Snowy owls arrive every winter on the higher peaks of Mount Desert Island. Sargent, Cadillac and Parkman are prime viewing locations, and owl spotting has become a popular winter pursuit. They do have a regal presence, and the powerful, efficient sweep of their wings is magnificent to watch. But I just don’t feel driven to count how many snowies I can spot in a season. This is a good thing, as my most recent hike up Sargent was owless.
There had been reports of owls on the summit, a friend of mine has never seen a snowy and very much wants to, and Downeast Audubon Society had organized a walk. The omens were good. On a cool December morning nine of us gathered in the Parkman Mountain parking lot, all women in the prime of life except for our guide Zack. Eyeing us he said it is usually women who want to do this walk, and added, “I self-identify as a retired middle-aged woman.” Our group identity established, we spread out as we walked first south on the carriage road, then left onto the Round the Mountain road. It was easy walking, and we looked at red squirrel middens. Their chatter is a frequent note on walks through conifers, as cones are a large part of their diet. Discarded scales and bits form a pile below the branch where the squirrel sat and ate seeds from the cone. Here in Maine, we have the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).
Tamia is from the greek for hoarder and in addition to regular meals on cones they hang mushrooms along branches to dry for storage. Sciurus is the genus for all pine squirrels. Skia is Greek for shadow, and oura means tail. Shadow tail? Tail shadow? I am not sure, but either works since its tail sticks to its body like a shadow sticks to a form, and it also casts a large tail shadow.
Our group split into pairs as we shared stories and broke rank and reformed as we continued our walk. We did not hurry, but paused for snowshoe hare tracks, dried rattlesnake plantain pods, red belted polypores, and smokey eye boulder lichen. We admired the ice forming on the stream, and along the trail in a ditch there were large bubbles of clear frozen water. Everyone brought something to the group, and we paused for the slower to catch their breaths, and assisted when one of us slipped and ended up sitting down on the ice unexpectedly.
The group had lost three members by the time we approached the summit, and another one chose to wait for our return near the last of the spruce trees. Birds were flocking and singing there, and we were not sure what they were. Snow buntings and crossbills were suggested, but as a baby birder I just waited to hear the decision. There was no consensus.
We approached the summit with heads swiveling and binoculars ready. When it was clear there were no owls we knew we could explore boldly without concern about disturbing wildlife. Cheeks were wind-whipped, the sun was brilliant on the icy patches, and spirits were high.
There was ice and crusty hardpack, but any snow had blown away. It was cold, colder than on the ascent through the woods, and an invigorating reminder that winter was on its way. Deep breaths brought chilled air into my lungs, and that hint of the season ahead gave me joy.
On the way down we took a break to don our microspikes for the icy stretch, and have a snack. I shared crackers with liverwurst (which is due for a comeback in popularity) smeared with horseradish and topped with a slice of sharp cheddar and cups of hot black tea with maple syrup. I shoved my sweater into my pack with the picnic things, as the temperature was warm once were off the exposed summit. Those with zoomy cameras photographed the gregarious birds, but no one had a for sure ID for them. Twenty minutes down the trail I continued to heat up, pulled off my pack to add my hat and mittens, and found my sweater was gone. Day was going, and retracing steps not really an option. A young couple appeared on the trail below us, and we described the sweater.
At that point our party had pretty much disbanded. Our leader left us high up where there was a spur trail to Penobscot, the woman who had fallen had gone down earlier, and the other individuals and pairs had moved on at their own pace. My friend Becky and I divided our chat between lichen and animal tracks and what our daughters, who had become friends in kindergarten, were up to.
No owls, minor mishaps, and one missing sweater later we were back where we started and ready to go in other directions. The ice, the wind, the taste of winter was left behind. Just a few hours later I received a message that the sweater had been delivered to my office. A thank you gift was declined, we simply shared how lucky we are to live in a place where people helping people is just the way we roll.
I am not disappointed we didn’t see owls. I will probably see them at some point this winter.
I connected with old friends, made new friends, and was reminded what a kind community I live in–reward enough for a day in the outdoors. I also breathed icy air which awakened my senses with anticipation. Winter is coming! Seeing snowies would have been cool, but tuning in to the winter ahead is salve to my soul.
Details: It was four hours up and back total, the first part is an easy walk along the carriage roads to Waterfall Bridge, then a fairly steep ascent up Hadlock Brook Trail to the summit. Stretches are icy, and while hikers have made short detours around the frozen water in the trail, wearing ice creepers or some other form of traction is suggested. The birds were crossbills, most likely red. Check the Downeast Audubon calendar for other snowy owl walks.