Back in the swing of things

It’s been a while since I contributed to the blog. Blame it on lack of time, or not finding the muse, who knows. It was not for lack of floral display or animal behavior in the yard. Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing something, and there is no exact timeline for regaining your appetite. This year we broke up our usual winter pattern of enduring whatever weather comes our way, and we spent some time in Costa Rica. I can get used to the 80s and 90s, let me tell you – even the humidity stops bothering you after a few days. We were there at the end of dry season and some of the countryside on the Pacific side that did not receive rainfall or is not near water looks like our New England winter with leafless trees, However, even on that side of the continental divide there is still a lot of lush green and color by means of flowers and birds in the cloud forests. Of course, there was still the wet tropical forest on the Caribbean side, where the dry season means it only rained twice that day. I don’t want this to be a travel summary, but it was nice to pretend to be a snow bird and come back to relatively mild, somewhat spring like weather.

I missed the peepers this year, they were already out and about in their choirs and solo performances when we arrived back from our trip in the middle of the night on April 2. A day later than planned, as our flight was overbooked by the airline (not United). We were not happy as this was fallout from a volcano erupting nearby some 4 days earlier – flights that day were cancelled and that started the dominoes falling. We settled for another uneventful night at a hotel near the airport. If the event at United Airlines had occurred a few weeks earlier, we could have taken that example and opted for another approach.

I did not miss any first native bloomers, though, as the first flower did not appear until April 12. We did have some cold stretches late in the winter, but I was surprised it was this late. Order was restored, however, as rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) emerged first, beating american globe flower (Trollius laxus) by the better of half a day. These plants are obviously not representative for the whole of their species, as many rue anemonde are still barely emerging from the surface, and other american globe flower plants will surely beat them to the punch. Not exact science, just a little private bet I have with the native plants in my yard.

There have been some other interesting sightings since our return. A nuthatch pair have taken residence in one of the birdhouses. They picked the one nearest the bird feeder and the bird bath – prime real estate. They have been fairly aggressive at the feeder toward chickadees and other similar sized birds, so it was not unexpected to see that they got first dibs on the new dwelling. The male spent considerable time and effort hammering out a bigger entrance. I am not sure what their reno budget was, but they have already started bringing in nesting material.

Bluebirds have been coming to the feeders in amazing numbers – Until this spring, I only saw the birds once in a while in other people’s yards or in the field somewhere. 4 to 8 birds (likely pairs) have been faithful attendees, especially at the suet feeder. They will likely soon move on further north, or they will disperse and find nesting locations.

Just the other day I saw a brown squirrel in the trees next to my yard. I have seen them in the woods on Cape Cod before, but they are still a fairly rare sight, and I understand they are under some pressure from grey squirrels taking up territory and pushing them out. The brown squirrel came back today, and he obviously did not get the memo – he or she was displaying aggressive behavior toward a few grey squirrels and actually chased them off on a few occasions. I am assuming that the brown squirrel is nesting nearby and will not easily give way to the bigger grey adversaries.

By chance we drove by Chapin beach in Dennis today, and decided to walk on the beach. Much to our surprise there was a pod of 6 or 8 right whales not even 100 yards from the surf swimming by. They were close enough for us to hear the sound of them exhaling water through their blowholes. Only 525 are left in the world, and it was sad to hear about the juvenile found floating dead the other day. The cause of death is unknown at this point, but a boat strike was suspected. When I saw this pod surface around a fishing boat equally close to shore I was a bit worried, but it seemed that the crew was well aware of their submerged company and they were moving slowly. Now I can take this off my bucket list.

We recently got a new pet, and he is far more interested in animals than our previous pet was. We don’t let him run around the yard without a leash with concern that he would devastate the wildlife we are trying to cultivate (or become a victim of wildlife himself). However his keen eyesight and interest has given me chances to see many more animals in my yard than I had seen previously. For example, a couple months ago, my pet was intently staring out the window. When I looked to see what he was gazing at I saw two beautiful large deer in the heavily wooded area between my yard and my neighbors yard.

More recently my pet was acting really excited in that same part of the yard. I heard a clicking noise and could not for the life of me figure out what sort of animal would make such a noise. I looked closely at the spot where the sound was coming from for quite some time and finally noticed a bat just hanging out and washing himself in the bottom of  a tree. I hadn’t seen bats that close since a trip to Central America, so that was really cool. And just a few days ago, my pet alerted me to the presence of a beautiful box turtle, which we promptly moved to a safer part of the yard.

Box turtle

Box turtle from above

We’ve noticed lots more skunks this year – when I see the white stripe I usually get out of the skunk’s way quickly, making sure my pet comes with me. The skunks don’t seem afraid at all, in fact we caught one by mistake in the humane trap we had set for the groundhog and he was more curious than angry. We are thinking that perhaps since the groundhogs are not around this year – skunks – a key competitor – are feeling more safe and comfortable.

Earlier this summer I saw my first mink. Two of them were walking near the marsh in Yarmouthport as we were biking by. They were small animals – not much bigger than squirrels – and we had to look them up in a nature guide to figure out what they were. The thought of a mink coat seemed really weird after seeing how wild and small this animal actually is.

When I had looked out at my yard in the past generally I would see lots of grass, flowers and trees. It’s really great that I am now helped by the great eyesight of my new pet, and I am able to be aware of so much more going on in the yard – from box turtles to bats – animals I had only seen in museums, in books or on trips (or sadly sometimes as roadkill on our Cape Cod roads.) Now when I look out at the yard, I know now there’s a lot more than meets my eye out there, all contributing to the wonderful flora and fauna that makes Cape Cod one of the most wonderful places to live in the world.

Unfortunately, as time would have it, we were able to do very few winter walks on Cape Cod this year. We were able, however, to see a few new sites and revisit some of our old favorites. Our goal this year was to check out some of the areas on the Upper Cape, as we had really focused on the Lower Cape (towards Provincetown) in winter 2014/2015.

One of our first walks back in February was the Maple Swamp conservation lands in Sandwich. It was a bit hard to find – the sign for the site was facing opposite of the way we were driving, so we drove right by it. I have to say that the most interesting thing about this walk was seeing all of the homes along the service road that parallels Cape Cod’s Route 6. There is a whole community there that I never knew existed. When I would ride along route 6 by this area I always assumed it was bordered by woods – but beyond that thin veil of trees in Sandwich is a large group of homes – it really feels like a suburb. The Maple Swamp conservation area was not the prettiest or most interesting walk, in fact it seemed to be used mostly by dog walkers who had left their souvenirs, which was unfortunate. That said, it was not unpleasant, if rather devoid of noticeable wildlife perhaps due to the heavy foot traffic there.

The Scorton Creek area in Sandwich has a beautiful marsh view – you almost feel like you could walk out to Sandy Neck in minutes, the view is so clear. I highly recommend this walk, it’s clean, peaceful and pretty.  A lonely tree swing adds to the serene, dreamlike mood of the place. This is a good area to spend a couple hours exploring, as close by is the Old State Game Farm and the Nye Homestead. We decided not to walk the trails on the Old State Farm on this particular day, as a horde of dog walkers had descended on the parking lot. The Nye Homestead is owned by the Thornton Burgess Society, and has a great little museum, jam shop and gift shop which we enjoyed visiting the year before.


We have yet to finish all of the walks in Beth Schwarzman’s “The Nature of Cape Cod” book, although undoubtedly there will be a few we may miss as some sites are more geared to boaters or kayakers than walkers. Her suggestion of the Quashnet/Moonakis River site (Mashpee and Falmouth) was quite nice. We walked around part of this area located at John’s Pond, after parking at the Mashpee Town Beach and then continued on an unmarked trail which ended up being much more of a time commitment than we had thought. Perhaps we will visit there again. I got some beautiful images of the pond. They stock the pond with fish, and a few men were hoping to get a bite on this unseasonably warm March day.

Johns Pond

Gray’s Beach is our usual biking destination, we had never actually walked the wooded trails that this area offers – so we decided to check it out in late March. Although it goes through a small residential area, this path was quite beautiful, with scenic footbridges and a nice view of some of the taller buildings on 6A. The only thing I disliked about this walk was the fact that someone had dumped several pieces of furniture marring the scenery in the beginning of the trail area, which was quite shameful – I imagine our tax money will be used to clean this soon if it hasn’t been done already. (Thanks for dumping in a nature trail to save a few bucks idiots.) Note: We got a little lost where the path entered the residential area, not knowing quite how to get back on the path we ended up starting at a different point completely. So expect to do a little exploring, potentially through what seems like private property, on this trail. The name for the area is Chase Garden Creek or Callery-Darling Conservation Area. If you see one place on Cape Cod – at least on Mid Cape – the views of Gray’s Beach are gorgeous, especially at sunset. I don’t recommend the beach itself, although it definitely draws a crowd in the summer – as little black biting flies – no matter what the month in summer – descend in droves. It’s flies like that that make me relieved I don’t have a home there – although this neighborhood in Yarmouth Port is absolutely gorgeous. Also, Greenheads, even worse biters than the black flies, make an appearance for a good (pardon the pun) chunk of the summer every year. The “chunk” pun refers to the fact that Greenheads don’t sting, they bite a chunk out of you – a topic which never fails to terrify guests.

One particular weekend in early April we felt like re-visiting an old standby – we wanted a longer walk to a place where we knew we would be rewarded with gorgeous scenery – so we revisited Bridge Street conservation area in West Barnstable. No deer this time, but we had a total of 5 ticks between the two of us upon finishing this walk – it’s reputation of being very ticky there stands true. As Beth Schwarzman says of this short hike: “This isn’t the forest primeval, of course, but this large area of  unbroken woods can give you a sense of what this country looked like before Europeans arrived.” We certainly enjoyed the peace and quiet this 1,100 acre conservation  area provided to us. This is a walk I would definitely avoid in the summer – it does get overgrown especially if you hit it during a time they haven’t cut back the path – which gives the ticks lots more opportunity to snack on you.

We had just about 45 minutes on one weekend day in early April so we took the opportunity to revisit the Yarmouth Historical Society nature trails in Yarmouth Port which is  60 wooded acres along a pond about  1.5 miles behind the Yarmouth Port Post Office, on Route 6A. This short walk, not mentioned in Shwarzman’s book but something we came across from driving by, never disappoints.




In the 5 or so years I have maintained this blog I have been keen on logging the first flowering native plant. Every year rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) has been the first to emerge with flowers they usually emerge in early to mid April. I was expecting the same hum-drum consistency and reliability.

Not this year – even though rue anemone is surprisingly early – I have flowers on them right now, and they unfurled yesterday on April Fools right before the onslaught of the rain that has flooded and ponded the garden today. This year the First Bloomer cup goes to american globe flower (Trollius laxus). I was totally unprepared for this as the tiny plants wasted no time to put their flowers on display March 23 – more than a full week ahead of the competition.

American globe flower 2016

The mild winter may have pushed for an acceleration of sorts – other plants are well ahead in the production of basal leaves (common wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). I also have one trout lily that will likely flower tomorrow – it is so close to opening up… I seem to remember having more in years past, I hope they will still emerge despite seeing heavy foraging and digging by squirrels last fall.

In one sun exposed spot foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is about to bloom, while the same species in a shaded location has barely sprouted fresh growth.

The vultures have been in evidence for a good two weeks, and apparently some ospreys are back, although I have yet to see the pair on a nesting pole down the road. The feathered and beaked displays of spring have come in waves, with different species flocking across the landscape every couple of days. First it was the robins, then the red-winged blackbirds, and just yesterday the grackles were making a familiar ruckus in the trees.

The peepers have been putting on concerts pretty much every day for well over a week now. Music to my ears, but probably causing despair to some friends of ours who mentioned a while ago that these little critters were the bane of their existence, affecting their sleep and sanity… I guess it’s true when they say it’s the little things that will get you.

Of course, it may all come to a (temporary) halt tomorrow, with cold, snow, and high winds coming through on a fast moving clipper.

Either way, time to get out and about! Most of the clearing and planting is finished. I removed some non-native Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonerica morrowii) bushes that were showing their age and wear, and replaced them with an assortment of serviceberry, summersweet, winterberry, and chokeberry. In year 5 of a 10 year plan the yard is shaping up beautifully. While the honeysuckle bushes provided shelter and privacy, they are not ideal – the berries don’t offer much food value to wild life, and the bushes push out native shrubs and kill off most of the ground flora, including spring wildflowers. Morrow’s Honeysuckle develops its leaves earlier than other shrubs and the leaves stay on well into late fall, early winter. This shrub originates from Asia but has been dispersed throughout woodlands everywhere – I often see it along Cape Cod’s many walking trails.

Grassy Goodness

We talk a lot about the beauty of native plants we’re cultivating in our yard, but recently I have read evidence that our yard may be positively affecting the lack of discomfort we’re enjoying during some of the more sweltering summer days. We have enjoyed a seventh summer without the expense of air conditioning, all thanks to the shade of multiple trees and our cultivation of what I have recently heard can be called a “Freedom Lawn” (not to be confused with “freedom fries”). In Adam Rome’s “The Bulldozer and the Countryside” Rome explains how homebuilders a century ago designed human dwellings with the climate in mind; where the wind might blow (or not) and where the sun might hit – these aspects were used to their fullest advantage to design homes that were going to be cooler in summer, warmer in winter. The 50s and 60s changed all that, the trend became to build homes with the idea that they will be heated or air conditioned. Our home was built in the late 70s – the builders had great style but were not environmentalists. For example roof solar panels are not an option due to the direction it faces. Other factors about the way the home was built, however unintended, give us the pleasure of shade in summer and a breeze that goes throughout the home. The homes’ “ahead of its time” open floor plan allows the home to breathe – unlike the claustrophobic style of closed off rooms so popular from the 50s to the 80s.

The “Freedom Lawn” I mention comes from a very entertaining book by Hannah Holmes called “Suburban Safari”. Holmes mentions how, beyond the obvious environmental and health wins one gets with a chemical free lawn, a lawn that is allowed to grow “naturally” can give your yard as much as a 30 degree difference on a very hot day. Holmes describes the feeling of stepping onto a lawn, and the cooling effect it has – I had never thought of that but have definitely experienced it. And I had no idea that a lawn can do this, for example: “there’s a whiff of evidence that planting the right kind of lawn can remove even more carbon from the air, acre for acre”. What is the “right” kind of lawn you ask? Read Yale’s school of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ book called “Redesigning the American Lawn” – or Google Freedom Lawn or the New American Lawn to learn how proponents say that what we do now can affect cancer rates, pollution and water shortages. Americans spend $75 billion dollars a year on maintaining lawns; this doesn’t include other costs, such as costs to our health.

We actually don’t have a strict “Freedom Lawn” over much of the yard  – meaning we don’t just let things grow unattended; our yard would be a muddy mess without some help. We plant grass seed and clover, and we pluck other things that grow in the grass like oak trees and native flowers, which we often replant in other parts of the yard. We do that by plucking by hand or trimming with a mower, not with poison. Its not a perfect looking lawn, but it works for us.

Trapeze artist


Rue anemone does it again

Thalictrum thalictroides won the race again… They are my first flowering native in the woodland garden. I am a bit surprised that there was not more of a delay. We just endured the worst winter in eons, but apparently the last few mild days were enough to awaken the plants. Many other species are pushing out stems and young leaves – it is nice to see American globeflower come back this year. In years past they’ve been iffy at best but they are emerging strong this year…

rue anemone April 26

American globeflower was a close runner up this year.  I had cleared some overhead branches and the extra sunlight helped to make the plant a contender this time around

American globeflower was a close runner up this year. I had cleared some overhead branches and the extra sunlight helped to make the plant a contender this time around

While the flowers are small, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the intricate detail of the flower

While the flowers are small, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the intricate detail of the flower

While the plant world seems to be right on target, animals are a bit of track. The usual ospreys (or new interlopers – I am not that great a birder that I can recognize individual animals) did not get here until April first. They did not waste any time and went right to building and rebuilding nests. The peepers have been vocal and boisterous this week, and they also started singing around the first of the month… I sense more energy than in past years – they are singing in the midst of sunny days, seemingly having lost the patience to wait for dusk.

the next few weeks will be spent readying the garden, with cleanup, pathway and bordering projects way behind schedule. There is some considerable tree damage due to the relentless winter storms, but firewood is now guaranteed for the next winter onslaught – starting preparations early is not a bad thing. With some help from my friends from Forest Keepers I will end up with more room for light and new saplings. Aside from those potential new areas, I doubt that I will find much room for new plants this year, but you just never know – I may be enticed to shrink the lawn area even more in 2015. Even though this is somewhat late for new year resolutions, I hope to be better at making time to both enjoy and document the woodland garden. Pictures and stories have been sparse at best, but I expect to have more time available this time around. I hope you enjoy it just as much.

Redwings on notice

The winter that started with a vengeance in early February is only now showing signs of letting go. There is still plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and the grass that manages to peek through near pre-heated rocks and roadsides is presenting itself as tired and half dead. Spring is officially here in another week, but much needs to happen before I will start believing. By now ospreys and grackles should have arrived, but they are wise to remain south a bit longer. Not so with the redwing blackbirds – they have had enough and are pushing north on their migration. Some 80 or 90 birds descended on the feeder and the ground below to feed on sunflower seeds. I have been putting these out regularly over the last month or so, only to see the little seeds disappear under fresh snow almost immediately. Now that melting is in earnest the piles of black gold (in nutrition terms) are again available to birds. The redwings are not alone, although they outnumber and crowd out the other species. It is good to hear the frantic crescendo again. But while my perspective from the inside looking out brings thoughts of warmer days, there is no such luxury for the birds. They think only of feeding and moving on to their breeding grounds, probably further north of here. If they can, that is – Not all will make it past today, as a red-tailed hawk is patrolling the neighborhood and forcing the birds into a few seconds of silence as it swoops down and grabs one of the flock. If the survivors are upset by all of this, they don’t show it and pick up song and lunch where they left off. There is both strength and ignorance in numbers.

Trail entrance: Well hidden despite the signage

Trail entrance: Well hidden despite the signage

On the day after Christmas we decided to explore a new trail, this time in Chatham. Our plan was to drive to the trail, hike it for an hour or so, and then grab lunch at one of our favorite restaurants in town. I had Googled “hiking trails in Chatham” and picked the “Frost Fish Creek Trail” as it seemed like one of the easiest to find for someone who doesn’t know their way around Chatham… it wasn’t. Even with a combination of sites used – which included the Chatham chamber of commerce site, the Cape Cod Magazine site and “hiking cape cod.com” – the directions I found online couldn’t get us there. The Chatham High School, which was a landmark in the directions, did not seem to actually exist – and the only thing we saw with a “Frost Fish Creek Trail” sign was an unfortunate cluster of empty new McMansions. The closed “Acme Laundry” was also a landmark, but we never quite found that building either. Our guess was that this trail was no more…a victim of development. I was not surprised, the web is not really a great resource when it comes to Cape Cod. But I was disappointed that even the Chamber of Commerce site had this Trail listed as one of its “scenic landmarks”.

After about 45 minutes of aimless driving around, we decided to give up and get lunch. Luckily for us, the bartender was a Chatham local who had spent time with her high school chemistry class doing water testing at the Frost Fish Creek Trail. She explained that we were exactly where we needed to be, that the Chatham high School was no longer in existence, so the Middle School we saw was the correct landmark. She also said that the path leading to the trail was on the road we had driven down.

Armed with the knowledge that the trail did indeed exist, we retraced our way back to the area and parked our car at the Monomoy Regional Middle School, crossed the street and walked down the closest road – the name of which escapes me now. These directions would have been helpful at one of these websites! As would have the update that there is no Chatham High School! Anyway we walked down the road and literally walked into someone’s yard, as it seemed to be the closest thing to a path. Somewhat afraid that a large dog would come charging at us any minute, we commented that noone seemed to be around and at that moment heard movement in one of the backyards – so we moved a bit faster! Suddenly we came across a sign “Frost Fish Creek Trail” along with NO HUNTING. This gave us some relief as we were concerned about being mistaken for deer – it’s been quite a common occurence lately on Cape Cod.

We walked the trail, along Frost Fish Creek. It was quite short, and small in acreage – the Frost Fish Creek Trail development we happened upon earlier took up much of it unfortunately. It was peaceful and quiet, but the meditation I mostly had on this hike was about land use – and how sad in a gorgeous and affluent place such as Chatham the amount of undeveloped land was laughable. If this was a landmark, a place written up as a nature trail, broken up by a huge development – I can’t see how any wildlife would be able to maintain a home in Chatham. The coastline on Cape Cod has been overdeveloped for years (try finding a space on a public beach in on Cape Cod in the summer), and now anywhere seen as a “water view” is prime real estate, so it makes sense that no stone would remain unturned – literally – in an area so lusted after for summer and vacation homes.

If you are interested, here is a list of the other three trails on the Chatham Chamber of Commerce website. Perhaps we will go back and give Chatham trails a second try, but it won’t be for a while. I can’t imagine that these are very large, since the Frost Fish Creek Trail was listed as a 45 minute to 1 hour walk, and it took us all of 20 minutes to walk it.

Trail #2: BARCLAY PONDS TRAIL – Old Queen Anne Road and Training Field Road. Entrance to trail is at Yield Sign, 20 feet south of telephone pole #38 in intersection. Park in field (Crowell’s Pit) north of entrance. Quiet, woodsy walk some up and down hill. Approximately 1/2 hour, 12 acres.

Trail #3: HONEYSUCKLE LAND, OFF STAGE HARBOR ROAD – Bottom of hill, left side of road are two short trails leading to the Old Ice Pond. Many water birds are generally seen in this area. Right side of road near telephone pole and along side of narrow stream, a short walk featuring white cedar trees. Also, leading to other trails in and around the Cedar Swamp, which is mostly owned by the Town of Chatham.

Trail #4: GEORGE RYDER ROAD, SOUTH TRAIL – Opposite West Chatham A&P and George Ryder Road, take George Ryder Road South to first right (Harold’s Lane). Take first right off Harold’s Lane (Ralph Street) onto short paved road ending in a dirt road. Entrance to walk is on your left. Ralph Street is the bog owner’s entrance to his working cranberry bog. Please don’t block entrance or neighbor’s driveways. Woods, cranberry bogs, brackish marsh. Approx. 15 minutes, 2.5 acres.

Creek December 26 2014

Pilgrim Heights Truro

On the day after Thanksgiving we treated ourselves to some travel to the Outer Cape. It was an interesting way to see how radically the weather differs from one end of Cape Cod to the other in the space of an hour or two, as Truro had thick snow and icy roads while Yarmouth and Barnstable’s roads were clear. It was on these icy roads that we drove to Truro, to check out for the first time some of the walking paths in that town. That windy, 32 degree morning found us to be the only brave creatures to walk the Pilgrim Heights path, save for some dog prints in the wet sand we had the place to ourselves. I commented that all those people stuck in a busy shopping mall were missing out, as we climbed the quiet dunes. Then again, those who chose the mall did us a favor, giving us our own private viewing of nature.

Although much of Cape Cod does not have the typical New England fall foliage color we think of, with reds and oranges – fall and winter have their own uniquely beautiful views on Cape Cod. On this particular path in Truro the lush green of fat scrub pines is a rich contrast to the subtle palette of yellow dried pine needles and the icy blue-green of lichens and moss.

A peaceful woodland path at Pilgrim Heights leads to a deserted beach, which is quite striking. In my own non-nature-writer way I described the scene as similar to the beach scene at the end of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. There were no homes to be seen, just a gorgeous hilly area of dunes and sea – it felt like we were at the end of the world. To add to the “back to nature” moment I was having, I had my first encounter with seals. There were about 40 seals at the edge of the water, I wish I had brought binoculars. They were checking me out, and from far away their heads popping out of the water looked strangely like shark fins. It was really amazing, this brief interaction with these large bright eyed creatures from mysterious world of the sea.


NOTE: This path is easy to find, right off route 6 in Truro. It is extremely well maintained, however it is quite hilly, so not recommended for those who have difficulty walking down or up a steep hill. There is a large parking lot and a few picnic tables, there was also a bike path alongside the trail.

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