Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30, 2009 - Pudding Hill Lane, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I almost hate to write about Pudding Hill Lane, for at the moment I have it nearly completely to myself. I discovered it while on Breeding Bird Atlas duty last year, and can't get enough of it.

There is a Pudding Hill, and it stands to the left of the lane as one walks toward the dead end. The hill is a Wildlands Trust preserve, and they've recently added a parking area and information kiosk. To the right of the roadway, a field slopes gently toward a thin line of trees that stand guard over an elliptical pond, Chandler's Pond. Not too far away is an old basketball camp that the Boston Celtics used under Coach Red Auerbach.

There are only a half a dozen houses or so here, which means that traffic is minimal, and for the most part, the air is free of manmade noise, of automobile exhaust. Instead, it's filled with darting tree swallows, calls of eastern phoebes, trills of chipping sparrows. My half hour list shows 19 species of birds seen or heard.

I stopped short under a pine tree overhanging the road. A robin was sitting on a nest, aware of my presence, but not worried enough to make a move.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: (Butterflies) eastern pine elfin (5).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: gave a lecture on backyard birds to the Norwell Council on Aging; gave a lecture on the American woodcock to the Duxbury Council on Aging; conducted our bi-weekly waterfowl survey at North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Duxbury; worked like crazy on articles for South Shore Living and Captains Guide.

April 29, 2009 - The Pits, Weymouth, Massachusetts

I had to get out. I had been staring at my computer screen for too many hours in a row, working my ass off for my various editors (I love them all!), but the cabin fever finally did me in. Besides, I had to finally check out the Pits.

I had heard about them from my wife, who knew about them from growing up as a Weymouth kid. Apparently, they were a teen drinking spot out in the woods. From above, on a Google map, it looked like a nice section of woods. I wasn't worried about what I might see in regard to the expected vandalism, but was certainly interested to see what kind of wildlife was in my backyard.

And what did I see? I saw glacial erratics. That could mean anything dropped by a glacier from a pebble to a boulder, but I mean the latter. I saw several beautiful wildflowers, some that I had never seen before. I saw a red admiral butterfly, a streak of brown and red zipping past and into the woods. I saw fiddleheads. I saw the spicebushes doffing their yellow flowers for green leaves. And I saw one of my favorite plants, the witch hazel, starting to leaf out. It won't even be thinking about flowers until September.

I heard water tinkling in a small brook. I heard fourteen species of birds singing. Wait a minute, fifteen - that was a red-shouldered hawk. Nope, sixteen - red-bellied woodpecker. Seventeen - hermit thrush.

Off the paved trail I found the nature trail that led to the bowl-like bedrock that gives the area its name. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Kids have been building a fort here, or at least have built the foundation. If getting kids away from their video games entails a few nails in some downed trees, then let's get them outdoors.

Time: 46 minutes.

New species: (Birds) northern parula (176); (Wildflowers in Bloom) northern blue violet, sweet white violet, dame's violet, garlic mustard, spicebush, dandelion (16); (Butterflies) red admiral (4).

Stranger hellos: 3 (212).

What else is happening: Full blast on the Captain's Guide and other projects; still fighting my upper respiratory problems.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 28, 2009 - "The Worm-eating Warbler Spot," Wompatuck State Park, Hingham, Massachusetts

Birders tend to remember places their own way. I guess in the wider sense of the definition, it's a perfect example of sense of place. Others may know it as a good place for a jog, a clear path for a bike ride or where they stole their first kiss from their girlfriend. Birders remember it as the spot where they saw a really rare bird, and forever retrun to the spot in hopes of seeing it again.

Songbird migration has hit Massachusetts hard, and good thing, too. That which they seek - bugs - have risen from the thawing ground and taken to swarms in patches of sunlight. It's always nice to walk as I did today and see and hear a half dozen blue-gray gnatcatchers, knowing that they earned their titles for good hunting techniques. It's good to have an ally in this war.

But it was another day of firsts, and firsts-in-a-long-time. The loudest bird of the day was a great-crested flycatcher, and the quietest was a blue-winged warbler, a bird that doesn't realize the joke Mother Nature played on it. Its song, the one that attracts mates, sounds like a very small person blowing his nose. It makes me laugh every time. As for birds I haven't seen for a while, the king was the gray catbird. One or two winter in Massachusetts here or there, but last night saw a returning wave hit the state.

All around, from the tops of the trees to the ground, the rusty browns and dull grays I've lived with for month upon month have stepped aside in the advance of greens, yellows, whites and purples. It's spring. Oh, lordy, is it spring!

Time: 34 minutes.

New species: great-crested flycatcher, worm-eating warbler, common yellowthroat, blue-winged warbler, Baltimore oriole (175).

Stranger hellos: 4 (209).

What else is happening: spent a full day working on the Captains Guide magazine articles for 2009.

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27, 2009 - Holly Pond, Wompatuck State Park, Hingham, Massachusetts

You go away for four days, and look what happens. The trees leaf out and the warblers start their invasion. After a long winter, it's like spring suddenly can't wait to get here. Mother Nature always gets her way, and we just have to roll with it.

There are now sounds in the woods that weren't there four days ago. Ovenbirds, with their cheeva, cheeva, cheeva, CHEE! Winter wrens with their champion song, about 50 notes long, or so it seems. Palms, pines, yellow-rumps, yellows. Louisiana waterthrushes signing by rushing water. A black-and-white warbler sounding like a squeaky wheel on a shopping carriage.

But I really coundn't enjoy much of it, thanks to the swarm of bugs that decided to follow me around the park. No matter how much I walked, no matter how fast, no matter how violently I waved my arms, there they were, landing on my face, my ears, directly in my eyes.


I ran into a friend, Charlie, who pointed me in the direction of a flock of palm and yellow-rumped warblers. I hoofed in down that way, bugs in tow. I felt like the hero in the movie I'm Gonna Git You Sucka who had his theme music following him wherever he went, band and all. Mine was one soft buzz. I snapped a pic of the palm warbler after finding the blue-headed vireo, and got the hell out of there!

Time: 41 minutes.

New species: (Birds) Blue-headed vireo, black-and-white warbler, ovenbird, northern waterthrush (170); (Amphibians) bull frog (13).

Stranger hellos: 4 (205).

What else is happening: errands galore; pedal to the metal on the Captains Guide magazine.

April 26, 2009 - Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls, New York

The swarms of birds are simply breath-taking to one who takes the chance to visit the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the head of Cayuga Lake. And if you've driven Interstate 90 through New York, then you've driven through Montezuma.

And it's not just the smaller birds. Sure, the tree swallows form their own clouds, sometimes joined by the purple martins. On the nearby mud, shorebirds group tightly in the air, reading off each other's twists and turns. Who's leading? No one knows.

But it's the vast clouds of ducks that take to the sky that truly make the show. For the most part, the ducks of Montezuma do what ducks do everywhere, dabble, dive and dawdle on the water's surface. But just add one bald eagle to the mix - today there were a total of five - and the ducks take to the air in huge numbers.

We had a stunning view of just a small portion of the 7,000-acre wetland complex from a watchtower at the head of the Montezuma auto road. Although the overcast skies kept species identifications on the tougher side, as colors could not be easily determined, we pulled out several birds that our traveling gang had not seen in the previous three days, bringing us to a total of 109 for the trip. After four days in the Finger Lakes region, we were ready for home.

Time: 36 minutes.

New species: (Birds) Canvasback, lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper (166); (Mammals) Red fox, black squirrel - not a new species, but a different morph of the gray squirrel (16); (Amphibians) pickerel frog (12).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: The long drive home.

April 25, 2009 - Mendon Ponds Park, Mendon, New York

It was, by far, the hottest day of the year yet, above 80 degrees for the first time in my world for more than half a year. As our traveling gang walked into Mendon Ponds Park, all I could think about was New Year's Eve Day, when I had to retreat to my car in the face of an incoming snowstorm at Bare Cove Park in Hingham. It might as well have been thirty years ago for the way I felt today.

Toward the end of a long, productive, joyous day, we sauntered up and down a small rise toward a freshwater marsh. There wasn't much happening wildlife-wise. A swamp sparrow here. A phoebe over there. A ruby-crowned kinglet singing somewhere in the trees.

We walked - Scott, Bob, Jeanne, MC, Angela, Jim and me - until we found the marsh, which was as silent as the rest of the trail. The first sound we heard was not a chip or a peep, but a splash. And then all hell broke loose in turtle land.

Two big snapping turtles started going at each other maw and claw, flipping each other over and pinning each other's heads underwater. We got within a few feet, but kept a safe distance. Everybody enjoyed having their fingers.

The melee continued for another sixty seconds or so until a victor was declared. He climbed on top and...oh, then we got it. This wasn't war. This was love. What a nice way to end a spring day. May Mendon Ponds Park be blessed with many young snappers in the years to come.

Time: 35 minutes.

New species: (Birds) Broad-winged hawk, common moorhen (life bird), blue-gray gnatcatcher, American pipit, yellow warbler (162); (Reptiles) snapping turtle (3); (Butterflies) spring azure (3); (Amphibians) gray tree frog (11).

Stranger hellos: 1 (201).

What else is going on: visited Braddock Bay Raptor Research Station and witnessed 500 broad-winged hawks and numerous other birds in migration; visited Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Basom, New York; celebrated Bob's 81st birthday at dinner with our traveling gang.

April 24, 2009 - Taughannock Falls State Park, Ulysses, New York

"Say it," Angela said.

I turned and smiled, but didn't say a thing.

"Say you're sorry."

"I'm sorry," I whispered, acting like I didn't want anybody to know that I was wrong. She was right, it was a raven, not a crow.

And it was a very cool sight to behold. We got to watch as it flew in and out of a hole in the side of a canyon wall what seemed like 150 feet above us. Each time it flew in, presumably to a nest, tiny little birds scattered in advance of it. With binoculars, we could see that those little specks against the rock face were, in fact, pigeons. Maybe that wall was higher than we guessed.

It's about a forty minute walk in to see Taughannock Falls from the parking lot on Route 89, but it can be much longer than that if you stop and smell the roses, or, in this case, the red trilliums. Angela and I, and Scott and Jeanne and Jim and MC, did so along the way, listening to and watching the birds, identifying the wildflowers, even turning over a rock and finding a red-backed salamander. For some, the goal is the destination; for us today, the journey was the key.

Even at the destination, the dramatic cascade of thousands of gallons of water plunging 215 feet to the ground from a carved notch above the canyon wall, there was something we didn't expect, a northern rough-winged swallow that had found a cavity in the low wall at the end of the walkway that leads to the scenic view. It flew back and forth several times, always returning to the same spot to pose for pictures. We clicked and clicked and clicked.

Time: 82 minutes.

New species: (Birds) Tundra swan, common tern, black-throated green warbler (157); (Wildflowers in bloom) Red trillium, bloodroot, hawkweed, marsh marigold, hepatica (10).

Stranger hellos: 24 (200).

What else is happening: early morning birding on Mohawk Road in Ithaca; visits to Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Stewart Park, Buttermilk Falls State Park, the Thirsty Owl Winery and Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Checked into the Microtel in Fishers, New York.

April 23, 2009 - Myers Park, Myers, New York

It's odd to think about, but I visit Myers Park about as often each year as I do some places on the South Shore of Boston. I designed a trip to the Finger Lakes for my full-time job that I've led at least once a year for three years now, and every year we stop at the same places. It works, as each time through we have different program attendees. The only one who could potentially get bored is me.

But I never do. Just because we're visiting the same places, well, that doesn't mean that I see exactly the same things every year. The parks and sanctuaries change, wildlife varies and we run into locals that have different things to say. We didn't meet anybody new at Myers Park this year, but we did find a bit of wildlife I haven't seen here before this year.

Caspian terns just blow away my personal definition of what a tern should be. It's such an odd thing to see a bird that looks primarily like every other tern - black cap on the head, white overall feel to the body, light gray on the back, long thin bill - but is the size of a gull, and is, in fact, even bigger than a few we know. I'm used to the Duxbury Beach terns, leasts and commons, occasional Forster's, rare blacks. But here, at Myers Park, it's Caspians all the way.

Perhaps the most unusual sighting at Myers Park for me - on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, north of Ithaca - is the tiny little lighthouse. It's the reverse of the terns for me. I'm used to my lighthouses being big, grand, statuesque. But not on Cayuga Lake. This one's for a long narrow lake, not an ocean, leading to a marina next door to the park. Like Boston Light and Cape Hatteras Light, the light at Myers Point gets the job done.

Time: 36 minutes.

New species: Caspian tern, chimney swift (154).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: Stops in Skaneateles, Union Springs and at Long Point State Park; checked into the EconoLodge in Ithaca, New York.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22, 2009 - Marshfield, Massachusetts

I figured this morning, with sunshine and pleasant skies, would be a good morning to get back into the groove. The atlasing groove. I know, in most parts of the world, "to atlas" is not a verb. Let me explain.

Back in the 1970s, the state of Massachsuetts undertook a massive project, sending volunteer birders from the Berkshires to Cape Cod and the Islands out to determine the variety of birds present during the breeding season. While not every nest was not counted, every species that could be found in the act was. It gave the state a wonderful snapshot of the avian life of Massachusetts at that moment. Those folks who undertook the task were known to be "atlasing" rather than birding. Birders list or linger, depending on their personality. Atlasers fulfill a citizen science role, helping their community better understand the natural world.

For three years now, the state has been compiling data for its second breeding bird atlas, developing another snapshot, for comparison to the first. I revisited a favored spot in one of my designated atlasing blocks today to see if I could catch some early nesting activity.

I certainly did. A blue jay flew by with a bill full of twigs, crossing the pathway to a small patch of freshwater marsh. I could hear American toads trilling as I approached, listened as a spring peeper began a solo performance to my right and glimpsed a bird or two onthe water that made me stop short, so I could identify them before they got spooked by my approach and flew away. Canada geese. Ugh.

I approached the open water and froze in place. What the HECK is THAT? I thought to myself. The first words into my head were "mandarin duck," and I was right. But the situation was wrong.

Mandarin ducks, as one might guess by the name, are eastern Asian in origin, but have, thanks to a few escapees, created a feral population in England. This bird is most likely an escapee from a local collection, and I think I know from where. With bad light and from very far away, I snapped a few photos. The bird, a drake, occasionally popped up onto a nearby branch - it's a relative of the wood duck here in North America - and showed the fact that it did not have an identifying band.

I did not sit by and wait. I wanted to make sure the owner could find the bird, and retreated to my office to contact the town's animal control officer. Keep your fingers crossed.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: None (escapees don't count!)

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: a full day at work; seeing a movie tonight with a friend; magazine and book work.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21, 2009 - Twin Pine Trail, Stetson Meadows, Norwell, Massachusetts

The rain that started last night had diluted to mist by the morning, though the skies had plans to ramp it up again later. As I began a slow walk down toward the edge of the North River, the only part of me getting truly wet was my feet, soaking in the morning dew off the grasses with every step.

I was not only walking towards the water's edge, but into the middle of the morning chorus. Northern cardinals, Carolina wrens and tufted titmice were singing heartily, and red-winged blackbirds, although their "song" is reminiscent of the first night of a new season of American Idol, were belting it out with all they had. Swamp sparrows, chipping sparrows and pine and palm warblers all trilled sweetly.

I wandered along the Twin Pines trail, knowing that the "twins" were soon to loom ahead. They're white pines, a pair that have grown side-by-side for decades, just a few feet apart, never outcompeting each other for sunlight. Just beyond them, the story will be different. Hundreds of smaller trees, eager to reach skyward, are crowded together in a dense patch. Years from now, only a few will remain.

That's obviously apparent a few steps away, as the forest closes in to a dense pine stand, so thick at the canopy level that it feels like night has arrived prematurely. The ground is covered with nothing but decayed needles.

I wonder if Cornet Robert Stetson thought about these things when he arrived in the 1630s. Probably not. He wss too busy building sawmills and fighting off Indian attacks and raising his family in a New World.

As I returned to the car, the chorus rose again, but there was something additional in the mix. I chased it through the woods, moistly battered by the low-slung branches of young plants that had collected mist over the past half hour. I found the source, a warbler, but couldn't identify it in the darkness of the overhanging branches. But the sound, the song was unmistakable. A blackburnian warbler.

Oh no. I'm not ready for this.

Time: 36 minutes.

New species: Palm warbler, blackburnian warbler (152).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on: 8 tough hours at work, as I'm coming down with a throat infection; work on the magazine article line-up; dinner with mom, Michelle and our baby boy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20, 2009 - Great Hill, Weymouth, Massachusetts

Nobody said hello to me today, but in a way, I don't mind. Great Hill is a place with an amazing view of the Boston skyline, Quincy's Hough's Neck, the end of the Hull peninsula, many of the Boston Harbor Islands and all of the maritime traffic in between. The parking area at the crest of the hill is a perfect Sunday morning newspaper and coffee spot, and as today is a holiday in Massachusetts, that role has been extended for another twenty-four hours.

It's a contemplative kind of place, where people probably get a lot of thinking done, maybe work out their problems. The men that were here today - and they were all men - all kept to themselves, taking the moment to relax. I let them be.

I, of course, was on the move from the minute I stepped out of my car. There are no trails to walk at Great Hill, so I walked up, down and around Great Hill. The wooded areas of the park were alive with spring activity, from singing Carolina wrens to a tufted titmouse carrying so much nesting material in its bill that it couldn't see where it was going. It landed on a branch and dumped half its load before flying into the woods.

Looking down upon the section of town known as Wessagussett from a pull-off parking area, I was reminded of a tablet I saw at the top of the hill describing Myles Standish's killing of two Indian chiefs as a pre-emptive strike against a possible uprising against the European settlers in the area in the seventeenth century. The more I thought about it, the more I had trouble believing that there had been no outcry against the rededication of the stone eleven years ago, what with political correctness and all. It's a weird twisting of perspectives through time to consider, but history is history, whether actions were just in hindsight or not.

I climbed the hill once again to finish my walk, and to take in one last look at the dynamism of the sea.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening today: picked up the new patio set and helped load and unload some sheetrock with my father-in-law; worked on more of the Captains Guide magazine articles; finished reading Beneath the Surface by Michael Phelps.

April 19, 2009 - The Path off Union Street, Weymouth, Massachusetts

In my travels to and from work I pass a path between houses that has always intrigued me. On the far end, I can see wide expanses of green grass and what looks to me to be playground equipment. I decided today was the day to check it out.

It was a beautiful day for a walk, or to be outdoors in general. My first hello was to a grandfather working in the yard with his grandson. We said hello, then I heard him turn to the little guy and say, "What do you mean your eyes are making you confused?" I'm sure in the coming years, my son will come up with similar gems of his own. I can't wait. My second hello was to an older woman, wearing an iPod, and cruising along at a good pace. We shared big smiles.

I found the pathway and walked toward the green. It really had the effect of a passing through a tunnel from the dark side to the light side. I immediately figured out where I was when I reached the grassy fields. The park bench with the words COAST GUARD cut into it tipped me off. I had walked onto the undeveloped lots of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, now partially Coast Guard housing.

I had to temper my enthusiasm at what I saw, which included a singing chipping sparrow, a morning cloak butterfly, and numerous flowers in bloom. I had to remember that the development of the land here is not a maybe, it's a definite. As serene and beautiful and oasis-like as it was today, it won't be here a few years from now. It'll be the other end of a double-ended dark tunnel of suburbia.

Time: 34 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 4 (176).

What else is happening: turned in the final two chapters of a book (hallelujah!); sent in two articles to the Captains Guide magazines.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 18, 2009 - Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland

Last summer, I was sidetracked on my way to Lewes, Delaware, to give a talk on Coast Guard history. Southwest Airlines got me from Providence, Rhode Island, to Baltimore four hours later than they promised, costing me a chance at free lodging, and forcing me into a spur-of-the-moment $150 hotel room. When the time came to rate the trip on their online survey, I let them have it. They surprised me by sending me a $150 voucher for a future flight. I used that voucher today.

I multi-tasked on the trip today. I specifically wanted to visit the Roger B. Taney, a Coast Guard cutter that's now a museum ship in the Inner Harbor, part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum. It's got a pretty significant badge to wear; it's the last ship afloat that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I photographed it for two articles I'll write this weekend, for Ships Monthly and Wreck & Rescue. As a third objective, I visited the huge Barnes & Noble store in the old power plant on the waterfront to check out some books on the natural history of the area, planning a future trip for my day job. I'll be back in the region in September. Stay tuned for that.

But the trip was more than just business. My wife's brother Chris and his fiancee Ann live nearby, and met me at the airport. They joined me for the walk. We briskly took in the sights, the sumbarine Torsk, the Chesapeake Bay lightship, the USS Constellation, Fort McHenry, and the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse. The National Aquarium was full up until late afternoon, so we skipped that idea and went and had lunch.

At 2 p.m., I boarded a plane back to Providence, and by 5 was home in time for dinner with Michelle. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

Time: 48 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (172).

What else went on: magazine work; finished reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill; began reading Beneath the Surface by Michael Phelps.

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009 - Turkey Hill Reservation, Hingham, Massachusetts

It took me seven minutes to reach the top of the hill from the parking lot, but less than that to let the memories come flooding back. I grew up at the base of Turkey Hill, at least partially. My family lived there from 1974 to 1977, taking me from three to six years old. I remember the horse farm that once stood at the top of the hill where the reservation now spreads across the crown, and even rode one of the horses as a kid. About two months ago, I led an owl prowl here for a local family.

Other members of my family, though, have alternative, longer memories of the place. My Uncle Billy, a Kentucky boy through and through, served here in the late 1950s when the site was used for tracking NIKE missiles. My father came up here to watch the city of Chelsea's massive fire in 1973, all the way across Boston Harbor.

Turkey Hill is a baldie, an eminence devoid of trees, save for one, broken down specimen at the top of the hill. It's a grassland, home to tree swallows and bobolinks in summer. The former have arrived, the latter are on the way.

The temperature was around 70 degrees when I reached the top of the hill, the warmest day we've had on the South Shore in 2009 to date. I'd had a long day to that point, but found the view from the top invigorating, from Boston Light to the Hull windmills to the cross atop Glastonbury Abbey. In my mind, I could almost see the most famous sight ever taken in from this hill, the battle of the Shannon and the Chesapeake in the War of 1812, and hear the American captain, mortally wounded, shouting those words so sacred to today's U.S. Navy, "Don't give up the ship!" Yup, this is a special place, for many, many reasons.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (170).

The rest of my day: Led our usual 3 1/2 hour bird walk, today in Lakeville and Middleboro, Massachusetts; bought a patio set; dinner out with Michelle and our baby boy, the first time since December; worked on the Captain's Guide magazine.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16, 2009 - Where the Barn Used to Be, North River Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I'm busy, just like everybody else. I've got a forty-hour per week job for which I travel quite a bit. I'm a freelance writer for one newspaper and numerous magazines. I'm executive director of a national Coast Guard history organization, and do a lot of volunteer work for another. I speak in public several times a month, and lead private tours of several historic places. I'm sharing in the duties of raising a six-month old (admittedly, my wife is taking the lion's share), and did I mention that I take a walk every day?

Then there's the books. I've now got deadlines for five of them. I've got little spare time. But that doesn't mean I can't plan ahead. Someday, when I have time, I'm going to write another book. It'll all have to do with grass. Or, instead, the lack of it.

There's a spot, at the top of the grassland at the North River Wildlife Sanctuary, where a barn used to stand. It's been moved, and still stands elsewhere on the property. Where it used to stand, well, it's an example of what would happen to the rest of the property if we didn't mow it annually. There are small trees and bushes and thorns. There's a tiny pool of water and a path that runs right through the thicket. I've seen red-tailed hawks soaring above it, American woodcocks stepping into it at the end of a night's dancing, the remains of a fisher's kill strewn all about it, and much more. For a little place, it's got a lot of nature going on.

I got the call today that there were American toads croaking up a storm in the tiny pool. For most people, that's not jump-out-of-your-seat news. But I'm the citizen science coordinator at our sanctuary, and we're conducting an amphibian sounds survey. I grabbed my clipboard and camera and hustled out the door.

But by the time I got there, there was no sound at all. I crept up on the pool, keeping my eyes on the ground ahead of me, to see if I might spy a toad. Nothing. I waited silently for about a minute, patiently standing on a small rock. Then I heard the grasses move behind me. I looked behind me, but saw nothing. I looked in front of me, and there it was. A snake, a 16-inch garter, had slithered between my legs and into the pool. That's why there were no toads around.

It was another chapter unfolding in my someday to be published book, on one of my favorite spots, the place where the barn used to be.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: Reptiles: garter snake (2); Wildflowers in bloom: myrtle (5).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on: Eight full hours at the desk; work on magzine and book projects; got word that my latest book, on Monhegan Island, has hit store shelves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15, 2009 - McDade Trail, Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania

John Denver had a great line in Rocky Mountain High. Yes, everybody makes fun of John Denver for being crunchy before it was hip, for expressing his feelings through song. I'll admit that the bowl cut and big round glasses certainly didn't help. But to truly appreciate music, we have to look beyond the artist and listen to the power of the song. If it helps, for the next few minutes, put John Denver out of your mind.

"I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly." Those are the words that got me a few years ago. As I started my work for Mass Audubon as a naturalist, I was just starting out as a birder. I started to build my list from week to week, learning more and more about the more than 300 species that move around and through Massachusetts: lifestyles, food choices, predators, prey, habitats, changes in plumage, more. There was a lot to take in.

As I built that list, I got to the point where I had targets, birds I truly wanted to see in the wild. Slowly they came, but one held out: the American bald eagle. I started to feel like the poorer man in John Denver's lyrics. I wanted to see an eagle fly.

It's been several years now since I saw my first bald eagle fly (in Michigan, near St. Ignace; my first perched one was in Ilwaco, Washington several years prior to that one). I now have "eagle spots" in several states that I visit annually to see them. But that doesn't mean it ever gets old. Today, I got that same sensation in my chest, took that short intake of breath, as when I saw the first one. This one, a youngster, was chasing two Canada geese up the Delaware River. It never got them, but it got them honking alright.

For that moment alone, today was a good day.

Time: 38 minutes.

New species: Birds: northern rough-winged swallow, black vulture, rusty blackbird (150); Mammals: woodchuck (15); Butterflies: Cabbage white (2); Wildflowers in bloom: Dutchman's breeches, trout lily (4).

Stranger hellos: 3 (168).

What else happened today: Visited the Worthington State Forest in New Jersey; walked the Dingmans Falls Trail; walked the Raymondskill Falls Trail; got stuck in a traffic jam in Hartford, Connecticut for nearly an hour.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14, 2009 - Hawk Falls Trail, Hickory Run State Park, Carbon County, Pennsylvania

We started joking as we walked down the sloping trail, mostly about the rhododendrons. Well, it wasn't so much joking as thinking out loud and laughing while we did so. The line of conversation had mostly to do with how strange it seemed to us to be surrounded by the woodland plants, hundreds of them in each direction, while back home they're strictly ornamental. We mentioned that if you find them in the woods in Massachusetts, they're a pretty good indication of an old house site.

When we reached the bottom of the trail, at the intersection with the Orchard Trail (which itself should have been a giveaway), we realized that we had found a house site. In this case, it was the myrtle that helped us make the discovery. That and the foundation.

There were two common mergansers near the old homestead, which was at the confluence of two waterways, one large and one small. There's a grand gorge nearby now spanned by a long bridge that hosts a major highway. A century ago, or maybe two, it must have been bucolic. It's the kind of place that would have appeared in sketches in mid-nineteenth century illustrated magazines, describing for east coast city dwellers the beauty of what was becoming the rest of their country.

The picture was completed when we found Hawk Falls, a short but powerful drop that first hit a pool, then spilled out a second time into the river below. It was so strong, it even drowned out the highway above.

Time: 47 minutes.

New species: Amphibians: red-spotted newt, green frog, northern dusky salamander (10); Birds: common raven, ruby-crowned kinglet (147); Wildflowers in bloom: coltsfoot, trailing arbutus (2).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: Visited the Boulder Field at Hickory Run and walked several other trails through the park; lunch at Piggy's in Lake Harmony; visited Lake Harmony and Big Boulder Lake; walked Promised Land State Park.

Monday, April 13, 2009

April 13, 2009 - Maurice Broun Trail, Lacawac Sanctuary, Salem Township, Pennsylvania

From the second I saw the sign, I knew it was the trail we had to walk. Maurice Broun was a giant of a man. He founded the Hawk Mountain sanctuary here in Pennsylvania. He was the first director of Mass Audubon's Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, even before it belonged to Mass Audubon. And he made such an impact on the people that formed the Lacawac Sanctuary alongside Lake Wallenpaupack that they decided to honor him with the naming of a trail.

The notion of Broun and trails is an interesting one. He was left desolate by the loss of his parents at a young age, wandering Boston Common as a young boy. There, he found solace in the study of nature. He caught the eye of Edward Howe Forbush, an eminent ornithologist of his day, who recommended him for the job at Pleasant Valley in Lenox, Massachusetts.

His first job there was to lay out trails. But he was so attuned to the straight lines of the city that when he ran into an obstacle, say, a large rock, he retreated to the barn to look for tools to destroy it or otherwise move it out of his intended path. He had to be taught to go around the rock, to work with nature.

He must have fallen in love with Pennsylvania when he arrived. It's so different from the land he left behind. Slate underfoot, hemlocks reaching overhead, and millions of other small details made it a world apart from home. Take for instance one of our finds today. Under a rotting log on the Broun trail, we surprised a mountain dusky salamander. Can't find that one in Massachusetts. There are birds here that aren't there. And we might even find a mammal or two exotic to our home state as well if we're lucky before we're through.

This sanctuary shelters a forest twice logged, the last time in the 1920s. The trees are all second growth, an therefoe not as large as many others we've seen, but that hasn't kept large woodpeckers away. In one peaceful moment, my friend David and I stood listening to a pileated woodpecker drumming out over the lake, shaking the trees with his spring ritual. It was good to be in the woods today.

Time: 61 minutes.

New species: Amphibians: two-lined salamander, mountain dusky salamander (7); Birds: pied-billed grebe, purple finch, Louisiana waterthrush (145).

Stranger hellos: 1 (165).

What else is shakin': walked several trails in the Shohola Falls state game preserve in Dingman's Ferry; visited Lake Wallenpaupack; spent seven hours at the Valley Country Club in Sugarloaf, preparing to write a book on the club's centennial.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12, 2009 - Faxon Park, Quincy, Massachusetts

At first light, I thought to myself that it would be fun to try to find a rabbit somewhere on the South Shore, as it was Easter Sunday. But nature can't always be dialed up on demand, so I figured that was just a dumb idea in the first place.

Instead, I decided I'd treat myself to something new. I had never been to Faxon Park before today. I knew it was named for a great temperance reformer of the nineteenth century, Henry Faxon, and that it included the land on which his boyhood home once stood. I had no idea the views from the top of the park's hills would be so breathtaking.

I should have guessed, though, that I would find signs of rampant vandalism at the park. There's an inverse proportionality at work in public parks near great metropolitan places. The farther one moves from the city, the greener the park; the closer it is to the city, the heavier the misuse and abuse of the land.

Fires. Fires have been the main disaster here at Faxon Park. There have been dozens of them, and the trees here, mostly oaks, are just devastated. Judging by the number of beer cans - sadly ironic for a park granted to the town by a teetotaler - and other trash spread throughout certain sections of the park, it's obvious there's some arson involved. The shame of it is that there's so much to see here. One grotto, in particular, must have been simply divine in its day, but its day is long gone, thanks to graffiti and garbage.

At the top of the park there's a circular parking area surrounded by a stoic and grand Victorian stonewall. Inside the center ring are forsythia bushes, already in their yellow spring bloom. From the circle with binoculars one can make out Fort Revere in Hull and the rest of Quincy Bay. Well, some of it, anyway. A developer who obviously had his own pockets more in mind than the greater good of the community has built condominiums in front of what once must have been a spectacular view, certainly one of the reasons Mr. Faxon gave the land to his hometown in the first place.

I understand the people of Quincy have had enough with the wanton destruction of their public park, and that they are planning on some big changes. Changes that will affect the lives of not just casual walkers and explorers like me, but those of the sixteen female wild turkeys I saw today. Or the lone cottontail rabbit I saw scurry under a thorny thicket. Happy Easter.

Time: 74 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is going on: errands by morning; a visit from mom and sister to bring my baby boy his first Easter basket; dinner with Michelle's mom, dad and brother; submitted three newspaper articles to the Mariner Summer Guide; worked on the Captain's Guide magazines.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11, 2009 - Kickapoo, Hingham. Massachusetts

Our weather continues to teeter back and forth, as if on a see-saw. Yesterday, we dropped layers and basked in the sun. Today, near Hingham Harbor, I was a layer short, caught in the stiff wind with just not enough clothing.

I knew I wasn't alone in noticing the frigidity. The snowy egrets on Home Meadows, a marsh and former millpond that sits between Water Street, Winter Street and Rockwood Road, were hunkered down and hunched up, looking like us when we shrug our shoulders and tuck our chins into our chests in attempts to keep out chilly air. A chipping sparrow, newly arrived this week, sat in a tree making slight whimpering noises, and not singing its happy, trilling song.

Kickapoo, or Kickaboo, depending on who you ask, is a quiet, secret little community, unknown to even many Hinghamites. It's easily bypassed by travelers rounding the nearby rotary or speeding up Route 3A to the north or south. It's a wonder it's even there at all.

But it, like many places, has its secret that makes it special. In this gathering of a few dozen homes is one that was brushed by literary greatness. On Green Street Court, a narrow dead end

street, is one Cape Cod-style cottage that's so small it's earned the nickname, "The Littlest House."

It's no Guinness style record, or anything official like that. Instead, the Littlest House gained its fame as it was once rented, for a two-year period, by writer Elizabeth Coatsworth. At first, she offered it to her husband Henry, who was having trouble writing at their home on nearby Ship Street. She figured he could use an office, and the "doll-house" atmosphere might inspire him. But he visited only two or three times before giving it back for her use. He was lost amongst so much civlization, not just on Green Street Court, but in Hingham at large. After all, he had just spent a year on a Cape Cod beach by himself in a cabin, writing The Outermost House. The Littlest House is one that Henry Beston rejected, yet Elizabeth Coatsworth, the author of South Shore Town, among others, reveled in.

Time: 30 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: oil change; follow-up doctor's visit to monitor my deer tick bite; posted the other blog; magazine, newspaper and book work deep into the night.

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10, 2009 - Fort Revere Park, Hull, Massachusetts

I served as the president of the Fort Revere Park & Preservation Society for six years, and in that time, I gave innumerable tours of the grounds to school groups, teachers in search of professional development points, families and members of the general public. So when a local family contacted me for a private tour, there was no doubt in my mind we'd find a date and time to get together.

We certainly found the right day. We started out, all seven of us, on the grounds of the fort, looking out over Lighthouse Channel and Nantasket Roads, gazing to the east over Allerton Hill to the wide expanse of the Atlantic. We moved into the observation deck of the 1903 water tower, a National Water Landmark, and took in the unparalleled view, from the highest point on the South Shore. From the Blue Hills to the Boston skyline to Marblehead to Minot's Light to World's End to the Fore River Shipyard, it can all be seen in a 360-degree view from the tower.

In the end, we talked about the ghost of the Lady in Black and her wanderings about George's Island in Boston Harbor, Admiral D'Estaing and the arrival of the French Navy to the fort in 1778, the battle of Boston Light and the heroics of lifesavers Joshua James. We discussed the Kennedy family and their impact on this tiny Boston Harbor town. And we talked about how French bread changed American history. Then, I set them free to explore the rest of the fort, its crumbling walls and dark cavern-like rooms.

I never feel so alive as when I'm sharing the knowledge and information I have, and engaging in conversations that help me see things from a different perspective. That "aha" moment can be found anywhere, even at the top of a century-old concrete tower, and inspired by the questions of a seven-year-old child. Epiphanies rock.

Time: 94 minutes.

New species: Butterflies: Morning cloak (1).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else happened today: led my regular 3 1/2 hour Friday bird walk, in Marshfield and Duxbury; mounted a nesting box for an American kestrel at the North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield with my co-worker and friend David; posted a review of The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra on Amazon; began reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill; dinner with Michelle, her mom, dad, brother and our baby boy.

April 9, 2009 - Bay Farm Conservation Area, Kingston and Duxbury, Massachusetts

Today was all about birdsong And mud. Lots and lots and lots of mud.

Bay Farm, a multi-habitat open space preserve just seconds above the 42nd parallel, is not yet ready for prime time. Spring rains have left its trails, from one end of the park to the other, a slimy, mucky, muddy mess. As I walked amongst the thickets, my shoes made sucking and slurping sounds with almost every step as they turned ever browner, coated by the gooey mess. It was a miracle that I kept my balance and remained upright for the entire walk.

That said, I enjoyed every minute of it, though I knew I'd be paying for it later. Pisces are ruled by their feet, and I've found that if my feet are wet and miserable, I usually pick up on that sentiment for the rest of the day until I can rectify the situation. I had at least ten hours of muddy misery ahead of me, but for the moment, I was fine.

The sun was out and the sky was blue, I moved from the thickets to the grasslands to the shore of Kingston Bay. There I made note the the osprey pair on the Hicks Point Pole were both home. Brant, 85 of them, cruised on the bay. I sat down on a large flat rock at the water's edge and nearly fell asleep in the sun.

Heading back through the grasslands, I was overwhelmed by songbirds. A northern cardinal sang out for a mate as an eastern phoebe sounded its two-note call nearby. Song sparrows called in competition with American goldficnhes, which threw me for a moment. It had been a long time since I had heard a goldfinch singing, but there was a secret phrase this bird threw in that tipped me off to its identity: "potato chip." All throughout the year, while in flight, goldfinches call out four notes as they fly, in a cadence that sounds exactly like the words "potato chip." In between long and complicated song phrases, today's goldfinch would reload with that familiar sound.

Two other surprises caught me today, a house wren and a greater yellowlegs. The latter is a shorebird that is usually found at the beach, but will utilize freshwater puddles and pools as well. Bay Farm was so wet today that a yellowlegs flew from puddle to puddle, calling out its descending "kew-kew-kew" as it went. It looked like it was enjoying the muddy day as much as I was, on this, my 100th walk in 100 days.

Time: 58 minutes.

New species: House wren, greater yellowlegs, barn swallow, purple martin (142).

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: worked on the Captain's Guide magazines; worked with my editor Nick on my Ships Monthly article on Star of India; 8 full hours at work; finished reading Hemanta Mishra's The Soul of the Rhino; led my final Natural History Book Club meeting, on the same book, and as such for the first time in four years, I have no assigned book to read.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

April 8, 2009 - Central Avenue and Q Streets, Hull, Massachusetts

I prepare a weekly column for the Hull Times, but I do it monthly. I used to do it annually, but that got too confusing. People would stop me in the streets and say, "That was pretty funny, what happened in the column this week," and I'd have to think to myself, "What the hell did I write about this week?"

It's an old-fashioned, gossipy news column, excerpted from the Hull Beacon of a century ago. It's become a town soap opera, now in its tenth year. Readers have been following the lives of their ancestors and predecessors through cake walks, progressive dinners and bal masques for a decade, laughing along with me at the antics of our former citizens.

A hundred years ago this month, the columnist noted that the town should consider oiling - laying oil on the dirt roads to keep the dust down - Central Avenue and Q Street, as they were among the heaviest used highways in town. Today, they're side streets, bowing reverently to the mighty Nantasket Avenue. Had that sentence been written in 2009, the townsfolk would have scratched their heads, called the authorities, and gotten men in calming white suite with big butterfly nets to take the editor of the newspaper away to a nice, quiet, padded room. But this was 1909, and Hull was a different place.

I walked the route today to refresh my historical memory. At the time the roads were laid out in the 1880s, there was nothing to interfere with their placement. The place was barren, known, in fact, as the plains of Nantasket. The village settlement, even into the early 1900s, was near the end of the peninsula, several miles away. So why was this area so important?

Pick up the Hull Times to find out.

Oh, that's cold.

Time: 36 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (164).

The rest of my day: Read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak to my baby boy; found an engorged deer tick on me, and checked into South Shore Hospital in Weymouth for the morning, which meant I spent the rest of the day on antibiotics; bank, post office, pharmacy, etc.; worked on an article for Ships Monthly, a British magazine, for my editor Nick; gave a lecture based on my Boston Harbor book with my coauthor Don at the annual meeting of the Historical Society of Old Abington.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

April 7, 2009 - Woodland Loop, North River Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield, Massachusetts

I have a herpetologist friend (don't we all?) who told me that American toads were on the move this week. He also told me that the night he found out, he had picked up his girlfriend at the airport and told her that since it was a rainy night, they couldn't go directly home after her long flight. They had to drive around for a while and look for frogs. For that reason, I'm not telling you the name of my herpetologist friend. He needs anonymity right now.

But it turns out he was right, about the toads, at least. As part of a very long work day today I was meandering about the North River sanctuary with a co-worker, laying out 40 coverboards in the woods, and checking out the 40 we had placed last year. Under them we found 9 red-backed salamanders. Citizen science in action.

Along the way, we made another new friend, a new sighting for me for the year. A big, fat, warty, what-the-hell-was-Mother-Nature-thinking toad. It really is an ugly little creature, in a slimy sort of way. But it has one of the all-time coolest Latin names: Bufo americanus.

But what a life they lead. They don't drink water. They let it absorb through their skin. Taking a bath would have a whole new meaning to us, although I suppose we must let some water in; we just don't necessarily feel satiated after a good rain. They have a pretty effective defense system, too. Their skin secretes a poisonous fluid that makes many predators spit them right out. All except for a few species of snakes. They've been known to live - rarely - up to ten years in the wild.

Ugly though they may be, they have their place in the food chain, and therefore their benefit to nature. Herons eat them. They eat bugs, meaning they help to keep their populations in control. Raccoons will take them if they have to, even if it makes them sick. They eat bugs, which means there's fewer for us to deal with. And one more thing: did I mention they eat bugs? Come to think of it, they are kind of beautiful, in their sublimely slimy, ugly kind of way.

Time: 168 minutes.
New species: Birds: chipping sparrow, pine warbler, great egret (138); Mammals: muskrat (14); Amphibian: American toad (5).
Stranger hellos: None.
The rest of my day: conducted our waterfowl survey at the North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Duxbury; research at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society; some office work; led my last woodcock walk for the year; magazine and newspaper work; learned that a true friend, Professor R. Dean Ware, passed away over the weekend.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 6, 2009 - Causeway Street, Boston, Massachusetts

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century, several American cities imported English house sparrows. Boston was at the head of the list. It was a dumb, short-sighted move. But the lesson had not yet been learned.

They were brought in to control pests. Then they became pests. The classic tale.

The problem was that when they arrived, they lived in the cities - cities that were ruled by horses. And horse droppings. The house sparrows thrived on the grassy components, and multiplied. Then, the day came when the last horse left the city (well, not really, cops use them for special events, but you get the point). Without those droppings to live on, the house sparrows sought other worlds to conquer. They spread out into the countryside.

When they reached suburbia, they found the woodlands, and nesting holes in trees. It didn't matter to them if holes already had occupants, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, house wrens; they killed the young, pushed out the eggs and drove off the adults. Several species started on their declines.

Perhaps the numerous house sparrows I saw today on my walk to and around the Causeway Street area of the city were descendants of the original invaders. It's not that far-fetched.

Time: 36 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: meeting in Boston on planning a museum exhibit; research at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy; online research for an article; magazine work; newspaper work.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 5, 2009 - Cuffey's Hill, Norwell, Massachusetts

There's something visually alluring about powerlines that stretch straight away into the distance. It's the old trick to the eyes of parallel lines that seemingly meet. But it's impossible to walk to the point where they do, for no matter how far you travel, that perceived point of intersection is always the same distance away. I wondered, as I stood on the trail, if our eyes were on the sides of our heads, would the illusion remain the same?

It was sunny and warm today atop Cuffey's Hill, so much so that I could stand under the powerlines and think of such silliness without a single shiver, or a tug at my collar to protect my neck from the temperatures. In fact, at one point, I slipped out of my coat and threw it over one shoulder.

The loop atop the hill on the far side of the powerlines from the trailhead on Mt . Blue Street is a paradise in beech. And it was a stirring sight. With their smooth bark, beech trees are the vandal's tabula rasa of the forest. But not here. The light gray bark on all of these trees was as clean as the day they popped out of the ground, and shining in the bright sunshine that penetrated to the forest floor in the absence of leaves.

As I returned to the trailhead, I did two things. First, I spooked another red-tailed hawk. Must be a nest nearby, as the young are already calling out for food at this time of the year. Second, I found an old house site. It wasn't hard. Perennial bulbs don't grow in rectangular patterns in the woods, unless they once formed the display beds of a private home.

Finally, a curveball was thrown my way. Or maybe it was a slider. Either way, I swung weakly at it. As I headed for my car, another pulled away. As it did, the driver leaned out to say hello. I beat her to it, offering a smile and a greeting. But she returned with more, saying, "Hi John!" as she drove away. She knew me, but I didn't know her. Is that a stranger hello? More importantly, how did she know who I was? Is there a chance that I'm more well-known in the area than I think I am?

Nah, that's impossible.

Time: 56 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 3 (162).

What else is going on: heard the sad news that a family member has cancer; worked on the Captain's Guide magazines; finished reading Jumbo by Paul Chambers and posted a review on Amazon; began reading The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra; did some heavy research for an upcoming South Shore Living magazine article; 8 hours at work, including leading a woodcock walk at the North River Wildlife Sanctuary; celebrated my baby boy's first tooth!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 4, 2009 - Gagnon Park, Weymouth, Massachusetts

I don't know what angered me the most today. I decided once again to devote some time to a park in my hometown, and found that, once again, walking into a park in this community with a smile on my face and a sense of exploratory anticipation is just a bad idea from the start.

Maybe it was the piles and piles of discarded arbor vitaes that did it to me. A landscaper, or somebody who handles a lot of ornamental trees and shrubs, has obviously been using this public park as a dumping ground for unwanted yard plants. Strike one.

But perhaps it was the roofer who has been dumping piles of used asphalt shingles throughout the park, right alongside the trails. They're melting into the earth, slowly dissolving as the years pass. Strike two.

Then again, maybe it was the proliferation of used automobile tires that seem to sit in every patch of open water, in every brook. Or the traffic cones. Or the metal folding chairs. Or perhaps it was the places where I could stand in one spot and could between 50 and 100 beer cans. Or maybe it was the spot where the trail abruptly ends because an abutting property holder has decided to use the park as a place to dump his or her yard waste. Strike three.

Despite the blatant trampling of nature taking place here and the community leadership's obvious lack of respect for its parks, what is most frustrating is the untapped potential for interpretation of this place. The bedrock here puts on quite a show as one pokes around. A red-tailed hawk flew from a tree as I walked the main road in the misting rain. An old set of concrete pillars tell of at least one structure that used to stand in these woods. A chunk of striped skunk fur provided a perfect mystery. What was desperate or crazy enough to attack a skunk? Even the powerline that runs through the park has a story to tell. The park was dedicated in 1964, and the powerline built five years later, but on a plan that pre-dated the creation of the park.

One pile of rocks led me to do some thinking. They were of a different color, and in too big of a pile to be where they were naturally. As I could hear Route 3 rushing by I took a side trail to take a peek at the highway. Sure enough, the rocks in the pile matched a blasted corridor of the highway. The rocks in the pile even bore drilled holes where the dynamite would have been placed.

And finally, what of the story of the man for whom the park was named so long ago? The park doesn't give any indication of who he was. Walter James Gagnon was a Seaman First Class with the United States Naval Reserve, fighting in World War II, and residing permanently at 23 Clapp Avenue, just to the north of the park. He gave his life for his country on August 14, 1944, and is buried at Fort Bonifacio, Manila, Philippine Islands. He earned the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster (which means he was wounded twice as a result of enemy action, in his case the second wound being fatal).

If nothing else, shouldn't this park be a reflection of the community's reverence for one of its own who offered the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf? I'm sorry, Seaman Gagnon. You deserve much more than this.

Time: 52 minutes.

New species: Mushroom: amber jelly roll (4).
Stranger hellos: None.

What else is happening: signed some copies of my book on the North River for the South Shore Natural Science Center's gift shop; was interviewed by the Boston Globe and South Shore Living Magazine on different topics; wrote an article for the Hull Times; dinner with Michelle, my mother and sister; worked on the Captain's Guide magazines.

Friday, April 3, 2009

April 3, 2009 - Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Area, Hanson, Massachusetts

At least one source has told me that one of the retired cranberry bogs at Burrage, as it's colloquially known, is the largest such bog to be found between here and Wisconsin. I can't seem to find that notion corroborated anywhere. All I know is that when one stands at the Hawk Street entrance and looks to the southwest, one can see for a long, long way.

Apart from the remnants of the cedar swamp and the cranberry bogs (both of which were once money producers for different companies over the years) that make up the property, there's a lot to see here that's tough to find elsewhere. With 1600 acres of open space and lots and lots of shallow water, Burrage is a haven for wildlife. Ducks of many varieties stop by during migration, which is happening now. Today they included American wigeons, lesser scaups and about two hundred ring-necked ducks. And today also yielded some smaller birds that are tough to find in different environments, like field sparrows and American kestrels.

The only problem with being in such a wide open space, of course, is that when the rain rolls in, you're hung out to dry, or will have to be later. The key today was finding a window between showers. We found one, but when it closed, it closed for good. We had fog, the fog lifted, and minutes later, we were no longer birders, but just a bunch of people trying to get back to their vans without getting soaking wet.

But the slow, inexorable march toward warmer temperatures continued today. I've finally realized why the winter has seemed so long for me. It's this blog. When my walks were stretched farther apart on the calendar, signs of seasonal changes came more frequently. These days, walking every day, it's like the world's moving in slow motion. No complaints.

Pussy willows were the sign of the day. Despite the rain, they were fuzzed out. Because of the rain, they were retaining watery beads on their buds. And despite the bad weather, I had to stop and give them a glance.

Time: 78 minutes.

New species: Tree swallow, field sparrow, ruddy duck (135).

Stranger hellos: 1 (159).

The rest of my rainy day: full day of work, designing a new trip for the fall; magazine, newspaper and book work; posted my other blog.

April 2, 2009 - West's Corner, Hull, Hingham and Cohasset, Massachusetts

I read in an early twentieth century newspaper that a local couple was considering a tri-town wedding. They figured that if they went out to the intersection in front of grocer Charles West's store and stood in the middle of the road, the priest could stand in Hull, the groom in Hingham and the bride in Cohasset. There's no report that it ever finally happened, but it was truly a Victorian type of thing to do, and I wouldn't be surprised if they did it.

West's Corner is often today misinterpreted as "West Corner," but the fact is that the meeting place of the three towns is named for a store owner who unfortunately shared a name with one of the four cardinal points on the compass. His building still stands today, an antique shop where once one could buy fresh produce and other provisions.

The corner was a happening place back then. The Weir River crosses here, feeding into Straits Pond. Once, there was a mill; now there's a gate to control the flow of the river into the pond, a strategy which also controls the midge population in summer, or attempts to, anyway.

Cohasset's famous Jerusalem Road begins next to West's store and heads east. Immediately, one comes upon the Pope church. Colonel Albert Pope, the founder of Columbia bicycles, built the church in memory of his teenage son Charles, who passed away unexpectedly in 1898. It was originally non-denominational, but of late has been Greek orthodox. And it's about to double in size, according to the configuration of the new foundation now curing on its west side.

Just north of the corner is a work yard for a contractor that once was the grounds of the Worrick Mansion, an old hotel, built in 1826, that was known to Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson as The Sportsman. Emerson wrote here for two weeks one terrifically hot summer in the early 1840s. All that remains of what he saw are the rocks that form so much of the landscape in this place. I don't think that the stonewall that's here now was here then.

I could go on. And on. And on. Each building has a story, and even the gaps where buildings used to be have stories to tell. I haven't even mentioned the rescue of kayakers stuck under the bridge in a rising tide by the Hull firemen, the West Corner Men's Club, the old Nantasket Library, Vito's barber shop - oh, the stories I could tell you about that place - or the abundant wildlife that fed in the river and on the pond today.

I'll save that for another walk, and another day.

Time: 46 minutes.

New species: blue-winged teal, Wilson's snipe (132).

Stranger hellos: 3 (158).

The rest of the day: doctor's appointment; historical research at the Hull Town Hall; 8 hours at work, including leading a walk to find American woodcock at the Daniel Webester Wildlife Sanctuary; another visit to a vernal pool to photograph wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1, 2009 - Eliot Tower, Blue Hills State Reservation, Milton, Massachusetts

I knew when I got there that I'd find graffiti. And I knew I'd find history. But I didn't think I'd find graffiti history.

The hike from the parking lot at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum to the Eliot Tower takes about twenty minutes. The "Red Dot" trail that we followed - my co-worker and friend Amy joined me on the walk before our statewide education staff meeting - is somewhat steep, and definitely rocky. But we never stopped, despite the sudden rise in altitude we were taking on. I was panting, but then, I've got issues. No worries, I'm seeing my doctor tomorrow.

The Eliot Tower is a reminder of the life of the man who formed the idea of a system of state parks in Massachusetts in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It's thick, dense, strong, and not going anywhere any time soon. And that's a very cool thing. The view from the tower is simply tremendous. The Boston skyline is obvious; the names of the numerous Boston Hardor Islands seen from this vantage point are more of a challenge.

Inside the tower, names have been scratched on the walls for a century. "Permanent" markers of all kinds have been used to leave appellations, most of which have washed away. But one has remained long enough to make me laugh. As you can see above, Kilroy Was Here.

Whoever left him behind may have known his local history. As best as historians have been able to determine, Kilroy was first found in the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, a place where ships of war were built to take on our World War II enemies. Soon after, Kilroy began appearing overseas, wherever American military men went. Sixty years on, long after his war ended, he made his appearance here.

Time: 72 minutes.

New species: None.

Stranger hellos: 2 (157).

What else is going on: All-day meeting at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum; took care of my baby boy while Michelle went to a wake; played some Wii Guitar Hero: Metallica; agreed to a $2000 contract to write a local history book; more magazine work.

March 31, 2009 - Damon's Point, Marshfield, Massachusetts

Damon's Point is today a dead end, a true point, a road that leads to an outstanding view of the North River saltmarshes, and a great place to watch shorebird migration activity in June and September. But if you could speak to a Marshfielder from say, 1875, you'd hear a different tune.

In those days, the people of Brant Rock, a little corner village of Marshfield were hoping to turn their piece of seashore into a summer destination for the people of Boston. They had the hotels, they had the restaurants, and they had the seaside amusements. But they had no reliable, fast way to get people to town. So they asked for the help of a railroad company. The railroad convinced the townsfolk to use their own cash to pay them to build the road, knowing it would eventually fail. When it did, they swooped in and bought it at a very low, unfair price, fleecing the people of Marshfield. The townsfolk were not happy. Not happy at all.

This point, Damon's Point, is a significant reminder of those days. The point, as well as Damon's Point Road, was part of the train right-of-way. There's a small island off the end that carried the railroad across the marsh to the Scituate side, and there was once a bridge that had to be moved for ships to sail through.

It's here, near the mouth of the North River, that the saltmarshes tell their tale, with channels cut between square parcels to show who owned what. I walked from the point to Bartlett's Island and back, ducking a diving sharp-shinned hawk that tried for a goldfinch nearby. I wondered if the island was really an island. It's not surrounded by water, but by saltmarsh, with a causeway built to it from Damon's Point Road. Perhaps it's a New England definition that I should be focusing on rather than a Webster's one. We tend to have different words for some things 'round hee-ya.

Time: 33 minutes.

New species: Snowy egret (130); Amphibians: spotted salamander (4).

Stranger hellos: 3 (155).

The rest of the day: participated in a conference call about osprey monitoring in the region; met the Coast Guard Historian and the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian at Coast Guard Station Point Allertoin in Hull, took them for a tour of the Scituate Maritime Museum and then joined them for lunch; worked the afternoon at Mass Audubon; visited a local vernal pool; gave a talk at the Quincy Public Library billed as "A Night with John" (now that's a first!).