Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Unexpected Gift


And here I thought yesterday's frost was pretty; the thick snowflakes that fell today made the landscape outside our windows nothing short of stunning. I especially love the way the snow accents the fall leaves at their peak. How often am I going to get to see our yard's Red Maple looking like this?

Despite the heavy snow, it was business as usual today for our resident Gray Squirrels. I can't tell: is this little one excited about the snow, perturbed, or just indifferent?

I do so love snow. What an amazing birthday present. :)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Frosted Wanderings

I knew, when I left my apartment to drive to Naugatuck State Forest this morning, that it would be a cold walk. My first big tip-off came last night, when the falling raindrops turned suspiciously thick and sludgy. My suspicions were confirmed this morning, when I had to scrape ice off of my windshield for the first time this year, and then when I saw several cars (commuters, I presume) driving around with an inch or two of snow (real snow!) on their roofs. Winter, it seems, is on its way!

When I arrived at the woods, it wasn't just cold -- it was frozen. Not the lakes (that will come later), but leaves, plants, and everything else:

Mmm, pretty. Frost makes even common plants -- like the plantains, clover, and wild carrots in the picture above -- seem extraordinary, like they're dressed up for a special occasion. And how cute are the strawberry leaves in this next picture, all frosted and nestled in a bed of dry grass?

Frozen it may have been, but the animals didn't seem to mind. Birds were chittering and flying around everywhere, and there were plenty of creatures to see.

This female Hairy Woodpecker* was hard at work excavating a large hole in a fantastically fungus-covered tree:

Update 12/22/11: I've changed my mind, and I'm fairly convinced now that this is a Downy Woodpecker. I've seen some more Hairy Woodpeckers since I took this picture, and they do seem to be much bigger and with more strikingly large beaks and heads than this girl. So... Downy it is -- sorry for the confusion! (Either way, I still think the pictures are cool.)

Better check to see if the hole is big enough yet! (And I wonder what she will use it for.)

A pair of Hermit Thrushes was foraging for food among the mud and fallen leaves, and this one seems to have found something:

Something delicious, I hope?

This funky little bird is a Brown Creeper:

A little creeper, just creeping along. This bird is really good at climbing vertically up tree trunks, but I'm not actually sure that it can go downwards at all -- Brown Creepers generally creep up a tree for a little while, looking for tasty bugs in the bark, and then they fly down to the base of the next tree and start climbing up again. I think these birds are super cool, and I didn't even know they existed until I started visiting this forest about a year ago. And they're pretty good at the camouflage thing, too:

Other sights from today's walk included a flock of kinglets (Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned) that seemed to follow me wherever I went, and a teeny Red Squirrel chasing a Gray Squirrel easily twice its size. Hooray for activity, and hooray for living things!


*I've been getting much more confident recently about distinguishing between Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers -- these two species look very similar, especially when they're not sitting side by side -- but this picture had me second-guessing myself for a little while. This bird's beak looks small for a Hairy Woodpecker, but big for a Downy. So that's confusing. However, I don't see any black marks on this bird's outer tail feathers, and I remember it being fairly large in size, both of which point to Hairy Woodpecker. So that's my identification, at least for now. If anyone wants to correct me, feel free to do so!

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Red Cedar Celebration

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that my absolute favorite thing about our apartment is the view from my office window. And it's not a view of open sky and steep hills, either -- that's what you see when you look out our other windows -- it's a view directly into a tree that stands a few feet from the window and exactly at eye level, a tree that just happens to be a Red Cedar (also called a Red Juniper, Juniperus virginiana).

This tree is magical. Its dense, scaly, evergreen leaves provide shelter for any creature who needs it, and because it's so near our window, that means we get to see some cool animals up close. (This tree has been featured in the background of some of my posts already, in its capacity as a perch for baby Tufted Titmice, hot House Sparrows, and other assorted creatures.) And in the fall (i.e. right about now), it produces a bonus treat: juicy flesh-covered cones that look like small blue berries, and which the animals -- especially the birds -- just love.

The female Northern Cardinal in the picture above was snacking on the Red Cedar's offering this morning, mashing up the cones' pulp in her big beak, and getting not a little messy in the process (pretty girl, wash your face!):

Last week, a few American Robins stopped by for a meal -- a sleek adult:

And a gangly juvenile or two:

I even saw one of our local Gray Squirrels munching on the cones a couple of days ago -- our squirrels seem to prefer maple seeds, but perhaps the Red Cedar adds some nice variety to their diet:

Last year, this tree produced a bumper crop, with little blue spheres clustered on every branch tip, and we got long visits from very happy flocks of Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers as a result. This years bounty is much more tame, but still, the cones are just sitting there waiting to be eaten, and I'll be watching to see which animals stop by to oblige!

To the person who decided, long ago, to plant this tree outside our window: Thank you!

**Blooper Reel**

At one point in my photo shoot with the female Northern Cardinal, she shook her head, and I snapped a picture at just exactly the wrong moment. Here's the semi-disturbing result:

She's fine, I promise!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Autumn Woods Walk

Oh, how I love the woods in the fall. Late yesterday afternoon, I took advantage of the glorious weather and the remaining sunlight to go for a (relatively) quick walk around the lakes at Naugatuck State Forest. The colors are really getting bright out there, and the leaves were almost glowing in the sun. I don't think I could've asked for a lovelier path:

Or a prettier stream:

And the lake, with its multi-colored banks lit up by the afternoon sun....

Yes, it was a good day for a walk.

The animals were mostly quiet and hidden while I was there, but a few creatures did come out to check in on me. This Red Squirrel paused mid-vertical-scamper to watch me approach:

Honestly, I can't get over the cuteness of these creatures. Those big eyes! That luminous red and white fur! And you can even see tiny tufts on the ends of this guy's ears:

As I was nearing the end of my walk, and as the sun was just dipping below the treeline, I reached a stretch of path bordered by seed-topped goldenrod stems:

This particular goldenrod stand was (as you can almost see in the picture) blanketed with clouds of flying insects, and between the seeds and the bugs, it had become a veritable bird banquet. Flitting from ground to goldenrod to nearby trees (and back) were chickadees, titmice, a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and this striking fellow:

It's a Blue-headed Vireo, although I have to think with those awesome white spectacles, there must be another more interesting name we could give this bird. This was a new bird for me, and I was glad to meet him or her before the migration season is finished.

Beautiful scenery, a fluffy cute creature, and a pretty new bird -- what a great day. :)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hello, Fall!

The trees haven't quite reached their peak yet, but everything was looking very fall-ish when I went to visit the meadows at Naugatuck State Forest this morning:

The goldenrod stalks that were ablaze with yellow blooms in August are now topped with gray-fuzzed seeds, which several small birds seemed quite crazy about today -- a group of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers was moving constantly from tuft to tuft the whole time I was there. This Palm Warbler took time out of his/her busy feeding schedule to pose for a few pictures:

How lovely you look next to those old flower heads, little bird, their muted fall yellow being so similar to your own.

Thank you for humoring me and my camera clicks!

Also thoroughly enjoying the goldenrod's bounty this morning were a few Swamp Sparrows, a new bird for me:

These little guys are quite fun to watch, with their rufous-striped crowns and quirky perked-up tails (at least, this particular fellow kept his/her tail up high).

Little birds down in the grasses, and big birds above. Turkey Vultures are so common around here that it's easy to overlook them, but they're really quite majestic in flight:

And lest we think the insects might have gone away already, this wandering Ichneumon Wasp (species unknown) says otherwise:

It was a great walk, and I'm looking forward to more gorgeous fall days like this one!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

And the Prize for Best Camouflage Goes to...

Can you find the caterpillar in this picture?

How about in this one?

Really, this is some of the best camouflage I've seen. (If you can't find the caterpillar in the first picture, it's just below and to the right of center, and it's pretty small.) This master of disguise is a Hibiscus Leaf Caterpillar (Anomis privata, a species of moth), which we found on one of the Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) trees in our yard yesterday -- how appropriate, since Rose of Sharon is, well, a species of hibiscus. I know that Rose of Sharon isn't native to North America (it's from Asia), but I haven't been able to find out whether the caterpillar is an introduced species as well.... It matches the bark of this plant so well, however, that I wonder if it didn't come along for the ride.

Camouflage is great, of course, but not all creatures in the yard want to stay hidden. This large orb weaver spider (possibly even the same individual who recently maintained a web on our porch for several days) was boldly situated in the middle of her vast web, which stretches from the caterpillar's tree to another shrub, several feet wide and well above our heads:

And she's munching on a wasp, no less. Big spiders, it seems, don't have much to fear. (Except for equally bold birds, that is.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two Kinglets, Two Hawks

It was freezing cold when I started my walk around the lakes at Naugatuck State Forest this morning. Well, not literally freezing -- it was just below 40 °F -- but I sure felt the change in temperature, and I felt silly for not bringing gloves. The weather was crisp and clear, and the birds (if their extreme level of activity was any indication) loved it. Hello, fall!

I don't know how familiar people generally are with kinglets. For myself, I'd never heard of them until about a year ago. They're tiny little birds (smaller than a chickadee), and basically adorable. We have two species in North America: Golden-crowned Kinglets and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. (Such appropriately "kingly" names.) They're not rare birds, but I don't often see them, and when I do, they're usually up high in the trees.

So I was pretty excited today when I came across a Golden-crowned Kinglet foraging in a tree next to the path, right at eye level:

Golden-crowned, indeed! Although I think "flame-crowned" would be more accurate. I took about 50 pictures of this little guy (or girl -- both sexes look the same), and almost all of them came out either with a branch in the way, or with the kinglet halfway off the side of the picture -- this bird just did not want to sit still! It did, however, give me a great view of its most attractive feature, if only for a moment:

Oh, you glorious creature.

So I finally moved on, but I didn't get very far, because just a few trees over was our other species of kinglet, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, also foraging in plain sight and right at eye level:

These guys aren't quite as flashy as their golden-crowned cousins, but they're still adorable. The "ruby crown" in this bird's name is a small patch of red feathers that only the males have, and even then it's only visible when the bird raises its feathers to display the color.

What a treat, to get to see both kinglets in one day, and so close-up, too!

Later in my walk, I came across two other birds that were equally cool, but very different from the kinglets -- two juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks:

As far as hawks go, Sharp-shinned Hawks are pretty small -- only a little larger than a Blue Jay. When I first saw these guys flying through the forest, I thought they were some sort of falcon, because until I looked it up, I didn't know hawks could be so small. The first hawk (in the slightly blurry picture above) was chasing the second one, and when the latter bird landed on a branch above my head, I could see the reason for the chase:

Mmm, a feathery meal, but not enough to for two, it would seem!

As a side note, Sharp-shinned Hawks are apparently doing quite well nationally, but they're listed as endangered in Connecticut. I'm not sure of the exact reasons for this, but the information does make seeing them today that much more exciting.

One last note from today's walk: In another sure sign of fall, the White-throated Sparrows have returned from their summer vacations up north. I saw several of these perky little birds, but they spent most of their time foraging within the thick brush, as White-throated Sparrows are wont to do, and they didn't provide much opportunity for clear photos. Can you see the hidden sparrow in this last picture?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pigeon Rescue

I woke up this morning to my ringing cell phone. It was Paul (yes, I sleep in while he's industrious and goes out running), and he was calling me with a problem: He'd found a Rock Pigeon on the side of the road, alive and moving around, but clearly injured in some way and unable to fly.

I didn't have a clear idea about what to do. Part of that was because I was still 95% asleep, but I also just don't know very much about injured wildlife. I knew that there are several wildlife rehabilitators near us, but my first guess was that such places might not even take in a Rock Pigeon, since they're not a native species, and they're so common. (That turned out to be a wrong guess, but I didn't know that at the time.) So I advised Paul to leave it and come home, as sad as he might be to have to do that -- he didn't have anything to carry it in anyway, and a lady in the neighboring house was staring at him like she thought he might start stealing things.

Once I actually woke up, though, I did a little research. As it turns out, rehabilitators are actually more likely to accept non-native species like Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, and European Starlings, since those species aren't protected under certain federal wildlife laws and a person doesn't need a special permit to care for them. (I don't know the exact legal details for the situation, but it boils down to something like that.) So Paul and I decided to act. On the off-chance that the pigeon was still there, we grabbed a cardboard box, put a comfy towel inside, and walked back to the spot where Paul had seen the bird an hour before.

And there it was, sitting in the greenery right next to the road. When we approached the bird, it flapped its wings but wasn't able to fly away. So I just reached down and scooped it up in my hands, and as soon as I was holding it, my earlier "just leave it be" attitude pretty much evaporated. It was warm, and so soft, and I know Rock Pigeons are about as common as can be, and they don't even technically "belong" on this continent, but this was a gorgeous bird, a real living creature, and I kind of melted a little inside at that moment.

Look at those eyes! And that iridescent ruff! I can see why people keep these birds as pets. (Photo taken by Paul.)

We didn't see anything immediately wrong with the little fellow -- no blood, no obviously broken wing -- so we put him (I don't really know the bird's sex, but we guessed male) into the box, where he nestled down into the towel to rest. I called around, and a nice lady at the Ansonia Nature Center's wildlife rehabilitation place agreed to take him in. (She first had me check the bird's legs for a band, to make sure it wasn't someone's pet, which is also when we took the above picture.)

So we drove our pigeon friend over there during Paul's lunch break and handed him off. We'll call back in a couple of days to see how things went, but for now we're just happy to have done our part to help someone in need. Be well, little Rock Pigeon!

P.S. Don't worry, I washed my hands, although I'm pretty sure it's a myth that pigeons are particularly "dirty" birds -- no dirtier than any other bird, I would imagine. But still, it's best to be safe.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Meadows Are Winding Down

When I visited the meadows of Naugatuck State Forest a month ago, the goldenrods were in full bloom, and summer was just starting to consider giving way to autumn. When I returned there this morning, the seasonal transition was well under way -- most of the bright yellow has faded to brown, and although the trees haven't gotten into the full swing of fall yet, several of the smaller trees looked conspicuously bare.

There were birds everywhere, but few were willing to sit close enough and still enough to have their pictures taken. This fluffed-up Field Sparrow was the exception, perched contentedly within a patch of almost-completely-bare shrubs:

I enjoy the pale pink-ish markings on this little bird, and that white eye-ring definitely adds to the cuteness factor.

Part of my walk took me through what seemed to be an avian war zone. A small hawk flew by in the treetops, while 20 or so American Robins and Blue Jays went berzerk over my head, calling and flying from tree to tree, presumably in response to the hawk (a few chipmunks were sounding the alarm as well). There were several other small birds in the mix, too, but the bigger birds were by far the most raucous -- I've never seen robins make so much noise before!

The days are getting shorter, and the nights colder (in the 40s and 50s, no real frosts yet), and I came across quite a few insects still out and about and doing their thing. This fantastic Common Buckeye (a new butterfly for me) landed on the path to sun itself for a little while:

Now those are some eye spots!

A few dragonflies were prowling the fields, and this bright orange damselfly seemed an appropriate herald of fall:

As the day warmed up, more insects awoke, and the grasses hummed with the sounds of grasshoppers. This particularly angry-looking fellow jumped out and stared me down:

I thoroughly enjoyed today's perfect fall weather, and I'm waiting excitedly for the leaves to really start to change -- I've seen a few red/orange trees already, and the rest should be on their way soon!