Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mostly Spring Flowers

Everything is growing and changing so quickly now! I went up to the meadows of Naugatuck State Forest this morning to see what was going on, and even though I was just there a week ago, there were plenty of new things to see.

I love the way the trees look now, with their new-green baby leaves -- and they were really showing off around this pond right in the middle of the forest:

In the fields, the Tree Swallows have definitely claimed their nest boxes (they may have left one box for the bluebirds, but I'm not sure about that). This pair seems to have a good setup, with one bird on guard duty on top of the box, and the other poking its head out of the hole (perhaps sitting on a nest?):

Hello, little bird!

While walking through the woods, I came across several of these little Duskywing (genus Erynnis) butterflies, and one was even kind enough to sit still for a picture:

As it turns out, these butterflies are actually in the skipper family, although you wouldn't know it from the way this creature is spreading its wings wide. A few of the Duskywings I saw today, however, did start to fold their wings back after they landed, approaching what I think of as a normal skipper pose. I just love those subtle markings on this creature's wings.

Also coursing through the air was the first dragonfly I've seen this year:

And not flying now, but certainly scarfing down food in preparation for eventual flight, was this mass of Eastern Tent Caterpillars:

For some reason, I used to think that tent caterpillars were an introduced/invasive species, but no, they're native. I think I was getting them confused with Gypsy Moths, which are absolutely non-native and very destructive. Tent caterpillars can certainly do damage, too, but I get the impression that they're much less of a concern than Gypsy Moths. And, I mean, that tent structure is pretty cool.

There were many, many flowers blooming this morning that I didn't see the last time I was in the area. A bunch of bumblebees were going crazy over a large patch of Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), a low-growing plant that would be really easy to overlook:

Some of the Wood Betony's flowers were pale yellow, and others were more reddish -- from above, these flowers reminded me of little fireworks:

(Actually, I took that last picture, and then found a much, much better one that more closely shows the effect I was seeing in real life, on the Connecticut Botanical Society's website.)

I also found small clumps of Arrow-leaved Violet (Viola sagittata, or fimbriatula):

And fantastical Fringed Polygala:
In the woods, a single white lilac bush was blooming, most likely a garden escapee, but beautiful nonetheless:

Also perhaps escaped at some point from someone's garden, a large patch of Lily of the Valley was opening its blossoms:

And practically the rest of the forest floor was carpeted with the plant that is sometimes called False Lily of the Valley, or Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), also just barely starting to bloom:

For all the flowers that were already in bloom, there were many, many more buds. A good sign for things to come!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yellow Birds, and Other Assorted Beach Sights

Today was my day to monitor for Piping Plovers and other shorebirds at Silver Sands State Park, so I spent my morning wandering on the beach. No plovers showed up, but as always, there were plenty of other things to see.

There was this Greater Yellowlegs, for instance, a funky shorebird that I'd never seen before:

And this cute little Savannah Sparrow foraging in the grass:

I learned recently that the Savannah Sparrow is a state-listed species in Connecticut (it's of "special concern"), so I was glad to see this little guy hopping around. Plus, how about that cool yellow eyeshadow?

Speaking of yellow, I watched this male American Goldfinch singing boldly from a tree near one of the paths:

I thought this guy was pretty bright, but he paled (literally) in comparison to one of his fellows in the tree next door:

Not every bird I encountered had yellow on it, of course (although I was doing pretty well there, wasn't I). A Downy Woodpecker was drilling into some dried reeds in the marsh (not where I'd expect to see a woodpecker!), and producing a weird clacking sound as the stems knocked together:

I wonder what tasty morsels she was finding in there.

A few male Red-winged Blackbirds made it quite clear that the park's boardwalk is part of their territory:

These birds are extremely active now, with the males flying around everywhere, calling and flashing their brilliant red shoulder patches. And the boardwalk's posts do make a great place to show off.

OK, OK, we get the message!

It wasn't just birds who were active, either. I think it must have been rush hour for the colony of Fiddler Crabs below the boardwalk -- the crabs were wandering all over the mud, picking up food, and stealing each others burrows. (Usually when I see these little creatures, they're basically just sitting there.) Several male crabs were squaring off in pairs, for what looked like brief but intense contests of who-has-the-bigger-claw:

(I just noticed that the two male crabs in this picture have their large claws on opposing sides. I wonder why some crabs might have a large left claw, and others a large right one....)

There's always something interesting going on at the beach!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Red Cedar Alien

The two Red Cedar trees next to our house not only serve to draw in birds passing through our yard, they also play host (literally) to some very interesting organisms. This morning, I looked out our office window and saw this:

Ahhh, it's an alien! Well, no, not really. It's actually a gall, caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae. Galls appear when an insect or fungus feeds off of a plant and somehow changes the plant's structure, causing it to produce abnormal growths, inside of which the insect or fungus then lives. (For the tree, then, I guess this might actually count as an alien invasion.) Each gall-making creature has its own preferred host plant, and each causes a distinctive abnormal growth.

During the winter, these galls on our Red Cedar trees just looked like brownish balls -- they could have been windblown pinecones at first glance -- and it wasn't until recently that they sprouted these weird orange tentacles. (I only noticed them today.)

Those "tentacles" are actually the spore-producing appendages of the fungus inside the gall. According to this fascinating information sheet on cedar-apple rust (the "disease" caused by this fungus, so-called because the fungus actually needs to live on both cedar trees and apple trees in different stages of its life cycle), the tentacles (i.e., "telial horns") enlarge during periods of rainy weather, and indeed, with today's constant rain, the fungus was looking spectacularly goopy by the end of the day. (The gall in this next picture is the same one from the previous picture, but several hours later.)

I can see five of these galls from our window, and who knows how many more there are higher up in the trees. The fungus won't do lasting harm to the Red Cedars (these orange appendages mark the end of their life cycle), so our trees should be around for a while yet. Who knows what strange and interesting things these trees will show us next!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Backyard Surprise

Look what I found this afternoon in the rhododendron bush next to our porch:

American Robin eggs! Robins built a nest in this same bush last year, and that old nest is still there, if a little worn down. The new nest is neat and tightly woven (at least on the inside), and it also features some fancy plastic in its construction:

The nest is just above my eye level, so I had to hold my camera up high and point it at random to get pictures into the nest. This picture doesn't exactly focus on what I meant it to, but I think it looks kind of cool:

Good luck raising your family, robins! I hope to hear chirping sounds coming from this bush before too long!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meadow Birds and Flowers

Late this afternoon, I drove over to the meadows in Naugatuck State Forest to see what's going on there -- I'm eagerly anticipating the arrival of our more colorful migrating warblers (which might be any day now), and this seemed like a good place to check in case they'd started showing up already. There were no warblers there today (not even Palm or Pine, which I saw in the woods last week), but there were plenty of other things to see.

The fields were covered with Trout Lilies, a plant I didn't expect to find there, and they were already past their prime -- I seemed to have missed seeing the Trout Lilies in full bloom this year, unfortunately. Other flowers made up for that lack, though, including big patches of tiny Bluets:

And these brilliant Ragweed blossoms (I didn't think to check the shape of the basal leaves on these plants, so I don't know exactly what species they are):

These are such cheery little flowers, and perhaps aside from the Goldfinches, they were the brightest things around:

A few Chipping Sparrows were around and in very high spirits (they even got into a big fight at one point). These birds only recently returned to Connecticut from their winter homes, and I'm happy to see them again!

I also got to hang out with a pack of very puffy, very active Black-capped Chickadees as they foraged and preened in the low shrubs:

And just look at all the little leaves on that tree! Oh, spring!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Please Don't Burn Down the Pine Barrens

Paul and I were in New Jersey this past weekend for some belated Easter family celebrations, which meant a chance to explore the Pine Barrens some more.

On Sunday morning, Paul's dad and I drove out to look for birds, and we went by a huge area of the woods (1,000 acres) that burned in a wildfire just last week. (Paul's dad is actually the mayor of their town, so I felt a bit like I was on an official trip to survey the damage.) The Pine Barrens are usually, well, barren... but not like this:

They do controlled burns in the Pine Barrens sometimes, to help keep everything healthy, but this was not one of those times. Apparently, the cause of this fire was almost certainly human, and the word "arson" kept coming up. Why would anyone intentionally set a fire loose in the Pine Barrens? Even scarier, we drove by a bunch of houses where the fire actually burned all the way up to and around the edges of the peoples' yards -- I can't even imagine being in that situation, with flames raging just feet from my home.

Fortunately, the firefighters got control of the situation, and nobody was hurt. And these woods won't stay blackened for long. We watched a lone Wild Turkey wandering through the burnt area, and I'm sure more life will soon follow suit:

Back in the ash-free areas of the Pine Barrens, there were plenty of living things to see. Later, while we were out walking the dogs, we startled this shockingly green Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) from its hiding place near the path:

And a little further down the road, I became enchanted by a patch of gorgeous Birdsfoot Violets (Viola pedata), a new wildflower for me:

What pretty flowers! Paul says it looks like they're sticking their tongues out:

In conclusion, the Pine Barrens are awesome, so please don't burn them down.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Woodland Wildflowers, and Defensive Birds

After nearly two weeks away, I was feeling some serious woods withdrawal when I made a trip back to Naugatuck State Forest yesterday morning. Ah, spring in the woods!

It was a little chilly when I arrived, and many of the wildflowers that I had been looking forward to seeing were still closed, but there were still plenty of blooms around. These tiny Dwarf Ginseng flowers made puffy umbrellas a couple of inches above the forest floor:

The Wild Strawberries were blossoming on a sunny bank:

And a little Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower was taking shape (before this plant and its neighbors had even unfurled their leaves):

These lovely little violets were growing in clumps in the marshy areas and along the path. I think I identified them as Small White Violets (Viola macloskeyi) when I found them here last year, but I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong! (Violets are tricky.)

The blooms on this small bush look an awful lot like Serviceberry (a.k.a. Juneberry, Shadbush, etc.), but I feel like I would've noticed if there were Serviceberries here (and munched on them) last summer. I love Serviceberries. Is this something else, instead, or could I have just missed the berries last year?

The Trout Lilies weren't quite ready to open their petals yet, but the closed flowers were quite pretty nonetheless:

And the Mayapples were sprouting up, building their own mini forest -- I think I see some buds on that one on the left!

Next to the Mayapples, a couple of Red Trilliums were nodding their green buds, not quite ready to open yet. I think these are some of the prettiest flowers ever (that color!), so I'll be eagerly watching for their arrival.

There was quite a bit of bird activity in the woods as well, especially on the lakes. A pair of Common Mergansers was vying for space with a pair of Mallards on the smaller lake, and I watched the Merganser drake chasing the Mallard drake. (I think it looks like the Mallard is sticking his tongue out at the Merganser in this picture. Boys!)

Once the Mallards had moved on, the Merganser pair sailed around for a bit, enjoying their territory:

But of course they flew off to another lake soon afterwards. (Why were you chasing the other ducks off, if you were just going to leave anyway?)

And I happened across something I haven't seen at these woods before -- a Canada Goose on her nest:

She's trying so hard not to be seen, with her neck all flattened down like that. And it worked pretty well, too -- I was standing there for several minutes before I noticed her at all. I wonder if there will be babies on this lake in a few weeks....

Happy spring!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I don't think I knew a Snipe was a real bird the first time I watched the Pixar movie Up!, but I've since learned differently! They're not big and flashy birds like Kevin in the movie... instead, they're small, dumpy shorebirds. But they're still pretty cool!

I was down at Silver Sands State Park today, doing my Piping Plover survey thing (still no plovers yet), and about 19 Wilson's Snipes were foraging in the mud in one of the marshes there. These birds are kind of ridiculous looking, with their long, long beaks:

And they stick that beak all the way down into the mud, probing around for food with its movable tip:

Once I got used to their strange proportions, though, I started to think that these birds are really quite pretty -- I love the complex stripey pattern of those feathers.

Here's a video I took of the Wilson's Snipe nearest to me, putting that beak to good use!

I'm thoroughly enjoying my weekly visits to the beach so far, since I get to see new animals and visit with familiar ones. A Yellow-crowned Night Heron was in the same marsh where I saw one last week -- could it be the same bird?

And did you know that Great Egrets vocalize with low croaking sounds? Thanks to a hawk, now I do! These big birds got quite agitated when that hawk was swooping down on their pond, but I also got to watch them earlier as they sailed by me on calmer pursuits:

I like the beach, but I'm itching to get back into the woods.... I think there's a woods walk in store for me in the very near future!