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by Gigi DeJoy
Saturday, June 30, was a scorching hot day. For the group of people gathered on a dirt driveway off Caterpillar Hill, it was also a day to explore one of Maine’s most beautiful areas and learn about local conservation movements.
Judi Hilliker and Laurie White led the walk called “BHHT Explores the Outdoors: Robins and Dandelions,” one of a series of family-friendly events sponsored by Blue Hill Heritage Trust. This one focused on robins and dandelions, two species that are being observed in Maine as a way of monitoring the impact of climate change.
At 10 a.m. the two leaders began the program with some basic information about robins, dandelions, and wildlife in general. The six audience members learned about some of what BHHT is doing to protect local land and about the opportunities community members have to join the cause. It was too late in the season to see any dandelions, but the group was able to identify many small yellow flowers that looked similar. Judi informed them that those are called hawkweed, and that they belong to the sunflower family along with that springtime staple, the dandelion. The group also learned about a program called “Signs of the Seasons,” which works closely with BHHT and which Hilliker and White take part in.
“Signs of the Seasons: A Maine Phenology Program” is a branch of the USA National Phenology Network. “Phenology” itself is the study of seasonal and locational changes among plants and animals, especially in regards to climate change. The project is coordinated by the University of Maine and sponsored by many other organizations concerned with wildlife conservation. The program helps local people record what kind of plants and animals they are seeing in their communities, and then connects them with scientists who document the information. Hilliker enjoyed being a part of the program, saying, “what I find is I’m so much more aware of what’s going on in my yard.”
Hilliker told the group there are 10 so-called “indicator species” in Maine, meaning that those are the species being specifically monitored for their responses to climate change. They are: the red maple, sugar maple, dandelion, lilac, forsythia, wild strawberry, milkweed, monarch butterfly, robin, loon, ruby throated hummingbird, rockweed, and beach rose. As most of these are species that many Mainers cannot imagine life without, the idea that they might already be suffering from the effects of climate change is unsettling.
The walk took the group through Caterpillar Hill’s landmark blueberry fields and then along the upper loop of BHHT’s Cooper Farm at Caterpillar Hill Trail. The blueberries were already ripe, juicy, and free for anyone to pick. As the trail wound deeper into the wet woods, swarms of mosquitoes got thicker and thicker in proportion to the cooling air. Every once in a while the group would stop to regroup and ask questions, the longest stop being when the half-mile hike turned into a mile and the maps came out.
The Cooper Farm/Caterpillar Hill Trail is relatively new. Big rock steps and bridges carry one over steep or wet places, and elevated wooden planks snake over carpets of thick moss. It is one of 12 nature trails that BHHT currently has open. Between June and October the trust typically has at least one family friendly “BHHT Explores the Outdoors” event, along with a themed “Walk and Talk” and a farm tour. All of these events generally take place on BHHT land. There is also a full moon hike up Blue Hill Mountain once every summer, and Hilliker said that the trust was working to have some outdoor activities in the winter, as well.
“That’s how I got interested in the trust. I went on a mushroom walk with David Porter and it was great,” she said. “The walks are definitely to make the public aware of their options and also to raise awareness of the trust.”
Along the trail, Hilliker, a retired elementary school teacher, brought along a stuffed robin with a recording of the robin’s birdcall. The recording was useful for the bird-watching enthusiasts on the walk, but the stuffed animal was targeted more toward the younger children who were expected but did not turn out for the walk.
“See, if we had a five year old, this would’ve been great,” said Hilliker when White complimented her on the robin-emblazoned t-shirt she had chosen for the occasion.
At Hilliker’s prompting, Ruth Schade was the first among the hikers to know that the French named the dandelion dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth,” and the terrible pronunciation of the English resulted in the name we use today. Hilliker also informed the group that the pilgrims originally believed the dandelion to have almost limitless healing properties. In reality, she said, “the dandelion has more vitamins probably than the average vegetable you buy in the store.” So, in the spring, when the pilgrims had been living off dried meat and bread for months and had incredible vitamin deficiencies, dandelions cured their ills by having the basic nutritional value one needs to survive, not by being a magical super-food.