known as tamarack (Algonquian for “snowshoe-making wood”), larch, or Larix laricina, this lovely tree is native from slightly south of here all the way up to the tree line in Canada and Alaska. Its favored setting is the bog, precious few of which have survived development and eutrophication. Given full sun, however, it may thrive in many soil types, and makes a nice landscape specimen offering broken summer shade and full winter sun. Larch is a deciduous conifer, one of few (along with bald cypress Taxodium distichum, from further south, and dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, discovered in China as a “living fossil” and widely propagated by the Arnold Arboretum) commonly used in landscaping hereabouts.

Tamarack offers many delights, from its graceful upright form and tight needle bundles to the contrast between bluish-green spring color and autumn gold. Shed needles make an excellent mulch and walking surface, and crushed foliage smells pleasant. Most impressive, however, may be the half-inch flowers, which are as bright as yew-berries before ripening to release seed:

 

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One misty, moisty morning

A foggy dawn in the environs of Isabelle’s Island – known to those who have not yet met our grand-daughter as Pincushion Island.

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Dust bath

Our native (actually, re-introduced) turkeys—Meleagris gallopavo—are as fastidious as other avians hereabouts. To maintain appearance, comfort and health, they bill-groom frequently with the aid of a long and flexible neck:

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And even when a hygiene error occurs, they have the good taste to appear embarrassed:

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Poking and preening do not suffice to control feather mites and other parasites, however. And absent a suitable puddle, or perhaps even in preference in some cases, dirt will do.

More than most birds, turkeys wander around scratching up all sorts of soils, leaves, gravel and other friable surfaces in search of edibles. The power, depth and rate of this strip-mining can be impressive; here, about two square yards of carefully applied mulch were largely cleared in under 15 minutes:

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When the ground is dry and the topsoil especially fine-grained, harrowing for seeds and grubs may reveal another opportunity. On open ground everywhere around here, one encounters freshly tilled patches of dust, usually with some degree of depression. Though also employed by mammals for a similar purpose, these usually show tracks and other signs of creation and use by birds. Even absent identifying footprints or claw marks, the general size of the bowl correlates pretty well with that of the user. In this case,

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a pair of hollows (perhaps the first wasn’t dusty enough?),  each more than one foot wide, was made by a large tom turkey. Forming and fluffing such a bath can take two or three minutes, at the quick end for this light mix of wood chips and glacial-flour subsoil.

A session in the prepared bath typically takes about three to five minutes, and looks something like this, with violent contortions

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followed by settling down in the warm cavity, resting and perhaps looking around for potential predators attracted by the noisy and dusty commotion

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followed by more of same (“lather, rinse, repeat”)

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and then a final shake-out

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before striding away clean and shining:

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Overlays

So many species flowering at once… Here, Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink’ and forsythia (cultivar unknown) against lightning-blasted Pinus strobus stump:

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March of the batrachians (PG-13)

A frog is just an egg’s way of making another egg…

 

So many signs indicate the onset of spring: mechanical events like the vernal equinox, human inventions like tax day or a school vacation, mutable natural rhythms that follow the particularity of each unique pass around the sun. Of these, some are triggered by a certain accumulation of degree of atmospheric or subterranean warmth; by the summing of so many hours of direct sunlight or of days with so many hours of sunlight. Germinations and sproutings, emergence from hibernation and wandering to new grounds, nest-making and egg-laying. And some have a much simpler threshold: at least hereabouts, the first night after Lupercalia when Farrar Pond is ice-free, the ground is moist and the air above 45°F, frogs go on the move. If it be warmer and raining, the moon full, so much the better. But hardy explorers seem to venture forth pretty much as soon as they are able, and are immediately audible (and, in the morning, visible) in a nearby isolated pool.

Artifact or natural, frogs breed by preference in small waters lacking a steady connection with larger. Else, fish and other aquatic predators move in and eat eggs, tadpoles and frogs. So a garden pond that overflows onto the ground, rather than into a stream, is ideal. Here is one, as it appeared on March 21st—the first full day of spring:

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These inches of snow soon vanished, leaving a thin crust of ice and exposing the net that kept blowing leaves from choking the pond:

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By March 28, all ice had melted, allowing the net and its burden to be rolled easily off its railings

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and parked for next winter. That very night, despite cool temperatures and dry ground, the first explorers made their way up from Farrar Pond to this breeding site. Known to some returnees or found by random hop?

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In ones and twos, they floated around for the fun to begin while keeping a hemispherical eye out for local edibles:

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Melt-off also revealed a small tragedy, of a type unprecedented here:

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at least one dead frog and dozens of pale tadpoles. The pond being too deep to freeze entirely, they might have been caught cold-stunned and frozen just beneath the surface. Or perhaps anoxia (it is a very small pond, and rubber-lined) or some disease or parasite. Whatever the cause, one may hope that it does not recur.

These ghosts’ warning was not enough to prevent further losses when the pond again skimmed over one clear night, and not everyone made it home before the door clinked shut:

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(There might have been many more losses; avian and mammalian scavengers work quickly.) Then it warmed and rained. By April 1st, at least 28 frogs were visibly active:

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That’s just a little patch, and it all looked like that. The word lek describes both a kind of frantic collective activity prior to mating, and also the location in which it occurs. In such a a small pond, it’s nothing but lek coast-to-coast.

Eventually, mysterious and sometimes inappropriate approaches are made

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and connections achieved:

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But even in a mid-spring day’s dream, the course of true love rarely does run smooth

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as other players try to horn in on the amplexus,

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in some cases coming more than close:

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That particular pair shook off interlopers, navigated under a rock shelf provided for the purpose, and completed their assignation in protected darkness. To no end, alas, as he was a wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and she a green (R. clamitans), and these miscegenation laws are largely ineluctable. Romeo and Juliet after all?

The happy result of better-starred liaisons, taking advantage of last-year’s lily and lotus stems for stabilization just below the surface:

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The  need for such anchoring is one of many reasons reasons why too-fastidious cleanup does not make for an optimal ecology.

At this point, last year’s bullfrog tadpoles would normally be attacking the rich new food source, leaving just a few survivors, but they were frozen out of the feast.

With sunlight plus nutrients from those decaying leaves, algae quickly colonize the gel, consuming embryonic waste and providing extra oxygen

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while the little ones (here, in another egg mass nearby) develop quickly in the sun’s warmth:

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Their mission accomplished, adult participants relax, sun-bathe, and await the arrival of succulent insects:

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The gleaners

With most of last year’s edibles stripped bare, new seeds months away and bugs of all kinds mostly still buried, submerged  or otherwise hidden, it’s slim pickin’s for big eaters.

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Too close for comfort?

The stream is shrunk – the pool is dry,
And we be comrades, thou and I;
With fevered jowl and dusty flank
Each jostling each along the bank;
And by one drouthy fear made still,
Forgoing thought of quest or kill.

Now ‘neath his dam the fawn may see,
The lean Pack-wolf as cowed as he,
And the tall buck, unflinching, note
The fangs that tore his father’s throat.

The pools are shrunk – the streams are dry,
And we be playmates, thou and I,
Till yonder cloud – Good Hunting! – loose
The rain that breaks our Water Truce.

    – Rudyard Kipling, How Fear Came To The Jungle

 

The last snows of winter are gone—but spring has its own challenges. Including more snow. Still-frozen ground preventing excavation for worms and grubs, new growth still sparse, fruits and berries and frozen bugs long since harvested: a tough time to be a mid-size mammal, however omnivorous, and especially if eating for two (or three or nine).

A scattered handful of bird-seed is enough to attract company like these cute

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and companionable opossums

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or raccoons:

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– Though at least one knows how to play rough, whether in pursuit of food, competition for a mate, or defense of self/family/territory, as neck and throat wounds raw

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and fresh

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show. Attempts to build rapport between genera

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are not always successful:

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The addition of a new player with long-range weapons changes the dynamic, with temporary alliances forming and dissolving

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until everyone spreads to a more comfortable distance:

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With no Hathi to broker and enforce a snow-truce, all will walk on thin ice until spring’s bounty at last emerges anew.

 

 

 

Chiaroscuro

The last snow of winter (to be followed in short order by the first of spring) falls on warm ground, compressing the usual pastel rainbow to just a couple of hues:

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oak leaf and asphalt

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oak leaf and brick

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oak leaf and asphalt

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deer leavings

 

Spring is here

Spring flowers, autumn moon;
   summer breezes, winter snow:
With mind uncluttered,
   this is the finest season.

      –Wumen Huikai

 

Spring is, in some respects, the most interesting season. No longer sluggish and gelid like molasses in January, rootlets slurp un-solid moisture, melt hoarded sugars, send sap skyward to awakened buds. Scrawny mammals creep forth, fat burned off in slow subterranean fires. Birds turn attention from survival of self to propagation of species. The skies teem with weather, feather and call. And all so wonderfully day-by-day dynamic for we the watchers and sometime stewards.

Squirrel that just days ago prayed to earth spirits for relief

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or warmed its toes on an accommodating cousin

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now enjoys renewed access to cached provender

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and a moment of satiated bliss:

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Receding snows reveal well-preserved treasure where burrowing voles fare not

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as a robin finds soft scratching and plenty of dazed worms.

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Above, wood ducks seek and chase in high branches,

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while below, new-paired bluebirds shop for family quarters

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inspecting both nursery and neighborhood:

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While rimed azaleas test the uncertain weather before fully committing to flower,

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this early magnolia bets all on a chance to seduce the first-flying beetles for pollination

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and offers a cardinal now concerned less with dining,

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and more with mating, a prominent podium:

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Any port after a storm

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Who went there?

“I say, Holmes, whatever do you suppose left such odd impressions in the snow over there?

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“Odd, my dear Watson? I should say, rather, exactly what would be expected from a female circus dog with one lame trotter, walking erect, bearing on her shoulders a juvenile bonobo in a mauve linsey-woolsey cape, carrying in its right hand a rutabaga—by the leafy top, mind—and in its left a toy umbrella whose ivory point drags on the ground. -Each, of course, wearing a sailor cap and chewing, respectively, a salted sow’s-ear and a stalk of sugar cane.”

“Astonishing, Holmes! Though perhaps I should expect no less. But tell, pray, which subtle clues in yon whiteness revealed so much to your keen gaze?”

“In the snow? None. I merely chanced to observe the motley party pass this spot ere we rounded the corner, reflected in the glass of your pocket watch, which you have left dangling by the gold chain given you by that grateful heiress.”


Though most tracks hereabouts tend a trifle more to the pedestrian, so to speak, some remain fairly mysterious unless one has seen who- or whatever left them, and under what circumstances. For example, these segmented lines, proud of the ice by up to an inch, might (from stride length and weight of impression in what had been light powder snow, later blowing away everywhere not compacted by skis) be assigned to an adult male human, perhaps with W for one or more of his initials.

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Other imprints may have a distinctly artificial aspect, like this “negative snowflake”

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that could have been some kind of practical joke or artistic whim, but in fact was indifferently created by such a pair as these

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crossing in opposition.

 

Sometimes there is a more dynamic story to be read. Any light-aircraft enthusiast will recognize this

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as an overloaded takeoff into extreme wind shear. Note  ground contact by primary leading edges at both wingtips; lack of debris suggests that no damage was done to the airframe.

 

Back to that first track, here from a slightly more vertical angle:

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It is easier to decipher the inscription when time is unrolled: time since the tracks were laid down, and time over which they were made. It also helps to remember recent weather. In this case, unseasonably warm, with soft snow slush when something walked by once. Then a colder, finer over-fall, shortly before the end of which it passed again. Then almost-melting temperatures to sinter the loose flakes against wind movement without losing detail, then a harder freeze to preserve it all until morning. But what was it? And what made those scratches? As with the doubly fictional Sherlock Holmes vignette above, and with a nod to the great naturalist Lawrence Peter Berra, sometimes you can observe a lot just by watching. In this case, right out the living room window under which these tracks were made, on a path trodden daily by one (or more) of these

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that knows where to look for spilled bird-seed and can’t clearly see or just isn’t much bothered about people and cameras.

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For a wonderful in-the-field experience with a skilled local tracker, devoted naturalist and passionate teacher, contact

trackertrainer@fpond.org

All ages welcome!