Wednesday, January 26, 2011

41. Duxbury: North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary

I reached Duxbury and almost started walking by rote. The route I marched today is the same one I will take every two weeks this spring, every two weeks this fall, for a citzien science project. My name is John, I'm 39 years old, and I count ducks.

I'd been in and around Duxbury all weekend long, anyway, leading "snowy owl prowls" out on Duxbury Beach. While no snowies showed themselves on these particular excursions, a peregrine falcon did, and a northern harrier did. Duxbury is a wildlife hotspot for the South Shore, a beautiful mix of woods and ponds and marshes and shoreline that attracts species of all varieties, from horseshoe crabs to bald eagles. It's practically my second home, professionally.

So I walked up and over the rise I know so well. I took the right turn to head for the platform overlooking the pond. I turned left and headed for the Cathedral of Trees at Insurance Point. I even stood in my favorite scoping positions, staring at the ice, subconsciously moving from duck spot to duck spot. It's a routine I've followed for three years now. It's how data sets of natural world activity are built.

But there's one other activity on the horizon for North Hill Marsh. We'll soon be cleaning out the nest boxes on the marsh, checking in on the tree swallow colony's productivity, while it's down in Mexico fattening up for the big flight north this spring. We'll even check the twenty or so wood duck nest boxes. One year we found a sleeping screech owl in one of the boxes. What will we find this year? Oo, I can't wait to find out. For today, though, I had an appointment to keep, a lecture for friends at the Duxbury Senior Center.

Don't worry, North Hill Marsh. I'll be back.

40. Hanover: Colby-Phillips Property

It was supposed to be a Rockland-Hanover day, but ended up being a Hanover-Duxbury day. Damn snow.

The Rockland Town Forest was my first goal for the day (January 25), but the parking lot had not been plowed. It had, in fact, been socked in by the town's plow team, a big berm of the dirty white stuff preventing all vehicular access. Looks like Rockland will have to be a spring thing. I rolled down to the next town on my route.

My trip to Colby-Phillips brought me to one of those moments I often wonder about, that strange intersection between me and one of life's little critters, which I probably would have missed altogether had I walked into the woods just sixty seconds later. Instead, because I bypassed my Rockland destination, because I chose Colby-Phillips, because I paused a minute when I stepped out of the car in the blowing snow to adjust my hat, because I took things slowly on the icy road leading onto the trails, I walked directly into a brown creeper climbing up a tree in the brief moment it decided to forage directly beside the spot where my feet would fall.

Beyond that instance, the beauty of today's walk in Hanover rested in the wintry scenery, the snow-blasted stands of white pine, the bright orange beeches, the leafless young maples jostling for a piece of the forest canopy. The West Hanover Cemetery quietly sits at the end of the trail, never more strak than in the coldness of a winter day. I thought about how the folks interred here are likely to be among the most forgotten people in town history, permanentlyt tucked away in the woods rather than in the large burial ground among generations of their townsmen and women just down Route 139. Their graveyard's marketing relies mainly on foot traffic and word of mouth. Without it, they'd be almost certainly perpetually alone together.

Perhaps that's the way they wanted it to be.

Friday, January 21, 2011

39. Westford: East Boston Camps

I've discovered a story I never knew, and it's one that makes me proud to be a native of the state of Massachusetts.

Boiled down, it's this: a family with money to spare, even during the Great Depression, purchased land in the woods of Westford to open a camp for kids with tuberculosis in Boston. That land, purchased in sixteen transactions, including Burge's Pond, became a fresh air retreat for those kids. Building began and ended in 1937, with cabins made directly from wood felled on the property. The Hurricane of 1938 knocked down even more trees, which were milled on site. Campers still come today, no longer tied to the awful disease that spurred the Hyams family into their plan of action.

What a heartwarming story.

The town of Westford bought the property in 2005, and it makes for a beautiful walk. I don't think, though, I could add anything that would embellish the site's history. It's trees and birds, wetlands and ponds, and one angry squirrel that didn't want me there. After three and a half hours of walking today, I didn't feel the slightest bit tired as I left the East Boston Camps. I felt more refreshed than I have in a long time.

38. Littleton: Oak Hill and Tophet Chasm

A plowed road doesn't always necessarily mean an easy trail to the top. That was my lesson for today.

First, I had to wonder why the road was plowed. Well, I didn't have to, really. My job was just to walk it. And really my job was to pay attention to my feet. While plowed, the road was almost solid ice. And at this road's particular steepness, I was kind of wishing I had stolen the sled from the five-year-old back in Dunstable. Actually, that wouldn't have been good. According to the stickers on his dad's car, dad was a cop. Maybe "borrowed" is a better concept. Still, a ride down Oak Hill today on a sled would have been a wild, potentially deadly ride. What fun.

When I reached the top, my answer stared me in the face: a water tank. How many water tanks will I see this year? Perhaps that'll be my next blog: Half an Hour a Day Across Massachusetts: Finding Water Tanks in All 351 Cities and Towns of the Bay State. This guy had ginormous icicles hanging from its edge, the type that fall off and severely injure people in hospital dramas on TV. I circled the tank and started down.

I decided I had enough time to check out Tophet Chasm. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but it was a very cool geological feature nonetheless. I was hoping for a steep canyon with a drop off that I could then conjecture had been named for the first man to fall into it. Still, one slip could have sent me slidinga nd rolling down the hill in an ever-increasing snowball until I hit the canyon floor below. I left before it could be renamed Galluzzo Chasm.

37. Groton: Groton Town Forest

There was only one parking space, so I took it. It was at the very beginning of the section of Town Forest Road that heads directly into the woods, as the road had not been plowed beyond that point, so I had a walk of a minute or so past the homes neighboring the forest's entryway. The sun was striking the snow so aggressively that it shot a glare up into my eyes that I had to squint to see through.

In the woods, the show began. Blue jays were harrassing a red-tailed hawk, or at least screaming at it like only blue jays can. A mixed flock of chickadees, nuthatches and a golden-crowned kinglet foraged. A small group of cedar waxwings flew quickly overhead, while higher in the sky a gaggle of Canada geese pushed onto their next destination, whichever golf course that may have been.

The snow began to drift off the trees. It wasn't melting, just letting go, still frozen. Although the sky was still a clear blue, it felt like it was ever so lightly snowing.

As I moved beyond the memorial marker which dedicates the forest to the men of Groton who died in World War I in the service of their country, I realized I was Cocoa Puffing again. The recent melting had left the snow all over the region with a wet layer on top that refroze overnight. At one point, I started to reach out for a tree to brace myself after a particularly deep step, only to see the biggest, nastiest poison ivy vine I've seen in years.

Oh, no thank you. I crunched on.

36. Dunstable: Larter Memorial Field

I finally did get locked out of a walking trail, as I tried to access the Spaulding-Proctor Reservation. So, thinking on my feet, I found the next viable option, Larter Field.

The sky was utterly cloudless and blue, the sun shining down on a small hill that had been recently heavily utilized by sledders. Luckily for me, a sign said "trail" and pointed me into the woods. I hoofed it in that direction.

Once again, a snowmobiler had preceded me, making for a nice, flat, straight trail. In fact, I thought to myself, it was too straight. I walked on a ridge that perfectly bisected two small valleys, one on either side. It struck me that I was most likely on an old railroad bed, and that this ridge probably represented an intrusion on what was once probably a single, peaceful valley.

A few of the usuals were there, the titmice and the nuthatches, but there was evidence of the big guy around, the pileated woodpecker. His powerful bill leaves a shredded mess of bark at the base of a tree, and an elongated hole that is pretty unmistakable. The last one is saw was at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, New York, and the last one in Massachusetts was at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham last spring. A new friend from the West End of Scituate recently told me he has one at his suet feeder this winter. I hope to catch a glimpse of one in the state before the year is out.

Back at the hill, a dad and son had taken to their sled. I saw my future. My boy's two right now, so those days are ahead. I cannot wait.

35. Pepperell: Heald Pond Conservation Area

Wow, almost got skunked on this one.

The seemingly never-ending onslaught of snow we've faced for the past three and a half weeks has closed off many walking areas. It has been more important, and rightly so, to keep schools, hospitals and other needed facilities accessible than open space trails. Heald Pond is a perfect example. There was no parking when I got there, absolutely nowhere to turn off and leave the car for even a half an hour.

But there were ice fishermen, and where there are ice fishermen, there's a way. To practice their art, they need snow shovels, among many other tools. And where there are snow shovels, there can be parking spaces.

That said, the walking was about as tough as one can imagine. The trails were mostly untouched, making for a pristinely decorated landscape. The crows seemed to be laughing at me as I wandered aimlessly, somewhat hopelessly. I couldn't blame them. It must have been quite a sight.

34. Townsend: Pearl Hill State Park

I noticed as I was halfway up the hill that were it not for the sounds of my footsteps, there might be no sound at all here on this wintry day at Perarl Hill State Park. I stopped, searching for complete silence. A small engine plane droned sluggishly past, followed by another one a few seconds later. They never really left the range of my hearing.

To get to this point in the park, I had crossed a wide field, past a frozen pond, and followed the tracks of a snowmobile that had compacted the snow to an easily walkable, flat path. I marveled at how different this forest was from those around my South Shore home. We just don't get the variety in evergreen trees down there like they do up here.

And is that mountain laurel? How cool.

On my way back down the trail, I paused again for that silence, without luck. One of the planes was barely audible, but there. Then, dueling downy woodpckers began drumming on distant trees, one far to my right, one way to my left. Well, if I have to hear something, I guess I can deal with that.

33. Ashby: Willard Brook State Forest

It looks like I'm going to know a lot more about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Massachusetts before I'm through with this little project. I crossed the big stone bridge that helps form Damon Pond (the brook has something to do with it as well) and found a sign that told the broad story.

The CCC had 51 camps in Massachusetts during the worst days of the Great Depression. It's hard for us to imagine now what those days were like. Times were so tough, families sent their young men to work - and live - in the forests. Yes, the economic climate is bad now, but we are nowhere near the most extreme depths of depression the country witnessed in the 1930s.

And so they were here, the Pine Cone Johnnies, a great nickname for the men who did so much to improve firefighting capabilities in our woods, who built roads and bridges and cabins and other buildings that today serve as headquarters for public parks.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to live out here during winter days like this one (these walks took place yesterday, on January 20). The brook is still open, but the snow is deep, crunchy on the top, soft underneath. Every step I make as I round the pond sounds like I'm stomping on a Cocoa Puff.

Perhaps in memory of those Pine Cone Johnnies and the pseudo-military existence they led, the park's picnic tables are lined up in tight formation, standing on end, awaiting their spring call. May it come sooner than they expect.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

32. Stoughton: Bird Street Conservation Area

I was reaching my own melting point. By the time I finished at Bird Street, I would have been walking for three hours. That's typically not a problem, but the snow had worn me out.

So I stepped onto the trail, and immediately found out why the street and the conservation area got their names. Within minutes I had tallied fifteen species of birds, from a golden-crowned kinglet to a red-tailed hawk. I did my trick where I stand still long enough that the birds don't realize I'm there, and just watched the show. Apparently my magic works on red squirrels as well, as I had one practically at my feet before I just finally had to move on.

The walking here was just far too difficult today, so I didn't get very far at all. There were trees down, too, right across the trail, that luckily I could dodge, duck, dive and dodge past. And there was a small memorial to Stoughton's veterans. Very nice.

The most obvious thing about my walk here today is that this place must be a birder's paradise in spring. I have no idea where I'll be in April and May (I mean, I have a bit of a list in front of me), but I hope I have time to come back here and catch it again when the migrants come marching through.

31. Sharon: Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary

Wet feet, wet face. I'll explain.

By the time I reached Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, my feet were soaked. The snow is still deep, despite the melting taking place. For hundreds of steps thus far, snow had reached my knees, seeping down into my boots.

So that explains the feet.

As for my face, well, that's another story altogether. I decided to take the Billings Farm Trail today. So had a deer, but, apparently, no one else. And that critter stayed right on the trail, all the way to the old barn. I was amazed.

I lost the trail at the barn, but only because I became distracted. I remember researching the story of Moose Hill a half decade ago when I wrote my book Images of America: Mass Audubon. Mrs. Billings had moved from the city, and was distraught at being separated from the social life therein. She hated the spring peepers in particular. But like many people immersed in natural settings, she grew to love the land like no one else. Walk Moose Hill and it will charm you as well.

So I got to the old Billings Farm area and approached an open shed. I had forgotten about the bat colony. There's an opening in the ceiling of the shed through which the bats fly before taking their daily siestas. And you can't help it. You have to look. I tilted my head to the proper angle, looked skyward and the melting snow caught me right between the eyes.

Wet face.

30. Norfolk: Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

The sun is out! It's not just peeking and poking through the clouds any more. We've got full, slightly warm sunshine. It was so comparatively warm to the rest of the morning that I didn't realize until I was halfway through with my circumnavigation of the mill pond that I had never put my gloves on.

So, onto the show. Hooded mergansers, mute swans, snapping turtles, these are all things I would have expected to see here if the pond was not frozen. Instead, it was the usual gang that has been following me around from town to town: chickadees, titmice, juncos, house sparrows...

Stony Brook, also known as the Bristol-Blake State Reservation has become deservedly well-known in recent years for its Sensory Trail. A soft rope rail runs down the main trail, marked occasionally with signs in both text and braille. If the sign says "pine tree," there's a pine tree within arm's reach. It's a wonderful system.

But Stony Brook has always been ahead of the curve as far as nature education goes. Forty years ago, the sanctuary was synonymous with the name Alfred Bussewitz. "Buzzy," as he was known ti the locals, was said to be able to make poison ivy seem friendly to anyone who wished to listen to him joyously discuss the wonders of nature.

What higher praise could there be for a nature educator?

29. Foxboro: F. Gilbert Hills State Forest


I found two flocks of wild turkeys in F. Gilbert Hills today, one male and one female. They always put a smile on my face. They weren't at all scared by the skilsaw buzzing loudly from the nearby road. And neither was I.

Not that that matters. The forest is aptly-named, at least as far as the hills part goes. It rolled up and down, with interesting trail names like Wolf Meadow Road. Oh, to have been here four hundred years ago...

The most fascinating feature I found here today was the water holes (although there are a ton - or tons - of glacial erratics scattered throughout the woods). The water holes bespeak history. The young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, dug them in the 1930s, one of the federal government's ways of creating jobs during the Depression while completing important public workls projects. My guess, first and foremost, is that they had to do with forest firefighting, and it's probably why the regional state forest firefighting team is headquartered here at F. Gilbert Hills.

I had one fun moment just before I turned to retrace mny steps. As I was walking, I caught motion out of the side of my eye. I quickly looked left and saw a branch spring into the air, flinging the snow that was on it, indeed, that was keeping it pinned to the ground, into the distance. I often wonder how many times per day that happens in a given area, and why fate decided to allow me to witness this one little silent act.

28. Wrentham: Wrentham State Forest

The pinkish sunrise had given way to peeking sunshine by the time I reached the Wrentham Town Forest. I would need it, and fast. After I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that without some serious melting, I might never get out again.

But that was for thirty minutes into the future. I had an appointment to keep with nature. Yes, another one.

The first feature to catch my eye was a glacial erratic boulder, standing atop a small hill. The forest is all small hills, by the way, making for an interesting walk in the current conditions. As I walked, the never-ending rush of Route 495 roared in the background. I had to stop from time to time to be sure I was hearing the titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers I thought I was hearing. I finally saw them, moving through the higher branches of the trees en masse, seeking food together.

Then I ran into Old George. Or at least the notion that he existed. I'm sure the marker that read "Old George Street" actually meant that there was a new George Street in town, and that the path into the woods here was shut down when Route 495 was laid out. I do not believe that it was named for an old man named George, though stranger things have happened. Somebody was named George, we know that for a fact. Washington? Well, there are hundrteds, probably thousands of Washington Streets, Roads and Boulevards across the United States. Were the people of Wrentham on a first name basis with our first president?

Or is Old George the name of the erratic boulder I saw atop the little hill? Hmm, in my mind, it is now.

27. Franklin: Franklin State Forest

Oh, the ice! The damp! Yesterday's snow/rain storm has left Massachusetts a slippery mess. It was an awful day for a walk in the woods, but hey, I have a goal.

The Franklin State Forest is accessible from a trailhead across the street from the Hockomock Area YMCA and the Forge Hill water tank on Forge Hill Road. I say accessible in the most general way. The gate was, of course, behind a wall of snow, and the trail was buried somewhere well underneath it. But somebody beat me to it.

There was one set of tracks in, and as that person had already blazed a trail, I stuck to it. When he or she turned right, I turned right; when he or she went left, I zagged that way, too. That person obviously walked yesterday, though. The prints he or she left behind were pure white. I was not so lucky. I struck slush.

I've learned there are many ways to walk in the snow: on it, through it, in it, etc. I think the worst way is what I experienced in Franklin today. I plunged all the way through, as the melting snow was giving way quite easily. At the bottom, my foot inevitably slid left or right. It never seemed to land straight. My hamstrings, thighs and even my glutes got one heck of a workout.

Eh, this'll all pass. I hope.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

26. Chelmsford: Archer Meadowbrook Preserve

Sometimes, it's good to be the first man onto the trail. And then there was today. In actuality, I didn't mind it, for the most part. It was just the very beginning that was a challenge.

The preserve is on the curve of East Putnam Road, and the plow guys apparently believe no one wants to walk therein winter, so they jammed up the entrance with a large embankment of the white stuff. They probably figure that no idiot would want in. I mean, what moron walks in a foot and a half of wet snow?

One like me, that's who.

I climbed over the pile, snow clinging to my jeans above my knees. I trudged down the trail to the meadow, and soon realized that the rest of the trails, well, in the snow, there were no other visible trails. The best I could do was romp around in the snow taking note of the local sights. Squirrels had run from tree to tree, climbing up in search of food, rushing back down the other sides, and heading for the next oak or maple. A hairy woodpecker chirped in the distance, the only natural sound I heard.

The snow kept falling, as it would all morning. Soon, it was blowing sideways, and striking the still-clinging leaves of the beech trees, making the sound of bacon sizzling in a frying pan. It was making me hungry...wait - where have i heard those words before?

23, 24, 25: Lowell, Dracut, Tyngsborough: Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest

You just gotta love one-stop shopping.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't smiling by the end of the morning. First things first: more snow. I drove directly for Trotting Park Road, thinking Starla (my GPS) would send me to the main entrance of the park. Nope. I ended up at the Tyngsborough end of the road, which runs through the park, but is not fully open to cars. As I didn't have a map with me, I decided to just push into the sunrise in a straight line.

The problem was that the sun never really rose while I was in that section of the forest. Oh, it got lighter to the east, as my feet slipped and slid over the icy trail, but due to the blanketing snowfall, it remained nearly completely dark in the woods. I reached a lake, where the trail ran out, and turned back.

I scooted around the corner to the main entrance, in Lowell. The trail there was much wider, much more compact, much more even. And there was life: chickadees, titmice, golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. I was the first man into the woods today, which was good. My tracks would be there on the way back.

Suddenly, my own past lurched up to say hello. I found the boundary marker between Lowell and Dracut, and noted that the Lowell side was outlined in orange spray paint. Vandalism? No. Perambulating the bounds. In days of old, the town fathers of Massachusetts towns made an annual walk around the town borders and marked the granite boundary markers as seen today; Lowell obviously still has the tradition, or recently revived it.

Back when I was working for the Scituate Historical Society, I helped organize a symbolic perambulation. My boss, a selectman, organized the political side. By tradition, the selectmen from the neighboring towns met with the perambulating team at the markers. I contacted the neighboring historical societies - Hingham, Cohasset, Norwell and Marshfield - and set up an exchange of gifts.

But back to the woods. I kept on the main trail until I found the Spruce Swamp. One look, and I said it. "Now that's a swamp." Although it was frozen, I could still smell it. And it's a famous swamp, too, for Massachusetts birders. There's a special woodpecker here, a red-headed woodpecker, a stray that has dragged many a gawker to the edge of this particular wetland. I heard a squawk, but it was not to be. It was a red-bellied woodpecker. Not so rare.

On my way back, I followed my tracks as planned, but two problems arose. First, I ran into a snowshoer. That's typically not an issue, but he was walking directly on my footprints. They were obliterated behind him. I said hi anyway. Second, by the time I got back to my car, my tracks were all full of snow anyway. It was as if I had never been there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

22. Acton: Great Hill

Why did I ever choose to walk three hills on a day with a foot of new snow on the ground?

Actually, this place made the list on this day because of its parking area. I figured that if any place would be open after the storm, it would be the town property directly behind the fire department. And I was right.

The Great Hill Recreation Area slopes up gently from that parking lot. Like in Stow, cross country skiers had opened the trails, making walking here a little bit easier than elsewhere. That said, it was still a shock to see the top of a picnic table sticking out of the snow, and a hockey net half buried on a spot that apparently hid a frozen pond.

I paused to examine some mouse tracks, just moments before being accosted by a boxer. Dog walkers had made excellent use of the trail already. I could tell by the yellow wayside markers the many pups had left behind on the sides of the trail.

I barely made it into the woods at the top of the field before I had to turn around and head for work. At the last moment, as I emegred from the woods, another cross country skier appeared. Suddenly I felt like a subhuman, as if I had not fully evolved the way she had. Limited by my lack of skis, I was left to plug my way pitifully through the snow as she glided gracefully into the distance.

21. Boxborough: Flagg Hill

The trail looked beyond walkable, so I hoofed it up the hill. I had read that there was a magnificent view from the apex.

It only took eight minutes to trek from the car to the top of Windemere Road. But so much happened along the way! First, the usual: chickadees and titmice. Everywhere. As far as the ears could hear. Then, a yellow helicopter zoomed into view, and never left the area. It continued to circle and soar the entire time I was there. And it did one more thing. It coaxed a red-tailed hawk into the sky, which gave out a classic screech as it rose ever higher.

At the top of the hill, I reazlied there was no view, no vista to be had...until I turned around to leave. There, in the distance, was that mountain again, the one I had seen from Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. Wachuset? Man, I need to get a map. It turned out that the view actually was quite stunning, as advertised.

Back at the bottom of the hill (another eight minutes later), I realized that a smooth white area I believed was a field was in fact a frozen pond. I only figured it out when a great blue heron flew across it and landed about two hundred yards away from me.

With ten minutes to go, I decided to scale the mountain of snow that formed the wall of the parking lot and try the trail. Bad idea. The snow was deep, it was cold and it was wet. I trudged to a bench, from which there must be a lovely view in spring, checked my watch and called it a mission accomplished. I had one more town to tackle before the morning was out.

20. Stow: Gardner Hill

So we're buried again. It's been a whirlwind two days. First, while at work on Tuesday, the story of a very close family member having a stroke unfolded. Then, on Wednesday, the snow hit, more than a foot and a half of it in full blizzard style. I had no idea if I would be walking today, but I kept a plan in mind if the weather gods decided I could play on my way to work.

I found that by the time I reached Gardner Hill, the cross country skiers were already on the trails. The walking was difficult, but not impossible. Still, I'm glad this is a half an hour a day and not a half a mile. That would have been much, much harder today.

I feel at times that by walking certain places in winter I'm short-changing them, not allowing them the full opportunity to impress me with what they have to offer my wide open senses. Gardner Hill gave me a crow (a crow in Stow, hmm) and a rooster. Actually, that was at the farm just near the entrance to the forest, but I heard it while standing in the woods. It gave me a mostly frozen brook, a sunrise, towering trees, and some of the most amazing natural scenery I've found in years.

No, Gardner Hill did not get the short end of the stick. It must be beautiful in spring, fantastic in fall. But I'm glad I saw it in winter. Even if I never walk this way again, I'll never forget my few moments here in the aftermath of the blizzard of 2011.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

19. Concord: Walden Pond

Did you really expect anything else?

Actually, as a walking destination, Concord's got it goin' on. (Is that, like, way too archaic and expression? Am I showing too much of my '90s coming-of-age by using it? What-ever!). Had I not chosen Walden, I could have picked the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, or perhaps even a walk in the town cemetery, along author's ridge. And I hear there's a famous battlefield around somewhere...

But Walden it was. I started at Mr. Thoreau's cabin, the fake. He stood outside in statue form, wondering what had gotten stuck to his hand. Down the trail to the pond I met ice fishermen with all their gear. They had claimed one end of the body of water for themselves. Skaters had claimed the far end. I would see them soon.

I set out on the trail to find the site of the real cabin, excavated on Veterans Day, 1945. Two golden-crowned kinglets flew directly up the trail at me, one veering right, one veering left at the last second. They whizzed over my shoulders and dove into a leafless shrub to find something to eat.

When I reached the skaters, I noticed that of the five of them, three of them had hockey sticks. I then deduced that they were all women (I'm good at that), and pondered how the world had changed, even in my lifetime. Soon I reached my destination.

So, Mr. Thoreau, we meet again, and this time on your turf. I've written about you, read about you, thought about you, even walked in your footsteps, and I think we still have a long life ahead together. Our views sometimes jibe, sometimes divert wildly. I only wish you were here to defend yourself through argument. But then, I don't think you'd like Walden as much now.

As I walked away, an MBTA commuter rail train visibly and audibly roared along the back side of the pond, plainly seen from Mr. Thoreau's cabin site. No, Walden is not his Walden any more.

18. Carlisle: Towle Field

Escaping the noise of Hanscom, I headed for quaint little Carlisle. But things weren't as peaceful as I might have thought they would be. Hunters were on the loose.

The first critter to catch my eye as I headed into the main grassland at Towle Field was a coyote pouncing on prey. The timing was odd. Night was long over. Perhaps this fellow understood that he wouldn't be hunting so easily the next morning, that a foot and a half of snow was on its way. Maybe he was just getting ahead, hedging his bets against the storm. With ears swung forward, focused on the ground below, he listened for scurrying voles and mice, striking downward with his paws when the moment was right.

Watching this whole scene, a red-tailed hawk pondered his own next move. The coyote, chewing on something fuzzy and dark brown, loped off into the woods. The hawk, seeing me, spooked, and flew off, flashing his vibrant red tail in my direction.

In a cedar tree in the middle of the field, a flock of American goldfinches tried to evade my sight. Nothing doing. In a thicket on one side of the field, struck by a patch of sunlight, chickadees and their usual allies greeted the day. I walked back along old stonewalls, some obviously designed to keep sheep, others littered with the tiny stones that speak loudly of crops.

One more stop to go before my meetings were to begin for the day. And it was a doozy.

17. Bedford: Hartwell Town Forest

The town forest in Bedford abuts Hanscom Field. At first, it didn't feel like it.

I had a decision to make. Do I take the Blue Trail, right up the heart of the property, or do I loop around the Orange Trail? I surveyed the woods and went with Orange. After all, the orangey-tan leaves of the young beech trees blended so nicely with the trail markers...

In the end, it didn't matter. Orange met Blue farther down the trail. I found a red squirrel midden, a shredded pine cone left in bits at the base of a tree. At the end of the Blue Trail I stepped over a downed log and found myself in a frozen swamp, a flooded section of woods that was now no more than a collection of stark snags poking into the sky.

Woodpecker heaven, I thought.

And soon they started up: downies, hairies, red-bellies. Despite the cold, despite the time of year, they began their drumming. Perhaps it was practice. Maybe some territoriality. Who knows.

Then, the air show began. Precisely at 7:30. the first jet engine roared from the air field. A plane took off behind the far treeline. A second powered up. I started back to my car and a third flew in just over the treetops. I felt, suddenly, like I was a grunt in Europe in World War II.

Back at my car, I tried to automatically unlock my door, but either the battery in my keyfob had frozen or gone dead. I panicked. How would I get in to my car? Was I stranded in Bedford for good? Did I leave my phone on the dash, or was it in my pocket, and for that matter, did I have my AAA card in my wallet? Then, I thought, wait a minute! Some genius had figured out that if you stuck the small metal stick-like dealie attached to the keyfob into an opening near the door handle, you could manually unlock the door. The whole episode lasted about 45 seconds.


16. Lexington: Willard's Woods

These past two days (these walks took place on January 11, before the snow) I've had a wonderful time getting to know Jupiter. The steady ultrabright glow stands out from all around. I reached Willard's Woods at a time when it was still quite dark, when Jupiter exhibited some of the only light around. In fact, it was too dark. I almost needed a flashlight to be sure of my footing.

Ice reigned on the heavily-used trails. I only found the main path by heading for another light: a headlamp utilized by a dog walker. Slobbered on by two pups of unknown breeds, I pressed on across a small bridge and into the woods. The pre-dawn air was so still that I could plainly pick up the hooting of a great horned owl to my right. Sweet.

As the sun began to push its way over the horizon, the cardinals and blue jays started to chip the ice off their syrinxes and sing out, like the guy outside Joey Tribbiani's window on Friends. "Morning's here, the morning's here!" (sung to the tune of Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good"). Okay, so they were like monotonous chirps, rattles and squawks, but who's counting.

A single engine plane buzzed not too distantly overhead and I thought immediately, "Oh, yeah, Hanscom." I was near the air field. At my next stop of the morning, I would be even closer.

Monday, January 10, 2011

15. Lincoln: Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary


I reached the site of my meeting exactly 35 minutes before it was scheduled to start. I had enough time to get in one more walk. I hit the trail to climb to the top of the drumlin that gave the farm its name.

The feeders around the back of the Audubon Shop were alive with cardinals, chickadees, white-throated sparrows and more. I climbed the hill and found the wind. Man, was it cold! After more than two hours into my walking for the morning, I finally reached the point when I figured it was best I moved onto other things for the day. From the apex of the hill I spied a distant mountain - Wachuset, I pondered? - and marveled at the shocking white glow given off by the bark of the birches that sporadically set the edge of the trail.

I descended the hill and headed for my meeting. Five walks in five towns, and it was now 9:30. Not a bad morning, indeed.

14. Maynard: Summer Hill

Straight up the hill I trudged, pausing once to catch my breath. I followed the white blazes on the trees, wondering what my reward would be for reaching the summit. A red-bellied woodpecker blasted out a call, answered, though I'm sure not intentionally, by a downy woodpecker.

Then, I found it. A giant light blue water tank sat atop the hill, surrounded by high fencing and warning signs. That was the reward.

Perhaps, though, for someone history-minded like me, the reward lay just beyond the blue bubble. An older, concrete dome, also surrounded by fencing, stood nearby. Summer Hill has obviously served the town of Maynard well over the years.

If I was a woodturner, perhaps I would have considered my reward to be the huge, nasty burl hanging off an oak tree behind the concrete tank. I mean, that thing looked like Jimmy Durante's nose. Gnarly.

I gave up on all the daydreaming and turned to head down the trail marked by the yellow blazes, which would get me back to my car. But I was stopped cold. There, 50 feet ahead of me, was my reward for climbing the hill.

A red fox. Two in one morning? Are you kidding me?

13. Sudbury: Piper Farm Conservation Area

Give me an old farm, an hour and a good pair of shoes, and I'll give you one happy man. Who cares if that farm is covered in snow.

Old farms just ooze history, from the stoic stonewalls that refuse to give up their raison d'etre to the stands of fruit trees that still push out their bounty years, decades after anyone made it part of their annual cycle to harvest them. Piper Farm, once juxtaposed with another farm, now sits beside a high-end residential development on land on which crops once grew. But just steps onto the trail, Piper Farm's got that old farmy feeling.

I spooked a flock of six mourning doves from a thicket next to the main field. Blue jays screeched overhead. They felt safer when I entered the woods and pushed down the main trail. I found the old apple orchard. I stopped to chat with the occasional chickadee, and I contemplated, as I have hundreds of times in my life, who lived, worked and loved this land years ago. I'll bet the chickadees know. Their families have probably been here for decades.

Morning had broken by the time I returned to my car. I figured I had time for one more walk before I had to settle down in a meeting for the day.

12. Wayland: Lower Snake Brook Conservation Area

I just had to find out if the Lower Snake actually exists.

I found out pretty quickly that this particular conservation area, abutting Interstate Route 90, has been claimed by the neighborhood kids. And that's not a bad thing at all.

There's been a huge disconnect between kids and nature in recent years. Thank the news. Now that there are umpty-nine (a favorite expression of my tenth grade history teacher) news channels out there competing for ratings, every child abduction story is spread heavily across the airwaves. Parents have reacted by shepherding their kids from event to class to appointment, stealing creative freedom, and part of their youthful development, from them. Years ago, only the local stories made the news. Years ago, kids like me felt perfectly safe journeying out with other kids to our favorite natural spots to build tree forts and learn by firsthand experience about thorns and rocks and dirt and poison ivy.

The kids here in Wayland are living that life. At several points on the loop trail homemade ramps formed jumps for bikes. Several trees sported perches built from scrap lumber. In the crotch of one tree, somebody had placed a bone, one that I hope was the chew toy of a local dog.

In the end, I found the brook, but I did not find any Lower Snake. Eh, it's winter.

11. Weston: Weston Reservoir

I stopped wondering a long time ago why I get myself out of bed early. The rewards for pre-dawn walks are always tremendous.

As I stepped out of my car at the Weston Reservoir, I immediately knew I wasn't alone. There was a barkin' goin' on, but it didn't belong to a dog. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was a red fox, three sharp barks, the first softer than the other two. I immediately launched into memory mode. A few years ago a friend of mine was describing the wildlife he'd recently seen in his Marshfield yard. He said, "I've had red fox running through here," with a sweep of his arm. It sounded funny. Not "a red fox," but "red fox" running through his yard. All I could picture was Redd Foxx, one hand over his heart, the other one thrust in the air, yelling "Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey!" as he stumbled through Bob's vegetable garden.

I was quickly startled out of my reverie by one of nature's most stirring sights: a shooting star.

Almost as if in response to the silent rush of the meteor, a gust of wind pushed through the trees, offering up that singular, cohesive whoosh only white pines can make in such situations. That sound was quickly followed by one that made my heart leap out of my chest. The ice on the reservoir cracked loudly, echoing off the far trees. The red fox began barking again, marching its way along the northern edge of the pond. As two mallards dove for the sole bare patch of open water on the reservoir, I prepared to move onto my next destination.

No, I never question myself when that alarm goes off in the morning. Instead, I ask myself why I don't do it more often.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

10b. Marshfield: North River Wildlife Sanctuary

With lumbering steps I plodded on through some of my most familiar trails. And I got to thinking.

There's a spot on the Woodland Loop Trail where a massive beech tree once stood. It died a few years ago, and this past year the property manager here at the sanctuary made the point that if it decided to fall, it would most likely fall on a trail, heaven forbid on a walker. Besides, he said, the tree was so big that we could make natural benches out of it. He made it happen.

Twenty years from now, will anybody remember where those benches came from? Will anybody know that the big open patch of sky that today marks the spot where the crown of the beech stood champion wowed us in 2011 as we rounded the corner after a half an hour's walk through the dense canopy of the mixed wood forest? And what about other natural landmarks? Will anybody remember that the old trail once looped closer to our neighbor's property to the east, and strolled right past two holly trees we called Big Holly and Little Holly?

Will anybody remember the day Amy, Robert and I watched as a southern red-backed vole shot out from under a salamander coverboard, the only one ever seen on this property? Will anybody even know how I used to walk through the woods with a stick, tapping at the bases of trees with holes to see if any flying squirrels would emerge?

Somebody should be writing this stuff down.

10a. Marshfield: Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary

Okay, sub-goal time: I plan on walking every Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary this year as part of my project. In two instances, that is going to cause me to double up on a town, if not double up in general.

The first one is easy. I work in Marshfield. My office is on one of the two sanctuaries in town, and I walk at the other one around 50 times per year. I hit both today.

First, Daniel Webster. Every year I lead a walk here on the first Saturday of the year (unless that Saturday is New Year's Day) called "First Birds at Daniel Webster." The hook is getting some "good" birds on the list to go with the house sparrows, starlings and pigeons we see all around our residential neighborhoods. Today didn't disappoint.

Right out of the chute we (Matt, Ellen and Allan joined me) tallied four species of woodpeckers. Sitting in a blind overlooking a frozen pond, we located a red-tailed hawk perched on a tree swallow nesting box. Within a few minutes we had northern harriers, a rough-legged hawk and a Cooper's hawk. Winter is always hawky season in New England.


We looped the sanctuary, walking out to Fox Hill, getting caught in a brief blast of snow on the Secret Trail and winding back along the Webster Pond side of the property. Back in the observation blind, we noticed an American crow tearing into something on the roof of the nesting box the red-tailed hawk had obviously flown away from. What was it? The crow moved off, other soared over the box, but didn't stop. We walked out into the field to check on the bloody carcass. When we got there, we could see a set of teeth dangling over one end, and an interesting tail draped over the other. Then it hit us.

Ewww! Dead muskrat.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

9. Scituate: The Spit

I've decided to let the South Shore fall in place as it will for this project. Let's face it. There are many destinations I'll have to travel long distances to get to, and the South Shore is my backyard. Moreover, I'm scheduled to walk in many of the local towns on numerous occasions this year. Today was a perfect example.

I'm a SEANETTER (among many, many other things). That means that twice per month I walk the same beach route and look for dead seabirds, reporting back to Tufts with any information I may turn up. In my case that means the Spit, off Third Cliff in Scituate, and to date it's meant one pair of least tern wings. That changed today.

But before I made today's discovery, I noticed other changes. The Decmber 26, 2010, storm continues to hang over us on the South Shore. Scituate was particularly battered. Houses burned, residents evacuated. Here on the Spit, the sea encroached upon the dunes by more than 100 feet, tossing cobble up onto the grasses. A breakthrough at the western end of the little sandy peninsula created a gully where once there was a hill. The wrackline was, well, it was sometimes so far back into the dunes I couldn't find it with the naked eye. What a mess.

Of course, it doesn't mean much right now. The horned larks and the northern harrier seemed happy. But come spring when the piping plovers and least terns return to nest here, that's when we'll see how these changes will affect those endangered species.

As for today, my big discovery was the remains of an American black duck, a pair of wings and a breastbone. Five walks so far as a SEANETTER, two dead birds. Well, it's all for science.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

8. West Bridgewater: West Bridgewater State Forest

So, so quiet. After all my walking this morning through conservation areas plugged tightly into urban surroundings, I finally found some real open space, a huge pond surrounded by dense woods. But there was no life. No birds sang, no squirrels scurried away at my approach. I walked in silence for thirty full minutes. It was almost ghostly, I tell you.

The trails were enough to give my right knee hell. I don't know what I've done to it, but it's starting into some serious aching, and not just at certain times of day. I'm hoping, like most things in life, it'll pass. I'm sure walking these trails today, deeply rutted by off road vehicles, I did it no favors.

The trails here also undulate, making for a lot of pooling, a lot of frozen puddles. Up a rise, down around a frozen puddle; up a rise, down around a frozen puddle. It made it hard to concentrate on the beauty that surrounded me. I did, though, get my first two thorn bites today, as a stalk lashed out at my left hand as I dodged some shaky-looking ice.

It was like a christening. Welcome to another year of walking the great state of Massachusetts.

7. Bridgewater: Carver Pond

Okay, a little backstory. Last summer, while working on the state of Massachusetts' Breeding Bird Atlas 2, I offered to coordinate a blockbust of this section of the Bridgewaters. My boss, Joan, joined me and my coworker Matt for the day. We split up to maximize our sightings in the time allotted and she came back with stories of a great little walking area called Carver Pond. Although my atlas did not show it as green, I took the chance today and searched for it. Sure enough, it came as advertised.

Carver Pond is one of those places where you can't imagine how, in the heart of all the noise of daily life, an oasis like this one can be so quiet. I mean, the heart of the town was right over there. Why couldn't I hear it?

What I could hear were the crows. American crows have a habit of ganging up on birds of prey and exposing their resting spaces. It's a pretty bold thing, to perch on a branch a few feet away from a known killer and scream in its face. I've heard hundreds of crows outing hawks and owls, though, and I've never seen the latter lash out. Usually they tune them out; sometimes they fly away as the crows dive and strike at them. I looked over my shoulder to find the source of the noise and could see everything but the targeted bird. Then, the call hawk. Figures. This place was crawling with them during the Breeding Bird Atlas safe dates.

That was a new sighting for the year, as was the hairy woodpecker that chirped loudly as I watched the show. A thicket a few feet down the trail looked so good that I had to take a pish. By mimicking the sounds of distressed chickadees, an artform known as "pishing," I drummed up nuthcatches, chickadees, titmice, tree sparrows, juncos, song sparrows, goldfinches, cardinals, a Carolina wren and yet another new species for 2011, a hermit thrush.

I have no idea where I'll be in spring, but I hope I get the chance to come back to this beautiful place and catch it in its glory.

6. East Bridgewater: Central Street Cemetery

From the first glance at the road atlas I keep in my car, East Bridgewater was going to be a tough one. There just was not a lot of green showing up on the map. In times like this, I revert to one simple tactic. Find the nearest cemetery.

Old cemeteries - not old, old cemeteries - were designed as walking places for the living, and they remain some of our best public open spaces today. Ancient cemeteries - by American standards - were stark, angular, direct places. The Romantic era added hills and dells, and an explosion in the types of headstones one might choose with which to adorn his or her final resting place.

All that said, I parked near a local church and set out on a bee ine for the stones. And wouldn't you know it, the very first stone I approached had a story that spoke as loudly as any marker in any burial ground. A Titanic victim.

Are you kidding me?

The snow here was packed more thickly than anywhere else I walked today (January 4, this being posted January 5). Rather than posthole digging, plunging into the snow and extracting my foot with every step I instead found myself walking, ever so tentatively, on the surface of the snow. Only under the various copses of trees did I crash through. In one of those places I found a real oddity I'd like to know more about, a man born in 1804 decorated as a veteran of the War of 1812.

So many stories, so little time...

5. Whitman: Hobart's Pond

Ah, flat, even pavement. Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

I have no idea what purpose Hobart's Pond served, or who Hobart was, but I can guess. Whitman was a mecca of industry in the nineteenth century, split apart from Abington as its own community in a fight over town finances in 1875. The pond is formed from the pooled water from the damming of the Shumatuscacant River, which winds its way up north into Abington. Any time rivers or streams were dammed on the South Shore of Boston, it meant either industry or drinking water. The nearby shoe factories, no doubt, used the water for one or both.

As for Hobart himself, my guess is he was the first to dam the river for mill purposes. The story is the same all over New England. But don't take my word for it. Check with the Whitman Historical Society or the Historical Society of Old Abington. They'd know.

The pond was frozen today, as is much of the region, as we brace for yet another storm this coming weekend. But along the edges, where birch and cedar trees mingle, small birds dive back and forth across Colebrook Boulevard. The "boulevard" is closed at one end by a gate, the other, for now, by a huge mountain of plowed snow. To the south, the Colebrook Cemetery rests in quietude.

The song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and a half dozen other species, though, chattered away this morning, following me on my walk as if my pockets were full of seeds.

As if...

4. Abington: Ames-Nowell State Park

There's nothing like the sound of an ice drill first thing in the morning.

It seems that every time I walk Ames-Nowell in the winter, the ice fishermen are here. Today there were only two. In the past it's been as many as ten. They build small campfires on the shoreline, drill their holes, set their rigs and wait. It's a cold pastime, but seemingly worth it.

As for my walk, well, do you remember Bugs Bunny's The Rabbit of Seville? When he has Elmer Fudd in the barber's chair, and hits him with the razor ("How about a nice close shave? Teach those whiskers to behave...")? Fudd's next lines are "Ow, ooh, ow, ooh, ooh!" That's what walking here was like today.

The snowing-melting-refreezing cycle had left deep ruts in the snow, thanks to offroad vehicles using the trails. Every step was a fight for balance, and at the very least gave me a great workout. I couldn't wait to find some flat terrain. And at that time of the day, the natural world was just waking up.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Somerset: Broad Cove

Just over the Dighton line in Somerset is a small parking area, perfect for viewing the Taunton River. Behind that parking lot is a wide-spreading brackish cove, visible from a short walking trail that comes to an abrupt drop-off.

Hmm. Never been here before, but if I had to guess, I'd say "old railroad bed, missing bridge." And I'd be right.

The Taunton Christmas Bird Count, or at least our little section of it, rolled into its third town of the morning. We walked along the trail to find a sleeping ruddy duck, a chirping swamp sparrow, and a few other birds that would help us tally 53 species by noon on the first day of the year. It struck me that of the 300 or so species of birds I will see in Massachusetts in 2011, I saw more than 1/6th during the first twelve hours of the year. That leaves me 364 1/2 days and 348 towns to find the other 250.

Piece of cake.

For the second time in 2011, and I'm entirely certain not the last, I found myself lost inside my own mind. My inner time machine brought me back to an age of trains and factories, when silver was king in this part of the Bay State, when the river was a highway of industry. My first trip took place in front of the remains of a tree at Pokanoket Park in Dighton a few hours earlier, the oak under which King Philip, or Metacomet, held council meetings in the 17th century. To say that I could see them would be stupid. I saw the representation, the interpretation my mind could produce.

I'm sure I was way off, but I'd be lying if I said I cared.

Taunton: Boyden Wildlife Sanctuary

The Christmas Bird Count rolled on through thickets and fields, along streams and into the woods.

At some time during the morning - CBCs have a way of getting lost in time - we visited the home of the Taunton River Watershed Association, the Boyden Wildlife Sanctuary. As far as the count went, the place was productive. Any time you find a fox sparrow in Massachusetts in the dead of winter, it's been a good day.

Unfortunately, the trail system is currently broken. Erosion has eaten away at the path alonsigde the river, recently, officially and deservedly listed as "wild and scenic," limiting the walking possibilities on the sanctuary. But no worries, we found a pine forest trail to traverse.

For the most part, it was silent, and with the snow cover left over from the blizzard of December 26, 2010, it was equally as beautiful. When a bird called out, or a squirrel squawked, it sounded perfectly as nature intended, without the backdrop of a climbing airplane or a braking 18-wheeler.

I'm not religious, even in the slightest, but I could see there and then how nature can heal the soul.

Dighton: Bristol County Agricultural High School

I can't say that it was my dream location for the first walk of the new year. As the sun rose, I and six friends, some old, some brand new, found ourselves standing in a freshly manured field in Dighton.

Dighton? Manure? Really?

When I conceived of this project, I foresaw myself on New Year's Day standing in, oh, say Plymouth, where the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620, or better yet, on the outer Cape, where they first set foot in the New World. But the Taunton Christmas Bird Count called, and my New Year's Day walks were in the hands of the count coordinator, not mine.

He couldn't steer me wrong. Bristol Aggie is all fields and shrubs, right on the Taunton River. It abuts an extremely important archaeological site in Sweet's Knoll, a place where studies in that science have unearthed 41 features from our Native American forbears on the land, most of them hearths, not to mention a plethora of ancient tools. The place has spirit. Today it had snow. And manure. And birds.

A snow goose flew among 200 Canada geese. The manure held treasures, one flock of American pipits and another of horned larks. An out-of-season gray catbird popped up in a thicket.

Dighton? Manure? New Year's Day? Why not?

New Year, New Goal

I'm back...