Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jeepers, Creepers!

High: 64° F
Low: 36° F
Conditions: Brilliantly sunny and mild.
It’s been a busy week for animals in Central Maine. After a rough few days, our salamanders seem to be faring much better, and casualties are becoming more of a rarity each evening. I’m embarrassed to admit that the noble intentions Ari and I had of serving as salamander crossing guards never quite came to fruition: each time it occurred to either one of us, we’d both realize we were too tired and too comfortable in our respective beds to do much about it. Sorry, guys. Maybe next year?
In the meantime, our fickle interest in mating amphibians has shifted to the local frogs in our area. We have three major contenders this time of year: wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) and spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer)

Of these three, the peeper is by far and away the most prolific—and the most boisterous. That also makes them our favorites. Normally, we have to wait until well after the sun sets to hear these neighborhood frogs. This year, however, they’ve been getting an early start each day—sometimes as early as 2:00 in the afternoon. The sound is deafening—a single, piercing pitch just out of range of even a coloratura soprano. The din has a throb to it—one that reverberates in my inner ear, sending static all the way down my spine. You can hear our peepers here:

I can’t imagine how this racket sounds to the finely-tuned ear of a caninaturalist. But I do know that, as exuberant as she is about approaching one of the vernal pools frequented by spring peers, she certainly doesn’t want to stay there very long.

That’s her choice. Personally, I could spend the whole day immersed in interesting frog facts. Like this one: during winter and spring, spring peepers actually freeze solid: like little frogcicles, as it were. Luckily, the high level of glucose in their systems works as a kind of antifreeze, preventing cell walls from bursting from the expanding ice. I find that amazing.

Now fully thawed, our neighborhood peepers compete with one another to attract a remaining female. Once they settle on their seasonal partner, an aggressive mating process will begin. Frogs sex is known to scientists as amplexus, which translates from Latin as “to braid.” It is clearly not for the faint of heart.

From the time they thaw, peepers rush the mating ritual. They’re the first to arrive at the pond—often showing up too early and returning to frogcicles on icy tree branches. Once established, males are so zealous in their attempt to jumpstart the process that groups of them will mob a single female, drowning her in the process. Most males have also developed large callouses on their thumbs that allow them to hold females more firmly. As a result, a pair of mating peepers will remain entwined for up to four hours—much of it underwater. The female will lay anywhere between 800 and 1800 eggs, each one fertilized by her partner before being planted on submerged vegetation. (note to humans: our dating rituals are not nearly as barbaric as we may be inclined to believe).

Try as we might, Ari and I have not been able to see a single peeper: they’re just too good at camouflage. But we are starting to find these little egg sacks in the pools and puddles out in the forest:

That tiny black dot is a nucleus—kind of like a miniature egg yolk, though probably a lot less tasty for both humans and caninaturalists alike.

I'm guessing here, of course. To be honest, neither of us are can confirm for sure: Ari doesn’t seem interested enough in the eggs to try, and I just can’t get up the nerve. I guess, all things considered, I rather see that crazy spring chorus grow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


High: 67° F
Low: 44° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy and calm.
Spring is all about vernal pools here in the woods of Maine. Here’s a picture of Ari modeling how best to find one in the hollows of a town forest. (Apparently, one cannot accurately verify a vernal pool unless one is knee-deep in said pool. Go figure.)

These magical little oases appear as the snow melts and then collects in terrestrial depressions. They’ll hang around for a few months and then, poof! they magically disappear sometime around the 4th of July.

Vernal pools are crucial components of spring ecology: with no inlets or outlets, they lack predatory fish. This makes them the perfect breeding grounds for many amphibians, who relish the muck and lack of hungry intrusion.

We’ll write more about vernal pools in the next few weeks, but right now, we have some more pressing business to attend to.

For the past two days, the caninaturalist and I have been on a self-appointed suicide watch. Our local population of spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) is inexplicably trying to annihilate itself. We counted thirteen casualties this morning alone—all on a small stretch of dirt road near our little fire pond. (and this on Earth Day, no less!)

This is a file image of a spotted salamander, taken from the UC-Davis Department of Biology webpage. It bears only a slight resemblance to the spotted salamanders on our road. Smashed salamanders are considerably less photogenic than file photo salamanders.

The caninaturalist is amazingly adept at finding the squashed specimens on our dirt road, and though she always gives them a thoughtful sniff, she doesn’t disturb their flat little amphibian carcasses. This may be because salamanders excrete a toxin that protects them from many predators.

Clearly, however, it does not protect them from car tires.

We can’t for the life of us figure out why these salamanders keep throwing themselves under large vehicles. Maybe they’ve been reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps they're protesting gas prices. My colleague, Dave Potter, says he thinks they’re just sex crazed.

That’s definitely true this time of year, but usually salamanders wait for a warm, rainy night before getting busy. Then they slither up out of their winter nests and make their way back to the vernal pool where they were born. The males go first and spend a good few days duking it out amongst themselves like a bunch of high school jocks. Then females show up and the mating madness really begins.

For some reason, our salamanders aren't waiting for a warm rainy night. Maybe it’s because winter ran late this year, or because the smell of spring is positively intoxicating right now (I certainly second that second emotion). Either way, we’ve got to do something. And fast: the carnage is becoming too much even for Ari to bear.

Our friend, the wonderful author Janisse Ray is a salamander crossing guard in her spare time. These trained volunteers don reflective vests, headlamps, and a whole lot of moxie. Then they spend a good part of damp spring nights literally stopping traffic whenever a band of horny little amphibians crosses the road. She's says she gets a real sense of satisfaction from knowing she's helping these little critters make it safely to their romantic trysts.

Ari doesn't know much about romance, but I'm sure she'd be a proponent of safe sex if she knew what it meant--especially if it meant fewer amphibian casualities each night.

I wonder if the crossing guard captain would be willing to add an exuberant caninaturalist to his staff? I'll even loan her my headlamp or sixth-grade crossing guard sash. I'm sure it's around here somewhere. . .

Friday, April 18, 2008

Found: Local History

High: 75° F
Low: 40° F
Conditions: Warm, calm, and clear.
It’s currently 72°F here in Central Maine. That’s a few degrees shy of the record temp for today (79° F), but it’s awfully close. It’s certainly warm enough for me and Ari to head outside for an afternoon of quality caninaturalism.

In spite of the amazing warmth today, there’s still a surprising amount of snow left in the woods. We limited our exploration, then, to some of the sunnier environs in our town forest. Luckily, there was lots to see—especially where human ecology is concerned.

Our sleepy little village of 800 once had a population over triple that size. Back in the mid-1800s, it was a booming hinterland economy that supplied butter and ice for the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean. Each week, farmers would load up their carts with timber or cream and take these wares down to the port city of Belfast. There, dock workers would unload schooners, divesting them mostly of sugar and then reloading them with inland goods. The sugar went to a distillery near the docks—one of the largest in all of New England, and one which produced a rum known more for its potency than its quality. Inland farmers and ox cart drivers were often paid for their services in kegs of rum, and the Belfast Historical Society has records of drunken cart pile ups involving upwards of 70 ox carts (and their drunk drivers).

The rise of train transport decreased the appeal of little towns like ours, and they fell into a slow decline by the turn of the 20th century. The Great Depression only worsened things and ultimately began a migration that would send over half the town westward, looking for better opportunities. Most of the deserters left their farms and houses still containing all but their most prized possessions. In time, the houses collapsed leaving only foundations and a few clues about the lives once led there. The land remained abandoned until the town, with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, reclaimed and replanted it as official town forest in the late 1930s. Today, these 200 acres provide much of our civic revenue: just about every telephone pole in Turkey came from our little plot of land.

This time of year is a great one for exploring the abandoned homesteads tucked in the forest. Most of the year, the thick understory hides them from view. But each spring, as the snow melts and the leaves choose to wait a few last frosts, ghostly apparitions begin to appear in the town forest--like this disused cemetery, where tombstones date back to the early nineteenth century.

Learning to interpret other potential archeological sites can be tricky. We rely heavily on a wonderful book called Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels. He offers great pointers for divining previous land use patterns, like this stone wall.

Some of these structures were built deliberately to contain livestock. Others were simply convenient spots to unload some of the ubiquitous glacial till that makes farming in northern New England such a challenge. The right angles and precision in this wall suggests it was probably used for the former.

An old grist mill used to contain a good part of this waterfall.
If you get close enough, you can still see the beveled bolt holes that secured it to the bank. In general, caninaturalists will probably recommend against this kind of micro-investigation. Raging water is not nearly as interesting as squirrel nests stuffed in the trees around it.
Dozens of foundations such as this one exist in the town forest.
Caninaturalists are particularly adept at finding them. They can also lead you to disused domestic tools, like this basin and mug.
Said caninaturalists will undoubtedly be disappointed to discover that neither of these disused dishes contain cheese or chicken breasts. Hearing that they once did will be little consolation. Still, when pressed, canine investigators will admit there are few better ways to spend a warm afternoon. I agree.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sign of Spring #4: The Return of Old Friends

Low: 31° F
High: 52° F
Conditions: calm with unlimited sunshine
Growing up, I went through a lot of phases: like the period when I refused to take a bath unless I was wearing a stocking cap shaped like one an elf might wear, or the one when I insisted on hanging a spoon from my nose at the dinner table. But one of the most beguiling of these phases was when, as a third or fourth grader, I insisted that my entire family call me Phoebe. And far be it from me to stop there. Oh, no. We would all be called Phoebe. And it would be Phoebe Phoebe, should anyone require a surname, thank you very much.

As far as I know, the caninaturalist has never gone through a developmental stage as strange as this. There was the time when she insisted that she became an uncatchable, wild coyote whenever she bolted from the house. But as best as I can tell, she retained her given name even when gallivanting about the forest surrounding our house.

I was somewhat surprised, then, when she showed the same nostalgic interest as I did in one of our most cherished temperate-weather visitors: Sayornis phoebe, also know as the Eastern Phoebe.

I have lots of reasons to love this bird. In addition to my pre-pubescent alter-ego moniker, our phoebes also share a lot of homemaking memories. A mating pair arrived at our little log cabin the same summer Greg and I did. As we were negotiating where to put the ice cream bowls and book shelves, the two phoebes were building a nest on a beam tucked just below the roof near our front porch.

Since that first season, they’ve returned each year around this time. They spend a few weeks sprucing up the old nest and reclaiming hunting perches, then they get down to the business of egg laying and chick rearing. We humans are so enchanted with their little domestic life that we don’t even mind the white streaks that quickly dot our vehicles, or the fact that we have to use the basement door to enter our house after the kids are born.

Mouse and Leila Tov—our two rescue cats—have their own reasons for loving the return of the phoebes. The birds regularly spend inclement days hunkering down on our front porch, where only a single pane of glass separates them from the watchful eyes of feline predators. As I write this post, both cats are stealthily becoming reacquainted with Mamma Phoebe, who is renovating her house under their watchful (and hungry?) eye.

It makes good sense to me that these cats would be captivated. But why does Ari so love these birds? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. She barely gives chickadees and goldfinches a second glance. She only likes robins when she can chase them. But phoebes command her respect and attention. Maybe it’s because they have the same tell-tale tail wag as the caninaturalist. Or because they line their nests with some of her favorite things, like moss and husky hair. Or because they catch those same insects that plague her and truncate our walks when I’ve forgotten my bug dope.

I’ll never really know for sure. But I am certain of one thing: we are very happy to see that they have returned.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Low: 32° F
High: 43° F
Conditions: Persistent rain and wind.
The year’s first clap of thunder arrived just after 6:00 this morning. The caninaturalist, uncharacteristically still at this time of day, raised her head and stared hard out the bedroom window. Greg and I followed her gaze, listening as the accompanying rain struck our roof and exterior walls. That's odd, we thought. Liquid moisture falling from the sky. How peculiar.

This storm brought with it hope that we might begin experiencing the kind of April so many of our Southern friends are enjoying: one without the ubiquitous snow and ice; one that might signal the start of spring.

But to get there, we have to first endure Maine’s famous fifth season. And this rain and thunder was all the proof we needed: Mud Season has officially arrived.

All this past week, Ari and I suspected we were about to turn this corner. There were little clues, like an increased appearance of paw prints on our slate floor or the dusty dog-shaped brown halo on our quilt. Or the ankle-deep gunk that swallowed my hiking book each time I stepped off our porch.

Good indicators, all of these. And—perhaps more importantly—all the permission we needed to start grumbling.

Since time immemorial (or at least the last 40,000 years), Mainers have blamed the glaciers for this mucky mess. It certainly seems like a logical assignment of blame: after all, the massive ice flows are notorious for pulling off entire sheets of topsoil and rock and leaving tiny microorganisms in their place. (Perhaps this is what Ari is reenacting each time she unmakes our bed?)

Lately, though, scientific anthropologists have been exonerating the glaciers—at least as the lone criminals in this geographic assault. Through their study—or even just their daily travels from home to wherever scientific anthropologists go during their waking hours—these scholars have noticed something: mud appears where people are. No us; no mud.

Ari and I were intrigued by this hypothesis. Could it be that the same mud I bemoan every year is actually my fault?

We set out to find proof for this theory. Here’s what we discovered:

Mud throughout our driveway.

No mud in the surrounding field.
Mud engulfing this telephone pole.

No mud around the pole in its natural form.

Not exactly scientific proof, but pretty darn persuasive. Could the very mud I bemoan really be my creation—or at least my civilization's? It certainly seems so.

I could have sworn Ari scowled at me as soon as we reached this conclusion, perhaps as if to say, this is YOUR species' problem, not mine. I don’t blame her, though I think she might want to think twice before getting too resentful.

It might seem like something of a stretch, but I think you can draw some fairly compelling comparisons between mud and domestic dogs. After all, our transition to fixed, agrarian societies ultimately created both. Mud exists because we tilled the land, set up houses and barns, established roads and dumps. Domestic dogs exist for the same reasons.

Of course, we didn’t plan on a mud season—and we certainly didn’t willingly encourage it. But some historians say the same thing about early dogs. And both have flourished—at least in volume—during the development of our civilization. The only real difference is that we’ve chosen to embrace one and complain about the other.

Does this realization make mud season a little easier to accept? Maybe. But I still wish the caninaturalist would leave this new colleague of hers somewhere well away from my bed.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book Tag

High: 52°
Low: 34°
Conditions: Sunny and warm.

We’ve been tagged by our friend Gunner at The Lab Experiment. Here are the rules:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
6. Leave a message at Gunner's blog. (and then insert the next person's name here)

The caninaturalist lives a life surrounded by books. I’m not going to lie: she’s no fan. As far as she is concerned, books are those inexplicable little rectangles that persist in diverting attention away from her. She exhibits only slightly less animosity towards these tomes than she does my laptop. Why I insist on staring at it for hours on end will never make sense to her. The fact that I’m usually using it to write about her is little consolation.

Still, Ari knows a lot about books. When she was a puppy, she loved to chew on them. As an adult, she knows that hiding them is great fun. She picks her volumes based on those that get the most of my attention. So, in deciding which book to pick for Gunner’s tag, I naturally went to my favorites. Most of these are written by beloved nature writers like Janisse Ray and Terry Tempest Williams, Michael Pollan and David Quammen, Scott Russell Sanders and and Ellen Meloy. I love all these books, particularly because they make my time outside with the caninaturalist all the more meaningful.

But when push comes to shove, there’s one book that holds a particularly special place in my heart: James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Maybe it’s because the entire book, set on a single day in June, is also set on my birthday. Maybe it’s because it’s the first book I ever felt bested by. Or the one that continues to challenge and confound me. Or because it shows that the English language has few limits and set my career course as I know it today.

So, Gunner and friends, here’s what’s happening on page 123 of Ulysses. Fellow bloggers, consider yourselves tagged. We can’t wait to see which books you all pick.

He halted on sir John Gray’s pavement island and peered aloft at Nelson through
the meshes of his wry smile.

Onehandedled adulterer, he said smiling grimly. That tickles me, I must say.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sign of Spring #3: Sublime

High: 53° F
Low: 29° F
Conditions: Gloriously sunny and temperate
Ari and I don’t always have shared values when it comes to experiencing the natural world. She, for instance, objects strenuously to the idea of being strapped into a boat and propelled down a raging river. I can’t for the life of me see the appeal for rolling on top of a decomposing snake long enough to make sure it is well insinuated in my hair. Indeed, there are entire days when we seem to be living our own episode of “The Odd Couple,” though with a lot less humor.

And then there are days like today, when the stars align and our preferences become symphonic: we stand on top of a autumnal mountain we’ve just climbed or find a bramble of ripe raspberries warmed by the afternoon sun and marvel in the aesthetics of it all.

Or we walk past a pile of late spring snow and breathe deeply.

That’s right: the smell of snow. Or more specifically, the smell of melting snow, which is everywhere around us this time of year. We both love it. We’re obsessed, really—driven to distraction on walks when the sublime sublimation of ice crystals turning into gas fills our nostrils and clouds our minds.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully for years to match mere words to this phenomenon, sometimes going so far as to even demanding that my students write essays describing the smell of snow: not for their educational benefit, mind you, but rather with the hopes that they might stumble upon some little gem of metaphor or adjective that I can steal and make my own.

Okay, I haven’t really considered plagiarism. At least not yet. But I’m tempted after looking over my hackneyed collection of descriptors: snow smells like warm pewter; it’s what the color cornflower blue would smell like, if colors could smell. It’s the odor of disembodied earth; the chthonic approach of spring.

These are awful, and yet I can’t for the life of me figure out how to improve upon them. Ari knows better than to try. Instead, she contents herself with thrusting her snout deep into a pile of wet, spring snow. Or she lefts her nose towards the sky, sucking in panting breaths of this phenomenon we can only experience and not describe.

People think I’m crazy when I tell them we love this smell. After all, how could evaporating snow possibly smell like anything?

I recently stumbled upon a wonderfully folksy answer to this question.

According to The Dictionary of American Regional English, New Englanders refer to wet spring snow as “poor man’s fertilizer” or “poor man’s manure.” Both expressions were once common in the northeastern U.S., beginning in the late 18th century and continuing well into my lifetime. People in the Canadian Maritimes still refer to wet spring snow as “Farmer’s Fertilizer” or “Million Dollar Rain.” In fact, the residents of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, divide their spring snow into three categories, which are described at a website called “The American Robin.” They write:
“The last three snow storms of the spring are (1) the Robin's Snow just after or when the Robin's are migrating back to us; (2) the Smelt Snow when the smelts are running in the brooks and rivers near the coast such as the Gaspereaux River just south of here over the Ridge; and (3) Poor Man's Fertilizer, which comes on the freshly ploughed soil and brings with it a load of nitrogen as the flakes pass down through the atmosphere.”
Snow—particularly late spring snow—has a high nitrogen content, along with traces of sulfur and other elements. That, along with the microscopic dust particles that bind with the snow as it falls from the sky, is undoubtedly what Ari and I are smelling. Does this scientific explanation take away a little of the whimsy and mystery of our experience? Not really. At least, not enough to stop finding magic in the scent.

Other people are finding dollar signs in this same smell. A perfume company called Demeter recently acknowledged the love that creatures like the caninaturalist and I have for spring scent.
They’re marketing a new fragrance called SNOW, which they describe as “chilling, cool, clean and fresh, with a touch of dust (necessary to form flakes) and earth (upon which to rest).”

I’d be willing to shell out big bucks for this fragrance—especially if I could persuade the caninaturalist that it’s a better signature scent than rotten snake.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Owl Prowl

High: 42° F
Low: 25° F
Conditions: Mostly clear with increasing winds. Wind chills dropping to 15° F
As many of you know, Ari and I have been keenly interested in owls this season, particularly since a barred owl began making appearances in our pine grove and on our porch (You can read about these encounters here and here).

Given this sustained interest, I was delighted when we received an invitation to participate in the Maine Owl Monitoring Program. Sponsored by Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, this initiative seeks to gather the type of data gleaned during other bird counts, including the Cornell backyard birding initiative. To do so, Audubon and Maine IFW send out teams of scientists and volunteers in the wee hours of the morning. Armed with small radios, cds of owl calls, and LOTS of warm clothes, these teams survey a series of pre-determined routes in Maine as a kind of owl census.

Unlike the two felines in our house, Ari and I are both awfully guarded about our nighttime sleep. Snoozing is one of our favorite hobbies, and we both get pretty cranky when it’s denied us. Even still, the prospect of another owl encounter was enough for us to surrender our zzzzzzs for one night. We agreed to meet Dave Potter, the naturalist heading up our local survey, at 12:15 a.m. on Thursday. It’d be worth it, I assured Ari, as we settled in for a quick nap around 9:00 that night. I could have sworn she agreed.

Nevertheless, a certain canine snored through the alarm just before midnight. I crept downstairs, put on a big pot of tea for my thermos, and donned several layers of polypro and expedition-weight long underwear. Still no Ari. I made an audible production of pulling my hiking boots out of the hall closet—a sure-fire signal to arouse any caninaturalist. Still no Ari. I crept upstairs to find her curled into a ball on the bed. Two steely blue eyes peered out from under a thick husky tail. “Ready to go?” I whispered. She responded by skooching closer to Greg and curling up even more tightly. I asked again. She feigned deep sleep.

Apparently, I’d be travelling alone.

Disappointed but undaunted, I made the chilly drive up to the college, where I rendezvoused with Potter and the other volunteers. He provided a quick orientation that included the protocol of each stop: at each of our 10 assigned locations, we'd fan out along the road. Potter would play the Audubon cd, which begins with several minutes of silence (time to assess ambient noise). It is then followed by a 45-second long-eared owl (Asio otus) call and two minutes for response time; then a 1-minute barred owl call (Strix varia ), followed by six minutes for this more reluctant species to respond. Lastly, we would play a brief great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) call. Because they are at the top of just about every food chain around here, this call would ultimately silence any other birds in the area (hence its placement at the end of the survey).
The owl calls are haunting, even when projected from a tiny boom box. You can hear them for yourself by clicking on this link to (Warning: if you live in a house like mine, this will result in scurrying, barking, and general mayhem from the quadrupeds in your life).

We volunteers were an inspired bunch Thursday night. Upon departure, the van was humming with life-list stories, recounted owl mythology, and tales of misadventures during previous trips. Our first few stops yielded good results: at both, we heard the call and response of two great horned owls and a few barreds. We also were audience for an unexpected meteor shower, which helped us ignore the arctic wind and surprisingly uncomfortable temperatures. Our third stop included a particularly enthusiastic serenade by a nearby barred owl. His voice jumped arpeggios and tone the entire time we stood on the side of his dark forest. It was pure magic.

Later stops yielded fewer results. Temperatures had begun to drop, and the wind was picking up. Potter speculated that it was getting too cold for much owl activity—particularly since many already had eggs, if not chicks, to think about. Our crew became increasingly more interested in recipes for hot chocolate than the subtle nuances of ornithology. A few opted to stay in the van at our last few destinations. We began to gently resent the barred owl for needing six whole minutes to respond:Why couldn’t they be more like the prompt great horned, who only made us stand in a ditch for 120 seconds?

Still, by our last stop, a kind of momentary nostalgia settled in. We dragged our feet to the van and lingered out in the predawn light. In total, we had recorded 11 owls that night. Few of us were ready to say good morning. And when I slunk back to bed just before 5:00 a.m., I couldn’t help but gloat to the stirring caninaturalist still nestled there: she had no idea what she missed.