Friday, May 31, 2013

Non-traditional Geese, A Heron's Crab Feast, and More

Yesterday morning's trip to Silver Sands State Park was full of surprises. There were no nesting shorebirds (which is what I was actually supposed to be looking for), but the many other awesome creatures roaming the beaches and marshes more than made up for it.

A group of about 40 Brant (our small dark geese) was hanging out on the shore. That in itself wasn't too surprising, since these birds are in Connecticut in the summer (although I don't see them very often), but wait, what's up with those two weird-looking white and gray geese in there?

I'm still not exactly sure what to do with these two geese, but they are unquestionably something unusual. Parts of them look so similar to the Brant (which are on the right hand side and in the back of the above picture), but they've also got those splotchy white patches and orangey-pink legs (but dark beaks), which is, well, weird. And from other views, they don't really look much like Brant at all:

I circulated my pictures among some Connecticut bird people, and the consensus seems to point to a hybrid between Brant and Snow Goose. I can definitely see some Snow Goose in these birds. And I think this is really pretty cool. However unlikely it might actually be (and according to my internet searches, Brant x Snow Goose hybrids have happened before, but they are extremely unlikely), and even though it'd be pretty difficult to know for sure that this is what's going on here, I just really like the idea that somewhere, at some point, there was a Snow Goose who looked at a Brant and thought, "Hey, that is one attractive goose," and the Brant thought so, too, and so what if you're only supposed to mate with geese that look like you. It seems to have worked out, if these two unusual birds are any indication.

So that was pretty awesome. I'll probably never see another Brant x Snow Goose, and these guys are absolutely one of a kind.

In other parts of the beach, tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers pattered over the low-tide sand:

And then flew off on little wings when they thought I was too close (I was crouched in one spot, so really they were the ones who got too close to me):

In the marshes near the beach, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron was feasting on the little Fiddler Crabs that live in the mud, and I had a great time watching this graceful hunter close up:

There were tons of crabs all over, and the heron was busy snatching them up. There was a lot of crunching (note the crab's shadow in this next picture):

I had way too much fun taking pictures of this gorgeous bird as it danced and posed. I love the pattern of feathers on its back and the fancy marks on its face:

The heron was really very good at what it was doing. Oh little crab, I don't think you're going to be around much longer:

Nope, there you go:

Down the hatch!

Mmm, a satisfied heron:

Speaking of crabs, this little spiky creature caught my eye as it scuttled through a quickly-moving stream to the ocean:

I scooped it up to check it out, and it turned out to be a Hermit Crab! It immediately rushed back to the water, quickly enough that I couldn't quite keep it in focus:

And although not technically a crab (actually in a group of its own, separate from crustaceans), this Horseshoe Crab had buried itself in a swirled depression in the wet sand. I assume it's still alive, although I didn't disturb it to find out for sure:

The hot weather is really coming in now, and what better way to start off another season of summer weather than with an awesome and eventful trip to the beach!

Monday, May 27, 2013

High Spring in the Woods

After our recent stretch of chilly and rainy weather, I was more than happy to take advantage of today's gorgeous sunny skies for my first woods walk in far too long. (My weekly trips to the beach are great, too, but I miss the woods.) Osbornedale State Park has a lovely mix of forests, fields, and ponds, which was just what I wanted this morning, so off I went!

Most of the animal activity (as usual) centered around the ponds and fields. Red-winged Blackbirds popped up to scold at me as I walked along the path near the ponds:

Canada Geese milled around, with a single quickly-growing chick in tow:

When I was last at this park a month ago, I saw a few geese sitting on nests.... I wonder what happened to all those families.

This Canada Goose was nice enough to let a Painted Turtle share its rock (or maybe it's the other way around):

And even though I get to see Great Egrets all the time now at the beach, it was a treat to see one stalking through a freshwater pond, surrounded by pretty Yellow Pond Lily blooms:

The fields were buzzing (literally) with flying insects. This large fuzzy fly (I'm not sure what species) chased another fly around and then sat and cleaned itself on a leaf:

And there were butterflies everywhere, big and small, including this Silver-spotted Skipper:

And a very impressive Spicebush Swallowtail, its black and blue wings standing out against the pale Dame's Rocket blossoms where it was feeding:

I even stopped to notice a new (for me) wildflower in the fields, the appropriately-named Tower Mustard (Arabis glabra), its tiny pale yellow flowers at the very top of tall purplish blue stalks:

This plant is apparently common in much of North America (and other continents), and I'm glad I finally noticed it. The leaves and stalks are striking, and the mustard-y flowers are quite pretty close up:

In the woods, everything was lush and cool. (Have I mentioned that I love the woods?) The trees have completely leafed out, so most of the ground was shaded except for a few spots of sun. These ferns were making some very pretty shadows in their sunny patch on the forest floor:

I'm always amazed at how well some plants are able to grow in the forest even with so little light. The Canada Mayflowers were still opening a few dainty white blooms (although most of these plants I saw were finishing blooming by now):

Round-leaved Pyrola was sending up stalks studded with flower buds:

And several tall False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) plants were making a stunning display along a stream bank, with cascades of flowers that are actually easy to miss because their light green color blends in so well with the rest of the forest:

I've seen these big-leaved plants in previous years growing among Skunk Cabbages, but this is the first time I've actually seen them in flower. Close up, the flowers are especially cool looking, and I think that green is extraordinarily pretty:

It was certainly a great visit. I would spend every day in the woods if I could!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Baby Cardinal

This puffy brown ball was camped out in the trees next to my garden earlier today:

It's a baby Northern Cardinal! A pair of cardinals has been hanging around our yard all spring, and it's so cool to see that they managed to produce this little guy (or girl). This baby must be only just out of the nest, since it's at the perching-but-not-much-else stage. Lots of fluffy down and no tail feathers, but it's got a crest already!

The mother cardinal showed up every few minutes with food, and then the baby got really excited, chirping and fluttering and opening its mouth wide (it was the chirps that made me look in this tree in the first place):

Oh boy, oh boy, food! Yum yum yum:


Mmmmm, food:

It's hard for me to believe that this weird looking creature will turn into a sleek cardinal someday. Well, we all go through our awkward stages. :) Stay safe and grow big, little one!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Courting Oystercatchers and Other Shore Sights

Silver Sands State Park yesterday morning was the busiest I've seen it so far this year. Not people-busy, but extremely active with creatures all over the place, flying or romping or being in love. The sort of weird breeding-time behavior I saw in the woods earlier this week is showing up at the beach, too.

The highlight of the trip was a pair of American Oystercatchers who just could not contain their feelings for each other. These two birds would stand near each other on the beach, prodding the sand with those crazy flaming-poker beaks, and acting pretty normal:

And then all of a sudden, both birds would burst into the air and fly together all up and down the shoreline in close synchronization, calling loudly the entire time:

These birds did this several times while I was there, and it was so extravagant and very entertaining to watch. Plus, it just looked like they were having a ton of fun:

OK, you two, there are some nice stretches of sand here just waiting for a nest. Maybe there will be some oystercatcher eggs someday soon?

A couple of Herring Gulls were acting a little love-struck, too, tossing their heads and touching beaks -- much more subdued behavior than the oystercatchers' antics:

The terns are back in Connecticut now, and I saw two Common Terns resting on some rocks at low tide (just look at those long, long wings):

I had a great time watching several Least Terns zooming around, too. These birds make such amazingly elegant shapes in the air with their perfectly pointed wings and tail:

A Merlin was also haunting the area (not a common bird at this time of year), until it got chased off by some very annoyed Barn Swallows:

Later, the Merlin flew over my head, and I got to admire its speedy falcon shape and the very pretty pattern under its wings:

Snowy Egrets are a constant fixture in this park in the spring and summer, and it's always worth stopping to watch these awesome birds for a bit. This one was snatching little fish from the ocean shallows, looking very dramatic against those dark rocks:

Here's something I'd never seen on these beaches before -- a washed-up jellyfish:

I think this is a Lion's Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata); I'm basing that guess on similar pictures that came up when I searched for "jellyfish in Connecticut." This creature was several inches across, which seemed pretty big to me, but apparently this species can grow to several feet across, and Wikipedia says that makes it the largest known species of jellyfish. So that's pretty crazy and cool!

Finally, White-tailed Deer thrive in this park, and I'm almost guaranteed to see some on any given visit. This time, a herd of several individuals (including a couple males with just-emerging antlers) was grazing in a field above the road, making for a peaceful picture:

May is such an active month, with so many changes in plant and animal life. I'm already itching to get back out into the woods again! But the beach is always a great place to visit, too.