Sunday, April 10, 2016

Spring is Here

The calendar said it was spring back in late March. Than came April and with it, renewed cold. But still, lots of things in nature tell us that despite cold and even late snow, spring is here.

Turkey vultures soar overhead, peering down at the ground to try to sight a meal of some dead carcass. And shoots of daylilies grow a slight amount with each passing day. And crocus brighten our days as they unfold their blooms in the warm, April sun. But one special event must occur before I can feel easy about spring having arrived in earnest. And that event is the arrival of the local phoebe.

Phoebes love it around my place and I love having them. These little olive-drab birds are flycatchers and as such, have great success in picking flying insects from out of the air. And for every insect that a phoebe catches, that’s just one more insect that won’t bite or annoy me.

I keep a journal of nature events and one thing I always make note of is the day the phoebe arrives. Phoebes typically arrive at my place any time between April 10 and April 18. Never has one arrived earlier or later, which I find very interesting.

While for me, the phoebe is the true harbinger of spring, there are two more events that help to welcome spring. First, a mourning cloak butterfly skipped and fluttered over my dirt driveway a few days ago. These are one of the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring. The other early one is angel wing butterflies.

The second true sign of spring happened yesterday, April 9. Wood frogs are loudly calling from a wetland along my driveway. These are the earliest frogs to begin their courting rituals. Spring peepers, a better-known and more popular spring frog needs a bit warmer weather and at least here in Waldo, Maine, we probably won’t hear any peepers for another week or more.

But again, the phoebe has returned. Spring is here. Glory be!

Monday, March 21, 2016

St. Paddy's Day Trout

        The news came out the night before St. Patrick’s Day. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had opened the fishing season two weeks early because of an early ice-out, coupled with low-water conditions on streams and brooks.

I was at my publisher’s house in Topsham and would not be able to take advantage of this unexpected season opener until later the next day. And somehow I knew it wouldn’t be the same as what I had hoped for.

 April 1, the traditional opening of trout season, was always something of an unofficial holiday for me and so it was this year. I had made plans with fishing buddy Tony Wieman to spend the day fishing small brooks and streams around Waldo County.

This is something we both look forward to each year with great anticipation. We meet just after daybreak, fish our favorite and often most productive pool and then go out to Just Barb’s Restaurant in Stockton Springs. From there, fortified with heavy, greasy breakfast fare, we head out to any number of streams. By day’s end we are usually tuckered out from pushing through near-impenetrable stands of alders and climbing banks so steep and slippery that we have to grab roots and saplings to keep from slipping backwards. We usually have at least a few trout to show for out efforts, too.

But this year was different. Had we known of the early opening, we would have altered our plans. As it stood, I was free but Tony had to work. So after getting home on St. Pat’s Day, changing clothes and grabbing my gear, I headed out to the favorite opening day pool. But the road where I live is so bumpy with countless, cavernous potholes that as a practical matter, speeds cannot exceed 10 miles per hour. That cost me precious minutes and I arrived at the pool just in time to see someone else, rod in hand, walking down to the water.

It is rude to horn in on someone else’s fishing, so I was compelled to skip the preferred place and go on to the next stream. Some people don’t think anything of walking up to someone already fishing and then fishing right next to them. But that kind of boorish behavior is not in my repertoire.

Fishing was made difficult by all the bent-down alders, victims of a heavy, wet snowstorm back in November, 2014. Some pools were so cluttered with brush that they were impossible to fish. But here and there, an opening afforded me the opportunity to drop my hook in and hopefully, tempt a trout.

I caught many trout that day, most of them of a sub-legal size. But I managed to take four that were a bit above the minimum length limit. At day’s end, I was a bit tired, but pleased with my meager catch.

And it being St. Patrick’s Day, I got out my Uilleann (Irish) bagpipes and played some jigs and reels. It was then that I decided to capture the moment and arranged a photo, with the pipes spread out on the ground, with the trout next to them.

And as far as my opening-day trip with fishing buddy Tony, we have decided to go for it anyway, just as if the season hadn’t opened early. After all, it will still be April 1, trout season or not. Some things are too special, even carved-in-stone to mess with. And opening day of trout season is one of them.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wild Edible Plant Seminar at Eagle Hill Institute

Up until last year I had never heard of Eagle Hill Institute, this despite being familiar with much of the local area. This small, natural history school sits in an out-of-the-way location surrounded by a typical Downeast forest of fir and spruce, moss and lichen.

Then last spring I got an email from Eagle Hill asking if I would like to put on a wild plant weekend and being free from other obligations at the time, I agreed. It was a good decision. The institute has everything needed to put on classes and my digital presentations in the morning, followed by an afternoon field trip, worked out well.

Even better, the people who participated in the class were keen on learning and that is what every instructor hopes for. The class went well and I even managed to keep in touch with some of the participants well after the class was over.

Eagle Institute has a great chef, too, and suppers are a special event. Also, people who cannot eat certain foods or have any kind of food allergies, can arrange in advance to have their meals prepared according to what they can and cannot eat.

Anyway, I’m on Eagle Hill’s list of instructors again this year. My weekend class will run from June 10 through June 12. People interested in attending this year’s session can contact Eagle Hill Institute at Eagle Hill Institute, 59 Eagle Hill Road, P.O. Box 9, Stuben, ME 04680. The phone number is 207-546-2821. On the net, go to or office@eaglehill,us. For more on class descriptions and author bios, visit

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wildflowers in February a Sure Sign of Early Spring

Here it is only February and wildflowers are blooming. And yes, I’m talking about here in Maine, not some tropical paradise.

I’m always fascinated by any early-blooming or even early-showing plants. For instance, I revel in my chive bed, because this season’s chives are already trying to grow through snow and ice. Very soon, I’ll nibble on the first garden vegetable of the year, a single stalk of chive.

Daylilies, too, send up the tips of little green leaves. These are usually well up by mid-March and this year should see them coming around even earlier. By the way, these daylily leaf tips make a good green vegetable when boiled or steamed. They represent one of the first wild (or semi-wild) foods of the season.

But today I’m wound up about seeing flowers blooming on a stark, roadside bank. The flowers, I’m sure some of you have guessed, are Coltsfoot and they are the earliest wildflower to bloom, at least to my knowledge.

The roadside bank is so steep that grass can’t be planted there. But coltsfoot seeds, like dandelion seeds, get transported by a little, feathery “parachute.” And when these little parachutes land on anything, they stick to it. When the seeds become wet, they stick even harder and this allows them to germinate on a nearly vertical surface.

What’s more, the embankment is only feet away from the salt water, which means slightly warmer overall temperatures as opposed to inland conditions.

Finally, the bank is south-facing and even now, in February, the soil warms up nicely on a sunny, late-winter day.

So be of good cheer. Spring is surely coming and it looks like it is coming early. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Was it my imagination or do the branches and twigs on the weeping willow along my driveway have a little more color? Sometimes in late winter trees give us low-key clues that spring is on the way. Maples show red at twig tips and willows, such as the one along my driveway, show a brighter shade of yellow.

Astronomical spring arrives on March 20. But as much as one month prior to that, nature shows us signs of the changing seasons.

For instances, those who spend time in the woods and those who feed wild songbirds, probably have noticed that along about now black-capped chickadees change their song. It becomes just a little more raspy.

And by looking closely at little pools of water formed by melting snow, we might notice a coating of some kind of dust on the water’s surface. More than likely it isn’t dust at all. Snow fleas, a.k.a. springtails, thousands of them, jump around on the snow around the base of trees. In fact, rivulets of snowmelt can channel umpteen snow fleas to a larger pool and likely millions of the tiny creatures can entirely cover the surface.

Then we have the less tangible signs of spring such as the way the earth smells where snow has melted and sunlight thaws the top layer. This is evident in towns, too. On a warm day in late winter, all the smells, scents and odors that were there last summer and fall are suddenly unlocked. Some of these scents are quite attractive and in our minds we can imagine that they are of distant flowers, or perhaps of someone baking bread.

In a little over one month we’ll have the real deal to embrace. But for now, these silent, often-unnoticed signs of spring are sufficient to buoy hope in winter-weary mortals. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

                                        Spring Slated for Mid-March Arrival

A forecaster from National Weather Service has come out with word that by mid-March, the northeast will see a warming trend. The last few years have seen late-arriving springs, partly due to lingering arctic air. But this year, there will be no arctic air and a strengthening March sun will work wonders toward warming us up.

For me, this comes as the best possible news. Wild edible plants will become available earlier and trout fishing in streams and rivers will crank up into high gear by early April.

Today is February 8 and until just a few days ago, I was able to go out back on the hillside by my house and pick fresh wintergreen leaves to chew on. That’s because what little snow we had melted, leaving wide swaths of bare ground on south-facing hillsides.

Before that, though, three resident deer had pawed through the snow to get at the wintergreen. This surprised me. I didn’t know that deer liked wintergreen. I knew that partridge liked it, because many lf the birds that fell to my shotgun in fall had crops filled with wintergreen leaves.

Today, though, temperatures are in the low teens and a major snowstorm is on the way. But it’s only early February and we must expect such things. So let it freeze, let it snow and do whatever it wants. With news of a big warmup in March, we can handle about anything that nature gives us. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Wild Medicines of Winter

          I regularly put up medicinal herbs for the winter. This is an annual ritual, since most of the plants lose their potency within one year or less. Besides plants that we harvest just before cold weather sets in, there are a number of plant medicines available year-round.
          For instance, willows contain salicylic acid. If that sounds familiar it’s because aspirin is manmade acetylsalicylic acid. Willow is a natural form and it is a powerful medicine. I sometimes use the fresh bark, perhaps a half teaspoonful of chopped, inner bark, steeped in a tea. The only drawback is that the wild product is not buffered and can cause stomach upsets.
          Maine has numbers of different kinds of willows, and these tend to hybridize, making exact identification difficult. But since all willows, Salix species, contain some amount of salicylic acid, foragers needn’t worry about which willow is which.
          Balsam fir, Abies balsamea, another tree with medicinal properties, is common throughout Maine. Balsam gum has healing properties and can be used on cuts and other wounds. It’s easy to gather the gum (oleoresin) by cutting or simply popping the blisters, or bubbles on the bark. The leaves (needles) make a tea that is taken for coughs and colds.
          I’ve said many times before that I prefer taking my medicine in the form of food. To that end, I favor watercress. Yes, you can buy watercress in the market but it grows wild, too. A stream behind my house has lots of watercress, and it grows year-round. It’s kind of cold work, reaching in the frigid water to pick watercress. But it’s worth it. Watercress is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, among which are Vitamins A, B, C, B2, copper, iron, calcium and magnesium. Its iron content is higher that that found in spinach. Watercress is low in carbohydrates.

          I offer these as an example of what we can gather from the wild, even in mid-winter. There are plenty other plant medicines out there.