Sunday, July 27, 2014

Giant Moth Visitor

On Tuesday night, I heard something tapping against one of our windows, and I looked up to see that a huge Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) had come to visit, attracted by our indoor lights!
 

(Pardon the poor picture quality.... Low lighting and glare were not helpful, and only my little iPhone camera was able to get any pictures at all.)

What a glorious creature! I looooooove giant moths, and this is the first one I've seen in years! With a ~5 inch wingspan, this creature made quite a sight flapping up and down against the glass. I would have loved to just open the window and let this guy (or girl?) inside, but I don't think that would have been beneficial for anyone. Look at that huge body to match those wings!
 

After about a half hour of fruitless flying against the glass (I'm sorry, friend!), the creature finally moved on. Here's hoping it found a mate and was able to produce a new generation of winged giants!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Assateague Island

After our family-filled Pine Barrens adventure this past weekend, Paul and I continued south to visit some friends on the eastern shore of Maryland. And since we were already in the area, we decided to spend Monday morning in a very cool place: Assateague Island!

My parents claim that I've been to Assateague before, but I don't remember that trip. All I know is that I read the Misty of Chincoteague books when I was little, and ever since then Assateague has been a quasi-fantastical place in my mind, where untamed horses (pony-sized but apparently technically horses) have roamed free for centuries. So the big question on Monday morning was: would we see any horses? Our answer came as soon as we drove across the bridge onto the island! (Yes!)
 

The northern part of Assateague Island is in Maryland, and the southern part is in Virginia, and the feral horses on the two portions of the island (~100-150 animals in each part) are kept separate and maintained differently by different organizations. (The Maryland portion of the island also has a state portion and a federal portion; it's all quite confusing.) In the Maryland part of Assateague -- where we were -- the horses wander wherever they want and are treated with contraceptives to manage the population but otherwise have no human interaction. (In Virginia, the horses get veterinary care and are periodically auctioned away as pets.) These are definitely wild creatures, and we saw signs all over the place warning people not to get too close; these horses bite, kick, trample, etc.

In any case, we saw horses in several places on the island. They foraged out in the marsh:
 

And they grazed in the middle of the campgrounds (this picture has a passing bicyclist for perspective):
 

Hello, beautiful creature:
 

Horses are the famous highlight of a trip to Assateague, but we saw lots of other cool things here, too. I loved walking on this beach; the landscape is so very different from what we have in Connecticut. Who knew beaches and dunes could be so vast:
 

The tracks and tunnels of Ghost Crabs were all over the beach, but we only got fleeting glimpses of these creatures before they dove back into their holes:
 

A male Common Yellowthroat sang out his ownership of a particular area of the dunes:
 

How cool to be in a place where big Brown Pelicans soar by overhead:
 

We went into the marsh fearing the tons of biting insects that we'd heard haunt this island in the summer. Instead we only found hoards of small and beautiful dragonflies, Seaside Dragonlets (Erythrodiplax berenice), a species which has the distinction of being the only dragonfly in the western hemisphere to breed in salt water:
 

Most of the Seaside Dragonlets we saw were these slate-colored individuals, which might have been males or dark-colored females:
 

But there were also several female Seaside Dragonlets with just shockingly bright yellow-striped outfits:
 

What a fantastic creature!
 

It was indeed a successful visit, and now we're back in Connecticut for a few final weeks.... Adventures abound!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer in a Pine Barrens Bog

This past weekend was full of adventures as Paul and I visited family and friends up and down the east coast. Our first stop was a visit with Paul's parents, who live right in the middle of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. On Sunday morning, Paul's dad and I headed out to explore the nearby Franklin Parker Preserve, a former cranberry farm that is now being reverted to natural wetlands and woods. We saw tons of interesting things on our walk, including several plants and creatures that were totally new to me. The Pine Barrens is such a strange and amazing place!
 

Our walk took us around wet (and lush!) bogs and lakes, but the ground we were walking on was dry and sandy, typical for the Pine Barrens. A lot of the plants growing in this sandy soil seemed especially adapted to their harsh environment; put another way, there were some weird plants here! What looked like clumps of spiky moss and misplaced white flowers turned out to be a little plant called Pine Barren Stitchwort (Minuartia caroliniana):
 

How cool that such a tough-looking plant produces such delicate flowers:
 

The tiny yellow flowers of Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides) were also decorating the sandy path; these apparently leafless plants almost look like some sort of succulent to me, but they're actually a type of St. Johnswort:


The wetlands were also brimming with flowers. I didn't see any orchids (alas), but I was impressed by these pretty and abundant Meadow Beauty (genus Rhexia) flowers:
 

A Painted Turtle watched us from the water among floating bladderwort blooms:
 

And a wonderfully pudgy Fowler's Toad hopped across our path:


We have Fowler's Toads in Connecticut as well, but I've only ever seen American Toads before. What a lovely sandy creature.

Several bushes along the path (I neglected to ID these plants) were host to these intense Azalea Caterpillars (Datana major), who curled around to show their spiky red legs when we got too close:
 

A Field Sparrow popped up with a well-caught mantis meal:
 

Not shown beyond the right-hand edge of the above picture: a hummingbird that I really should have tried harder to photograph. All we were able to figure out in the few moments it buzzed around us was that it wasn't a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (it was bigger, rufous and green and white, and with black stripes down the sides of its face), and since Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only hummingbirds in this area, that pretty much means it was some far-wandering individual from Mexico or another exotic place.... So yeah, no picture, which means no ID (since neither of us are familiar with non-local hummingbirds) and no lasting evidence of the strange visitor to New Jersey. Ah well, it was a cool and unique sight nonetheless.

A subtly-marked (presumably female) Black-and-White Warbler foraged up and down pine trunks while a Pine Warbler family searched for food in the trees' branches:
 

Acrobatic maneuvers and grappling-hook claws sure do make hunting on tree trunks easier:
 

As we were leaving, another creature showed off its pine-trunk climbing skills as well. I saw a quick scuttle in the sand and then Paul's dad spotted this creature heading up a neighboring tree. An Eastern Fence Lizard!
 

I've never seen a fence lizard before, and New Jersey is right on the northern border of this species' range. It's so cool to be in a place where lizards scurry up trees! I suspect that this individual is a female because of the dark wavy lines on her back. What a lovely spiky face she has:
 

The lizard shimmied around to the other side of the tree after a bit. Such amazing camouflage!
 

Tiny spots of blue showed under this creature's chin, which I think is also consistent with female fence lizards' patterning; males have huge swathes of blue on their chins and sides during breeding season:
 

I'm always glad for a chance to explore the Pine Barrens. This place never ceases to amaze!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Baby Killdeer, Baby Deer, and a Brown Thrasher at a Robins' Spa

I've had a great summer for seeing baby birds on the beach! After the excitement of the Piping Plover chicks (who continue to do well and should be flying off to start their adults lives any day now), I was very happy to find that the Killdeer eggs at Silver Sands State Park have hatched. Three baby Killdeer were running around on the beach yesterday morning!


One of the parents was keeping a close watch on the babies (and me) as they foraged:


It's so cool to see the similarities between these babies and the Piping Plover chicks, since these are both species of plover. But these guys are lankier and pointier (although to be fair, they're also probably a bit older than the Piping Plover chicks were when I first saw them), with bolder markings. What a handsome baby you are!


I love, love, love the long downy feathers that make up these guys' fluffy tails. I've never seen anything quite like that on a baby bird before, and it's just so fancy! These little birds have got some nice eyebrows, too:


And the mottling on their backs and heads is very pretty:


Baby Killdeer, I just want to snuggle you! But I won't. Happy bug-hunting!


In the fields behind the marsh, two White-tailed Deer fawns were grazing. (More "-deer" babies! How appropriate!) Such a lovely dappled creature:


The deer in this park are so used to people walking by, this little guy barely looked at me before going back to grazing and itching flies:


Its sibling (and presumably Mom, although I never saw her) headed back into the trees, but this fawn ambled up a nearby mound of dirt and rocks. I love those little feet, and those big smooth ears:


The fawn soon came bounding back down again, though, making little bleating sounds and looking around for its family. Ah, they're just over there. OK, a small snack first:


And then the little deer melted into the scenery:


Nearby, a wide lane through the park had become a spa for American Robins. Dozens of these birds -- sleek adults and spotty juveniles -- were flying around, calling, and taking advantage of several available cleaning methods. Quite a few robins were sunning themselves on the path, wings and feathers all splayed out:


This behavior looks so strange, but apparently it's quite normal. This adult was puffed up in a sunny spot right next to the path:


And when I walked past, it flew up into the nearby bushes for a thorough grooming session:


Amid all these robins, I was surprised to see a Brown Thrasher slinking around:


Brown Thrashers aren't super common in Connecticut, and I've only seen them a few times. How amazing are those yellow eyes? This thrasher worked its way down the lane until it reached a couple of puddles where robins were bathing:


A bath on this warm and sunny morning? Yes, I think so:


Yay, water:


Hey there (a robin insists), time's up, move along:


The thrasher yielded the puddle to the robin, looking a bit scraggly with those wet feathers:


I bet the bath felt good!

Other sights from yesterday's visit include a Common Yellowthroat (perhaps this year's fledgeling, with that yellow skin at the corner of its mouth?):


And a small band of Wild Turkeys at the road's edge:


My weekly visits to the beach continue to be awesome, and they almost make up for the fact that this summer has been woefully lacking in woods walks. I'll have to remedy that, and soon!