Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mostly butterflies and flowers

It was hot and muggy in the woods this afternoon (by Connecticut's standards, anyway), but the flowers and insects sure didn't seem to mind!

The butterflies were out in abundance -- I stood in a single spot and saw at least three different species flitting around. There was this Spicebush Swallowtail:

A Red Admiral:

And a small group of what I think were Pearl Crescents, with the undersides of their wings just as beautiful as the tops:

And a bunch of these grasshoppers (I don't know the exact species) buzzed around my feet every time I took a step:

It was a good day for flowers as well. The Pearl Crescent in the pictures above is on a blackberry flower, and these flowers nearby look to be some sort of raspberry:

This funky plant is Indian Cucumber Root -- its flowers are quite small and easy to overlook, with green petals blending in with the rest of the forest floor, but I think they're rather beautiful (the second picture gives a closer view):

Finally, this stand of Harlequin Blueflag (Iris versicolor) growing on the water's edge was producing some stunning flowers:

And with that, I'm off on another adventure! Tomorrow we leave for New Jersey, and from there it's Copenhagen for a day and Norway for five. So I won't be making any posts for about a week -- but I imagine I will have things to share when I return! :D

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back in Connecticut, with a new toy

I'm back! For a little while, anyway -- we're leaving again on Friday for an Exciting Adventure Oversees.... Look for potential blog posts about that later!

For now, though, I'm back to visiting my normal Connecticut haunts for a couple of days, and also playing around with the new camera I just got as a gift. (Thanks, Grandpa!) It's an SLR digital camera, and much more high-tech than the pocket-sized point-and-shoot variety I've been using for the past few years, which means that I've got some major learning to do! For example, I now have an actual zoom lens, so I don't have to take pictures through my binoculars anymore... what a crazy concept! I'm sticking with as many automatic settings as possible for now, and I'm having fun experimenting and getting the hang of the new machine. (And experimenting means varying picture quality, so bear with me during my learning phase.)

So I took the new camera out to the Naugatuck State Forest this morning to check on the plants and animals there. As I expected, everything has definitely changed in the 13 days since I was last there, not least in the flowers that are blooming.

The Pink Lady's Slippers are fully open and even starting to look a little worn. I only saw a few of these plants today, but I was very happy to find them.

The Mayapple blossoms are open and gorgeous, and I saw one plant that has already started to set fruit. Mayapple fruit is one of those wild foods that I've always wanted to try but never been able to -- when I was growing up in western New York, we had Mayapple plants everywhere, but the fruit always mysteriously disappeared before it ripened. From what I hear, though, it's sweet and delicious, so I'm going to watch these plants carefully as the season progresses and see if I can't finally get a taste.

These white-flowered plants were growing in a patch along one portion of the path, and when I bruised a leaf it smelled faintly like anise (i.e. licorice). My best guess is that this is Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis), a native plant. It could also be Sweet Cicely, another anise-smelling plant introduced from Europe, but these flowers and leaves seem to match the descriptions for Aniseroot more closely, so I'll go with that.

This is Morrow's Honeysuckle, another invasive (non-native) species, and I'm deeply conflicted about it. I have such great nostalgia for this honeysuckle, since I spent my childhood pinching off its flower ends and sipping the nectar, which is delicious. But it's a "bad" plant, banned in Connecticut. Delicious... bad... gah, so confused!

There were a bunch of small animals out and about today as well, giving me a chance to practice with the camera some more.

The zoom lens was perfect for letting me get really "close" to this Bullfrog without startling it into the lake. (These guys are so awesome.)

Same with this American Painted Lady -- I love the detail of the shimmery scales on this creature's wings.

This cute little toad (either American or Fowler's, I'm not sure which) hopped across my path and showed me his (or her) bright yellow hand. I don't think I've ever noticed this feature on toads before, and it made a nice spot of color on the brown/gray forest floor.

I also saw a couple of really pretty damselflies, and even after a good bit of research I still have no idea what species they are:

As a side note, I was a crazy person today and decided to go to the woods at an insane hour in the morning, much earlier than I usually get up. Mostly, I wanted to test the idea that birdwatching is best done in the time just after sunrise. My conclusion: not really. I did hear a lot of birds, but not significantly more than I usually hear later in the morning or in the afternoon, and I didn't see very many at all. (Of course, that could have more to do with the whole leaves-on-the-trees thing.) So it was an interesting experiment, but since I've been tired all day today as a result, I don't think I'll be taking part in dawn woods excursions very often. :P

I'll try for another woods-walk tomorrow -- I need more practice with the camera before the next big trip!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The top of a Tulip Tree

We went to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. this past Sunday, and the trip was great -- it's an awesome zoo, and we got to hang out with family and friends while everyone was still in town. The trip was only slightly marred by the fact that we misjudged the parking situation and arrived after all the lots were full, meaning that we ended up parking about a mile and a half away from the zoo and walking. Oops!

Fortunately, the walk was very scenic -- who knew D.C. could be so pretty? Part of our route took us across a huge bridge on Connecticut Avenue, stretching at tree-top level over a span of Rock Creek Park. It was really cool to be right there in the forest canopy. Here's my favorite close encounter of the trip, a Tulip Tree in full bloom, and only an arms-length away:

I don't know if I've ever seen this tree's flowers so close-up before -- it's very pretty, though, and I can definitely see where it gets its name. Also, note the little Ladybug sneaking into the picture. Hooray for wild things right in the middle of the city. :)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More Maryland wildlife

I have very little free time on this trip to Maryland, but I'm having fun spending what time I can outdoors. Here are some things we saw yesterday while walking on the bike path that runs behind my family's suburban house:

The wild blackberries are in full bloom right now, and taking up about a third of the space along the bike paths (the other two thirds of which are blanketed by the plants in the next two pictures). This is one good thing about Maryland -- the blackberries grow really big and really well. :)

Interspersed with the blackberries are the Multiflora Roses, an invasive species that's certainly established itself well here. I know, these plants are trouble, but they're quite pretty, as well.

And if there's one thing that Maryland does really well, it's Poison Ivy. This stuff grows like crazy here, with huge umbrella-like leaves that hang down from the trees and look deceptively harmless. I had to very carefully maneuver between the giant leaves to take this picture, because I was intrigued by these dainty flowers -- I don't think I've ever noticed them before.

We had fun watching this Cottontail Rabbit (probably an Eastern Cottontail, although I guess I can't say for sure) grooming itself on the path:

It was fastidiously cleaning its face and ears, just like our pet bunny does at home:

We actually got pretty close to it before it bounded away. What a bold bunny!

And of course, whenever one is in this part of Maryland, one must watch carefully for the ferocious(ly lovable) Newfoundland:


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sights in my family's yard in MD

Here I am in Maryland, working hard to organize things with my family! But still, I can't help taking pictures when I see cool things.... So here are some assorted sightings from my family's yard.

The American Goldfinches are here in force, flocking to the thistle feeder my parents have set out. This pretty female posed nicely for me when I was out there yesterday morning (I was in the shade, so the pictures are a little grainy):

And then she demonstrated how to get seeds from the feeder:

I'm glad I don't have to hang upside down for my food.

A whole family of Carolina Wrens was out and about yesterday morning as well. The two parents were keeping a close eye on their three fledgling babies as they hopped around in the low branches of a tree next to the driveway, testing out their growing wings. I was able to get pretty close to them, too -- the little guy in this next picture actually flew up and landed on my head, at which point I gently suggested that he should probably move somewhere else!

Just look at that big mouth, perfect for gaping, and the little dippy tail! These babies still have some growing to do, but they were managing themselves pretty well -- it looks like they'll be nicely agile adult wrens someday.

Here's a last picture, an oak tree outside my parents' window that is showing a really strange growth habit that I've never seen before:

One of these large branches is actually growing around another branch that's pressing against it. I've seen this sort of thing before with ropes or wires tied around trees, or with objects nailed into tree trunks, etc., but never with a tree and itself. Does this mean that in a few years, the tree will have a branch that goes completely through another branch? Or will there be problems because the smaller branch is actually growing as well?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Yet more wildflowers, and a bird or two

Silly Blogger, going down and making me delay publishing this post. Oh well, better two days late than never! 

Yesterday I left for Maryland, where I'll be for the next week or so. So on Thursday (May 12), I took advantage of my last chance to visit the Naugatuck State Forest for a good while. It was a lovely visit! 

My difficulties with seeing birds through the leaves continues, but I did get to hang out for a little while with this Ovenbird in the undergrowth:

These are such cool little birds, and I only learned about them recently. I love those big round eyes, and the dark stripes down its breast. This bird also has an awesome black-bordered orange stripe right on the top of its head (it reminds me of a mohawk), but you can only see a tiny bit of it in this picture. Also, Ovenbirds are LOUD! This little guy started calling shortly after I took this picture, and I was just blown away (not literally) by so much volume and power coming out of such a small bird. 

And here are the new wildflowers I saw:

This is a Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) a common wildflower, apparently, although I'm sure even if I have seen it before, I've never paid attention to it until now.

This is a Chokecherry, a decent-sized shrub that will have strings of (apparently edible, but very sour) berries later in the year. Right after I took this picture, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to visit these flowers -- I got a very close view of this beautiful bird (so tiny!), but my camera wasn't ready for the quick encounter, so no pictures, sorry.

It took me a little while to figure out what this bush is, and my conclusion is that it's an Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata), an introduced species from Europe that's listed as invasive and banned in Connecticut. It is very pretty, though, and those trumpet-shaped flowers look like they might make a good meal for some nectar-drinkers in the area.

A bunch of these Spotted Geranium blooms were just starting to open, in patches scattered throughout the woods. Again, this is by all accounts a very common plant, but it's new to me. I very much like it. :) 

I know a lot will probably happen in the woods while I'm gone, and I just hope it doesn't look too different by the time I get back. I'm hoping I'll get to explore Maryland's wildlife a little while I'm here (and maybe make a blog post or two? I'm not making any promises), but I'll sure miss walking in my familiar places. Keep getting greener, Connecticut, and I'll see you again soon!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Robin's egg blue

Look at these beautiful blue orbs that a pair of American Robins placed in the rhododendron bush next to our porch:

I got this picture by standing on the porch's edge and leaning waaaaay out over the bush (Paul was holding my hand to make sure I didn't fall). This method of stretching out my arm and blindly pointing the camera in approximately the right direction is actually the only way we have of seeing into the nest, and I wasn't even sure whether there were eggs in there at all until I snapped this picture!

It's so lovely to have animal families living right at our doorstep. :) 

Updated 6/6/11: I think this little family didn't actually happen. We haven't seen any adult robins on this nest in a while now, so maybe the eggs just didn't hatch. (I'm not really inclined to look in the nest to see what's in there now.) Ah well, these things happen. Hopefully the pair started a new nest somewhere else and will still get to raise babies this season.

Updated 6/7/11: Just kidding! I saw an adult robin back on the nest today, so I guess there is something going on there after all!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mostly flowers

Yep, it's definitely getting harder to spot birds now, with all the nice green leaves expanding on the trees. I heard so many birds this morning in the Naugatuck State Forest -- gads of them, calling in the trees all around me -- but I just couldn't seem to find them up there!

This female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was kind enough to fly down to the bushes at my level, but she only hung around long enough for a couple of blurry pictures before she disappeared into the leafy canopy again. This is a new bird for me, and the name "grosbeak" is definitely appropriate -- the first thing I noticed about this girl was her big hulking beak. I waited for a little while to see if a male would show up -- these guys are black with a big blob of pink/red on their otherwise white breast, and I'd like to see one someday. But no luck. If this female's mate was around, he preferred to stay hidden.

Every time I turn around, it seems, there are more wildflowers blooming:

This is a Canada Mayflower (also called False Lily-of-the-Valley, Maianthemum canadense). These plants grow all over the woods where I walk, usually in huge sprawling patches. I've been noticing these buds for weeks, and they're just now starting to open to show pretty little four-pointed stars.

These flowers are Pussytoes, although I'm not quite sure of the exact species. So pretty and so fuzzy. :)

And this is Common Winter Cress (also called Garden Yellowrocket, Barbarea vulgaris), a species introduced from Europe. I only saw a couple of these plants, though, and the internet isn't telling me that it's invasive, so maybe it's OK if I admire its happy yellow flowers. :)

Everything is growing and flourishing out there. With all the leaves out now and temperatures in the 70s, spring is starting to look a little like summer!

Monday, May 9, 2011

West Rock ho! (Part 2: Birds and flowers and such)

Yesterday, Paul and I had an adventure at Lake Wintergreen in West Rock State Park, and I already posted about some of the creatures we saw there. Here's the second part of the account, filled with birds and plants and other fun things!

I almost never get to see Red-winged Blackbirds anymore, since the lakes at the Naugatuck State Forest where I usually hang out don't have much in the way of reeds or cattails or brush on the water's edge where these birds could make their nests. So I was pretty excited to be around them again, with the males calling and flashing their red shoulder patches in all their glory. Even Paul was getting into these bright displays (he usually isn't very interested in birds).

We also found a flock of Northern Rough-Winged Swallows, seven or eight birds, all careening and diving through the air, and sometimes zooming right by our heads. They were taking turns landing on the path, like the bird in this picture, and picking at something brown and apparently delicious there. And no, that isn't a trick of the camera -- their bodies really are that long and stretched-out. This is a new bird for me, and I don't have any experience with swallows at all really, so it was fun to be able to watch these guys at such a close range.

We found several cool wildflowers as well:

This is Fringed Polygala, a wacky-weird flower that I only learned last year, and with such a bizarre shape, I'm a little surprised that I never noticed it before then. The plant in this picture has two flowers, but you can see the shape of a single flower better in this next picture:

I can't help thinking how much this flower looks like a whiskered face with big ears. :)

This is Hairy Solomon's Seal, with its green/yellow flowers dangling below its stem and just starting to open. You can see the tiny hairs on the underside of these leaves in the zoomed-in picture, and this helps distinguish this species from other Solomon's Seal plants that grow in Connecticut.

The Lowbush Blueberry plants are just starting to open their flowers, in preparation for a delicious summer yield. Yum, yum, yum. I actually haven't noticed many wild blueberry bushes in the Naugatuck State Forest yet, and hopefully I won't miss out on this treat by hanging out there this year.

I was excited to find Pink Lady's Slippers sending up their graceful buds. I love these plants -- I just think it's so cool that we have orchids growing wild around us (this lady's slipper is just one among many different species), and it feels like a treat to find them. Hopefully I'll stumble across some of these flowers open before the season is finished, but the buds are beautiful in their own right.

Here's one last picture, a pretty Orange Sulphur butterfly that flew across our path:

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I'm glad we got to visit West Rock again. :)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

West Rock ho! (Part 1: Herps)

Wow, have I got a lot of things to share today! In fact, there are so many things that I've decided to split this up into two posts. Here's part one!

Paul and I took a trip today to Lake Wintergreen in West Rock State Park to walk around the lake and see what kinds of creatures we could find. This trip was actually pretty special for us in a sentimental way, since this is where we got engaged last year, and this was our last chance to visit it before we're married. (Oh yeah, that's coming up!) We both love Lake Wintergreen, mostly because it never fails to provide close encounters with frogs and snakes and turtles, and today was no exception.

This Green Frog was sitting on the edge of the lake, and we were able to sneak really close to it to take its picture. You can tell it's a Green Frog rather than a Bullfrog because it's got those two ridges running down its back (Bullfrogs don't have ridges like this -- they have creases that curve down behind their ears instead). I love that bright shade of green on this frog's face. :)

This medium-sized toad hopped across our path in the woods, and here it's doing a great job of blending in with its background. (Yay, camouflage!) We have two different species of toads living in Connecticut -- American Toads and Fowler's Toads -- and to be honest, I have no idea which species this is. You're supposed to be able to identify these toads by counting the number of "warts" inside individual black rings on their skin, but this little fellow doesn't have any of those black ring patterns that I've seen in pictures, so I'm a little stumped. American Toads are supposed to be more common, so that's probably what this is, but unless I find out otherwise, this will just have to be some sort of young unknown toad.

And speaking of toads, I'm pretty sure these are toad tadpoles filling the shallows of the lake:

See all that black stuff? Yep, that's all tiny tadpoles, and it was like this for yards along the shoreline. The little guys were wriggling and writhing, and hopefully finding some good things to eat to warrant this sort of crowding. It was quite a sight!

We almost walked right by this Northern Water Snake, basking on the banks of the lake and so well hidden in the grass:

What a beautiful creature, with those striking stripes across its mouth (and there's much more detail if you click on the picture to zoom in). I've never been this close to a water snake before, and this one was remarkably patient with us, with all the sneaking around and camera clicking (well, beeping really) that we were doing. Of course, then we took one step too many, and the snake was off like a shot into the water. (This next picture is courtesy of Paul.)

I love the pattern of ripples this snake makes when it swims. And the idea of snakes swimming still just sort of blows my mind.

But it wasn't all reptiles and amphibians at Lake Wintergreen today. Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of our West Rock adventure, where I'll post about all the non-herp things we saw: flowers and birds and other things as well!