Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Charles Island Adventure

Paul and I have been to Silver Sands State Park in Milford a few times now, and we always have a great time there. Recently, we made it our goal to get out to Charles Island, which is connected to the park's shore by a half-mile-long sandbar that appears only at low tide. The island is closed to visitors during the summer, to protect the herons and other birds that nest there, but it re-opened in mid-September. So I learned how to read tide charts, and this past Sunday afternoon (a couple of days before the New Moon, when low tide is at its lowest), we set out on our adventure!

We started seeing interesting things before we even got down to the beach. This gorgeous Green Heron, for instance, was hunting tiny silver fish in the marsh right next to the boardwalk:

It's been many years since I last saw a Green Heron, and I'd forgotten how small they are. Compared to the Great Blue Herons I'm used to seeing, this creature was positively dainty, and he/she moved slowly and carefully through the water on those long legs.

At another part of the boardwalk, we leaned over to watch a colony of Fiddler Crabs (I don't know the exact species) moving in and out of their holes and feeding in the mud. This male crab seems to be waving up at us with his giant claw (or perhaps he was warning us to keep away from the nearby female):

We got down to the beach just as the final sliver of the sandbar was surfacing above the water, about an hour before low tide:

And by the time we were half-way out, the water had receded enough to leave a nice wide path to the island:

There were lots of gulls around, but not a lot of other shore birds. Picking among rocks along the sandbar's shoreline, however, was maybe one of the most adorable sandpipers I've ever seen:

It was so tiny -- think of a sparrow with a long beak and long legs -- and it was so intent on foraging for food that it let me sneak up quite close to it. It didn't seem very concerned about my presence at all, really:

My identification skills are still greatly lacking when it comes to shore birds, but between the yellow legs and the very small size, I'm almost certain that this is a Least Sandpiper. I just love that pristine russet pattern on this bird's back:

As the water receded, it revealed rocks positively shaggy with algae, like bright-green mops of hair:

Paul pointed out that this rock seems to be showing signs of male-pattern baldness:

When we made it onto the island, we still had some time before low tide, so we decided to explore. The interior of the island was fenced off to protect the wildlife (with signs telling people to keep out) -- we found several places where the fence had fallen, but we didn't push our way into the path-less tangle of bushes and vines beyond. We saw a few signs of ruined buildings, remnants of old attempts to make the island habitable (attempts that were doomed to failure because of a centuries-old curse, according to some stories I've read online).

We walked through lovely stretches of tall marsh grass as we made our way around the outside of the island, and we kept up a pretty stiff pace. (I was afraid we'd miss the tide if we didn't move....) Cormorants fished from the rocks just off-shore, and small birds flitted in and out of the island's interior. This is the best view I got of a tiny Marsh Wren, as it hid expertly among the waist-high grass:

So we made it all the way around the island and we didn't even get trapped by the tide! (As it turns out, we had plenty of time, but better safe than sorry.) As we finished our loop, we watched several small fish flinging themselves above the surface of the water -- perhaps escaping from something below? By random chance, I happened to get a picture of one of these sea-creatures just as it became airborne:

And then our fun adventure was over, and we made our way back across the sandbar toward more reliable land:

I'm sure we'll be at Silver Sands State Park again sometime in the future, but perhaps not until next spring or summer. And we'll need to do another round of careful planning if we ever want to return to Charles Island. I'm game!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Big Deadly Lady

Well, deadly for small insects, anyway.

A few days ago, a gigantic spider took up residence on our front porch, stretching her wide web across the open air between posts. During the day, she lounges on a dead leaf, one foot touching the web (perhaps so she can feel the vibrations in case something lands in it):

At night, she takes up her position in the very center of her web:

When I say she's "gigantic", I mean that I have to do a double-take whenever I catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. Her body alone is about 3/4 of an inch long, and the distance from the tip of one toe to another is an inch and a half. I suspect her species may be Neoscona crucifera, but I don't know for sure -- and I'm fairly certain she's female just because of her large size.

I admit, I put a cricket in her web last night, and it was almost frightening how quickly she was on the smaller creature, rolling it up in an instant and sinking her fangs into its body.

From what I've seen watching this girl, Shelob and Aragog might not really be so far away....

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mysterious Woodland Sounds: Owls and Chipmunks, and more

Today's discovery: animals make really weird noises.

I was walking my normal loop through the Naugatuck State Forest this morning when a loud screeching call started echoing through the forest. It didn't sound like anything I'd heard before -- not like a hawk or a Blue Jay, which are the normal screamers around here. I thought it might be mammalian in origin, perhaps an agitated carnivore... which didn't make me very eager to get closer, I must say. But then the source of the sound moved, and it was now coming from above. I looked up into the trees above the path, and there, perched on a branch and very actively looking around and making that crazy sound, was a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owls are the owls that make the classic "hoot-hoot" sound, usually at night, so I have no idea what this fellow was up to. I've read that juvenile Great Horned Owls make a screeching sound, but this creature's well out of the nest, so I don't know if that's a suitable explanation.

Here's a video I took of this owl making its crazy call -- I didn't think it would be post-worthy at first, but YouTube magically removed all the shaking, and now it's like a real video! The audio's quite soft, and you'll have to listen past the Blue Jay calling constantly in the background, but there's some cool stuff there. Also, if you right-click on the video to watch it on YouTube, and then enlarge it to full-screen, you can actually see the owl's mouth opening as it calls. The call right at the end is the best:

I just love owls, and any day I see one is immediately a best-day-ever. I wonder if this individual was part of the family of owls that was nesting in this same area earlier this year.... Be well, big fellow, and I hope your screaming got you whatever it was you wanted!

Speaking of strange sounds in the woods, I've been hearing this hollow wood-block sound for a while now, but it wasn't until today that I finally found its source: an Eastern Chipmunk. Here's another video -- again, you'll have to turn up your volume to hear the sound (my camera doesn't have a great microphone, as I'm learning):

Apparently this is a sound that chipmunks make when there's an aerial predator in the area, and in fact, right after I saw this guy, a small falcon zoomed across the path (chased by a Blue Jay... what tenacious birds). I've already learned to recognize that persistent bird-like cheeping that chipmunks make, but I had no idea these little mammals could produce this strange sound as well. There's always something new to learn!

Not everything in the woods today was noisy, of course, and I saw some cool silent creatures as well. The Red Efts (the terrestrial, juvenile forms of Red-spotted Newts) were out in force today, trundling along the sides of paths in several parts of the forest. (I love these little guys. Love, love, love.) The first eft I saw has the distinction of being possibly the most orange thing ever, as well as the only eft I've seen climbing above the ground (only by a foot or so, but still). Maybe this fallen branch was a handy bridge toward wherever the eft was going:

This eft I saw later in my walk was decidedly browner than the first, but no less photogenic:

Hello, eft creature, what a perfect little newt face you have:

On my way out of the forest, I stopped to hang out with a Common Yellowthroat who was foraging on a goldenrod-covered bank, when a second warbler popped into view. It was a Blackpoll Warbler, a bird I've only seen once before and at a great distance. This one was content to forage close by, within camera range:

In the spring, male Blackpoll Warblers have striking black and white plumage, similar at first glance to a chickadee. But in the fall, both males and females take on this more subdued look. Even without the bold spring markings, however, I think this is one pretty bird:

And I love that olive-and-brown striped back:

It was quite the day -- so many new things to learn, and it's always exciting to see old friends like the efts. The weather forecast is predicting rain every day for the next week, but I'm hoping there will still be a chance to get outside again before too long!

Monday, September 19, 2011


Our gutters collect rain water, and the House Sparrows are perfectly happy to snuggle under the eaves to drink and bathe there -- and to peek into our windows just below. Hello, little sparrow.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Farewell to Summer

Fall is quickly approaching! We woke up to lightly frosted cars this morning, and I spotted my first orange-tinged maple while I was driving yesterday. So my trip to the Naugatuck State Forest yesterday morning may be my last summer walk of the year, before fall starts really moving in!

I saw lots of exciting creatures, but many of them were too far away for good pictures. A Great Blue Heron was perched on a branch sticking out of the lake, preening its huge wings. A Belted Kingfisher was hunting, and I watched it catch a few small fish -- it would dive into the water while yelling at the top of its voice, which I wouldn't think would be a great hunting strategy, but I guess it works for the kingfisher! I saw a big owl up in the trees (the first owl I've seen since early May), but it was facing away from me, and it flew off before I could get a better look at it.

Not all the creatures stayed far away, however. At one point in my walk, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk swooped down along the path, passing right over my head, and then perched on a nearby branch:

It was quite the experience, having a big raptor flying right at me. What a gorgeous bird. I'm glad it decided to stick around for a little while.

Fall migration is definitely happening now. This Palm Warbler was making a pit stop on its journey south, foraging in some bushes next to the path:

It's amazing how much this species changes over the year. This fellow was pretty, but so brown and washed-out compared to the brilliant yellow I saw when these birds passed through this forest in the spring. The only reason I was able to recognize this as a Palm Warbler at all, actually, was because it was constantly wagging its tail, and I remembered that behavior from my last encounter with these birds.

It was a good day for really crazy and awesome wasps. Both of these next two creatures are species of ichneumon wasp, and they're some of the fanciest-dressed wasps I've ever seen. This one, ready for Halloween with it's neon orange antennae and black body, is (I'm pretty sure) the species Gnamptopelta obsidianator:

I don't know the exact species of this next ichneumon, but now that I'm on a Halloween track, I can't help thinking how much its white-on-black pattern resembles a skeleton costume:

Here's something new to me -- Wild Grapes:

I'm not sure how it's possible that I've never encountered grapes in the wild before -- they're not particularly uncommon. Apparently one has to be careful, though, not to confuse these with other dark vine-growing berries, like the poisonous Moonseed. One way to know for sure that you have grapes is to check the number of seeds inside the fruit -- grapes have several large seeds, whereas Moonseed only has one.

So I tasted a few of the grapes, and I have to say, they were phenomenal. The flesh was very sour near the seeds (which was about 70% of the fruit), but just below the skin it was quite sweet and super grape-y. I can't really explain what I mean, but the flavor was about three times as grape as any domestic grapes I've eaten. It was amazing. So basically, I would peel a small bit of the thick skin from a grape, squeeze out the inner section of seeds and sour flesh, and then suck on the sweeter grape concentrate that was left within the hollowed-out skin. My method definitely wouldn't sustain me if I was starving in the woods, but it made for a tasty treat. Yum!

Here are some other assorted sights from my walk:

There was fungi popping up everywhere, but I'm not yet up to par on my fungi identification skills. I thought this group of pale- and bright-orange fungi was particularly pretty, whatever their species names might be:

Several trees have fallen in the recent storms and rain, and this snapped tree made quite a dramatic sight, with that tall stake pointing toward the sky:

When we were in Norway, we saw many small carefully-balanced rock cairns scattered across the landscape, left by tourists, or possibly trolls, if the guides were to be believed. Apparently the rock-builders have made their way here as well:

There's something very pleasing to me about this sight, and I hope the structure stays standing for a long time.

As a side note, deer hunting season started yesterday, but I didn't see any hunters on my walk. My sense is that this part of the forest (around the lakes) is close enough to human habitation, and so often frequented by runners and bikers and walkers that it should be relatively safe for me to visit during the week. I will, however, stay away from the deeper parts of the forest -- which includes the meadows that I so enjoy visiting -- and I will be sure to wear bright clothing whenever I'm in the woods. I don't anticipate any problems, but it's probably best to be cautious.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Big Moth, and a Bigger Katydid

Last night, our lit-up porch became a temporary home for two large (and way cool) insects.

It took me a while to notice this moth, it was doing such a fantastic leaf impression:

This is a Large Maple Spanworm Moth (Prochoerodes lineola, aka Prochoerodes transversata), and it was just about exactly 2 inches across, from wingtip to wingtip. I love the combination of color, curves, and size on this creature. It's certainly not the biggest moth ever, but it's the largest I've seen under our porch light so far, and I think it's gorgeous.

Even bigger than the moth, and similarly leaf-like, this large katydid was making its way carefully (upside down) across the porch ceiling:

Katydids are close relatives of grasshoppers and crickets, as evidenced by those super-long hind legs. I'm not 100% sure what species of katydid this is, but I think it might be a male Greater Angle-wing Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium), which we often hear making their loud click-click-clicking calls at night around our apartment. (As in this recording. In fact, I hear one right now as I'm writing this.) I really like that mottled pattern all over its face and legs:

There are so many impressive insects out there, and I'm glad these two creatures decided to pay us a visit and let themselves be seen. :)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Two Sights from a Brief Walk

My walk this morning in the Naugatuck State Forest was a short one, yet there's always something interesting to see. Here are two tidbits from today's walk:

First, a spider's web (some sort of orb weaver, species unknown), illuminated by a rogue sunbeam among the densely-packed trees:

Spiders' webs are endlessly fascinating, not only because of their complexity, but also because of their insubstantiality -- from a different angle, this same spider seemed suspended on the frailest of single threads:

On one of the lakes, a distant Double-crested Cormorant slid like an orange-tipped arrow across the water's surface, and I noticed for the first time a distinctly autumnal tint in the surrounding foliage:

I guess this means Fall is really on its way. I'm ready. :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Year of eBird

About a year ago, two things happened that got me interested in watching birds. First, we moved to a new apartment, one that's surrounded by more trees than houses, is in a safe neighborhood where we can keep windows and blinds open, and is on the second floor above a steeply sloping yard, making for some fantastic views of tree tops, open sky, etc. It's a little like living in a tree house, and it became hard not to notice the great variety of cool and interesting birds hanging around outside our windows.

Second, I discovered eBird. I don't remember exactly how I stumbled across this amazing website -- it was probably during my search for a reliable online resource for identifying birds, the answer to which, of course, is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds -- but eBird latched onto the data-collecting/science-y side of my personality and quickly drew me in.

For those who don't already know, eBird is a website co-run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, where ordinary people around the country/world report the birds they see, and then researchers use that data to learn more about bird behavior, migration patterns, species ranges, and all sorts of other cool things. So eBird is useful both as a place for a single person to keep organized records of what/how many birds they've seen and where (the sort of thing birders do anyway, I'm told), and for scientists to gather tons of data that they otherwise wouldn't be able to get. Basically, eBird is good for me and it's good for science, and that makes it awesome.

I started recording my bird sightings in eBird (the first time I'd recorded any bird sightings at all, ever) on September 10, 2010, almost exactly a year ago. I started with short checklists of birds seen from my apartment windows, looking outside and counting birds for 15-30 minutes at a time, but eventually I recorded checklists for my longer walks in the woods as well. Keeping track of the birds I see on eBird has motivated me to learn more birds, and to get better at identifying them. And it's just satisfying somehow (to me, anyway) to have this magically consolidated and coordinated record of the birds I've encountered. In short, it's taken something that was already fun for me (looking at cool animals) and made it funner!

Anyway, I thought it'd be interesting to celebrate my one-year anniversary of eBird by sharing some of my results-so-far. One of the coolest things about eBird is that it can show you graphical charts of bird sightings organized by week for any given spot/area/region/etc. -- and this can be a chart of your own personal sightings, or the consolidated sightings from everyone in the area. Basically, the bigger the bar in a given week, the more frequently I saw (and reported) that bird in that week.

So without further ado, here's my chart for a year of bird-watching from my apartment windows:

There are so many interesting things to see in this data, and also a lot of artifacts from my own personal life. There are no reports for the third week of May because I was out of town (wedding week). The bars during the summer months are all really big because I only reported 2 or 3 checklists per week during that time -- I was getting distracted with other things... gardening, walking in the woods, visiting family -- whereas the the bars have a much wider range in the winter months because I was mainly cooped up in my apartment and looking out of my windows a lot. I reported fewer birds overall in October and November because I was still learning how to identify birds and I simply wasn't confident enough in my identification skills. (I'm still not an expert, but I definitely know more now.) The ducks show up only in the winter months and early spring because that's when the bare trees didn't block my view of the stream across the street. There could be birds down there right now and I wouldn't know it because I can't see them.

So the chart is a mixture of all sorts of restrictions and coincidences, but looking past the holes you can definitely see trends. We get Chimney Swifts in the summer and White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the winter. We have warblers that pop in for a visit in the spring and fall, and Chickadees, Titmice, and Blue Jays that stay all year round (maybe not the same individuals, but the same species at least). And 48 different species overall sounds like a pretty big number to me, considering I probably couldn't have even named that many species this time last year. (OK, maybe I could've, but still.) It'll be really interesting to see how this chart evolves as I keep recording birds through another year!

For comparison -- although it's far from complete -- I'll close with a similar chart of my sightings at Naugatuck State Forest for the year. The great majority of these reports come from the reservoir area, which is where I most frequently visit, although a few are from the meadows to the north; different habitats, but a single forest, so I feel OK lumping all the data together.

OK, now I can go back to posting pictures of animals rather than pictures of data, although I think both are cool. :)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mantis Security, Inc.

"This home is protected by a licensed Mantis Security agent. Everyone must submit to an inspection at the front door before entering the building."

(Seen upon opening my door to go outside last night.)

[Disclaimer: I wrote this before finding out that Mantis Security is a real thing.]

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Late Summer in the Meadows: Warblers and Orchids and More

This morning, I took a trip up to the meadows in the northern part of Naugatuck State Forest, where I have had great success in the past seeing birds among the tall grasses and low shrubs. I had tried to go there late yesterday afternoon, but a bunch of people and their raucous country music and shouting scared me away -- as well as any animals I was hoping to see, I would imagine. This morning, however, it was supremely peaceful, with clear skies and cool temperatures, and the creatures were out in abundance. In short, it was a perfect day for a walk.

It's amazing how much one place can change in just a few weeks. When I was in these fields in mid-July, the grasses were dotted with a mixture of white, yellow, and orange flowers. Now, everything is awash with gold -- goldenrod at its best, I should think:

I've seen Common Yellowthroats in this area before, but they must've had a family or two since I last visited, because these little birds were everywhere I went. I saw a full-grown male with his sleek white-bordered black mask, a first-year male with a mask that looked like someone had only half-finished painting it (everyone goes through that awkward teenager stage), and a few females and immature birds. This pretty girl (at least, I'm fairly sure this is a female) came quite close to me for some pictures:

That yellow sure is intense! At one point, she fluffed up her feathers and looked right at me -- are we showing off a little, perhaps?

Now that I think about it, there does seem to be a little black on this bird's face... so maybe it is an immature male after all? Either way, it was a fun photo shoot, and I really can't believe how bright that yellow is:

A little ways into my walk, I found myself in the middle of what I can only describe as a songbird storm. I had been heading toward a tree where a couple of chickadees were hanging out, and then suddenly they were all around me, down in the bushes and up in the trees on all sides. And it wasn't just chickadees, but also titmice, flycatchers, vireos, and at least three species of warblers, all swirling around me and calling and grabbing insects as fast as possible. I didn't quite know what to do with myself (sensory overload!), so I focused on the closest thing at hand, a lovely American Redstart (either a female or immature male) who was foraging in the bush next to me:

Full-grown males are deep black with bright orange markings, but you can still recognize this as a redstart because of those yellow-orange patches on her (I'm guessing this is a female) sides and tail. This bird was fanning her tail and fluttering her wings, as redstarts do, but too quickly for me to get a picture of this behavior. American Redstarts are a type of warbler (as are Common Yellowthroats), and their tail markings make them especially easy to identify from far away. I was very happy for the chance to hang out with this one up close, though!

After about two minutes, and as quickly as it came, the songbird storm ended and all the little flying creatures dispersed. It was totally strange, and who knows what I missed in all that confusion!

Unlike birds, of course, flowers sit still in one place for easy viewing. Even so, I almost missed seeing these guys nestled in among the tall grasses:

I was really excited when I spotted these flowers. They're Nodding Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua), one of our native orchids. While they're not particularly uncommon, I've never seen them in real life before -- hence the excitement. I found four of these plants blooming within a few feet of each other, with tiny grass-like leaves that I certainly never would have noticed if the flowers hadn't been there. Such dainty blooms, and I love the spiraling effect:

Right next to the ladies'-tresses were two more cool flowers that were new to me. They're both milkworts in the genus Polygala, but it was only after I learned their names that I realized how similar they look to each other. These larger purple/pink flowers are Field Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea):

And growing a foot or so away was the smaller white Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata):

I don't know when I'll next be able to visit these meadows, since my trips to Naugatuck State Forest will soon be restricted to Sundays (deer hunting season starts in mid-September, and this forest allows hunting). The next time I visit this place, it will most likely look completely different -- which just means it will be a new world to explore! I'm looking forward to it. :)