Barred Owls and Butterflies: On the Trail at Fields Pond Sanctuary

Everyone loves a good walk in the woods, especially in autumn when the trees don their equivalent of “black tie” and the fallen leaves crunch under your footfalls. This past September, I took a walk at Maine Audubon’s Fields Pond Sanctuary in Holden. The peace and tranquility of the forest trails were a welcome tonic in the midst of a hectic fall schedule, and it was my good fortune that friend and colleague Judy Kellogg Markowsky, Director of the Fields Pond Nature Center, was my guide for the morning.

As we headed to the trail, Judy and I stopped at the L. Robert Rolde Nature Center butterfly garden. “Is that butter and eggs?” Judy queried, eyeing two pale yellow, snap-dragon-like stalks on the far side of the bed. “It is! It’s the first I’ve seen on the sanctuary. I love our scruffy garden; it looks so natural.” One wouldn’t call it “manicured,” but the garden does accomplish its job. On this brisk morning, the wild asters were swarmed with honeybees, and, according to Judy, at least 20 varieties of butterflies have been recorded there, including the uncommon Baltimore checkerspot.

Heading southeast from the nature center, we walked onto a newly cleared trail. Maples and apple trees lined the path, which was a road in the property’s farm days. Al and Katherine Curran were the former owners of the sanctuary’s 192 acres; at their bequest the property came under the ownership of Maine Audubon in 1994.

As a red squirrel scolded from a branch and swished its tail apprehensively, the path diverged. Judy mentioned that the trail to our left was great for cross-country skiing in winter. For non-skiers, the center rents out snowshoes. There’s good wildlife tracking in the snowy months, too, and several tracking programs are offered through the nature center. “We’ve had bobcat, fisher and tons of deer tracks,” Judy said.

Judy and I continued straight onto the Ravine Trail and were soon deep in the softwood forest, the ground thick with fallen russet needles. As we began to descend into the ravine, a streambed came into view. Pools lingered among the rocks and stones. A black-and-white warbler rose from one and, landing on a tree, darted along a branch. “This is a great wildlife corridor,” Judy offered. “In the spring, you can find salamander tadpoles in the pools and salamander adults under the rocks. I’ve seen moose and bear tracks here. And there’s our resident barred owl. We often hear its hoots echoing down the ravine.”

The Ravine Trail was a group effort. Volunteers, guided by the expertise of trail designer Lester Kenway, created its stairways and stepping stone pathways. Maine Audubon’s local Penobscot Valley Chapter was the brawn behind the trails’s construction, assisted by Kenway’s series of pulleys and come-alongs that enabled both strong and slight to participate in building the trail. Incorporating stones from the ravine itself, the result is an easily passable trail that quietly winds through the forest and effortlessly swings across the stream.

As we strolled along the top of the ravine’s slope, Judy and I heard the tsee-tsee-tsee of golden-crowned kinglets overhead. After the trail crossed the upper part of the stream, we followed as it looped back gently toward the nature center. Once back at the center, we headed west through the meadow, along a mowed trail lined with nesting boxes (tenanted by Eastern bluebirds each year) and flanked by goldenrods and asters.

After an easy quarter-mile, the trail forked. If we’d have gone straight, we would have gone to a small beach and the sanctuary’s public boat landing, but we opted for the more sheltered route and veered left into a canopy of alders. Crossing a cedar boardwalk, once again we encountered the stream.

“I’ve had great looks at a bittern here. And we’ve seen short-tailed weasel, fisher and fox as well,” Judy said. From where we stood the floodplain opened to where the stream shed into Fields Pond itself, creating a shallow delta with habitat for wood duck, black duck and great blue heron.

Beyond the boardwalk, our path met the Brook Trail, which leads back to the upper part of the ravine. We decided to take the Lakeshore Trail that meanders among cedar and hemlock. Though it goes about a mile to Brewer Lake, we went only as far as Loon Point, an overlook shaded by three tall pines bending over the edge of the pond (and sure enough, a pair of loons). Two cement benches offered a welcome respite.

Judy explained that at a good pace one could probably hike the entire trail system in a little over an hour. In the fall, school groups visit to learn about wildlife and ecology along the trails. They also take advantage of the many mounts and skeletal displays inside Fields Pond’s 2,300 square foot nature center. In spring and summer, Judy and her staff offer kid’s programs by canoe out to the 22-acre island in the middle of the pond, also owned by Maine Audubon.

Guided walks and programs for the public occur on weeknights and weekends at Fields Pond and are publicized in the sanctuary’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Fields Pond Journal, as well as in Maine Audubon’s Habitat. Sanctuary visitors can also take advantage of The Nature Store, where a wide variety of optics, feeders, seed, field guides and gift items are for sale.

Soon it was time to leave Loon Point. As we headed back to the Nature Center, I began to drag my feet. I could have spent the whole day trail-walking, birding and absorbing the quiet scenery. Instead I was going to have to get on the highway and head back home. But, as we approached the Nature Center, Fields Pond Sanctuary offered a parting gift – a monarch butterfly sailing delicately on the noontime breeze.