Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Things Left Behind

As we get deeper into November and head toward winter, there are still plenty of animals hanging around our yard (feisty Red Squirrels, noisy Blue Jays, flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and House Finches that come through...). But when I've been walking on our property recently, I keep noticing the signs of creatures no longer here; some of these animals passed through only days ago, while some of these animals have been gone for a long, long time.

Bald-faced Hornets built a large and beautiful nest at the base of some old blueberry bushes in our yard over the summer. I gave these creatures a wide berth when they were active, but now that the hornets are gone, I can safely admire their construction up close:

In the time since I took the above picture (about a week ago), another creature made its own inspection of the hornet nest, digging into the nest's side; I wonder whether the creature found anything good to eat inside:

Even with part of the nest damaged, I still got to admire the wasps' exterior work when I visited the nest today. Earlier in the summer, I watched these wasps harvesting bits of wood from our shed's old beams. How amazing that the wasps turned those mouthfuls of wood pulp into these fantastic designs:

There's been a lot of excavation here recently (the geothermal loop field is fully laid out and buried, and as of tonight, we have heat!), and about 1/3 of our meadow is currently a big mud field. This change apparently hasn't bothered our local White-tailed Deer, whose footprints throughout the meadow reassure us that they're still regularly passing through, even if we haven't seen the deer themselves in a while:

The excavation has also turned up some amazingly interesting things that were hidden underground. As it turns out, we've got a lot of rocks on and in our property, and a small portion of those rocks contain fossils. The fossils in this area of New York are from the Devonian period, somewhere around 400-350 million years ago.... As far as I'm concerned, finding even the small delicate cast of a 400-million-year-old brachiopod -- a marine creature, right here in our yard -- is pretty amazing:

Some of the rocks we've found here are extra interesting. This rock has a couple of small, regular-looking brachiopod fossils on one side:

While the other side looks to be a thick conglomeration of fossilized material, like a slice right out of a marine mud bed (and this looked so much like mud that I tried to clean it off, but no, it's rock):

The best fossil rock so far is a big round thing (somewhere between 1 and 2 feet across, I forgot to measure it) with large brachiopod fossils all over. From one angle, the fossils are more or less recognizable as shells, although larger than any I've seen yet on this property:

From another side, though, the rock is covered with cross-sections of brachiopod casts, making me think of some interesting and unknown calligraphy, or that a giant made indentations with its fingernails all over the rock's surface:

What fascinating things animals leave behind!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Fall is Turning to Winter, and We Have Basement Tenants

Peak fall foliage made the hillsides around our house look really spectacular. Here's a panorama from October 26 (click to make it bigger), with sunlight and all sorts of colors under a cloudy sky:

Now it's a couple of weeks later, and the color has gone to mostly brown and gray. And we had our first persistent snow today -- just a few flurries, but it's bitterly cold, and the white flakes stuck. Here's our first taste of winter at the new house!

It's really cold outside (high in the 20s today, low around 18 degrees F tonight), and unfortunately it's also cold inside. We're keeping the house at a manageable but not-quite-comfortable temperature with a few space heaters while we wait for a delayed geothermal project to finish up. (The project is very exciting, but it means that half of the meadow currently looks like a field of dirt piles -- dressed up at least in snow in the above picture. And also, yes, it's cold.)

So the house is chilly, but it's still significantly warmer than the outside temperature. And this afternoon while poking around in a back corner of the basement I found two tenants who have apparently decided to spend the winter indoors with us:

A Woolly Bear and -- my goodness -- a Spotted Salamander are surprising additions to the household, but I'm happy to let them hibernate here. I'll keep an eye on this corner over the next few months to see how these two fare. I hope these creatures survive the winter and make it back outside when spring returns!

Update: After posting this, I went back into the basement and saw the sweetest little salamander face looking out of its hole. Happy hunting tonight, little creature!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Late Summer and Early Fall at the House, Part 2: Amphibians and Insects

Continuing the previous post, here are some more nature sightings at our house from the past two and a half months (from August through mid-October)!

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptile sightings have continued to be slim; it seems to be mostly Garter Snakes around here, and they haven't been especially common. In August, we had a fire in our yard's existing fire pit, and a young Garter Snake came out to warm itself on the cinder blocks, which was lovely. We also found a couple of baby snakes -- probably Garter Snakes -- in the compost pile in mid-September. Aside from that, and a handful of other sightings, it's been pretty quiet reptile-wise.

By contrast, it's been a really great couple of months for amphibians. Red Efts (juvenile Red-spotted Newts) started showing up more frequently in the yard in mid-August, and in September I was finding really little efts in the yard and woods. Here's a particularly tiny eft on the muddy part of our woods trail, navigating a boot print:

At the end of August, we found a small Spotted Salamander under the compost pile. And there appears to be a thriving population of Red-backed Salamanders in the woods; this past Thursday I found one or two of these sleek little salamanders under nearly every rock I checked.

Wood Frogs and especially Pickerel Frogs became more common in the yard in August and September. But Spring Peepers have remained by far the most numerous and easily seen amphibian in our yard, even up through October. I absolutely love that this place is such a haven for Spring Peepers, which I think of as reclusive and rarely-seen frogs. Not here! By August, I was getting used to seeing peepers perched on just about any wide, flat leaf in the yard:

There were little peepers like the one above, and there were older, tougher-looking individuals as well; this one was resting on a Common Milkweed leaf in the meadow one mid-August afternoon:

I don't think I could ever get tired of seeing these wonderful little frogs (this picture is from early September):

Who's that hanging out on a potted plant on the deck in early September? Oh yes, a peeper (with a beautiful pattern on its back):

And on the wall at night in early October? Peeper:

One night about a week ago, I opened the front door to toss a bug outside, and a peeper was sitting right on the doorstep, looking for all the world like it had been about to knock on the door and ask to come in. And individuals have continued to climb up on our windows on some nights, although not nearly as frequently (or in such numbers) as they did during the summer, when they were also much smaller:

I'm very much hoping that every year here will be similarly full of Spring Peepers. If not, though, at least I got to experience their abundance this summer and fall. :)

Insects and Others

These have been some amazing months for insect diversity, especially for butterflies and moths and their caterpillars. I didn't try at all to be comprehensive, but lots of beautiful and weird creatures caught my attention in the past couple of months.

In early and mid August, a big patch of (very fragrant) Garden Phlox flowers turned out to be a great place to see nectar feeders, like this big Spicebush Swallowtail:

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) also spent a great deal of time visiting these blooms. What an adorable creature!

I can't decide which part of this moth is the cutest: its pointy ear-like antennae or its fuzzy tail. It was really enjoying these flowers:

I've found a few Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) plants on the property, and one day in early August I noticed what looked like strangely pink petals mixed in with the yellow blooms. So I touched a petal, and it fluttered! There are three Primrose Moths (Schinia florida) on this one flower, and another on the back-right bloom:

This really pretty moth, a Large Tolype (Tolype velleda), showed up at our porch light in mid-September:

Also in mid-September, a fantastically bright Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) hung around our driveway for a day or so:

Although not as brightly colored, the bark-patterned undersides of this butterfly's wings are also very pretty:

A little later in September, a bunch of Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) came through the yard, and they spent a lot of time on the New England Aster blossoms:

What a beautiful butterfly, on such beautiful flowers:

(This whole place, by the way, was practically carpeted with asters of various species throughout September, but I only ever found two small patches of New England Aster. I'll do my best to help spread this especially showy plant around the property, and in future years I'll be sure to learn what other aster species we have here.)

This sulfur butterfly also made a lovely sight on the small flowers of another aster (perhaps Calico Aster?):

Monarchs have made a surprisingly strong appearance here in the past couple of months. In August and September, a few caterpillars ate some Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I planted (I'm gradually adding to the property's native plant diversity):

Monarch caterpillars sure do have a lot of bold stripes:

Adult Monarch butterflies started passing through the yard more commonly in late September and early October. Here's one individual taking advantage of asters tucked among grass stems in the meadow:

These really are impressive insects:

And here's another Monarch filling up on one of the last goldenrod blooms in early October (along with several other insects):

Along with the Monarchs, several other interesting caterpillars appeared in the past couple of months. A Beautiful Wood-nymph (Eudryas grata) caterpillar -- so stripey and spotty -- was munching on grape leaves in late August:

A few large Hermit Sphinx (Sphinx eremitus) caterpillars made good use of an overgrown bed of mint in mid-September:

Wooly Bears (caterpillars of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella) have been common in the yard throughout late summer and early fall; here's one from this past Thursday, looking a bit lost in especially fall-like surroundings:

At the end of September, on a lilac bush, I found perhaps the strangest caterpillar I've ever seen, Harris' Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata):

In addition to the bird-dropping-like (but strangely hairy) outfit, and the bizarrely contorted posture, this caterpillar also has those weird black clumps dangling from its front end... which upon further reading turn out to be its own discarded head capsules from previous molts, still attached to its body by those white hairs. Ahhhh, what a weird creature!

Had enough strange crawling things yet? Here's another one -- an American Giant Millipede (Narceus americanus) that crossed our front walkway at the end of September:

And finally, as temperatures got colder in late September, I was charmed to find bumblebees sleeping in tiers below late goldenrod blossoms:


It's been quite a full two and a half months. And now I'm all caught up with sharing the goings-on here, and fall is in full swing. This morning was another hugely active and bird-filled morning. I'm so excited to see what will come next!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Late Summer and Early Fall at the House, Part 1: Mammals and Birds

I live in a wonderful place. When I last reported on the goings-on at our new home, it was the end of July, and I had just experienced the height of summer for the first time here. Since then, late summer and early fall have happened, bringing all sorts of new creatures and natural sights. And I love that I get to settle into this environment while the seasons change.

In mid-August, everything was full and green, and have I mentioned that I love this place?

I just learned, by the way, that the big forested ridge behind our house in this picture (which is across the street from our property) was recently purchased by a local land trust with the goal of conserving the land and eventually transferring ownership to the state to become part of a state forest. I couldn't be happier about the knowledge that this lovely mature forest -- which was the source of singing Veeries and Winter Wrens all summer -- will be protected for the foreseeable future.

By mid-September, the colors were starting to change. The huge Virginia Creeper vines at the edge of our woods (growing mostly on tall Black Cherry trees) changed to a dramatic deep red, making the trees look like they were wearing red leggings:

The Virginia Creepers' color was especially intense from underneath, with sunlight shining through:

Also in September, my sister visited and helped us widen a deer path to make a trail through our small patch of woods. It's a short trail, but it's ours, and it lets us see things like light through the red creeper leaves.

And now, we're deep into fall, with shorter days and colder weather, and we even had our first big frost this past Tuesday morning (making me so very curious to see what this place will look like with snow):

But what about the animals in the past two and a half months, you ask? Well! Allow me to give an update. I have too many things to share for one post, so two posts it will be!


The variety of mammals we've seen on the property has remained rather limited, but there's still a lot of mammalian activity out there. Eastern Chipmunks are all over the place. I had a few glimpses of Gray Squirrels and Red Squirrels on the edges of our property in late summer -- it's so strange to live in a place where squirrels are a rare sighting. In the past month, though, Red Squirrels have become much more active around the house:

And I think I know why.... Someone's been stockpiling Black Walnuts inside the hollowed-out trunk of our driveway apple tree:

(This, by the way, has turned out to be the best of the various old apple trees on the property, with crisp fruit that's great for both eating fresh and baking. What a treat!)

A few times in September, we heard Coyotes howling and yipping way off in the woods. And at least twice so far (once in August, and once in September), a lovely bat has roosted during the day under an eave just outside one of our windows; I'm pretty sure this is a Big Brown Bat, but I could be wrong; either way, I love this little face:

White-tailed Deer have continued to be common visitors in our yard and meadow, although they tend to come and go in waves. For a few days at the beginning of September, the deer were coming to eat fallen apples from the tree right next to the house. (And they're more than welcome to these apples; the tree itself is lovely, but the apples were just not good.) First, a dappled fawn showed up by himself and munched on apples for a good hour or so one afternoon, giving me some great close-up views of this lovely creature:

Look at that super fuzzy tail:

What a handsome baby:

A few days later, more deer showed up to enjoy the apple feast, including this velvet-antlered buck:

His strategy involved working a whole apple in his mouth until it split into smaller pieces:

And he made some pretty funny faces in the process:

Now, these deer are dressed in their sleek and stark winter outfits. (No more velvet for the buck, no more spots for the fawn.) Here's one of the local does in the meadow this past Thursday morning:


Just about as soon as August hit, the bird population on the property started shifting around, first with new birds showing up who likely bred nearby, and then with southbound migrants passing through on their way from their northern breeding groups. Walks in our woods in mid-August let me see a Hooded Warbler (and this looks like just the right kind of shrubby woods where Hooded Warblers might breed):

At the same time, a beleaguered Magnolia Warbler parent was rushing around to feed a constantly-begging fledgling:

Wild Turkeys have wandered through the yard several times (and the best sight, so far, has been watching them take off from the yard and glide low, down across the meadow and away from the house). I heard a Barred Owl calling in the distance on a couple of nights in September. A Pileated Woodpecker has made some impressive holes in a stump in our yard.

Blue Jays were certainly around in the summer -- I heard them, anyway -- but they've been making an increasingly strong presence in the yard in recent weeks, joining the ranks of the other especially common birds in our yard: House Finches, Gold Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, American Crows.

A young, reddening House Finch made a pretty sight in late August among reddening apples:

The White Spruce trees in our yard are packed with cones, and when they started opening at the end of August, the local American Goldfinches swarmed all over them. Here are a couple of goldfinches enjoying the seeds in mid-September:

Nearby, a Chipping Sparrow parent looked like it was doing its best to ignore its begging child (which I had just watched it feed):

The sparrow influx started in late September, with lots of Dark-eyed Juncos especially coming through, and also my first ever Lincoln's Sparrow:

In October, flocks of Eastern Bluebirds started showing up in the meadow. When they first blew in, I watched them thoroughly check out the old Purple Martin house. I guess all the holes made this a very interesting spot!

This morning might have set the record for the most birds in the meadow and yard at once so far. Several juncos were grabbing goldenrod seeds, robins were all over the Pokeweed plants, bluebirds were flying from trees to meadow and back (and snatching some Pokeweed berries, too), and a flock of Pine Siskins showed up, joining the regular finches. Add in a couple of Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Downy Woodpecker, a few Blue Jays, White-throated Sparrows, a Carolina Wren, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and it was quite the crowd.

With all the new faces and activity in the past two and a half months, the overall list of birds seen or heard on the property so far is up to 68 species. That's a pretty great number as far as I'm concerned! And I love that this place is already able to attract so many birds. Looking ahead, I've got a few additions in mind that will hopefully make our property an even better place for birds to live and visit and thrive. :)


The rest of this report -- amphibians, reptiles, insects, etc. -- is coming soon!