Kristen Lindquist: Spring comes to Mount Battie

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 7:45am

 Mount Battie is in many ways a geographical focal point of Camden. When Camden is described as "where the mountains meet the sea," Mount Battie most literally fits the bill of all the mountains in the Camden Hills to actually dip its feet in the water. At 800 feet it's not a tall mountain by any means, but its proximity to downtown and Camden Harbor makes its presence inescapable, a comforting constant. When the summit tower's star is lit between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the mountaintop itself becomes the bright focal point of our community's holiday spirit.

From afar, too, the mountain's rounded knoll appears to stand apart from the Megunticook ridge rising behind it. Its very bedrock, a metamorphosed conglomerate with large, visible clasts, differs from the finer grained schists that compose the rest of the Camden Hills.

Here in the part of Camden known as Millville, Mount Battie looms especially large. Our neighborhood is essentially perched on the mountainside, which continues to run downhill below Mountain Street until it meets the Megunticook River. 

Our windows face the rock-strewn western slope. We watch each winter as snow and ice coat the ledges and pines. In spring, meltwater cascades over the rock faces. Sometimes the mountain disappears, cloaked in fog. Sometimes the late light of sunset illuminates its rock-strewn surface with a rich rosy alpenglow. On clear nights we watch for the moon to rise over the mountain's shoulder.

While I've hiked all over Mount Battie since I was a small child, my husband and I have gotten into the habit in recent years of walking regularly up the auto road that begins at the main entrance to Camden Hills State Park. This outing is possible in most seasons, although we try to go earlier on summer mornings, before the road traffic is too intense. My husband's Fit Bit tells us the round-trip distance is just under three miles, and it can take us one hour or two, depending on what we see along the way.

This time of year, our forays become an ideal way to measure the progress of the season. The road passes through predominately deciduous forest. In spring the red maple buds and flowers add the first notes of spring color to the still-bare woods, along with the vivid greens of poplar and birch buds. By mid-May the silvery branches of beeches offer up their pennants, and leaves of ash and oak have begun to unfurl. White hobblebush flowers, held up to the light, shine amid the grey trunks.

Along the roadside and on the forest floor, still visible until the trees fully leaf out, ferns begin to uncoil. Clusters of trailing arbutus, the leathery leaves of which remain green through the winter like wintergreen, come back to life in sprawling patches atop sunny ledges in late April into early May. You have to get down on your knees to truly appreciate the small, fragrant flowers of this creeping plant. The first single leaves of Canada mayflowers poke up, covering the bare ground like a fleet of tiny green sails. The flowering stems of wild sarsparilla, bearing funky green umbels, rise into the light alongside leaf stalks topped by shiny, deep red leaf buds that at first look a little like poison ivy. Bellworts and starflowers will soon join them. 

By month's end, we'll be counting dozens of pink lady's slippers, also known as moccasin flowers, all along the road, from the Nature Trail parking lot to the summit. We'll point out red and white trilliums to each other. Low patches of bunchberry plants will form tight constellations of white flowers in the open spaces.

Occasionally we come across wildlife on our walk—a deer, perhaps, or once, a red fox. (And chipmunks and squirrels are always crashing around in the leaf litter.) But mostly I've got my eyes and ears open for birds. I tally the number of bird species we see or hear on each visit. During peak spring songbird migration we expect to find more birds each successive day, starting somewhere in the teens and ending up with a count in the thirties or higher by the end of May.

Year-round resident birds include crow, of course, a vocal pair of ravens, Black-capped Chickadee and its cousin the Tufted Titmouse, goldfinch, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatch. We occasionally hear a Barred Owl hooting deep in the woods. A pair of Peregrine Falcons nests on Mount Megunticook; one of them may fly over at any time.

Spring brings Turkey Vultures soaring overhead and the piercing calls of Broad-winged Hawks, which I suspect nest somewhere in the forest nearby. Robins are soon joined by other thrushes, with their ethereal, flute-like songs: first the Hermit Thrush, sometimes arriving en masse by the dozens, then the Wood Thrush and Veery. The low, thrumming wing beats of an unseen displaying male Ruffed Grouse resonate through us like the hidden heartbeat of the woods. Soon the long, complicated, magical song of the Winter Wren arising from the trees will also stop us in our tracks to listen. We're clearly not in this climb for the exercise. 

Spring regulars along the entire length of the road include Chipping Sparrows, which twitter and forage in small flocks on the mown shoulder, and the Ovenbird, a tiny warbler with a loud, repetitive song: "teacher, teaCHER, TEACHER." Other commonly seen or heard spring warblers, especially along the lower half of the road, include Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue, and Black-throated Green Warblers, Northern Parula, and American Redstart. Nearer to the top, Blackburnian Warblers sing from tall treetops. At the summit itself, an Eastern Towhee often calls "drink your tea" from a nearby grove, and migrating flocks of White-throated Sparrows can be found scratching in the leaf litter. 

Two of the more lyrical of the Mount Battie songsters, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Scarlet Tanager, have returned. The grosbeak's song is often described as that of "a robin that took voice lessons" as compared to the more raspy song of the tanager, "a robin with a sore throat." If we're lucky, we'll hear one or both of these guys burst into rollicking song at some point on our walk. We will then have to stop to try and find the striking vocalist: the dapper black-and-white grosbeak with a striking splash of rosy red on his breast or the brilliant red tanager with his black wings.

Most of this flora and fauna can be observed along any of Mount Battie's trails. We tend to take for granted something we live with every day. But what better way to pay homage to this mountain at the heart of our community than to walk through its woods as if on a pilgrimage, noticing with joy the natural gifts it returns to us each spring?  

Kristen LindquistKristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.

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