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DSCN0777I like nothing better than to come across something unexpected.

That’s just what happened on one of those warm afternoons last week when I was taking a leisurely walk around Coggshall Park in Fitchburg, Mass. I had been taking one of the trails through the woods and came down to the pond at the heart of the park. Most of it was still frozen over. A few geese were standing on the ice near a strip of open water. A pair of mallards were napping on a rock in the sun.

I went closer to the mallards to get a photo when I spotted something moving under the water at the edge of the ice nearby – a fairly good-sized painted turtle. I wouldn’t have thought a turtle would be active yet, with the pond still covered with ice. But there he was.

Turtles are cold-blooded reptiles – ectotherms – meaning their body temperature varies according to the ambient temperature around them. The warmer the temperature the more active they become; the colder the temperature, the more sluggish.

Later, I looked it up in a few sources, and true enough, turtles go mostly dormant during the winter, but they have been known to move around occasionally. Apparently the sun had warmed the water up just enough to get this turtle going.

The northern half of Green's Pond

The northern half of Green’s Pond




The Green’s Pond Conservation area in Fitchburg, Mass., is one of those small gems that are so often overlooked, even though thousands of people drive by it every day. Located between Ashby State Road and Rindge Road, it is small by any measure – just 28 acres, and half of that is taken up by the pond.

Originally, the pond was created as an ice pond. I can remember the old ice house still standing across the street back in the 1950s, when I lived not too far from there. A friend of mine and I would go fishing there, catching mostly perch and the occasional pickerel. My mother would make a fish chowder out of the day’s catch, something we all considered a treat.

Late one afternoon recently I decided to go back to the pond, hoping to catch sight of some migrating birds. A flock of mallards came onto the pond and started feeding and getting ready to settle in for the night. It was impossible to tell whether they were a migratory flock or not, since so many mallards now stay here throughout the winter.

A Great Blue Heron flew low over the pond. It had been feeding along the shore opposite to where I had been standing, and was no doubt heading for the perch where it would spend the night. Back when I was working for Massachusetts Audubon I was leading a family canoe trip on the SudburyRiver when a Great Blue Heron flew across the water in front of us. One of the kids pointed to the gangly bird and shouted “Look! A dinosaur!”

He wasn’t far from wrong. Great Blue Heron fossils dating back to the Pleistocene epoch, about 1.8 million years ago, have been found here in the western hemisphere. Elsewhere, some heron fossils date back 14 million years.





Dead Horse Pond as it looks today.

Dead Horse Pond as it looks today.

The Thanksgiving morning sky was a bright blue, and the air was crisp, if not a bit cold. The turkey was in the oven with a couple hours to go, so I decided to take a short walk down to Dead Horse Pond just down the hill from where I live.

The dry spell we’ve been having has taken its toll – many small ponds and streams are dried up or reduced to a trickle, Dead Horse Pond included.

With the sun so low on the horizon, the shadows of leafless trees stretched out towards the middle of the pond, or what was left of it. The only water left was an oversized puddle left over from Wednesday’s rain I was able to walk completely across what had been pond. Now it was just a carpet of dead leaves and grass. No dead horse, either. Not even a decent set of bones.

I was surprised by how flat it was. Most of the pond – when it’s there – is ringed by fairly steep banks that run right down to the water’s edge. I had expected these would continue downward under water, forming a bowl-like bottom. Instead, it was saucer-shaped, much shallower than I had thought. If it doesn’t refill, and grass springs up instead, it’ll look just like any other small meadow.




Given the current cold spell, I thought I’d go out and look for interesting ice formations. I headed for the small gorge along Foster Brook a short way upstream from where it empties into Falulah Brook.  Most of the land around it belongs to the city of Fitchburg Water Department. This part of it borders the Mass. Audubon Flat Rock sanctuary.

I took the shortest route. I went into the woods at a water department gate along Ashby West Road. There had been some logging activity here, apparently part of a forest management program. There wasn’t enough snow to need snowshoes, but the footing was a bit tricky over the hard-packed snow. Just before some power lines, the trail to the gorge heads downhill.

When I got to the gorge, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new, sturdy footbridge across the brook. There were yellow blazes where a trail had been marked out on the other side. After taking a few pictures of the ice in the gorge, I followed the new trail and found that it looped back to the access road I had taken.

The trail was short, but I see it as a good sign. There are thousands of acres of wooded land beyond here. Maybe we’ll eventually see a new network of hiking trails here.

Timber harvesting near Overlook Reservoir


Last summer people accustomed to hiking around the Crocker Conservation area in Fitchburg, Mass., were upset to discover the land had been extensively logged and huge piles of debris blocked the trails.

The North County Land Trust, which manages the property, promised things would be cleaned up by the end of the year. So, this afternoon I thought I’d take a walk out there to see how matters stood.

Access is still blocked.

Instead of brush piles, however, the area is ringed with Do No Enter signs. Going around the fringes, it’s obvious that even more logging has taken place. The landscape has been mauled by heavy equipment, making it look more like a construction zone than the selective timber harvesting program it’s supposed to be.

It’s difficult to tell from a distance, but many of the logs I could see piled up hardly looked like they were from diseased trees, one of the reasons given for the harvesting. They look like they could yield several hundred board feet of good lumber. So my question is, who will get the proceeds?

An injured Mourning Dove


I very nearly stepped on a bird the other day when I was out taking a walk, a pretty rare occurrence. Once, many years ago, a Ruffed Grouse flew up right in front of me, flapping its wings furiously just a foot or so away then dropping to the ground as if it had a broken wing.

Satisfied that I was suitably startled, it flew off. It was only later that I realized that it probably had young chicks nearby and the whole display was meant to distract me long enough for them to go hide. It worked.

No so this time.

This was a Mourning Dove, camouflaged almost perfectly among the fallen leaves. The bird was really injured. It was able to fly a little – just far enough to try to find another hiding place. I was able to find it fairly easily.

It didn’t have any obvious wounds. The wing injury seemed to be fairly minor, since it could fly somewhat, albeit severely limited.

The prospects of an injured bird surviving in the wild are pretty dim. I contemplated taking it home, where I might be able to let it recuperate in safety until the injury healed. Unfortunately I didn’t have any good way of getting it home without running the risk of stressing it out and causing more injury.

My quandary was solved when it flew off deeper into a tangle of brush. About the best I could do was hope it found a place safe enough to give it time to recover.


Piles of brush block the main trail around Overlook Reservoir


I was away when a story came out in the Sentinel and Enterprise about logging at the Crocker Conservation Area and around the Overlook Reservoir at the end of Flat Rock Road in Fitchburg.

There were complaints about clear-cutting, and cuttings left in large piles blocking trails. I decided to go see for myself.

First off, forest management is necessary to keep a forest healthy. Done correctly it doesn’t have to impact anyone’s pleasure or use of an area. I mentioned the Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, NH, in an earlier blog as a good example of how this can be done.

As far as the work done up on the Crocker property, it’s not clear-cutting. There are plenty of trees of various species and ages left standing. It does look different than it used to. Eventually I think it will look better.

However, the job is not finished. Large piles of cuttings have been left behind, blocking trails.

According to the article, the loggers left because of wet weather in June and early July. Now that we’ve been in a period of drought, they haven’t come back. According to the article, they have until Dec. 31 to finish the work – what kind of nitwit came up with that one? If they can’t finish their work in the middle of summer, what makes anyone think they’ll finish it in the winter?

I came across the porcupine pictured above while walking through one of the pastures at the Wachusett Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton recently.

It’s a little unusual, but not unheard-of, to find one hanging around out in an open field. More often you find them perched up in a tree, or if you’re really determined to find one, curled up in a hollow log or in rocky den.

Nothing perturbs a porcupine – the 30,000 barbed quills that cover most of its body ensure that anything does will suffer painful consequences. The names for this chubby, prickly rodent comes from the combination of porcus & spina, Latin for pig and thorn.

I was reminded of an incident some years ago, when I was working at a wildlife sanctuary in the western part of the state. A porcupine was an occasional visitor to the cabin where I stayed during the summer months, usually when there were no tourists around.

As it happened, there came a day when a family city types – wearing flip-flops and street clothes – somehow made their way along the trail to the cabin and came face-to-face with the porcupine. I had expected shrieks, instead they mistook the porcupine’s disdain for them as a sign of friendliness and asked if they could pet it.

When I explained that it wouldn’t be a good idea, the mother in the group started to argue with me, saying she just wanted to be friendly. Luckily (for her) one of her children, a girl about 8 or so, had more sense and told her she should never pet a wild animal. Then they wanted to know where I kept the other animals … they were an extreme case.

Back to the porcupine in Princeton.

Fishers are its most dangerous predator, an animal that has successfully learned to attack the porcupine at its face and belly, the only two areas not protected by quills.

Porcupines are never in a hurry to go anywhere, and this one was no exception. He (or she) was quietly munching on the new vegetation in the field and let me come up close without giving me more than the occasionally suspicious glance. We regarded each other for a good 15 minutes while I walked around taking pictures from different angles. It didn’t budge an inch, and pretty much just kept eating.

Eventually I was the one who got bored an heading off looking for some early wildflowers. More on that in my next post.

I read Rachel Carson before I read Thoreau. Silent Spring came out 50 years ago, and I read it for a 7th grade book report. I’m not sure how I got hold of a copy, but it must have been from the library. I remember my mother picking it up and looking through it.

“So this is the book everyone’s talking about,” she said. When I was done, she read it. “It’s an important book,” she said. She went on and wrote a book review for the newspaper she was working at.

It influenced much of my thinking, and much of what I’ve done since. Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold and so many others have all shaped my thinking in their own way.

I was going to write something about Silent Spring and Rachel Carson to commemorate the anniversary. But then I read an article on autism in the New York Times this weekend. I’ve linked to it for anyone who’s interested.

It’s been all over the news that 1 in 88 American children are now diagnosed with some form of autism, and the numbers are growing. Trying to figure out why this is happening has the experts scratching their collective backsides. Some suggest it doesn’t exist at all. Others point to as-yet-undiscovered genetic reasons.

What’s Silent Spring have to do with this? The Times article has an interesting sentence: “The C.D.C. was … holding out the possibility of unknown environmental factors.” They don’t elaborate.

I will.

Consider the following: a 2011 Stanford University study showed that 38 percent of autism cases could be traced to genetic factors, while 62 percent came from environmental factors. The sharp rise in autism cases cannot be blamed on genetic factors, because genes simply don’t mutate that fast.

That would leave environmental factors as the chief culprit.

Consider all the toxic substances we are exposed to: something like 85,000 different chemicals in our food, in our water, in the air, and in the products we use.

The average newborn has more than 200 different chemicals and heavy metals in its blood at the moment of birth, and 158 of them are toxic to the brain. These children experience 100 times more chemical exposures now than children 50 years ago, when Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring.

I would suggest there is nothing “unknown” or otherwise mysterious about the environmental factors.

One last thought.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself…”– Rachel Carson


A news item Friday caught my attention – a coyote had been caught wandering around downtown Boston. I wasn’t particularly surprised. Their numbers have been increasing drastically, and in the areas outside of town, sightings are commonplace.

What did pique my interest is that all the news reports dutifully referred to the animal as a coyote.

To be sure, there is such a thing as the Eastern Coyote that has inhabited New England since the 1930s. Over time, they have become bigger, more powerful predators than their scrawnier Western Coyote cousins. Researchers say that the abundance of food, and bigger game such as deer, accounts for some of the difference

Recent genetic research has added a new twist.

Most of the animals we’re calling coyotes are in fact a hybrid resulting from the mating of the eastern wolf and the eastern coyote. The resulting animal is bigger, more powerful, and more aggressive than either the wolf or the coyote.

The name “coydog,” which still persists in some places, apparently comes from the mistaken notion that this hybrid is a result of mating between domestic dogs and coyotes. While such mating is possible and has been accomplished in captivity, it is unlikely in the wild, according to researchers, because of differing fertility cycles.

Maybe it’s time for a name change, to help recognize the animal for what it is. There is a website dedicated to this, full of interesting information about the coywolf:

As for the Mass. Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, they have not addressed the name issue, calling these animals coyotes, with no mention of coywolf in their literature.

And as for the hapless Boston coyote/coywolf, it was captured, tagged, and released into the woods of Westboro.

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RSS Martin Laine – Digital Journal

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