Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pileated Woodpecker

Boy, the weather has been crazy this winter. It was 50 degrees today, despite the fact that it's still January, and it's supposed to be 60 tomorrow. (Then it'll go back to the 30s and 40s again, but no sign of snow in the near future.) Just to underscore the total spring-ness of today, a moth spent some time flying around outside my office window a couple of hours ago. Go back to sleep, moth!

Anyway, with weather so nice, how could I not go out to the woods today? The lake ice at Naugatuck State Forest was all melted around the edges, enough for a pair of Mallards to be paddling around in the water, and a Belted Kingfisher was doing some fishing. The best part of the walk, though, was a bird that I only glimpsed briefly, from far away, before it flew off deeper into the woods:

Pileated Woodpeckers are totally the best, in my opinion, and this female (I think) was busy chiseling a nice big hole way up in this tree. Usually, I just see the holes that these birds make, and I haven't actually seen the woodpeckers themselves in a while, so I was excited to cross paths with this big girl. :)

I kept expecting to hear Spring Peepers today, it was so warm, but we're not quite there yet.... If we're not actually going to have real winter (i.e. snow), can't we just skip to spring?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Winter Escape in San Diego, Part 3: Anna's Hummingbird

So the seals, whales, and squirrels were awesome, and the gulls, egrets, and pelicans were fun, but probably my favorite creature that we met on our San Diego trip was one of the smallest things we saw:

This male Anna's Hummingbird was super tiny (as hummingbirds are), but I tell you, he was the star of the show. He had a patch of the La Jolla seaside cliffs staked out, right next to the sidewalk, and almost every time walked by the area -- several times over the course of two days -- this guy would be sitting on one branch or another, looking around eagerly and singing his little heart out with tiny wheezy trills:

I've never seen such a bold hummingbird before. And I don't know if this is a characteristic of Anna's Hummingbirds in general, or if this guy was just especially cheeky, but he cared not the slightest that streams of people were walking past just a few feet away from him, or that I was sitting there clicking my camera at him for minutes at a time. He'd flit off, presumably to inspect the nearby flowers, but then he'd always come back again and resume his show.

And really, he was something to see. All those feathers on his face look black in the first two pictures because they're not yet reflecting the light toward me. But when he turned his head just right...

If you want to attract some attention (some female attention perhaps?), that's how you do it. I couldn't tear myself away from this guy!

The range of colors that he produced was just dazzling -- and he was even brighter in real life than what the camera shows, although this is a pretty close approximation, as I remember it. I love the rusty maroons when the feathers just barely catch the light:

And the deep blue that starts to creep in at the really intense angles:

I took tons of pictures of this little fellow during several visits to his spot, and he was probably one of the best photography subjects I've ever had -- certainly the most obliging bird I've encountered!

Who would've guessed that such a tiny bird could have such a big personality?

I took a brief video of the little guy as well. Unfortunately, you can't hear his call, and the color isn't as good (or as accurate) as it is the pictures, but I love the way he raises and lowers his feathers, flashing that iridescence like a beacon in every direction.

And with that, the San Diego trip is now officially over -- and I think I saved the best for last. Here in Connecticut, it's gray and raining, and the snow is gone, but hopefully the weather will brighten up soon so I can get back out and visit my usual haunts. It's lots of fun to explore new places and see new things, but I do miss my familiar woods when I'm away!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winter Escape in San Diego, Part 2: Birds and Other Beach Critters

We had an awesome time exploring the San Diego shore, and we got to hang out up close with some pretty cool creatures. I mentioned the seals and squirrels in my last post, but the birds, especially, seemed completely unafraid of people, and many let us get within a few feet of them without showing any signs of discomfort. Some of the birds, like this Snowy Egret, were ones that I already knew from my home on the east coast, but that didn't make them any less cool:

Check out those yellow feet! This fancy fellow was hanging out on our whale-watching boat, perhaps keeping an eye on us in case we dropped some fish. (Hey, you never know!)

Even though I've seen egrets and herons plenty of times now at the ocean, I still find myself surprised to see them there, I guess because for some reason I have it in my head that these should be fresh water birds. Either way, we found another Snowy Egret hunting in the tidal pools near our hotel. They're such elegant little birds, and this one looks almost like it has horns:

I saw Brown Pelicans for the first time just a few weeks ago, in New Orleans, but not in nearly as large numbers as they were here:

So many pelicans! These pelicans were also much more brightly colored than the ones I saw in Louisiana -- I don't know for sure whether this is because of some regional difference, or if these birds were coming into breeding plumage, or maybe a combination of both. (The internet is inconclusive on this question.) In any case, I definitely didn't see anything near this shade of red when I was watching those other Brown Pelicans last month:

This cute Black Phoebe was a new bird for me, although it looked almost identical to our Eastern Phoebe from back home -- the only difference that I could see was its all-black breast, and it was making a chirping sound instead of the familiar "phoe-bee" call:

So many of the gulls on the beaches looked all the same to me (I'm still not very good at identifying gulls), except for one strikingly different species. This handsome fellow is a Heermann's Gull, a species that lives only along the Pacific coast:

I don't know of any other gull that has a head lighter than its body. And how about that bright red beak, and the ring around its eyes?

Here's something interesting that I learned just now: The Heermann's Gull is listed globally as near threatened (on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) because, although its population is relatively stable, 90% of its entire worldwide population nests on a single small island, and if something happens to the island, there goes the gull! Fortunately, the island is well protected, so it doesn't sound like these birds are in any immediate danger. Maybe you should think about spreading out a little, gull!

Back at the beach near our hotel, we had a lot of fun poking around in the tidal pools, with the ocean roaring nearby but failing to reach us:

My camera is woefully incapable of taking clear pictures through the surface of the water, so I don't have any shots of the many hermit crabs and seaweed-green fish we found in the pools. But there were plenty of things to see above the water, too, like these carefully closed-up barnacles and chiton -- these are barely recognizable as animals, but they'll come back to life once the tide comes in!

And speaking of animals in hiding, Paul was the first to notice these strange doughnut-shaped mounds of shells in several places on the rocks:

We had no idea what could've been gathering bits of shell together like that, and on closer inspection, the shells turned out to be all stuck together. Then we found a similar mound covered by a little water, and that provided the answer to our mystery:

Sea anemonies!

The creatures in tidal zones are always amazing -- what a crazy environment to have to live in, and it seems like they do a good job of it!

I have one more creature from our trip that I'd like to share, but it's going to have to get its own post. (I took too many pictures, and it's too cool!) So one more day of spring-like San Diego, and then it's back to normal post about gray/snowy/rainy/wet Connecticut!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Escape in San Diego, Part 1: Mammals of Land and Sea

While the weather here in Connecticut got increasingly cold and wintry this past weekend (with six inches of new snow!), Paul and I took a trip across the country, all the way to San Diego. Neither of us had been there before, and I hadn't been to California for years, so it was quite the change of environment for us. We were technically there for a wedding, but we made sure to work in plenty of extra time to wander around and explore... and to look for animals, of course!

Our first scheduled activity, in fact, was an off-shore whale watch. What better way to start exploring a new place than to look for the giant creatures that live in its oceans? (Well, perhaps an activity that doesn't cause seasickness, which, it has now been confirmed, is definitely a problem for me! But, oh well.) And we did see whales. At least four big Gray Whales crossed our path on their southward migration. Mostly, we saw the mist shooting up from the whales' blowholes as they skimmed the surface to breathe:

And every few minutes, we'd get a glimpse of a fluke as the whales made a dive:

One of the whales even came close enough to show off its barnacle-covered back as it skimmed the water's surface:

I still can't really believe that such huge creatures exist under the water, and it was hard to get a real sense of their size from the little glimpses that they gave us. But really, it was just extraordinarily cool to be in their presence.

Seasickness notwithstanding, it was a great little trip. We didn't get to see any dolphins, which are apparently very common in these waters, but we were greeted by a sunning California Sea Lion on our way back into the harbor:

(Sadly, it looks like this Sea Lion has some fishing line stuck around its neck. I hope the poor fellow will be OK...)

During the rest of our stay, we spent a lot of time wandering along the coastline near our hotel in La Jolla, which is a community in the northern part of San Diego. The shore here was just gorgeous, alternating between dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches, and with animals everywhere. There were tons of birds (look for more on those in a future post), but the creature that really got the two of us excited was another mammal. The small protected beach in this next picture is called Children's Pool, and it just happens to be a daily haven for a large group of Harbor Seals:

Harbor Seals are kind of amazing, in that they somehow manage to walk the line between ridiculously funny-looking and mind-meltingly adorable. I think they look more sleek than ungainly when they first emerge from the water:

And they get super fluffy when they've dried off in the sun, showing off beautiful speckled fur:

But even with all that fur and those fantastically cute faces, I can't help seeing the seals as big awkward blobs rolling around on the sand, especially when they move! I took a couple videos of beach action, so you can see what I mean:

I keep thinking they don't look like seals so much as caterpillars, or slugs, when they move. And yet, there's some sort of grace to their movements, even on land:

Even from behind the ropes that were put up to keep people and seals separate, we felt like we were really hanging out with the seals, and it was awesome. And blubber or no, the life of a seal sure looks good from this angle!

These Harbor Seals were definitely used to people hanging around, which meant that we could walk around just a few yards from them without disturbing them. There was another mammal inhabiting the cliffs of La Jolla that showed a similar lack of concern for people as well, not unlike some of its eastern urban relatives that I've encountered. Squirrel!

These California Ground Squirrels were all over the place, content to keep foraging as we stared and pointed at them, or, sometimes, to stare right back:

I don't know what this succulent ground cover is, but it must be delicious to a squirrel:

[Edit: The plant is probably either Ice Plant or Sea Fig, both of which are introduced and invasive in California. Thanks for the info, Chris!]


We saw many other creatures on our trip, and I've got more cool things to share, so watch for another post (or maybe two?) in the near future!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sapsucker Sign, and Icy Impressions

We had our first real snow of the season a couple of nights ago. (That freaky debilitating snowstorm in October didn't really count.) As far as I'm concerned, it never officially feels like winter until there's white stuff falling from the sky and covering the ground, and I'm very happy that we finally got it. It wasn't very much, though, and by now most of the snow has melted again, leaving just the faintest dusting in some parts of the Naugatuck State Forest where I went for a walk this afternoon:

The animals were quiet for the most part (except for the raucous Belted Kingfisher that seems to always be patrolling these lakes but is too quick for pictures, and a Great Horned Owl that was calling from somewhere deep in the woods), but there were plenty of other interesting things to see.

I've walked by this tree next to the path a million times before (roughly), but only today did I notice an interesting feature in its bark, one that I decided to examine more closely:

All those little holes peppering its bark -- each one about the width of a pencil -- are the work of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker that I've encountered in these woods a few times before. I wonder how many years these birds have been working on this tree to make so many holes!

Some of the holes showed signs of recent sap flow -- these birds aren't called "sapsuckers" for nothing:

In other holes, the sap was welling to the surface, making a little jewel-like bubble:

And some holes were filled with what appeared to be seeds:

When I tried to pry this one loose, it cracked open. That looks like a seed to me!

I don't know if this is a sapsucker's work -- I didn't think they ate seeds, but maybe they do -- or if some other industrious creature has been using the bird's excavations as a kind of handy larder. (The hole is the perfect size for that seed.) Several of the holes were similarly filled, and some of the contents had even started to deteriorate, so they must've been there for a while. I can't tell the whole mysterious story of these holes, but they were fun to examine!

Speaking of mysteries, the ice on the lakes today provided some puzzles as well. A few of these large (several-foot-wide) snowflake shapes were scattered across the ice's surface:

Could these patterns have been created by stones falling through weak ice? I've never seen anything like this before, but it's quite pretty!

On the smaller lake, the ice showed different signs of disturbance:

Some small creature definitely walked across this ice while it was soft, leaving an impression of its passage. I have no idea who made these tracks -- here's a picture from another angle:

So many things to wonder about! If anyone has answers to some of these mysteries, I'd love to hear them!

Tomorrow, I leave for the last in my recent string of trips to exotic locations. This time, I'm going all the way west, to San Diego. There will be whale watching (so excited!!), and maybe time to explore some other things as well. So look for a (hopefully interesting) post about that in the future. And enjoy the cold weather while I'm gone! :P

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jumping Spider, Close Up

There was a cute little Jumping Spider prowling around our bathroom today, and so I grabbed the opportunity to take the new macro lens I got for Christmas out for a spin. Say cheese!

I honestly think Jumping Spiders are fantastic, and I've often found that the closer I look at one, the prettier they are. This one had the most awesome greenish/reddish stripes that just registered as boring brown from far away:

It's nice to know that even though it's freezing outside, there are always fun creatures hanging around somewhere. Just don't tell Paul there's a spider living in the bathroom. :D

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Under Surveillance

After finding that immature Cooper's Hawk at the beach last weekend, I mentioned to Paul how cool it'd be to see an adult -- while the young birds are pretty enough, adult Cooper's Hawks have sleek slate-gray caps and backs, rusty-red barred breasts, and bright red eyes. They're just so cool looking. (The same is true for their smaller, similar-looking relative, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, of course.)

So I was happy today when an adult Cooper's Hawk decided to take up a post in a tree down the street from our house, just visible from our window. It stayed there for over an hour, turning its head constantly so it could keep an eye on several yards at once:

How fun to get a visit from this bird. Here's hoping it found something good to eat to make its stay worthwhile!

(Also, I really like this idea of me wishing for something and then getting it.... Boy, I'd love to see one of those Snowy Owls that have been showing up further south than usual this year! ... Did it work?)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Few Beach Sights

This past Saturday, when it was ridiculously warm (high 50s) and feeling like spring, I decided to go take a walk on the beach. I wasn't the only one to have that idea, though, and Silver Sands State Park was hopping -- I haven't seen this many people here since summer!

It was a quick walk, and I have two brief things to share.

First, this immature Cooper's Hawk, who was perched in the trees right next to the path:

Not shown: the small herd of Pugs waddling by on the path below. The hawk was absolutely watching them with interest -- I don't know if it was seriously considering going for them, but in any case, it flew off when the Pugs' people made some noise.

This Northern Mockingbird on a bare Multiflora Rose is probably the most wintery scene I've encountered so far this year -- strange, considering how little it felt like winter on the day I took the picture:

It's fun to take advantage of the nice weather when it shows up!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Temporarily Spring

It was nearly 60 degrees today. (!) This honeybee found the perfect place to warm up and enjoy the strangely spring like-weather -- on the roof of my car!

Here's hoping everyone got a chance to relax today and soak up some sun. :)