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.

 

 

For a long time I’ve scoffed at those recreational hikers/walkers who use trekking poles. Certainly they make sense as a necessary piece of equipment for climbers and heavy-duty backpackers, I reasoned. But for the average woodland hike, they seemed more like a fashion accessory or some kind of affectation.

The combination of a bothersome knee and an Eastern Mountain Sports gift card helped change my mind. The gift was thoughtful, but as I browsed the website to see what I might get, I realized I was pretty well set for gear and clothes. Then I saw trekking poles were on sale. So why not give them a try?

I took them out for a test run a few weeks ago, on an hour-long loop along a rocky, hilly, woodland trail of what I would call moderate difficulty. To my surprise, they were a huge help. They gave my knee the extra support it needed, and they certainly helped my balance as I negotiated my way over exposed roots, rocks, short steep drops and climbs.

I’ve been using them ever since.

Looking east from the top of an old ski trail

Looking east from the top of an old ski trail

 

 

As I stood near the summit of Big Bear Mountain in Brookline, NH, it occurred to me that the last time I’d been there I had been strapped to a pair of wooden skis with something we called bear trap bindings. Back then it was known as the Brookline Ski Tow and safety release bindings hadn’t been invented yet.

But that was in the previous millennium. Today, it’s easy to see the course of the old ski slopes, though they’re overgrown with brush, and sculptures dot the landscape. Much of the mountain now belongs to the Andres Institute of Art, which maintains a network of hiking trails linking 75 outdoor sculptures.

They range in size from a single strand of granite chimes to the 15-foot tall, 110 ton “Phoenix.” The artists are from all over the world –the Czech Republic, Kenya, Vietnam – every continent is represented. Some were mildly interesting, but others forced me to stop and think.

Every year the Institute holds a symposium and hosts guest artists who are invited to create a sculpture to be placed anywhere they want on the grounds. There’s more information on their website http://www.andresinstitute.org/Aboutandresinstituteofart.html

I spent two hours Saturday wandering the trails and looking at the sculptures, and I saw maybe half of what was there. I’m definitely returning to see the rest.

 

A boardwalk through the marshes at Plum Island

A boardwalk through the marshes at Plum Island

 

I recently spent an afternoon birding at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. For an inland person like me, it’s a great place to see a wide variety of shorebirds in a relatively small space. Driving south along the access road there are a number of turnouts, many with short trails leading to good viewing areas.

It was a kind of spur-of-the moment decision. My son and daughter-in-law live in Newburyport and I was up visiting when Ben suggested we go birding. I was a bit surprised because he’s spent the first 30 years of his life steadfastly disinterested in birding. He started telling me all the species he’d seen so far, and he showed me the new Audubon app on his smartphone.

With that kind of enthusiasm, who am I to say no?

Maryam was out in Colorado working on her Ph.D., so it was just the two of us. Of course we picked the middle of a day during our recent heat wave, not the optimum conditions for birding. Undeterred, we plunged on. Most of the beach was closed off because the piping plovers were nesting. Oh well. So we decided to explore the marshes along the west side of the island.

At our first stop there wasn’t a lot of activity, a couple of gulls, Canada geese and mallards. I see plenty of them back home. We stopped at the Hellcat area, reputed to be a hotspot for birding. Not today. Walking along the dune trail we stopped to get a better look at a bird that was flitting from tree to tree fairly close to us. We trained our binoculars on it hoping to get a good look at something exotic.

A gray catbird. I’ve got a couple of them hanging out in my backyard. We stopped at another lookout.  More mallards and a few red-wing blackbirds. The fields behind my house are full of them. Off in the distance we did see a few snowy egrets. That was good.

Finally, walking back towards the parking area, a robin hopped ahead of us. Great.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a success as a birding expedition, that was really secondary. It was just great to be out with my son in such a beautiful setting.

 

 

 

Great Meadows from the observation tower

Great Meadows from the observation tower

 

This morning I decided to go out to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. I used to go there regularly, especially during the years I worked for Massachusetts Audubon. It’s a great place for birding, though today it was late morning by the time I got there, and so there wasn’t much in the way of bird activity.

However, the profusion and variety of wildflowers were attraction enough. All along the walkways were wild roses, a shrubby variety of cinquefoil, and several other varieties whose names I’d forgotten. I regretted not bring a field guide along.

It’s a popular place. The trails are well-traveled and well-marked. There are plenty of benches offering a place to sit and enjoy the scenery. There is an observation tower with a free high-powered scope at the main parking lot.

Definitely a place I’ll return to, armed with field guides.

 

Large areas are still barren after last year's logging

Large areas are still barren after last year’s logging

 

 

After a long, difficult spring I’m finally able to get back to the things I enjoy – being outside and writing.

I started by scouting out my favorite wild blueberry patches. The combination of a snowy winter and wet spring should result in a plentiful crop of wild blueberries. Things look promising. Everywhere I went, the bushes had lots of berries forming, some already ripening. They should peak within the next week,

Wild blueberries have an exquisite, delicate flavor, compared to their larger, plumper cultivated cousins. But because they’re smaller and more spread out, it takes time, patience, and some hunting around to get a pailful. I think they’re worth it.

Next I decided to check in on the area around Overlook Reservoir in Fitchburg. There had been some extensive logging done last fall as part of a forest management program. While new vegetation has sprouted up in a few places, there are still large areas that are almost totally barren. I’m not sure what’s causing it.

Hiking around the logged area is a strange experience. The old trails have been obliterated. Whole new areas have been opened up for exploration. At the same time, it’s easy to get disoriented with all the familiar landmarks gone. It posed an interesting challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

I decided to go check out the logging work in the area around Overlook Reservoir and the Flat Rock Sanctuary in Fitchburg. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The brush piles and other debris had all been cleared away. Plenty of trees had been left standing, and the cleared areas offered what amounted to an entirely new landscape.

I have to admit it was a bit jarring to walk through an area where I had been hundreds of times before only to feel that I was in a completely strange place. The slight fog that had settled over the snow added to the sense of other-worldliness.

Now that the heavy canopy that had once covered the forest floor has been opened up, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of vegetation comes up this spring. Hopefully we’ll see broad patches of wild blueberries, like the ones farther up the hill.

New look at Overlook Reservoir

New look at Overlook Reservoir

Recent scratch marks outside this tree cavity means something’s taken up residence – maybe a squirrel or chipmunk.

 

The 400-acre Rocky Hill wildlife sanctuary in Groton is one of Massachusetts Audubon’s latest acquisitions. With the change in clocks, I decided to take advantage of the extra hour to do some early-morning exploring.

The entrance is a bit tricky to find. It’s nestled in among a new development of MacMansions along streets like Robin Hill Road and Cardinal Lane. From either Ayer or Groton look for Robin Hill Road off Westford Road near a power line right-of-way. From Robin Hill Road take Cardinal Lane and you’ll soon see the familiar Mass. Audubon sign at a small parking lot. There’s an information kiosk with maps.

A nice network of trails loops through an extensive oak forest and wetlands area. The sanctuary boasts a heron rookery, and a ridge of interesting ledges. There are signs of early settlement – cellar holes, and an old stone bridge across a brook. The walking is easy, though the footing in some places, especially around the ledges, can be a little tricky.

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?

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