Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Swans are really big

The woods at the Naugatuck State Forest were bursting with life when I went for a walk there this morning. Still not much in the way of green things, but the critters were out in force, soaring and scurrying and sailing, and -- in the case of a particularly antsy squirrel -- screaming (at me).

The waterways were especially busy. I counted 26 Common Mergansers, although they kept diving below the surface of the water, so I wouldn't be surprised if there were actually more. And on one end of the lake, three Mute Swans had come to hang out.

Really, these are impressive birds, and they were definitely drawing attention -- someone else (other than me) was taking pictures (the swans didn't seem to be too wary of people), and another guy I passed said he'd never seen swans in these lakes before. (And I mean, I hadn't either, but he seemed to have more experience with these woods than I have.)

Swan butt!
Mute Swans, I have learned, are actually native to Europe and Asia, but they were introduced to North America in the late 19th century and have since made themselves at home here. From what I've read, they can be quite aggressive and invasive, taking nesting spots from native species, and doing the sorts of things we're not supposed to like about introduced species. But... they sure are pretty, so I find myself conflicted on this issue.

I came across a few Eastern Chipmunks on my walk, and I have to say, I do appreciate how they tend to startle and make noise when I get near (so I know they're there), and then sit perfectly still for a long time (so I can take a picture). The chipmunk in this picture probably would have sat there much longer than it did, if an unleashed dog hadn't come tearing through the underbrush and scared it away. Ah well, I'm not bitter (even though there's a sign that says dogs should be on leashes), and I quite like how this photo turned out anyway. Chipmunks are just too cute. :D

One last observation for today: I watched this Black-Capped Chickadee having a feeding frenzy on the bugs crawling out of this stump. For some reason, I've always assumed that chickadees were mainly seed-eaters (probably because they're so common at bird feeders), so I guess I was a little surprised to find out that they really like bugs, too.

I love how practically every time I go into the woods, I end up learning new things and seeing new creatures. Hooray for discovery!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Flowering trees and a froggie update

I went back to the woods this afternoon, for all the normal reasons, of course, but also to check on the Wood Frogs I saw there last week. The frogs were absent today, but look what they left behind:

Eggs! Soon there will be little baby proto-Wood-Frogs (I mean tadpoles) swimming around in these pools. :D This was the only clump of eggs I saw (although I didn't make an exhaustive search), and I know this is a lot of eggs, number-wise, but it really seems like there should be more for all the frogs that were hanging out here last week. I'm wondering whether the cold weather has temporarily deterred the frogs' activities and they'll be back for round two once it gets warmer again, or if this is it for the breeding season this year.... I guess I'll just have to keep checking the pools to see what happens!

In non-amphibian news, I spent some time admiring this lovely Pussy Willow growing on the banks of the lake:

Such happy, fuzzy flowers (or "catkins", as I have just learned to call them). And for whatever reason, they remind me of elementary school.

I did also see a bunch of cool birds today, but unfortunately they were all too far away and moving too quickly for my low-tech camera and my gloved fingers to handle, so I don't have any pictures to show: a Great Blue Heron, a Belted Kingfisher, an Eastern Phoebe (a new one for me, so fun to watch with its bobbing tail and super-quick leaps into the air to catch bugs).

Overall, it was a very lovely day. I'm looking forward to the warm weather arriving, for real this time -- weather predictions say it should be back at 50 by the end of next week!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hints of green

It snowed (heavily) for a few hours this morning, just to remind us that yes, this is New England, and just because yesterday was the first day of spring, that doesn't mean it has to actually feel that way. And yet, despite the crazy weather, the plants are forging ahead with their spring plans. This morning, I was excited to see the very beginnings of what will soon be leaves (and then flowers) emerging from the buds on the lilac bushes in our front yard.
Hooray for green things. :D

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spoiler alert: The frogs are awake!

This is why I will probably never be a real birder: Whenever there are amphibians or reptiles around, I find it nearly impossible to pay attention to anything else.

I realized this yesterday. There I was, walking through the woods, looking at water birds and chickadees and such, and I started hearing a strange sound. It was getting louder as I walked further, and at first I thought it sounded like a group of ducks all riled up and yelling at each other.

Then I got to the marshy area where the sound was coming from, and saw that OMG THE FROGS ARE AWAKE, THERE ARE FROGS HERE, and then half an hour had mysteriously disappeared and I hadn't moved.

Believe me when I say that there was something of a mating frenzy going on in these shallow pools. All these frogs, just woken up from their winter sleep, and with all the rain and warm weather we've been having, there was really only one thing on their minds. (That being said, they still stopped calling and dove under the pond-leaves when I got close, so they must not have been too absorbed in their activity to worry about their safety as well.)

These were mostly all Wood Frogs that I saw, although I might have heard a lone Spring Peeper calling a few times as well. I love Wood Frogs, probably because I'm not used to finding them very often, and I've certainly never seen them congregated in such large numbers before -- I guess I've just never stumbled on them at this time of year. Plus, they look really cool, all brown and leaf-patterned, with a sleek dark face mask.

Here's a cool thing about Wood Frogs that I learned today watching these guys: Their vocal sacs are not on their throats like most of the other frogs I know, but actually on either side of their heads. So when they call, these two gigantic balloon things inflate behind their ears, and it's actually a little disturbing. I couldn't get a good picture of these frogs in the act of calling, but this YouTube video shows it pretty well.

Incidentally, it's not just the amphibians that are waking up, either. This moth creature decided to use my pant leg as a place to soak up some sun for a few minutes, so I used the opportunity to take a picture of the first non-bird flying thing I've seen this year.

Towards the end of my walk, this brightly-colored butterfly flew across my path. In my attempts to identify this creature, I've narrowed it down to two possibilities (and I swear I'm not making these names up): It's either a Question Mark, or an Eastern Comma. Apparently the only sure way to tell the difference between these two species is to look at the back of their wings, where there is a tiny little white mark that looks like either a question mark or a comma (can you guess which mark goes with which species?). Since I couldn't see these marks, I'm just going to just go for its generic name: an anglewing butterfly. In any case, it was very pretty, and I was only sad I couldn't get closer before it flew away.

So it's official: Spring is definitely on its way. And from now on (or until next winter at least), my posts will no longer be monopolized by birds. Yay, diversity!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I don't think anyone would be surprised to hear that we have Gray Squirrels running around in our yard pretty much all the time. I guess they're one of those "normal" animals that are easy to overlook, because they're so common. But lately I've been noticing that they're actually quite interesting little creatures, and more than a little cute.

This morning, one of our resident Gray Squirrels was sitting way up high in the maple tree in our backyard, making a meal out of the buds on these branches (buds that look just about ready to burst open, I might add). This squirrel was really scarfing them down, and Paul and I were having fun observing the proceedings through the binoculars.

Incidentally, this particular squirrel has definitely had some close encounters in its time -- it's missing half of its squirrelly tail, and I noticed some spots of bare fur as well. I'm guessing this squirrel narrowly escaped some sort of life-threatening situation (almost becoming someone's dinner, maybe?), but it's survived to climb and eat, and it seems to do just as well as the other squirrels.

Mmm, maple buds. :)


(Also, I feel like this squirrel should have a name. Does anyone have any ideas? I'm vetoing "Stumpy.")

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bark and a branch make a cozy hole for the night (for a bird, anyway)

There's all sorts of drama that goes on in the trees outside my office window. I mentioned the acrobatic squirrels already, and they steal the show, really, but birds -- normal, everyday, small birds -- have a stake in these trees as well, and I've been watching one particular avian story unfold over the past few months.

On one of the branches in these trees, a piece of bark has partially peeled away, making a small cup-shaped hollow beneath the branch that faces my window. One late afternoon in January, just as it was starting to get dark, I happened to see a little Black-Capped Chickadee fly straight into this hollow and burrow its face down into the crevice at the back. I checked again later that day (before it got completely dark), and the chickadee was still there -- as far as I could tell, it stayed there all night, bundled up against the cold. I seem to be able to see into a perfect little bird-bedroom!

After that, I checked back with the hiding hole whenever I remembered, and without fail, by around 4:30 there would be a chickadee in residence. Then, one afternoon in February, I happened to look in, and there was no chickadee to be found, but a Tufted Titmouse instead -- an interloper perhaps? The titmouse was safe and secure in the chickadee's hole, and for a little while the chickadee was even sitting right there, just outside, waiting patiently to be let in. (I say "the" chickadee, but of course I have no way of knowing if this was actually the same individual.)

For a while after that, the hole's occupancy alternated between chickadee and titmouse (whoever got there first, I guess), but about a week ago that changed, when a pushy White-Breasted Nuthatch took over. I saw this nuthatch actually chasing chickadees away from the branch, and he or she even hides in there sometimes during the day as well.

Every evening now, as the Sun is starting to set, the nuthatch is in the hiding hole. And how interesting that nuthatches apparently prefer to sleep with their heads facing outwards and chickadees and titmice choose the opposite position.

So now I know where birds sleep at night, or at least one place where a maximum of one bird can sleep at a time. I'll be keeping an eye on this hiding spot from now on -- what bird will take it over next? Oh, the drama!

4/5/11 - UPDATE: For the past couple of weeks, this piece of bark had been looking more and more tenuously connected to the tree, and today when I checked, it was gone completely. So no more bird bedroom outside of my window, but it was fun while it lasted. As far as I can tell, the nuthatch had it until the end.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ring-necked Ducks

OK, so I convinced Paul to go with me to the woods today. Not too much exciting going on (nothing to rival yesterday's trip, anyway), but we did see three Ring-necked Ducks, which I didn't even know existed until I looked them up to identify them just now.

Ah, yes, the Ring-necked Duck, so appropriately named for its...not-ringed neck? I'm a little confused by this. Oh well!

I guess these guys are pretty common in Southern Connecticut during the winter (in the summer they live way up North), but I'm sure I've never seen them before. They have really cool gray/black/white bills that look almost metallic (as Paul described it) through the binoculars. Maybe "Metal-billed Duck" would be a more appropriate name -- or just "Metalliduck" to make things easier? Yes, I think I like that better. Yay, new birds!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Birds of Awesomeness: Owls and ducks and crazy cardinals

Today was a great woods-walk day -- so many cool animals, including some that were completely new to me! I was planning on telling this blog post in story form, winding my way through the woods and highlighting creatures in the order in which I saw them, but I can't help it, I'm jumping right to the most exciting one.

I saw an owl. A Barred Owl, to be precise. I'm especially excited about this because I've been thinking recently about how cool owls are, and how I don't think I've ever seen one in the wild before -- in zoos, yes, and I've heard them calling in the woods, but never seen one (at least, not that I can remember). So I had been reading some things online about how to find owls in the daytime, and it sounded like a complicated process, so I didn't really expect to see one any time soon.

And then today I was walking down my normal woodsy path, and there was this Barred Owl, just sitting in a tree, staring at me. It wasn't a "Are you going to eat me and should I be thinking of flying away?" stare, but a stare more along the lines of: "You're not a mouse. I can't eat you. What are you doing in my forest?" After about a minute, the owl looked away, but whenever I took a step and snapped a twig, he or she would look right back at me again -- right, the human is still here. Anyway, it was quite the encounter, and a high point for a while to come, I imagine. (So cool!)

The water birds were out in force today, as the ice continues to disappear. The Common Mergansers and Mallards were back, and a lone male Hooded Merganser was hanging out as well.

And a pair of Wood Ducks made a brief appearance -- they landed in the lake, waddled up onto the shore, and then flew away about a minute later when a person walked by. I think Wood Ducks are super pretty, and again, I don't know if I've ever seen them outside of zoos.

The pictures I managed to get of the male don't at all do him justice, and I have to say, I felt a bit Paparazzi-like, grabbing photos of him from behind bushes, etc., and then settling for the best I ended up with. (I actually have that thought quite frequently when I attempt to take pictures of animals -- is that strange?)

One final part of today's adventure to recount: When I got back to my car, I found that it had become the site of an intense battle between a male Northern Cardinal and... himself. He was flying and pecking at his reflection in my car's side mirror -- after a little while, he changed strategies and went after his reflection in the windshield, then the mirror on the other side. There was another person in the parking lot at the time, and we both just stood there for a while, wondering what in the world this bird was thinking. (Actually, it was pretty obviously something like: "I will not tolerate other males in this, my territory, and WHY AREN'T YOU FLYING AWAY?")

Eventually, I had to drive off and take the cardinal's rival with me. But someday soon, I'll be back, and this cardinal had better still be keeping a vigilant watch -- if not, the male cardinals in my car will surely find their opportunity to take over!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

More signs of Spring: Melting lakes and small furry creatures

Yep, Spring is definitely on its way. With all the rain we've been having, the snow and ice are melting quickly away, and all sorts of small streams and rivulets have sprung up along the paths in the Naugatuck State Forest where I was walking around today. The ice is receding from the lakes, and that means more space for water birds to swim around.

These Common Mergansers (click on the picture to zoom in) were enjoying the newly-open water, and a few Mallards were in attendance as well. Am I crazy, or is the female Merganser (on the left) more interesting and visually appealing than the male (on the right)? I know he has his fancy dark-green head and all, but I think she's just beautiful.

[As a side note, the ice is definitely melting, yet I still saw two people standing in the middle of the lake today, ice fishing.... I suppose they must have tested the ice to make sure it was safe, but doesn't this seem a little risky at this time of year?]

As I was leaving the woods, I startled this foraging chipmunk. He (or she) was kind enough to pose for a photo before scurrying away. Chipmunks hibernate during the winter (or at least, they stay in their holes, as the internet tells me), so I'm taking this as another sign that Spring is coming.

So wake up, furry creatures; wake up, plants! There's warmer weather and lots of rain coming in the next few days -- it's time for Spring!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Things that eat or otherwise mangle trees

I'm gaining an appreciation of how scary it must be to be a tree. Even apart from things like wind and lightning and other weather-related hazards, there are apparently all sorts of animals that are eager to do major arboreal damage. (Can I use the word "arboreal" that way? I don't know, but I'm going to do it anyway.) The small lakes I visit in the Naugatuck State Forest, for example, are ringed with trees felled long ago by beavers (no word yet on whether any of these beavers are still around; I'll be keeping an eye out for them this spring). Beavers are impressive, of course, but they're not alone in their tree-destructive tendencies.

When I was out walking in the woods the other day, I saw some trees with all the bark stripped away up to about a foot above the ground. I've been doing some research (i.e. searching around on the internet), and the best I can figure out is that this is probably a hungry rabbit's doing -- rabbits don't hibernate in winter, I have learned, and they can have trouble finding food with all this snow around, so they sometimes eat bark. We have a pet rabbit at home (Phoenix, the cutest bunny ever), and I have no doubt a rabbit could do this kind of thing. (Phoenix often devotes himself to "projects" that involve tearing apart layers of cardboard, and he's very, very good at it.) From what I understand, these trees will probably die, since they need a fully-connected layer of bark to be able to transport nutrients and such -- I'll check back later in the year to see if these trees make it through their presumed-bunny-attack.

Today, Megan N. went with me into the woods (despite the rain), and we happened across some very extensive tree excavation. We were trying to think of what could possibly have made such large holes in (and in some places, through) the tree, and at such a height, leaving large wood chips all over the ground in the process. Again, after some internet research, my best explanation is that this is the work of a Pileated Woodpecker. I've seen Pileated Woodpeckers in these woods before, and I have to say, they're one of my favorites -- big, impressive, crow-sized birds, with bright red crests and huge, hammering beaks. But if this is the kind of thing they are capable of in search of an insect-y meal... I definitely wouldn't want to be a tree in their woods!

It's cool to see the kinds of impacts that animals can have on their environments. But yeah, trees live dangerous lives!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spring is coming!

It was a beautiful day today, so I gave in to temptation and went to visit the Naugatuck State Forest, my primary local haunt.  And I am so very glad I did, because I saw my first real sign of the year that Spring is on its way.  The snow and ice are melting, yes, and the days are getting longer, but also... things are growing!  Not only growing, but flowering, too!  I'm eager for Spring to arrive, and so I welcome the appearance of the humble Skunk Cabbage:

I learned recently that Skunk Cabbages are one of the few plants that actually generate their own heat -- how cool is that?  That's how they're able to push their way up through the still-just-barely-thawing ground before any other plant has even thought about opening a bud.  And that motley brown-yellow-green thing in the picture is the Skunk Cabbage's flower.  It's stinky (hence the name) so that flies and other bugs will come pollinate it, but I didn't get close enough to smell this flower -- I'll just have to take its word for it, and I'll leave it to the bugs to really check it out.

So there you have it.  Spring is making its way into Connecticut.  It's going to be a great year. :D