Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Pileated Pair, and Growing Things

It’s gotten cold again, but it was sunny and clear yesterday (if a bit chilly), so I decided to visit Naugatuck State Forest to see what’s changed since I was last there a week ago. While there, I saw my first really colorful warbler of the year (a Pine Warbler), tons of tiny plants springing up (but no flowers yet), and a few other cool things as well.

The best part was when a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers (one male and one female, although it’s a little hard to tell who’s who in the picture below) flew right past me and set to work hammering on a nearby tree:

It seems that I’m doomed to always take far-away blurry pictures of these glorious birds, but this one is (I think) at least a tiny bit clearer than photos I’ve posted before. And just look at those crests! I wonder if these two will be setting up a nest cavity somewhere in the area soon....

Here are some more assorted sights from my walk, in no particular order:

A tiny grasshopper (or related creature), probably about half an inch long, was hopping around on a sunny bank:

In profile, the grasshopper actually strikes me as a little on the creepy side (it's something about that mouth...):

A mass of tiny caterpillars (tent caterpillars, I’m guessing, from those webs) was clustered on a twig -- the group as a whole couldn’t have taken up more space than a penny:

And a little Green Frog was resting in a pool:

Plants are popping up everywhere now, including invasive Japanese Knotweed, which has taken over an area next to the entrance:

But there were also more pleasant plants emerging, like these wonderfully fuzzy fiddleheads of a fern species I don’t know:

Big leafed-out Skunk Cabbages:

And patches of mottled Trout Lily leaves scattered over the forest floor:

It was a good walk, overall. :)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers are one of the few warbler species that hang around in southern Connecticut over the winter, but they also start to become more common when spring migration hits. This afternoon, a female Yellow-rumped Warbler showed up outside our apartment's office window, the first one I've seen this year:

I think these little birds are just adorable. I'm assuming this one is a female because the males should by now be getting into their breeding plumage, mostly slate gray and bright yellow and white. On closer inspection, this girl actually looks like she has something wrong with her beak.... I know abnormalities like this can happen sometimes, but I don't know what might've caused it in this case. She seemed to be foraging for food and getting along just fine despite her crooked beak, so I'm not too worried. If nothing else, it makes her unique:

She fluttered around our Red Cedar's branches, hunting for insects and plucking off some of the last berry-like cones from last fall, occasionally showing off the yellow spot on top of her head:

And yep, there's the characteristic yellow right above her tail, too:

Now that I know what she looks like, I'm going to keep an eye out for this girl in case she visits us again someday. Thank, you, little yellow-butt, for stopping by and brightening up an otherwise drizzly-dreary day!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Flower Girl

The Forsythia is in full bloom in our yard right now, and this female Northern Cardinal posed for me among the flowers yesterday afternoon:

The male cardinal was hanging out, too, but he wasn't as willing to have his picture taken. I love spring -- there are pretty things everywhere!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Early Spring Sights at Southford Falls

Yesterday morning, I felt like a change of scenery from my usual walking areas, so I drove out to Southford Falls State Park, a really lovely park I've visited a few times before, but never at this time of year. This park has a nice pond (which Connecticut's DEEP was stocking with trout while I was there), a stream with scenic waterfalls, and plenty of trails through a rock-strewn deciduous forest. With plants now blooming, there were some very pretty sights to be seen. I like how the red/orange flowers on this fallen maple tree compliment the dead leaves (retained from last year) of its beech neighbor:

The Spicebush buds were just opening in the woods, making clouds of floating yellow blossoms:

And on the ground, some spring wildflowers were getting ready to bloom -- I think I came just a day or two too early to see the actual flowers, but now I know to look for them next time! Tiny leaves of some violets were unfolding:

And Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) was sending up buds not quite yet ready to open:

On the shores of the pond, a couple of Song Sparrows were hopping around in some blooming alder bushes:

Song Sparrows are quite pretty little birds on their own:

But they were extra lovely among the alder's curtains of bright orange catkins and smaller pink female flowers:

There were plenty of other creatures around, too. Two male Mallards were chasing each other across the pond:

And when one male Downy Woodpecker landed on a tree in front of me (such a pretty bird!)...

A second male flew in after it, and the two chased each other around the area -- I guess it's time for males to stake out territories!

And while I was watching all this, someone was watching me. (Hello up there!)

In the shallow edge of the pond, dozens of pebble-sized wirligig beetles (family Gyrinidae) were spinning around on the surface of the water:

While I was watching the beetles, a little nose and eyes poked up out of the water and looked at me:

And then right after I took this picture, the little Painted Turtle dove back down into the mud and leaves beneath the water.

I startled this diurnal firefly (genus Ellychnia) and it hurried up a tree:

In looking up this insect to identify it, it turns out that while it's in the firefly family, it's actually not a species of firefly that can light up. Wouldn't it make sense to give it a different name, then?

As I was on my way out of the park, I noticed a patch of ground next to the path that was all dug up, and this totally bizarre creature was lying there, dead:

I have never seen anything like this thing before. Or at least, I thought I hadn't. It was big, almost as long as my finger, and clearly suited for life underground, with huge claw/spade-like front legs and a very hard shell on its head and legs. When I touched it, it reminded me of a crustacean, very lobster-like. But as alien as this thing seemed, now that I know what it is, I can actually see its resemblance to its close insect relatives. It's a mole cricket, in the same family as crickets and grasshoppers. Here's a closer look at those front legs:

Apparently these insects are quite common, but because they live underground, we hardly ever see them. I guess some bigger predator must have dug this one up, chewed on its soft parts, and left the hard bits alone. What a strange and interesting discovery!

And now it's that time of year when everything starts to constantly change and grow. I don't know when I'll next get the chance to be out in the woods, but I know that when I do get out there, there will be plenty of new things to see!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mayflies: Imago, Subimago

Over the past few days, I've been noticing a large number of mayflies around our apartment. At any given moment now, pretty much every one of our windows has at least one mayfly clinging to the outside -- with all the warm weather we've been having, I guess this is a good time for these little winged insects to emerge from the stream across the street and get busy reproducing.

I've seen mayflies here before, but never so consistently, and so I decided to read up a little on these creatures. As it turns out, they're quite fascinating! I already knew the thing about most adult mayflies living for only 24 hours or less (they spend most of their life as immature larvae underwater), during which time they reproduce, and that's it. But I just now learned that mayflies -- unique among insects -- actually have an immature form that can fly!

After molting from their larval form and emerging from the water, most mayfly species go through what's called a "subimago" stage. They're shaped like adults, and they have functional wings, but they can't yet reproduce. The wings on these subimago mayflies tend to have a dusky, opaque quality, as with this individual I found under my porch light on Monday night:

And then, after a short amount of time (a day, or less), the subimago molts into the fully-functioning adult (i.e. "imago"), actually shedding a layer of exoskeleton that covers its entire body, including its wings. I've been finding these shed almost-adult skins on our windows, too, and I brought this one inside to photograph:

The covering that was on the mayfly's wings doesn't retain the wing-like shape when the creature molts, apparently, but there are some darker/thicker patches on the empty shell in this picture that I think must be the result of all this material bunching up as the mayfly slips out of its skin.

Now the adult mayfly is ready to go off and do adult things. This adult -- with its crystal-clear wings -- was on our screen door on Sunday (I'm not convinced that it's the same species as the subimago that I photographed above, but still, it's fun to compare the two):

These adults sit on our windows and wave their abdomens from side to side (could they be sensing the air with these motions? I really have no idea), and as a result, they've gained the fond nickname of "butt-wigglers" in our home.

Who knew that such inconspicuous animals could be so interesting? Insects can be pretty darn cool!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Many Firsts-of-the-Year

Hello, spring! It was 75 degrees when I went for a walk at Naugatuck State Forest this afternoon -- did I say "spring"? I think I meant "summer"! -- and things are really coming to life out there. In fact, I saw many creatures that I hadn't seen yet this year. It was a great day for firsts!

Like first amphibians, for instance. I'd heard Spring Peepers and saw Wood Frog eggs in the woods this past Thursday, but today I got to actually see the Wood Frogs for myself. I love these little creatures and the weird "quack"-ing sounds the males make. Some of the frogs were coupled up, pinkish-colored female paired with darker brown male:

But mostly there were single males floating across the pool's surface, waiting for the females, and calling out to them when I wasn't looking:

The frogs have produced quite a collection of eggs already -- I wonder how much longer they'll continue their activities:

I spent some time watching a bunch of Red-spotted Newts swimming along the shore of the lakes:

Newts are awesome (and so pretty!), and like the Wood Frogs, it seems like they might now have reproduction on their minds -- or at least, there was a certain amount of wrestling going on while I was there:

I also saw my first caterpillar of the year, a fuzzy Woolly Bear trundling across the path:

Other firsts from today include the first Eastern Phoebe (they're just now coming back from their wintering areas down south), the first turtles (Painted Turtles, basking on logs), and the first tick (crawling up my pant leg, yech).

And there were more cool things to see in the woods, too. A sizable ant mound (which I'd never noticed before) was broken open next to the path, and the big red-and-black ants were scurrying all over the place:

Finally, here's something I've read about on other nature blogs, but that I've never found on my own before -- flowers on an American Hazelnut shrub:

Those long dangly things (catkins) are the male, pollen-bearing flowers, and further along the stem, that tiny pink alien-like growth is the female flower. These little flowers are so weird looking, and also really beautiful -- this is why I'm so glad the internet exists, so that I can be aware of these things and be ready to look for them on my own visits to the woods:

Everything feels so alive now! Hooray for spring!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Meeting a Mink, and Various Spring Sights

For the past few days, I've been visiting my family in Maryland, where spring is in full swing -- flowers everywhere, reptiles and amphibians out and about, mid-70s temperatures, the works! I very much enjoyed the vacation, but I was a little worried that I might be missing some key springtime events up here in Connecticut. So when I got back home this afternoon, I took a trip to Naugatuck State Forest, to see how much had changed while I was gone.

And I did miss some things, but not too much. The Wood Frogs have made their first appearance, for starters. I didn't see or hear any of these frogs during my walk today (it had cooled down significantly by the time I got out there), but I did find the results of their earlier activity:

There should still be many more eggs to come, and I'm confident that I'll get to see the frogs when they continue their reproductive activities on future warm days. I heard a few scattered Spring Peepers calling today as well, so it seems the time for amphibians has really arrived!

And there are tiny leaves emerging out there -- the new-spring greenery I saw today was all on invasive plants, but I'll take whatever green I can get right now. The Multiflora Rose stalks were sending little green shoots out all over the place:

Some of these rose leaves were even starting to unfold and take shape:

The Autumn Olive leaves were peeking out, too:

While not green (and not invasive), clouds of puffy gray pussy willows spoke of spring as well:

The most exciting part of my visit to the woods today, though, wasn't strictly spring-related. I was rounding the lake towards the end of my walk, when a long, thin, furry creature bounded across the rocks just to the left of the path, then dove quickly down into a crevice and out of sight. I only saw it for a split second, but I was pretty sure I knew what it was: an American Mink.

I had seen what I thought must've been a mink at this lake once before, last May, but that was from a great distance and I hadn't seen any more signs of the creatures until now. I was really curious to see this creature a little better -- and so close! -- so I decided to see whether, by some chance, the mink would venture back out while I was waiting there....

So I stood as still as I could, and sure enough, after about five minutes or so, a dried plant stalk rustled slightly, and then out of the rocks came a tiny searching nose, little ears and eyes:

Yes, you are a mink! Hello, little creature!

The mink was cautious, and gave me a good looking-over from its safe place in the rocks:

When I didn't immediately lunge forward and try to eat it (and the sounds of my camera's shutter didn't cause any harm), the little creature eventually became quite bold, emerging from its rocky hideout entirely to saunter along the water's edge right in front of me:

Well, that was way more than I expected! Seeing this creature up close, I was actually surprised at how small it was -- it looked about the same size as a pet ferret, and somehow I had pictured minks as bigger in my mind. (I mean, really, how much fur could you get off of this little creature? The whole idea seems less than practical, now that I've seen a mink in real life.)

There were plenty of little fish swimming in the water near the rocks, and I'm sure this must've been what the mink was after. (And hard at work trying to catch them, if that wet fur is any indication.) In any case, it seems like he or she has an excellent setup here: plenty of rocky crevices to hide in and travel through, and food that swims right up to the doorstep. When I left, the mink was popping in and out of the rocks and water a little further along the shore, keeping an eye on me but basically just going about its business as usual:

I suppose it's possible that this mink has gotten fairly used to people, living as it does right next to a path. In any case, it was a wonderful treat to meet such a bold creature. Happy fishing, little mink!