Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year Ends, and Winter Begins

We're back in Connecticut now, after our holiday exploits, and we settled back in just in time for winter to really start. Yesterday's constant snowfall (hooray!!) left a thick blanket of the white stuff everywhere, so the first thing Paul and I did when we woke up this morning was to head out for a walk through the snow-covered woods of Naugatuck State Forest.

I'm glad we chose the morning for our adventure, because the snow was still clinging mostly undisturbed to the trees (the sun and wind meant that most branches were bare by the afternoon). And even better, we were absolutely the first people in these woods. Is there anything more wonderful than a woods-walk through perfectly new, unbroken snow?

(Actually, the snow's surface wasn't quite unbroken -- a few deer had walked these paths before us, and you can make out some of their tracks in the picture above.)

I love how trees look in the snow, and we got to see some really beautiful scenes next to this wood's mostly-frozen ponds:

Can I just stay out here forever?

Everything is prettier with snowy highlights:

Two Red-breasted Nuthatches showed up during our walk, and it was cool to see these creatures in a more wintry environment:

These nuthatches were especially puffy (and therefore especially adorable), all fluffed up against the cold:

Happy winter, little puffball!

I'm looking forward to many more snowy days to come. :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dark-eyed Juncos

More and more, I'm starting to think that Dark-eyed Juncos are some of our prettiest winter birds. During my walk this morning, I met a flock of fairly obliging juncos, and I found even more things to like about these cute little creatures. Their coal-gray tops are striking of course, but I love that tiniest bit of gray on the tip of this one's pale pink beak:

These birds' white outer tail feathers are particularly lovely, too, especially offset as they are by the other (gray) feathers. And those brilliant white bellies make me think of snow. :D

I'm sure other people have made this comparison already, but these juncos seem dressed in their finest tuxedos -- elegant, and pristine (well, except for the bit of food stuck to this bird's beak...):
"May I have this dance?"

Juncos mean "winter" to me, but our recent rainy/temperate weather sure doesn't make it feel like winter's actually coming. Here's hoping the official change of the season (in only a couple of days) brings some more appropriate weather -- I'd love to get to see some real snow this year!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hammonasset Adventure, Part 2: Seals, and More Bizarre Birds

So I was at Hammonasset Beach State Park on Wednesday, and I'd just gotten to hang out with crossbills, which was awesome. But there was still a lot of the park left to explore! I headed off to the southernmost end of the park, Meigs Point, where the shoreline is littered with huge rocks (courtesy of ancient glaciers) and the land juts out into the Long Island Sound.

Several small birds showed up along the path, including this very puffy Northern Mockingbird (with its surprisingly yellow-soled feet):

And about a dozen Horned Larks huddled among the smaller rocks (hello, funny bird faces!):

Waaay out at the end of the point, stretched out on some rocks still mostly covered by the tide, was the second creature I came to Hammonasset hoping to see: Seals!

It really just never occurred to me that there might be seals in Connecticut, but indeed, here they are! This is the same species of seal, even -- Harbor Seals -- that we got to see up close all the way on the other side of the continent, in San Diego, almost a year ago. I love how comfortable these big blubbery creatures look on their rocks. :)

Finally, there were some really weird-looking birds in these waters. Meet the Surf Scoter, a type of sea duck:

OK, what in the world is going on with your bill, Mr. Duck? The female Surf Scoters look downright normal, but wow, the males are just super bizarre! (I love you, weird bird!)

The scoters looked perhaps even weirder when they took flight, with the males showing off their fancy maroon clown feet:

And there was another type of scoter out on the water, too -- a lone male White-winged Scoter -- and this duck was just as strange-looking (and un-duck-like) as the others, but in totally different ways:

Between the seals, alien ducks, and crossbills, Hammonasset certainly was exciting! It's always great to get to explore a new place and see new things. :)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hammonasset Adventure, Part 1: Crossbills!

Yesterday was a day for adventure! I packed a lunch and boldly set off for Hammonasset Beach State Park, a large park which attracts lots of swimmers and campers in the summer, and lots of birders in the winter, and which sits about 25 miles east along the Connecticut shore from the parks that I usually visit.

I had two main reasons for wanting to visit this park, besides the fact that I've heard a lot of great things about it and never been there before (OK, three reasons, then). Reason #1: Crossbills! These wacky northern birds are not at all common in Connecticut, but they've been hanging out at a particular stand of pine trees in Hammonasset for weeks. Reason #2: Seals! I had no idea (until recently) that we even had seals in Connecticut, but apparently this park is a great place to see them resting on rocks in the winter. Luckily, my trip was wildly successful on both accounts, and I even saw lots of other cool creatures, too. In fact, I saw so many things (and took so many pictures!) that this account is going to have to be two posts.

First things first! When I got to the park, I headed over to the pine trees where I knew (yay, the internet!) that the crossbills had been hanging out. I walked around for a minute or so, until I came to a few trees that were literally crackling with the sounds of breaking cones, and up in the branches were dozens of feasting Red Crossbills!

Crossbills are a type of finch, and they are perfect pine-cone-cracking machines. These birds' beaks are bizarrely crooked, and they actually use those weird mouths to leverage open pine cones and get at the seeds inside that other birds can't reach. And strangely enough, crossbills' beaks can go either way! On some of the birds I saw, the top mandible bent to the right:

And for other birds, the top mandible bent to the left:

And yes, their beaks really do cross!

The Red Crossbills were so intent on eating, and the trees were so low, that I got really excellent views of these amazing birds doing their conifer-specific thing. I love those grappling-hook feet!

If you look really closely, you can see this bird's little pink tongue as he raids the cone:

The Red Crossbills made a really quite beautiful bouquet of colors, with dark reddish males and paler yellow females (these birds dropped down from the trees for a quick drink):

This male was a lovely burnt orange with subtle spots of greenish yellow:

But my absolute favorite were those deep red males -- they had such gorgeous patterns on their backs... and what a color!

Yes, you are a very pretty bird indeed, even with that strange, strange mouth:

I'm pretty sure this stripey and patchy bird is a juvenile -- hello, awkward teenager!

There were a few White-winged Crossbills sprinkled in with the Red Crossbills as well, although I didn't get as close of view of this other species of birds. One juvenile came down to the ground near me, but the rest mostly stayed up in the trees:

Lots of other small seed-eating birds were in these same trees as well, probably taking advantage of the crossbills' cone-cracking abilities. Several opportunistic Red-breasted Nuthatches were hanging around, including this paler individual which I think must be a female:

And this darker, flashier male:

There were a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees, too -- the trees actually seemed to be raining chickadees, because these birds were constantly flying from the cones on the trees to the dropped seeds on the ground. This one had its acrobatics rewarded with a nice meal:

The crossbills decided to move camp after a while, and they took off in a big flock -- probably heading to another group of pine trees in the park. This picture doesn't show the birds in any great detail, but you can at least get an idea of the numbers, and see the cool finch flight style (which Paul says makes it looks like there are fishes mixed in with the birds):

So that was amazing, to say the least.... But the trip isn't over yet! Stay tuned for Part 2, which features distant seals and more totally weird birds. :D

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Pileated Woodpecker and Winter Newts

With today's bright sunshine, and rain predicted for the next several days, I grabbed the chance for a walk in the woods this afternoon. Naugatuck State Forest was lovely as usual, and mostly quiet except for several squirrels and small birds busily foraging for food (Red-breasted Nuthatches are so noisy!). And except for this fancy fellow, who was pretty hard to miss, with all the loud calling and tree-hammering he was doing:

Pileated Woodpeckers are definitely awesome, and it's been several months since I last saw one in these woods. I was surprised, actually, that this woodpecker let me come as close as it did, since in the past these birds have always flown away almost as soon as I see them. And speaking of flying away, check out the brilliant white armpits on this creature:

Out of curiosity, I peered into the water in one of the lakes, and I was surprised to see Red-spotted Newts swimming around, as cold as it is. As it turns out, these guys stay active all year, so if you need an amphibian fix in the middle of winter, I guess shallow water is the place to look!

Finally, almost all of the cut trees lining the paths (remnants of the October storms) now bear tiny frozen drips of sap -- perhaps as a result of the warm temperatures we've had over the past couple of days:

I can't help admiring these little sap sculptures, even if they had to come from dying trees:

Oops, I didn't mean to end the post on a sad note! The woods are awesome, and those trees aren't really crying, right?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Foggy Day Raptors

We drove to New Jersey this weekend for a belated Thanksgiving celebration with Paul's family, and between the festivities, Paul's dad and I found time to continue our traditional (three-years-running) holiday trip to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, a fantastic haven for wintering birds on the Jersey shore. One of the biggest features of the refuge is an 8-mile-long drive along pools and marshes, which allows for close views of the many ducks, swans, and geese (including Snow Geese) that make their winter home in these waters. Or, I should say, this was a big feature.... When we arrived at the refuge this morning, we discovered that Superstorm Sandy had washed away large chunks of the roads, effectively closing the driving loop.

Even without full access to the refuge, however, we were still able to get to some of the marshes via old-fashioned walking trails. The morning was extremely foggy, and though we heard the echoes of distant geese and ducks, these birds stayed mostly beyond our limited sight range. The best part of the visit was when a Northern Harrier came floating out of the thick fog to course low over the marsh:

These raptors are awesome at any time, but there was something particularly cool about seeing this big bird hunting alone in the mist -- this could well be the only bird in an endless marsh:

The Northern Harrier wasn't actually the only bird in the marsh, of course. Several Blue Jays accompanied us on our walk as well, flying low over our heads and making their raucous cries:

We didn't end up seeing a ton of creatures at the refuge, but it was definitely a great experience just to see the marshes cloaked in fog.

On our drive back from the refuge, when the fog had mostly cleared up, we happened upon a very big raptor indeed, perched high above the road:

This Bald Eagle was only minutes from Paul's family's house, an unusualness which made seeing this bird just that much more exciting. The eagle flew off a few minutes after we stopped to look at it -- you can see a green band around this bird's right leg in the next picture, if you look closely:

The Bald Eagle was a lovely surprise to top off another exciting visit to New Jersey.