What went on inside the layer of snow that covered Maine all winter? Lots of desperate nibbling and escape-tunneling and hiding from would-be killers. Call in the investigators!
On our first nature walk of the spring, at the Babson Creek preserve in Somesville, naturalist Billy Helprin of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust crouched down like a good CSI sleuth and examined evidence. He pointed to the gnawed bark on several young bushes and trees. An animal did this, he told us. What type, you ask? Cue the theme song from the CSI television series:
Who are you? You are a meadow vole. Meadow voles are also known as field mice, which makes them sound less like on-the-lam CSI suspects and more like cute E.B. White characters.
In truth, of course, they are neither. Though many fruit farmers see them as pests who damage orchard trees, meadow voles are a crucial part of the eco-system. As tunnel-diggers they turn over soil, scatter grass seeds and fertilizer with their droppings and spread a secret ingredient that is essential to plant growth—mycorrhizal fungi, which has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and helps those roots absorb minerals and water. And—CSI plot twist—meadow voles have a valid reason to hide under snow and soil. They are, if you will, sympathetic characters constantly under attack from murderous predators (a.k.a., naturally hungry meat-eaters) such as snakes, foxes, owls and hawks.
Our walk with Billy had many other highlights, including his unearthing of bones from a deer carcass. His assessment of the forensic evidence: The deer was a male who had been struck by a car on a nearby road and had hobbled to this spot to die. (The four-doored perpetrator is still at large.) Billy pointed out branches that other deer had bitten off, noting that those branches were torn off, not cleanly snipped. That's because deer don't have upper incisors; they hold the branch between their lower incisors and a tough pad at the top of their mouth and saw/tug it off.
The air was alive with bird songs. Among the many species we saw or listened to were common mergansers, juncos, hairy woodpeckers, song sparrows, nuthatches, black ducks, mallards, blue jays and chickadees. Billy suggested we become CSI associates by keeping an eye in the months ahead on an osprey nest built atop a dead tree and alerting us to the fact that the salt marsh at the Babson Creek preserve is home to a hard-to-spot species called the Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow.
The real point being that any of us can be a nature investigator just by taking a moment to look at things more closely when we walk outside.
I couldn't resist passing along this anti-vole propaganda poster, clearly the work of vole predators trying to play up the threat they face from mouse insurgents. It may be the product of either owl things considered or, more likely, fox news.
Answers to the Last Puzzlers:
1) I'm still trying to figure out what that small Italian bird is. We need some help here, ornithologists.
2) That large black-and-white duck is a common eider
3) Here are the unscrambled words:
a) butterfly (tutyrfbel)
b) dandelion (onidanlde)
c) gravity (vigyrat)
d) python (hyntop)
e) cottontail (aloctnitot)
1) Alligators live in the wild in only two countries on Earth. Which two?
a) U.S. and Panama
b) U.S. and China
c) U.S. and Uganda
d) U.S. and Venezuela
2) More words from nature to unscramble:
Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Africa's Green Belt Movement and the first East African woman ever to earn a Ph.D., turned 71 on Friday. Her organization focuses on environmental conservation, especially of trees (of which it has planted more than 30 million), and also on women's rights. Despite death threats, she was a leader in opening Kenya to more open, multiparty elections. Her Nobel citation cited "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."
John Burroughs, the upstate New York-born naturalist and one of America's greatest nature essayists, would have turned 174 years old on Sunday. A farm upbringing cultivated his love of nature and rural settings, as did hiking in the Catskills. Burroughs became tremendously popular in his own day for his writing, which he pursued even while working as a federal bank examiner. He was friends with the likes of Walt Whitman, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Thomas Edison. Burroughs once said, "Joy in the universe, and keen curiosity about it all—that has been my religion," but also noted, "Nature teaches more than she preaches. There are no sermons in stones. It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral."
Sophie Germain, the French mathematician and physicist, would have turned 235 on Friday. Hers is a story of overcoming the pervasive gender bias of her era. Her parents didn't want her to pursue math and science (women didn't do those things), but she struck up correspondence with eminent figures in those fields and eventually made breakthroughs in "elasticity theory," which relates to how objects deform and stress under certain conditions. If her work fell a notch below that of history's greatest mathematicians, it was not for any failing on her part. As one modern critic of her work put it, "All the evidence argues that Sophie Germain had a mathematical brilliance that never reached fruition due to a lack of rigorous training available only to men."
Mark Catesby, the English naturalist who published the first illustrated book on the flora and fauna of North America, would have been 329 last week. The volume was called the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands and included plates such as the one below.
I can't sign off without adding our voice to the many condemning Bob Parsons, the publicity-seeking CEO of the company Go Daddy, for not only shooting elephants in Africa but also posting graphic images of it on his blog and claiming that he was being a humanitarian by helping Zimbabwean farmers whose crops an elephant had allegedly been damaging. First, as we've learned through decades of conservation work, there are plenty of solutions to such a problem that don't involve killing a highly intelligent, sensitive mammal whose population has dwindled. The number of options is even larger for a multi-millionaire such as Parsons, who has instead made himself into a caricature of an egotistical, ignorant big-game hunter. His lack of remorse—indeed, his defiance—has me rooting for rival NameCheap.com, which is offering a special to Go Daddy customers who want to switch online-name services and have part of their fee go to save elephants.