Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Spotted Turtle

We had a real treat this morning. Paul found this Spotted Turtle by the side of the road during his run, and he called me down to see it:

I'd never seen one of these creatures in the wild before, and more than that, they're a species in trouble. Spotted Turtles aren't officially listed as threatened or endangered in Connecticut, but according to the state DEEP, populations are steadily declining, and the IUCN Red List classifies this species as endangered worldwide. (That's not good. Not even the West Indian Manatee is classified as "endangered" by the IUCN, to put that label in perspective.) Things like habitat loss and human collection are making things awful hard for these creatures, so I was happy to see one out and about, just doing its thing.

After a minute or two of concentrated admiring, we put the turtle back where we found it, on the edge of someone's yard. Apparently part of the Spotted Turtle's normal yearly routine is that they travel over land from one wet area to another (and females walk into fields to lay eggs), so this mostly-aquatic turtle probably wasn't lost -- our neighborhood just happens to be in the path of its travels. I felt a little uneasy just plopping it back down in a suburban yard, but I think it was the best thing to do. We made sure it wasn't going to get hit by a car, and now we just have to trust that the turtle knows where it's going.

Off you go, little turtle, with your beautiful spangled shell:

Goodbye, and good luck!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Florida Adventure, Part 3: Manatees! (And Birds)

We saw several other awesome creatures in the last couple days of our trip to Florida, including my personal highlight of the trip, manatees. (OMG, manatees!) I'll get to those by the end of this post... but first: some birds!

Ospreys are hardly rare up here in Connecticut, but they were all over the place in Florida. This fellow struck a nice pose for us above a boardwalk on the coast, and I couldn't resist taking a picture of such a magnificent bird:

I also had a lot of fun watching the numerous terns at the shore as they performed their aerial acrobatics and dove into the ocean to snatch fish. There were Least Terns, dinky little birds with quick wings:

And also much bigger Royal Terns:

It was amazing what these agile birds could do in midair -- in addition to the twists and dives, I saw a few terns shake themselves free of water (think of a wet dog with wings), and one even scratched its head with its foot, all while on the wing! It was hard enough just getting pictures of these birds at all, though, let alone while they were doing some of those crazier things, so you'll just have to imagine those sights. :P

Here's one of my favorite birds of the trip:

It's a Wood Stork! These are some big birds, standing a good 3+ feet tall, with a nice big wingspan to match. Wood Storks are federally endangered, and I don't think I'll be south enough to see them again any time soon, so I'm glad we met them here. I know, it's one of those "a face only a mother could love" things. Well, I think they're beautiful:

We saw plenty of other birds as well, including about a dozen species I'd never seen before. Not many of them were keen to have their pictures taken, however, so my avian account will end here. Which leaves just one more creature.... Manatee!

One of the last places we stopped was a small harbor on Merritt Island, where Paul's parents had seen manatees on a previous trip. I admit that I was trying not to get my hopes up, because the internet was telling me that summer is not the best time to see wild manatees in Florida. It's a good thing I didn't listen to the internet! As soon as we got out of the car, we spotted bristly snouts bobbing up in the water:

There are manatees here! Much excited babbling then ensued (from us, not the manatees). West Indian Manatees are endangered, of course, and the only other time I'd seen them in the wild was years ago, and from a very great distance. What an awesome opportunity!

One manatee was even hanging out right near the edge of the dock, and we were treated to some close views of its head as it came up for air:

And its huge paddle-like tail as it lounged in the sun:

(Sadly, I guess it really is true that manatees run into a lot of trouble with boats in the wild -- almost every individual we saw here had some pretty nasty looking scars from past encounters, presumably human.)

So that was cool, but it wasn't even the best part.

A few minutes after we got to the harbor, two wildlife biologists arrived on a manatee rescue mission -- they'd gotten a report of a manatee tangled in some rope, and they needed to look at all the manatees in the harbor to see if one of them was that manatee. So they turned on a couple of hoses and let the fresh water stream into the harbor, and the manatees just came right over to drink the stuff. They loved it! And I loved it too, because we got to see active, excited, happy manatee faces right below our feet, and it was wonderful.

**Note: The biologists wanted me to make it clear that turning on hoses to attract manatees is completely illegal, unless you're a biologist and specifically allowed to do so. The manatees just love it too much and they're too vulnerable. So don't try this at home without authorization.**

OMG manatee faces!

This turned out to be a great opportunity for me to learn (or re-learn) some cool manatee facts. Their eyes are really tiny! Apparently they don't see very well at all, but those bristles on their faces give them a great sense of touch instead (all the better for finding vegetation in murky water, I imagine). Their nostrils have those really cool flaps that close to keep the water out, which seems super handy. And they have no front teeth! They have molars in the backs of their mouths to grind up food, but the actual grabbing and tearing is done with their incredibly mobile lips.

Have you ever wanted to see inside a manatee's mouth? Here you go!

One of the hoses eventually became the site of an adorable three-way snorgle-fest:

In retrospect, I should've been filming this whole thing, but here's a very brief video to try to convey the wonderfulness (and massiveness) of these creatures:

When can I cuddle a manatee?

So anyway, I'd say it was a pretty great trip!! It's back to normal reports of Connecticut wildlife for a while now, at least until the next trip I have planned for July.... Thanks for adventuring in Florida with me!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Florida Adventure, Part 2: Reptiles and Amphibians

So, I don't think I want to live in Florida. It was really hot and muggy while we were there (and it's only May!), and there were so many mosquitoes (oh, the mosquitoes). But there was one super awesome thing about Florida that kind of made me envy the people who get to live there, and that was the tons of reptiles and amphibians all over the place. We traveled around central Florida a bit, and then went east to the Atlantic Ocean, and everywhere we went there were reptiles and amphibians to see!

As it turns out, Florida is a haven for exotic creatures from all over the world, including lots of introduced herps (just look at this long list of non-native reptiles). Those introduced Brown Anoles we saw in Disney World, for example, were everywhere else we went, too, and they're apparently quite adept at out-competing native anole species, which is probably why they're so common. And just outside of Disney World, we encountered another aggressively invasive species, which happens to also be one of the most adorable things I've seen. It's the Cuban Treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) (I have a real weakness for treefrogs):

These guys were hanging around in the pool area of the house where we were staying in Kissimmee, and they had some really raucous parties at night. One individual calling from the step outside our door woke me up at 5:00 AM because it was so loud that I thought it was in the room with us. (That individual not pictured.)

These creatures are definitely cute, but they could do with a little less noise, and a little less eating of native species, thank you very much.

The most prominent nighttime residents around our home base on the coast, on the other hand, were geckos, also introduced but apparently not too much of a problem for native species:

I'm fairly certain that these creatures are Mediterranean Geckos, but I could be wrong. These little lizards showed some serious ninja skills, shimmying up walls and into crevices, and blending in remarkably well with the texture of the sidewalk:

It wasn't all introduced species, however, and we found some native reptiles and amphibians in a few unexpected places. A Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon inexpectatus) was lounging at the side of a path in Disney World, for example:

And what better spot for a native Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) to escape from the blazing sun than a nice shady porta-potty. We found quite a few of these bright green blobs hiding out in such sanitary structures at the entrance to one wildlife refuge -- refuge indeed!

(The smaller frog on the right in this picture might possibly be a different species, a Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella), but I'm not exactly confident in my identification of these unfamiliar creatures.)

I couldn't resist this next picture of one of the resident toilet frogs -- I feel like the graffitied smiley-face pretty much perfectly reflects the frog's own expression. :P (Have I mentioned how much I LOVE treefrogs?)

We encountered one final reptile on our trip, and it's a really cool one: the Gopher Tortoise!

Gopher Tortoises are listed as threatened in the state of Florida, and the eastern population is a candidate for the federal endangered species list (the population in the western portion of its range is federally threatened). These big, foot-and-a-half-long tortoises actually dig burrows in the ground (hence "gopher"), providing shelter for themselves but also for hundreds of other species that use the burrows as well.

We found this group of several tortoises right in the middle of a housing development on the Atlantic coast. Some nice people had left a couple of lots undeveloped so that the tortoises could continue to live there -- and I'm glad they did, because we got to hang out with these awesome creatures. What would it be like to live in a place where tortoises lumbered across your lawn?

We saw plenty of other creatures besides reptiles and amphibians on our travels, so there will be one final post to wrap up the Florida trip. Stay tuned!

(Incidentally, you might have noticed a big hole in this account of Florida herps: Alligators! We looked and looked, but managed to somehow see none of these infamous southern residents. Oh well, maybe next time!)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Florida Adventure, Part 1: Disney World Animals

For the first several days of our recent trip to Florida, we were living in Disney World, land of enchantment! With so many people, and such a carefully-maintained environment, I wasn't sure how many wild creatures I would see there, but I kept my camera at the ready just in case. As it turned out, there was quite a bit to see, even aside from the normal (and generally awesome) attractions!

It wasn't just the fantastical architecture and perky employees that made Disney feel like a world apart, it was the animals, too. The common wild birds in the park, especially, were pretty different from what I'm used to seeing in urban areas in the north. There were House Sparrows, yes, but we saw no pigeons or starlings, and instead there were Common Grackles all over the place. And there were no gulls, but rather White Ibises and Great Egrets wandering the pathways and cleaning up dropped food.

And it wasn't just birds that were different. There were Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei) everywhere:

We figured out that basically every tree had one of these lizards guarding it -- often a male like the one in the picture above, flashing his brilliant dewlap and doing push-ups to intimidate onlookers, but we saw plenty of smaller, plainer females as well. And the lizards weren't just guarding trees. Other, less natural structures served as guard posts for these little reptiles, too:

Brown Anoles are actually non-native (they're from the Caribbean), and are quite invasive. They certainly have colonized Disney World extremely well. Despite their invader status, however, they were fun to watch, and more than a little pretty, with lots of variation in their overall brown patterns. Some of the smaller individuals had striking stripes down the middles of their backs:

And of course the males' displays were stunning (which is the whole point, I believe):

OK, little guy, I'll stay away from your patch of sidewalk, don't worry!

A few of the creatures wandering Disney's grounds seemed remarkably (coincidentally?) suitable for the park's warm-and-fluffy atmosphere. How appropriate, to see a mother Mallard (or possibly a hybrid or domesticated breed of the species) and her fuzzy ducklings paddling around a small pool in the Magic Kingdom:

(You little puffball!)

And almost too perfect to be true, a dainty Eastern Cottontail browsing through a garden outside an English cottage in Epcot's World Showcase:

This rabbit had absolutely no fear, not even of the pre-teenaged girls pointing and squee-ing at it from a few feet away. Apparently it trusted the fence surrounding its little flower-filled haven to keep the dangers away, and it let us watch it quite close up:

What a lovely place for such a lovely creature! And, mmmm, but don't those blue flowers look tasty:

(Nom, nom.)

So Disney World really does have something for everyone! I had a great time doing the more normal things in the park, of course, but it was a nice bonus to get to see some cool wild creatures as well.

Coming up: Some sights from the final days of our trip, in which we traveled outside of Disney World and things got even wilder!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Horseshoe Crabs!

I'm back from our week-long adventure in Florida, and there will be posts about the trip soon to come. But first, I have to make a quick Connecticut-related diversion, because look what was emerging from the ocean when I went to Silver Sands State Park this afternoon:

Mating Horseshoe Crabs!

There were several pairs of these creatures scattered along the shoreline, the smaller male clasping on to the larger female, ready to fertilize the eggs she lays in the sand. Apparently, Horseshoe Crabs come up to reproduce in late spring at high tide, so I guess it was just lucky that I happened to be at the beach at the right time. These are such crazy, cool creatures!

A few lone Horseshoe Crabs (actually more closely related to spiders than crabs, as Wikipedia tells me... weird!) somehow ended up on their backs on the beach, waving their legs around in the air:

I don't know if these Horseshoe Crabs were nearing the ends of their lives anyway, but I flipped them back over just in case they weren't. (Have I mentioned that Horseshoe Crabs are big, and much heavier than I expected? I needed two hands to maneuver these things, and it felt a bit like picking up a flattened, wriggling bowling ball.) This one seemed glad for the assistance, at least, as it dragged itself back into the ocean:

Soooo cool! I'm glad I got to see these creatures up close.

And here's a bonus picture from today's beach visit -- a bunch of Barn Swallows seem to have nests under the boardwalk, and one of the birds landed right next to me to twitter at its fellows:

Pretty bird. :)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

End of the Week Beach Sights

I was at Silver Sands State Park on Friday, and it was lovely. No time for a detailed post -- I'm in the middle of packing right now! -- but here are a few quick sights from the visit that I wanted to share.

Pretty little Blue Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) was blooming at the edges between trees and beach:

And I got my first really good look at a Glossy Ibis (a species of "special concern" in Connecticut) as it foraged in the marshes -- glossy indeed!

That's quite the beak you've got there, bird:

Finally, this Groundhog appears to have made a home in the marsh -- I love the grumpy-old-man expression it's giving me in this picture!

It may be a little while before you hear from me again: On Tuesday, we're leaving for a week-long adventure in Florida! This trip will feature several days in Disney World (Paul's choice vacation spot), followed by a couple of days exploring some nearby natural areas. There will be awesomeness, and there will be animals.... And there's a very good chance I'll be making a post or two about the trip afterwards. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Coppery Delight

I'm fitting in as many visits to the woods as I can these days. Early next week, we're leaving for a vacation in Florida -- which will be awesome... more on that later -- and I want to make sure I've had my fill of Connecticut-in-May happenings before I go!

This afternoon's walk in the meadows of Naugatuck State Forest brought sunny skies and warm breezes, and several lovely creatures enjoying the sun. My favorite was this gorgeous American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas), a butterfly I don't think I've ever seen before:

Goodness, butterflies sure do seem to love Wild Strawberry blossoms! This little butterfly is beautiful with its wings spread out, of course, but I actually think it's even prettier with them partially closed -- I feel like this creature is containing a glowing fire within its wings in this next picture:

Other lovely sights dotted the fields, like these delicate Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) blooms:

And big lavender rays of Robin's Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), a type of aster:

I've been noticing these tall ferns unfurling for a while now, and today they revealed their fertile spore-bearing fronds, allowing me to identify them as Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) -- what a perfectly fitting name!

Isn't May wonderful?