A tree popular with woodpeckers at Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

As a seasoned Mainer, I cherish fall as a time to enjoy the outdoors before the snow falls.

I grew up Down East with a father who loves the outdoors. He taught me to identify bird calls and plants and while those skills I once had are rusty, I find it comfortingly familiar to walk in the woods, especially in autumn.

A moth does a fine job of camouflaging itself. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

Before I took a walk last month at the wooded Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook, I decided to polish up those skills with a nature scavenger hunt while I was there.

I got some guidance from the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, which owns the preserve, along with others in Westbrook and in Gorham, Gray, Standish and Windham. The PRLT has some ready-made scavenger hunts for a few of its trails prepared for families, and it also provides lists of some notable species to look out for on its properties.

I decided to do a self-guided scavenger hunt, keeping an eye out for foliage, animals and fungi that caught my attention.

It was a cloudy and windy day, the day before the arrival of Tropical Storm Lee, but the wind meant fewer bugs along the trail. I kept an eye out for wildlife, but many animals were likely hunkering down due to the impending storm.


I saw lots of signs of wildlife, however, including woodpeckers. The condition of one tree suggested that one or multiple woodpeckers had really gone to work there, searching for bugs, carving out a nice nesting site or hoping to attract a mate with its loud hammering. The tree was riddled with holes, including one that went all the way through.

Coral mushroom growth at Mill Brook Preserve. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

Nearby, a moth was doing a great job of camouflaging on a birch tree that was also covered in fungi. I was able to get up close for a photo before it flew away.

I spotted several types of mushrooms. Fungi can grow in the most seemingly impossible places, making it fun to find. (I don’t recommend foraging for mushrooms unless you’re absolutely sure you know what you’re doing. Mushrooms are not something to take risks with.)

I found a sprouting of spindly coral mushrooms near the brook. Coral mushrooms are among the most notable mushrooms along the Mill Brook Preserve trail, according to Brenna Crothers, PRLT’s community engagement manager. I also saw patches of moss and lichen (moss being a plant and lichen a fungi), growing on rocks and trees. Trees are great places for lichen to grow, to collect the sunlight, rain and nutrients it needs.

In one clearing by the banks of the brook were little “fairy homes,” built of sticks and rocks by earlier human visitors. Some were just twigs leaned up against the base of a tree, but others were more elaborate and looked like small cottages. I spent some time in that area trying to find as many fairy houses as I could and wondering if any creatures had adopted them for their own homes.

The path I took was a short loop, but my scavenger hunt served its purpose. I was reminded to really look around and appreciate the many living things all around us.

One of the fairy houses at Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook. Mikayla Patel / The Forecaster

Scavenger hunters with young kids can keep it simple, collecting leaves from different trees, acorns and pinecones. Solo adult adventurers or groups of friends can kick up their hunts a notch by identifying mushrooms, flowers and birds along their way. No animals out and about while you’re there? Look for evidence of them in scratched bark and chewed leaves.

Take photos or write about hunts in a journal. I plan to make another scavenger hunt at Millbrook Preserve soon so I can compare my findings – before the long months of winter arrive.

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