Nature at NEECA
NEECA member, Linda LeBlanc, has managed to combine two of the great passions in her life, nature and
spending quality time with her mare Vidalia. Linda is lucky enough to keep Vidalia at a property that abuts
NEECA so she frequently rides, or just takes Vidalia for a walk, at NEECA. While enjoying this time with her
horse, she also takes time to appreciate all the fascinating wildlife and beautiful scenery NEECA has to offer.
We asked her if she would share her observations with us so that everyone could "see" through her eyes
and we are so pleased that she agreed to do so. The following is a series of articles Linda has written
concerning her travels through NEECA. We hope you take the time to read them, they are inspiring.
Linda majored in Wildlife Management at the University of Maine Orono and was one of the first women to graduate with that major in 1973. She and her husband Ernie, a fellow student at UMaine, created and implemented an original life science curriculum and program for the Weymouth, MA public school system which existed for over thirty years. Linda taught primarily grades K-4 for over 25 years and was known by approximately 2500 Weymouth children as the nature lady, the bug lady and the bird lady. She received her Masters Degree in Training and Development from Lesley University in 1993 and provided extensive teacher training to area teachers. Her “retirement job” for nearly 10 years was Director of Childcare Services at the Athol YMCA where she designed and helped teach an experience-based curriculum in the Nursery School, Y Kids Depot Afterschool Program and Summer Day Camp at Tully Pond. Linda’s lifelong dream was to have her own horse and that dream came true in the summer of 2017 when she became the excited owner of Vidalia. She and Vidalia have been learning together ever since with the help of their wonderfully kind friends in NEECA and are particularly grateful to teachers Wendy Warner and Libby Lyman for guiding them through the trials and tribulations of being a horse person!
The Colors of Winter Part 1 - by Linda LeBlanc 2.8.2021
In a typical winter people would be feeling the blues about all the white and gray outside their window. This winter, however, feels especially comfortless for all the reasons we are now so familiar with. Lately I have been thinking about and looking for the colors of winter during my frequent walks at NEECA. The searching combats the gloomy inattention I may fall into, and the discovery of unexpected color simply makes me happy.
Two abundant tree species in NEECA living in close association and showing beautiful contrast in color are the hemlock and beech. The Eastern Hemlock appears dark, almost black, under a winter sky. A needleleaf tree, its short, flat, glossy needles are almost blue-black. But if you duck under the soft limber branches and peer upwards, the needles turn silver. Each tiny needle has two light bands underneath that appear to turn that precious color.
The American Beech next to its shade loving associate is a broadleaf tree, and most in this category are leafless in winter, but the beech has numerous clinging dry dead leaves ranging from soft yellow to rich tan, much like the color of a Palomino horse. Its thin pointed buds are the color of a glossy Irish Setter dog. An old beech tree has smooth gray bark on a brawny trunk, reminding me of the leg of The Saggy Baggy Elephant.
When you next walk or ride by a drift of trees at NEECA, peer harder into the woods for the shining smooth pale skeleton of the American Beech with the light blades of foliage still clinging. Then search for the dark, almost black Eastern Hemlock sure to be close by. And before moving on, wait for the wind to make the hemlock’s long limber boughs sweep up and down. The tree whistles and sighs, the papery leaves of the beech rustle, in a quiet and peace you can feel through your skin.
The Colors of Winter Part 2 - by Linda LeBlanc 2.11.2021
The creamy white bark of the Paper or White Birch should fade into the snowy landscape. However, it is more distinct to me now when I see a small stand of them gleaming against the backdrop of the needleleaf trees. An observer will feel the raised lenticels, like pores, on the bark with a finger; they are one of the structures the tree has for breathing. The bark invites further touch because of its chalkiness, and the papery thin layers into which the bark peels. Resist the impulse to pull at the strips as it will leave permanent ugly dark rings around the trunk.
The needleleaf tree often providing the feathery blue green or gray green backdrop for the birch and beech is the Eastern White Pine. The arrangement of the needles truly is more plume like compared to the hemlock. Where the hemlock needles are arranged singly in flat sprays, the White Pine’s needles are first arranged in “bundles” of 5, and then further attached to the twig with more bundles of 5. Sometimes the effect is that of a bottle brush. During the winter when water is frozen and sunlight is limited, broadleaf trees such as the beech and various birches are dormant. Needleleaf trees like hemlock and pine continue to photosynthesize food at lower levels because of the needle’s winter proof characteristics. It is waxy which reduces moisture loss in the dry winter air, and its flexibility allows snow to slide off and not break the branches.
The large clearing of land where the Elwyn Bacon Trail runs north to the arenas and east to Davenport Pond, arguably the least attractive part of the NEECA property, is yet a favorite part of my walk on a sunny cold day. I find myself often looking up - as if I cannot get enough of the deep blue of the sky. The expanse of blue feels like the ocean to this coastal born and raised girl. And then there are the trees cutting it with their height and spread: the green sweep of the pines and hemlocks, the white glow of the birches, even the gray corrugated bark of the tall oaks with their splotches of lichen. I can imagine them as kelp and coral in this land-based sea.
The flat sprays
in the winter
White Pine bundle of 5 needles and the flat spray of Eastern Hemlock.
Horizontal lenticels and peeling bark on White Birch.
Feathery needles of White Pine
Beautiful Bones - by Linda LeBlanc 4.10.2021
Yellow Birch is not the most common broadleaf tree in the NEECA park, yet where it exists is a beautiful counterpoint to all the dark hemlocks and pines there. During one of my walks in March, when the Mourning Cloak Butterfly was the high point, I found a Yellow Birch leaf plastered to a damp log. Its soft autumn yellow was now diluted to transparency, and the veins stood out like a beautiful skeleton. Nearby was the Yellow Birch itself, its bark glowing golden in the dark interior of the woods. I could not easily reach a branch – this valuable hardwood is often a tall tree - but I knew if I could snap off a twig and smell it, I would enjoy a delicious wintergreen aroma. The ground where the tree stood was wet as expected and I could trace the path of the water through the woods.
It occurred to me that this time of year, as much as we are generally happy to see March move along, is a good time to notice the bones of the forest. Structures such as tree trunks and branches, and the veins of leaves now disintegrating on the forest floor – these are the supportive framework for all the overwhelming green to come.
In the case of the birch and other trees, the idea will be to get the crown (that mass of branches and twigs above the trunk) of new leaves exposed to sunlight to enable photosynthesis to occur. For a green plant to produce its food from water and carbon dioxide, the manufacture (synthesis) must occur in the presence of light (photo). The crowns of the large broadleaf trees at NEECA, often conical or pyramidal in shape, show a fretwork of branches, twigs, and twiglets. They often reach out to the side more than up to the sky, allowing the sunlight to cascade down from the topmost of the crown to its lowest expanse. If the cone or pyramid shape were reversed, only the topmost leaves would photosynthesize optimally. For now, before the leaves appear, I appreciate the skeleton crowns reaching up and outward, the cold blue sky held up by the trees’ latticework.
Skeletal leaves, especially the ones well into the decomposition process, are particularly beautiful to me. The veins of leaves have as much to do with the tree’s transport of water and sugar as with giving the leaf structure and strength. Venation of leaves varies with tree species: maples are palmately veined; oaks, beech and birches are pinnately veined. Look at the palm of your hand and note how several lines appear to radiate outward from the cushioned base of your hand to the tips of your fingers. This is a good approximation of the palm like veins of the maples. Pinnately veined leaves have a strong mid-rib like the stiff mid-rib of a feather, with secondary veins branching off at intervals. At NEECA not only are the beech, oak, and birch good examples of pinnate venation, but also the many remnants of the American Chestnut there.
When I look at the skeleton trees of March and early April, I remember taking the first graders on school yard tree walks, and how we would stand a distance away from a tree to observe its entire body. Up went their arms, hands, and widespread fingers to mimic the crown of branches, twigs, and twiglets, and still and straight they would stretch their bodies to mimic the trunk. Then we would grow our toes downward like roots, and I would explain that there were often as many roots and rootlets under the ground as there were branches and twigs above. A favorite children’s poem by Charlotte Perkins Stetson drew the picture: “…But when you think of all the roots they drop, as much at bottom as there is on top, A double tree, widespread in earth and air, Like a reflection in the water there.”
A skeletal birch leaf
The golden bark of Yellow Birch
Not branches, but the roots of an overturned tree along the Stacked Stone Trail
The Bird With Opinions - by Linda LeBlanc 4.5.2021
I have learned over the years to always listen to students when we are outdoors. They notice things that I do not. One February day I led one of my elementary classrooms around their schoolyard, and after thirty cold damp snowy minutes I was ready to go back indoors. I turned to go into the building when I heard “Mrs. LeBlanc! Mrs. LeBlanc! The crows are building a nest!” I waved them off without even looking back to see what had their attention. Birds don’t build nests in February! At the last minute I turned to look, and there not far from the school building were two crows high in a tree, perched on a nest and passing a stick to each other. Lesson learned.
This was at least 20 years or more ago, but I know if we watched those crows fly about the schoolyard I would have pointed out the long “fingers” of the primary wing feathers. And we would have noted the crow’s distinctive flight: its wingbeats are smooth, slow, and steady with a definite rowing motion, although it will also glide with its wings slightly upraised. “Crows row!” the kids liked to say.
But it is on the ground that the crow’s inquisitive and confident nature becomes evident. It walks assuredly with a wide straddle, the tail like a sideways pendulum swinging left and right. The crow also has a sideways springing hop. All the while it cocks its head and scans about for food, predators, and other crows. When the crow is paused, its wing tips have a frequent nervous flip or twitch in readiness to fly at any moment.
The highly intelligent Corvids such as crows live together in social groups and communicate in complex meaningful ways. During the breeding season several older siblings of the current crow hatchlings will assist the family. Chipping in includes helping build the nest, feeding the incubating female, feeding the hatchlings, and chasing away predators. One unusually successful crow family in Ithaca, New York included the breeding pair and up to seven generations of siblings! Closer to home, in Lawrence there is a large winter crow roost of 1,000s of crows, the particulars covered at the following link: http://www.wintercrowroost.com .
Kevin McGowan of Cornell University, a longtime student of crow behavior in the Ithaca area, believes individuals within a family recognize each other’s calls. Another researcher Dr. Cyndy Sims Parr described the soft sounds between family members as including “rattles, growls, gargles, coos, squawks, squeals, and plaintive “oo-oo’s.” The crow’s close family ties seem to require a high level of communication like the higher social animals, including humans. The crow family has the added benefit of teenagers who are willing to help around the house.
The crow population around the barn seems to have settled into one pair claiming the pasture and surrounding woods as their own, plus at least 5 and probably more constantly coming and going. McGowan noted that individuals within a flock changed constantly even if the total number remained constant - much like counting numbers at a shopping mall. The barn’s crows are rarely silent as they pass each other in the air. Dr. Parr realized some “caws” warned an intruder to stay out of a territory, some were a warning of the arrival of a competitor for lunch, and some were a cry for help to chase away a predator. Such different calls carrying different meanings are termed “referential”. The crow’s “mobbing” call, like the chickadee’s frenetic “dee-dee-dee”, results in a gang of various birds harassing, dive-bombing, and even chasing a hawk or owl.
All this Corvid talk is often accompanied by some expressive body language. When a human being yells out the whole body is thrown into it. When a crow yells (that is the only way to describe it), it hauls back its body and then throws itself forward in a loud emphatic CAW! Mark Twain said a crow’s opinion is never mild, “but always violent - violent and profane - the presence of ladies does not affect him.”
The crows around the barn behave differently from the schoolyard crows my class and I observed many years ago. The schoolyard crows lived companionably alongside humans, even joining the gulls who patrolled the schools during recess for remnants of snacks. The crows around the barn are wary and tolerate my presence only to a certain degree before they fly away. I am looking forward to interacting with them this year, using the “how little can I do” method - inviting them to consider me and letting me into their complex crow lives.
A Thirteen Bird Day - by Linda LeBlanc 3.19.2021
Ernie is the real birder in the family, but even he was a little impressed that I heard or saw thirteen different species around the barn on March 11, counting the turkey Vidalia and I saw on the Stacked Stone Trail. To be fair, she saw the bird, or rather saw its movement, on the trail before I did. When her head shot up and her attention froze, I snuck a quick look ahead. I could see what it was, but knew she needed to get much closer to make it out. A wiggle of the rope was not enough to change her thought, and the area was too icy and rocky for a grand spin at the end of the line, so I put my hands on either side of her face and drew her into me. “You’re fine.” There was a small change, and we continued our walk for a few yards until we could loop back through the woods to home.
Our list that day ran the gamut in size from the turkey and Turkey Vulture to the Carolina Wren. I did not see the wren but didn’t need to. This southern invader announces its presence persistently – a loud and ringing song of two or three syllables repeated two or three times with just a short interval between. To my schoolyard birders I suggested that the wren sings with the beat of “ta-DA-da, ta-DA-da, ta-DA-da” and “toodly, toodly, toodly”. This small ball of rust, cinnamon, and buff- colored feathers appears to have equal parts bill and tail, and both appears and disappears mouse-like in a brush pile, resembling a “feathered Jack-in-the-box” (Chapman, 1912). If one remains quiet the wren approaches suddenly, its body teetering and jerking up and down, calling a variety of chatters that sound like an old fashioned what-for.
For all this wren’s secretiveness, its nesting habits are not only domestic but at times absolutely cozy with humans. Nesting sites include coffee pots, discarded hats, and unused cupboards and shelves in houses. An old account tells of a mother wren making her nest in a bolt rack in a busy blacksmith shop, picking up wood chips at the smith’s feet and flying over horses being shod, oblivious to the sparks and ringing of hammer on anvil. At our South Shore home, they would build dummy nests in the plastic rag bags hanging from hooks in the garage. When we entered they would hurtle themselves out the door. (I have never seen a Carolina Wren flap its wings in flight; they seem only to hurl themselves through the air.)
The Turkey Vulture was my first one this year, as were the courting Red-shouldered Hawks. Both will be seen high above the trail this spring. The vultures are silent as they ride the thermal air currents. Their wings with a 67” span are held in a dihedral or “V” over their backs and they often rock gently from side to side as they fly. When they do flap their wings it is slow and laborious. The individual I saw appeared directly over the corner of the barn and then banked off. It was so quiet, I think I was the only one who saw it. The hawks, however, were probably the most vocal of all the birds that day. They flew over the area the entire mid-day, courting and yakking at each other with their high clear “kee-yuur, kee-yuur” call repeatedly. As I let Vidalia nibble along the edges of the pasture, the birds flew close over our heads and went into the nearby pines, calling all the while. Her head went up, and again I found myself reassuring her: “Just birds, V., just birds.” Whew, these March walks are getting exciting.
Red shouldered hawk
Feathered Thinkers at NEECA - by Linda LeBlanc 2.12.2021
My mare Vidalia is not exactly a bird watcher, but she is a bird listener. When in her paddock close to the NEECA property or on the trails there, she will stop and listen when a flock of Blue Jays sound the alarm. Blue Jays are the lookouts of the woods and when they are joined by other species such as chickadees and titmice, the hub bub called “mobbing” leaves the predator with not much hope to grab a meal. Jays are closely related to ravens and crows (a family called the Corvidae known for its intelligence), and like their cousins have a variety of calls including mimicry of local hawks, metallic clinks, clunks and even the ability to throw their voice. Playing with other birds helps avoid Corvid boredom. Not only do Blue Jays scream their name when they spot and harass a predator; they will also “cry wolf” when there is no real danger just to see other birds scatter. I have watched a jay take turns with a young Sharp-shinned Hawk playing a form of tag. Back and forth they went, wheeling in mid-air and floating a little above ground level, a dance between future predator and its prey.
Jays are expert at hiding food, stealing it from others, and faking out the competition. Individuals who know they are being watched by other jays as they hide a delicious morsel will return to the site later and re-hide the food. A matter of “I know you know what I know.”
One winter day Vidalia and I stood at the end of her paddock, while in the nearby trees the jays and other birds mobbed some creature. Her head was held high and she stared ahead but her focus was soft. I put my hand on her withers and, just for fun, named the birds for her by their calls. Blue Jay, chickadee, titmouse, woodpecker, nuthatch… She stood tall and continued to stare, but I could feel her mind shift to me the smallest bit. A moment or two more, and she lowered her head slightly, sighed, then licked and chewed. It felt like the thirteenth cupcake in the baker’s dozen.
The ever watchful Blue Jay
The "equally alert" Vidalia