Friday, January 30, 2009

January 30, 2009 - Foundry Pond, Hingham, Massachusetts

Sometimes you just have to stop the car, get out and start walking. I had one of those days today, with the clock ticking toward sundown, ignorant and uncaring of my daily need. I worked, ran my errands and realized I just had time enough to find the nearest place to park and get on foot.

It was only about five minutes to the pond. But the view is unexpectedly spectacular along the way.

There may have been more to my walk today than I knew. Foundry, or Weston's, Pond, has a story to tell about the birth of the Hingham Water Company and its hold on Hull. Wells were drying up in the peninsula town in the 1880s, and Hingham folks who had money invested in the high times going on down there wanted to be sure the fun would roll on. Among other steps taken by the company, a pipe was run from the pond to the beach. The proprietors of the steamboats, hotels and amusements were thankful for the service.

But the pond is not the major attraction here. Lane's stone quarry, a hole scooped out of the earth, speaks to me in another language. It was Hingham's Italian laborers from the early decades of the twentieth century that broke their backs to move the rock out of here. My grandmother and her siblings grew up on the neighboring street, just across the Weir River. My guess is that a Bravo, Galluzzo or Macauda may have toiled here in the past. Did I walk in the footsteps of my ancestors today?

It was less than a half an hour around the quarry. The newly-revived train line runs right past the area. I missed it today by minutes, as it sounded off as I was about to drive away. With a few minutes to kill, I walked down to another pond that, as kids, we simply knew as the Cherry Street Pond. Here, on days like this one, I strapped on my skates and took to the ice, playing keep away with my dad, his friends, and their sons. I know now that I want the same for my boy, and that I should buy myself a new pair and sharpen some skills that are no doubt very rusty. If I have my way, another generation of my family will leave its mark on this little section of our ancestral American home.
Time: 32 minutes.
New species: eastern towhee, common grackle, common redpoll (104).
Stranger hellos: None to be found.
The rest of the day: Led a 3 1/2 hour birding program; worked four more hours; spent time with my baby boy; posted a review on Amazon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009 - South Station, Boston, Massachusetts

There's apparently an inverse proportionality at work in the number of stranger hellos one can collect on the busy streets of a city and the number potentially gathered in the suburbs. I passed dozens of people on my walk today, with smiles at the ready for each one, yet I could not garner a single response. Out on a snowy trail in Duxbury, Plymouth or Cohasset, I might meet one person in a two-hour walk. I guarantee that person will exchange greetings. It's one of the reasons why I've always decided against living in a city. I relish the notion of being part of the heartbeat, of being at the center of the action, of having innumerable opportunities for work and entertainment. But the social disconnectedness, the lack of community would just kill me.

I left South Station headed to a meeting on State Street, but I had time to kill. I took a turn by my favorite nautical antiques shop - I say that as if I've done anything but stare in the windows - and trudged down Congress Street. Past the Verizon building, I reached Post Office Square.

There's hidden history there. Back in the 1870s, the United States Life-Saving Service (a forerunner of the Coast Guard) formed a technology subcommittee charged with testing and evaluating lifesaving equipment, the Board of Lifesaving Appliances. They slogged through some of the most useless, hare-brained schemes one could imagine in order to find that occasional gem, a lifeboat that self-righted, or a lifejacket that fit more snugly. And they did it here, national impact from a local building.

Crossing State Street I stepped gingerly on the icy bricks of Quincy Marketplace, working my way inside for a slice of Pizzeria Regina's finest. I may or may not have visited The Boston Chipyard as well, depending on who's reading this blog. Two women stood in front of me as I downed my pizza, speaking French. They certainly were excited about something. In the end, they chose the clams.

Over Surface Road and past Atlantic, I visited Christopher Columbus Park, glimpsing at the Logan International Airport control tower in the distance. Shrink-wrapped power boats awaited spring temperatures. The Customs House tower kept the same face it's held for decades. The water itself looked terribly, painfully cold. I circled the Marriott Long Wharf and continued down Atlantic Avenue.

In front of Old Town Trolley Tours, the trolley driver cleaned the sidewalk of snow, without a soul willing to step aboard his conveyance. The New England Aquarium was quiet. Between the Boston Harbor Hotel and the Atlantic Building I glanced quickly at the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Facility in the distance. Passing the Coast Guard's First District headquarters building, I noticed two female Coasties emerging from the building in their work blues. They walked ahead of me and disappeared into the Intercontinental.

I circled back for my meeting and realized my thoughts hadn't changed one bit. Nice place, glad I don't live there.

Time: 58 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: N/A.

What else happened today: met to finalize a Coast Guard history book project; mailed materials back to the golf club I'll be writing a book about later in the year; worked for four hours on the state's Breeding Bird Atlas project; attended the Hull-Nantasket Chamber of Commerce meeting; learned that yet another acquaintance, Mr. William Saltonstall, passed away over the weekend; read Images of America: South Carolina Lighthouses by Margie Willis Clary and Kim McDermott and reviewed it for Wreck & Rescue magazine and; did the same for Images of America: Georgia's Lighthouses by Patricia Morris.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009 - The Hill, Rockland, Massachusetts

"Faded glory" is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I walked Rockland's business district. I don't want it to be this way, but there's no doubt that the town's best days - yet - are in the past. But life can be cyclical, and Rockland may rise again.

It used to be that Union Street was the shopping center of the South Shore. There was no Hanover Mall, no Independence Mall, no South Shore Plaza. The main staple was shoes. Down near Union Square, Lelyveld's Shoes was the place to be. They had an x-ray machine for your feet, and kids used to stop there on the way home from school just to get another updated peek at how their bones looked each day.

But I was at the top of the Hill today, by the Rockland Trust building, built in 1907. The fire station stands on the same side of the street, from which numerous famous fire calls have been answered. Rockland has been known for some enormous conflagrations over the years, including the destructuve Brown Church Fire of July 16, 1890, that destroyed 14 buildings in all.

It's the building next door that got me thinking today, though, the Rockland Memorial Library. It was built partially with funds from Andrew Carnegie, a man who valued knowledge so much he spread his excess wealth around for the construction of such community centers. Now, just as we have finally elected a president that has made intelligence hip again, our economy is so bad that communities across the country are considering shuttering their libraries. Yes, the internet has changed the way we learn, but libraries are no longer just stacks of encyclopedias that are outdated the moment they are printed. Internet learning can be akin to reading a comic book in bed under the blankets with a flashlight. It's the exchange of ideas that drives greatness, and although dialogues can take place in many ways in the cyber realm, there's nothing like finding others with shared interests for face-to-face conversation. Libraries have more value than our local governments are giving them credit for.

Down Webster Street I passed the 1933 post office, another study in brick. I realized at that moment that I was as covered in snow as the buildings and cars. It was sticking to my big green parka, turning me into a walking snowman. Fun. Further on, the Joseph Stanley Turner house, built in the Second Empire style, shined through the snow, resplendent in a Victorian yellow.

I wove through the streets, searching out the ancient glories of the town. The Hurley Brothers Shoe Factory is still standing. That surprised me, as I had heard it was on the chopping block. This was the secret to Rockland's glory days. The factories stood just off the main drag, and while contracts were filled for big orders out of town, including for the military, there was always the direct retail sales to be made within walking distance. These shoe factories stand - tenuously - in about seven local towns.

On School Street I finally found that building for which I had been looking. Rockland's Grand Army Hall, is one of the most prominent of its kind, a massive, impressive tribute to our Civil War veterans. But the building is in a bad state of repair, reflective of the relative low times for the community at large. One good friend, Dean, told me about the days of the late 19th century when the Grand Army men, Union veterans, would gather for functions at the hall, sharing experiences only they could ever truly relate to. Among them was one transplant, a Confederate veteran who found himself in the north, but who still found camaraderie amongst his former enemies. He, too, had seen what they had seen. He would laugh with them, joke with them, and pray with them on Memorial Day, when they visited the graves of fallen brothers. But when it came time to take group photos, he would be politely but firmly told to step aside. Brotherhood could only reach so far.

I love Rockland, like all the South Shore towns, and I hope to see it continue to grow and prosper.

Time: 32 snow-blasted minutes.
New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else got done today: built a new toy for my baby boy with Michelle, which he took to immediately; shoveled the cars out, again; some media work with the regional daily newspaper; a day's work from home; posted a review on Amazon; wrote two magazine articles; learned that John Updike, the man who gave the commencement address when I graduated from college, passed away.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009 - The Glades, Scituate, Massachusetts

From the moment that you step beyond the gates, you know you're not in the real world any more. This is the Glades, a mystical, private, historic place.

The road is narrower, beyond the gates. And it's not even the same texture as the road outside. The dense forest on either side of the road closes in on you, bringing the wildlife within reaching distance. At this time of the year, it's the usual suspects: chickadees, titmice and robins, lots of robins.

There's a second gate, and a break in the woods. A few months ago we chased a southwestern visitor, a cave swallow, here, right on the rocks. Pulpit Rock is just behind the brush, where invisible preachers toss their words onto the breezes and out to sea. The seaside forest closes in once again, and then fades toward the point. Minot's Light stands coldly out in the distance.

As I tromped, a blue jay alarm-called to my rear. Before I could spin around a Cooper's hawk dove over my left shoulder and flew up the road. But all I got was a hind quarters look as it tore the air with its wings. At the point, I spied on the harbor seals sunning themselves on the offshore rocks. I don't think they saw me.

I turned for home in view of the old Glades House and as I did, the Cooper's hawk returned. It took no heed of me as it plunged into the brush ahead of me in pursuit of a very frightened robin. Less than half the killer's size, the robin escaped through a passerine-sized hole, and lit in a nearby tree, chirping a warning to its friends. The hawk extracted itself and circled the tree, but gave up and headed for the shoreline. As it landed on a flagpole cross-arm, a red-tailed hawk took its place in the sky.

The Humane Society - the one with all the lifeboat history, not the one that saves cats and dogs - had a lifeboat station out here, and it still stands today. The echoes here are of Hunnewells and Addams's, of talk of yacht races, and high times in the 19-teens. There are rumrunning memories here, too, including the scary story of a Coast Guardsmen beaten senseless by bootleggers while on patrol. There is more military history here as well, with observation towers looking out to sea.

One almost hates to leave the Glades, as if leaving it behind is stepping out of a fantasy world that is part safari, part time travel. But such was my fate today.

Time: 62 minutes.

New species: None.
Stranger hellos: 5 (44)

What else got done: half a day of work; dinner with Taylor and Tabitha in Sharon; doctor's appointment (ear, thyroid); gave a talk for the Foxboro Historical Society on Life-Saving Service history.

Monday, January 26, 2009

January 26, 2009 - Morton Park, Plymouth, Massachusetts

It's the stuff of early American legend. I get the sense that I might have liked Francis Billington, a Mayflower passenger who arrived on the Plymouth shore in 1620. According to the earliest records we have of the area, Billington climbed to the top of a tree to scout the landscape, and claimed to see a large body of water several miles to the west, which he mistook for an ocean. He pushed three miles or so through the ancient forest and discovered two ponds, one larger than the other: Billington Sea and Little Pond.

I just took a right off of Summer Street onto Morton Park Road. Never even thought of climbing a tree.

Ice fishermen, staked out across Little Pond, were hard at work, which meant that the lines were in the water and that they were sitting back and waiting. My guess is that it was a good day for it, without a hint of wind out there. Sure, it was below freezing, but as someone told me recently, there are no bad temperatures, just clothing shortages.

Walking on the road that rimmed the pond was not an option. It was so compacted with snow that it was slick, like walking on teflon. Off the road, it was crunchy, but safe underfoot. Over hills and into vales I walked until I found a wide open vista of frozen Billington Sea. When the sound of my own boots vanished, I could hear a fish crow calling from the trees on Seymour Island. My first bird of the year was a gull, and my 100th was a crow? Timing is everything.

The forest here is mostly composed of pines, oaks and beeches. While many of the young beeches here retain their 2008 leaves, holding onto them as natural fertilizer for the spring, others have shed them all. Those trees that have done os have already produced their 2009 leaves, but have them tighly wrapped at the ends of their long thin branches, holding onto their heat until the seasonal calendar tells them it's okay to unravel. About that time, we'll unwrap ourselves and bask in the sun, too.
As I walked along the edge of the sea, I could see that there were stairs that lead up onto Seymour Island, and that many of the tracks that led across the ice headed directly for them. As I pondered whether or not I should cross the pond and investigate, my left leg suddely went cold. Not today.
Instead, I completed the loop of the pond, finding chattery mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers along the way. One ice fisherman, at least, was successful today. He had a grill going on a picnic table. There's no missing the smell of frying fish.
Time: 75 minutes.
New species: fish crow, eastern bluebird (101).
Stranger hellos: 4 (39).
And the rest of the day: Haircut; bank; post office; printer; worked for three hours; finished a grant application; got interviewed by the Norwell Mariner; prepared a talk for Tuesday night; more writing; finished reading Beavertail Light Station by Varoujan Karentz.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 25, 2009 - More-Brewer Park, Hingham, Massachusetts

I miss frogs. I really do. And turtles and snakes. Bugs, not so much. As I walked around More-Brewer today, I passed by some pretty swampy areas - more on that later - and got to thinking of the sounds I've been missing: spring peepers peeping, green frogs startlingly chirping before jumping into ponds, and toads croaking the day away.

Instead, as I started out today, I found sledders, dads and kids. I thought about the frog gap that must exist between them. My guess is that the little guys have been introduced to frogs and are excited by them, but have temporarily left them off their list of stuff that's cool with all the snow around, and that the dads are so busy with their lives they hardly think about them at all. I hope the kids will reintroduce their parents to the wonderful world of amphibians through their schools and camps, and that they act as a gateway to nature for them all.

More-Brewer is a treasure to me. It's nearby my home, and has abundances of both history and nature, more than 150 acres of nineteenth century farmland. The Brewer family's legacy in Hingham is open space. They owned this place as well as the land that is now World's End Reservation. As I walked I pondered the stonewalls that once formed the foundation of what must have been a huge barn. The nearby fields once fed the sheep that were raised here. And, no doubt, some of the younger woods here were once fields as well.

I made a mistake today. I've stated before that I tend to walk trails in familiar places in consistent patterns. Today, I bucked that trend and went left where I usually go right. All of the intersections were backwards to me, and soon I found myself in a place I had never been before, Bear Swamp. And I mean that literally.

I found a footbridge I had never seen, and of course, had to cross it. A cross country skier had done so before me, so I figured all was good. Apparently that was awhile ago, though, as I scared up two flocks of black ducks, a total of 18 birds. They took off so quickly and vertically that I could hear branches breaking in the trees above as they fled. Sorry, gang.

The brush got thick, and I could see that the skier had turned around. No worries, a snowshoer had been here as well. I followed the big footprints forward over two more bridges, one made of pressure-treated lumber, and another from logs as natural as anything standing nearby.

I suddenly reached a divide in the trail. I could see that the snowhoer had come in on one set of tracks and walked out of the woods on the other. I chose the set moving forward and found myself on a beautiful oak hummock with a flock of chickadees. But I was entirely lost.

I could hear the commuter rail in the distance, so I knew that was to the west. I could see a few hills and guessed at their placement on the map. I stepped off the trail and started to walk toward what I thought was the exit. But I came to a stream. I couldn't discern its width and moved forward slowly. I knew I had to cross it one way or another, and looked around for a fordable spot.

In a blink, the ice broke beneath me and my left leg sunk into the freezing cold water up to my thigh. As I hadn't hit any bottom with my foot I fell backwards just as my right leg broke through, to try to redistribute my weight. As I landed, my right arm hit a small tree, which I grabbed onto and pulled myself backwards, out of the water.

I stood up and resigned myself to backtracking. I re-crossed a bridge and notcied that in the distance there was a heavier one. It wasn't the way I had come, but that bridge could carry a car if needed. It had to be a main trail. Past the tracks of a running fox, through some briars that tore at my jeans and overstepping a pile of deer scat, I made it to the trail. I still had no idea where I was, but using my internal compass, I turned left. After three minutes, I noticed a distant bank of rhododendrons, and knew exactly where I was.

I followed that trail to the nearest cup of hot chocolate I could find.

Time: 75 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else got done: my baby boy's laundry; lots of nonprofit work; preparation for a hectic week ahead; heard the sad news that a friend, possibly the greatest U.S. Coast Guardsman of all time, passed away in his sleep last night in Melbourne, Florida.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January 24, 2009 - North River Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield, Massachusetts

It's my home base, and I was saving it for later in the year when all will be in bloom, but circumstances dictated that today would be my North River Wildlife Sanctuary day. I'll walk here many, many more times this year, but this will be the only walk you'll read about in detail.

Today's walk might as well have been called "30 Minutes in the Dark," which I also think would be a cool idea for another blog. But that's for another day. I had a wedding to attend on the other side of Boston in the early afternoon, which meant that I had to get out early if I wanted to get my 30 in. No problem. My full-time work schedule took care of that.

A few years ago I learned a secret. When planning public programming, try to involve food as much as possible. My first attempt was "Pilgrims, Plovers and Pancakes": brunch at a famous historic Kingston, Massachusetts, landmark once owned by Pilgrim descendants, then birding on nearby Duxbury Beach in search of piping plovers. It sold well, so I expanded last year to include a second idea: "Owls and Omelets." I don't know if alliteration has anything to do with selling programs, but it's sure fun to try to think up the names.

I was at work at 5 a.m., a long time before sunrise. When you're searching for owls, that's good. By 5:30, seven people had joined me, and we set out onto the wildlife sanctuary. My job was simple. I had to bring them an owl that they could see plainly. My friends Ellen and Matt were going to take care of the omelet side. With digital recordings of the owls to play from an iPod, it can be a somewhat easy process. Owls respond to what they think are other owls under the guise of territorial defense. As such, we limit these programs to just a few a year, and we limit the calls we play to just a handful. We don't need to unduly agitate the owls, to stress them out just for show. I'll do this trick once again later in the year when working on the state's Breeding Bird Atlas project, as confirmation or non-confirmation of their presence will help us better understand their population status, which will allow us to strategize and develop plans for their conservation should we find they're in danger.

We weren't out in the field for three minutes before I called in a red phase eastern screech owl. It perched in a tree right in front of us, and at that point, I learned I had a new skill. With a flashlight in my left hand spotlighting a tiny bird thirty feet away and an iPod dangling from my wrist, I focused my digital camera, zooming it through the darkness to find the owl, and snapped the picture above. We later called in a second screech, but failed to rouse a great horned owl anywhere on the sanctuary. After an hour and a half, the breakfast bell rang and we retreated to the caretakers' cottage for crab souffle, homemade toast, bacon, ham, sausage and cheese and mushroom omelets.
I can't wait for April. That's when we test out "Timberdoodles and Tapas."
Time: 83 minutes.
New species: eastern screech owl (99).
Stranger hellos: None.
What else happened: finished research on the golf course history; attended Amy and Jerry's wedding in Danvers/Salem; dinner with Michelle's parents.

Friday, January 23, 2009

January 23, 2009 - Gun Rock, Hull, Massachusetts

Oh, the stories I could tell you about this place. I started at Town Hall. Built in 1922 to accomodate the political boss, John Smith, who lived across the street, and didn't want to have to travel too far to work. And look atop the building. That's a Viking ship weathervane, and it's symbolic of the town's long-held belief that Thorvald the Viking played out the Vinland Saga here amongst the Skraelings (Native Americans) on the seven hills that make up the town.

Down Valley Beach Avenue I passed the spot where the Pacific House used to be. George M. Cohan once performed there in front of a crowd that included Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and her husband Joe. Those echoes are long gone. At the base of the street, off the rocks, a dovekie appeared two years ago, a little seabird that rarely visits these shores.

Around the corner, the St. Mary's Church, now condos, brings back the story of its construction in 1890. Boxer John L. Sullivan offered up $5000 for its foundation in 1885, but the church felt there would be too much blood on the money, as it would be coming from one of his bareknuckles prize fights, and raised funds on its own. Around the corner on Stony Beach Road, a jeep and a tea cup from Paragon Park rides melt into the landscape, as memories of the park itself fade away with age.

At Gun Rock Beach, the candle house is changing color again, being freshly painted. The facade facing the beach looks fantastic; the rest of the house is, let's say, awaiting treatment. This area has been hit hard by so many storms that some of the locals have smartly purchased and installed electric exterior roll-down shutters for seaward-facing windows. The Blizzard of 1978 nearly wiped this place off the map. Two years later, during the Winter Olympics, I remember riding through Gun Rock Avenue with my dad listening to the replay of the USA-Russia game in Lake Placid.

Straits Pond is frozen and covered with snow. Soldiers from Fort Revere used to skate here a hundred years ago. This summer I'll help the Straits Pond Watershed Association launch their floating tree swallow boxes for another big year.

Oh, the stories I could tell you about this place.

Time: 34 minutes.

New species for the year: King eider (lifebird), harlequin duck, red-necked grebe, lesser black-backed gull, black guillemot, snowy owl, short-eared owl, eastern meadowlark (98).

Stranger hellos: None.

Other items from the day: Co-led a three and a half hour bird walk in Plymouth and Duxbury; returned to the ivory gull; went to bed early in anticipation of an early morning.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22, 2009 - Proving Grounds, Scituate, Massachusetts

For the past two summers, I've participated in the state's Breeding Bird Atlas 2 project. Last year, as a regional coordinator for the project, I looked at the map of the available blocks and noticed a tiny sliver of Scituate coastline that was a block unto itself. I realized it would be silly to assign it to anybody else, and took the task for myself.

I walked here last summer on two or three occasions. Most of the area within the block falls in the old military proving grounds utilized by the Army at the end of World War I. The old documents list it as "1 1/2 miles north of Scituate" - meaning the harbor - and as accessible from the Watertown Arsenal by means of a macadamized road. This was important. The arsenal was providing carriages for howitzers that needed testing and the proving grounds were the spot to find out if they would do the job for which they were made. The Greenbush train line was as useful as that macadam road in getting those carriages to town, and the fact that Scituate Harbor was so close by allowed the Army to consider testing 155 millimeter howitzers from as far away as Bridgeport, Connecticut.

One hundred and thirty enlisted men and ten officers once worked here. During the Second Worl War it became the headquarters of the local Irish mossers. Today's it's overgrown with briars and overrun with robins. And blue jays. And cedar waxwings. And only half of it is publicly accessible, as half is privately owned and possibly in line for development. I walked around and through the public side, straining to hear the voices and the booms of the past, to no satisfaction.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: cedar waxwing (90).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else happened: eight hours at work, dinner with the in-laws, some more writing, some more photo scanning for an upcoming book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21, 2009 - Water Street, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The day ahead was going to be a long one, and I had no idea whether or not I would get my walk in later, so I had to give up on some sleep to get it in. I figured that if I was going to do it early, there should be some sort of reward.

My body has told me in capital letters, at the top of its lungs, in neon lights, that rewards from now on cannot be sugary. And the economy has told me that they cannot be frivolous. So I turned to nature.

I parked at Nelson Street Beach Park and began walking south. The sun was not up yet, and the creature I sought was nowhere to be seen. But ten minutes into my walk, as the slightest hint of the sun peeked through the clouds, there was life. American black ducks amassed in huge numbers near the shore behind the building that I always knew as Cranberry World, and gulls began their short trek from loafing grounds on Plymouth Beach across the bay. My grandmother lived nearby when I was a kid, and whenever we visited her, we visited Cranberry World. We sampled all the Ocean Spray products in little paper cups and loved to watch the continual loop of old commercials that was part of the museum display. I distinctly remember one in which Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street pushed a handcart through the streets yelling "Cran-apple! Cran-grape!"

But back to 2009. Reports had come from birders all around the region last night of an extremely rare gull actively feeding on a dead rock pigeon behind the East Bay Grille restaurant, an all-white bird called an ivory gull. I figured that would be an ample reward for sticking to this routine of thirty minutes a day no matter what, the enjoyment of experiencing something new, seeing something I had never seen before and might never see again. A second one had been seen for three days in Gloucester, an unprecedented double-ivory attack on Massachusetts.

I didn't have to wait long. The trick to finding a good bird sometimes is finding the birders. They were there with the sunrise, and soon began to point en masse. The gleaming white little visitor soared close by, so closely I felt like I could have reached up and grabbed it. But what a bizarre thing to ponder. This small bird is one of a vanishing breed, a species disappearing from our planet because its habitat is eroding. The same melting ice caps that are endangering our polar bears are stealing the breeding grounds of these gulls. The way that this bird actively performed for the gathering crowd, giving its slight, wheezing call, it seemed as if it was trying to deliver a message about its plight. I was, of course, misinterpreting its normal high-energy behavior, but at least the bulleted point about its bleak future and the need for action got through to me.

Time: 33 minutes.
New species: Ivory gull (89 - lifebird).
Stranger hellos: None.
What else is shakin': Cleaned out the tree swallow and wood duck boxes at North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Duxbury with a team of staff and volunteers; re-visited the ivory gull with that team later in the day; finished scanning pics for the golf course book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

January 20, 2009 - Hobartville, Hull, Massachusetts

It was a Kennedy kind of day. I spent my lunchtime hour watching President Obama's inaugrual address from a seat in the restaurant of the clubhouse of the Camp Edwards/Otis Air Force Base golf course. Otis, because of its proximity to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, was the secure home airbase of choice for JFK during his presidency. When I started my walk later in the day, I was standing in the shadow of the Hull Memorial School clock tower. The building was dedicated by then-Representative Kennedy in the late 1940s. The Obama-Kennedy connections are, of course, self-evident. For those of us too young to remember JFK's inauguration, was the energy of hope and optimism comparable to that felt today around the world? After all, in some ways, the message delivered in both speeches was the same.

But Hobartville, you ask? I walked north, backwards through the alphabet streets, from "L" to "A," along the water's edge. Before these streets were paved, before these blocks were crowded shoulder to shoulder with houses, "Citizen" Hobart, as he was known, was one of the first summer visitors to invest in the future of Nantasket as a seasonal resort. He convinced friends to join him on the bay shore north of Strawberry Hill and together they built a string of similar looking homes in the Second Empire style, many of which still stand today. It was the first summer colony on the plains of the Nantasket peninsula.

But Sunset Avenue, the road that hooks the coastline here, has a previous history. Once a hill, it had a name derived from the results of a great Native American battle: Skull Head. The area was supposedly scattered with skulls of lost warriors when the first European settlers arrived. The "head," or low hill, was cut down to make Nantasket Avenue in the 1870s.

It was cold again today. The bay was active with horned grebes, surf scoters and common eiders, signs that summer is far, far away. That and the ice, of course. Two horned larks surprised me at the end of K Street, almost the last creatures I expected to see there.

The pier at A Street will always bring back memories. Swimming lessons, dropping lines off the side to catch fish, even riding my bike out to the end with a baseball bat across the handlebars and a glove dangling off the grips.

My final quest for the day is to walk the Central-A-Cadish-B Street loop. I want to see just how big John Mitchell's coal and lumber empire was. The whole block was once his, before he ran afoul of the town's boss in the 1910s. Now it's condos and private homes, with no memories of those politically-charged days.

I was still recovering from the damned cold that's had me since Saturday, so it was another short one today. Just glad that my mind still works at full speed, even if my lungs won't.

Time: 33 minutes.

New species: Horned lark (88).

Stranger hellos: 1 (35).

The rest of the day: Spent most of it at Otis, scanning pics for a new book due to the publisher in April; reviewed page proofs of another, due out in May; scanned more pics for a third book due next year.

Monday, January 19, 2009

January 19, 2009 - Jackson Square, East Weymouth, Massachusetts

There's a herring run here, well inland. I wondered, as I walked past, what the chance was of seeing herring here this spring, given the collapse of the species in the North Atlantic. In my annual trips to Machias Seal Island to see the puffin breeding colony, I've watched bird after bird return to the nest to feed their youngsters with everythig but their food of choice, the herring. But that's months away, so I walked on.

Before I reached the Stephen Rennie Herrring Run Park I could smell Niko's. It was almost 11 a.m., but the scent of breakfast was still strong, the parking lot was full, and, peeking in the windows, I could tell that it was SRO. As always.

The sidewalks were a hit-and-miss proposition today, as some merchants had gone all out to clean them while others hadn't bothered at all. I crossed from Niko's and passed the Venetian, where my mother-in-law tried, in vain, unfortunately, to induce my wife's labor with some of the restaurant's famous antipasto in month nine. A Weymouth legend took a hit that day. But we didn't have to wait too much longer after that for our bundle of joy to arrive.

At the top of the hill, the soldier atop the town's Korean War Memorial was piled high with snow. It's a laughable scene, but sadly many of our fighting men have braved worse than today on our behalf, so I keep my chuckle to myself. We got seven inches or so overnight, and the temperature climbed to almost forty. Korea had its share of nasty winter weather. I wouldn't have wanted to be there, or in Europe during the winter of 1944 in World War II. For America's fighting men, it goes all the way back to Valley Forge. Their sacrifices came in many, many different ways, and I thank them all for what they gave and continue to give.

A church bell clanged eleven times. Farther up the street I found one of my favorite trees, a Camperdown elm, one of about a half dozen I know of on the South Shore. Camperdowns are grafted, all descendants of a single tree in Scotland. Their presence on a front lawn is an indicator of Victorian Age wealth. In fact, all around Jackson Square there are signs. Some of the old homes here give the auras of shoe manufacturing magnates or other champions of industry. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall around the corner also brings back the 1890s, when communication and transportation advances brought people of common interests together in ways they never had gathered before.

But I wasn't in a gathering condition today, so it was back to the car and the Cold-Eeze. But illness and snow will pass.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: None, not a herring.

Stranger hellos: 2 (34)

What else got done: shoveled the cars out, again; read fifty more pages in Varoujan Karentz's Beavertail Light Station; generally recuperated in the face of a hectic upcoming week.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 18, 2009 - Union Street, South Weymouth, Massachusetts

I hadn't properly tied my right boot, and it felt on every step as if I was about to lift myself right out of it. But I couldn't turn back, and I couldn't stop.

The freshly fallen snow was untouched before me, the winter "blanket" we mention all too often. I've spent many hours this year searching for tracks in the snow on my daily walks, but today, there just was nothing to find. I was blazing a trail.

From time to time, I was forced to hop onto a ridge of snow, as I heard noises to my rear, and I wanted to see what they were. The sky was slate gray from end to end, but the snow had finally stopped for the day, after leaving about seven inches on top of whatever it was that was left from all the other storms. And there's more on the way later this week.

Onward I pushed, one task in mind, one goal to reach. I looked both ways and crossed the major trail through the area. Although the snow was relatively light, I had no idea what was underfoot with every move forward. I slipped and slid, but then, finally I found the quarry for which I had been searching: the mailbox. It had been eight minutes.

Down with a cold that developed late yesterday afternoon, I figured I should stick close to home. Doesn't it always happen this way? I have a day off from work, so I caught a cold and seven inches of snow fell throughout the day. A thought struck me as I walked, or, rather, as I paused to watch a red-tailed hawk fly overhead. Is this stretch of bad weather for the northeast a reflection of the economoic downturn? World War II was known for bad weather globally. The Great Depression was marked by the "dust bowl" years, when farmers out west couldn't grow anything because of unusually arid conditions and terrible dust storms. And during the Middle Ages, as one of my favorite professors at UMASS used to say, the weather was up in the air.

Too much thinking. Time to go beat the cold.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (32)

More accomplishments for the day: shoveled out both cars; read 50 pages in Beavertail Light Station by Varoujan Karentz; answered dozens of emails that have been waiting for my attention.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 17, 2009 - Brant Rock, Marshfield, Massachusetts

There's a reason Route 139 takes the bizarre twist that it does through Marshfield. There was a time when Brant Rock was the place to be, when establishments like the Fieldston boasted the hottest swing bands in the nation and the sandy stretches of beach off the esplanade beckoned couples to the water's edge for romantic moonlit walks.

There was no moon showing at noon today when I started my walk near Arthur and Pat's, and the sun was hardly out either. The deep freeze of the region continued this morning, making the section of Marshfield beyond the commercial strip a ghost town. I walked down the middle of Ocean Street without fear of being beeped at by cars. There simply were none in motion.

Smells were a hallmark of the day. The staff at the Fairview was making lunch, and the grill was giving off a familiar scent. Just a few feet down the road a well-stoked fireplace reminded me that it's winter.

Natural shingling is the standard here, and growing up in a coastal town, I know why. The salt spray off the ocean eats paint. Homeowners learn quickly that it's counterproductive to pay for coat after coat, and to accessorize the shades of gray in the shingles. Some of those shingles protect well-known homes, like the Adelaide Phillips cottage, and more shelter the ancient frames of sheds and other small outbuildings that have been here for a century or more. Many of them are bowing at the roofline, showing a hundred-year sag. Rather than making the nieghborhood look tired, it adds charm.

Out on the water, two harbor seals found a partially sunken rock. One of them was lying on it on its belly, head and tail out of the water, midriff submerged. The other one was bottling, poking its nose out of the water perpendicular to the surface.

The scene on Green Harbor is not as playful. The water here is nearly entirely frozen. It's possible to get into the harbor by boat, but deep inside, some moored lobstermen are socked in. And that's a shame. A friend of mine from Hull, with whom I spent a good day's lobstering for a newspaper article several years ago, tells me that despite the firgidness, the lobstering in New England is good in January. Let's hope for their sake, the ice does not continue to grow.

Time: 52 minutes.

New species: Mammals: harbor seal (8); Birds: rough-legged hawk, long-tailed duck (87).

Stranger hellos: 1 (30).

Other accomplishments: Led a two-hour walk at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary; lots of time with my baby boy; wrote a book review for; caught my breath after a hectic week.

Friday, January 16, 2009

January 16, 2009 - Cushing Memorial State Park, Scituate, Massachusetts

It's the smallest state park in Massachusetts and probably the country, but I haven't comfirmed the latter thought. And usually, when I'm walking there, it belongs solely to me.

Chief Justice William Cushing lived near here, in a house overlooking the North River. And what a life he led. He was Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court back when Massachusetts also included Maine. He was asked - by George Washingtton, no less - to join the U.S. Supreme Court, but felt that his health was not good enough to do so. And he then preceded to live for another decade. During those days, in the 1790s, he was also one of the first Americans to speak out against the institution of slavery.

This was his land.

His burial site is the focal point of the park. It's marked by the largest stones in a walled plot. Several other family members are buried here as well. There have been numerous clean-up efforts here over the years. At one point, nature had so thoroughly reclaimed the hill, the family cemetery had to be re-discovered by a team tromping through the woods, and carved back out of the wilderness. Eagle socuts have laid out trails and erected interpretive signage kiosks. Several years ago, I led a day of landscaping on behalf of the Scituate Historical Society to prepare for a visit by the state's then Supreme Court Chief Justice, Chief Margaret Marshall. We arranged for the seventh graders from the Gates School to be there, to connect the old Chief Justice with the new Chief Justice. Born in South Africa, Marshall's message about apartheid sure rang bells with the story of Cushing and slavery.

It's hard to get a half an hour out of this place. But today, I tried. A trail leads down the wooded side of the hill from the burial plot to an unnamed body of water below. Here, too, I have memories. There are great horned owls that raise their young here. A few years ago, in my new role with Mass Audubon, I became the second person in Massachusetts to ever photograph a yellow rail, a tiny wetland bird, in the wild. You just never know where life is going to lead you. That was the thought I had in my head when the eastern cottontail scooted into the underbrush. Walking around in a total of three degrees on the Fahrenheit scale after almost three quarters of an hour in both contemplation and the wild, I decided to look for cover, too.

Time: 42 minutes.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is shakin': Led a three and a half hour biridng program; staff holiday party; dinner with Michelle's parents; finished reading Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt; wrote the other blog, too.
New species: Birds: Eurasian wigeon, American wigeon, northern shoveler, northern pintail, green-winged teal, sanderling, fox sparrow, red-winged blackbird (85). Mammals: coyote, brown rat, meadow vole, eastern cottontail (7).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15, 2009 - Norris Reservation, Norwell, Massachusetts

I always go left. Whenever I walk the Norris Reservation in the heart of Norwell Center, I reach the split in the trail just beyond the old mill dam, and I inevitably go left. Perhaps I have a thing about walking loops in clockwise fashion. So today I went right.

One of the greatest natural indicators of ambient temperature in suburbia is here at Norris, the rhododendron. When the temperature drops, the leaves of this woody shrub curl up to protect themselves from the cold. In my former existence as a landscaper, of so many years ago, I planted rhododendrons, I transplanted rhododendrons and I pruned rhododendrons. I know when they're happy and when they're not. These were not happy rhododendrons. It was profoundly cold.
A Cooper's hawk perched in a tree as I started on the trail, watching for small birds below. But at 12 degrees, there was little movement. I didn't see another living creature until I looped Gordon Pond and came across a swamp sparrow that was either so trained to be near humans or simply so hungry that it practically danced across my feet in search of food.
The trails here cross stonewalls. I could not help but think of boundary disputes of old, when crossing this wall might have brought the ire of a farmer down upon the head of the transgressor. Those farmers are probably rolling over in their graves today, as the bounds they worked so hard to establish have been erased for the sake of recreation.
Out on the North River a female common goldeneye joined a flock of common mergansers. As I stopped to give them a glance, I realized that I was not, in fact, as alone as I thought I was. I heard distant crunching. The snow today was like pavement, but pavement covered in a thin layer of sand. I knew right away it was human, as it was too consistent to be a deer, and too heavy to be anything else that lives in this part of the state. Snowshoers! Two of them, enjoying the day as I was.
A red-tailed hawk graced the famouns bend in the river below Rocky Reach. Across the river, I could see Tom's place, which I wrote about recently for South Shore Living magazine. Next door I could see Brad's, where I spent many a Thursday morning cutting the lawn as a kid. The North River is an amazingly interconnected place, or at least it is in my memory bank. And with 350 days to go in 2009, I've got plenty of time to explore it from all angles.
Time: 65 minutes.
New Species for 2009: Swamp sparrow (77).
Stranger hellos: 2 (29).
What else is happening: six hours of press releases, more writing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January 14, 2009 - Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton, Massachusetts

Joe said that it looked like someone had been rolling a tire through the woods, and I could see that.

My walk today took place far from home, and with a large group of friends. And it was an official walk, a training session for my full-time job. We were learning about tracking from one of the best, and in one of the best possible places.
The Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary is a former and once-again farm. It was also once a stagecoach stop and a trainside attraction. Princeton was once a favored summer retreat for the hoi polloi of Boston, accessible by that train. Today, it's sleepy, natural and beautiful.

The animals seem to like it, anyway. They were everywhere. And the key word is "were." Although we only saw two of the creatures we sought, we tracked ten more through the woods.
We started small. On the road out in front of the old Goodnow place, now the sanctuary headquarters, we found many of the hoppers we all know so well. Gray squirrels are the most obvious and most prevalent. Their large back feet and small forelegs form an interesting imprint in the snow. And I learned today that it's normally the width of Joe's fist with the thumb slightly extended. Now the red squirrel, that's a fist with the thumb tucked in. We saw their tracks, too, and then saw one scurrying through the underbrush along an old stonewall. An eastern cottontail rabbit hasd also passed that way.
Down by the farm pond, we found a river otter slide. The pond was frozen, so we walked out onto it, and found that the critter had moved from well across the pond, leaving a trail that led into the distance, then along a stonewall and into an open water patch near an outfall pipe. Here and there it slid on its belly. Looked like fun, but it was more likely to save energy.
Into the woods we went, past a huge fallen bitternut hickory tree. About fifty feet up, four wild turkeys sat perched, out of the snow, but in the breeze. The recent ice storm ravaged these woods. All around us the tops of trees had snapped off, leaving long, tan stretches of freshly split trunk wood open to the sky. Joe said it looked like a giant had come through with an axe and swung his way through the forest at treetop level. As we walked, we found tracks that may have belonged to those specific birds, but definitely more. In one section of woods, six wild turkeys had marched together. They crisscrossed the trail of a red fox we followed for seemingly a mile, an animal which Joe termed as the most boring red fox in the world. Never changed its gait, and just moved straight ahead forever.
With fresh snow on the ground, we could only wonder at the timing of it all. As we back-tracked the red fox, we found the tracks of several porcupines and some evidence that at least one had done some nibbling up in a tree. A coyote bisected the fox's prints, as did numerous whitetail deer. Here and there mice, voles and shrews left their marks. Did any of these animals even catch a glimpse of each other? Or was their timing such that they all set their tracks independently, wandering through the woods with nothing but the sound of falling ice trickling through the trees?
When the red fox crossed the tracks of a fisher, we changed directions. Since we couldn't find any bobcat tracks, we settled for the big ferocious weasel. Rather than tracking him back to where his prints began, we tracked him forward, knowing that catching up with him would be near impossible. In fact, we followed him to the street, where the pavement swallowed up his story. With ten of us moving through the woods, though, we had certainly left a take of our own.
Time: 160 minutes
New species: Red squirrel (third mammal species of the year).
Stranger hellos: None.
What else got done: more manuscript writing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13, 2009 - Sand Pits, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I would never have known the sand pits existed had I not been forced to scrutinize the Marshfield map for the state's Breeding Bird Atlas project last year. I noticed a big blank area in a map within my "block," and dove headlong into the woods. Little did I know the woods were just a disguise.

On a summer's day I walked this area under a blazing hot sun, unprotected by the large trees that completely rim the vast bowl of seeming nothingness. A mother killdeer used broken wing techniques to throw me off the trail of her youngsters. A prairie warbler built a nest in a low shrub. A ruby-throated hummingbird zipped past a buzzing eastern kingbird atop a tree. Today, the snow buried those memories, and hid the truth about the unexpected soil composition below.

I have never felt sorry for myself in wintry conditions, since I have feet. I don't have to be here. I can walk away. But the small trees struggling for life in the wide open space have had it bad this winter - and winter, mind you, is only three weeks old - trying to support the weight of all the snow that has fallen. At first I compared their recent plights to those of my spine. But for me, the pain of snow shoveling only comes a few hours every few days. The small conifers here have drooped limbs and twisted trunks, and no way to shake the snow off.

I noticed that there was a strange phenomenon happening. Many of the trees here had icicles dangling from the ends of their limbs. During yesterday's thaw (today it's back to 29, below freezing), water starting running off the limbs at the most convenient point. As the temperatures dropped, the ice built up into this shiny display, leaving long this spikes of frozen water hanging from the limbs. One per limb, no more.

Back in the woods, I tried to relocate a hummingbird nest I had found last summer. I found the tree and found the branch, but it was covered from end to end with snow. There was no chance of finding the thimble-sized cup of moss until the snow was gone. And that hummingbird is somewhere well far south of here right now. Smart bird.

My last sighting today was a red-shouldered hawk that perched on the same tree one utilized last summer Same one? Most likely, but nearly impossible to tell. I'd like to think so.

Time: 50 minutes
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: None.
What else got done: worked for 8 hours at the day job; went to the Bruins-Canadiens game at night; formatted a book manuscript; wrote articles for two magazines.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 12, 2009 - George Washington Forest, Hingham, Massachusetts

I was dumbfounded the moment I stepped into the woods. I'd driven by this stretch of woods hundreds of times in my life - literally - and always admired it from the car widndow. But until that moment, I had no idea of the beauty that awaited beyond the streetside wall of nature.
Perhaps it was the fact that the trail immediately surged up a small hill, making the trees at the crest look even taller than they were. I couldn't tell you at that moment what was on the ground in front of me (other than snow), as my eyes were drawn toward the heavens. There's a reason the term "Cathedral of the Pines" is overused when describing forests of this sort.

But I eventually tore myself away. Like many pine stands, there are two sets of life on display. First, the mature trees, the few that have fought their way to the forest ceiling. They've allowed their lower branches to die off, casting them away in trade for the limbs at their crowns, where their needles will catch the sunlight needed for photosynthesis. Second, on the forest floor wait the next generations. Dozens of young trees stand there, but their future may be bleak. Unless one or more of the old trees dies and opens a hole in the canopy, without sunlight, these young trees are fighting a losing battle. Today, they had their own problems, wilting under the weight of the freshly fallen snow.

I wondered, as I walked, if the lone cross country skier who preceded me here thought about any of these topics. Probably not. Judging by the number of pole thrusts and the fishboning he or she had to do in places, there was obviously a little sweat left behind on the trail. With more snow falling this morning, the walking - or skiing, in this case - hadn't gotten any easier.

At trail crossroads, the sun shined to the forest floor. Only here did the kinglets congregate. Elsewhere, the woods were entirely silent. After twenty-six minutes, I had no desire to turn around, but I had to. The sun was piercing through the trees sideways, and has almost reached the horizon.
Time: 61 minutes.
New species: None!
Stranger hellos: None!
What else got done: Shoveled more snow, lots of nonprofit work, spent time on the playmat with the baby.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

January 11, 2009 - Island Grove, Abington, Massachusetts

It was another bad day for the best-laid plans of mice and men. In the end, though, I felt worse for the mice than I did for myself.

I had my own problems dealing with the snow this morning, another six inches or so. Its arrival overnight meant two more hours of shoveling for me. But at least that had no life or death consequences. Can't say the same for the mice.
If you're a mouse, you're not built for the winter. Sure, the fur helps beat the cold, but think about that most imperative defense mechanism, camouflage. We don't think on a daily basis about being eaten. But for prey animals, it's a way of life. The easier it is to be seen from above, the easier it is to be devoured. It makes me shudder. What a way to go.
Today, at least one mouse met this fate before I arrived at Island Grove. Tracks left the underbrush and were met after ten feet by the snowy equivalent of a splash. A hawk or owl made the swooping, pouncing attack and carried of its prey. No mouse tracks flowed back out from the scene of the assault.
There was an underlying layer of ice beneath the snow, and it made for some cautiousness on my part. Each step came with a slip. It was a calf-ripping kind of walk. At one point I slipped on the side of a hill and envisioned ending up in the freezing cold pond a half mile from the nearest human. But my instincts kicked in quickly and I stopped my fall.
Island Grove has meant many things to many people. Moses Arnold's monument to the great abolitionists of the 19th century recalls the annual meetings held here by William Lloyd Garrison in the days leading up to the Civil War. The main monument brings back the day of the dedication of the Civil War memorial during the 1912 bicentennial celebration of Old Abington (the "Abington" boys that fought in the war came from "Old Abington," meaninng Abington, Whitman and Rockland). The pavilion? That was for train loads of Sunday picnickers who visited Island Grove for baseball games and butterfly catching in the early 1900s.
As for today, it was the water of Island Grove Pond, in its solid state, that was the big attraction. A team of would-be shinny stars had gathered all of the snow shovels from the neighborhood and taken to the ice. The industriousness of the recreational New England hockey player knows no bounds. Despite the vast amount of energy they expended in simply creating their playing surface, they would be batting pucks around until the sun went down. I wished them luck.
Time: 35 minutes
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: 1 (27)
Other stuff going on: shoveled us out; watched some Baby Einsten with the baby; dinner with Michelle's parents.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

January 10, 2009 - Round Pond, Duxbury, Massachusetts

The first to go were my ears. Next came the end of my nose. My fingers followed, despite my gloves. It was seventeen degrees this morning when I set out on the trail, and it was seventeen when I got back.

Despite these frigid temps, people were out and moving around. Many of them had to be. Of the fifteen people I met today on the trails, nine of them had dogs. The other six had bikes. I don't know what they were thinking. And they probably had no idea what I was thinking either.

The trails at Round Pond vary from wide open, windswept cranberry bogs and, of course, the pond itself, to dense pine woods. The pond is formed by a kettle hole, made by glaciers, and was used by the Merry family as a source of ice beginning in the 1880s. Any entrepreneurial young man who owned such a pond, or had the back strength to dig one, and who learned the secrets of the trade (it involved a lot of sawdust), could make a fortune by selling ice to hotels along the South Shore each summer before refrigeration. We take it for granted today that we have ice on demand. It wasn't always the case.

The weather today had the birds fooled. Chickadees, on three occasions that I heard, sang their two-note spring song. A downy woodpecker even drummed on a tree, his mating ritual, also a sign of spring. Sure, the sun was out, the sky was a clear blue to all points of the compass, but it was seventeen degrees! Had nature gone crazy?

Ubiquitous pine cone middens, though, showed that the squirrels, at least, hadn't stopped working to find food. Closer inspection showed that neither had the red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers, the kinglets, titmice or nuthatches. Throughout the woods they moved in mixed flocks, kept in constant contact by the continuous chatter of the chickadees.

They'll need that teamwork tomorrow, as more snow is on the way.
Time: 113 minutes
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: 15 (26)
What else took place: gave a talk on "The Birds of Duxbury Beach" at the Marshfield Senior Center; got hit by a car (luckily I was in mine at the time); read 100 pages in Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt.

Friday, January 9, 2009

January 9, 2009 - Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Worcester, Massachusetts

The snow out in Worcester today had more of a feel of permanence than what I'd been experiencing on the South Shore of Boston. It supported my weight ninety per cent of the time, with only the occasional crunch through. That made tracking difficult, which was a shame, as there was little else going on wildlife-wise. Well, at the start of the walk anyway.

There was not a bird to be seen or heard for the first hour of my trip today. There was one bird discussion. One man stopped me and asked if I had seen a program recently on the extinct Bermuda tern. But apparently, unlike him, the birds in these woods were not interested in speaking to me. Nary a peep arose from the power lines, and not a chip issued forth from the Smiley Face Trail.

Yes, the Smiley Face Trail. The trees were marked all along with the familiar 1970s iconic image. The irony was that the trail was in rough shape, enough to make one frown as he or she tossed aside downed branches or found alternate paths around large felled trees. Some parts of the trails - all of them - looked as if a logging company had stopped for lunch and then never came back. The recent storms had certainly taken their toll on these woods. Who knows how many combined centuries of tree life have fallen in recent days?

At the end of the Smiley Face Trail I emerged onto Granite Street. I felt naked as cars passed. At the first chance I got I ducked back into the woods, via the power lines. Not even the sight of the new windmill on Vernon Hill could make me stay. It's amazing how much safer I feel in the woods than on the roads, how much more at home.

On the Cardinal Trail, I finally heard a golden-crowned kinglet. When I emerged onto the Troiano Brookside Trail, staring the full moon in the face, I met up with thirty-two mallards, seventeen males and fifteen females. Eighty-nine American crows flew west, heading for a roost as the sun hit the horizon. I met another man who told me where that roost was, and where I could find a flock of cedar waxwings if I had the time. I notched the conversation as a stranger hello for my list, but just a minute into our confab, he mentioned a common friend. That was just one degree of separation; could he be counted as a stranger? Well, separation is separation. He went on the list.

Not ready to call it quits, I found one more loop to loop, the Frog Pond Trail to the Sprague Trail to the Enchanted Forest Trail. I crossed the Broad Meadow Brook three times to fit it in, holding onto a small tree for support the last go-round. I was watching my footing when I reached up to grab the tree. I felt the density of the wood and knew right away what it was. Sinewy and strong, the American hornbeam is also known as "ironwood" or "musclewood."

The trees had been a specific focus of my walk today. I found myself staring at trunks. Although no reports had said they were here, I was fascinated with the concept of finding damage from or the exit holes of Asian longhorned beetles on maple trees. I'm happy to say that I didn't see any evidence whatsoever during my entire sojourn.

Two hours into the walk, the sun was nearly down. Crepuscular species were starting to stir. The many white-tailed deer that use these woods - the only creatures heavy enough to really leave tracks in the frozen snow - were ready to claim their portion of the day. I left the woods to them, as my meeting was about to start anyway.

Time: 129 minutes

What else is going on: Led my weekly three and a half hour birding porogram (see below); regional coordinators' meeting for the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas II project.

New species for 2009: Redhead, Ring-necked duck, Greater scaup, Lesser scaup, Barrow's goldeneye, Common merganser, Red-throated loon, Double-crested cormorant, Great cormorant, Black-crowned night heron, Cooper's hawk, American kestrel, Purple sandpiper, Belted kingfisher, Northern flicker, Gray catbird, Brown thrasher, Yellow-breasted chat (life bird!), Snow bunting (number 76 for the year).

Stranger hellos: 4 (11)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 8, 2009 - The Driftway, Scituate, Massachusetts

Imagine the rush that must have come to nineteenth century residents of the South Shore of Massachusetts when a railroad line announced it would be coming into their neighborhood. Your entire life you've walked, ridden horses, been pulled in carriages. Most of the world's places were accessible only in novels or sensationalist magazines, or had to be worth a jostling, uncomfortable and potentially unhealthy stagecoach ride. Then, suddenly, the mechanized glory of a locomotive appeared on the horizon. Think of the commercial impact for a small community; contemplate the tourism potential.

This morning I walked a bit of that dream. The people of Marshfield once hoped for such advantages, and in the end paid dearly for it. The Greenbush line, recently re-established, once continued across the North River into Marshfield to help make Brant Rock an accessible summer tourist destination for the people of Boston. Today, part of that old line is a newly-established open space trail off Scituate's Driftway.

It's shorter than I thought. I covered my mouth when the blowing diesel fumes of the trucks warming up to my right overtook me, paused to see the replicated saltmarsh to the left and braced myself when I reached the lonely windrow of cedar trees just before the marsh opened up before me. In just nine minutes, I stood at the end of the trail, watching a northern harrier hunt over the grasses. The westerly winds did their best to blow me seaward as I watched the railbed disappear into the distance. Before me, the ancient piles of a small bridge that once supported the train stood crookedly; to my right, the remains of an old hay dock lined the inside of a trench cut to establish ownership rights of the valuable saltmarsh. Nine minutes later, I was back at the parking lot. I turned and headed up the Driftway.

There's so much history here. The Clapp family cemetery is now visible from the street, something that would never have happened were Dorothy Clapp Langley still around. She protected the family legacy with ferociousness that bordered on bullyism. But she's gone now, and there it sits, a victim of clear-cutting "development." Across the way was the old Boston Sand and Gravel Company. How much Scituate sand today supports Logan Airport? Colman's Heights stand nearby, the site of a ridiculously perched hotel. Even the dump has significance: circular-scarred bones discovered here a decade ago supported the belief that the building that is now the Scituate Maritime & Irish Mossing Museum once served as a smallpox hospital. And the museum has a new lawn ornament, Lucien Rousseau's old moss-flipping tractor, parked out front during the mossers' reunion last year, and not moved since. While standing next to the tractor, I ran into an old friend. No stranger hellos today, but one acquaintance renewed.

I drifted back to the car in the wind and reflected on the changes. I sure hope someone is writing it all down.
Time: 39 minutes
New species for 2009: Northern harrier (56)
What else is happening: took some pictures for a magazine article I'm submitting this weekend; ran my natural history book club on The Great Gypsy Moth War; had friends over for Chinese food.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January 7, 2009 - Wheelwright Park, Cohasset, Massachusetts

My plan was to avoid the coast, or any other open spaces. My plan was that the canopy of the trees would temper the amount of freezing rain that would reach me down below. My plan took me into the woods. But just thirty minutes in, I balled my fists for warmth and found that when I did, my gloves released water as if I had been squeezing a wet sponge. My plan failed miserably.

But at least I was among friends. Wheelwright Park is where I lead a portion of my annual Wicked Big Rock Walk, a search for glacial erratic boulders that have specific stories to tell. Here are Big Tippling Rock, Little Tippling, Split Rock and the Devil's Chair. Here there's a skating pond carved out of the forest floor adjacent to a stiff cliff of upward-thrusting bedrock. Here are groves of holly trees and stands of white pine. I renewed acquaintances with them all.

The Devil's Chair was first on the trail, and it was covered in snow. There was a joke there about Hell freezing over, but I decided then and there that I would never use it. Little Tippling came next, still precariously dangling over the edge of a small ravine as it has been since we first met a decade ago. A white pine next to it sported the whitewash of an owl that had recently enjoyed a good meal.

Split Rock, perfectly named except for the fact that it's now two rocks, is evidence of the power of the glaciers. Carried by the enormous ice monster for who knows how long, this erratic took a fall and when it landed, split almost precisely in half. What amount of force was needed to cause such a break? As with most of geology, the math involved is mind-boggling.

I sloshed through the slush, finally understanding why those two words sound so much alike. It was a great day for tracking, despite the ongoing rain. The snow that came last night before the rain was wet through. When a step was taken by man or beast, the foot left a gray imprint surrounded by the white of the snow. Two dog walkers had been here before me, but so had a fox and at least one white-tailed deer.

The park is hilly, undulatingly so. On the downslopes, the water rushed in sheets. Where footsteps had been taken, water pooled in the prints, which splashed loudly as I walked.

Thirty-seven minutes into the walk, I took a trail I had never walked previously. I was soon surprised to find myself leaving Wheelwright Park and entering Holly Hill Farm's White Woods. Once in the Woods I quickly found an ice pond, that today, at least, lived up to its name. Just beyond the pond, I saw the ghost-like flash of a white-tailed deer spiritng away from my approach. I lost it to the forest, but confirmed its presence by its tracks, punctuated by two thoroughly disturbed prints from which it had launched itself in its haste to get away.

Before long, I realized that I, too, was lost to the forest. For the next few minutes, I followed my instincts and my internal compass to retrace my way through the woods. It turned out to be a temporary event, but I relished every moment. I knew I was okay when I found my own unmistakable uphill prints in the snow: left foot straight ahead, right foot turned at a sixty degree angle. The fibrula and tibia of my left leg are fused together by scar tissue thanks to a childhood injury, leaving me with a knee that doesn't turn. On slopes, I overcompensate with my right, pushing off as if I'm on skates. I reached a familiar intersection and made a decision. Rain or no, I would head for the last of my old friends, Big Tippling.

With the precipitation on the increase, walking became unsteady on the upwards slope. It took me longer than I thought it would, but I got there and offered my salutations. And as usual, there was a reward for sticking it out. On the way back I noticed a small brown bird lifting off from a recently fallen tree. I fumbled for my binoculars to barely discern through foggy lenses the markings of a very wet hermit thrush, another new species for 2009.

Time: 59 minutes

New sightings: white-tailed deer (second mammal of 2009); hermit thrush (55).

Stranger hellos: 1 (7)

What else is happening: doctor's appointment (stress fracture in my left foot); more writing; finished reading The Great Gypsy Moth War.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January 6, 2009 - Rexhame Beach, Marshfield, Massachusetts

At sunrise, this little corner of the Atlantic Ocean was soothingly calm. Even the waves were reticent to break the silence. Rather than crash ashore, they tumbled onto the sand with a "well, if we have to" kind of approach.

In the distance, two tightly grouped rafts of scoters awoke with the sun. They did not start feeding right away. Instead, they just moved together as a flock, paddling their way south, which was the way the waves were approaching. One got up and flew, showing white coloration under the wings, and another was solid black, with a yellow nose. Add two species of birds for the year. Make it three. The flying scoter flew over two common loons.

I'd walked this area before, in another life and with another purpose. When I was director of the Scituate Historical Society I joined the selectmen of that town on the ancient task of "perambulating the bounds." We met their counterparts from Hingham, Cohasset, Norwell and Marshfield at the many boundary markers rimming the community. One of them, the Scituate/Marshfield line, is here, in the dunes. The granite boundary marker is gone, washed away by some ancient storm. To make a celebration of the event, I contacted the other historical societies and met them at the markers with gifts from our society. They returned the favors in kind.

The dunes give way to the South River, part of which was once the North River. Prior to the Portland Gale of 1898, the North River flowed out from this spot. Standing in the dunes looking south, well, that was the South River. Looking north, up towards Humarock and Sea View, that was the North River. Now it's all South River, up to the confluence at Fourth Cliff. This would be easier with a map.

Out on the river, oblivious to such self-imposed manmade headaches, common goldeneyes, buffleheads, mallards, American black ducks and Canada geese floated along under the watchful eye of a red-tailed hawk perched on a distant cedar tree. Chunks of ice broken loose from the shore glided past, causing the buffleheads into intermittent scurrying movements. Suddenly, one black duck took off, and then they all took off, dozens of them formerly hidden in the trenches of the marsh. Within minutes of circling the area, they returned to pretty much the same spots from which they had flown, back to the business of dabbling.

I had better get back to the business that I do, too.

Time: 33 minutes

New species for 2009: Black scoter, white-winged-scoter, common loon (54 species of birds for the year).

What else I got done: wrote and emailed an enewsletter in time to go to the Bruins/Wild game at the Boston Garden!

Monday, January 5, 2009

January 5, 2009 - Luddam's Ford, Hanover, Massachusetts

A stubborn coating of ice greeted the South Shore of Boston this morning, but it was nothing like the freeze that had been put onto the Indian Head River. Mr. Luddam - made famous for carrying Governor John Winthrop on his back across the river at this point in the 1630s - would have had no problem repeating his task today. He just would have to avoid the one long crack that stretched from the Hanover to the Pembroke side.

Despite the ice, the temps had risen from yesterday. Birdlife was everywhere: chickadees, kinglets, titmice, woodpeckers, jays and more. The problem was that the dominant trees here, the stately white pines, are so tall that when the birds perch on their tops, especially against the slate-colored sky, it was hard to determine what they were. A good birder's ear is necessary in these woods.

As I walked, I realized that I was on an old railroad bed. There were no ties, no rails, just that uniform width and straight-ahead feel of the trail. It could only be one line, the Hanover Branch of the Old Coloy Railroad. When I reached the far end of the path, I found that to be exactly the case, according to the pictures mounted in the trailhead kiosk.

With the river frozen, my concentration was on the land. I found a tree punctuating a question, and another one uprooted immediately adjacent to the trail. If anybody ever wanted to study the underside of a tree's roots, here was the chance. Another pine was lain across the width of the trail, turning around the snowmobile tracks that had accompanied me to that point.

The most curious aspect of this day was the rocky outcrops off to the landward side of the trail. The rocks themselves were not the oddity. The trees growing out of them were. Close examination showed that given even the slightest opening, the thinnest crack in the rockface, seed, soil, water and sun conspired to fight their way through the surroundings. Once outside of the channels, the trees sprouted to their regular size, with the base acting as a root, reaching back to the soil several feet below.

And this was just one side of the Indian Head River. The Pembroke side hosts another park to be explored on another day.
Time: 42 minutes
Other stuff I did today: First day back to work since my son was born; gave a lecture on puffins at a senior center; helped place a new bird seed shed; wrote more in the latest manuscript.
Stranger hellos: None! I had the woods to myself.
New wildlife for 2009: Nothing, for the second day in a row.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4, 2009 - Ames Nowell State Park, Abington, Massachusetts

With every step I took, I dropped my foot as flatly onto the snow as I would on dry pavement. But the heavily trodden path had been disrupted by people and animals of many sizes, and my boots twisted and turned until they found their purchase. It's at this moment that I realize how happy I am to have ankles. But my glutes will surely be sore tomorrow.

Ice fishermen were apparently the first to get here this morning. They staked out their spots on Cleveland Pond, augered their holes, and a pair even started themselves a small fire in the brush just onshore. I can't imagine that's legal, but in this economy my guess is that a Department of Conservation and Recreation official will be hard to find.

Across the dam at the sounth end of the pond the trail climbs a slight hill, wide enough that in the old days it could have supported an ox cart. It winds through new woods, where fire has obviously struck in recent years. Highbush blueberries are the dominant plant in the underbrush, a good indication of that fiery past that has left this oak-pine forest to short. Stonewalls mark farm boundaries as well, meaning that this may have been pastureland that is still returning to forest. Speaking of oaks, I stumbled across the gnarliset oak burl I've ever seen, nearly twice the width of the tree from which it sprung. I know a woodturner or two who would love to have this raw material.

I crossed beneath some power lines and was temporarily flummoxed by a stream crossing. Thanks to the snow I couldn't tell where the dry land ended and the water began. A female hairy woodpecker goaded me forward, or cautioned me to retrace my steps, I couldn't tell which. Let's just say I'm glad I wore my waterproof boots today.

And I'm glad I crossed the stream. No one else had, and the trail was pristinely clean. Deer tracks crossed back and forth, and even mice had left their marks, tiny trails that led to underground burrows. Here, for a few days, at least, the woods had been untrammeled by man, and nature had taken its own pre-planned course.

On the way back, I found that my granola bar was frozen. But my crackers were still edible, so all was not lost. The number of nests in the trees made me think forward to spring and the state's Breeding Bird Atlas project. I wondered who is tasked with scouting these woods. I promised myself I'd look that up when I get home.

A glacial erratic boulder loomed just off the path, and as I stared at it I realized that although I had been on the trail for an hour, I had not seen a single new species of wildlife today, the first time this year. But I did add to my "stranger hellos" list, with three today. That's just as good to me.

Time: 73 minutes

Stranger hellos: 3 (for a total of 6 this year)

New wildlife: Nothing.

What else I got done on this sub-freezing day: wrote another chapter in the book, read fifty more page in The Great Gypsy Moth War and tackled a pile of nonprofit work awaiting my attention for far too long.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January 3, 2009 - Jacobs Pond, Norwell, Massachusetts

As a day for straight out walking on a trail, it was just okay. But it was an excellent day for tracking.

Just across the street from the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell is the Jacobs Pond conservation area, with trails that wrap around approximately two-thirds of the pond. My walk today takes me up the east side and back, a nice loop through the woods.

The woods here never get very deep, and a such, there was little wildlife to see on this day That didn't stop the locals from enjoying them. In fact, winter activities are on show here. Snowshoers have visited recently, and in fact I bumped into a few on the trail. They're easy to track. If you can't find the snowshoe print on the trail, look for the ski pole poke just off it. The snowshoers no doubt saw the ice skaters on the pond, hockey sticks, a puck and dreams of Bobby Orr. That was my youth, too.

Coyotes have been here. Although dog walkers use the trail, and dog prints meander this way and that, off trail there are some coyote prints. I found them when I took a turn onto a trail that had not yet been walked in 2009. The snow was much softer underfoot, sinking me up to just above the ankles. And there were turkeys here as well, at least a half a dozen.

The only wildlife that joined me today was a pair of American tree sparrows that are feeding near the water's edge. I figure they didn't see the miniature snowman somebody built in the center of the trail, or if they did, they had no real opinion on it. A golden-crowned kinglet tseet-tseet-tseeted in the woods, and a black-capped chickadee called out its own name.

Nineteen minutes into the woods, a wild rush of wind pulsed through the trees, oddly coinciding with the scream of fire truck sirens on Route 53. As they sound off, I'm stopped by the carving of a few words on a big, beautiful beech tree. It's not unusual. Beeches are smooth-barked, and unwittingly offer a tabula rasa for the first person inclined to so disturb the beauity of nature. I just hope that now, fifteen years later, "Cheryl & Paul '94" are still together, lest their assault on this ancient warrior of the forest be for naught.

Just before I stepped back into the parking lot, I found a robin's nest half buried in the snow. There it was, the cyclical nature of the seasons in one image. Our robins have gone south, and the northern robins are now here, but our breeders will be back soon, in just a few months. They'll industriously build nests this spring, and next winter, we'll find them in the woods, partially covered in the snow. It will happen the next year, and hopefully for centuries into the future.

Time: 34 minutes
Other stuff that got done: Took down the tree, dinner with mom and sister
New Critters for 2009: Golden-crowned kinglet.