Here’s to Covid Brain, Spring Snows, and the Legend of the 47 Day Old Belly Slide, Etc.

Spring transitions

But first, a poem.

 

Covid Brain by Kirk Gentalen

Spring is official today.

Or so does the earth’s tilt say.

One thing’s for sure,

the last few days have been a blur.

 

Okay – Legendary transitions (NB PART I)

3/20: And so, today things are officially spring. If you had said it was spring three weeks ago, well, a lot of people would probably have agreed with you. If you’d said, “This felt like the shortest winter ever,” people probably would have agreed with that too. People can be very agreeable and very much appreciative of the early spring conditions.

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Peeper

For instance, I was innocently taking the compost out on February 26th of this year—minding my own business I’ll have you know—when I heard a spring peeper. A frog. In February. In Maine! Feel free to read that over again.

The day was warm, and it had been warm for days (no snow in sight). The peeps came from a warm, flowing spot in a shallow creek. Hearing peepers always feel like spring, even if it’s in the fall. A February peeper was a first for me in Maine, but even on this February day, it felt like spring. Legendary.

As if that weren’t enough

The love of my life (Amy Palmer) was driving home on Feb 29th (thank you leap year for an extra day of winter!) on the St. George Peninsula when an American Woodcock flew in front of her car. It was dusk, but there’s no denying an American Woodcock silhouette, they are a uniquely, funky looking bird.

American Woodcocks have been a harbinger of spring for me ever since they were invented (I became aware of them). They area harbringer of spring for many others as well. Not that they necessarily travel too far in winter—I’ve seen them in January several times over the years. But I’ve never seen one in February in Maine—and I still haven’t. I married into this sighting. Oh, the benefits are endless with Ms. Palmer!

And so, an important, difficult question arises. Is this our families first February Woodcock siting? Or should there be an (*) by this particular sighting since it happened on the 29th of February… a leap year. Almost any other year (like between 74-76% of years) this day would have been March 1st.

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Woodcock

But the coolest… so far!

Woodpecker activity has picked up dramatically in the Midcoast as well. I can’t say whether it’s earlier or on time, but things really picked up during a warm stretch the first week of March.

Local pileated woodpeckers were waking the neighbors with their mid-flight racket. Hairy and downy woodpeckers incorporated chases, tail fans, wing spreads and other behaviors as they defended territories and courted mates. A great time to be a woodpecker watcher—and a woodpecker!

I was having coffee (pre-covid brain) with my friend Randall (Randall, of “Friendly Neighborhood Thissell”) we took in the active woodpecker scene at his house. Pileateds were replaced by flickers, and then another species of woodpecker was added to the mix—one of a different genus altogether—Melanerpes. Randall has a great yard.

Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) make a loud, rolling “churrrr” call, and it was easy to tell where they were hanging out. Randall and I listened and then slowly approached the tree closest to his house and sure enough there was a male, red-bellied woodpecker “churrin’’ from the top of its semi-rotten trunk maybe 25 feet up. We figured that the trunk looked like a nice place for a cavity, thinking maybe someone would form one sometime soon!

But when Randall went around the tree, he spotted cavities and a female’s head peering out. What! It was March 6th and these red-bellied woodpeckers had already completed a cavity large enough for one of them to fit in?

Is this early, on time, or crazy? (only three options by the way). Bits of wood were sprinkled on the ground below, tossed out during the cavity excavation. The Birder’s Handbook (there is no more important book for me) says excavation can take seven to ten days.

It’s now been over 10 days since we found the cavity, and clearly the woodpeckers had started excavation before the 6th. Incubation can take two weeks, and then it can be another four weeks before the chicks fledge. If this pair did start laying eggs right away, we’re looking at a late April fledging of young, red-bellied woodpeckers. There goes the neighborhood! I mean, if that’s what’s happening.

What’s the status, Kenneth?

So, is this legendary? Feels like it to me, but I have no personal, local data, or Midcoast Maine data on red-bellied woodpeckers. In theory, this could be the first local nest, but that’s a whole other theory. There was something on the internet about red bellied woodpeckers breeding in Maine from April to June… so if that information is right, then this would be early… but there’s far too many “if’s” and “would be’s” to really know.

What I can compare this to is the local hairy woodpecker breeding schedule since they have roughly the same incubation time (15 days) and same amount of time before fledging (up to 30 days).

Young, ready to fledge hairy woodpeckers are at the cavity opening around mid-May and boy do they make a rachet! With this in mind, hairy woodpeckers would be laying eggs around late March and eggs would be hatching in mid to late April. So based on that knowledge, cavity making in early March feels very early. And if the red-bellieds are already egg laying—well that’s crazy early. Have the hairy woodpeckers even started excavating yet?

At the same time… (NB PART II)

The signs of reawakening, rebirth, and new life (i.e. the signs of spring that so many people look forward to) appeared over a warm flourish in early March. And at the same time, we were welcoming spring, we were bidding farewell to some forty-seven-day old otter trails. Yes, you read that right, there were river otter tracks and trails that lasted for forty-seven days this winter.

I didn’t expect the trails to last very long, and it was only fitting that their eventual disappearance (melting) was the result of an early transition to spring. These otter trails were a major theme for me this winter. Every season something different stand out to me. For the winter of 2024 it was these otter trails (and red fox trails of course, we can’t forget them).

This winter, there was a remarkable snow fall that was celebrated in the moment and then for many, many days after. And as it turned out, it was more than just a remarkable snow. It was a key element of the snow-turned-slush that captured the otter trails and memorialized them for 47 days. Legendary.

Here’s something that was started at the beginning, way back in February. It’s a mini-bummin’ bonus section, bummin’ within a bummin’. That’s rad.

A Most Remarkable Snow

2/26: And just like that, it snowed. I remember it well. It was a Tuesday. A Tuesday in January. One of several winter storms. There were a couple of “good” storms and a couple of “really bad” storms the month of January bestowed upon Maine (and the greater New England). It had been significantly warmer the few days before—another ride on the temperature roller coaster—but regardless of all that, the snow was welcomed. There were early dismissals and all after school activities were cancelled. There was at least one very excited teacher and one very excited student in my house. They deserved a break.

So, it was a Tuesday, and with winter temps having fluctuated so much, there was no chance the ice out back would be supportive enough to carry my weight. There was snow, but no ice to track on. And so, we tracked in the woods then.

“Gone are the days

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Otter Slide

we stop to decide,

where we should go,

we just ride”

–The dead

And so, I got myself up to Erickson Fields Preserve that Wednesday morning, hoping to pick up on animal activities and signs that I was sure would be gone by Saturday.

Now, the Erickson Field trail system is a busy place—getting a little extra jump on the snow walkers and runners, and dog walkers would be good.  With the way the winter of ’24 was going there was no way that snow was lasting. So, I high tailed it up to Rte. 90.

The next day (Thursday) I headed down to the marsh behind my house and sure enough, the snow was still there. If it was cold enough that the snow hadn’t melted maybe it was cold enough for ice. From shore I could see where the ice had been kicked up by critters using the largest water opening (right below the beaver dam). Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!

It only took one step on the ice for me to understand I was not going to be walking on the ice that Thursday. It was close, Wednesday night was cold, and Thursday night was to be colder. So I came up with a plan of attack. It was hoping those tracks would last another night.

“Friday, I’m in love”

Somehow, we made it to Friday and the ice was thick and the tracks were thicker! The ice itself was slippery, but the critter signs were distinct and easy to spot from a distance. These are the days of miracle and wonder.

Quick interpretation of what was found: The snow had either been blown off the ice (thank you wind!) or melted into the slush that had been strong enough to support river otters three nights ago (Tuesday).  After a night of cold (Wednesday) it was still not strong enough to hold me. But after a second night (Thursday) we were good to go.

So, three otters had made their way in the Tuesday night slush, leaving behind trails that went over the ice loping and belly sliding ice hole to ice hole. I was later informed that these are sometimes referred to as “slush puppy trails and tracks”, thank you @eric.otter.bacon! We like the name so much we will run with it—Nature Bummin proclamation (2/26/24). Tracks and trails such as these will be here fore and evermore referred to as “slush puppy” or “slush puppies”. Harrumph!

And what slush puppy trails these turned out to be! Overall, the trails had a lot more of what I have seen called ‘3×4 lope’ than belly slides, which made me wonder what the criteria is for an otter to belly sliding. I’ve seen plenty of slides on the ice before, and even some that went slightly uphill, so the flatness, he levelness of the terrain doesn’t necessarily play a role in determining what pattern of movement the otters would use to traverse. No, not necessarily – conditions must be accounted for, and behaviors must be adjusted! Heading downhill probably does increase belly sliding potential!

They are so playful

Now, I’ve said it before and it remains to be true, but as far as I can tell, I have never seen river otter tracks that gave the impression that they were sliding for fun. First and foremost, belly sliding is a way of commuting, and otters opt to use belly slides when conditions exist that make it an efficient mode of movement. I’ve seen otter trails where belly slides were used even though it might not have been the most efficient way to go. And I’ve seen them when the trail was level and a couple times when it was slightly inclined. Was it fun for them to belly slide up hill? Maybe, but I would argue sliding was done more in the name of laziness. And lazy in the same way turkey vultures save energy by gliding and riding thermals. I guess that is technically being efficient. Img 4764

Anyway and back to Friday, I was finally able to get out on the ice (this was the beginning of a long stretch of nights dropping to ten degrees or less!). And my buddy Kristen Lindquist was there for the first otter slush puppy belly slide of the day. Conditions being what they were this otter used belly sliding for much of its slushy puppy session. But was it conditions or was it personality? Do some otters belly slide more than others? How the heck are you supposed to know something like that? Famous last question. Anyway.

The belly slide was too tempting for Kristen not to try it out. I learned a long time ago that I’m past my prime belly sliding days.

Regardless

Three otters slush puppied their way around the marsh in St George on that same Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. And on the 3rd afternoon (Friday) the trails were visited by me. And as well as for many days after.

The slush conditions for these trails must have been different than the trail I visited with Kristen that morning, even just a handful of miles away.  Belly slides were tried out, were attempted but abandoned quickly after one kick or two. Maybe the slush here dragged too much, so using the bound/lope (where the otters body doesn’t touch the slush) was more efficient. Maybe it was something else altogether. Regardless, its always great to see still fresh slush puppies. Neighborhood slush puppies.

What happened next is a testament to winter 2024 as a whole. It stayed cold, and the ice remained strong. That same ice never said no to me, not once for the rest of January and the entirety of February. There were a few light snows, but they added little or nothing to the cause. And there were warm days mixed in. Days warm enough to melt whatever snow remained on the ice, melt and then refreeze, making for a slick transparent surface with the ‘slush puppy trails’ from that original ice captured as if fossilized, but only for as long as the ice remained.

Nevertheless

And regardless of all this otter stuff, the fact that the ice lasted the entire month of February was enough to make it a great month. And it was a leap year no less!

It goes unsaid, if there is ice, I will be on it checking out the scene, day after day. What started as a surprise, soon turned into anticipation, and eventually expectation, but always satisfaction and never taken for granted. The fossilized (or icilized) slush puppy otter belly slides would be gone eventually. That’s the way the seasons work.

The last time I was on the ice was the 26th, and the last time I saw the slush puppy trails was March 2nd from shore. If my math is correct, it was 47 days. 47-day old slush puppies – tracks, trails and belly slides. Now that is the stuff of legend, born of a remarkable snow.

And now we wait…

3/20 – Wednesday: We again find ourselves waiting on the snow. That’s right, the forecast three days into spring is snow.

So we waited.

3/21 Thursday: Looking forward with giddypation (definition in previous NB articles) for Sunday morning—Saturday snowstorm followed by a full night of animal activity, oh the sign to see. Gunna be a good Sunday, Louis!

But we didn’t have to even wait that long. You see, there was as surprise inch or two of wet snow that fell overnight (3/20 Wednesday). Yes, it was a spring miracle already!

March Snows Revisited

I think it was two years ago that I realized I would happily give up all the snows in January and February for a good snow or two in mid-late March. Why? It’s pretty much “the return of the son of the blood on the tracks.”

There’re some serious activities going on with the Mustelids (the Weasels) in March and some interesting to clue into the activities. Blood is involved, which automatically makes it very cool? Going for a walk and hoping, anticipating, and knowing the chance of finding blood is fairly better than normal puts an extra pep in your step.

With my steady recovery from Covid this snow looked like a true bonus when I woke up this morning. Depending on how the day went, there could be some lessons learned, and maybe even some blood found. Better than drawn. And that’s when the fox showed up.

Year of the fox

Well, here we are again. I’ll get to the point quick for once. The fox reminded me that other mammals exist aside from weasels, and some of these other species of mammals gave birth to offspring recently and need to hunt and bring them food. The fox reminded of this by mackin’ on a duck in the backyard and then picking it up and running off, presumedly to feed its partner and possibly its pups (already? I have no idea but will look up).

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Fox with dead duck

Suddenly, I was as far away from weasels as I could be, I was at the spot where feathers were blowin’, and chunks of duck had been pulled and slid down the hatch (devoured). Blood and feathers! I was getting my wish already; does that count as a second spring miracle?

And I found myself stopping to breathe in deep the cool air, not because I was feeling Covid body (still a little Covid brain), but I had lost the fox trail not even a hundred feet into the woods. And that made me chuckle. I knew the direction of its den, or so I thought. Where else was it going with its headless duck? But that was it for that snow.

In conclusion

And so now we wait again. Wait for the promised storm and the Sunday morning that follows. But the adventure isn’t going to be a “no brainer”! Will it be a search for mustelid estrus or a mission to a fed fox den? Could it be both? Might I get distracted and make it to neither?

There are no guarantees in either pursuit, other than that lessons will be learned. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it. In the end, we’ll just let it ride. Maybe that is the no-brainer.

One way or another, I’ll let you know it goes.

 

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