June 19, 2022

A misty morning reveals creatures otherwise unseen.

Red eft, the terrestrial stage of the red-spotted newt
A slug

June 20, 2022

Partridgeberry flowers. The ovaries of the two flowers unite to form one berry, an unusual formation. A number of animals eat the berries, and although edible by humans, they are considered insipid by most people. This plant grows in the same environment as wintergreen, canada mayflower, pipsissewa, etc.

Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens

June 21, 2022

Phoebes often successfully utilize man-made structures as nesting platforms, such as the light fixture under a building’s eaves seen here.

Phoebe nestlings awaiting parents’ food delivery.

June 25, 2022

A member of the thrush family, the Veery has a haunting and unmistakable song, harmonizing with itself, with more than one note at a time produced by the syrinx. Once you have heard this ethereal downward-spiralling song in the spring, you won’t likely forget it. By this time in the summer they are mostly silent.

Veery, Catharus fuscescens

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June 29, 2022

Mullein is a non-native plant often found in disturbed areas. It is a biennial, forming a rosette the first year, and a tall spike reaching a height of six feet or more the second year. The soft, velvety leaves have had many uses in the past, including as a liner for warmth inside shoes, and may be familiar to backcountry travelers as emergency toilet paper.

The dried leaves are sometimes used as a medicinal tea for a variety of ailments, but should not be consumed indiscriminately, as the leaves contain rotenone, poisonous to fish. Commercially available rotenone is used as an insecticide, and excessive or prolonged use has been linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus

June 30, 2022

An old-growth northern red oak at Wachusett Mountain. According to scientists at the world-renowned Harvard Forest research facility, northern red oaks at Wachusett are the oldest found anywhere (yes, anywhere!). There are over 200 acres of old-growth at Wachusett, the only remaining original forest east of the Berkshires. The tree in this image, at 345 years old, is possibly the oldest oak on the mountain. The bark in the middle of this image has a “chunky” look that is acquired at about 200 years. Below, this has sloughed off, leaving “cryptic” bark that is characteristic of red oaks well beyond 200 years.

Red oak, Quercus rubra

July 1st, 2022

We watched a pair of Carolina wrens busily bringing nesting material to a hanging planter on the side of our goat barn. This is a dubious choice for a nest, in full sun and close to the doorway that we use to get into the goat barn. The materials included moss, pine needles, and dried deciduous leaves, especially the bracts of basswood.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

July 4, 2022

Here was a typical fox scat, with my forefinger for size reference.

In the image below, you can see previous “squirrel taps.” These are created by squirrels cutting through the bark to harvest the sweet sap. Once the trees have matured to a certain point, the outer bark is too thick for the squirrel to reach the sap flow. These marks were several years old on a sugar maple, created when the tree was younger and the bark thin. In addition to maples, birches, especially black birch and yellow birch, are sought after by squirrels for this purpose.

squirrel taps on sugar maple

July 6th, 2022

Young hemlock varnish shelf, Ganoderma tsugae. This is one of the most commonly encountered fungi here in southern and central New England forests. As the species name suggests, it is found growing on dead or dying hemlock trees, Tsuga canadensis. At first white and spongy, as seen in this image, the upper surface turns a deep reddish-brown color and acquires a shine that resembles a varnished surface, and the entire mushroom solidifies, becoming tough and inflexible. Its shape is variable, generally forming a shelf-like structure from its base attached to the tree trunk. Unfortunately, as the wooly adelgid continues destroying our hemlock trees, this fungi becomes more common to the careful observer.   

Ganoderma tsugae on Tsuga canadensis

July 7, 2022

This is a bumblebee mimic, possibly Laphria thoracica. This bee-like robber fly will prey upon bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects. This one, a full inch long, was perched on a fern, waiting for prey to fly by. They are fast and adept at catching airborne prey. They use their proboscis to pierce the body of insects, and although they do not have the capability to sting, they may inflict a painful bite if handled. Look for them at the forest edge, as they are usually found perched near trees. Although sometimes considered beneficial for control of other insects in a garden, their ability to prey on honeybees may be a concern.

Robber Fly

July 10th, 2022

This is the nest of a Carolina Wren, and a view of the eggs in the nest. 

Although certain species such as the Carolina Wren are extremely tolerant of human presence in their habitat, great care must be taken to not disturb a nest. Disrupting the building of a nest, laying of eggs, or incubation of the eggs may lead to abandonment if a bird feels threatened. In addition, human scent may alert a potential predator to the nest, resulting in the destruction of the eggs or the nestlings after hatching. It’s best to view all stages of the nest, from creation to the final fledging of the young birds, from a distance with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. (For help identifying bird nests: Peterson Field Guide to North American Bird Nests.  For help identifying bird eggs: Bird Egg Identification Guide – Richter Museum – UW-Green Bay (uwgb.edu)

Dr. Jane Goodall, at the Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering, July 10th, 2022. Valerie’s lifelong inspiration, she is a motivational voice of hope. Her talk at the conference brought me to tears. We are in a “dark time,” with global warming caused by human actions, mass extinctions of life forms taking place at unprecedented rates, and political, social, and economic injustice creating fear, misery, and hopelessness for countless people around the world. Her message is that we must acknowledge these crises if we are to solve them. Despite this frightening time that we are living in, she shares with us her four reasons for hope:  1. the amazing human brain; 2. the resiliency of nature, if given a chance; 3. the tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of young people around the world; 4. the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Jane Goodall inspires hope through action to build a better, more sustainable world through community-centered conservation programs that support the intersection of animals, people, and the environment. Please check her website: https://janegoodall.ca

July 15, 2022

Kayaking on the Concord River. Henry David Thoreau knew the river intimately. Although civilization has pushed in around the edges, there is still tranquility to be found here if we take the time. As Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

on the Concord

River Birches. Although cultivars are often planted as ornamentals in yards, riverbanks, floodplains, and swamps are their natural environments.

Betula nigra

Squirrel bites on an old cottonwood tree.

Populus deltoides

Debarking by beavers on a Silver Maple, like cottonwoods and river birches, a riparian tree.

Acer saccharinum

A killdeer on the riverbank.

Our most common inland plover

A spotted sandpiper juvenile.

Juveniles (and non-breeding adults) lack spots on the breast. This is the most common sandpiper found along inland water shores. As they move about, their bodies constantly teeter.

An adult Great Blue Heron

A painted turtle enjoying the warm sunshine

The minuteman statue at the Old North Bridge

Old North Bridge

July 16, 2022

Cabbage White, Pieris rapae. This small non-native butterfly species was introduced from Europe over a century ago, and it is a crop pest, feeding on wild and cultivated mustards, cabbages, and other crucifers (Brassicaceae). The larvae (caterpillars) wreak havoc with our kale plants at home. The extremely elusive adults can be observed fluttering around the garden all day long, touching down on vegetation and laying eggs, and it is quite frustrating to try to intercept them. It would be best to cover the plants with a row cover early in the season, but by the time I think of it it’s usually too late, and the inch-long (up to 3cm) perfectly camouflaged caterpillars are busily devastating the kale. They will also feed on cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, brussels sprouts, turnips, etc., leaving the foliage in tatters and weakening the plants if given the chance. They have many broods throughout the summer, so I can often be seen bouncing around the garden in the hot sun flailing uselessly at the incredibly elusive flying adults. In addition to the damage they inflict on plants in gardens and in more serious farms, this non-native is linked to the serious decline of the native mustard white butterfly.

July 17, 2022

On a hot July day, daydreaming about adventures like this one at the headwaters of the Connecticut River this past winter. Although all the seasons hold wonders for those who take the time to look, I’m looking forward to adventures in the snow, incuding a trip in February tracking Lynx, the ghost of the forest, in northern Maine.

This is the link to the Smithsonian Magazine article about our friend and mentor, the Old-Growth Evangelist, Bob Leverett. Bob has opened the eyes of countless people to the existence of old-growth forest here in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast.
It is now many years since Valerie and I were thinking about sharing our tracking and nature experiences by offering programs to the public. One night, we had dinner with Bob and his late wife Jani. As we toyed with various names for our endeavor, Bob and Jani suggested we name it based on the place we knew best, our home, and “Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center” was conceived. Jani (a Native American cultural and political leader who served as the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM)) died of cancer soon after that. On our very first public program, a nighttime winter snowshoe trek, as we stood in near-zero temperatures on a windy ridge, waiting for the moon to rise over the snowy landscape, a lone, incredibly bright meteor passed slowly by, low to the horizon, as though Jani was waving a farewell, smiling upon us with her spirit, wishing us well.
 I am sure Jani looks over from beyond the mountain time-to-time with approval of Bob’s unwavering dedication to spreading the gospel of Old-Growth.


July 21, 2022

As we suffer through another heatwave and console ourselves that it could be worse, this news just broke:

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migrating monarch butterfly for the first time to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” — two steps from extinct.

The group estimates that the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22% and 72% over 10 years, depending on the measurement method.

I haven’t seen one yet this year, but here are some photos from a few years ago:

close-up of a monarch butterfly
Monarch Butterfly male on echinacea flower
monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on milkweed

July 22, 2022

Lo and behold – a Monarch has arrived at last!

July 23, 2022

Offering of thanksgiving:
We give thanks for this beautiful day.
There will only be one day like this: today…

from a Nipmuck prayer

Fritillary and Wasp

July 24, 2022

Ant hills and tunnels made by digging wasps may be confused. Notice the difference:

Ant hills
Digger Wasp tunnel
DIgger Wasp emerging from the tunnel that she is excavating. Once done, she will bring a prey item into the hole after stunning it, and lay an egg in it, and then seal the entrance. The larva will feed on the prey, grow and pupate, eventually emerging as an adult.
Great Golden Digger Wasp. Nearly an inch long, these wonderfully colored wasps are amazingly non-aggressive; I routinely get within inches when observing and photographing them. Please do not spray!

July 25, 2022

Zebra Jumping Spider with prey

July 26, 2022

Beautiful Wood Nymph Moth

July 27, 2022

Day Lily

July 28, 2022

Old Porcupine feeding on grass at Wachusett Mountain

July 29, 2022

Male turkey trying to impress the ladies, wondering why they’re ignoring him

July 30, 2022

American Lady butterfly

August 3, 2022

Spicebush Swallowtail
Spicebush Swallowtail

Note that the distinctive “tails” on the hindwings are intact on this individual. These are often tattered or torn off by accidents, by severe weather, or by birds, dragonflies, and even other butterflies. It’s not often we find butterflies in such perfect condition, except soon after emergence.

August 4, 2022

Great Spangled Fritillary, a common sight at this time of year in our neck of the woods.

August 12, 2022

An old-growth Hemlock at Wachusett Mountain

Our Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are suffering from the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an aphid-like insect accidentally introduced from imported ornamental Asian hemlocks. Adelgids are easily recognizable by the appearance of tiny white “cottony” egg sacks at the base of hemlock needles. These egg sacks will be visible all year but are most obvious in early spring. Chemical insecticides such as horticultural oil and insecticidal soap are effective controls, as are stem injections and root injections of several insecticides, but are not appropriate in forest settings. Biological controls such as predatory beetles are a promising solution; for example, the coccinellid beetle (Pseudoscymnus tsugae), native to Japan, feeds on all life stages of the adelgid and it can survive winter temperatures. However, cost is a prohibitive factor. Severe Drought conditions weaken the trees’ ability to survive adelgid infestations, and mild winter temperatures allow the adelgid to thrive; these two factors currently do not point to a good prognosis for our hemlocks. Hemlocks are also affected by two other insect pests, hemlock scale and hemlock looper, which further damage trees already weakened by the adelgid and current drought conditions.
It is heart-breaking to think of New England forests without shady stands of hemlock trees, but many, if not most, hemlocks may be doomed in the near future. Already in the Quabbin forests, especially in the southern area and in lower elevations, the effects are obvious.

August 18, 2022

White Admiral

September 21, 2022

Red-tailed hawk.
Today was an amazing day at Wachusett Mountain,
with 7980 hawks, eagles, falcons, and other migrating raptors counted
by the Eastern Mass Hawk Watch.

October 6, 2022

Katydid. A warm day, in the mid-70’s, brought out many insects that had been inactive during the recent seasonally cool fall weather.


On December 1st, 1857, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Walking in Ebby Hubbard’s woods, I hear a red squirrel barking at me amid the pine and oak tops, and now I see him coursing from tree to tree. How securely he travels there, fifty feet from the ground, leaping from the slender bending twig of one tree across an interval of three or four feet and catching at the nearest twig of the next, which so bends under him that it is at first hard to get up it, his travelling a succession of leaps in the air at that height without wings! And yet he gets along about as rapidly as on the ground.

Of the members of the Squirrel family, the Red Squirrel at times seems to be the most accomplished in the treetops. Lighter even than the Gray Squirrel, it is able to travel on smaller branches, its movements surpassing those of Olympic gymnasts for our wonder and amusement.