Wednesday, February 29, 2012

OK, I guess Starlings can be kind of pretty sometimes, too

This fellow was outside my office window yesterday afternoon. My usual reaction to European Starlings is something along the lines of: "yechh, starlings." Aside from the aggressively invasive aspect, I generally just think they look ugly. But every once in a while, in the right light, one of them changes my mind just a little. Oh, starlings.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Winter Green

I keep expecting to see signs of spring in the woods, even though I know it's not quite time for that yet. Just to remind me that winter's still here, the paths at Naugatuck State Forest where I went for a walk this afternoon showed a thin layer of packed snow, left over from the few inches we got last Thursday:

Maybe because my mind is already in spring mode, though, I honed in on the color green during my walk today. There wasn't much in the way of new things growing, but it was nice to notice some of our plants that keep their leaves all winter. As it turns out, there's quite a bit of living green out there among the brown!

The shiny purple-green leaves of Round-leaved Pyrola, for example, dotted the side of this bank:

And this Spotted Wintergreen contributed a lovely blue-green hue to the mix -- one of these plants is still holding on to the dried remains of last year's flower:

Partridgeberry stretched chains of its tiny dark-green leaves across the ground:

My favorite discovery of the day was this lone Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, one of our native orchids, growing in a different part of the forest from where I found it blooming last summer. Its intricately patterned leaves practically glowed from its setting on the brown forest floor:

Isn't this just the prettiest little plant? I'll keep an eye on it to see whether it blooms this year.

The Hemlock trees looked especially green today, making a roof above the path:

And I love the extensive patches of sea-green lichen on this tree -- I've often noticed it, but neglected to photograph it until now:

And of course, what list of green things in the winter woods would be complete without some moss? There are so many different types of moss out there, and maybe one day I'll try to learn to identify them -- for now, I'll just marvel at some of the interesting textures and vibrant colors that presented themselves today:

The only real sign of spring I've seen so far remains the Skunk Cabbage, and those plants are getting stronger by the day, with little mottled maroon-and-yellow balloons popping up all over the swampy areas of the forest:

And what's this? A hint of new-green Skunk Cabbage leaf unrolling as well?

Maybe spring really is on its way after all. :D

Thursday, February 23, 2012

And It Was Thiiiiiiiiis Big!

Me, earlier today: "Don't look now, but I think we have a new friend living in that corner..."

Paul: "Yecch. Squish it!"

For some reason, Paul doesn't like it when spiders show up in the house. Especially not big ones. And this one was really big!

I declined to squish it, but I did take the creature down with the help of a paper towel and a plastic cup (and I cleaned up those cobwebs while I was at it), and took took him/her outside.

This is a cellar spider, and I'm pretty sure its species is Pholcus phalangioides, which is apparently one of the more common cellar spiders in North America (and it occurs around the world). I'm sure I've seen these creatures in passing before -- they like to live in human homes, hence their common name -- but I've never stopped to really look at one before. And I don't think I've ever seen one this big.

For context, this is quite a big cup. I measured it just now, and the cup is 4 inches across at the lip. I think that means this spider was just about that big, too, with its gangly legs all stretched out. (I remember I had a hard time fitting the cup over it in the first place.) Would you like a closer view?

Now those are legs! I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that this spider actually moves with such wispy, insubstantial-looking appendages. What would it be like to walk around on super long and thin stilts all day?

Here's my final attempt at providing some perspective on this creature's size, although I think this picture just makes my hand look extra small:

Cellar spiders eat insects (and other spiders), and they don't hurt people, so I actually wouldn't have been too upset to have a gentle giant like this guy hanging out in the corner of our ceiling. And who knows, if they like living in houses so much, maybe we'll actually see him (or her) again soon.

Update: It's a couple hours after I made this post, and lo, we found another one of these creatures, the same size, crawling across Paul's desk. I'm pretty sure it was a different individual, because the abdomen was a little rounder than the first, and we took this one outside, too. I think I read, on one of the random websites that I was browsing when looking up cellar spiders, something about males and females living as pairs in close proximity.... Maybe these two are a couple, and they can find each other again outside?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Blogging Year in Review

Today marks the one-year anniversary of when I started writing this blog.... How quickly time passes! To celebrate the occasion, I've decided to try something new: Around New Years, I noticed a bunch of other nature blogs publishing a year-end summary of their sightings and adventures, which I thought was a very cool idea. I missed the boat there, but an anniversary seems like as good a time as any to do my own "year in review"!

And so, for your condensed enjoyment (and mine), here are some of my favorite highlights from the past year:


Wow.... It's been quite a year! I've had so much fun recording my adventures and sharing them with everyone on this blog -- it's been a great outlet, and I think it's successfully served its original purpose (to keep me from emailing pictures to my family and friends all the time). :P Thank you to everyone who's visited this space, and read my ramblings, and commented in the past year! I'm perfectly happy talking to myself, but it's always nice when someone else listens, too. :)

I'm very excited to see what the next year brings!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Visiting Raptors

Most days, if you look up into the sky around our apartment, you'll see raptors of one sort or another circling high above -- usually it's Turkey Vultures, or sometimes Black Vultures, or a Red-tailed Hawk or two. These predatory birds are pretty much always around, but it's a special thing when they decide to settle down nearby for a closer view. I was pretty excited about the Cooper's Hawk who stopped by about a month ago, and we've had some more cool visitors in the past few days.

On Thursday, a Red-shouldered Hawk showed up and perched on an improbably small branch high in one of our neighbor's trees:

I think Red-shouldered Hawks are quite pretty, with that reddish breast and black-and-white striped wings (and tail, although you can't see it well here). For some reason, I've only seen them around our apartment in the winter so far -- I wonder where they go the rest of the year.

This afternoon, we got another surprise visit when a Turkey Vulture came in for a landing. What a huge hulking creature!

Someday I hope to see a Turkey vulture really close up, but this is the nearest I've gotten so far. This one landed in the tree, stretched its gigantic wings (I missed that photo), gnawed on that twig for a bit (I have no idea why), and then took off again to join the two other Turkey Vultures circling overhead. Just look at those talons.... That's quite a bird!

I love having windows to look out of, and big bare trees in which raptors can perch. Feel free to stop by again soon, big birds!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Winter Color in the Woods

On these (not actually very cold) winter days, when I go for walks in the woods, I don't really expect to see much -- many creatures are sleeping or away, and most of the plants are dormant, and those are the things most likely to capture my attention in the warmer months. I enjoy moving through these quiet woods, and I'm always open to seeing things if I happen upon something new and unusual, but I don't set my expectations too high. For whatever reason, though, while I was walking in Naugatuck State Forest this past Wednesday, I seem to have noticed more things than I normally do in winter. Nothing especially earth-shattering happened while I was there, but I think I paid more attention to features along the trail that I often take for granted. And really, the normal winter woods can be exciting, too.

I watched some fun bird acrobatics among the trees. A pair of Brown Creepers (I've never seen two in the same place before) were vacuuming up bugs on the tree trunks near a stream. They're such tiny birds, just little brown-and-white dots working the big trunks, and I think they're awesome (there's just one bird in this picture):

This male Downy Woodpecker was showing some serious skill, too, moving all along (and climbing under) this vine to test every possible spot with his beak -- and yes, this picture is right-side up:

These stark black fertile fronds from a Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) stood out so much in the overall brown landscape that I can't believe I never stopped to look at them before:

These strange beaded structures are actually a special type of frond (i.e. leaf) that stands through the winter and contains the fern's spores, which will be released into the air in the spring. An entire south-facing bank was covered with these fronds, like weird flags stuck into the ground:

(As a side note, I actually really love this particular bank. Last year, it was the first place in these woods where I found flowering Trout Lilies, and as the months progessed, its carpet of lilies was replaced with one of ferns, then milkweed and Joe-Pye weed, among other things; just a succession of beautiful plants and flowers all year, and all densely packed together. I'm looking forward to watching this spot grow and change again this year.)

There were some wonderful spots of color in the woods, like these tiny frills of what I think is Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) on a fallen branch:

And I love the color on these Black Raspberry canes -- it makes me think of the plant's berries, which I won't get to sample again until late July:

Really, these canes have the best colors ever:

I did see one unusual thing on my walk. One spot in the path was littered with tufts of hair -- I think some furry animal ran into some trouble here:

The fur was medium-length and fluffy -- I thought it was clumps of down feathers at first. Perhaps it once belonged to a rabbit?

And walks in the woods continue to be interesting, at any time of year!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Fluffy Blue Jay

It's been pretty cold outside these past couple of days, but this Blue Jay knows how to keep warm, all puffed up in the bare-branched coniferous tree (is it a tamarack?) in our back yard:

I'm a little surprised I haven't posted any pictures of Blue Jays here until now -- they're constantly around our house and are quite fun to look at, even from far away. It's nice to stop and appreciate the really common creatures every once in a while. Stay warm, Blue Jay!

(And yes, after looking at the myriad hearts-in-nature pictures that have been scattered all over the internet today, I can't help seeing a heart shape in this bird's chest. So... happy Valentine's Day?)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Flowers

I'm not crazy; it's still way too early for spring. Even so, on my walk in Naugatuck State Forest this afternoon, I saw our first wildflowers of the year:

Yep, those are definitely Skunk Cabbage blossoms! Well, technically the flowers are inside of that mottled hood (a "spathe"), and it may not have opened entirely yet, but I'm calling it: The first flowers of spring are here!

All hail the mighty Skunk Cabbage!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Turkey's the Turkey, You Turkey."*

As I was driving home from the beach on Monday, I came across something really cool. Turkeys!

There were at least 30 Wild Turkeys in this flock (or herd?), all streaming across the road and over a stone wall into a nearby yard:

(Update 9/13/12: My mother has just informed me that a group of turkeys is called a "gang", which somehow feels extremely appropriate for describing these birds. A group of turkeys can also be a "rafter", but I like "gang" better.)

Come on, ladies, over the top you go!

These creatures were eying me and my car pretty warily, but they still let me get some fantastic close-up views as we crossed each other's paths. I actually don't know if I've ever been so close to Wild Turkeys before! Unfortunately, the light was quickly fading, so most of these pictures are kind of blurry, but they still give a pretty good idea of the total weirdness of these birds. What a face!

Turkeys are definitely big, but they were trucking along at a brisk pace on those long legs. And the expressions on their faces were really something else. I feel like this trio must've been channeling a bit of the Skeksis -- they look downright dastardly from this angle:

From what I could tell, most of these birds were female, and the few males that I saw in their breeding garb really stood out. Check out this fancy fellow's long "beard", and all those iridescent colors in his feathers (that's something I didn't expect -- pretty colors on a turkey!):

It's a little hard to tell in this picture, but he's also got big sharp spurs on his legs, the better for fighting with other males, I assume.

After an afternoon of exciting sights at the beach, the turkeys were a great end to the day. I love living outside the city!

*The title of this post is a quote from the classic holiday special, A Muppet Family Christmas. Wow, did I really just make two Jim Henson references in one post?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Paddling Gulls, Fishing Kingfishers, a Hidden Mammal, and Other Beach Sights

Yesterday afternoon, with all that clear blue sky and 50-degree temperatures, I decided to take a trip to the beach. Silver Sands State Park in Milford, when I got there, was practically empty of people and just gorgeous -- it was a great day for an adventure!

I'm starting to understand why birders hang out at the shore, especially in the winter. My recent walks in the woods have been mostly quiet, a time to relax and ramble and see cool things every now and then; by comparison, this place was bursting with activity. Besides the hundreds of gulls flying around everywhere, there were several other interesting creatures out and about, like this flock of Brant, a small goose that breeds in the summer at the very top of the continent and comes down here to spend the winter:

This is the first time I've seen these birds in Connecticut, and it's always fun to meet new visitors.

Speaking of new birds, I watched a group of dippy little Sanderlings foraging on a sandbar at low tide -- I like how there's one bird taking a bath all the way on the right of this picture, while the rest of his friends are hard at work:

I'm sure I must have seen Sanderlings at some point in my life before now, it's just that this is the first time I've been able to call them something more than just "little dippy birds".

At a pool near the beach, a Belted Kingfisher was doing his thing -- no orange on his sides, so this is definitely a "he":

I have never met such a bold kingfisher before! There's a female Belted Kingfisher who lives at the lakes in Naugatuck State Forest, and I see (and hear!) her just about every time I visit there -- but almost without fail, she stays on the very opposite end of a big body of water from me. This guy had no such reservations. He wasn't about to come land right next to me, but he didn't fly half a mile away when I walked by his tree, either:

I think Belted Kingfishers are quite majestic (appropriately enough), but they can also look a little goofy, if the wind blows their big fancy crest the wrong way:

This kingfisher was making good use of the pool. I watched him dive into the water, snatch up a little fish, and then do a victory lap (or at least, that's what it seemed like to me) while he swallowed the fish in midair:

I love how he got perfectly arrow-shaped as he cut through the air:

So that was awesome -- I don't know when I'll get to hang out with a kingfisher like that again!

On the bank of the kingfisher's pool, a Song Sparrow was hopping around in a small tree, and that drew my attention for a little while. By random chance, though, my eyes wandered down from the sparrow to a thick tangle of brush below the tree, and then I realized... there was something in there looking back at me!

Hello! You're a bunny!!

I always wonder how well wild rabbits get along in the winter -- my own pet bunnies are here running around their comfy apartment, eating a constant supply of fresh hay and pellets, and what do the wild rabbits have to eat now? Twigs and bark? (To be fair, my bunnies like those, too.) In any case, though, this bunny probably isn't doing too badly, especially with such an excellent hiding place and superior camouflage on its side. I really never would've noticed this creature inside that mass of branches if the light hadn't been at just the right angle, and if I hadn't been standing in exactly the right place:

(Incidentally, I don't know for sure what species of rabbit this is, but my guess is that it's the more common of our two Connecticut rabbit species, the Eastern Cottontail.)

My final sight from yesterday's beach trip has to do with gulls. I still mostly think that gulls are boring, but I'm finding that the more I pay attention to them, the more I notice them doing cool things. Down at the edge of the water, where the sand was all fine and muddy, several gulls, including this Ring-billed Gull, were doing a bizarre dance that I've never seen before (and I apologize for all the wind in this video):

This behavior is officially known as "foot-paddling", and from what I've been able to find out (the internet isn't providing me with a lot of material on this topic, other than a name), it seems like this is probably a way for the gull to stir up little creatures out of the mud so it can eat them. I'm sure the gull's dance is useful, whatever it's purpose, but I can't help also finding it kind of hilarious -- I inevitably break out laughing about halfway through this video. (Paddle paddle paddle paddle!)

Between the sounds of little gull feet flip-flapping in the water, and more gulls dropping shells from the air onto the rocks, it was quite the percussion concert at the water's edge! And I guess gulls aren't so boring after all. :P

So many cool things! My favorite place is still the woods, of course, but more and more I'm coming to appreciate what the shore has to offer. It's nice, every once in a while, to take a walk on the beach.