Friday, July 29, 2011

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars and Carrots (Updated)

One of my favorite parts about having a home garden when I was little was finding Black Swallowtail caterpillars on the carrot leaves. This species of butterfly relies on plants from the parsley family as hosts, so you might also find them on parsley, dill, or fennel, but I remember them appearing most often on carrots. My family and I would watch carefully for these little creatures, protect them, and watch them grow and change into their adult forms. There are never enough of these little guys -- in my experience -- to do any real damage to the plants, and they're just awesome.

So last year, when I started my own garden, I had to make room for carrots. And as it turns out, not only do these plants give us delicious greens for our pet bunnies (they love them), and even a carrot or two (the ones the voles didn't get, anyway), but this year they've brought us the guests I've been hoping for. We have caterpillars! :)

July 26 -- Early (2nd or 3rd) instar caterpillar

July 29 -- 4th instar caterpillar

(This one has some rain drops on it, and those small white things look suspiciously like eggs....)

(My plan for this blog post was to update and re-post it periodically as the caterpillars grew up.... But unfortunately the two caterpillars I was watching disappeared the day after I took this last picture. Next time, if I'm going to watch a caterpillar grow, I'll do more to protect it so it doesn't get eaten. Oh well -- I hope another creature got a nice meal at least! :P)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Seaside Adventures with Birds in Siver Sands State Park

We live half an hour from the ocean (well, the Long Island Sound, more accurately), but we almost never go there. It's quite silly, actually. So yesterday Paul and I decided to remedy this situation, and we took a drive down to Silver Sands State Park, in Milford. This is a really great park, and we'd been there once before a couple of years ago, with great success. It has all the benefits of (free) sandy beaches and swimming, stretches of trails and boardwalks to explore, and, as it turns out, lots and lots of birds.

Right next to the strip of sand on the shoreline, and past some rocks, flat salty marshes like this one stretch on. The bird in the above picture is a Great Egret, an impressively big creature with a yellow beak and black legs. Wading birds like egrets and herons love this habitat.

Snowy Egrets -- the smaller cousins of Great Egrets -- abound here as well, hunting tiny fishes in the marches and wading among the tall grasses. This Snowy Egret was resting gracefully just off shore:

It even let me sneak close enough for a more detailed picture. Can you believe the glorious feathers on this bird?

Both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are listed as threatened species in Connecticut. They were hunted to extirpation or near-extirpation in the state in the early 20th century -- so their lovely plumes could decorate people's hats; blech -- and they didn't start breeding here again until the 1960s. As it turns out, Silver Sands State Park is an exceedingly important place for both of these threatened species, and here's why:

This is Charles Island, located about a half-mile from the park's shore. During low tide, a sandbar rises from the ocean to connect the island to land, but birds can easily fly across at any time. (You can just start to see the sandbar in that strip of light-colored ocean in the above picture.) In addition to being the supposed site of Captain Kidd's buried treasure, and reportedly haunted/cursed, the island serves as one of the three largest nesting sites in Connecticut for Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, as well as other bird species. Such sites are rare strongholds for these birds, so well protected by the ocean. The park closes access to the island during the summer to help keep people from disturbing the nesting birds, although we did still see several people venturing out onto the sandbar while we were there. It was really cool to be near a place of such importance -- I wish the birds on the island the best of luck and many happy, healthy babies this summer and in the years to come!

So those are the egrets. How about some more birds?

I know almost nothing about seashore birds, since I spend most (actually, all) of my time inland and around fresh water, and this trip really showed me how big the holes in my knowledge are. I can do the two major gulls (I think), with some confidence -- you've got your standard big Herring Gull:

And your smaller Ring-billed Gull (this fellow insisted on poking around in our bags whenever I moved away):

But this one had me stumped for a little while -- I'm pretty sure it's a Laughing Gull, albeit without its full breeding plumage:

This group of little dippy birds is still a puzzle for me:

They're some sort of sandpiper, either Western or Semipalmated (I think), in the middle of their southbound migration. I have no idea how people identify these birds, because I sure can't tell the difference between pictures of the two species! I guess this is where practice comes in handy, but for now, "sandpiper" will just have to do. :P

Update 7/29/11: As one of my readers pointed out (thanks, Joe!), these might actually be Sanderlings, a small type of sandpiper. Boy, do I not know ocean birds! So I'll withhold identification for now, and maybe someday I'll be able to figure out what these little creatures are.

There were many other types of birds flying around, too, including the familiar Barn Swallow. These two individuals were actually sitting still, perched on reeds near the path:

And here's another new one for me, a Glossy Ibis (a species of special concern in Connecticut), whose dark coloring kept it so well hidden in the tall grasses that I didn't even see it until it flew away:

It was a very enjoyable trip, and a great way to remind myself that beaches are fun!

I'll close this post with two final pictures. This Herring Gull must've found something delicious in this large shell-plus-rock-thing with a seaweed tail:

Something worth smashing open from up high! Bombs away!


Monday, July 25, 2011

A Bevy of Beetles (also Birds and Flowers)

What a wonderful day for a walk! The heat wave is gone, replaced with mid-70s temperatures, cool breezes, and cloudy skies. The promise of imminent rain meant that the Naugatuck State Forest was almost empty of people this morning, but the wildlife was abundant and active -- just the way I like my woods.

I saw a bunch of really cool beetles out there today, of such widely varying sizes and shapes. Take this net-winged beetle (genus Calopteron), for instance:

You'd hardly know it's a beetle, lacking a characteristic hard beetle-y "shell", but beetle it is. Shortly after I found this colorful fellow, it lifted up those soft elytra (the name for the protective forewings that are usually hard in beetles) and flew away.

And speaking of colorful, check out this guy:

I thought for sure any creature that looks like this would have "rainbow" somewhere in its name, but it turns out to be a Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus). This name's also appropriate, though, since this beetle and its larvae eat only plants of the dogbane family -- and look, this one's even on a leaf from the right kind of plant.

These first two beetles were moderately sized, not big but certainly not tiny. This next creature, by contrast, was something of a monster, about an inch and a half long (not including legs and antennae):

Now that's a beetle! This is a Broad-necked Root Borer (Prionus laticollis), and they're apparently quite common (according to the person on who ID-ed it for me), although I've certainly never seen one before.

So the bugs were awesome, but I was also surprised at the number of birds I saw this morning. They were much more active (and visible) today than I've seen in weeks -- perhaps, like me, they were expending some built-up energy after laying low in the heat for the past few days. Because it was so cloudy, it wasn't a very good day for seeing/identifying new birds, but with the birds so bold and energized, it was a great day to get close to some old friends.

This Black-capped Chickadee was perfectly happy to forage for delicious bugs while I stood nearby:


While the chickadee was going after the bugs that crawl, this Eastern Phoebe was doing the flycatcher thing, snatching insects right out of the air. It posed nicely for a little while in between assaults so I could get a good look at it:

This phoebe looks like it's been working hard. Hey, I think you've got some cobwebs on your face (and tail).

New wildflowers abounded, of course. I'm pretty sure this beauty is a Thin-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus), and several of these plants were blooming along the path:

Just as brightly yellow, but as tiny as the sunflower was tall, a small patch of this Woodland Agrimony (Agrimonia striata) lit up the forest floor:

Here's another non-native thistle. This is Canada Thistle, invasive and banned in Connecticut (although, again, I can't help thinking its tufted flowers are quite pretty):

And here are the tiny flowers from that strange parasitic plant, dodder, that I noticed for the first time last week:

With bunches of these flowers clinging to the neon stems, most of the little white buds still closed, I think this plant looks positively festive:

Here are a few final sights from today's walk -- I don't know if I've ever seen an arrangement of fungi more interesting in their pattern and symmetry than this:

And whoever was living in this hole must've decided to clean house at some point. Or is there another reason for all this soft fiber spilling from the hole?

Some mystery, lots of beauty, pleasant weather, and awesome creatures. I'd call that a good day!

Friday, July 22, 2011

(Pant, Pant, Pant)

10 out of 10 House Sparrows agree: IT'S REALLY HOT OUTSIDE!

And to think, I didn't even know until a couple of days ago that birds pant to cool down. Thanks for the new knowledge, heat wave!

(Current temperature: 101°F, with a heat index of 115°F)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Back to the Meadows Again: Birds, Bugs, and Flowers

After I discovered the shrubby fields at the North-Western end of Naugatuck State Forest last week, and had such an awesome time there, I decided yesterday morning that I couldn't stay away any longer. So off I went, bright and early! Once again, it was an exciting visit, with lots of new things to see.

The birds were out in abundance again, although I didn't have any super-close encounters this time. Even at a distance, though, this male Indigo Bunting was nothing short of spectacular:

He was cheeping loudly and keeping a watchful eye on a nearby female. The girls of this species are so dull compared to the guys -- basically brown without any clearly distinguishing features that I could see. The only way I could tell that these birds were a pair was because they were sharing the same trees and making the same sounds.

This is certainly the land of the towhee -- everywhere I went, these birds were flying around, calling, and scratching in the undergrowth -- and their nests must have recently emptied. This scruffy youngster flew over for a few seconds to check me out:

House Wrens are certainly not uncommon, but I'd never seen one of these birds before, so I was happy to spot a small group of them (presumably another recently-fledged family) in a tree.

House Wrens are rather plain-looking birds, but I think there's something quite attractive about the subtle patterns on its wings and tail.

As always, there were insects aplenty. Several of these large dragonflies -- Twelve-spotted Skimmers -- patrolled the area. This one is a young male, with beautiful white spots in addition to the black on its wings, but not yet old enough to develop the white tail that males of this species usually have:

This Little Wood Satyr was showing off its impressive eye-spots (here's a picture of the less-dramatic tops of this butterfly's wings):

I just love the little orange tips on this butterfly's antennae, and is that a horn on its head? "Satyr", indeed.

A plant stem was the stage for this interesting animal behavior:

These ants are tending their herd of aphids. As the aphids suck juices from the plant, they secrete a sweet sticky liquid, called "honeydew," which the ants then eat. So both species benefit from this relationship: the ants get a source of food, and the aphids get watchful protectors. The plants don't really get anything out of the deal, however.

There were all sorts of flowers in bloom, including the brilliantly orange Butterfly Weed that I noticed last week. Here's a closer picture of these blooms, actually even brighter in real life than they look here:

This large Bull Thistle -- introduced from Europe -- was a several-feet-tall mass of sprawling thorns, although its flowers were quite pretty:

The goldenrods were just starting to open their sprays of delicate flowers. I think this might be Early Goldenrod, although I'll be happy if someone corrects me:

Finally, I was entranced by this beautiful yellow flower, but I'm a bit stumped. It looks similar to Black-eyed Susan, but its center isn't particularly dark, and the petals don't look quite right. Does anyone reading this have any ideas as to what it might be?

I'm finding it harder to go for walks with all the intense heat we've been having, and even the early mornings are just barely temperate now. Here's hoping for a break in the weather, and soon!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cicada Season

I started hearing (loud!) cicada calls in the woods this past weekend, and yesterday morning, I found my first cicada of the year!

This cool creature was moving sluggishly on the ground in the garden when I first saw it (perhaps it had recently emerged -- I found a discarded cicada casing in the same area this morning), and it soon began trying (in vain) to climb up a metal post in the garden's corner. I took pity on the little guy and moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where it immediately started climbing, looking much happier to be on a surface it could actually grip.

A kind and knowledgeable person on helped me out by identifying this as a Lyric Cicada (Tibicen lyricen). These types of cicadas are not the 13- or 17-year periodical varieties that people get so excited about. (I remember when those cicadas emerged in Maryland a few years ago... talk about an intense experience!) The Tibicen larvae live for only a few years underground before emerging as adults, and their cycles are staggered, so you're likely to see the same species every year.

I think cicadas are super awesome, partially because they're so big and monstrous, but also because they're really quite beautiful. That's a nice shade of green on those wings, and if you look closely in the first two pictures (click to zoom in), you can see the three ocelli, small light-sensitive eyes, glimmering like orange jewels in the middle of this creature's forehead.

I hope I picked a good tree for you to live in, little creature! Yay, cicadas!

(P.S. I'm playing around with a new format for the blog, with bigger pictures, so do let me know if the pictures are TOO big!)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Song Sparrows, Alert!

Whenever I go out into my garden now, two Song Sparrows go into high alert, flitting around in the branches right above my head and cheeping at me agitatedly. I don't want to make them angry, but... this does mean that I've been able to get some really close-up pictures, with much more detail than I'm used to!

I can't really believe I used to think all sparrows were boring. Not only do Song Sparrows have pretty (and fun) songs, but they've got all those bold stripes and spots. Even dressed all in shades of brown and tan, I think they're really quite attractive.

Hello, little bird. :)

I'm sure this behavior must mean these guys have a nest around here somewhere, but I haven't yet been able to find it. Hopefully that means it's well hidden, and if I can't see it, maybe the roaming cats in the neighborhood won't find it either. Be safe, Song Sparrows!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Salamanders and Fungi and Other Ground-dwellers in Southford Falls State Park

Our two trips to the woods yesterday couldn't really have been more different. The morning trip to Naugatuck State Forest was all about flowers and butterflies and other brightly-colored things. The afternoon trip to Southford Falls State Park turned up many interesting things as well, but all these things were snuggled down in the dirt. Just because they're denizens of decaying leaves and logs, however, that doesn't mean they're not beautiful.

Take, for example, this fantastic creature, whose tail greeted me when I lifted up a small log next to the path:

My best guess is that this is a Blue-spotted Salamander, and a young one at that -- it was only 2 or 3 inches long, whereas adults are supposed to be more on the order of 8 inches. I moved some more leaf litter to try to get a better shot of its whole salamander body, but for some reason my camera was rebelling, and this is the best I ended up with:

I have never seen one of these salamanders before, and I'm in love. So cute!

Incidentally, I'm hedging my bets with my species identification here because apparently Blue-spotted Salamanders frequently hybridize with another species of salamander in Connecticut, the Jefferson Salamander. So without being an expert on these things (and possibly even without DNA tests), it's pretty much impossible for me to tell whether this creature is all Blue-spotted Salamander or some amount of hybrid.... Basically, a guess will have to do! Also, both Blue-spotted and Jefferson Salamander "complexes" (hybrids) are listed as species of special concern in Connecticut, and pure diploid Blue-spotted Salamanders are endangered in the state -- so whatever this little fellow is, I'll consider it a real treat to have met him or her!

(N.B.: The genetics of this particular salamander and its hybrids is really crazy, involving things like all-female populations and "unisexual" reproduction. I definitely don't understand it all, but if you're interested in learning more, here's one place to start.)

So that was the highlight of the trip for me, but there were other fun things on the forest floor as well. Even this little millipede had its own special beauty, glittering like a string of jewels in the dappled sunlight (maybe you just had to be there):

Also scattered along the path was some wonderfully intricate coral fungi. I don't know exactly what species these are, but first there was this fun pointy variety, like a crowd of tiny antlers emerging from the ground:

And then these delicate purple forms -- this really does look like coral, and such a lovely hue:

I love how there's always something interesting to see in the woods, and if I have to get down into the dirt to meet awesome new creatures, then that's fine with me! :D