An Interview With Mary Holland: Part Two
This is the second half of our talk with Vermont naturalist, author, and wildlife photographer Mary Holland. If you missed the first half you may wish to scroll down and start there. All of the photos featured in this interview are Mary’s own.
Chris Mazzarella for Forest Forward: Wandering through the woods of northern New England can be an engrossing, joyous, and even therapeutic experience. The more one learns about forest life the more engaging and alive it becomes. Can you let our followers in on some of the signs of wildlife they should be looking for to heighten their forest explorations this time of year?
Mary Holland: Spring is a naturalist’s dream come true. Every day there are a multitude of new discoveries to be made using all of your senses. In fact, it’s easy to get overloaded! The first thing I’m aware of at this time of year are the sounds that fill the air, particularly courting frogs and birds. Your ears can tell you what birds have returned to the Northeast, which are setting up territories and who you might have nesting in your woods. Woodcock peent, ruffed grouse drum, wild turkeys gobble, yellow-bellied sapsuckers drum their distinctive irregular tapping and each species of songbird has a specific combination of notes that they use to attract a mate and stake out their territory. There is something about being able to identify a creature without even setting eyes on it that has always given me a great deal of pleasure. Today, unlike when I learned bird songs in the early 70’s, there are many recording devices that help you master this art.
Animal signs, including tracks, markings, signs of eating, scat, dens, etc. are to be found year round, and spring is no exception. Perhaps my favorite pastime is keeping an eye out for them. Although snow provides a perfect setting for tracks, muddy stream banks in the spring can reveal a lot about who lives nearby. Animals such as woodchucks and foxes make no attempt to hide their dens, which often have prominent piles of dirt at the entrance. Early nesting birds, including cavity nesters such as woodpeckers and chickadees are busy excavating their nests. Black bears, in an attempt to regain some of the weight they lost during hibernation, leave many signs of their presence, including rotting logs that have been torn apart.
In addition to wildlife, many wildflowers are in bloom. After the initial burst of woodland blossoms on the forest floor in April, there are a variety of late spring wildflowers to look for. Lady’s slippers (Cypripedium sp.), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), goldthread (Coptis trifolia), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) are flowers to look for in May.
Not to be missed are vernal pools, for spring is when these temporary woodland pools are at their fullest and are teaming with life, including wood frog and spotted salamander eggs, hatching larvae and tadpoles, fairy shrimp, fingernail clams, phantom midges, clam shrimp water mites and many, many more amphibians, insects and crustaceans.
Forest Forward: I’m sure that Forest Forward followers are going to love your book Naturally Curious. For the uninitiated, can you talk a little about what’s inside this book and the interesting way you’ve organized it?
Mary Holland: Naturally Curious is a collection of the natural history observations I have made throughout my lifetime, presented in the format of a calendar year. I wanted make this information accessible to all ages, and to the layman, as well as naturalists and educators. A month-by-month presentation appealed to me for this reason — there are 12 chapters – one for every month of the year. Starting with March (to a naturalist, that is when the new year truly begins) each chapter/month has sections called “Nature Notes” on amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, insects & spiders and plants & fungi that include species you’re likely to encounter at that time of year. Anywhere from three to ten species and/or animal signs such as tracks, markings and nests are introduced in each category, along with nuggets of natural history information about them.
For instance, the chapter on May includes under Mammal “Nature Notes” a section on red fox kit activities, beavers and moose giving birth and foraging black bears, among others. In addition to these “Nature Notes,” each chapter has several short essays on seasonally appropriate topics. (May includes essays on black flies, bird songs, painted turtles, jack-in-the-pulpit, white-tailed deer fawns, mayflies and common gartersnakes.) I wanted to include as much natural history information as I possibly could — illustrations and diagrams by Chiho Kaneko, plus graphs and charts are sprinkled throughout the book. (May has a chart on the differences between amphibians and reptiles and reptiles breeding in May, an illustrated list of cavity-nesting birds, a compilation of birds and their respective songs, a list of butterflies emerging from chrysalises in May, a chart of insect species and their respective mouthparts and an explanation of orchid pollination and cross-pollination.) Accompanying most entries are one or more photographs — there are close to 1,000 color photographs in Naturally Curious, all but about 50 of which I took.
I wanted to write the book which I wish I had had in my youth, or when I entered the field of environmental education – an introduction to what to look for when you’re outdoors, when to look for it, and a bit about its natural history. I also wanted to compile all the natural history tidbits I have gathered during the past 40 years of reading, researching and observing nature firsthand in the field. I’m happy to say that I think Naturally Curious has met those goals. My greatest joy is that it appears that all ages, from preschoolers to grandparents, as well as people with all levels of expertise, from college ecology professors to people who have spent little time exploring the outdoors, seem to find something of interest in Naturally Curious. It has been a joy to share my passion with others.