Monday, December 26, 2011

A Trip to the (Awesome) Jersey Shore

This past Friday (the 23rd), while visiting with family in New Jersey for the holidays, Paul's dad and I took a trip out to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the Jersey shore. This place is a haven for wintering shorebirds, including some very cool visitors from the far north (more on that later), and the trip was fantastic. We saw so many awesome things, and it was hard sometimes just to keep moving forward with all the activity around us. We saw at least 34 species of bird, including six I'd never seen before. I wasn't able to get pictures of everything, but here are some highlights from the trip!

One of the main features of the refuge is an 8-mile drive through fresh- and saltwater marshes to get up close to the creatures hanging out there. But before we started on the drive, we got out of the car and poked around the shrubs and trees by the visitor's center for a little while. There were tons of small birds hanging out there, and we couldn't believe how unceasingly active they were! Along with the usual titmice, chickadees, etc., there was a particularly handsom Red-bellied Woodpecker, with more red on his face than I think I've seen before:

He even showed off his reddish-tinged belly, something I don't often get to see on these birds:

A beautiful female Eastern Towhee was scuffling in the dry leaves:

And we even saw an unusual visitor:

This Pine Warbler is supposed to be much farther south at this time of year, and it actually got flagged as "rare" and required confirmation when I reported it on eBird. (This is the first time something like that has happened to me.) It was a very active bird, and it didn't seem to care that it was a well out of its normal range.

Once we finally tore ourselves away from the songbirds and drove on into the wetlands, we were surrounded by waterfowl -- thousands of ducks and geese on every side. The Snow Geese, especially, come to this refuge in the winter in huge numbers, although these snow-white birds with black-tipped wings prefered to stay some distance away from us during this trip:

These birds spend their summers in the high arctic and their winters down here -- I'm always amazed when I think of creatures traveling so far to find suitable seasonal habitats. When our Snow Geese moved, their expansive flocks made quite an impressive sight streaming across the sky:

Some of the smaller waterfowl we saw were really cool as well. This adorable little bird is an American Coot -- it kept wiggling its tail as it paddled along:

I love the warm cinnamon patterns on these female Northern Pintails -- somehow I managed to not take any pictures of the male pintails, whose striking brown and white coloring and pointy black tails make them look like they might belong to a different species from the females:

And these Northern Shovelers look almost alien, with those monstrously oversized bills:

My favorite of the waterfowl, though, was one that we came across toward the end of the drive. A flock of about a dozen Tundra Swans, huge and white with black beaks and legs, were hanging out in the marsh with a bunch of Canada Geese and Green-winged Teal. Like the Snow Geese, the Tundra Swans spend their summers right at the very top of the continent, and it feels special to get to see them here all the way down here (even if this is their normal wintering ground). We watched a few of the Tundra Swans circle above the larger group:

And then come in for a landing:

The swans were very active, calling constantly to each other in a wonderfully musical honking/cooing sound. Here's a quick video I took -- you might need to turn the volume up a little to hear the calls clearly:

So the waterfowl was awesome, but that's not all we saw! There was a Peregrine Falcon feeding on top of a nesting platform:

And in possibly the best part of the trip, we watched two adult Bald Eagles taking part in what looked like a bonding ritual -- one eagle would bend down to the ground and then straighten up and touch beaks with the other eagle, perhaps passing it a tasty morsel:

While we watched, the eagles both startled and hopped up into the air at exactly the same time:

The two birds immediately settled back down again and continued their earlier activity. Whatever alarmed them must not have been any real threat.

The trip ended with an as-yet-unsolved mystery -- a rather large mammal swimming past us:

Its head doesn't look quite right for a mink, and I can't tell whether it might be a large rodent of some sort (a Nutria perhaps?). I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any ideas!

There were so many amazing things to see on this trip -- the reserve is well worth a visit.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hello Winter, Goodbye Connecticut (for now)

It may be the first day of winter, but it was positively balmy this morning (50 degrees!), so I decided to grab my last chance to visit the Naugatuck State Forest for the year -- we're leaving Connecticut today and I won't be back again until it's 2012.

The light, when I arrived at the woods, was gorgeous, with the sun just peeking over the tops of the trees and lighting up so many colors that it almost looked like fall again:

The banks of the lake were as pretty as ever, all yellow-purple-brown and conifer green:

The ducks are slowly passing through these lakes now. I only rarely see waterfowl here in the warmer months, but on Tuesday I saw a Hooded Merganser, and today a Common Merganser, diving for fish. This handsome group of Mallards (neatly paired off, boy-girl-boy-girl) flew off to another part of the lake right after I took this picture:

The woods were -- as always -- filled with interesting things to see. I love how this clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum, I think) trails over the side of its slope, reaching for the path:

This fantastically orange-fungus-covered tree practically shone in the leafless woods:

Here's a fallen branch that looks to be covered with the same kind of fungus (or is it possibly a lichen?):

The other people who walk these woods seem to be getting increasingly creative with their balanced stone structures -- it's so cool to come across things like this:

Finally, this tiny bird's nest was secured a few feet above my head in a young tree:

I don't know what sort of bird once inhabited this nest, but it must've been quite a small one. And it did such a good job making this lovely little sphere.

This afternoon, Paul and I will start our holiday migration down the East Coast, first to New Jersey, then to Maryland, and this year, I'm continuing on to New Orleans with my family. I'm hoping there will be some outdoors time on the trip -- I've never been to Louisiana before, and I'm excited to see new things! There may be some interesting posts about exotic locales in the future, but for now, enjoy the holiday season, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cold and Quiet, and Another Big Bird

I explored a little more of the Naugatuck State Forest this morning, venturing farther into the forest than I've been before. Some of the places I found might be fun to revisit in the spring, but for now, everything was just sort of cold (really cold!) and more or less empty, except for the few chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches flitting about.

Although lacking in wildlife, the walk was interesting in other ways. I saw my first pond-ice of the season, just barely knitting together on the surface of the water:

And I came across some really wild ice formations on the rocky paths:

It looks like winter is definitely settling in. Now we just need some snow...!

Continuing the trend from my last post, I returned from my trip to find four Black Vultures circling low over the house:

Of the two species of vulture we have around here (Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures), I see Black Vultures much less frequently. It took me a while to become confident in telling these two big black birds apart, but now when I see the triangular tail and silvery wing tips on a Black Vulture, I know it right away. It's always cool to see these giant creatures. :)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Big Birds Overhead

Here is maybe my worst picture ever, but I think you can make out some key characteristics of this bird -- there were two of these creatures circling high over our house this afternoon:

Yes, that's a Bald Eagle. (A really far away, super zoomed-in Bald Eagle.)

I've seen these big birds a couple of times in this area before, but they're not exactly super common. And to see two adult Bald Eagles at once, right in our yard (so to speak)... well, it was a pretty special day. :)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Owl Woods

I have a growing suspicion about a particular patch of woods that I walk through whenever I visit Naugatuck State Forest: I suspect that somewhere in that patch, there is always a Great Horned Owl hidden among the tree branches. I have no proof for the "always" part of that statement, but it is true that the double-handful of times I've seen Great Horned Owls now -- including the nest this past spring -- it's been in this exact same small part of the woods. I now feel, every time I walk past this area, that a pair of yellow eyes may very well be watching me from not too far away, but the owl is so well camouflaged that I don't usually see it.

The only reason I do see the owl -- if I see it at all -- is usually because it either outs itself (by flying around and calling loudly, for example), or because another animal points it out to me, which is what a passing crow did yesterday morning. (The crow really just flew up, landed in the owl's tree, pointed its beak at the owl and said "Hey, there's an owl here!", and then flew away again.) Yesterday, my normally-unseen observer was tucked a little ways back into the forest, but once I knew where to look (thanks, crow!), I could clearly see him (or her) through the bare branches of the trees:

Oh you, with your saucy owl glare. :P I love hanging out in the owl's woods, because every once in a while I get to actually see the owl!

While I was looking at the owl, a pretty female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was hopping around in the branches above my head, and I had fun watching her as well:

These little woodpeckers are so cool, and not just because of their wacky-sounding name. I like the messy spotted pattern on these birds, so different from the more clean-cut black and white spots of the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers I see more often around here. You can tell this is a female because she has red only on her head -- male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have red throats as well:

The "yellow-bellied" part of this bird's name is something of a puzzle to me, although maybe this individual just wasn't showing that color particularly well. When she flew onto another branch, I did see a bit of yellowish coloring on her lower belly, which maybe sort of counts:

Last winter, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drilled its characteristic machine-gun rows of holes into a tree in our yard, and the dripping sap actually froze into long icicles (sapcicles?) -- I wonder if I'll see something like that again this year.

The owl and the sapsucker were the animal highlights of yesterday's walk, but I did see some other cool things as well. The ground pine -- a type of clubmoss (Lycopodium sp.), and not pine at all -- is looking pretty and decorative and doing its reproductive thing in scattered spots around the forest floor:

And since it was so cold, I got to see some lovely frost formations, which stuck around all morning. I think these dried fern fronds look especially lovely with their frosty outline:

And how cute are these super-fuzzy dewberry leaves:

With frosty mornings like this, I think winter might be just around the corner!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mostly Ducks and Raptors (and mostly at a distance)

Yesterday was cold but clear, and I decided to have an adventure. I've been curious about what the beach is like at this time of year -- I have no idea what sorts of animals live at the shore in late fall/early winter -- so I headed down to our beach of choice, Silver Sands State Park, to check it out. I walked through some areas that I'd never been to before, along the shoreline and through some marshland, and there was plenty to see!

Several ducks of various species were gathered in a medium-sized pond along the path, and I had fun trying to figure out who was there. I don't spend a lot of time around ducks, and these ones preferred to stay some distance away from me -- I think I figured out why real birders bring spotting scopes with them on walks -- but I was able to get a good enough look to identify some of them at least.

Most of the ducks were American Black Ducks:

If I hadn't seen these birds before (and had someone tell me what they were), I probably would've thought they were female Mallards -- Mallards don't have such a dark body, though, or such a clear line between neck and breast. There are other differences, too, between the two species, but that's the most obvious one to me.

A pair of American Wigeons was hanging out as well, a new bird for me. The male was particularly fancy, with shiny green and yellow on his head:

And speaking of fancy ducks, a female Wood Duck was paddling around, too:

What a pretty girl. I think Wood Ducks might be some of my favorites. :)

Moving away from the pond, I was pretty excited to see the bird in this next picture, even from far away:

Hiding among all that tall grass is the characteristic write rump of a Northern Harrier. (I'm pretty sure this is the only raptor in our area to have that distinctive marking.) I'd love to see one of these birds up close one day -- they have the most interesting faces, all angular and pointed and very strange. Later, I saw the Northern Harrier again (or possibly a different one) hunting over another patch of marsh, flashing its white spot as it flew:

Meanwhile, a few yards away, a small herd of White-tailed Deer looked on:

It seems crazy that I've been keeping a wildlife blog for months now, and yet I haven't posted any pictures of White-tailed Deer until now. I think this has to do with the fact that I have never once seen a deer in the woods where I usually walk -- Naugatuck State Forest -- and I have no idea why this is. (Could it have to do with the hunting?) Deer are anything but rare in this area, but for whatever reason, I guess I frequent places where they do not. In any case, it was cool to actually see some of these big mammals that I always expect to encounter in the woods, but never do.

Toward the end of my walk, four Red-tailed Hawks burst from a tree, screeching and wheeling through the air, and sometimes careening into each other. They seemed to be having some sort of tussle -- a family dispute? I didn't get any pictures of the action, but one of the hawks flew low enough over my head for some nice views:

For all that these birds are so common around here, I don't think I could get tired of seeing them, especially at such close range. They're quite impressive.

As I was leaving, a few Great Egrets flew by:

Does anyone else think these birds look like dinosaurs? (Or possibly dragons?)

And here's one last surprise for the day:

The first day of December, and a butterfly is still hanging around. This sulphur butterfly (I'm not sure of the exact species) was definitely alive -- it flew up into the air when I first walked by -- but it seemed pretty sluggish in the frigid air. That was probably to my benefit, actually, because it meant that I got to get very close to this beautiful creature. I'm a big fan of those bright green eyes.

The shore feels so different from the woods, and it's fun to add some variety to my walks every once in a while. Hooray for exploring and seeing new things!

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Nuthatch with a Treat

Seen in the Red Cedar outside my office window yesterday afternoon:

Mmm, enjoy your snack, little White-breasted Nuthatch!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Skunk Cabbage Buds

In my recent walks in the woods, I've noticed something that I'd never noticed before, at least not at this time of year:

Skunk Cabbage buds! I always think of these plants as a sign of spring, but as it turns out, the cone-shaped buds form in the fall and then overwinter under the snow, ready to unfurl into dark purple/brown flowers and bright green leaves when the weather starts getting warmer again. Who knew!

These stout buds make me think of some creature trying to claw its way out of the earth:

How cool to see such clear signs of growth, right when everything else seems to be dead or resting. I'll add that to the list of reasons (along with "generates its own heat") why Skunk Cabbages are such fun plants.