Environment


bloodroot (2)

Bloodroot

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still…”

Robert Frost

After an extremely dry 2016, spring is already bringing abundant showers here in Connecticut. Vernal pools in most areas have reached their full capacity of rainwater and snow melt. Streams are running strong and ponds that were so low last year are filling up. The warm February weather almost tricked some plants into budding out too early, but the snow and cold that came in early March nipped that process in the bud. Phoebes who had returned in early March were greeted with a foot of snow and freezing temperatures. But they survived. Now we are seeing April return once again, and with it should follow the heralds of warmer weather and longer days.

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Trout lilies in open woods in April

Native willows and maples, such as the red maples, are blooming now and early native bees are availing themselves of the pollen and nectar they provide. Colletes inaequalis– small, handsome ground-nesting bees- are emerging from their winter pupation homes in the soil, where they have lived all their pre-adult lives. They are important pollinators of many early- flowering native plants and often form large colonies in open areas of lawns with sandy soils. They seldom sting, and by the time grass is mowed for the first time, these bees are usually no longer flying in lawn areas. Females dug holes, bring in pollen and nectar they put in a “cellophane “ bag they make, and lay an egg on top. The larva feed on that supply until they pupate, and will emerge as adults the next spring. Queen bumblebees should be out and about any time now as well.

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Native Colletes inaequalis bee foraging on a willow flower

Spring peepers, out in late February for about a day just prior to a snow and freeze, have been giving a nightly chorus now for a couple of weeks. Wood frogs are singing and should be laying eggs any time now, along with spotted salamanders and the American toads.  Check out vernal pools for the floating egg masses of the wood frogs and the rounded masses of the salamander eggs stuck to twigs, stems and leaves under the water surface.

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Reflections on a vernal pool- with wood frog and spotted salamander eggs and young spotted salamander larvae swimming on right

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, should bloom around mid- April, if not before.  Tiny bluets, bloodroot and trout lilies also bloom April to May here. Bluets are also an important source of pollen and nectar for many pollinators and spring- flying butterflies such as the spring azure and tiger swallowtail. Dead nettles bloom by late April and receive visits from nay pollinators including honeybees, bumble bees and other native bees, syrphid and other flies and some butterflies.

Red trillium April Pamm Cooper photo

Red trillium

Birds have been singing their morning and evening songs for a while, and the one that sings the most- all day- is the song sparrow. Males sit on the tops of small trees and shrubs, singing to announce their territory and to find a mate. The wood ducks are here now. Look for them in woodland ponds where there is good cover from shrubs and small trees along the water’s edge. These are very shy ducks and often take flight at the tiniest snap of a twig, so stealthy moves and quiet are the way to see them. Check out the trail behind the Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park in late April. You may get to see small flocks of glossy ibis in the salt marsh area as they migrate through on their way north.

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Song sparrow with its rusty breast patch

Mourning cloak butterflies may been seen now, especially where trees have sap flows from splits or wounds to the bark. They are seldom seen on flowers, but will obtain nutrients from dung, sap, mud and fermenting fruits. Eggs are laid in rings around twigs of willow, elm and poplars among other woody trees.

Mourning cloak on sap flow from freshly cut tree stump in early April

Mourning cloak butterfly obtaining sap in April from a freshly cut tree stump

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Bumblebee on dead nettle flower

When you go out, listen for the raucous calls of pileated woodpeckers as they find mates and establish territories. Don’t forget to look down occasionally and you can find all sorts of insects and plants that might be missed otherwise. And check out the flowers of skunk cabbages for the insects that pollinate them. Stop, look and listen whenever and wherever you go, even if it is in your own backyard. Maybe you will agree with Albert Einstein-

“ Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift.”

 
Pamm Cooper                                 All photos copyrighted by Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.”

– William C. Bryant

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Great Blue Heron in an open area of an otherwise icy pond February 25 2017

It feels, temperature-wise, that we are on the cusp of spring, and certainly the landscape is responding to the warmer and longer of February. Right now we are seeing spring try to break out a little early in some areas. It may still snow, of course, but maple trees are tapped at the usual time and birds have begun their morning and evening territorial calls in response to longer daylight periods. Skunk cabbages have been poking their heads up for a while, but it is still winter, and we may see temperatures go down to a more normal range for this time of year.

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Around the state, the spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis is blooming in areas along the Connecticut shoreline and further north in sunny areas. Native to the Ozark Plateau which ranges from southern Missouri through parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, this witch hazel does well along gravelly or rocky stream banks and moist or dry soils in the landscape. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Height is normally around eight feet as a mature plant, and about as wide.

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Hamamelis vernalis blooming on campus at Storrs February 26, 2017

We can tell where the native willows are now as they are starting to bloom now. Other spring bloomers, like the star and southern magnolias, have swollen flower buds. Here’s hoping that we do not have a repeat of last year, when snow and freezing temperatures in the low teens followed and destroyed the flower buds of many of our fruit and ornamental trees.

Whitlow grass, Draba verna, is flowering in sunny areas especially where the soil in lawns has open areas. Whitlow grass is not a grass at all, but a member of the mustard family, and it is one of the first herbaceous plants to flower before spring. It has tiny white flowers that may be mistaken for a chickweed, but this plant arises from a basal rosette. It is a winter annual and can form large mats that are evident in spring when the white flowers appear. Non- native, this plant has been around for over one hundred years.

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Whitlow grass and syrphid fly February 28, 2017

As ice melts from inland ponds, migrating ducks and wading birds may appear at any time. In late February, a great blue heron was in a little open area on a pond otherwise covered in soft ice. Ring- necked ducks and hooded merganzers have been seen also at inland ponds that are along their northern migration route. Song sparrows and cardinals are already singing their spring songs- song sparrows sing off and on all day perched on the tops of shrubs or small trees

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A male song sparrow just finished his song from atop a mountain laurel in the wild

Spring peepers were heard the last week of February when the weather was very warm during the day. I have not heard any since, though. Painted turtles have been sunning themselves on rocks and floating logs during the warmer days as well. And chipmunks are up and running. Woodchucks are also out and about, which is early for them. Unless there are some herbaceous plants greening up, they will probably head down below ground and extend their winter nap.

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Painted turtle getting its first sun bath of 2017

If you have any birdhouses that need cleaning, do it now. Although I have seen bluebirds build a nest on top of an old one in a nest box, which is the exception rather than the rule. Phoebes may be arriving any time, so keep an eye open for this early migrater. They have a distinctive call which you can hear by visiting Cornell University’s link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id

Snow melt and recent winter rains have helped some vernal pools recover from the drought. Streams are also flowing with more water than they had last summer and fall. Check out vernal pools for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs before the end of March.

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Clark Creek in Haddam off Rte 154 has significant flow after February snow melt

And if a garden has been mulched over perennials and they have started growing, do not remove leaves or mulch as that has insulated the plants from the cold. Uncovering them too soon may invite damage if the weather returns to more seasonable temperatures below freezing. Winter is probably not over yet, but it will be soon. That cheers me up considerably.

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Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cedar waxwings on a crab apple in winter

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
-John Burroughs

 

Winter is a good time to get out and about as weather and gumption allow. Depending on where you go, there can be interesting things to see, and there no lack of books or other resources to help you learn about whatever you find. I like the shore and the woods in winter, especially on sunny days.

Ring-necked ducks can be found in small ponds or flooded fields during the winter. These small ducks dive to for mollusks, vegetation and invertebrates, and may be seen in small groups or in pairs. Males are more dapper than females, having a glossy dark head with a purple sheen, black chest and back and silvery sides. The bill is boldly patterned with a white ring near the dark tip and a base outlined with white.

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Male ring-necked duck

Another small duck that overwinters along the Connecticut coastline is the ruddy duck. They can be found in coastal estuaries and brackish rivers and streams near their entrances to the Sound. Males congregate in small to large in large flocks resting on the water during the day, heads tucked under a wing. Tails may jut nearly strait up and males have blue bills and a contrasting white cheek patch. More cute than handsome, they are also a diving duck.

Another bird that may overwinter here as long as food is available, is the red- breasted nuthatch. This cousin to the white-breasted is mainly found in coniferous woods or patches of pines, spruce, hemlocks or larches. They have black and white striped heads, slate-blue wings and back and reddish underparts. They sound similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but their voice is more nasal and often more repetitive. They creep up and down trunks and branches probing bark for food, and may visit suet feeders.

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Red breasted nuthatch

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. Birds are often very particular as to what materials they will use- dog or horse hair, lichens and mosses, grasses etc. Cattail or cottonwood down is a must for yellow warblers and American goldfinches. I am lucky to have found two ruby-throated hummingbird nests, tightly woven tiny cups constructed of spider webs with lichens decorating the sides.

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Nest made of grapevine bark and colored trash- possibly a catbird nest

If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start staking out a suitable nesting sites early. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Just be sure to have no perch below the nesting box hole as bluebirds like to cling to the hole while feeding their young and seldom use a house with a perch.

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Male bluebird on nesting box

Fireflies have been out during the warmer, sunnier days of winter. Check out the sunny sides of tree trunks. Another insect that may be out on warm days is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. These butterflies overwinter in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may be encountered flying around the woods on sunny, warm winter days.

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Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

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Mourning cloak butterfly

Just before sunset, check out the surrounding trees for a characteristic orange glow. Caused by clear skies to our west and the scattering of blue light, houses and trees can reflect the bright winter oranges as you look toward the east. Lasting only a few minutes, if that, it is one of the winter highlights for me.

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Pre-dusk winter glow

This winter, many paper wasp nests were unusually small. Not sure what to make of that, except maybe the wasps had a lack of food, or were out too late last January and were not able to acclimate properly to the sudden cold. As for snow, so far not much to speak of in my part of the state. But I’ll take the rain over the snow as long as the ground isn’t frozen. While snow can be pretty, I simply don’t miss this ….

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Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

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Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

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pH Meter

-Carol Quish

 

If you could pick a superpower what would you choose? Extraordinary strength? Extrasensory perception? Exceptional intelligence? How about the ability to predict the future?  Or at least the weather? It would be so much easier to plan and plant a garden each year if we only knew what the growing season had in store. Is it going to be a very long, cold, and wet spring with a frost at the end of May? Then the warm weather crops shouldn’t go into the ground until the start of June when the soil will be warm and dry enough to encourage germination of seeds such as beans which do not like cold, wet feet. Will a lack of precipitation stunt plant growth and require more supplemental watering than usual?

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that Connecticut is experiencing drought conditions that range from abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions in the western part of the state according to the USDA. The National Weather Service Seasonal Drought Outlook only extends through February 28, 2017 at this point but it predicts that the drought will persist in the Northeast based on “subjectively derived probabilities guided by short- and long-range statistical and dynamic forecasts”. Say that three times fast!

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The National Weather Service, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was formed in 1970 under President Richard E. Nixon’s administration. Prior to that date they were known as the Weather Bureau (forms 1870) and before that, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed 1807). It’s safe to say that NOAA has the most up to date weather technology including geosynchronous satellites, Doppler weather radar, and undersea research centers. But even with that technology most predictions are only up to 90% accurate for 6-10 days out. Past that it becomes probable trends based on current and past information.

And yet, for 225 years, there has been a resource that claims that its weather forecasts are 80-85% accurate. Since 1792 the Old Farmer’s Almanac has been a go-to resource for weather, astronomy, gardening, cooking, and predictions of trends in food, fashion, and technology.

About that weather accuracy claim: the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a closer to 50% predictability rate. But that doesn’t stop thousands of readers, especially in the pre-National Weather Service days, from using it as their planting and growing guide. Its folksy character is a large part of its charm. Not to mention its compact size and unique punched hole in the upper left-hand corner for hanging from a nail or string in the outhouse. I pause for a second to express gratitude for modern indoor plumbing.

And now, spoiler alert, here are the Northeast predictions for 2017 from The Old Farmer’s Almanac: Although there will be lower precipitation than normal in January it will be at or above normal for February through July with temperatures 1-4° below normal for most of that period. Pretty much the opposite of what 2016 brought us. But what stands out the most is the blizzard accompanied by bitter cold that is predicted for February 11-17. Let’s hope that one isn’t correct!

Susan Pelton

Images NOAA, Old Farmer’s Almanac

 

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Some red maples still had leaves late in the fall in 2016

 

“ November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.”

– Clyde Watson

This fall was spectacular in its color displays both in the leaves and in the skies.And we are not done yet. A relatively indifferent  landscape can turn charming or spectacular when autumn colors abound as they have this year. Since a pictures is said  to be worth a thousand words, I will save you much reading…

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Canada geese on a pond splashed with early morning fall colors Pamm Cooper photo

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American Lady butterflies migrate south for the winter, along with sulphurs, monarchs, cabbage whites and red admirals

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Delicata squash- one of the smaller winter squash varieties

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Old house in the background with Oriental bittersweet on the left and an old Japanese maple on the right . Location is heading south from the Goodspeed Opera House on Rte 154

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Mushrooms on a dying sweet birch in early November 2016.

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Mourning Cloaks overwinter as butterflies and may be seen flying about near or in the woods on warm winter days

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It is obvious where the barberry is in these woods. Photo taken near the Gillette Castle State Park

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Honey bees are visiting mums and witch hazel this week, as well as any Montauk daisies that are still blooming

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November 6 2016 dawn over Glastonbury, Ct.

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Here is a good example of thinking ahead when planting. A sugar maple on the left and a Japanese maple on the right were probably planted over 30 years ago and are the perfect companions for great autumn color.

Take some little trips this season in our little state. There is still some good color out there, but it may not last much longer. And you may not have to go very far to get some great visual  compositions. Perhaps just as far as your own back yard.

Pamm Cooper                                          All photos by Pamm Cooper

 

 

What’s a butterfly garden without butterflies?  Roy Rogers

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Tiger swallowtail visits a butterfly bush

 

Planting a butterfly garden is a hopeful enterprise which often has its rewards in the future and not in the same year of the planting. Typically, a couple of years is needed to provide abundant blooms and the subsequent attracting of butterflies. In my experience, the best butterfly gardens are those that include, as much as possible, the host plants that visiting butterflies will use for laying eggs for their caterpillars. Try planting a few blueberry bushes as several hairstreak butterflies us this as a host plant.

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Striped hairstreak on common milkweed. Host plants for caterpillars include blueberry and oaks

When butterflies start to visit the garden, try to identify them and see if they may be laying eggs on already existing plants (like oaks and cherry, for instance, if tiger swallowtails are present). Having nectar sources nearby  the host plants for the caterpillars is a strong factor in what attracts butterflies to an area. So I say, if you plant it, they will come. Maybe. Sometime. They have to find it, so it can take time. If they are already passing through and laying eggs on suitable host plants, then nectar will keep their offspring coming back  to do the same.

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Black swallowtail caterpillar with egg just underneath the leaf- Cohen pollinator and butterfly garden in Colchester

I have planted a native willow for Mourning Cloaks that come through the property every year. A sassafras that appeared several years ago has now become a regular host plant for the spicebush swallowtails that visit the garden for nectar. When you see any butterflies, egg laying should shortly follow, if it has not already taken place. This is why host plants in the vicinity of nectar sources is so important when planning a butterfly garden.A lone tiger swallowtail visited my garden late this spring and three weeks later I found its tiny caterpillar on a small black cherry sapling I had transplanted earlier that spring. It was barely in the ground and already had become a host plant.

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The Cohen Woodlands Butterfly-Pollinator Garden in Colchester. Parsley in the foreground attracts black swallowtail females.

 

Three of the best butterfly gardens I have been to this year are the one at the Tolland County Agricultural Center in Vernon, the Cohen-Woodlands pollinator- butterfly garden in Colchester, and the Fletcher Library Garden in Hampton. The one thing all these gardens have in common is a good selection of three season nectar sources and nearby host plants. Four monarch caterpillars were on the butterfly weed in the Fletcher Library just two weeks ago, and one was on milkweed in the Cohen garden on September 5th. That is great news for the Monarchs which have suffered from devastating population declines in recent years.

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Monarch caterpillar on milkweed at the Cohen Woodlands butterfly- pollinator garden

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This Monarch caterpillar just left its butterfly weed host plant in search of a suitable spot to pupate at the Fletcher Library garden in Hampton

Plant parsley, fennel or dill if black swallowtails visit a garden. Small cherry and spicebush attract tiger swallowtails and spicebush swallowtails, respectively. Viceroys will lay eggs on willow and poplar and red- spotted purples lay eggs on cherry. Skippers for the most part prefer grasses for their larva, but the silver- spotted skipper, a frequent visitor to any garden, likes legumes. Pearl crescents like asters, and these flowers are visited by many migrating butterflies as most other nectar sources are going by in late summer.

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Wild Indigo Duskywing on Salvia. Plant Baptisia for its caterpillars.

A must plant for pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds is Caryoptersis, also known as bluebeard. This perennial blooms from late- summer until fall. Lantana is a terrific annual for all butterflies, providing blooms until frost. Combined with asters, these plants are ideal nectar sources for fall migrators. Goldenrods, spotted Joe-pye, liatris, zinnias, obedient plant, alliums, butterfly bush, milkweeds, obedient plant and veronicas are also good selections for butterfly gardens. And there are so many more.

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Silver-spotted skipper on bluebeard

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Tiger Swallowtail on obedient plant, a favorite of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds

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Spicebush swallowtail nectaring on a pink Coreopsis. Sassafras nearby is a host for the caterpillars.

Annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs should all be under consideration when deciding what to plant for butterflies. My garden has been redesigned for birds, butterflies, pollinators and, just a little bit, for me. Although, I guess, it really is mostly for me because of the enjoyment I get watching these little visitors getting some use from the plants that were selected with them in mind in the first place. Of course, woodchucks were not in the equation (as squirrels were not either when putting out the BIRD feeder) …

Pamm Cooper                              All photos copyright 2016 by Pamm Cooper

 

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