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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.

trout lilies Pamm Cooper photo

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.

Colletes inaequalis bee covered in pollen- willow 4-3-2017

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.

vernal pool reflections in April Pamm Cooper photo copyright 2017

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.

song sparrow april 13 2016

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

bumblebee on purple deadnettle

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cedar-waxwings-on-crabapple-photo-pamm-cooper

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.

male-ring-necked-duck

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.

red-breasted-nuthatch-in-februaryi-pamm-cooper-photo

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.

birds-nest-in-fall-with-plastic-and-ribbon

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.

bluebird-on-box-pamm-cooper-photo

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.

fireflies-in-winter

Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

mourning-cloak

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.

pre-sunset-winterr-glow

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 ….

winter-2010

Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” John Muir

Air Line trail Raymond Brook marsh area Pamm Cooper photo

Raymond Brook Marsh on the Air Line Trail

In the last three weeks I have visited parts of the Connecticut Air Line Trail and because of what can be found there, I want to share what my friends and I have seen during April and May of this year. Since timing is everything, some of what we enjoyed has moved on or faded, but maybe next year some of you may experience the same excitement of discovery and pleasures of observing flora and fauna in their natural environs.

First of all, this trail was established along an old rail bed that went from Boston to New York and was constructed in the 1870’s. Long gone now, this trail system goes from Thompson to East Hampton and is an easy walk or ride of hikers and bikers. And while all seasons can provide their own versions of landscape interest, I prefer spring and summer.

blackbird 5-14-16

Red-winged blackbird male staking his territory

This spring was especially interesting because of the cold weather. Many migrating birds were found all at the same time- both those passing through and those returning to breed. On one Saturday morning in early May, along a marsh in the Colchester area, birds were abounding in both color and song. We heard and saw the following in just a hundred yard stretch of the trail: Orchard and Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers, warbling and red-eyed vireos, kingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, song and marsh sparrows, common yellowthroats, black- throated green, black and white,Northern parula and yellow-rumped warblers, redstarts, veerys, wood thrushes, red tailed hawks and more. Within a few days, most of the warblers had moved on to northern breeding regions, with the yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts and some black-throated green warblers staying on to raise their young here.

yellow warbler singing copyright 2015 Pamm Cooper

Male Yellow Warbler singing in the morning

 

Blueberries abound along the marshy areas of the trail, so of course you would find catbirds and other fruit- loving birds in those spots. This year seems to be a good one for blueberry. Much like last year, the bushes are loaded with flowers and the bees pollinating them, so a bumper crop may follow.

blueberry

Blueberry flowers

limber vine honeysuckle Pamm Cooper copyright 2016 - Copy

Limber honeysuckle- a native vine

Along the trail, keep your eyes open for interesting plants, especially along stream and marsh edges. This trail abounds with black chokeberry, limber honeysuckle, pink lady slippers, red and nodding trillium, wild sarsaparilla, tall meadow rue, native geraniums and native azaleas- the Pinxter flower azaleas. There are also the invasive autumn olives and Japanese honeysuckles, but these are sources of pollen and nectar for native pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds. A hummingbird spent a lot of time visiting these two plant species, and was in the oak woods finding lots of insects and spiders as well. There is a stretch where the native geraniums- Geranium maculatum grow like a hedgerow along a ditch, and are visited by many bees and early- flying butterflies. You need to go off trail and into the woods to find, as we did, the elusive nodding trillium, which blooms later than the purple species. This trillium is white, and the flower dangles down below large leaves so that it can be easily missed, so it was a nice surprise to find it.

trillium noddiing 5-21-16

Nodding Trillium

Raymond Brook Marsh is one of the most extensive inland wetlands complexes in eastern Connecticut. In the evening, just before dusk, beavers are busy getting started for a night of foraging here. You can see them on both sides of the trail, and sometimes they may surprise you with a slap of their tail if they are alarmed. They often climb out of the water on one side of the trail and slide down into the other side, often using the same spots that look like mud water slides. They will swim along and occasionally climb up a on a bank to nibble on various shrubs, like blueberry, that grow along the water.

Beaver after dining

Beaver taking a break after eating a small branch

There are also turtles that can frequently be seen crossing over the trail from one side of the marsh to the other. Besides the ubiquitous painted and snapping turtles, you may also occasionally see a stinkpot (musk) turtle or a spotted turtle as they crawl across the trail. The Cranberry Bog portion of the trail and the Rapallo Viaduct in East Hampton offer a resting spot beside a pond and a spectacular view from above, respectively.

musk turtle carapace

Musk turtle carapace

Musk turtle plastron

Musk turtle plastron

 

There are many other parts of the trail that are worth the walk, so bring both a camera and binoculars. Although spring is my favorite time to walk this trail, summer and fall are equally impressive. But I do miss all those spring birds…

 

Pamm Cooper           all photos copyright 2016 Pamm Cooper

sand sculpted by a wave on Watch Hill beach December 2015

Sand sculpted by a wave at Watch Hill in early December

December 2015 in New England has been a nice blend of above- average temperatures, green grass, and a few timely rains to compensate for a droughty year. Getting outdoors for some fun has been easy and comfortable this year, especially for walks in the woods. So, just for fun, here are some things I came across in the woods near my home and in a small village near the Connecticut River.

alyssum full bloom December 28 2015

Alyssum in full bloom December 27, 2015

Here’s a very common fungus in America – the “turkey tail”- which is named after its resemblance to the tail feathers of the native wild turkey which Benjamin Franklin sought to have named our national symbol. Hmm… eagle versus turkey- no contest I think. Sorry, Ben. The Latin name Trametes versicolor is a fitting name as this fungi varies considerably in color. The chestnut brown and the bold white outline make a striking contrast in this species of polypore mushroom.

turky tail polypore shelf fungi.

Turkey tail fungus

The green- hued Mossy Maze Polypore (Cerrena unicolor), is one of many wood decay fungi that are critical in nutrient cycling in temperate forests. These bracket or shelf fungi are in the phylum Basidiomycota. Large colonies of this fungus can be found going along a log. Spores get into the wood when a female horntail wasp picks them up while drilling holes to deposit her eggs into logs and trunks of hardwood trees.

Mossy maze Polypore shelf fungi 12-27-15

Sometimes the pre-dusk sky takes on a peculiar glow that bathes trees and houses in a wash of orange that is singular to the season. This happens when shorter wavelengths of light (blue) are scattered quickly, leaving only the orange-red part of the spectrum.

pre- sunset December glow 12-3-15
Human touches of the season were in evidence in rural and municipal settings, and proved amusing at times. But then, I can be easily amused. As with this driftwood and found object sculpture. Note the snake on the right, a small owl in a bole, and oyster shells that look like shelf fungi.

driftwood sculpture from found objects.jpg

Snowmen were a scarce commodity because of snow challenges this year, not that I am sorry to have it so. Someone of an original and resourceful mind bypassed the use of snow as a raw material and put on their Yankee thinking cap instead. The result was a monumental “ snow” man made of hay baled in plastic and topped with a hat made of drainage pipe material. Good job!

snow man made of hay bales wrapped in plastic and drainage pipe hat

And let us not forget the decorations. Some people have a more aesthetic bent than others, and it is nobody’s fault. Comparing efforts (or lack thereof) is not always an admirable enterprise, but still can provide some amusing moments. Look at how holly has been used to spruce up a window box…

great use of holly in a windowbox

 

Pamm Cooper

Great Spangled Fritillaries on Boneset

Great Spangled Fritillaries on Boneset

‘ Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.’

Henry David Thoreau

Late summer is an exciting time to be out and about in the world of nature, at least for me. I look forward to the plethora of insects other creatures that are the late- season bloomers here in Connecticut. It can be almost a personal restorative to find flora and fauna in their natural habitats going about in their daily groove. It is a relaxing escape, at least for me, and is often full of surprises.

The shoreline can provide an excellent opportunity to see wading birds like plovers and egrets well after breeding season is over. Also, late summer is the time to find migrating butterflies making their final push north at the close of their breeding season. A recent trip to the Guilford Salt Meadows Sanctuary proved timely as there were many monarch butterflies floating about and one was laying eggs on milkweed plants. A friend reports he was in Waterford last weekend at Harkness Memorial State Park and he also saw numerous Monarch butterflies there.

Snowy egrets are fun to watch as they wade in shallow coastal waters searching for fish and other aquatic animals. They are identified by their elegant white form, black legs and bill and funky yellow feet. While they often stand frozen on logs or the water’s edge waiting for prey to come near, they also will run through the water, wings outstretched, as they chase fish or other vertebrates. Breeding plumage of wispy plumes adorn the head and back of snowy egrets, and were used by the fashion industry for hats and other items, nearly causing this bird to become extinct.

Snowy Egret on the water's edge at the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme- August 2015

Snowy Egret on the water’s edge at the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme- August 2015

Dragonflies are abundant now, and green and blue darners are especially conspicuous on account of their size. Dragonflies can be found in the early morning hours resting on dewy grass and other plants waiting for the sun to rise to provide the warmth needed to fly. Predatory as nymphs and adults, dragonflies are made for the fast flight and aerial maneuvers necessary to catch insects on the fly.

Female Calico Pennant dragonfly on blueberry

Female Calico Pennant dragonfly on blueberry

Lots of butterflies are around right now, especially where goldenrods, Joe-pye weed, boneset, ironweed and other late- blooming plants are found. Fritillaries and Tiger Swallowtails seem to be more abundant this year than are Spicebush Swallowtails and the Black Swallowtails. Perhaps this is due to the winter, as spring reports of the latter swallowtails indicated few, if any were seen.

Wineberries, Rubus phoenicolasius,  an introduced raspberry species whose Latin name means “ raspberry with purple hairs”, are ripe now. An eastern Asian native introduced to eastern North America in the 1800’s, it is considered an invasive weed in many states. The fruit develops within a hairy calyx which folds back as the drupelets becomes mature. Wineberries are very tasty and juicy and the seeds are not as hard as those in other raspberries.

Wineberries at the edge of a thicket

Wineberries at the edge of a thicket

Winged Monkey Flower, Mimulus alatus, is a native plant commonly found blooming in wet areas in early August. It has a very distinctive tubular blue to violet flower and square stems. If you hang around these plants long enough, you may see tiny bees or flower flies work their way into the flowers until they disappear deep inside the tube, crawling out shortly after obtaining nectar. The common name apparently arises from the flower’s resemblance to a monkey face.

Tiny Syrphid Fly on Winged Monkey Flower

Tiny Syrphid Fly on Winged Monkey Flower

I saw a spined Micrathena spider for the first time, near the wineberries mentioned above. This peculiar- looking member of the orb weavers can be mistaken for a leaf- footed or similar bug just by its manner of moving. This spider builds her web between shrubs or small trees and it is  often this web that you may encounter when walking through the woods.

Spined Micrathena Spider

Spined Micrathena Spider

Assassin bugs and other predatory insects are common almost anywhere at this time of year. Check out goldenrod flowers for ambush bugs waiting for butterflies, bees or other insects to visit flowers. It has been a banner year for predatory stink bugs and praying mantids. Mantids can often surprise you as you deadhead flowers or cut down old lily leaves in the garden.

Newly molted ambush bug on goldenrod

Newly molted ambush bug on goldenrod

August is a good time to search for the caterpillars of sphinx moths. Grape is a host of a variety of sphinx caterpillar species. The giant silkworm caterpillars of the Io moth, Luna and Polyphemus, among others, are also found at this time of year. I raised several Io moth cats from the first instar and now have four pupating and two on the verge. Careful handling of these caterpillars is required as the many barbs are attached to glands that release a toxin when touched. The experience is very painful, so the good word is “ look, but do not touch”. Daggers and prominents are other interesting caterpillars found late in the summer through early fall.

Io moth caterpillars two instars

Io moth caterpillars two instars

Look closely at the surrounding landscape. Join me as a member of Leaf- turners Anonymous. And don’t forget to check out the ground- oil beetles and caterpillars looking to pupate travel there. Observe the sky as well for clouds and birds that can be dynamic when seen against the bluer, clearer skies of late summer and fall. Especially notice the little things. What may seem unimportant and uninteresting may prove to be worthwhile and fascinating to the careful observer. Case in point- whlie enjoying a look at a tiny gray tree frog and taking its picture, a tiny monarch caterpillar passed by in the background.

gray tree frog and monarch caterpillar

Pamm Cooper                                                          All photos copyright – Pamm Cooper