Thursday, November 29, 2012

Birds, Brown Plants... Beaver!

Spoiler alert: There's a Beaver at the end of this post. I know, I'm excited, too! But I have lots of other things to share from today's awesome woods walk, and I feel like I need to save the best for last. So don't worry, we'll get there! (Or, skip to the end if you want instant Beaver gratification.)

I spent a good chunk of this afternoon wandering through the fields and woods of a nearby park, enjoying the bright sunlight that made the day feel almost warm. This time of year most of the field's plants are dead and brown, but there are still cool things to see, like these fantastically puffy milkweed seedheads:

And there were lots of different birds out today taking advantage of the field's bounty, including several sparrows. A big Fox Sparrow popped up briefly from foraging on the ground -- these birds are not extremely uncommon in Connecticut, but this is only the second time I've seen one here, and I just love this one's rich red "beard":

Dark-eyed Juncos were everywhere, handsome little puffballs on bare branches:

And a single warbler was flitting around, fairy-like, among the goldenrod stems. This rather nondescript little fellow is (I'm 99% sure) an Orange-crowned Warbler, quite rare for this area (or at least, there are hardly any recent eBird reports of this bird around here). In any case, I was happy to get to meet this very active, very plain bird:

As the sun was going down and I was leaving the park, I walked past a small pond and stopped to admire the amazing ice patterns forming on the water's surface (seriously, how does this happen?):

And then when I turned around, this stump jumped out at me (well, not literally, but you know what I mean):

Huh, now that looks suspicious! Somebody definitely worked hard to bring this tree down, and recently, too:

I've seen years-old beaver-chewed stumps in other woods around here, but never anything as bright and fresh at this. And now that I'd been confronted by this stump, I took another look at the pond... and saw the many chewed branches along the water's edge (making a very pretty pattern, actually):

And is that a pile of sticks -- maybe even a growing lodge -- on that island in the middle of the pond?

I'm sure I've seen beavers before, but it's been many, many years, and I've never seen one in Connecticut. So just in case, I decided to wait and see if the creature who cut the branches was actually hanging around and might make an appearance. And sure enough, after just a few minutes, I heard the sounds of splashing and ice cracking, and then a beaver's nose and ears surfaced:

And there's a beaver tail!

The beaver played coy for a bit, swimming around under the ice. Soon, though, it swam over to the shore, and after some more ice cracking (to make a hole, I suppose), it grabbed a nice thick branch and brought it back to the island, emerging entirely from the water. There you are, Mr. (or Mrs.) Beaver!

The beaver was really into chewing its stick, and didn't seem to mind that I was sitting right there taking pictures:

So exciting! Beavers are basically awesome, and I really hope this one gets to stay in this pond -- I know beavers and humans can clash over property and tree use, and the beaver population is growing (after actually having been extirpated from Connecticut in the mid-1800s... how crazy is that?), but this pond is in a state park, so.... Fingers crossed! If this beaver doesn't mind living in a place where people visit and travel, surely we can spare some of the trees that make this part of the park pretty, right? I guess we'll see.

Right now, anyway, there's a very happy beaver here with lots of sticks to eat. I couldn't resist recording a quick video of the beaver in action -- if you turn up the volume and listen really closely, you can even hear some chewing:

What an awesome day. :D

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Winter Loon, and Other Shore Sights

Paul ran in a race this morning at Short Beach Park in the town of Stratford, and I got to tag along. The day was cold and windy and cloudy, but I was happy to toodle around on the beach while other people engaged in strenuous physical activity. :P

We have two species of loons that hang out in the ocean around here during the winter: the Common Loon and the Red-throated Loon. Both birds have that sleek loon shape, and at this time of year they wear similar patterns of gray and white (greatly muted from their striking breeding plumage). I'm much more familiar with Common Loons, especially in their fancy black-and-white summer costumes, but this morning I was happy to get to see a Red-throated Loon for the first time, distinguishable (as I learned today) by its speckled back, its relatively thin bill (compared to the Common Loon), and its habit of holding its bill up at a slight angle. I'm amazed at the elegence of this bird, even (or perhaps especially) in its simple gray and white:

On such a cold and windy day, not many other creatures (besides running people, of course) were particularly active. A saw a ton of Blue Mussel shells in the sand, swept up into a colorful band by the tide:

And several Ring-billed Gulls kept me company on the wind-blown beach, huddled against the cold. I especially like this grumpy-looking fellow:

The days are getting steadily colder, but the beach has has creatures to see no matter the season. And now that it feels like winter, all we need is some real snow!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dark Woods, and a Ghostly Silhouette

Late afternoon in the woods can be really awesome. I went to Naugatuck State Forest today, and by about 4:00 the woods were getting pretty dark, especially with all those towering conifers:

Beneath the trees, Red-breasted Nuthatches were clambering all over fallen branches and cones, reminders of our recent storms:

I've really gotten attached to these little birds, and I'm going to miss them and their funny constant squeaking when they decide to leave our woods again (hopefully not until spring):

I guess I'd better get in as much Red-breasted Nuthatch time as I can while they're still here!

As the sun sunk below the trees, a pair of Mallards drew patterns of light on the pond's surface:

And in the last moments of daylight, I looked up to see a shadowy figure watching from high in the trees:

Oh, it has been far too long since I last saw a Great Horned Owl in these woods! I took a few steps toward the creature, and then I looked up again... and it was gone. But, really, even the briefest glimpse of an owl makes for a totally awesome day.

Like I said, late afternoon in the woods can be extremely cool.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Shoreside Damage, and Blurry Rare Birds

I had a lovely walk at Silver Sands State Park this morning, although I had to renavigate a bit when I ran into a problem with the path. Oops... can't go that way!

This walkway used to continue off to the right and slope down to sand level, but not anymore! Superstorm Sandy really did a number on this park, tearing down whole stretches of the boardwalk (which was only put up in the past few years, I think). It's still possible to access the rest of the beach from the other end of the park, but clearly some work will have to be done. I wonder when and how they'll rebuild the walkway.

I saw lots of active birds on and near the beach, including several American Black Ducks and Mallards bathing in the marsh's high water -- I'm actually still amazed at how different these two species look when they're right next to each other, since at one point I would have easily confused an American Black Duck for a female Mallard:

Several sparrows were hanging around, including this American Tree Sparrow, a cute winter resident who I was happy to welcome back to the area:

On the beach, an adult Cooper's Hawk flew over my head:

The last bird sighting I have to share is a first for me: an honest-to-goodness vagrant. Cave Swallows live year-round in Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean (that's their range in the field guides), but under the right weather conditions, they can get blown around and end up at the Great Lakes as well as along the northeast coast at this time of year. In fact, several people have reported seeing Cave Swallows on the Connecticut coast over the past few days, so it seems that the right weather conditions are happening now. And lo and behold, as I was wandering around this morning, I saw a group of about five Cave Swallows swooping high above the marshes -- I gotta think these southern birds weren't too happy with the freezing-cold temperature! Here's my super blurry documentation picture (my Loch Ness monster picture, if you will) -- it's not much to look at, but you can see the pale red rump contrasting with dark wings, which at least helps prove what I saw:

I guess you really just never know what creatures will show up next!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Modeling Squirrel

I don't think I'm crazy -- the Gray Squirrels in our yard are looking particularly handsome right now:

I just love those dark red faces, pale gray and white bodies and bellies, and super fluffy tails. And they're pretty fat now, too, which can only mean extra cuteness:

Incidentally, we had our first snow of the season yesterday, and it was a pretty significant one (several inches of dense stuff), although it's quickly melting already. I love the way everything looks in the snow, and I'm hoping this winter will be a snowy one!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Chilly Woods and Lakes

All of a sudden, it feels like winter around here. I went for a walk in Naugatuck State Forest this afternoon, and even though the sky was completely clear and the sun was bright, it was pretty darn cold!

This was my first time back in the forest since Superstorm Sandy, and there were so many fallen trees out there, mostly big conifers. Crews had already come through and cleared the trails (with big trucks, if the tracks in the mud were any indication), but I still saw a lot of strangely oriented trees on my walk:

The storm also scattered fallen branches and pine cones onto the paths, and I saw groups of chickadees, titmouses, and nuthatches actually hopping around on the ground foraging through this stuff -- that was a pretty cool and unusual sight. A few other birds were foraging low in the trees as well, including our two kinglets -- I feel like I've been seeing a lot of kinglets this fall, or maybe they've just happened to be unusually accommodating for me and my camera. This Golden-crowned Kinglet looked like a decorative ornament hanging on the bare branches:

And this Ruby-crowned Kinglet was actually showing its namesake spot of red, which I've only ever seen once before on these little birds (look closely, it's there):

On the lakes were two birds I don't often see around here. A female Bufflehead (or possibly a young male) was diving into the cold water and popping back up again every few seconds:

And a fluffy little Pied-billed Grebe floated along nearby:

As I left for home, the sun was sinking and it was getting even colder in the woods, but this trio of Mallards sure seemed comfortable in their late afternoon bath:

It's nice to know that the woods made it through the storm, albeit with several fewer trees still vertical. The chopped up fallen trees along the paths look strange and awkward right now, but I'm sure they'll blend into the normal forest scene before too long. I'm glad I got to visit the woods today to keep up to date with its changes.