Sunday, March 30, 2008

Poultry in Motion

Low: 19° F
High: 41° F
Conditions: Sunny with winds 10-20 mph. 2 inches of new snow cover.

Ari has a new fascination. It’s not fox scat or red squirrels or even that very fetching Akita named Lakota who lives down the road. It’s this:
A new marker for the Appalachian trail? A brand left by some enterprising pirate? Nope once again.

It’s a footprint. And not just any footprint, but one left by a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). They're everywhere this time of year, and just yesterday we spied about ten of the actual birds in our back yard.
Yesterday was also the day for our annual town meeting, and at least one of us is delighted by the correlation. New England town meetings are a somewhat byzantine holdover from the colonial era, when townspeople took the notion of pure democracy very, very seriously. Our town is fairly new by New England standards (yesterday was only our 181st town meeting), but our annual gathering is no less staid in terms of policy and protocol. One Saturday each spring, the townspeople gather in our local Grange Hall to first discuss and then vote on every major article and initiative for the coming year. No issue is too small or mundane: from the $15 dog licensing fee to $100,000 to repair potholes, each expenditure and policy is debated and then brought to a vote. Usually these votes are simply done by voice, but if it’s close, we begin caucusing and divide into different groups scattered around the Grange Hall. Efficient? No. Messy? Always. I love it.

So what does this have to do with wild turkeys? You may recall that one of the biggest proponents of pure democracy, Ben Franklin, advocated for this strange, prehistoric-looking creature as our nation’s mascot. He's shown here, depicited with a suspicious band of cherub assistants.
When Franklin wasn't exploiting ill-clad child labor with his kite experiments, he was doing serious thinking about national mascots and the suitability of the turkey for this role. He penned the following to his daughter by way of explanation:

"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .

"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
Admittedly, Franklin had some pretty far-out ideas about U.S. mascots. He also suggested the rattlesnake, a rooster, a phoenix, and even the biblical figure of Moses. These, too, were overruled by other founding fathers.

As for his take on the turkey? Based on Ari's interest, I think she'd endorse his choice. But I’m not so sure I agree with them.

Wild turkeys are polygynous, which means the males take more than one mate at a time. This time of year, each male in our area is creating his own little harem. Once he is done mating, he will take no part in raising the brood, nor will he help with the female’s aggressive protection of the chicks against fox, hawks, or even Franklin's maligned eagles, all of whom become willing predators of turkey chicks (which are actually called poults). Males create fierce hierarchies within any flock, and the alpha-bird will go out of his way to make sure the other males don’t get a chance to flirt (let alone mate) with any of the females.

As for the ladies, I think they might be of questionable moral character as well. Most noticeably, they’re known to “dump” their eggs in the nest of some other unsuspecting female, presumably so that they don’t have to be troubled by maternity. If she can’t find another female turkey, a new mom will think nothing of dumping her eggs in the nest of a ruffed grouse or a ring-necked pheasant so that she can enjoy spring unencumbered. Talk about an ugly duckling story.

So, what say you, dear readers? Are Ben Franklin and Ari right? Is the wild turkey really the perfect emblem for America? We're looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mainely Maple

High: 42°F
Low: 25°F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with snow showers arriving late. Accumulation of up to one inch.
Earlier this week, the caninaturalist and I penned an angry letter to Punxsutawney Phil. We’re not proud. It was a rash thing to do, born out of animus and the difficulty one of us is having re-acclimating to frozen New England after spending 8 days in the Caribbean. It was wrong of us to take out this frustration on a work-a-day rodent just trying to earn an honest living. We see that now. Really. And to be honest, we’re a little embarrassed.

Here’s why.

Since we posted that memo to Phil, little tin buckets have been sprouting on maple trees all over Central Maine. At first, we attributed this to Yankee optimism or outdated calendars. But, after a few days, the evidence is clear: it’s sugaring season.

Maine is the second biggest producer of maple syrup in the U.S. (better watch out Vermont, we’re gaining on you!). Each year in early spring, just about anyone with a few sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) and a spigot enters the syrup-making business.

Much of this is pure tedium for the canines in our neighborhood. Ari only cares about a sugar maple leaf (the best way of telling if a tree will yield the right kind of sap) if it is blowing across the trail and can be pounced upon as if it were a vole or one of our rescue cats.

She certainly doesn’t seem to care that, during the winter months, trees stop growing and, instead, store excess starches in their sapwood. When temperatures rise to somewhere around 40° F, the tree begins converting that starch to sugar as a way of jump-starting spring growth. When the temperature drops below freezing at night, the sugars begin to drop, too. This ping-ponging effect creates a pressure differential inside the tree that causes the sap to run. If some enterprising human has thought to drill a hole in that tree and place a bucket below it, then that sap can be collected and boiled into syrup.

I’ve taken the caninaturalist to see some sap-leeching trees and logs. She wasn’t very impressed. And the aluminum sap buckets aren’t very interesting to her either. But the boiling process is. We recently helped our neighbor convert her sap into syrup. It takes 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of syrup. That’s a lot of boiling—sometimes even two straight days of cooking off the excess moisture. As the sap cooks, wonderful caramelized smells start wafting off the boiler. That’s when Ari gets interested.

It doesn’t matter that dogs only have about 1700 taste buds on their tongues (compared to our 9000). Forget about the fact that they are less obsessed with sweet than we are. This dog loves syrup. A lot. She once tried to eat the cap from an empty syrup bottle, and probably would have in a crazed attempt to glean the very last drop of sweetness from the plastic, had I not insisted she spit out the cap. God help us all if she figures out how to open the pantry where we keep our syrup stores. There isn’t enough insulin in the world to combat a rowdy husky mix coked up on gallons of liquid sugar.

To be honest, a good part of me understands Ari’s love affair with syrup. Sugar is energy; it’s life-giving. That’s what spring is all about. Reminders of that fact are flowing out of every sugar maple in New England right now. How could someone not be excited by this fact?

We’re sorry, Phil. We never should have doubted you. Maybe we could make it up to you with a big plate of pancakes? We know just where to find the perfect topping.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Memo to Punxsutawney Phil

High: 35°F
Low: 8°F
Conditions: Mostly clear. Winds NW at 10-12 mph
Dear Mr. Groundhog,
Six weeks ago (43 days, to be exact), you predicted more winter. Here’s what our yard looked like on that day:

Here’s what it looks like today:
First, let us congratulate you for your meteorological prowess. Without radar, satellite imagery, or fancy maps of the U.S., you correctly surmised that New England would remain in a deep freeze. Well done.

Having said that, however, we have a small bone to pick with you. Now, don’t misconstrue us: we don’t mean to criticize your role as an oracle or even your actual prediction. We understand that you were surrounded by the media and middle-aged men in top hats and funny suits. We hear there was a crowd there of thousands—many of whom had been toasting your prediction for several hours before arriving on the scene of your stump all boisterous and reeking of indulging humanity. There were camera flashes and rudely placed microphones and other distractions. This was no doubt a stressful situation for any quadruped, let alone a reclusive rodent like yourself. You did what you had to do, and no one can fault you for the results.

But here’s the thing: your predicted six weeks of winter are up. They concluded at midnight last Saturday, to be precise. And, as you can see in the above photos, we’re no closer to spring here in Maine than we were in February. To make matters worse, we’ve endured all kinds of wintery precipitation ranging from good old-fashioned snow to ice to freezing rain to crystalline pellets not even an Eskimo could identify (and they have dozens of words for snow). It’s a little scary around here: too slippery for the caninaturalist to skijore or walk through the woods without cutting her forelegs on the ice. We’re trapped walking the same stretch of gravel road and, I’m not going to lie: it’s getting a little boring. Meanwhile, the local deer population looks hungry, and they don’t even bother bounding away when we see them in the fields. Ari really only cares about them if they are streaking across the horizon, and lately she just seems to give them a look of empathy before moving on. To make matters worse, the snow is so high in our side yard that both the red and gray squirrels can access our birdfeeders with ease. Frankly, we think they’re looking a little obese as a result. We’re worried about their hearts. At least I am. Ari’s worried they won’t be able to run around the yard and taunt her anymore. Where’s the fun in that eventuality?

Frankly, we’re all a little weary here in the boreal forest. We did our best to embrace the extra winter. Really, we did. Most of the time, we even enjoyed it. But, Phil (may I call you Phil?), enough is enough. My calendar tells me spring began last week. I hear there are places in North America where things are growing and blooming. That really excites us. We’d like to be reminded what that looks like. Whaddya say, O Venerable Woodchuck. Maybe we could give spring a try?

Thanks for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,
Kathryn and Ari

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Notes from Paradise

High: 82° F
Low: 73° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with swells of 15 feet. Possible tropical depression off shore.
Nope, not a heat wave in Maine. I’m here in Mahaut, Dominica, on the last day of our college’s field course at the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology. We’ve all fallen in love with Dominica: it’s an island with as many geologic contrasts as it has social and historical. While here, we’ve studied coral formations, traditional fishing practices, Mangrove patches, cloud forests, and more. We’ve sampled local food, met great people, learned about fruit plantations, and seen more species than any of us could identify. It’s been a wonderful experience, and we all leave moonstruck about this gorgeous place. You can read the full account of our adventures, written by Unity College students, at .

Tomorrow, we fly first to Puerto Rico and then to New England, where the forecast promises snowy weather and low temps. In the meantime, here’s a quick photo essay of the flora and fauna of Dominica. I had to do my research without the original caninaturalist, who’s back home colonizing my side of the bed. Luckily, I met a few others who were willing to help.

Happy Spring!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Vacating (temporarily)

Sorry, folks! I've corrected the blog address below.

Out With Ari is on holiday until March 22nd. While the caninaturalist hangs out with Greg and the two cats, I'm taking a class of students to the Institute For Tropical Marine Ecology (ITME) in Roseau, Dominica. My students are keeping a blog of their own during our stay, and we'd love it if you could stop by: .

See you next week!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

vulpes vulpes

High: 33°F
Low: 21°F
Conditions: Light snow. Accumulation of 1-3 inches.
Even if the weather forecast doesn’t seem like it, spring is definitely here. We’re starting to see running water on the roads and in the wetter parts of the forest. There are buds on some of our favorite trees. Most noticeably, though, is the light: not only is there more of it, but it’s both more golden and more intense.

The latest animal to respond to this planetary shift is the red fox (vulpes vulpes). We’ve seen their tracks throughout the winter, but they’ve been few and far between. All of a sudden, though, proof of the fox is everywhere.

When I say proof what I really mean is scat. It’s unmistakable: about an inch or two long, with tapered, stringy ends and a greasy sheen.

As many of you know, fox scat is Ari’s very favorite thing. I find it disgusting. She once contracted a nasty parasite getting too intimate with a particularly rank sample. But she doesn’t care about either of these facts. As far as Ari is concerned, fox scat is the most perfect substance on the face of the planet. She lives to eat it and, on the very rare occasion when she’s too full, rolling in the scat offers an acceptable consolation prize for the caninaturalist.

Does it matter that I find this behavior disgusting? No. Or that she might get sick? Nope. Or that my house smells like fox poo this time of year? Uh-uh. Ari is hooked.

We’ve been to a lot of dog school classes. We understand the concept of “leave it.” But we’re also proponents of positive reinforcement training. And there’s the problem: no treat in my pocket could possible equal what Ari is finding on the side of the road. I know this. She knows this. And so, our walks are a crazy serpentining of two stubborn individuals with very different ideas about what constitutes a delicacy.

Clearly, we’re at a cognitive impasse.

But I did come one step closer to understanding Ari’s fascination on a recent trip to Boise, Idaho. There, in a downtown park, I spied this guy enjoying a wholesome breakfast of dead squirrel.
That’s when something clicked. Red squirrels: Ari’s second biggest obsession. When she’s not scolding them for raiding our birdfeeders, Ari spends most of her time trying to catch them. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of the fox scat: even recycled, it still resembles squirrel. Fox + Squirrel = Heaven for Ari, regardless of the form.

This doesn’t really console or appease me. And it’s not exactly the image of spring I had in mind. If digested squirrel is what the approaching season is about, I’ll take the groundhog’s frigid prognosis any day.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Low: 17°F
High: 34°F
Conditions: Partly sunny with light winds.
Here at home, the caninaturalist is something of a nest connoisseur. She has three official resting places in the house: her crate, and two dog beds adorned with flannel sheets, bones, and a variety of half-mauled dog toys. When she was a puppy, we dubbed her “The Sleep Fighter” and thought of her as a Celtic Warrior Princess, so aggressive was she in her bedtime process of shuffling and nesting. Now that Ari is two, she’s a little less bellicose in her nighttime routine; however, she still insists upon an arrangement period so meticulous she could probably get hired for turn-down services at some of the world’s finest (and most eccentric) hotels.

In addition to these three official nesting areas, Ari has systematically colonized other parts of the house as well. She’s not allowed on furniture, but we’ve had to compromise and allow her access to the back of the sofa, where she insists on perching and watching for feral cats hellbent on taking over the world. Ari’s also not allowed on the people bed, but she’s knows we won’t kick her off between the hours of 3:00-6:00 a.m. If we do, she’ll get up for good and one of the humans will have to take her out to pee. None of us really want that. As a result, both the early morning bed and the back of the couch have clearly become dog domain now. That means they fall prey to the same nesting impulses directed towards the other sleeping areas around the house.

Given Ari’s meticulous attention to her beds, we were particularly delighted to see this tiny nest on one of our recent walks.

Smaller than my fist, this nest impressed us both in its artistry and its diminutive size. In fact, we might has missed it altogether if the caninaturalist hadn’t spied the first robin (Turdus migratorius) of the season, which was laying over in a nearby tree—probably on his way to Newfoundland (Maine robins are too smart to show up for another few weeks. But for this Northern guy, our frozen landscape must have seemed perfectly balmy).

As for the nest, neither Ari nor I could identify it. After reading Bernd Heinrich’s, Winter World, we really wanted to believe the nest belonged to a golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa). They’re the subject of much of Heinrich’s book, and I fell in love with his depiction of their winter tenacity in the boreal forest. I showed the picture to Dave Potter, the area’s most well-known resident naturalist. “Is it a kinglet nest?,” I asked. “I mean, it could be, right? It could be a kinglet, couldn’t it?”

No amount of enthusiastic questioning could make it so. Kinglets, according to Potter, are not nearly so tidy in their construction. He thought this nest was most likely built by a solitary vireo (Vireo solitarius). After reading about them in the field guide, I’ve taken back my initial disappointment. The vireo is famous for being nonplussed about human and other large-animal intrusion, which might be why we saw this nest so close to the road. And get this: their call is known as the “husky chatter.” How could Ari and I not love this fact?

The solitary vireo is also one of the first birds to arrive in the early spring, which means the caninaturalist will soon have more than just robin company on her walks, too. I think she might just have a new favorite bird.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Half a (S)centenary

High: 43° F
Low: 27° F
Conditions: Winter Storm Advisory. Ice and freezing rain changing to snow overnight.
This entry marks our 50th post. That still makes us newbies by most blog standards, but the caninaturalist and I are pretty excited nonetheless. Since we launched Out With Ari four months ago, we’ve learned a lot. We now know the difference between an avatar and a widget (and that we’re not likely to find either in the woods of Maine). We bought a digital camera, and even mostly know how to use it. We’ve also proven Pavlov right: every time Ari, who hates having her picture taken, hears the chime of the camera being turned on, she promptly stops whatever adorable thing she is doing and hightails it into the next room.

Even the camera-shy caninaturalist, though, seems to really love our new blog project. It means we spend more time exploring the outdoors and reflecting on what we find out there: from birch bark to owl pellets, we’ve seen and experienced it all. And, for the most part, we’ve had good luck bringing our findings to the digital world.

It seems a little ironic, then, that we’d be spending our first milestone post reflecting on the limits of this medium. But, you see, we have a problem neither my paltry skills as a writer nor Ari’s technical savvy can solve. All around our neighborhood, skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are waking up and getting ready for mating season. Other than their telltale footprints we can’t see them, but we can very definitely smell them.
(photo from Animal DiversityWeb)
We have a robust skunk population here in the woods of central Maine, and the lot of them have spent the past four months snoozing in stolen burrows. Not only does that mean they’ve missed our first 49 blog posts, but they’ve also missed out on food, socialization, and perhaps most importantly, skunk dating. Now that the days are longer and a little warmer, the skunks know it’s time to wake up and spend their nights looking for a little nookie. Along the way, they’re fending off potential predators and maybe even unwanted skunky advances with the unmistakable smell of their protective spray.

Therein lies the rub. How do we adequately tell you, our patient readers, about this experience? Do I write about the way Ari pushes her snout high up into the air, trying to locate this richly exotic scent? Do I fumble over adjectives and try to paint a visual picture of a skunk-scented early morning landscape? Should I point out, as Rachel Herz does in her really wonderful book, The Scent of Desire, that the skunk smell as we know it stems from a firing of neurons in our olfactory bulb combined with our previous associations? Shall I tell you about the time that Ari’s predecessor, Kinch the Grouchy Beagle, tried to hug a skunk and the resulting copper cloud that hung over our house for a week? Maybe.

But if I do, will you be able to experience the vividness of this bouquet? Will you be able to smell what we smell without benefit of photo or language or any of the other things that makes blogging so great? I don’t know. I worry none of this will really do justice to the experience. But then again, if you’re one of the overwhelming majority of people who don’t find this omnipresent aroma at all appealing, maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll try for something a little less pungent for post #51.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Social Climbing

High: 40° F
Low: 21° F
Conditions: Winter weather advisory. Snow and freezing rain. Nearly an inch of ice is expected.
The New York Times ran a wonderful article today about recent research on the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Much maligned for their wily scavenging and pernicious nature, spotted hyenas are now believed to be remarkably sophisticated in their sociability, too. In fact, Dr. Kay E. Holekamp, the Michigan State University professor who ran the recent study, claims that hyenas are akin to primates when it comes to recognizing different members of a clan, maintaining social networks, and responding to nonverbal cues. They also have a surprising large frontal cortex.

Normally, this information would captivate me and the caninaturalist. We have an uneasy interest in hyenas: although they look remarkably dog-like, hyenas are actually more closely related to cats (both belong to the suborder Feliformia). I find this fact intriguing; the caninaturalist finds it somewhat appalling. But she is intrigued by their unruly behavior: females cross-dress to look like males (and even present large pseudo-male reproductive organs, which makes identifying the two sexes difficult). Spotted hyenas are also notoriously covetous of other animals’ possessions, and they’re not opposed to sneaking around and stealing food from much larger animals. In short, they’re kind of an amalgamation of all the most mischievous quadruped behaviors regularly seen in my house. The idea that they are also some of the most socially complex animals? Fascinating. Or at least it would be most days.

But not this week. This week, Ari has other things on her mind. Ever since we were tracked by a large bobcat (you can read the post here), Ari has been viewing the world through a very different lens: the lens of a prey animal. And I have to admit, it’s jaded her.

Normally a huge fan, she now views our neighbors Charlie Horse and Lily with decided suspicion.

The local goats have become too dangerous to consider.

Even Mesquite, Ari’s favorite walking buddy, gets a stern once-over from the caninaturalist.

I’d like to believe Ari is just being unusually paranoid. And, in truth, that’s exactly what I did think for quite a while. But then our good friend Brent sent us the following picture, taken in Van Buren, Maine—not far from the New Brunswick border.

Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis)! And not just lynx, but lynx hanging out in groups. Like dogs!
Forget about hyenas, this is serious--especially if they figure out how to track snow-loving dogs. We’d like to think of ourselves as two of Canada’s biggest supporters. But if this is what our great northern neighbor is importing, I fear they’ve lost one four-legged fan.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

If you build it, we will come

High: 36° F
Low: 7° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with strong NW winds.
Ten inches of new snow pack over the past 24 hours.

Dogs love to be outside. And why not? With all the open space for romping and all the smells for smelling, it’s the perfect place to unleash their tremendous canine energy. But here’s the rub: scientists have discovered a not-insignificant effect of domestic dogs on wildlife ranging from fragile lichens to ground birds and larger mammals.
And, truth be told, dogs are kind of a mess, too. Last year, the Parks and Recreation Department in Portland, Oregon, estimated that city workers recovered nearly 6 tons of dog poo in city parks. That’s a pretty big impact on any ecosystem.

So what are conservation-minded dogs to do? Go to a dog park, if they’re lucky enough to live nearby one of the 700 in the U.S. The nearest park to us is over 3 hours away, so we were delighted to see that the Friends of Belfast Parks plan to build one just a short 20 miles from our house.

Ari and I have been enthusiastic participants in the project, and the caninaturalist even volunteered to serve as a cover girl for some of their media information (this has not helped any ego problems in our house).

Last week, park volunteers hosted “Dog Jamboree Day” at the town boathouse as a fundraiser for the park. Some dogs arrived at the jamboree in haute couture . . .

. . .Others in canvas tote bags:

But most just sauntered in with their humans. And when they did, they found a dozen different tables featuring information on the dog park, displays by local book stores, and more. Dogs could sit for a portrait artist. . .

. . . Or they could relax with a deep tissue massage.

Our personal favorite booth was the interactive "Jackson Paw-Lick" Art Station, where dogs could demonstrate their own aesthetic. Here's a picture of me displaying Ari's masterpiece, which will be up for auction later this spring.

As if these stands weren't enough, the jamboree also featured artisan biscuits for sale (we made the lobster-shaped ones!) . . .

. . . And gear available for swap.

A local celebrity, "Pooper Man", even made a guest appearance in an effort to raise awareness about the importance of cleaning up after your dog. Based on her expression, can you guess how the caninaturalist feels about public service announcements?

Even still, a great time was had by all. We watched the creation of new friendships . . .

. . . And some controlled mayhem, too.

Overall, the Jamboree was a wonderful success and raised about $8000 for construction costs. That's enough to begin excavation for the fence work as soon as the ground begins to thaw. We can’t wait to try out the new park this summer!