Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28, 2009 - Triphammer Pond Conservation Area, Hingham, Massachusetts

It figured. I started my walk today at Triphammer Pond, along the northern shore, when two great horned owls started dueting, calling back and forth to each other. Of course, there were on the southern shore of the pond.

Some ponds have thawed and are now open. Some are not. Today, Triphammer was not. But that does not mean there wasn't water movement. At the eastern end of the pond, Accord Brook roared into the pond through two outfall pipes. There's also a small rumbling waterfall not too far away, adding to the noise. Because of the former spillway, it's impossible to circumnavigate the pond without stepping through the fence into Wompatuck State Park. But no worries. The fence has holes in it that stretch back at least a generation. And since it's all open space, and nobody's charging entrance fees either way, nothing is lost. More to the point, the wildlife that uses this land is not being held in by manmade artificial boundaries.

At the western end, the pond emptied into a stream that headed for Foundry Pond, which gives birth to the Weir River, which flows to the sea. The pond is so deep in the woods that no traffic noise can be heard. But today, with melting snow and ice causing powerful rushes in the brooks, there was nowhere to stand along the pond in complete silence.

That worked in my favor. I was only able to sneak up on the pair of hairy woodpeckers I found because they couldn't hear me coming. I was standing so close to them that the shavings from the tree they were drilling were falling on the bill of my hat. I was not so lucky with the deer. They found me in no time. All I could see were three white tails through the tangle of branches in a witch hazel grove, bouncing into the woods.

Time: 55 minutes.

New species: American woodcock (114).

Stranger hellos: None.

The rest of my Saturday: Led a trip based on a book I wrote, When Hull Freezes Over; led an owl prowl for a family and their friends on Turkey Hill in Hingham, all part of a twelve-hour work day.

February 27, 2009 - Union Street, South Weymouth, Massachusetts

I don't want to alarm anyone, but a major migration route has been shut off, seemingly forever. We should be OK, though, as it's been fifty years now.

Back in the 1790s, the Hunt family decided to move themselves and their fledgling shoe enterprise across the Weymouth line into Rockland, or, as it was known then, East Abington. They settled at the head of what's now Union Street, set up their ten-footers (ten by ten backyard shoe shops), hung out their shingles and began taking orders. By 1815, Union Street reached from Columbian Square in Weymouth to Market Street in Rockland, linking the communities, creating a union.

Then came the U-boats, and all was changed forever. The South Weymouth Naval Air Station became a launching spot for lighter than air ships charged with surveying the coast for German submarines in World War II. After the war, it was the Russians' subs that caused panic. Needing room for a runway capable of hosting jets, the base expanded, cutting off Union Street once and for all, causing drivers to loop around the end of the runway on the new VFW Drive. That was 1957.

As I walked today I could understand why the people of the Weymouth side of what's left of Union Street are happy with the way things are. They now live in a quiet, dead end community. A re-opening of the stretch across the base, which has been closed since 1997, would mean an influx of traffic that hasn't been seen for half a century. There's a quiet, ancient burial ground here, peaceful homes and cozy side street neighborhoods. The entrance to the area is marked by a park for a firefighter who perished of injuries suffered after a blaze in a hayloft in 1974. It's as definitive a neighborhood as there is on the South Shore.

But what are they missing? I guess the biggest thing of all, and the one that I wished I had seen, is the ice cream shop that used to sit exactly where the runway is today. I heard it was the best ice cream in either town, and was a pilgrimage spot for aficionados of the dessert. And heck, it was 59 degrees when I was walking today, albeit in the heavy wind. Ice cream might have hit the spot.

Damn U-boats.

Time spent: 48 minutes.

New species: Northern shrike 113).

Stranger hellos: 2 (125).

What else is going on: Dinner with Michelle's parents; co-led the regular Friday morning bird walk at work; car inspection.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26, 2009 - Camp Wing Conservation Area, Duxbury, Massachusetts

Newest and largest. In many cases, it's good to have those words describing you. Lots of athletes would love to be the youngest and the biggest on the field, pitch, court or sheet of ice. There's nothing like being the Next Big Thing.

The Camp Wing Conservation Area is the newest and largest publicly accessible open space preserve in Duxbury. And it's a place with a sense of place; it's been many things to many people. The Consolidated Cape Cod Cranberry Company saw it as a place of business. The little guys who attended the Crossroads for Kids camp knew it as a place of play. The developer who nearly got his hands on part of it - getting as far as digging test pits - saw it as a goldmine.

It's been logged recently, that's obvious. There are rectangular areas cut into the woods that are healing. In the lowland sections, white pines dominate, dense, thick sections of woods. In the uplands, it's oaks, sparse and spread out as widely as their sun-grabbing tops will allow them to be. Long dead logs lay smothered in moss along the trails and in the woods, adding rich greens to the drab browns and tans that now rule. Coyote scat and great horned owl pellets appear every few yards, showing that this is an active hunting ground.

The end of the road here is a small platform overlooking a marsh which abuts Route 3 South. The walkable portion of this 350 acre property is actually quite small, but that just means that most of the land will remain untrammeled by man, and will theoretically keep wildlife alive for generations.
My only question about this special place is what comes next? Have we run out of potential open spaces that are larger than 350 acres, or will there someday be another Next Big Thing in Duxbury?
Time: 58 minutes.
New species: gray fox (11).
Stranger hellos: 1 (123).
And the rest of my day: Eight hours of work; gave a lecture on the North River at the Duxbury Senior Center; magazine work at night.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25, 2009 - Esker Trail, Jacobs Pond Conservation Area, Norwell, Massachusetts

I'm not sure how I'll feel about 40 degrees Fahrenheit five months from now, but today, I was loving it. No hat, no gloves, just jeans, boots and a fleece over a t-shirt - paradise.
This wasn't my first esker of 2009, and it won't be my last. But I'm starting to notice things about the tops of them, things I hadn't thought about before. But then, it's not like I've even been able to see the ground for most of the last two months.

It's almost gone, the nasty ice and snow. The walking is getting easier. Up on the esker, I've started to understand the way the sediment has washed away. When heavy rains hit the typical forest floor, there really is not much that can happen. The sediment there has nowhere to go. It may move around the general area, but the floor remains pretty much what it has always been.

But up on the esker, which is well crowned, rounded off, heavy rains can cause the sediments to flow down one side or the other. Roots and rocks are exposed, making for a visually stimulating walking experience. It's like taking an x-ray of the regular forest floor, and seeing what is really happening down there. The roots flare out in frantic arrays, crawling to the dripline of the leaves. But what are we really seeing when we see roots above ground atop an esker? We're witnessing the breaking down of the remnants of the Ice Age. But no worries, they won't wash away entirely in our lifetimes. After all, if the first 11,000 years didn't do it, the next 50 probably won't either.

Eskers were just one fleeting topic of thought today. An eastern towhee was calling for a mate as I started my walk today, and pine siskins were chattering nearby. Mourning doves wandered in the underbrush, and a white-throated sparrow worked the bushes, the first one I've seen in weeks. Even a song sparrow had decided to burst into full song. But the most heart-warming sensory input today came from the skies. Two red-shouldered hawks were calling to each other as they circled together. Valentine's Day may be well in the past at this point, but today, love was literally in the air.
Time: 38 minutes.
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: None.
What else is happening: worked this morning with my coauthor on our upcoming book on a military base; eight hours at the day job; attended a lecture by a colleague on saltmarsh dieback at night.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 24, 2009 - Rockland Town Forest, Rockland, Massachusetts

It's what your front yard would look like if you just let it go for good. It's orderly, in a natural way. And it's all that because it used to be a commercial nursery. But that was a long time ago.

It makes for a fun walk. Stepping off North Avenue and into the forest, I was greeted by the evergreen shrub section. Now, of course, one would not recognize them as the same spreading yews that we purchase at garden centers to hide our gas meters. Which is such a twentieth century thing anyway! Before we added ugly concrete foundations to our homes, we planted our rhododendrons and other yard ornamentals away from the house. Now we surround our homes with legions of view-shielding bushes, embarrassingly trying to divert the attention of passersby from the cosmetic flaws of modern architecture.

Back to the evergreens. Rather than leaning down to run my fingers over the tops of little shrubs, I found myself marching down a corridor through gigantic yews run amok. They presented a perfect cathedral.

That's the way the forest continued for the next few minutes. In a section of evergreen trees, which looked like a scene from the attack of the giant arbor vitaes, several picnic tables hinted at future potential luncheon visits. But suddenly, the orderliness abated.

There's a sign at the beginning of the trail, leading through those monster shrubs, that says "Bird sanctuary, .2 miles." Once I moved beyond the remnants of the old nursery, French's Stream trickled through the woods, and birds sang spring songs. The brook pushes through the woods, sometimes diverting into two separate flows, ultimately returning to one. It meanders along an old stonewall, and sometimes through it. Someone has been back here building makeshift bridges, extending the trail. At one point I wondered whether or not I had left the forest and entered the former naval air station property, but then I remembered Spruce Street, which borders the base. Unless I had blacked out during my walk, that was impossible.

An old wire fence here has held up through the years, stoically defending a territory long forgotten. But it, too, has fallen prey to nature, swallowed up by a tree that now bears closed scars around the metal in a pattern of right angles.

Rockland was urbanized with the Plymouth County shoe industry rush of the 1800s. Open space here is a t a premium. A stretch of woods like this in a place known for its litany of factories is a godsend. This place put a smile on my face.

Time: 35 minutes.
New species: None today.
Stranger hellos: None.
What else happened today: Worked for eight hours; participated in a group travel meeting with representatives of the other attractions and accomodations of Plymouth County; picked up the car after a few repairs; attended the Bruins-Panthers game at the TD BankNorth Garden.

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23, 2009 - Brewer Reservation, Hingham, Massachusetts

Stress has been building lately, with a lot of deadlines hitting at the same time. Today was just one of those days when I didn't know if I could spare the time to get outdoors, but in the end, my health always comes first, now. Ambulo, ergo sum.

As it was, I could only eke out thirty minutes, after a trip to the post office and bank. I chose a spot I knew would be short, but one I had not walked entirely yet. I wish I had gone somewhere else.

There are enticing aspects of Brewer Reservation, like the fact that it's open space in the first place. There is a field, still covered in snow, and some of the largest white pine trees I've ever seen are on the far edge of that field. One is so big, it would take two and a half of me to stretch my arms around for a full tree-hug. But I'm glad there are not two and a half of me. I would have to do seventy-five minutes a day, and my stress would be much more intense.

The sad aspect about this park is that unfortunately, all trails lead to the dump. That in itself is not a bad thing. Imagine what life would be like if we didn't centralize our trash. It was the overflow that got to me. The edge of the woods that borders the dump is an extension of the dump. Trash has blown in and stayed. It was just disheartening to see.
But tomorrow's another day, and there are many more paths yet to discover.
Time: 30 minutes.
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: None.
What else: Nonprofit work all day; posted four reviews on Amazon.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22, 2009 - Woodpecker Pond, Wompatuck State Park, Hingham, Massachusetts

"I'm just trying to get some of the ice off some of the bridges," one of my two stranger hellos said today. "It's no fun on the bike when they're half clear, half ice." I could see that. It was hard enough working these trails on foot. I can't imagine what it must have been like to ride a bike over them.

He didn't have to ride his bike on these trails today, but then, I didn't have to go for a walk either. I was no one to question motives on this cold morning.

My path today circled Woodpecker Pond, one and a half times. I was almost around it entirely when I heard a distant, but loud, drumming on a tree. Yes, woodpeckers at Woodpecker Pond. I doubled back to find out what it was, hoping for a species I hadn't seen this year, but knowing the chances were slim. They were, in fact, nil. I found hairies, downies and red-bellies, familiar faces from many short winter walks already transpired.

Trees have been coming down in bunches this year. The deeper I got into these woods, the greater the number of trees that had not been cared for by the park staff. But that will come. Walkers walking the trails will alert the staff, and chainsaws will roar.

The pond, like most in the region, was frozen. But, like many others nearby, it has that wonderment-inspiring arrangment of deep-set rock sloping directly to the water's edge and beyond. I always imagine our Wampanoags of old on these spots, long before Europeans ran over the landscape. They seem to be natural points of entry to the bounty of the water, nature's welcome mats. Deeper on the trail I noted an old foundation surrounded by the remains of ancient fruit trees. The owners were serious about their fruit. The stonewalls here had added security, wooden posts sticking out of the top that once held wire of some sort. No deer were supposed to get through to the apples, at least if the fence had anything to say about it.

On the last leg of the trail I made a gruesome discovery, a kill site. A hawk or an owl had finished off what might have been either a tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee or a white-breasted nuthatch, judging by the explosion of gray, white and tan feathers on the trail.

My last sighting, though, was a much cheerier one. My first chipmunk of the year - it was mine for just that moment, and then I returned it to the woods and its regularly scheduled life -scurried along a stonewall.

Ahh, spring. You can't hide from us forever.

Time: 94 minutes.

New species: Eastern chimpunk (11).

Stranger hellos: 2 (122).

And the rest of the day: Started reading Monkeys are Made of Chocolate by Jack Ewing; wrote an article for the Hull Times; prepared Wreck & Rescue Journal for mailing; more nonprofit work.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21, 2009 - Cow Tent Hill Preserve, Duxbury, Massachusetts

I wasn't the only one who heard it. Two gray squirrels stopped what they were doing - quarreling - and pinned themselves against the side of a white pine. That wasn't strange at all. What was odd was that they did it on the side of the tree facing me, knowing full well that I was there. Squirrels prone to spooking at the sight of humans always retreat to the far side of a tree and keep themselves out of sight. But they knew that whatever was out there was more of a threat to them than I was.

I heard it again. Hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo. A great horned owl. Yes, I would run, too, if I was a squirrel.

Cow Tent Hill is one of the smallest walkable pieces of open land around, with probably the name most likely to induce head scratching. It's like Lisa Simpson said when she saw a movie theater marquee in Australia with the words "Yahoo Serious Festival." I recoginze all the words in Cow Tent Hill, but what the heck are they doing together?

The old rusty fence around the property gives the first clue, running along the edge of one of the two streams that form the Back River to the northeast. There's the cow part. This ridiculously steep hill was used as pasturage. The hill part is obvious as well. But what of the tent?

Well, that takes some digging. Most farmers, the good ones, anyway, know that every open field needs a good shade tree for their cows. No such tree apparently existed on this piece of land, so instead, the local farmer built a tent at the apex out of brush for the cows to hide under in periods of hot sun - cow, tent, hill.

It's such a small property that I had to walk it twice, which turned out to be quite eye-opening. On the way back to the crest of the hill I found that a large branch had fallen in the six minutes between visits, smack in the middle of the trail. And I didn't hear a thing. The squirrels had gotten back into their jawing match, clucking at each other in the same pine. And pines, by the way, are by far the dominant tree species here today. Oaks and maples are trying, but they're fighting an uphill battle.
Oh, that was bad.

Time: 31 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

The rest of my Saturday: Eight hours of work, including leading a snowy owl prowl on Duxbury Beach (successful); finished reading Jim Claflin's Surfside Life-Saving Station, and posted a review of it on Amazon; read Images of America: Maryland's Lighthouses by Cathy Taylor and posted its review; attended a 70th birthday party.

Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20, 2009 - Eel River Conservation Area, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Retired cranberry bogs are going to be the future historian's quandary. We walk through woods today completely oblivious to what crops grew where, thinking that the woods have always been woods. But signs are there. Highbush blueberry plants indicate prescribed burning. Stone walls can even be read to determine whether or not they enclosed crops or cattle. Our descendants will find small concrete bridges, conspicuous depressions in the landscape and straight-lined trenches that turn at right angles, all within rich forests.

Native Americans, of course, collected and harvested cranberries. But it was Dutch and German settlers who gave them their name, "crane berries," thinking their flowers looked like the heads of cranes. And it wasn't until the 1800s that they were grown as crops.

The thousands of acres of dedicated cranberry bogs in the northeast, mostly in southeastern Massachusetts, are beginning to revert to forest. Some are still active. The bogs that are now the Eel River Conservation Area, though, have been retired for a few years, at least. For the most part, the trees that are growing out of them are pines. Intermittent maple trees are sprouting up, but it's mostly pitch pines and eastern white pines that are taking root first.

Bogs are flat walks. And today, they were a windy and cold walk. But we had a destination in mind, me and the program attendees of our regular Friday morning bird walk. It took nearly three quarters of an hour to get there and back, but the reward was worth it. It's not every day that you get to see a great horned owl sitting on a nest. Another sign that spring is on the way. And somebody said they saw a chipmunk. Mine will have to come another day.

Time: 39 minutes.

New species: Great horned owl, killdeer (112).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on today: Led the bird walk; nonprofit work; newspaper column work.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009 - Thomas Magoun Homesite, Misty Meadows Conservation Area, Pembroke, Massachusetts

I'm pretty sure my feet hate me by now. They remind me every morning, and lately they've coaxed my calves into the rebellion. Last night's snow didn't help much. Yes, on the streets it melted pretty quickly, or was washed away when the temperature increased and the precipitation that was still falling transformed into rain, but in the woods, it stuck around.

But enough complaining. As much as I had to focus on my footsteps today, I had another opportunity to go somewhere I had never been before. I read about Misty Meadows online, and the work of an eagle scout last fall who cleaned up the trails, built a kiosk and rehabbed a bench. Job well done, Andrew. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out the "meadows" part.

The walk bagen through an old pine forest, with mature trees so densely blocking out the sunlight from above that there were wide patches beneath them devoid of any ground vegetation, a complete lack of understory. It was here that it hit me, the most powerful natural smell I've taken in for quite some time, the scent of wet pine needles. And not that overpowering soapy pine smell that the little fake pine tree dangling off my rearview mirror gives off. The real McCoy.

The Thomas Magoun homesite today is nothing more than a hole in the ground circled with foundation stones, with a similar, smaller indent for the old well nearby, all protected by, yes, another ancient stone wall. I've met many of them this year, and I'm sure there are more to come. Tom lived here with his three wives, Mary, Priscilla and then Mary. His son became a successful shipbuilder on the Mystic, sending 84 vessels to sea in 33 years.

No matter how much I walk, and how much I've walked, I am still amazed at the unexpected beauty of the South Shore of Boston. I found my new favorite place today. The trail ended at a stunning waterscape. Herring Brook, in one of its many twists and banks on the path to collision with the Indian Head River, flows directly at the trailhead before taking a turn to run parallel to the shore. When I arrived, two massive, oblong chunks of ice, one larger than the other, swam away like a mother whale and her calf, disappearing downstream in the swiftness of the current. The sun finally broke through the clouds for one last shot at glory on this day, too late to have any real impact.

Were it not for the water tower looming on the horizon, I might have named this vista the most beautiful one in the region. I can't wait to see it once the snow is gone for good. And neither can my feet.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on: Eight hours at work; took an unexpected nap; posted one review to Amazon; read more of Surfside Life-Saving Station by Jim Claflin.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18, 2009 - Cavern Rock Park, Weymouth, Massachusetts

It took me quite a while to find my way into the park. There are no signs, no organized trails, no map. I walked Westminster Road, along the shore of Whitman's Pond, mostly looking uphill for an opening to the park. Two swans sat on the ice in the distance, content with the notion that if they waited right where they were, they woud eventually be sitting on water.

The houses here are built right into and onto the rock, which juts out of the soil at every possible location and angle. Many of the homes are small, probably lakeside "camps" and cottages for 1920s and 1930s getaways.

I eventually found it, or what I figured was it. It had to be it. I saw what looked like a trail and headed in.

The rock for which the park is named is quite obvious from the moment one steps on that trail. It's best explored from the far side. A huge chasm, twenty feet deep, splits matching rock faces. At the bottom, there's a tight passageway that leads, well, I don't know where it leads. But I know what it reminded me of, days spent exploriong the Polar Caves and Lost River Gorge in New Hampshire with my father, mother, brother and sister when I was a kid. I used to be able to squeeze through plenty of places like this one.

As with many of the parks just outside of Boston, vandals have left their mark here. Campfire sites, strewn with discarded chairs, piles of half burned newspapers and catalogues, and, of course, dozens of empty beer cans, pop up here and there. This place would be an amazing wildlife sanctuary if not for the self-centered and uncaring idiocy of youth.

Still, wildlife is thriving here. Our typical small woodland birds were noisy today, but they were no match for the red-tailed hawk that screeched out a call from a treetop. I've been fooled many times by blue jays imitating the large raptors, but when compared for sheer volume, the red-tail call wins hands down. We've all heard it. It's the call that's dubbed in for bald eagles on TV. I watched the red-tail lift off and start circling, riding a coilumn of rising heat into the air. Then, when the second hawk arrived and they started circling together, I realized just what was happening. Courtship has begun.

After the initial push into the woods, the trails disappeared. But today, in winter, it was easy to explore what the park had to offer. The rock rises and falls in ridges, and there are even freshwater ponds here and there. Glacial erratics, tossed aside by the mammoth monsters of ice, sit where they landed 11,000 years ago, some split in half from the impact. Down in one of the valleys an ancient stonewall was discernible. Even here, on this inhospitable terrain, someone had the desire to separate his property from others. It had to be used for grazing, as planting crops would not have been worth the while.

Deep in the woods I stumbled across the rusted old frame of an anicent vehicle of some kind. It sat next to a sugar maple snag, and right there next to the remains of the tree were two decaying maple sugaring buckets. I wondered who they belonged to, and then figured that the guy who left the car there probably knew.

Time: 118 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 3 (120).

What else is happening: Mom cooked dinner for Michelle, her parents and me; a few more hours of writing; started reading Surfside Life-Saving Station by Jim Claflin.

February 17, 2009 - Tucker Preserve, Pembroke, Massachusetts

I don't know why I headed for Tucker Presrve today. I had been holding off on walking the Pembroke side of Luddam's Ford until at least the spring, as I had already walked the Hanover side earlier this year. But something was drawing me there.

I pulled up and parked the car. Jimmy Buffett was blathering on about sponge cake as I turned the engine off, but he and his music were quickly forgotten the second I stepped out into the park. Although large sections of the surface of the Indian Head River remained frozen, the water underneath was moving, rapidly and powerfully, thunderously gushing over the cascading dam and fish ladder.

I plunged into the woods, but soon found that as freeing as the thought of the thawing river was, the trails had not been so lucky. There was ice from end to end. And I made a mistake in trail choices, too. When the path split, I went right. Had I known how steep the slope was, I would have gone left. Dozens of trees unwillingly became acquainted with my grasp as numerous times they held the entirety of my weight when my boots decided that traction was a myth.

The Tucker Preserve starts inside the Luddam's Ford woods. It crosses a stream flowing into the Indian Head and passes through stone walls several times. I never knew whether I was fenced in or fecned out. I guess it doesn't matter any more anyway. The people that cared most about the walls are long gone. The trail comes to a head at a beautiful, softly gurgling brook, the kind that always makes me stop and look. And listen. And photograph. If I ever needed a spot to explain to friends how water creates valleys, this would be it. It would be cheaper, at least, than flying us all to the Grand Canyon.

The walking was so difficult that I had to keep my eyes on the ground as I moved. I could only look up when I stopped walking. A flock of chickadees and nuthatches beckoned me to do so. And then it happened. A brown creeper climbed a nearby tree, poking its way upward in search of seeds and small bugs. I had been looking for one of these guys since January 1.

Now I know whey I walked here today.

Time: 44 minutes.

New species: Mammals: Raccoon (10); Birds: Brown creeper (110).

Stranger hellos: None.

Other happenings: Worked for a full day; gave a lecture to the Mattakeessett Garden Club on backyard birds; posted 5 more book reviews on Amazon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16, 2009 - Lincoln Street, Hingham, Massachusetts

I had my choice today. Had it been a Friday, and I was going to get my mail, I would have walked Hull Village. Had it been a regular workday, I would have walked North Scituate on my way home. But it was President's Day and I had it off from work, so I walked the closest spot I could find with relevance.

The Lincoln family - yes, that Lincoln family - began its American saga in Hingham. A metal marker on his former property states that Samuel Lincoln settled there in 1649. Two hundred and sixty years later, and two hundred years ago last week, Sam's descendant Abraham was born, the man who would become the sixteenth President of the United States, at a time when they were not so united. Local legend says that there is a gap in the Lincoln diaries that correlate with a visit to Boston, and that the great emancipator may have trekked to Hingham at that time to poke around the roots of his family tree. No definite proof, though, has yet been found.

But there can be no denying the Lincoln presence in Hingham. The statue at Fountain Square, at the intersection of Lincoln and North Streets, could have been built anywhere. Patriotic communities need no local ties to memorialize national heroes. I'm quite sure George Washington never visited Mt. Rushmore, nor did he step foot in Hingham's George Washington Forest or on Hull's George Washington Boulevard. He did know of Hingham and its role in the American Revolution, through the persona of an underling, General Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted the sword of surrender at Yorktown from Lord Cornwallis.

Today, while not walking in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln - whose ancestors moved from Hingham to Hull to Scituate and onward - I was trodding on land once walked by Sam, and Levi and David Lincoln. Plaques on local houses show that this was the Land of the Lincolns, long before the name had true national value to the country. That is, and should always be, a source of pride for the people of Hingham.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None (there were pine siskins calling in the trees, though, an occasional winter visitor to our part of the state).

Stranger hellos: 1 (117).

The rest of my President's Day: Manuscript work; posted 15 reviews to; magazine work; some family time with Michelle and my little buddy.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15, 2009 - Skyline Trail, Blue Hills State Reservation, Quincy, Massachusetts

I wasn't as mobile in my youth as I am today. By that I mean that I never really had my own car until I was out of college. I walked to work every day, saving every cent I made to pay for my schooling.

Because of all of that, I never explored the Blue Hills as much as I should have. I could see them from the top of the Fort Revere Water Tower in my home town of Hull, and heard stories of their trails and even their rattlesnakes, but I never set foot on the reservation.

I should have known that once I reached the crest of Nahanton Hill, that I could see the Fort Revere Water Tower across the water, in Hull. It o9nly makes sense. In fact, the view from the peak included the entire Boston skyline. I picked out Great Hill in Winthrop, Revere Beach, Graves Lighthouse, Deer Island, and Hull Wind II. To the west of the city and to the south of the Hull peninsula, treetops gave way to intermittent water towers and church steeples.

The Blue Hills define Massachusetts; or, I should say, the definition of Massachusetts, in its original native tongue, is "the blue hills." Seen from the approach to Boston Harbor, its understandable why they would be chosen as the defining landmark, if one pictures the skyline as it was before the many city towers were built. But it's on the trails that the "blue" of the Blue Hills arises. The very bedrock has a bluish tint to it.

There are natural clearings on the Skyline Trail made possible only because of the expanse of rock. In some places, it's just so widespread and devoid of soil that no trees have grown up on them. In some areas on these peaks, stands of birch trees have foolishly taken up residence. The winds up here, though, have wreaked havoc on them, snapping them in half en masse. No one ever built a great seagoing vessel out of birch. In other places, burned pitch pines stand as reminders of recent lightning strikes. Two small ponds, still frozen, of course, seem out of place at the tops of the hills, but there they were. Nestled between ridgelines, the ponds have auras of sacredness, and I can imagine that the Wampanoags must have felt the same way. Only one bird species revealed itself, and it was what I expected, a dark-eyed junco. I've seen them on mountain tops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

It felt good to walk on ground today, from Nahanton Hill to Wampatuck Hill to Rattlesnake Hill, formed by that solid rock. Too many times this winter I've had to guess whether or not my foot would slip, slide or plunge with every step. Even now, where snow has melted, the footing elsewhere is uneven. Where the ground is frozen, every upturned rock jabs into the soles; where it is muddy, it gives way in uncertain mushiness. Today, in the Blue Hills, the trails were as firm as my resolution to return to good health in 2009.

Time: 58 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: submitted an article to South Shore Living magazine; other nonprofit work; finished reading Pigeons by Andrew D. Blechman; attended Michelle's great uncle's 75th birthday party.

February 14, 2009 - Northern Half of Carolina Hill Reservation, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I have a walking stick. It's a neat one that I bought at Foster's Crossing in New Hampshire last year, during a visit to the White Mountains. I've never used it much for support. I just like having it in my hand as I walk.

I didn't bring it with me today as I walked Carolina Hill, but in retrospect, I should have. On many of my recent walks, I've found that I'm clearing a lot of fallen branches from the trails, the casualties of a bitter, windy winter. With my walking stick, I would simply sweep them away. Without it, well, there's just more bending involved in the process.

I had no idea how much I've missed these tactile experiences in nature. With the temperature cold, but certainly bearable, I walked without my gloves on today. I had forgotten how unexpectedly soft the needles of an eastern white pine can be, and, alternatvely, how expectedly prickly those of a pitch pine are. And I forgot how both of these trees love to leave their sap behind on one's hands. Snow was the cure today.

The main trail over Carolina Hill holds two meanings for me. First, there's the Walk for Wildlife. Each year it's my job to walk last, to collect all of the arrow signs pointing the way to the ultimate destination. But I won't be walking this year, as I'll be out of state that day. Second, last year, this trail was in the heart of one of the Breeding Bird Atlas project blocks for which I had responsibility. I can still picture the hermit thrush I saw with a chunk of food in its bill, carrying it off to feed its young. Today, I watched a gray squirrel scurry up tree with a mouthful of leaves, already building a nest of its own.

Today, I diverted from the main trail, taking side paths that wandered over ridges, into vales and under widow-makers. On most of these trails, the landscape has turned brown. Snow has melted, revealing a dense layer of tannin-infused oak laves. I picked up a sizable branch after a half an hour and used it as a spur-of-the-moment walking stick. The cold, though, had combined with the natural process of death to make the stick brittle, and it shortened itself every few hundred feet, until it no longer reached the ground from my hand. I tossed it into the woods, letting what was left of it return to the earth in peace.

Time: 70 minutes.

New species: Mammals: opossum (9); Birds: snow goose (109).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else happened: Led a snowy owl prowl on Duxbury Beach; led a sundown owl prowl at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield; had Valentine's Day dinner with Michelle and our baby boy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13, 2009 - Glastonbury Abbey, Hingham, Massachusetts

My mother used to walk these woods with an old friend, one of the brothers of the Benedictine order that has inhabited this parcel of land since 1954. She said that he routinely carried a stick with him on his walk, but not becuase he needed it for support. He would walk along with her, stop, and then say, "Okay, watch this." A hawk - she didn't know what kind - would swoop down from the trees, and the monk would raise the stick above his head. The bird, thinking the stick to be an extension of his body, would attack it, defending its nest.

Hawks still inhabit these woods, or at least one does. I came across the remains of a catbird, freshly killed, a circle of billowy gray feathers and the bill all that were left on the ground.

As one might expect, the grounds here have a religious feel to them. I am the last person on earth who would be accused of religious zealotry, or of even being seen in a church for that matter. It just isn't me. But I have deep interest in the history of religion as well as the history of land use.

This land was not always so sacred. Well, that's a matter of perspective. The Boston family that used it as their summer home a century ago probably felt something akin to inspiration when they first saw it. They built a stone tower that gave the Tower Day Camp its name after they left. That tower today boasts a large cross that can be seen across the treetops from the crest of Turkey Hill.

Beyond the tower, a few trails wind through the thick pine woodlands to the Cherry Street Pond and the Foundry Pond property. The stations of the cross are laid out across the grounds with mosaic tile representations of the important moments of the life of Christ. Moment XII is missing. There's even a labyrinth to walk, with suggested ways to do it: in prayer, in remembrance of a loved one, to find inner peace, etc. I just walked it because it was there.

Time: 57 minutes.

Stranger hellos: None

New species: Birds: brown-headed cowbird, yellow-bellied sapsucker (108); Mushrooms: turkey tail, birch polypore (3).

What else happened today: Led my regular 3 1/2 hour Friday morning bird walk; dinner with Michelle's parents; started reading Pigeons by Andrew D. Blechman

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12, 2009 - Colby-Phillips Property, Hanover, Massachusetts

Kind of spooky. That's the only phrase I can think about that describes the sensation of walking into these woods.

It has nothing to do with the small cemetery that appears on the righthand side of the trail at the edge of the woods. These discoveries are always a lot of fun. Not for the inhabitants of the cemetery, of course, but for the walker. There's a sign that tells of the West Hanover Cemetery's history, which dates to the early 1800s, and says that in 1961 there were four trees growing inside the fence that surrounds it. There still are, nearly 50 years later.

No, the spookiness that hangs heavily in these woods is dervied with something that happened long before today. The first brook crossing that one comes to here was the site of an oild mill, owned by a man named Eliab Studley. Eliab built the mill in 1730, and the brook, Studley Mill Brook, now bears his name. In 1766 he was on his way back home from his woodlot, no doubt in these woods, judging by the cart path I walked today, when he was struck by lightning and instantly killed.


There was no lightning today, but the skies certainly looked like rain was in the offing, and at 29 minutes in, I figured I was done for. I didn't see it or feel it, but I suddenly heard a shift in the sound of the beech leaves. To that point, they were tinkling against each other in the breeze. Then, the sound became a pinging, a constant and rhythmic tapping. Rain. But it didn't last. I had worn my raincoat in vain.

The main trail (there are spurs that I did not take today) crosses Cushing Brook farther in, through a typical forest for the region: oak, eastern white pine, beech, American holly, etc. It ends in a boardwalk, at the far end of which there is a sign warning against poison sumac. Hmm, could have used that when I started this walk.

The temperature stepped above 50 today, but don't believe the hype. Winter is still here. The turtles, when they emerge from the mud, will let us know when spring is here. The tree swallows, when they return from the south, will let us know. The chipmunks will let us know when they start scurrying around the yard again. The puss willows will let us know. The skunk cabbages, well, they've already started to push through the muck. But what the hell do they know.

Time: 107 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (116).

What else: Eight more hours of work; led a book club discussion on Beluga Days by Nancy Lord; reviewed it on; wrote an article on Peter Bradley's Hingham Stock Farm for South Shore Living magazine.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 11, 2009 - Nelson Memorial Forest, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I had a friend - and probably still do, I just haven't seen him for a long time - who used to walk the trails at Wompatuck State Park whenever he could. He said that whenever he came to a corner of an old stone wall, he wanted to dig. Somebody had tiold him when he was a kid that the corners were where the farmers buried their money. I wonder if he ever followed through on his desires. I heard that he lives in a chalet in northern Vermont now.

I came to such an intersection today when heading for the Nelson Memorial Forest. I say "heading for" because you can't get there right off the street any more. The New England Foresty Foundation's access from Highland Road has been cut off. I won't venture to wonder why in public, but have my private guesses. Either way, it's now just a longer walk, which isn't a bad thing at all.

The entry point is through the Union Street Woodlands, Marshfield conservation land. Although the temperatures were in the mid-50s today, the snow had not melted completely, especially not in the shadier areas of the forest. And there was a weirdness to the air as well. Chilled pockets hung in specific spots. I even tested the theory, walking through a cold cell back into warm air, and then doubling back. Yup, still there.

Like most of the North River sanctuaries, this one generally and gently slopes. And it's got a great history. At the base of the trails there's an old packet landing. Henry Nelson, who bought the property in the late 1800s, used to cart his apples from the orchards at the top of the hill down to the landing, shipping them off to Boston. In recent years, the wide trails have been used for other purposes. The Foresty Foundation actively logs the property. Basal scars on the trees lining the trails show evidence of the lumber being dragged through the woods.

From the packet landing, I could hear the sound of a single hammer across the river. It might as well have been the shipbuilding days of the late 1700s. A step into the woods can be a step back in time.

Time: 103 mionutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 3 (114).

What else got done today: worked for eight hours; submitted two articles to Northeast Boating; worked on plans for a cross country trip for a shipping magazine; worked on plans for a trip to Erie, Pennsylvania; finished reading Beluga Days by Nancy Lord..

February 10, 2009 - The Rockery, Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield, Massachusetts

I didn't walk directly to the Rockery from the visitors center, as I had time to kill before my meeting. The bad economy is starting to show on the highways. Fewer jobs equals fewer commuters, which creates an easier drive for those of us still working. In a way, the lack of gridlock today was mildly disturbing, but it gave me a chance to get some walking in.

I did run into some traffic on the trails. At more than 2,000 acres, Mass Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary is a big chunk of land, some dry, some marshy. Red squirrels were particularly excitable today. When they were not running, tail-up, across the open floor of the forest, they were hyperactively standing in one place, frantically positioning themselves with quick, bug-eyed stomping movements before squeaking and breaking into full runs again.

It was the deer, though, causing the congestion. While walking the Hemlock Trail, I spotted one, and stopped. The creature heard me from a long distance and had its ears up and eyes locked on me. I moved slowly toward it, not wanting to spook it, but desiring a better angle for a picture. Remaining fluidly silent as I walked, I shifted my eyes without turning my head, finding that she was not alone. There were nine others, all grazing together. I snapped away. I managed to pass within thirty feet without startling them, and moved on my way.

These woods are under attack. At the intersection of the South Esker Trail - more on that in a minute - and the Stone Bridge Trail I found beaver chew and pileated woodpecker damage on adjacent trees. Pileateds tear bark off in huge, unruly chucks. Beavers gnaw trunks clean in an orderly, sensible way.

The esker trails, South and North, give a humbling sensation, as from their crests one can look out to the wide expanses of meadow on either side and truly see the work of the glaciers. When I try to, I can't fathom it. I can't imagine looking up a mile into the sky and seeing a huge block of ice pushing over the landscape. I can't imagine the sound it would make.

I continued through the woods past the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers and rabid gangs of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches expecting to be hand fed. If one stands still for too long on these trails with binocs up, they attempt to land on the far end. The flutter of wings is never so interesting as when it's an inch from the ears.

And the trees they emerge from here are another story. The former owner of the property imported not only thousands of trees, but thousands of varieties of them a century ago. But that wasn't his greatest legacy.

I reached the Rockery. Legends tell of huge gangs of men working for a decade to move the rocks into place to create the small maze-like tower overlooking the rhododendron-rimmed pond. Maybe I should have been thinking more about where I was stepping as I climbed the Rockery rather than about its history. I slipped on a frozen rock and faceplanted. Literally. My face hit a plant. Until these scars fade, they'll be a happy reminder of my latest visit to one of my favorite places on earth.

Time: 103 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else happened: Planned a Finger Lakes trip; coordinated a trip to Lewes, Delaware; worked for eight hours.

Monday, February 9, 2009

February 9, 2009 - Hartsuff Park, Rockland, Massachusetts

There must have been laughter. There had to be some splashing. And there was probably that one dad who made a clown of himself for the kids, and a goofy spectacle of himself for the ladies. As much as I like living where and when I am right now, I would have loved to have seen Hartsuff Park in the 1960s and '70s. I was born in '71, but that was in Hull, what was, for a toddler, a billion miles away mentally.

Can a single piece of land be everything to a community? This park, named for General George Lucas Hartsuff, a Civil War hero, after whom the local Grand Army Post is also named, has a little bit of everything. There's a ballfield and there are nature trails. There are picnic tables everywhere, and there's even a swingset or two. And there's an old swimming hole scoured out of a depression in the land, surrounded by forest.

The trails are short, but sweet. All around, the sounds of automobiles were audible today, no matter where I was, but they could not drown out the spirited singing of a Carolina wren. Downy woodpeckers seemed to love the place, as I counted six on my short excursion through the grounds. Chickadees, titmice and juncos rounded out the list. The trees consisted mostly of pine, oak and beech, with the occasional American holly, and a rare yellow birch. A gray birch had fallen and was laying horizontally, its catkins dangling above the edge of the frozen swimming pool. Violet-toothed polypores had taken over many dead snags, sucking whatever water they could from them.

This place must have been - and still is, I'm sure - a welcome haven for the local residents when summer was at its peak. Although places like Nantasket Beach and the Scituate and Duxbury beaches are not that far away, they can be a hassle. Take it from someone who grew up within walking distance of one. Packing up the car, fighting the beach traffic down, paying for parking, organizing food for a car full of kids, staking out a spot on the crowded sands and then, typically, the later-afternoon thunderstorm, they're all parts of a messy whole. To have something so local, so accessible, and so community-oriented must be a blessing.

It seemed to me as I walked in the sunshine today, that there's just enough of a nature trail for young families to wander and explore, without worrying about getting too far from the car. It's exactly the kind of place my wife and I will be looking for in the years to come, once our three-month old's attention span extends beyond the far end of his forumla bottle. I cannot wait for those days, but I certainly don't want to miss the stages he's going through now. In the meantime, I guess I'll keep advance scouting for special places the three of us can make our own.

Time: 47 minutes.

New species: Mushrooms: violet-toothed polypore.

Stranger hellos: 2 (111).

And the rest of the day: Played with my baby boy; dropped off the car to be fixed (the one that got rear-ended a few weeks ago); more magazine work; made an orange meringue pie; dinner with Michelle's family; booked trips to Reno and Baltimore.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8, 2009 - Mount Hope, Wompatuck State Park, Scituate, Massachusetts

This is pileated country. For the past several years, a pileated woodpecker and his mate have set up housekeeping in this particular section of woods, surprising nature watchers in the region. They've not been here in living memory, but may have been before the farmers arrived. They need tall trees and dense woods, and as long as this area was actively farmed, the trees that were here - meaning the South Shore of Boston, not just this patch of woods - were too small to attract the birds.

I thought that, perhaps, with the temperature hitting 50 degrees today there might be a chance one of the big woodpeckers would take to drumming. It would be hard to miss. The woods shake when a pileated is making a statement.

I started at MH1 on my way to MH2, coded points for trails that cross Mount Hope. I passed the famous utility poles cut down by some guy in the 1970s, or so the story goes, so he could steal the eletrical components still attached to them years after the military left this land behind. I passed the snag where we found the wood ducks nesting, and crossed over the spillways of Picture Pond. At MH2, I split to the right and headed up Mount Hope for MH3.

The pileated woodpeckers, or one, at least, have been here recently. When you live in a world of small woodpeckers as we do with our downy, hairy, and red-bellied friends, a pileated hole is hard to miss. It's much larger than the rest, and oblong instead of round. Some of the holes I found today were fresh, the disturbed wood around them still sporting the color of life as a tree knows it beneath its bark. But the wind was keeping the wildlife down today. Apart from a few titmice and the occasional devious tree squeak, there were no sounds to be heard in these woods.

At MH3, the woods meet the powerline that runs from Grove Street in Scituate to King Street in Cohasset. From here, I could see Clapp Road to the south. Across the crest of the hill, I picked out Turkey Hill, but I know I won't be able to when the trees leaf out again. From MH3, I found MH4, near the southwestern end of the Aaron River Reservoir.

Due to the omnipresent melting taking place today, walking on the trail was not easy. Snowshoers had a much better go of it than I did, or at least the one I ran into seemed to be having no problem. Every fourth or fifth step for me was a sinker or a slider. A few years ago I tore a calf muscle in my right leg three-quarters of the way across. My leg wanted me to remember that moment today.

MH4 returns to MH2 through the woods. Standing outside the line of trees before I went back in gave me a chance to notice something. There was no snow left at all on the tops of the trees. While the ground was still thoroughly covered, the trees had been temporarily and partially liberated from winter's spawn.

Inside the woods I found one of the twenty-nine foundations of the misplaced residents of the old "wood lots." This area was never heavily populated, but when the military came and took the land by eminent domain during World War II for the purposes of expanding the capacity of the Hingham Naval Ammuniation Depot (now Bare Cove Park in Hingham - see December 31, 2008), they left at least twenty-nine holes in the ground. Here, the foundation walls stand at knee height, and a granite post marks where the downslope exterior wall once stood. Who once looked out of the windows down to the reservoir? Was it the same person who built the stone wall fifty feet away?

The pileated woodpecker eluded me today, but then, conditions were less than ideal for it to be active. And I certainly jumped the gun, taking a chance on some early springlike weather. But if I didn't walk this trail, my chance of seeing one today was absolutely zero.

Time: 57 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 5 (109).

What else got done: cleaned out the car to be dropped off at the shop tomorrow; read more of Beluga Days by Nancy Lord; dinner with Michelle's family and my mother; some more magazine writing.

February 7, 2009 - Humarock, Scituate, Massachusetts

In all of my years living on the South Shore of Boston, I've never walked the length of the Humarock peninsula. That seems kind of crazy, but here we are.

Seeing a place on foot is much different than seeing it from the windshield of a car, especially if one is driving. I've driven the length of Central Avenue innumerable times for multifarious purposes. Just never walked it.

It's a long, straight walk. Today it started out very pleasantly. From the Frederick Stanley Bridge to Minot Street, the air was crisp, but still. It had all the ingredients necessary for the makings of a springlike stroll. But at Minot, where the South River side of the peninsula narrows, transferring from residences and businesses to open access to the marsh, the wind picked up, sweeping its way from the west down onto my solitary form walking this lengthy stretch of road.

At extreme low tide, the river had turned to mudflats. Gulls picked about it, pulling mussels from their beds. They soared into the sky then stopped at apexes, only dropping the doomed bivalves once they had begun their descents. This timing allowed them to drop with their quarry, to ensure that no other gull, no other scavenger, could muscle in on their mussels. Chases only began once meat was exposed. No gull chased any other gull carrying a shell in its bill.

Cedars and pitch pines dotted the river's edge. Soon, they gave way to a series of private docks reaching out into the water. Many homes on the beach side have been closed for the winter. The lack of tire tracks in the snow in front of them give them away. Many have names, and many more sport treasures from the sea on their porches, railings and decks.

My turnaround point was an open lot on the beach side that I know too much about to blather on about here. It once hosted a life-saving station, that burned down in 1919. I've written about it in books and magazines. It was a place of heroes, inclduing Keeper Fred Stanley, for whom the Sea Street to Marshfield Avenue bridge is named. I spoke at the dedication eleven years ago.

From the river side, Lawson Tower could be seen to the north. From the beach side, Scituate Light accepted the final rays of the setting sun and reflected them back in gleaming white. To the south, the Brant Rock observation tower stood above all. Two children played on the beach, still in their winter gear.

On the walk back, I had to remove my baseball hat, as the wind was blowing directly in my face. Even so, I had to remove my gloves, as the temperature was just too high to have them on, and my hands had begun to lightly sweat. I watched as three frightened mourning doves loudly took flight at the approach of a hungry sharp-shinned hawk. They escaped. With the sun dropping behind Ferry Hill to the west, I headed for home, one again freshly inspired by a place I'd visited hundreds of times before, and thought I knew well.

Time: 69 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 9 (104).

And the rest of the day: co-led a two-hour "Snowy Owl Prowl" with Taylor on Duxbury Beach; baked a blueberry pie; gave a lecture on my annual trip to downeast Maine to see puffins, making for a total twelve-hour workday; read more of Beluga Days by Nancy Lord before falling into a deep sleep.

Friday, February 6, 2009

February 6, 2009 - Brockton Circle, Hull, Massachusetts

Thirty-one years ago to the day, I walked this same exact route. How can I remember a short walk taken almost a full lifetime ago? It was during the Blizzard of 1978. How could I forget?

It has taken me a long, long time to fully realize what my mother went through in that storm. I have memories of huge snow banks, toys lost in that snow, crazy times with friends over the next two weeks off from school, and, believe it or not, being lifted in the bucket of a front-end loader onto a snow bank in order to scamper up a hill to my grandfather's house on East Street in Hingham. But we had a long route to travel to get to that last step.

We had just moved into our new home, which was an old home that had been through a fire the year before we bought it. Like many families, we had electric heat. My dad was called out to fight the storm behind the wheel of a plow, leaving my mother home with my brother, sister and me. We were four, five and six years old respectively.

The storm grew to be the worst in eight decades to hit the town, and when the power went out, and we lost our heat, my mother knew we had to get out. But there was no way any car was moving through the snow-choked streets. Where it could, ocean water had overtaken large sections of town, blasting its way up the beach and onto inhabited land.

I can't imagine what was going through my mother's mind as she bundled us up into our winter clothes and led us out into the snow for what would be an hour's walk down Brockton Circle to Front Street. Her fear must have been endless. But it was her unbreakable sense of the need for our ultimate well-being and her brave determination to protect us through that tragic time that pushed her onward. A few miles away, people were dying in their cars on Route 128, silently killed by carbon monoxide. With the wind blowing us sideways, threatening to knock our little bodies into snowdrifts, we held hands and fought our way to the home of friends with a natural gas stove. Once there, my brother's tiny nose started to bleed. The drop in air pressure from the storm had caused a vein to let go. Things got so bad that the Hull Fire Department had to take him to South Shore Hospital, leaving a bowl of his blood on the kitchen table.

I walked the same route today with my sister. It took eight minutes.

Time: 32 minutes.

New species: Glaucous gull (106); the merlin shown above was not new for the year, and neither was the European starling it had just grabbed and brought to the top of the utility pole as a meal.

Stranger hellos: None.

Other stuff: Led a three and a half hour birding program at work; more magazine work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5, 2009 - Fern Hill Cemetery, Hanson, Massachusetts

There is no more desolate place in America than a New England cemetery covered in snow during the short days of a long winter.

A cemetery is already a place of death, where proper reverence demands silence from those who enter. Stark stones stare steadfastly back at the visitor revealing just a few short facts about lives of varying lengths: names, dates of birth and death, and perhaps an epitath, perhaps not. After all is said and done, this is what we're reduced to to the casual passerby.

Enter winter. Snow adds a starkness and uniformity to a landscape begging for diversity. American veterans pay the price. Military plates are often laid flat on the ground, and a good snow cover like we have now obscures them entirely. Their names may be buried, but we know where they are by the small American flags that still reach above the surface.

I've never walked this cemetery before, and I don't know if I ever met anybody who's buried here. After an adult life of lecturing in public, several times for the Hanosn Historical Society, it certainly is possible. But one does not need to have personal acquaintances to divine stories from the stones. Elmer Hammond and his father Gilbert Hammond, Sr., are buried here next to each other. Each one served in the military. Gilbert, born in 1893, served with the Coast Artillery Corps in World War I. Elmer, born in 1923, was just old enough to fight in World War II. And he was just old enough to die, a technical sergeant with the 849th Bomber Squadron on January 5, 1945, part of the 8th Air Force. Several B-17s and B-24s were lost over Germany that day, crews and all.

The dates say it all. The father outlived the son. There is no greater tragedy.

We're losing our way in cemetery design. The older portions of this graveyard are reflective of a thoughtful time in American history. Romanticism brought us out of the simplistic harshness of traditional burial grounds, rows upon rows of similar stones laid across flat ground. Victorians altered the energy of such places by consecrating garden cemeteries, working with hilly landscapes, liberally applying new designs to burial markers, planting trees, understanding that such places could be for the living as well as for the dead. But here, and at other local cemeteries, a line is drawn at about 1950. Where new ground has been cleared, it's been flattened. If trees are planted, they are laid out in precise rows. Engineered roads are laid out to run parallel to each other. While stones now sport pictures and other graphic enhancements, they're all the same size. We're trying to return an orderliness to death, to maximize the number of burial plots by minimizing individualism.

Fern Hill abuts Wampatuck Pond directly, lending a feeling of peace to the surroundings that only a calm body of water can. Giant beech trees share the grounds with bare tamaracks and clusters of cedar trees. Hairy and downy woodpeckers rap on them in company of black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice. Half of this place, the half that works with the landscape, is serene, beautiful. In the other half, where plots for the living await their final visitation, the future has already returned to the past.

I stared at the story of the Hammonds, and my heart told me to stay so I could know more. But my frostbitten ears said it was time to go.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None.

Starnger hellos: None.

What else I got done: Eight hours at work; dinner with Michelle's family; watched the Bruins game with my baby boy on my lap.

February 4, 2009 - Far Rockaway, Hull, Massachusetts

Well, hallelujah. Something good is happening.

Just over a month ago, when I started these walks, I had some serious health issues. I had high cholesterol, high blood sugar, was pre-diabetic and hypothyroid. A blood test this morning revelaed that all but the thyroid were under control, and that I had dropped 161 points in my bad cholesterol to place me well into normal range. I've even lost six pounds, despite having no metabolism to speak of.

How did it happen? Thirty minutes a day on foot, and a complete abstinence from fast foods during that same period. How did I celebrate? I stepped out of the doctor's office and went for a walk.

The old Hull Medical Center, as I always knew it, is on George Washington Boulevard, at the gateway to the section named, half-jokingly, Far Rockaway. It has nothing to do with the town in New York, at least not officially. The section of Hull known as Rockaway, built as a workers' community for Paragopn Park and the Rockland House hotel a century ago, is right across the boulevard. Someone must have pointed across the way and said, "Well, if this is Rockaway, that must be Far Rockaway." And a village was born.

This place used to be a hunters' paradise. Long before the idea of George Washington Boulevard came about, before automobiles had so choked the Route 228 approach to Nantasket Beach, prompting the town to look for an alternate point of entry, the Weir River estuary was a quiet, natural place. Duck hunters loved it. Frog fishermen reveled in it, all the way back to the 1840s. Native Americans left behind their mark, too, in the highbush blueberries that signal old proscribed burning patches of woods.

In fact, this was probably the last place in Hull to truly be developed, as it was unreachable by car until the boulevard went through (the train passed through long before then). Hull's heyday had already come and gone by then, but remnants remained. The steamboats still came to town from Boston, and Paragon Park still lit up the night sky.

The curiosity about Far Rockaway is the choice of street names. Some make sense. Some are named for Cape Cod towns: Harwich, Dennis, Barnstable, Orleans, Chatham and North Truro. Why "North," I have no idea, but the seaside connection is, at least, understandable. But they get stranger from there. Salisbury? Okay, again, the seaside, and I guess that Onset Street has some similar relation. But Seekonk? Rowley?


While a woman shoveled her driveway, a house finch sang its spring song from a thicket. Just as I thought to myself that the town had not plowed these streets yet, a huge truck barreled around the corner of Salisbury Street doing just that. World's End Reservation is so close to the west end of North Truro Street, it felt like I could reach out and touch it. From the east end, the hustle of the main roads and businesses break up the landscape and invade it with unnatural right angles. But I can always turn my back on that, at least for a half an hour a day.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 4 (95).

The rest of my day: worked for eight more hours; that doctor's appointment; an important stop at the post office to finalize two mass mailings; gave a lecture on the history and nature of the North River at the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

February 3, 2009 - Webster's Wilderness, Marshfield, Massachusetts

The great Daniel Webster once stood on a little hillock inside these woods and gave a speech that proved to be the last words he ever spoke in public. But there was no Mr. Webster here today. I once saw three raccoons sleeping here, high in a tree, in the middle of the day. But they were not to be seen today. A yellow-bellied sapsucker once called from these woods, and a Virginia rail once gave me and some friends quite a show running back and forth through a small drainage pipe, but not today. Deer have scraped their incisors on some of the smaller trees on the trail, leaving distinctive marks, but they were nowhere to be seen today.

And I couldn't blame any of them. Of course, Mr. Webster, who died a century and a half ago, has no choice.

The snow was just nasty. It was wet, and coming down at a frantic pace. The wind gusts pushed it sideways, driving it out of the northeast. But the woods provided adequate cover for a short walk. I scaled the hill and descended the back side, taking in the view of Home Bog. To the right, one of Mr. Webster's giant tulip trees stood steadfastly, as all of the lesser trees surrounding it bent with the wind. Skunk cabbages have begun to push their way up through the mud in anticipation of the next seasonal transition.

Past the bog I headed for the forest primeval. A thick stand of cedar trees turns this habitat from Marshfield to mythical, as once one stands among the trees, he or she may as well have been anywhere else on earth. Owls are here, as the Peacock brothers have proven time and time again. But not today.

Trees were downed recently, and lay across the trail. Footprints in the snow showed that I was not the first to find this fact out. I met only one person out there today, and his humongous dog Buster. I followed their steps for quite a while, but then lost them along the path. Passing under a low-hanging branch dangling due to the weight of the snow, I mistakenly stuck my head forward, allowing all that wonderful whiteness to find the bare spot on the back of my neck. Down my spine it trickled as it melted.

I got lost, as I've only walked here a few times before today, and never in the snow. But when the bog would appear through the trees, I made note of where it was. I eventually found my way home.

This place is beautiful. Red-winged blackbirds roost here in the bog in the summer and common yellowthroats nest in the shrubs out in the water. Woodland butterflies flit through the air, and the scents of thousands of trees and shrubs strike at the olfactory senses. Even in the middle of winter, I look at this place and can see summer.

Yes, this place is beautiful. Even today.
Time: 62 minutes.
New species: None.
Stranger hellos: 1 (91).
What else got accomplished: shoveled snow, again; eight hours of work, including a snowy walk at the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary to document our chickadee box locations; some more magazine writing; read 50 more pages in Beluga Days by Nancy Lord.

Monday, February 2, 2009

February 2, 2009 - Webb Memorial State Park, Weymouth, Massachusetts

My father, brother and I used to have a theory about days like this one. Oh, it's nothing that any scientist at any great university ever tried to prove or disprove, nor does it even have a fancy name. It was just the mid-winter musings of three Italian-American landscapers who had watched too much of nature to ever be fooled by it, or, more precisely, surprised by it.

It was almost 60 degrees today. The sky was blue, the sun was shining brightly and the footing varied from slush to - dare I say it? - mud. Yes, for the irst time in weeks, I walked a nature trail on bare ground, not a thick layer of ice or snow. But wait, here's the twist. Despite the beauty of the day today, there's more snow on the way tomorrow. And that's where the theory comes in. Existing on snow plowing money in winter, Dad, Nick and I knew, from watching this pattern play out repeatedly over time, that the thaw before the storm was just "Mother Nature making room for more."

This park, this little neck of land jutting out into Quincy Bay, continues to grow and change for the better. There's a new stone at the head of the main trail with the name "Robert B. Ambler Walkway" carved into it. Yup, the Ambler Walkway. Could there be any better name for a trail, I thought in my best Chandler Bing voice?

The vista is spectacular, reaching from World's End Reservation in Hingham to the WBZ towers, Strawberry Hill Water Tower and Fort Revere Water Tower in Hull, around to Boston and Quincy to the west. Grape Island looms in the foreground, Raccoon Island to its south, and Peddocks Island out to its north. In between, there's lots and lots of open water. Eiders, gulls and scoters lazily floated along the surface. It was so quiet out at the promontory that the eiders could be heard calling to each other. On the trails, white-throated sparrows found clean spots underneath pitch pines where the snow had melted, and foraged for food. A mockingbird had a disagreement with a female cardinal, exchanging words and wing flutters.

As I returned to the parking area - where, surprisingly, a dozen people sat in their cars on this gorgeous day - I was reminded of this park's place on the map. Condominiums loom over the park, but not just any condos. My paternal grandmother lived here for two decades. I have memories of pizzelles and other home-baked goodies and her Mama Celeste smile. She died a few years ago at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth. Amazingly, on the next floor up, my godson was born less than 36 hours later. Michelle and I moved from deathbed to maternity, back and forth, watching both ends of life play out.

It felt good to walk without the heavy coat today, but I'm not one to rush the seasons. After all, Punxatawney Phil has spoken. Winter will be winter, spring will come when it will.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 6 (90).

What else I got done today: Nonprofit work; food shopping; started reading Beluga Days by Nancy Lord; wrote three magazine articles.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February 1, 2009 - Pond Meadow, Braintree, Massachusetts

It all started as flood control. The pond at the heart of Pond Meadow would not be here were it not for a dam installed in the 1970s to keep Weymouth Landing from periodic overflows of the Monatiquot/Fore Rivers. The Monatiquot and Fore are of the same flow; where the tidal activity of the Fore ends, that's where the Monatiquot begins.

I've certainly been in more wild and natural places, and this park, unfortunately, is saddled with carrying the noises and fumes of Route 3 South. But it's all a matter of perspective. One woman, walking her dog today, is overjoyed with the existence of the open space. "I love it, we're so blessed," she said. "Come back in spring, come back in summer and come back in fall." I probably will.

But there was plenty to see on this winter's day. Deer are here, and their tracks follow the trails. Coyotes have also ambled through in the past day or two. The main trail passes directly past the dam and rims the pond. The Blue Trail cuts away at the north end of the pond. Here, where the highway is at its most distant, the sound of the cars finally fades away. Two yellow birches stand embarrassingly alone along the edge of a creek. In a forest of thousands of trees, they stand out like Yankees fans at Fenway Park during a Blue Jays game. I refrained from booing them.

Farther along the trail I found what felt like an old orchard, and, sure enough, it was humming with small bird activity. Chickadees, titmice and juncos worked the viney thickets. Two white-breasted nuthatches dueted, one directly above my head and another in the distance. One downy woodpecker and one hairy darted back and forth across the trail, but a flash of red drew my eye deep into the woods. I saw a bird that looked like a house finch, but carried much more red on its body, and was considerably bigger than any house finch I had ever seen. It had a bright red patch on its back as well, and when it turned while eating a berry, I noticed the heavy whiteness on its wings. Pine grosbeak! This was a bird I had only seen in photographs. In all, there were five. Something told them to move, and they lifted off as a flock.

Around the meadow section of Pond Meadow, the noises of the highway returned. A red-tailed hawk rode a thermal into the distant sky, and a fish crow nasally cah-ed overhead. By the time I finished my walk it was nearly 50 degrees, and my parka was rendered overkill. Oh well, a little sweat never hurt anybody.

Time: 100 minutes.

New species: pine grosbeak (105, life bird).

Stranger hellos: 40! (84)

The rest of the day: cleaned the house; caught the Celtics, Bruins and the Super Bowl while doing my nonprofit work.

January 31, 2009 - Two Mile Reservation, Marshfield, Massachusetts

The name has nothing to do with the size of the reservation. Instead, it has to do with disgruntlement and frustrated entrepreneurialism in the early days of American history.

In the early 1600s, salt marsh hay was a prized natural commodity along the North River, useful in many ways, from feed to roof thatch to insulation. You filled your walls with it and called it "banking your house." Downriver, near the mouth, where the first Scituate settlers had begun their New World lives, there was a limited supply. So they pleaded their case in England for access to lands farther upriver and obtained a grant for two miles of riverfront land and access to fertile, muddy ground that produced abundant hay. The Hatch family owned much of the land over time, and if the area didn't get the neighborhood name "Two Mile," it probably would have been called "Hatchville." For the next century and a half, this section of what is today Marshfield, was part of Scituate.

The reservation is comprised mostly of dense white pine forest. Most of the trails are wide enough for a farm cart, with good historical reason. Two Mile Farm is still next door. As I walked today, a shadow shot across the ground in front of me. I spun and looked up, but missed whatever it was. While glimpsing skyward, I picked out a downy woodpecker pecking at a branch.

The trails slope continuously downward to the river's edge. The view of the river is of the saltmarsh, and not so much the water. Stetson Meadows is across the way. Unfortuantely, the most striking feature of the vista here is the Route 3 South bridge over the river. This section of the highway was the last one built. I'm glad I wasn't the one who had to make the decision to do it. Back then, in the '50s and early '60s, the idea was just to expand the highways across the country and open up the American landscape for the freedom to travel, but along the way, a lot of nature was chewed up. In those days, environmental sensibilities were a small percentage of what they are today. Although there are still those folks who will run over anything in their path on the way to a paycheck, there are at least now some guidelines they have to work by.

I was hit today by the stunning number of holes drilled by woodpeckers in the trees and snags in these woods. I wondered why. Why did they start these particular holes, and why did they stop before a nest hole could be finished? Or, in the woodpecker world, is a circular hole two inches in diameter and two inches deep considered finished? They drill for many reasons - to find food, to declare territorial rights, to find mates, for nest holes - so these holes could have been made for any number of purposes. I will never claim to be inside the head of a woodpecker. It must be noisy as hell.

Time: 58 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on: eight more hours of work; went to Joe's 60th birthday party in Hingham.