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!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Checking in With Beach Birds

Every week when I visit Silver Sands State Park, I get a little more attached to the place. I love getting to check in with familiar creatures, and there's always something new to see! Here are a few sights (mostly birds) from this morning's visit.

The Piping Plover chicks east of the park are getting even closer to adulthood (including the chick with the injured leg, who's still running around and foraging with its siblings as of this morning). It looks like they just need some longer wing and tail feathers, and then they should be good to go!
 

While the four chicks foraged in the sand, Dad kept careful watch; he even chased a House Sparrow away at one point. A folded mat makes a convenient lookout perch:
 

The plovers aren't the only bird family with growing babies around here, of course. I was very happy to see a gangly Clapper Rail chick wander out of the marsh grass; such a cute little dinosaur-like creature:
 

The Barn Swallows are nesting under the boardwalk, and this adult perched on the railing for a rest between hunting flights:
 

There were actually dozens of swallows hunting in the air over the marsh, more than I think I've ever seen here at once. The swirling (and chittering) cloud of birds was mostly made of Barn Swallows, but there were also several Tree Swallows in the mix, as well as a few Chimney Swifts, which I've definitely never seen hunting in this spot before. This picture may not look like much, but its quite a busy scene for this airspace:
 

On the beach, a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls made an imposing sight:
 

I'm surprised to notice that I've actually never posted about Great Black-backed Gulls before. They show up around here pretty frequently, and they have the distinction of being the largest gull in the world. These two were quite noisy, and they kept striking these odd tilted postures and tossing their heads; I can only think this is some sort of courtship display, but it seems kind of late in the season to be thinking about making a nest:
 

A Common Loon was floating close to shore. This bird was looking a little less than pristine (it was presumably molting out of its breeding plumage), but it was still such a handsome creature:
 

A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was hunting at the water's edge (not quite as elegant as the Black-crowned Night-Heron I saw last week, and I always think that dark mask looks strange):
 

Although I often see many species of egrets and herons in this park, I don't usually see Great Blue Herons here. It was quite a treat, then, when this huge creature soared by:
 

I love those wings, and those big legs! This bird circled overhead a few times, so here's another view:
 

As I was leaving the park, I checked out some Common Milkweed plants to see what sorts of bugs might have been hanging out there. A few of the flower clusters were looking pretty well decimated.... Someone was hungry!
 

A closer inspection revealed that the orange pollen-like dusting on the plants' stems and leaves was actually tons of tiny bright aphids (probably the species Aphis nerii). These guys were everywhere and they were having a feast:
 

Fortunately, there were many more milkweed plants without aphids, so there's still plenty of this apparently delicious (for bugs) plant to go around.

Here's to another great day at the beach!