Lesser-known side of Willard Pond

Posted on February 16, 2012

Backyard Birder #462 / for January 12, 2012

by Francie Von Mertens, NH Audubon Honorary Trustee

The group in front of the mature American chestnut tree (on right, next to Phil). Photo by Jane LaPointe.

The following article about a recent NH Audubon field trip to the ‘lesser-known side of Willard Pond’ appeared in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript on January 12, 2012 and is being reprinted with permission for the E-field newsletter.

Last Saturday’s field trip to New Hampshire Audubon’s Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Antrim was a blast. Most people know the sanctuary from its southern access a couple miles west of Hancock village—with parking, trails and boat launch.

Phil Brown, director of land management for NH Audubon, advertised the outing as exploring Willard Pond’s “lesser-known side.” Twenty-one people joined in and were rewarded by some great wildlife signs albeit few wildlife sightings. The day’s warm weather and lack of wind allowed the leisurely pace needed to be fully observant of wildlife signs and anything else of interest. A woman new to Audubon/Harris Center outings asked me what birds we were likely to see. She was obviously excited by the possibility. I mumbled something about eagles, more numerous in winter than the breeding season. Phil had seen two in the area a few weeks back. I feared she would be disappointed by the lack of bird sightings if that was her expectation of the day. Not to worry.

As we started out along the old Class VI road south of Gregg Lake, I mentioned some bear claw marks on a beech tree I’d found on a previous hike. I said I’d try to remember where. I’m guessing Phil smiled at that. He kept quiet about a bear sign bonanza he’d discovered. I did find the big old beech with claw marks progressing up its smooth bark, left by a bear in pursuit of beechnuts. Soon thereafter Phil led the group off-trail a short distance to more bear signs than I’ve ever seen.

Bears use red pine trees for what tracker Sue Morse calls “bear bulletin boards.” Phil showed us one red pine positively loaded with bear messages: claw marks, bite marks, and imbedded hairs where various bears had rubbed up against the tree’s rough bark to leave scent behind. A short distance from the red pine we noted signs of moose “barking” on a striped maple. Moose and deer rake their bottom teeth up certain tree species for a mini-meal of bark. Farther along the trail we saw moose barking signs on a red maple, the other tree species favored by moose. I kept watch for deer barking on young hemlocks, their favorite, but didn’t find any. Throughout we saw moose droppings, the size of malted-milk balls, and deer droppings, resembling olive pits. New Hampshire Audubon’s dePierrefeu-Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary is a true sanctuary for wildlife.

The old woods road passes two cellar holes. Peter Beblowski, chair of the Antrim Conservation Commission, noted the squared-off stones in the cellar walls and said something about “wedge and feathers,” a new term for most of us on the hike. He explained that large boulders near a house site often were hand cut to form the square slabs needed for a stable foundation or wall. The “feathers” are steel shims on either side of a spike-like wedge that’s inserted in a drill hole or boulder crack. The wedge is struck to break off a slab of rock. If the wedge gets stuck, the feathers can be worked loose and the wedge retrieved. We found a few cut slabs in the extensive stone walls along our hike and guessed they were reject or excess foundation stones. As always, we remarked on the labor involved in building stone walls. Now we had added knowledge about the labor involved in building the house and barn associated with those walls.

Among the many trip highlights was Phil’s close examination of large wood chips at the base of a beech tree excavated by a pileated woodpecker. He was looking for pileated scat. Sure enough, he found an extruded black mass over an inch long. Close inspection found many shiny black ant exoskeletons. There was good humor among the group about another “first” for most of us. Another highlight was Phil’s determination to find a ruffed grouse for the youngest in the group and perhaps one of the most avid birders. Young Aiden said he’d seen a spruce grouse but never a ruffed grouse. For most of us, the reverse is true. Phil and Aiden traversed an opening that looked like an old log landing with young tree growth—good grouse habitat. No grouse showed up but I suspect Phil will persevere. Aiden and his father have gone on other outings with Phil, and one of Phil’s pleasures is introducing young, eager birders to new species. And not so young, too.

When we arrived at another natural history hotspot, Phil kicked through the leaves. “Hmmmm.” Large, spiky nut casings. Chestnut casings. Who can find the chestnut tree? Karen Bennett, UNH Cooperative Extension forester, quietly made her way towards a double-trunk tree with smooth bark. “Hmmmm” again. And again there were bear claw marks progressing up one of the trunks. We talked about chestnuts, how they were once the prime wildlife food of the forest and a prime timber resource. Cradle to grave, the old saying goes: wood to make the baby’s cradle and the burial casket. Close inspection of the chestnut tree found signs of the blight that felled the mighty chestnut. We paused for a group photo at the chestnut tree. Audubon will send the photo to the widow of the man whose bequest enabled Audubon to add an 18-acre parcel to the sanctuary—a parcel that’s home to one of the largest chestnut trees around. When I told the story, Karen Bennett said she knew the man, Mort Goulder from Hollis, a strong supporter of conservation over that way as well. She asked that her warm regards be passed along to Mrs. Goulder.

As for the woman who wanted to know what birds we were likely to see? She was among the most enthusiastic as we said our good-byes. From pileated woodpecker scat to feathers and wedges to bears biting red pines, she’d loved it all.