Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bobby the Garden Toad, and Other Creatures

We have a toad living in our garden. :D It's a nicely plump, medium-sized fellow, who I first saw when I was watering the garden the other day (free shower!), and who was hunkered down in a lovely little hollow next to the garden fence this morning. Can you find the camouflaged and partially-buried toad in this picture?

What a lovely creature. The name "Bobby" was Paul's suggestion, the idea being that this is one of those names that could work for either a boy or a girl. I think it fits pretty well.

I may not know the gender of this creature, but for once I am pretty confident about the species. We have two species of toads in Connecticut, and I've had some trouble identifying individual toads in the past, but this guy seems to be a pretty clear example of an American Toad. These black outlines around individual "warts" on its back are characteristic of the species, and I think the patterns are rather beautiful:

I strongly encouraged Bobby to relocate to a more central location in the garden -- the hiding place in the first couple of pictures was dangerously close to the gate and therefore my feet -- and he or she has been hanging out among the carrots all afternoon. I like having a little amphibian friend around, and I hope the garden proves to be a suitable long-term home. :)

While I was out with the camera, I couldn't resist taking pictures of some more insects in the garden. There's a whole world of tiny creatures out there!

Here's a tiny leafhopper with a cool design -- it's a Saddled Leafhopper (Colladonus clitellarius):

This brightly-colored creature is some sort of sawfly, in the family Argidae, and I haven't been able to figure out any identification details other than that:

And this is a long-legged fly (family Dolichopodidae) -- can you believe the colors on this thing?

The internet tells me that long-legged flies prey on other insects, and they're actually good to have in a garden. So here's an example of a creature I never thought to pay attention to before, but when I stopped to look closely and learn about it, not only does it turn out to be gorgeous, but beneficial as well!

Here's a really bizarre insect that I just learned about. Can you tell what's going on here?

This is the larva of a Clavate Tortoise Beetle, and it's really super weird. The green oval-shaped thing with the spines is the actual creature. That big crinkly brown thing on its back? That's a mass of dried excrement. Poop. I couldn't make this stuff up. The larva actually holds this thing up over its back with a special "fork" on its hind end, and it can wave it around at will. Various internet sources suggest that this is some sort of defense mechanism, or a means of camouflage. Either way, blech. Also, ew.

So you can see what this weird thing grows into, here's a picture of an adult Clavate Tortoise Beetle that I took about a month ago:

These beetles really like my tomato plants (that is, to eat), so I'm keeping an eye on them. There are only a couple of these bugs around right now, but if more appear and start doing significant damage, it might be squishing time!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Garter Snake and Other Summer Creatures

Well, it's officially summer! The days are getting consistently hot and humid, and the plants and animals are taking full advantage of the sun.

While I was walking in the Naugatuck State Forest today, I nearly stepped on this little fellow, sunning him/herself in the path (I say that, but this was actually a rather shady spot):

This is the first Eastern Garter Snake I've seen this year, and it sure was a gorgeous creature. It didn't seem inclined to run away from me, even when I got right in its face:

I encouraged this little guy to move off the path, and it finally took the hint (after sticking its red-black tongue out at me a couple of times). With all the people- and dog-feet passing by, I didn't want it to accidentally get hurt.

Here's another sign of summer -- Black Raspberries covering a bank along the path (yum... I might have eaten a berry or two after taking this picture, even though they could've done with another day or so of ripening):

The dragonflies were as active as ever, and I even managed to identify a couple. This Common Whitetail was basking in the sun, and its bright blue/white abdomen was pulsating, like a person's chest when they're breathing heavily (I'm not entirely sure what was going on here, but it's possible it could have had to do with respiration):

I think this is an Eastern Pondhawk, and it's the most beautiful shade of green:

And speaking of beautiful colors, a couple of these fritillary butterflies (possibly Great Spangled Fritillaries, but I'm not certain about that) were taking advantage of the Common Milkweed blooms. I like this picture even more for the random photobombing bumblebee:

Here are the Spotted Jewelweed flowers that I've been waiting to see on these plants, even though some of the jewelweeds in these woods have seed pods already:

And I learned some new flowers today as well. This is Tall Meadow Rue, a flower that's all stamens and no petals -- and yes, the plant is quite tall:

Finally, looking at the leaves of this last plant, I was expecting it to be a kind of milkweed, but it's actually something called Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):

Hooray for new things. :)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bugs in the Garden (or: A Jungle in My Backyard)

It's been a very rain-filled week -- soggy, I believe, is the word. This morning we had a brief dry spell, but rather than risk getting caught in the woods in the rain, I decided to bring my camera out into the garden to see what kinds of creatures I could find there. I found cool bugs!

(By the way, I was only able to identify these creatures to any extent at all by turning to the enormously useful -- this site has lots of pictures and is pretty easy to navigate. I'm glad I recently found out about it.)

Anyway, bring on the bugs!

Here's a particularly cool one, a treehopper of some sort (in the genus Ceresa, I think). Check out those awesome horns, and the swirly black-and-white eyes (is it going to hypnotize someone?).

There are almost always leafhoppers in the garden, and they're usually more colorful than this one. In fact, I almost overlooked this guy (probably Pagaronia minor), but I'm glad I didn't -- I'm enjoying those yellow eyes.

I grew up calling these large arachnids (they're not technically spiders) "daddy longlegs," but apparently they can also be called "harvestmen" (to help distinguish them from other creatures with the name "daddy longlegs"). Who knew? In any case, this large whatever-you-want-to-call-it was staking out a bean leaf, possibly waiting for a meal to come along.

This fancy fellow is a nymph (i.e. juvenile) of a Leaf-footed Bug (Acanthocephala terminalis, I think). Nice blue butt, baby bug!

OK, this isn't a bug, but it is a wild thing in the garden. It's an Asiatic Dayflower, a non-native but now naturalized species. I let a few of these plants come up as weeds in a corner of the garden because I think the flowers are quite pretty, but I might pull them up before they go to seed.

All of these creatures are free to live in my garden and do what they will -- treehoppers, leaphoppers, and leaf-footed bugs all eat plants, but not to an extent that would be harmful to a garden. But of course I can't let every visitor come to stay, and that's the weird contradiction between enjoying wild things and keeping a cultivated, food-producing garden. Before I brought the camera outside, I smushed a decent number of aphids, as well as a squash beetle that was making a meal of my squash leaves. Maybe the next time I do a post like this, I'll take some pictures of the undesirable bugs as well. Everyone deserves equal treatment... before I smush them!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Babies Everywhere!

Last month, I posted a picture of a lovely robin's nest that we found in the rhododendron bush next to our porch. For a little while, I was worried that something might have happened to the eggs, because I didn't notice the parents flying in and out of the bush as much as I used to. Last week, though, I saw an adult robin sitting on the nest again, and yesterday afternoon, as I was walking by, I heard the happy (or hungry) chirping of baby birds!

The rhododendron is so thick that there's no way for me to get a full view into the nest, but with the babies popping their heads up high above the nest's rim, I'm just able to get a peek at them from below. And here they are!

They look to be quite far along already, eyes open and feathers bristling. Oh you beautiful ugly babies. :D

Monday, June 20, 2011

Red Squirrels and Slime Molds, and Bugs and Flowers Everywhere

Today was another great day for a trip to the Naugatuck State Forest: clear skies, sunshine, and cool breezes; it couldn't have been nicer. The animals and plants were very active, so maybe they agreed with me.

I've seen Red Squirrels in these woods a couple of times before, but much less frequently than I see their larger gray cousins. So I was pretty excited when this little fellow scampered out of the undergrowth and then posed for a few pictures -- it even let me sneak a little closer before it ran the rest of the way up the tree:

This guy was just barely bigger than a chipmunk, and so much daintier than the more common Gray Squirrels. Apparently Red Squirrels prefer forests with conifer trees, so maybe that's one reason why I never see them around my apartment. In any case, getting close to this adorable creature today was a real treat.

And speaking of treats, I've always wanted to see a slime mold (yes, I'm aware of the strangeness of that statement), and I'm pretty sure I found one today! Behold:

Isn't it magnificent? I had just assumed that slime molds were a type of fungi (or maybe I had forgotten what I learned in my 7th grade science class), but it turns out they're actually an entirely different thing! And there's a lot of crazy stuff to learn about slime molds, if the Wikipedia page is any indication -- I wish I had time to learn more. If you click the picture to zoom in you can see the crazy texture on this thing -- it's even starting to grow over that leaf. So cool!

The rest of today's walk turned up some more cool new things, but in familiar veins: bugs and flowers.

There were more dragonflies than ever, but all of the individuals I got pictures of managed to elude my attempts at identification (this is not surprising). However, even though I couldn't figure out their species, I got to see some cool behaviors. This dragonfly, for example, just recently metamorphosed -- it's still standing on the skin of its nymph form (from which it emerged):

And this rather large dragonfly is munching on what looks like a (still wriggling) ichneumon wasp (a non-stinging insect whose larvae are parasites on other insects -- I'm not sure of the exact species):

That looks like a pretty big meal, even for such a large dragonfly. These guys are serious hunters.

The flowers were putting on a nice display as well. Here's a whole bank covered in low-growing plants of the blackberry family -- are these actually dewberries, or can I just call them "blackberries" like I want to?

This pretty (and very small) flower is Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), originally from Europe but not considered invasive (to my knowledge):

Finally, here are a couple of new flowers for me, whose leaves I've been seeing all winter (since they're evergreen). These plants were growing on opposite sides of the same path and they look very similar, but they are different species. First there's Round-leaved Pyrola, with its glossy leaves that are tinged slightly purple at the stems:

And then there's Shinleaf, with leaves that are not as glossy, and there are some differences in the flowers if you look closely, too (it's hard to see the leaves that go with the stem in this picture, but the leaves directly below the flowers are from the same plant):

Also, a side note: I mentioned in a post last week that a couple of people had apparently seen a Black Bear in the Naugatuck State Forest recently. Well, according to this article, the DEP captured a Black Bear that was in a neighborhood just north of the forest, so I'm wondering if this is the same creature.... It seems likely!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh my goodness, aren't you the cutest baby titmouse ever (also, squirrels)

Look at this little ball of fluffy cuteness that was resting in the juniper tree outside our apartment's office window today:

Stretch those baby titmouse wings!

This baby's brother or sister was in another branch, and their parents were foraging nearby. This little fellow looks so almost grown up, but it's still got that little bit of baby pink at the corners of its mouth -- sooooo cute!

While I was already looking out the window, I couldn't help taking a picture of this Gray Squirrel in the neighboring maple tree -- the squirrels are looking really sleek this time of year:

And apparently, maple seeds are delicious:

Have I mentioned how much I love my office window? :D (I'm doing work, really!)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Naugatuck State Forest Again

Yep, I gave in and went back to my favorite local haunt this morning, the Naugatuck State Forest. I did a shorter walk than usual, so this will be a relatively brief post -- I did learn some cool things while I was there, though....

Thing #1: I met someone in the woods who asked me if I'd gotten a picture of the Black Bear yet. (What?!) Apparently a couple of people have seen a bear recently, deeper in the forest. I haven't decided yet whether this means I should extend my walks in hopes that I see it, or if I should limit them in hopes that I don't. :P In all seriousness, though, I will be careful.

Thing #2: The strawberries are all gone, and I missed them. I did, however, procure some seeds from the only half-eaten berry I found remaining, to see whether I can get some plants growing in my garden at home. (I might have also taken a few runners as well.)

Thing #3: The jewelweed (i.e. touch-me-not) is already covered with fun burstable seed pods (I exploded a couple myself), even though I never saw any flowers:

It's certainly possible that I could've missed the flowers on these plants, but the whole situation seems a little strange. The sources I've checked say that jewelweed plants bloom in July and later, so why are there seed pods now? And since I didn't see the flowers, I'm not sure whether these plants are Pale Jewelweed or Orange Jewelweed. Oh well, I'll enjoy these festive seed-bombs regardless of their species or whether it's the "correct" time for them or not. :D

Here are a couple more interesting sightings from today's trip: a Louisiana Waterthrush, bobbing its butt as it prowled through the underbrush (if you watch a video of these guys you'll see what I mean):

And a lovely sprawling rose (either Virginia or Carolina, I'm not sure which) just bursting into bloom:

I love how even on relatively short walks, I still get to see a lot. Hooray for the woods. :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another New Destination: Osbornedale State Park

I guess I've been feeling a little adventuresome lately, enough so that I decided to explore my second new park for the week today. The part of Osbornedale State Park where I went this morning was just the right amount of change for me -- there were broad fields overflowing with tall grasses and wildflowers, small ponds and wetlands, and forest trails like those that I'm used to.

The Red-winged Blackbirds were definitely the most prominent creatures there. This male was very clearly trying to tell me something -- probably that I was encroaching on his territory, and maybe I was a little too close to a nest:

In the fields, the Common Milkweed was just starting to open its blooms:

And with the milkweed come the Red Milkweed Beetles -- this guy was really chowing down on those thick milky leaves:

I did see a few Monarch butterflies visiting the milkweed as well, but none came close enough for a picture.

Another butterfly was kind enough to set up a really nice photo-op for me, though -- here's a Silver-spotted Skipper posing prettily on some Cow Vetch blooms (that color almost doesn't look real, but I swear I didn't alter the picture at all):

There was more cool stuff in the woods as well, like these bizarre orange roots showing through the trail path at one point:

This is Wood Nettle (I think) -- teeny tiny flowers on a plant that will apparently sting you if you touch it:

And here's one more flower I found in the woods, a mysterious shrub-sized plant that I haven't been able to identify -- does anyone have any ideas?

I think the next time I take a trip to the woods, it will have to be back to the Naugatuck State Forest -- I'm starting to miss it already, and I'm very curious to see what's been going on since I was last there. All this adventuring this week has been fun, though, and now I know of some other nice places to go when I feel like I need a change. :)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Baltimore Orioles and Other Birds at Southford Falls State Park (also, flowers)

Today I decided to take a break from the Naugatuck State Forest (I've been running into a disappointing number of annoying/loud/irresponsible people there recently) and explore someplace new. So I headed over to the Southford Falls State Park -- a small park about a 15 minute drive away -- to see what I could find there.

As it turns out, it's a really nice place! There's a small pond, a rushing stream with waterfalls, a cute covered bridge, and about a mile and a half of trails along the stream and through the woods. It was a lot of fun to be in a new location, and I saw some really cool things.

Almost as soon as I got out of my car, I was greeted by a male Baltimore Oriole, foraging in the low branches of a nearby tree. These are such stunning birds, and I was so close to this guy, so I ended up taking quite a few pictures.

Toward the end of my walk, I found out that this male wasn't alone. His mate was hanging out in the same area, and there was even more to his family, as I discovered in a rather sad way. I heard a bird calling loudly from the ground behind some bushes, and when I looked closer, I found this beautiful baby oriole, gaping and calling, with his parents agitatedly flying back and forth in the branches overhead:

I really didn't know what to do -- this baby didn't look old enough to have gotten out of the nest on its own, and those are definitely not flying feathers. I looked around for the nest, but I couldn't see it, and in any case the oriole nests I've seen in the past have been really high up in trees and this one probably would've been out of my reach. I ended up just leaving the baby alone.... Its parents definitely knew it was there, so hopefully they will continue to feed it, but it's so vulnerable.... I don't know, did I do the right thing?

The baby's distress aside, the orioles were a treat to watch, and they were pretty much the highlight of the day. But I did also see some new birds that I'd never seen before, including this Eastern Kingbird, a type of flycatcher, munching on dragonflies and showing off its cool white-tipped tail:

Here's another completely new one for me, a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo:

I knew we had cuckoos around here, but only because I'd seen them in my field guide -- I swear I've never seen a cuckoo or anything like it before in real life, though. Before I saw it way up in the treetops, I heard the weirdest calls (here's a recording to give you an idea), which I wasn't even sure belonged to a bird. Then when I did see it, the first thing I saw was its tail, and I thought, "Blue Jay" -- but nope, it was something new! I like discovering new things.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds were out in force, and I noticed for the first time (after seeing these birds all my life) that the females are actually quite pretty in their own way:

Some nice people have set up nest boxes, and this Tree Swallow was making good use of them, bringing dragonflies to his or her family inside (I think these birds are really cool):

I saw some nice flowers on this trip as well. The woods were just packed with Mountain Laurel bushes in full flower, lining many of the paths. These are some very pretty flowers that I don't think I've ever noticed before, and I love the spiky developing buds, too:

Here's Whorled Loosestrife, another new flower for me, and I think it's gorgeous:

The Indian Pipes were just starting to lift their heads up from beneath the layer of dead leaves on the forest floor (these plants are so awesome -- look ma, no chlorophyll!):

This is Celandine, an relative of the poppy, and introduced from Europe:

And the pond was dotted with Yellow Pond Lilies, raising pretty yellow globes above the water's surface:

There were tons of other flowers and birds as well (not to mention the Red-backed Salamanders and Red Efts that I found in the woods), and these are just some of the highlights. I'm glad I got to explore a new place, and I'm sure I'll be back again!